High Stakes Poker Producer Previews Cult-Hit Show’s Return: ‘People Come Out Swinging’

Filming is complete and poker fans await the Dec. 16 Poker GO premiere after a decade-long absence
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If the World Poker Tour on the Travel Channel lit the spark of the televised poker boom, and the World Series of Poker on ESPN turned it into a roaring fire, High Stakes Poker on GSN stands out as the most sumptuous stew cooked over that flame.

HSP was important and revolutionary in its own right, having brought the first no-limit hold’em cash game to American TV. But above all, the show is remembered for its pure entertainment value.

The personalities, the table talk, the bricks of real money, the banter between original commentators Gabe Kaplan and A.J. Benza, and some of the most daring, creative poker play ever seen — HSP is the serious poker fan’s all-time favorite poker show.

It debuted in January 2006 and the last episodes were shot in December 2010. Ten years after those final sessions, High Stakes Poker is finally returning. The new episodes, filmed at the ARIA Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, will begin airing on subscription network PokerGO on Dec. 16.

“Ten years is a long time,” reflected Poker Hall of Famer Mori Eskandani, the executive producer of both the original HSP and this rebooted version. “Within the poker world, poker personalities change. The High Stakes Poker of 10 years ago had certain characters that we may never have again. But that doesn’t mean the new characters that we haven’t uncovered yet are not just as much fun. So, we figured, let’s bring the show back, let’s bring some new faces in, and let’s see where it goes.”

Aces and kings

First, let’s see where it was. Who doesn’t love reliving highlights of HSP episodes past? Like this insane cooler between Gus Hansen and the snakebitten Daniel Negreanu:

Or the drama of veterans Barry Greenstein and Sammy Farha getting all the chips in on the very last hand of a long session:

Or, a few seasons into the show’s run, this bluff from barely-21 Tom Dwan that inspired tens of thousands of words of internet message board analysis:

Eskandani told US Bets that, having entered into discussions for a revival of High Stakes Poker at least once a year every single year since it went off the air, the show was actually all set to return earlier in 2020. Sessions were scheduled to take place in March.

Then COVID-19 upended those plans.

“It was supposed to be coming back, roaring back, we had a very strong sponsor behind it, we had the players lined up, everybody was excited to play, a new stage was built,” Eskandani said. “And all of a sudden, it comes February and March, we started shutting things down.”

No WSOP, more need for HSP

As a result, when HSP does return, the demand for it will be even higher than anyone could have imagined. Televised tournament poker has temporarily ceased to exist. So there is a massive vacuum to be filled for poker audiences. And Eskandani and the Poker Central/Poker PRO-ductions team are trying to fill it as best they can, not just with HSP, but with new episodes of Poker After Dark and with special showdowns like the High Stakes Duel between Phil Hellmuth and Antonio Esfandiari.

“We’re trying to bank as much as we can, before things get really bad again,” Eskandani said. “There’s always a chance they’ll shut everything down again. You never know. At least it gives us a chance to start editing and create episodes.”

In the past HSP would spend three or four days filming and come out of it with material for 13 or 14 episodes, and Eskandani and his crew followed a similar approach to come away with 13 planned installments this season. All of the sessions have been banked already. But the protocols were, of course, very different than in past seasons.

Every player got tested for COVID in the morning, quarantined while awaiting their results, and then, when cleared, entered the HSP studio, only removing their masks once seated at the table.

Unlike the tables you might see in the casino poker rooms that have reopened, there are no plexiglass dividers and nobody is wearing masks while they play. The plexiglass was an absolute non-starter, because of the glare that would result from the various TV lights. And masks covering faces would ruin the drama of a poker hand playing out — plus, as Eskandani pointed out, any muffled speech as a player announces a bet amount could result in controversy with hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake.

So when it begins airing, this will look a lot like the HSP you remember, on a set that is new and different but certainly captures the vibe of the sets from a decade-plus ago.

Ivey, Dwan, and some new faces

Although Eskandani is staying mum about who the commentators will be — only going so far as to tease “a good surprise” — he promised a look and feel to the production that’s consistent with the past spirit of the show.

“The philosophy behind the show hasn’t changed,” he said. “It is not a show on which the commentators spend much time discussing the new math that is going around. It’s still going to be your street poker. You’re going to hear a lot of table talk, just like in the past. We have to stay close to the core of what was High Stakes in the past, and we’re doing that.”

One slight tweak: Whereas the early seasons of HSP typically featured eight-handed play, this table is built for seven. There are a couple of reasons for that.

“Seven-handed is what gives the best camera angles,” Eskandani explained. “And in terms of the poker, the less players, the better the action. Also, High Stakes Poker is supposed to mimic what happens in the cash games around the globe. If you’re in the cash games, and a recreational player who’s great action comes in, you always pull up a seat for him. That’s what a cash game is! So, not to reveal too much, but there were a couple of times this year when we played eight-handed. One thing about seven-handed is it can easily become eight-handed.”

And who are the players we’ll see at the table? On last week’s episode of DAT Poker Podcast, Negreanu said he didn’t play this season, but he did stop by and see the “awesome” set. Other names mentioned on that podcast included Hellmuth, Ivey, Dwan, Jason Koon, and Ben Lamb. Eskandani added Jean-Robert Bellande and Rick Salomon — yes, Rick Salomon of Paris Hilton fame, of Pam Anderson fame, and of Pam Anderson again fame — to the list.

“We had somewhere around 20 players,” Eskandani said. “You’re going to see a lot of new faces. The style of play has changed somewhat. It’s not exactly the same waiting game. People come out swinging.”

Due to COVID concerns and travel complications, some of the old-school icons from the original HSP, like Doyle Brunson and Farha, won’t be part of the action. But Eskandani says to expect some exciting clashes between the new school and players from what he terms “the middle school” — like Ivey, who’s been a lot less visible in recent years but presumably feels less restricted now that his legal battle with Borgata in Atlantic City has finally been settled.

“The Ivey I saw was a little more grown up,” Eskandani said. “It was fun to see a new Ivey. But you still see some moves from him. That stuff’s still there.”

Ivey is now 43, slightly older than Hellmuth was when HSP first started. Dwan is 34, a few years older than Ivey was in the early days of HSP. The clock has spun many times since last we saw them trying to run bluffs on each other at the High Stakes table. Hairlines have moved, and bankrolls have fluctuated.

But some things don’t change. A flush still beats a straight, cash still plays, and it’s safe to assume High Stakes Poker still delivers drama and entertainment unlike any other televised poker game.

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