My Review of High Stakes Poker on GSN

I caught about 2/3 of High Stakes Poker on GSN, last night, after missing its debut earlier this month.

For the three of you who don't know what I'm talking about, High Stakes Poker is a no-limit ring game that was played at the Golden Nugget in Vegas last year, with no cap on the buy-in. Many of the big game players, as well as Vegas high-stakes players like Sammy Farha, Eli Elezra, and Sean Sheikan also sat into the game. It is, to my knowledge, the first non-tournament-style Texas Hold'Em on television.

It's a great idea, but does it make good dramatic TV?

THE GOOD: It's very interesting to watch some of these players, who we've seen in countless tournaments, play a ring game. Last night, Barry Greenstein played for all his chips (just over $200K) when Daniel Negreanu threw two bricks of cash onto the table, raising it to a million dollars. There were three clubs on the board, and Barry had the A of clubs, and called (!) on the come. He bricked the turn, and sucked out on the river to beat Daniel, who had K6c. I wondered if Barry would make that call in a tourney. (I'm guessing he wouldn't.) 

It is awesome that Gabe Kaplan is doing commentary again. I loved it when he called the WSOP, and I wish they'd bring him back. He knows what he's talking about, and he's got a great sense of humor and comedic timing.

It's cool that any player can come into and leave the game whenever they want to, as long as they've got the bankroll. It's nice to get a sense for how these people, who play with each other all the time, relate to each other outside of a tournament setting.

THE BAD: The players are putting extraordinary amounts of money on the table, wagering more on one hand than many of us make in a year, but it never feels like the money really matters to them, to the commentators, and consequently to the audience. In their defense, I don't know what the producers could do to fix this, because the players really don't care about the stakes, which makes it tough for the audience to have any sort of emotional connection to the players. Without that emotional element, the dramatic tension is lost, and we end up feeling like we're watching the ultra-rich callously throw around obscene amounts of money. We, the audience, really don't have a stake in the outcome, and the show suffers as a result.

The production values are weak, and the show feels like GSN didn't put much money behind it. If I'm watching High Stakes Poker, I want to feel like I'm watching High Stakes Poker. This should feel at least as produced as an episode of WPT, but it feels more like the Ultimatebet show from Hollywood Park.

THE UGLY: Whoever did the audio mix should be kicked in the junk. Twice. The announcers' voices are loud and clear, but it's virtually impossible to hear anything the players say. It became very frustrating to me to miss their conversation, because being a fly on the felt at this big game is supposed to be one of the reasons we're watching this show.

They occasionally break away from the game to follow these players through the casino while they play other games. I don't really need to watch Sean Sheikan splash around $45K at blackjack while he talks about how great he is. I'm pretty sure that I'm in the minority on this one, but that really put me off. Again, I think it's the lack of emotional connection to the players, which alienates the audience.

The action feels rushed. Quite often, the commentators are discussing a hand, and suddenly it's over. If they called it live, there's not a lot they can do about that, but it's the sort of thing that contributes to the rough feel of the program, and should have been fixed in post production.

THE VERDICT:
GSN starts out with a very strong hand, but misses the flop entirely. The show is only a few episodes in, though, so maybe they'll pick up a draw on the turn, and make a winner by fifth street. I just hope that the audience ends up caring enough about the players to stay in the hand.

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