Interview: how poker TV shows still get made during COVID

Jon Pill
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Posted on: April 1, 2021 11:03 am EDT

Shows like High Stakes Duel and Poker After Dark can often seem to be effortless in their execution. A clean studio environment, masked dealer, live-streamed commentators. It all works like clockwork. It’s as if all that needs to happen is for the players to play and the cameras to watch. What more could there be to it?

Mori Eskandani is the president of PokerGO. He was one of the minds behind the original run of High Stakes Poker. He spoke with us about some of the hidden complexities that go on behind-the-scenes of our favorite poker shows.

As president of the streaming site, Eskandani doesn’t spend as much time in the midst of production chaos as he used to. He has other focuses now.

“My involvement with production has become less and less over the years,” he says, “as the younger generation and ever-changing technology make it harder for me to run with everything. Luckily my poker-playing experience still comes in handy when helping to put together original ideas.”

Those ideas are the starting point for any show.

“Idea to eyeball”

“A lot goes into a show from idea to eyeball. But by the time we’ve recorded the media, and broadcast to PokerGO’s streaming engine, we’re proud of what the viewers are seeing. I think it really shows how deeply our team cares about the game of poker.”

The core of the show is that initial idea. What follows after that is the reality TV equivalent of a casting call.

“Once we settle on an idea, we reach out to some of the potential players and ask them what they think of it and more importantly if we can count on them to participate,” Eskandani explains.

With a viable roster of potential players in place, the idea passes on from the thinkers to the doers. The doers in this case are several teams. These come from a pool of producers, directors, stage and lighting designers, and a live card graphics team. Many of them have a decade and a half of industry experience.

“We rely heavily on their expertise as well as that of our production team at the studio. They handle camera work, audio, engineering, and all other technical and creative aspects,” Eskandani says.

Pilot lights

John Bovenizer is one of Eskandani’s experts. He has seen most aspects of the process close up. It was he who came up with the idea for a quiz show that used a poker-style betting system to distribute points.

“When I created our game show The Big Blind, I made a pitch sheet,” he explains. “Then I shot a low-budget ‘proof of concept’ pilot episode to help sell the idea to my bosses. Once it was greenlit, the focus turned towards finalizing the content. Then studio tech setup and booking talent. And then the most fun and stressful part — shoot day.”

The Big Blind now airs on PokerGO, with Jeff Platt as the host.

Poker and television have been bound up in the public’s mind more or less since the invention of the hole cam in 1999 for the show Late Night Poker. Poker TV had its part to play in generating one of the many media feedback loops that drove the poker boom after Chris Moneymaker’s win in 2003. Moneymaker’s win was itself a TV moment.

Time passed, shows rose and fell. High Stakes Poker changed the nature of TV poker. It opened the way to internet streams like Live at the Bike. Television then had to contend with other online content like Youtube, Netflix, and Twitch. And it had to contend with offline disruptions too. Things like Black Friday and the end of the boom times.

Nowadays the big disruption is COVID.

May you live in interesting times

Bovenizer is also a Digital Content Producer at PokerGO. He puts together the No Gamble, No Future show, and you’ll have seen his work in credit sequences and promo reels for shows like HSP, PAD, and the WSOP.

He describes the stresses of COVID as largely logistical.

“The first few months of quarantine shut down everything,” he says. “But now it just means I’m spending a lot more time working at home and only coming in on shoot days. Everyone is working remotely, which makes pre-production harder to coordinate. And the studio has to minimize personnel.”

Not only is there the struggle to keep everyone on the same page throughout development, but he also has to put together shows (sometimes live) with long-distance interviews. That means no camera operators or make-up artists for the interviewees.

“We’ve had to do a lot more zoom interviews,” Bovenizer says. “And when you are dealing with remote show guests there is always a ton of stress and problems, particularly with a live-streamed show. Sometimes the guests have terrible WiFi or a poor camera setup.”

Time is money

At a less granular level, COVID has hurt the amount of poker available for shooting. Eskandani talks about the huge amount of time and content lost to the pandemic.

“We didn’t do any live shows until it was safe to do so,” Eskandani says. “And those measures included daily testing of players, masking and distancing in the studio among all crew members, and closing the set to the public.”

This makes for a greatly increased workload.

“Our producers and technical crew had to jump through daily safety measures to come to work. And they do much more work from home after the shoot. Much of the traditionally in-person post-production work with editors had to happen over zoom. This added many more hours to get the job done.”

One upshot of this is a mercenary version of glory hunting supporters.

“Everyone loves underdogs and coming back from behind stories,” he says. “Our entire control room always roots for the player with the most chips to win. So that they can go home early.”

But the job is getting done. PokerGO managed to put together a season of High Stakes Poker and Poker After Dark. And as the world opens up and vaccines become more available, they have plans to play catch-up in a big way.

They have a ton of live poker shows planned for late 2021. And we now know just how much work will have gone into each and every one of them.

Featured image source: PokerGO