- »Everything Old was New Again on Season 8 of High Stakes Poker
Everything Old was New Again on Season 8 of High Stakes Poker
The intro was familiar. The soundtrack, too. And, when the voices of AJ Benza and Gabe Kaplan came in with their opening narration over a montage of classic highlights, some of the greatest moments in poker history, everything seemed right with the world. For fans everywhere, it was goosebumps all over again.
“We’re off and running on the reboot of High Stakes Poker. It’s not the same, but it’s not all that different either,” said Benza, as the camera panned around the table showcasing the high rollers on hand, a who’s who of the business and poker world.
The much-ballyhooed reincarnation of High Stakes Poker, Season 8, which aired exclusively on PokerGo over the past three months, had the same feel and a few of the same players. But it didn’t quite have the same allure as its original version. Benza (The Howard Stern Show) and Kaplan (Welcome Back Kotter) were the original pairing in the broadcast booth nearly 15 years ago when the show debuted to rave reviews on the Game Show Network. Benza and Kaplan complement each other nicely, and it was nice to hear them together again.
High Stakes Poker was the poker show of its era, the one everybody watched. When it first hit the airwaves in 2006, it became an instant classic. For the first time, the viewing public was granted access inside the lucrative world of big time gambling. Where card sharks and business magnates clash for millions of dollars. It had never been seen before, and it was exciting. For the average player, playing $1/$2 at their local casino, there was nothing quite like it. An inside glimpse into poker at nosebleed stakes, and they gathered around their televisions in droves to catch the action. Blinds of $200/$400, and sometimes $400/$800, with an ante and a straddle? Scintillating stuff.
The first four seasons of the show were broadcast between January 2006 and December 2007, with seasons five, six and seven airing between 2009 and 2011. Back then, the television market hadn’t yet been over-saturated with shows like Poker After Dark, The Big Game and Shark Cage. Or even the myriad of live streams available on platforms like Youtube and Twitch. The concept was new, and with all that money on the table, it was intoxicating.
Season 8 is in the books now, all 14 episodes have aired, and Benza had it right. The show isn’t the same, but it isn’t all that different either.
The intro was excellent, enough to raise the hair on your arm, and it featured a trio of Canadians involved in three vintage hands. Billionaire and Cirque de Soleil founder Guy Laliberte, up against the legendary Doyle Brunson. Daniel Negreanu, when he lost one of the largest pots in High Stakes Poker history to Gus Hansen. And ‘Yukon’ Brad Booth, when he famously bluffed Phil Ivey with three bricks of cold, hard, cash. Without a doubt, three of the most memorable hands ever played. Who can forget Booth’s bluff? Epic.
A Cast of Characters
Back for the action were the familiar faces of Tom Dwan, Brandon Adams, and the two Phil’s, Ivey and Hellmuth. Missing were the likes of Sammy Farha, Mike Matusow and Barry Greenstein. There was no David Beyjamine, no Freddie Deeb, no Eli Elezra either. And Brunson, Negreanu and Hansen were also absent, replaced by such characters as Jean-Robert Bellande, Doug Polk, and Rick Salomon.
Season 8 Lineup:
- Brandon Adams
- John Andress
- Jean-Robert Bellande
- James Bord
- Jake Daniels
- Tom Dwan
- Phil Hellmuth
- Lazaro Hernandez
- Lynne Ji
- Bryn Kenney
- Jason Koon
- Damien LeForbes
- Chamath Palihapitiya
- Sean Perry
- Nick Petrangelo
- Doug Polk
- Rick Salomon
- Michael Schwimer
- Brandon Steven
“It’s a different life, and I’m really enjoying it.”
Like the show, Jean-Robert Bellande, a long-time poker pro, with $2.9 million in career tournament earnings, has changed over the years. The one-time nightclub owner and promoter, who appeared on Season 15 of Survivor (China), is affectionately known for being broke, while at the same time living like a millionaire. His twitter handle is @BrokeLivingJRB, despite the fact he regularly posts pictures of a posh and lavish lifestyle to his nearly 70,000 followers.
There is no telling what his actual financial status is, but he can play. Affable and entertaining, with a fantastic gift for gab, the 50-year-old is married with children now, 16-month-old twins. His perspective has changed. With newfound responsibilities, gambling seems secondary, and the time away from poker during the pandemic helped solidify a new, healthy outlook on life.
“It was perfect for me, and forced me to spend family time with the kids. Now, it’s fun to get back to the poker table, get back to mixing it up, and it’s made me realize how important these games are to me. Getting together with the guys, win or lose, it’s an important time for me. It’s something I need in my life.”
It didn’t take long for Bellande to establish himself as the ‘table captain’ on the new season. In the very first episode, he introduced us to an oversized ‘Las Vegas’ wine glass. He was telling stories, cracking jokes, and even taking shots at the other players.
“I’ve always seen you as an excellent player,” he told Bryn Kenney, poker’s all-time leading money winner with a whopping $56,403,501 in career earnings, “But you’re all-in right there has got to be the worst play I’ve ever seen you make. Horrendous.”
A friendly jab, friendly banter.
“You’re lucky you’re not playing the old Tom Dwan,” he scolded another player. “He might have emptied the clip on you.”
Bellande, as he always does, carried the conversation for most of the season. And, his chips were moving just as fast as his mouth was. By the third episode, his stack had had been up and down like a Yoyo. Wild swings, par for the course on High Stakes Poker. In one hand, Bellande turned an ace-high full house, pushed all in, and wasn’t saying a word. Dwan, who had kings full, asked, “how big is that glass? How much wine is in there?” He eventually called and was left shaking his head as the $116,200 pot was awarded to Bellande, who suddenly found his voice again.
“I’ve gotten to the point in poker where I realize I cannot think at the same level as you wizards, and I accept that I’ll never be as good,” he quipped, while stacking chips with vino in hand.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Not sure if Roger Daltry, Pete Townsend and The Who were singing about Tom Dwan, but they easily could have been. One of the most iconic cash game pros alive, the 34-year-old has played in the richest games in the world. Both online and live. He once held the record for the largest pot ever won in a televised game ($1.1 million). The record he broke was his own.
Under the screen name ‘durrrr’, he made a name for himself by facing off with all comers during the heyday of Full Tilt Poker. Big bets, sick bluffs, and ultra-aggressive, attacking moves are what he’s known for. And it was those character traits that helped him steal the spotlight on the show’s first go around. He was the new breed of player, a young gun with no fear, and the public got to see it first-hand. Dwan was the big winner thanks in large part to a massive $919,000 pot during season five.
“When those shows were aired, it was a lucky time for me. I was at the top my game, and ahead of the game. I got really lucky. Every decision made me look like a genius, and I ran pretty good,” he said during one of the interview segments.
Well, he is either very lucky or just that good. For the past decade, Dwan has been plying his trade in places like Macau and Manila, where games play very high, and he is most comfortable. While his playing style has changed, it’s a tad more conservative these days, his winning ways haven’t. And, just a few weeks into Season 8, it became clear he’d be one of the big winners again.
Can you say sex tapes and sexy pots? Rick Salomon is perhaps best known for the 2004 sex tape he filmed with socialite Paris Hilton, but he’s also had liaisons with celebrities like Elizabeth Daily, Shannen Doherty and Pamela Anderson. To say he likes action is an understatement. He is recognized for a different feat at the World Series of Poker; cashing three times in the $1 million buy-in Big One for One Drop. Now, he can add another accolade to the list: scooping one of the largest pots of the year for a cool $867,700.
It happened early on, Episode 2, when he was holding pocket sixes, flopped an open-ended straight draw on a board of 5, 7, 4, and decided to bet heavy against Bryn Kenney, who had also flopped a monster, a set of fives.
“The bet is $324,000,” the dealer said, counting down the chips following the river card.
Big decision, right? That’s a beautiful house for most people. After a few tense minutes of deliberation, Kenney finally made the call, and Salomon had close to a million reasons to ask Paris Hilton out again. You wouldn’t have known it by his demeanor, though. Up $500,000, and he still looked tilted.
“Does the least amount of talking, and the most amount of winning,” Kaplan said as they cut to the commercial break
“He hasn’t smoked enough yet.”
It was a joke, about one of the richest pot smokers in the world. Bryn Kenney, a well-known marijuana enthusiast, has amassed a fortune playing tournament poker. According to the Hendon Mob database, which tracks player earnings, his current tally sits at more than $56 million. Nobody has banked more. Skillful, talented and hardworking, he is a shark swimming amongst minnows. But, during one episode, he played an entire hand out of turn, acting first each betting round from the dealer's position, a mistake you rarely see at this level. It provided a lighthearted moment in the heat of battle.
Slip up aside, Kenney takes his profession seriously, and believes intestinal fortitude is what sets him apart.
“Mindset is everything in poker. Many times, you’ll watch someone with a huge chip stack lose a big pot and you can just see it on them. They’re already deflated, like they’ve already admitted defeat. If you’re actually in the game, you can never have that feeling. You have to feel strong always, or you’re not going to give yourself a chance. That’s always number one for me, never give up.”
Put me in coach, I’m ready to play. That was the attitude of newcomer Michael Schwimer, a former major league baseball player, a right-handed relief pitcher, who played two seasons in the big leagues (2011-2013). First with the Philadelphia Phillies, then with the Toronto Blue Jays. He learned to play cards at 30,000-feet, on the plane, with his teammates during those long flights between cities. Schwimer feels there are many similarities between poker and baseball.
“I was good at modelling out hitters, and looking for reads and tells. I had four pitches, and my best pitch was the one the hitters didn’t want to see. The problem is poker players are way better at hiding their tells. It was pretty easy to figure out what pitch the hitters did or didn’t want to see.”
To his credit, Schwimer wasn’t afraid to mix it up with poker’s best. He gave loads of action, got his fair share of camera time, and was a positive addition to the show. “Not jacks,” he said in dismay, resigned to his misfortune after losing a pot during Episode 7. The seventh episode was Schwimer's last, he was KO’d a few minutes later.
“A character we’ll remember.” Benza said, as the pitcher packed up his gear and yanked himself from the game.
You might say, he went down swinging.
The only woman to grace the felt this year was Lynne Ji. A young, high-stakes gambler, who splits her time between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. A refreshing presence at the table, she wasn’t afraid to splash her chips around, and was quite active throughout her stint on the show, which lasted all of three episodes.
She got off to a rocky start in Episode 3, and was caught bluffing $80,000 on the river by Nick Petrangelo in a pot worth $266,600.
“What took you so long,” she asked Petrangelo, in good spirits, after he took a few minutes deliberating the call.
Ji did pick up a few nice pots later, when she successfully bluffed Bellande, and then flopped two-pair on Salomon. But overall, she struggled. When she had to re-buy, she simply reached down into her black Chanel bag and retrieved eight pink chips, each worth $25,000.
“Better poker than partying,” she said, laughing.
She wasn’t laughing by the end of Episode 5, but did have a smile on her face when she exited the show spectacularly. In a double-knockout for the ages, Ji and Bellande were sent packing after a $985,000 pot, the largest of the season. Holding just the queen, ten of hearts, Ji somehow found herself tangled up in a massive three-way all-in before the flop, and was a huge underdog to Bellande’s ace, king, and Dwan’s pocket queens. They ran it three times, and Dwan proved victorious each time.
It was an excruciating outcome for both Ji and Bellande, but it was doubly worse for Bellande, who had lost a $352,000 pot only minutes earlier when he flopped top two-pair against Dwan’s straight. Salt in the wound.
Like past seasons, the players would come and go as they please, and were substituted in and out. We had some new faces at the table by the sixth episode, as Jason Koon, Damien LeForge and Sean Perry joined the fray.
Perry is the son of legendary poker pro Ralph Perry, was exposed to the game at a young age, and learned the ins and outs of gambling from watching his father play online. It seems he paid attention, too. In 2017, the American finished 4th at the WPT Five Diamond Classic for over half a million dollars.
Perry splits his time between poker and real estate these days, and there’s a good chance he’ll be investing in more property soon, if he hasn’t done so already. In Episode 8, he looked down to find pocket aces and was the beneficiary of a lucky flop. His opponent, Bellande, was sitting with 10, 8 and had top pair on a board of 10, 5, 7. After a series of bets, raises, and eventually an all-in, Perry’s aces held, and he collected a $637,700 pot.
“I enjoy the rush to gamble big,” Perry said nonchalantly.
Nick Petrangelo knows a thing or two about high stakes action too. The 34-year-old Massachusetts native has won two titles at the World Series of Poker, the $3,000 buy-in No Limit Hold’em Shootout in 2015 ($201,812) and the $100,000 buy-in High Roller event in 2018 ($2,910,227). Not as flashy as the rest, Petrangelo appeared on a majority of the episodes, but essentially in a supporting role. He did provide some insight into the pressure involved in risking so much, when there are millions of dollars on the table.
“As you start playing higher stakes, the more you play, it becomes more normal for you. If I played this game two or three years ago, I’d likely be terrified. It’s been a gradual progression, and now I’m comfortable. It’s always exciting when you have a huge tournament or a big cash game, and you know all the best players are coming out for it.”
Poker’s leading man didn’t hit the screen until the ninth episode, producers saving the best for last. Phil Hellmuth is must watch. Animated and charismatic, he is both the protagonist and the antagonist, a quality only a few possess. And, just minutes after sitting down, he stunned the poker world by laying down ace, king, pre-flop, to nominal three-bet raise by Dwan, who was holding a measly jack, seven.
“I’m sorry Gabe,” he said, as he turned to the cameras, as if to ingratiate himself with Kaplan in the commentary box.
In another hand, on a flop of 7, 5, 6, Hellmuth ditched pocket tens to a $28,000 bet from Dwan. Upon realizing he had folded the winner, he said, “it’s time to play some poker boys,” as if he was about to flip a switch and turn on his ‘A’ game.
Producers then cut to an interview clip of Phil whining about the lack of recognition he gets from the younger generation when it comes to the topic of the greatest poker player alive. Indeed, Hellmuth’s record is impeccable. He won the world title in 1989, defeating Johnny Chan heads-up, is the proud owner of 15 WSOP bracelets, and has reached more final tables than anyone.
“Generally, they don’t have a lot to respect for me, but that’s okay, what can I do? I can just win 24 bracelets, nine more, and I can just win 33 out of 35 high stakes cash games. I’ll just keep crushing, and show people that I should be in consideration for greatest poker player all-time. I have all the records.”
Producers then cut back to the Hellmuth at table, the sound up on his microphone:
“I love poker, you guys can’t beat me today I don’t think,” he said, before promptly folding the best hand yet again. Hellmuth was bobbing and weaving like the prizefighter he is, but he was continuously doing so at the wrong times.
“It’s part of the frustration I face in my daily life, when I can play flawless for eight hours and still lose. Nobody understands what I do, and all I do is win, win, win” he continued.
Always quick with his play-by-play, Kaplan countered with some well-timed sarcasm. “We have to revisit that greatest player all-time statement,” he said, as the music rolled to signify the commercial break.
Ten-time bracelet winner Phil Ivey bowed out after just two episodes because he wasn’t feeling well. He did have some wise words for the poker world before he left, though.
“Having the right mindset when you go into a poker game is crucial. Just like in life, in poker there are going to be some ups and downs. How you play when you’re losing is going to tell the tale as to what type of player you are. Having the right mindset, the right attitude, and just staying present, and in-the-moment, are very important.”
Poker pundits are calling it the greatest fold in High Stakes Poker history.
“I think I’m either dead or you just have a ton of equity against me,” Doug Polk said to Hellmuth, as he contemplated laying down an absolute monster.
Fresh off his victory over Daniel Negreanu in the High Stakes Feud, where he won more than $1 million off Daniel Negreanu in a 25,000-hand cash game challenge, Polk was squaring off with Hellmuth, and they had both flopped straights. It happened in Episode 12, Polk had the 10, 7, and was way behind the Poker Brat's Q, 10, the nuts.
“This is insane,” he said, as he pondered the call. “I think I’m going to fold this hand.”
What was his clue? Hellmuth’s massive $97,700 raise into a $12,000 pot. He did eventually fold, to the astonishment of those at the table, and is perhaps one of the few people on the planet who could make that lay down. That’s how you avoid disaster, folks.
A former Facebook executive who loves poker? Yes. Chamath Palithapitiya is a businessman with deep pockets, and he's becoming a regular face in high-profile games like this. Good friends with both Dwan and Hellmuth, he holds players like them in high regard.
“I am a student of anybody who commits themselves to anything and decides to be good at it. It’s hard. It’s easy to give up. To be what Lebron James calls, ‘the man in the arena’, to be grinding, I really respect that. A lot of these folks have dedicated their lives to becoming good at something, so to play with them is really great.”
His main highlight was raking in a modest pot after making four of a kind, quad nines. Across the table watching on, James Bord noted that “the income distribution gap just increased.” A keen observation from the 2010 World Series of Poker Europe main event champ.
PokerGo was hard-pressed to duplicate the success of the original High Stakes Poker on GSN, which aired at the height of the poker boom, had great success, and produced some magical moments. There was electricity in the air back then, so it would have been virtually impossible to match. The network certainly tried. The PokerGo studios are stylish, attractive and top of the line, the production value was excellent, and the commentary was witty and fun. Season 8 won’t go down as the best season ever, but it will be remembered as another year of big bets, huge pots and crazy action.
By the end of its run, it seemed Dwan was playing every hand, and winning most of them. Sound familiar? No, it wasn’t the same, but it wasn’t all that different either.