Brought back the old familiar
When the eighth season of High Stakes Poker was announced back in October 2020, the poker community was abuzz. It may have jumped the shark in Season 7, but looking back, it is hard not to have only fond memories of the show. The new episodes were taped in November and aired exclusively on PokerGO from mid-December until a week ago. It may not have been a return to the glory days for the pioneering show, but it certainly wasn’t Fonzie on water skis either.
There were no bricks of cash on the table. but the chips were flying.
Although not identical, the reboot tried to faithfully recreate as many elements of the original as possible. The format was pretty much the same. The blinds were $200/$400, sometimes $400/$800. Straddles were encouraged. Gabe Kaplan and AJ Benza were back. There were no bricks of cash on the table. but the chips were flying.
Season 8 delivered on the nostalgia, but it also brought a modern twist. Stars of the original series – Tom Dwan, Phil Ivey, Brandon Adams, and Phil Hellmuth – were back, alongside new blood in the shape of Jean-Robert Bellande, Rick Salomon, Jason Koon, Bryn Kenney, Nick Petrangelo, Chamath Palihapitiya, and Doug Polk. It was a genuine hybrid of old and new school.
Early seasons were a revelation
January 2006 was a simpler time. Kobe Bryant had just scored 81 points in a 122-104 Lakers victory over the Toronto Raptors, the second-highest game total in NBA history behind Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game in 1962. Brokeback Mountain was in theaters. It would win Best Director but lose out to Crash for the Best Picture Oscar. Liberia had elected Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as the first female African head of state.
Twitter wasn’t a thing, just 5.5 million people were on Facebook, and High Stakes Poker aired for the very first time on the Game Show Network (GSN). The first four seasons ran from January 2006 to December 2007. After a hiatus, Seasons 5-7 ran from March 2009 to May 2011.
Gabe Kaplan’s commentary was sublime.
Simply put, it was and remains the best poker television show ever. Each series was filmed over a 24-hour period and then edited into 13 tight episodes. The lineups were outstanding. The amount of money on the table was jaw-dropping. The pace of the action was perfect. Gabe Kaplan’s commentary was sublime. The banter snap, crackled, and popped. The early seasons, in particular, were a revelation.
Doyle Brunson nitted up and booked a win every season. Phil Ivey owned Jason Mercier’s soul. Patrick Antonius played monster pots. Barry Greenstein took his beats like a man. Gus Hanson made quads. Daniel Negreanu lost a fortune. Tom Dwan ran bluff after bluff and when he got himself into a $1m flip, he refused to take money out of the pot.
To change things up or not?
PokerGO was launched in 2017 by the Cary Katz-owned Poker Central as a subscription-based streaming service, offering online streaming from a 2,400-video library of original shows and past event replays. The crown jewel of that collection is High Stakes Poker, a show which, outside of the WSOP archive, ranks higher than any others in the minds of the poker public.
So it was a no-brainer for Katz and company to revive this much-loved show, but that certainly didn’t mean that its success was a foregone conclusion. Audience tastes have shifted significantly in nine years, and so too has the player profile of game’s top practitioners. Livestreams have largely replaced pre-packaged content.
Personality-driven poker shows made sense in an era of big egos and High Stakes Poker had a charm very much part of the zeitgeist of poker in the 2000s. A similar recipe in 2020 could easily have flopped, but in the safe hands of legendary poker producer Mori Eskandani, there was enough skill and drama on show to make compelling television. There were also some very memorable hands.
Hand #1: Rick Salomon busts Bryn Kenney
In Episode 2, Bryn Kenney and Rick Salomon played a huge pot after the former straddled and the latter double-straddled to $3,200. Brandon Steven limped in middle position with A♣️4♣️, Kenney completed from the small straddle with 5♦️5♥️, and Salomon raised to $22,000 with 6♣️6♥️. Steven folded and Kenney called.
The flop came 7♣️5♣️4♦️, Kenney checked, Salomon bet $30,000, and Kenney called. The turn came 8♣️, giving Salomon his straight. Again, Kenney check-called, this time $55,000 from Salomon.
The A♠️ was inconsequential and Kenney again checked over to Salomon. With $219,200 in the pot already, Salomon overbet all-in for Kenney’s effective stack of $324,000. Kenney tank-called, shipping the monster $868,200 pot to Salomon.
Hand #2: Tom Dwan versus Bryn Kenney
In Episode 5, with the blinds $400/$800, Bryn Kenney raised to $2,500 with A♦️3♦️ under the gun, Brandon Steven called in the cutoff with 7♦️7♠️, and Tom Dwan squeezed the button to $12,000 with A♠️K♠️. Both Kenney and Steven called.
The flop came A♥️K♣️3♥️ and the action checked to Dwan who bet $22,000 into a $38,000 pot. Steven folded and Kenney called. The turn came 3♣️ and Kenney check-called Dwan’s bet of $55,000. The river came 10♥️ and Kenney sprung his trap, check-raising Dwan’s $55,000 bet to $285,000 total. After a short tank, Dwan let it go.
Hand #3: Doug Polk versus Phil Hellmuth
In Episode 12, with the blinds $200/$400, Phil Hellmuth opened to $1,100 UTG+2 with Q♠️10♥️, James Bord flatted the button with 2♥️2♣️, and Doug Polk flicked in the call with 10♦️7♣️.
The flop came J♠️9♠️8♥️, Polk and Hellmuth both checked, and Bord bet $2,000. Polk bumped it up to $7,000 and Hellmuth shoved all in for $97,200. Bord quickly folded and Polk went into the tank. After a lot of table talk (analysed brilliantly by poker tells savant Zachary Elwood), Polk found the unlikely fold. This hand has received a full breakdown on Polk’s UpswingPoker site.
Enough to satisfy fans and experts
These hands and others like it made for pretty good popcorn TV. It might be past its heyday, but there was still more than enough to satisfy poker fans and poker cognoscenti alike. This was proof that there is no dearth of bankable television talent, no shortage of characters in the solver generation. This was also proof that an old format can resonate with a new audience and in this regard, the return of Kaplan was an aural delight.
In a time when quality poker content is hard to come by and producers are scrambling for ideas and experimenting with new innovations, High Stakes Poker was a welcome throwback to the poker days of yore, with just enough magic dust to keep the modern audience engaged. Roll on Season 9.