What has the poker world been missing? That was the question the creatives at GGPoker posed when it set about devising a brand new poker TV show. The result is Game of Gold, and it’s fair to say it’s been a huge success, with a spin-off podcast from Daniel Negreanu and praise from some of the biggest and most opinionated players on X, from Phil Galfond to Matt Berkey and Patrick Leonard.
We talked to Spunky Hwang, GGPoker’s Creative Director and Producer & Director of Game of Gold, about why he thinks the show is such a success and where it will go in Season 2.
PokerOrg: First off, congratulations on the show; it’s got players buzzing for the first time in a long time about a new poker show. What is the secret behind its success?
Spunky Hwang: Thank you, but we still believe we have a long way to go.
We all remember the days when High Stakes Poker and Poker After Dark shocked the whole poker community. The new personalities and characters made every episode interesting and changed lives by inspiring viewers to become players. I was a big fan and was incredibly influenced by that content. I was in my mid-20s when the show was first released. Now, though, people have become used to this old format and we felt that it was overused.
We worked very hard and thought through every aspect of what people want to see and realized we needed to find new ways to introduce new characters with new personalities in a completely different format while still being entertaining. I was tired of watching the same poker shows with the same big names and big pots over and over again. It was time for a change. Game of Gold brings out old and new characters and personalities that the viewers can relate to at a very deep level.
I think the show succeeded in placing the participants in an uncomfortable competitive environment, which brought out their true personalities and I believe that is what makes this show successful.
How did you approach the challenge of creating a show to appeal to audiences with differing levels of poker knowledge?
SH: This is actually a very good question, and we had endless discussions around how we would do this. To cut a long story short, our conclusion was that it’s almost impossible to make a show that everyone can relate to and enjoy. To define everyone, we include all non-poker-playing viewers, poker-heavy-playing viewers (mostly pros), and poker-light-playing fan and players. If we made a show that has too much poker, then the normal person would not enjoy it. However, too little poker and the poker fan would think it was a joke.
This was a very tough challenge so we had to make some hard decisions along the way. Also, as a new concept, this type of show introduced a lot of risk for us as well.
We finally decided to make a show that all poker-playing viewers can relate to and enjoy. It’s important that the community that is already playing the game and respects the game of poker enjoys and respects the content before we try to make something for the general public.
When it comes to casting, what exactly did you look for in the contestants?
SH: We were looking for poker players from all generations with diverse backgrounds to get as many different perspectives as possible. We also wanted a mixture of live and online poker players, cash game players, tournament players, high-stakes players, mid-stakes players, etc. We believed this way, we would be able to get a lot of interesting discussions from the war rooms.
You’ve got an eclectic mix of players. How were they selected, and did all of your first choices say yes?
SH: We started interviewing a lot of candidates for the show in the summer of 2022 during the WSOP in Las Vegas. I think we interviewed around 50 people before making the final decision for the 16 you see on the show. Every character was carefully thought through before making a decision.
How much did the players know about the show going into the taping?
SH: Absolutely nothing. We did everything in our power to keep the element of surprise as real as possible. The only thing they knew was that they would be playing for $456,000 as a prize before going in, but nothing else. I remember personally telling each contestant on the first episode that as soon as they get off the elevator, cameras will be rolling and everything will begin. You just do your thing.
How did you decide on the formats for the challenges?
SH: This was also very tough. We had to figure out a way to bring out the competitiveness of all the participants and make them really want it. Sometimes, even if you have a million dollars as a prize, some of them might not care as much, as you may know with the top poker players.
The challenge was to find a way to bring out everyone’s competitive spirit and get them zoned into the game, and a big prize wasn’t going to do it. That’s when we came up with the team aspect, and it proved more than enough to create drama and bring out the competitiveness of each player.
Dynamics are so important in reality shows. Why did you decide to go the random route rather than having pre-ordained teams or a selection process that would give you team make-ups that you wanted? Were you just very confident that the mix of players you had would give you a great outcome, however they fell?
SH: One big objective that we had was to get the players out of their comfort zone, and also, being a reality show, we wanted to keep everything as organic and real as possible.
We thought through many different scenarios and team combinations, and everything made sense. So I would say we were quite confident that things would turn out well, even with all the random aspects.
We’re up to episode 5 now – can you reveal a secret for our readers about something that’s coming up?
SH: The players were incredibly zoned into the games as the show progressed. There will be a lot of serious poker, serious reactions, and a lot more emotions coming up. It’s great entertainment for the viewers, it is probably their first experience of watching these high-profile poker players sweating action, completely zoned in, and having genuine debates with their true personalities and characters (plus a lot of cursing)!
The production levels are really high and that’s part of what makes it so compelling. Can you tell us a bit about how the show was made and the studio set-up?
SH: Koreans are well known for making this type of reality TV content. As a Korean myself, I have multiple experiences making similar content and was quite confident with the format before starting off. We invited the players to Seoul, South Korea; we put together a studio from scratch, had around 80-100 cameras on standby, and went on from there.
It’s so good, we’re sure it’s going to be commissioned for a second series. Has that been confirmed yet?
SH: Currently, we are planning the next stages for a second season, so that would be a yes.
Will S02 follow the same format or switch things up?
SH: The first season has definitely taught us a lot. We know now how far we can go with these players, so we will definitely push players even more in the upcoming season.
Can you tell us if any of the original 16 will play again or if it’s an all-new cast?
SH: We have not made any decisions on the future cast yet but if their character fits the plan, then most likely.
For future series, would you consider non-pro celebrity players in season 2? Who would be the dream contestant?
SH: This subject is also something we’ve had multiple discussions internally about. Sometimes having a ‘random’ normal person can hurt the whole concept of the show, but a great ‘random’ person can add outstanding value to the show. It’s a high-risk high-reward situation, so we are considering all options and leaving them open.
Our dream contestant will be left a secret, we will give this person a separate proposal for the second season and see what happens.
Would you also consider running a promotion to get one amateur player onto the show?
SH: So that was also discussed. No final decision has been made but we would like to keep all options open.
Can we expect more groundbreaking poker shows in the future?
SH: GGPoker loves the game of poker. We all grew up watching the same poker celebrities and poker shows like High Stakes Poker, Poker After Dark and the WSOP. We really have passion for this game, and our mission is to make poker content super entertaining and inspiring for the next generation.
So to answer the question, yes, we will do everything in our power to make more innovative and entertaining poker shows for everyone to grow the game of poker and show the world it is a great game.
You can watch episodes 1-5 of Game of Gold on GGPoker’s YouTube channel now. Episode 6 drops on Wednesday, November 22, with future episodes coming every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at midday UTC until the finale on December 4.