Highlights and Lowlights: Looking Back at the First Season of “Poker Night in America”
Writer’s Note: The first season of “Poker Night in America” has now concluded, with another year of new programs soon shifting to Monday nights. What follows is my look back on the first season of broadcasts, including some of my fondest memories and biggest disappointments of 2014.
What has working on “Poker Night in America” taught me?
Answer: A lot, including things I didn’t expect.
I learned it’s relatively easy to film a television show. But it’s far more difficult to create a good poker show on television.
So, what’s the difference? What this means is, the mechanics of filming a poker game are relatively simple. A group of players are placed on a set. Hang up some lights. Position the cameras. Hire some people who know what they’re doing. And there you have it, a poker show!
Then, the work really begins.
[The entire production crew at “Poker Night in America” just called me a slew of curse words for trivializing their work]
The creative process actually begins afterward, deciding what to do with the footage — namely what to use versus toss out. Conceptualizing content and editing decisions can make the difference between a bad show and a good one, and then a good one and a great one. The devil lies in the details.
Consider the extreme when it comes to televising poker. When I work with ESPN during the summer on the World Series of Poker, I witness film crews shooting innumerable of hours of footage from different cameras and angles. Crews are dispatched all over the Rio. They accumulate a vast amount of content, most of which will never be shown. Each year, ESPN films thousands of poker hands and conducts hundreds of interviews with players. But only perhaps 1 percent of all the footage shot ever gets aired on television. That’s a ton of work for an ounce of treasure. Like mining gold.
“Poker Night in America” has a similar challenge, albeit on a different scale. We feature just one poker table, with perhaps 12-16 players who rotate in and out of the game. We usually film over two or three days, which means about 500 hands of poker are captured. We also film just as much material away from the game, when the players are relaxing elsewhere or having fun off the set.
Each program is just 30 minutes long. Minus commercials, that’s about 22 minutes of actual broadcast time. That means we have to be quite picky about which hands get shown. Only 3 to 4 hands make the cut each show. Sometimes hands aren’t selected so much for their actual importance to the game as the table conversation, which provides a far more entertaining soundtrack. The bottom line is — finding the perfect storm of a great poker hand, interesting characters, intense conversation, and compelling drama is a rarity.
[Fortunately, for those wanting more comprehensive coverage, most of our cash game sessions and final tables are now live-streamed, with commentary by David Tuchman]
Looking back at the end of Season 1, the biggest accomplishment of 2014 was getting on the air in the first place, and creating a first full season of 26 shows, all of which were broadcast on CBS Sports.
Credit starts at the top with Todd Anderson, who has proven to be our visionary. Televising poker certainly isn’t new to Anderson, who co-founded the Heartland Poker Tour a decade earlier. But Heartland was pitched during the height of the poker boom, when networks were enthusiastic about what back then was a new type of programming. To his credit, Anderson swam upstream against the tide and got “Poker Night in America” on a major network in prime time when no one was interested in programming that was perceived to be a bygone fad. I’m not sure anyone else could have accomplished what Anderson did. He simply doesn’t get enough credit in this industry as someone who has truly become one of the game’s true mavericks in media.
While praise is being dished out, Rush Street Gaming, based in Chicago, deserves a big thank you for all their support. Greg Carlin (CEO) and Richard Schwartz (President of Rush Street Interactive) have not only provided encouragement when it was needed most. They also gave the production team valuable advice in all aspects of creation and marketing.
We were also lucky to acquire a partnership with 888poker, now the world’s second-largest online poker operator. Active in New Jersey, 888poker continues to build a respected brand and will continue to grow as a market leader. Management at 888poker, and specifically Chris Capra, the company’s marketing guru for North America, have been an integral part of everything “Poker Night in America” does. They have also provided players who have participated in the televised cash games.
[888poker and “Poker Night in America” will soon be launching the end of Season 1 awards, to be determined by online voting. Viewers can watch videos, see highlights, and vote on their favorite scenes and players from the first 26 shows of the television series. Details to be announced soon]
Which now brings me to my favorite memories and deepest regrets from Season 1. Here are my highlights and lowlights, ranked in no particular order:
A Few Highlights
— “Poker Night in America” filmed at several venues which had not featured televised poker before as an attraction. Turning Stone (New York), The Rivers (Pittsburgh), Maryland Live (Baltimore) all proved to be outstanding hosts and perfect locations for high-stakes poker. We were also glad to film at Seminole Hard Rock (Hollywood/Ft. Lauderdale) for the first time. Working on location at these properties gave us and out players the chance to do things other than just player poker. Speaking of which….
— It’s hard to pick a favorite moment from 2014 when it comes to all the fun stuff away from the table. One memorable moment includes the trip to Washington, D.C. (during the segment at Maryland Live) with several poker players, most notably Robert Williamson III and Phil Hellmuth, Jr., where we shot scenes and interviews outside the White House, at the monuments, in congressional offices, and even at a private cash game across the street from the U.S. Capitol.
— The hour-long shoot we did with film critic Richard Roeper, who was joined by actress Jennifer Tilly and poker pro Phil Laak (filmed at Turning Stone Casino in Upstate New York) was about as entertaining a poker-related show I’ve ever witnessed. The trio watched and then evaluated many of the most famous poker scenes in movies, and then discussed each hand in a roundtable format, let by our host Chris Hansen. This was pure magic. Highlights will be shown in Season 2.
— Heading up to the famous Brunson Ranch in Montana to attend Todd Brunson’s annual poker tournament in September at a lakeside resort was not just a fond memory, but a lot of fun, as well. We hung out with the Brunson family for several days. We even shot guns on the ranch. One of the best things we did was a lengthy sit-down interview with Doyle Brunson, who talked in detail about his amazing life. Excerpts of this have already been shown as part of th Season 1 package. I hope we can release the entire hour of the interview, which took place on Doyle’s back porch overlooking the lake, sometime soon.
— As for poker memories, the most incredible moment of television was the first-ever ladies-only cash game, which we filmed at the Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood, FL. We weren’t sure how the game might go, since it had never been tried before. Not only were all the ladies who played fun and interesting, the poker hands turned out to be some of the best strategic content we’ve captured since shooting began. The ladies talked non-stop for nine hours, laughed, and drank toasts. One of the most interesting discussions was about all the things female poker player have to put up with in the game, which should probably be seen by every male poker player. It was both hilarious and enlightening. Look for some of the scenes to appear very early in Season 2.
A Few Lowlights
— While scouting film locations in suburban Maryland, it was no fun getting detained by the National Security for a few hours. I wrote about that experience back in March. I do not recommend this.
— I won’t call out anyone by name here, but one of the demoralizing realities of filming cash games is witnessing profound disappointment. It’s seeing people you know who the experience means a lot to — that is, appearing on TV for the first time and playing among celebrities — and things not going well. Some players have acquired financial backers only to see their entire bankroll whipped out in a single hand. Of course, that’s part of poker. But it still hurts to see disappointment in the eyes of your friends who waited for this chance for a long time, and then the cards didn’t cooperate.
— We lost two very fine people year. One was a beloved poker pro who appeared on our show as a player. Another was an integral part of our production team. Chad Brown made what’s believed to be his final appearance on television, when he appeared on the cash game filmed at Peppermill Reno (true to his reputation as a popular champion, Chad won money and was one of the most engaging players on the show). A few months later, Joe Sartori, who called all the action and worked behind the scenes in marketing, also left us far too quickly, after losing a battle to stomach cancer. We’re proud to have worked with both of these friends. They will be missed, but thanks in part of the power and endurance of television, never forgotten.
[Next up, “Poker Night in America” will be filming at the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City, Jan. 17-19. For more information, please visit: www.pokernight.com]