I’m a big fan of High Stakes Poker… well, of the earlier seasons of High Stakes Poker. It was a great entry into the then-expanding balloon of poker TV shows generally dominated by tournament final tables, where the differences in stack sizes are measured in terms of exponents, as are the increases in blinds, so all you see is 10 PRINT "All In"; 20 GOTO 10. HSP was (except for Live at the Bike, web-only) the first televised cash game between actual skilled players applying their formidable experience and analytic skills to the laudable goal of taking money away from each other.
Most people who follow poker on TV point to the early days of the World Poker Tour and its use of the lipstick hole card camera as the pivotal innovation that made poker watchable. If you want to know what it was like before, just go to a cardroom and railbird for a while and see how long you can take it. True, knowledge of the hole cards is necessary to make poker intelligible to a viewing audience, but I don’t think that’s what makes it interesting in a TV show.
What makes it interesting is Gabe Kaplan.
Gabe Kaplan and AJ Benza were the hosts of HSP when it started, and they did the running commentary for 5 seasons. Their voiceovers were so damn good, so interesting, and so blasted funny that even my wife liked watching HSP (that is, until the fifth time or so I watched the whole series in order). Originally AJ did the main commentary, with Gabe offering analysis, but it quickly became apparent that Gabe’s insight into the mind of a high stakes degenerate were so great and so hilarious (mostly because he is one) were the draw, though AJ was indispensable as a sounding board and someone to give a less sophisticated audience something to relate to, and let’s face it, when talking about poker played on this level just about everyone in the world can be considered "less sophisticated."
There almost wasn’t a season 5. The reasons have been debated quite a lot in poker circles, mostly having to do with the short-sightedness of GSN executives who remain firmly convinced that Classic Concentration and Press Your Luck are far more culturally relevant to modern America. I can’t dispute the logic, but their ratings seem to counter-indicate this. With some gentle prodding from AJ and outside business analysts who pointed out that anyone who claims to want ratings should probably not cancel their highest-rated program, there was a season 5, and it was great,
Season 6. AJ Benza is gone, replaced by Kara Scott. Rumor had it that it might have been Vanessa Rousso. Maybe Leann Tweeden, Whatever. As long as it had tits and wore a dress it would be okay with the executives. The interchangeable breast mount would open the show and talk to players in one-on-one interviews about why they made that horrendous call… basically things that grind everything to a screeching halt mid-show. Kara Scott, in all fairness, is no poker idiot as well as being reasonably hot, and she does ask good questions (often better than the answers she gets sometimes), but poor Gabe sounded a little stir-crazy with no straight man reacting. It just hurt sometimes, listening to him do weird voices and fake anecdotes into thin air, imagining him feeling as uncomfortable as I did in the answering silence.
Season 7. No Gabe, replaced by a surprisingly unfunny Norm MacDonald. No players sponsored by Full Tilt, as they continue to prosecute their war against Pokerstars in the struggle to become the dominant online destination where no United States player can deposit or withdraw. How bad could it be?
2 episodes seen. I’m now back to watching season 2. The play is more interesting, the commentary unbelievably good. Season 7? It’s the first time I started reading a book while watching a brand new HSP. Well the second… I got that bored on both episodes so far.
There are some fun hands to watch, but they’re more about bafflingly strange plays than excellent ones. Instead of Tom Dwan winning a monstrous pot by bluffing out the then-World Champion and one of the best players in the world (Barry Greenstein) while knowing where both of them were, we have Phil Ruffin calling down a turn raise and an enormous river bet with second pair, no kicker, on a three-heart board almost instantly because "I has a King!" Instead of Erick Lindgren making an extemely difficult all-in call on the turn with a mediocre flush draw and a double gutshot against a weak overpair, we have Vanessa Selbst unable to get away from an overpair when a transparent amateur raises a dry board with an obvious top two or better. The interviews after these hands were remarkably bad as well. With the loss of Full Tilt sponsored players, the show has devolved into four pros taking turns against three rich businessmen, and none of them looking very good.
As for the commentary, I know Norm is capable of being funny, but he’s not. I know he’s a huge gambling degenerate, but that doesn’t make him an analyst. Gabe is both an extremely respected nosebleed player and hysterical, and AJ was the perfect foil/straight man/everyman translator. I have no idea what the suits at GSN were thinking when they lost AJ in season 6 and now Gabe in season 7, but in my mind I see a scene like this playing out:
GSN Executive: Gambling is bad and immoral. Therefore we should get rid of HSP after season 4 and instead concentrate on shows where people take a chance to win money, which is completely different.
Wall Street Journal: Is GSN crewed by such idiots that they would cancel their highest rated program?
AJ: I’ve done a bunch of free publicity in order to save you from your own stupidity.
GSN Executive: I never said I would cancel HSP. (Season 5 airs.) Thanks for your great advice AJ. You’re fired. Well, that takes care of that. At least he won’t post on his blog about what a bunch of tools we are. (Season 6 airs.)
Gabe: I’m lonely and I’m talking to myself.
GSN Executive: All those poker guys on the internet say the show is way worse without AJ, but everyone knows that guys play poker and guys like boobs, so we made the right decision. Gabe is so great at his job we should replace him with a guy who loses his shirt at $5-$10 games. I hear he’s also great at improvised comedy, so let’s help him by giving him the worst possible scripts of all time. (Season 7 airs.)
Norm: I remember when I was funny. At least I get these paychecks to stake my big comeback in the world of poker! (Goes broke.)
GSN Executive: Everyone says HSP sucks now. See? I told you gambling was bad. I am never wrong.