Bloodsport in a padded room: Garrett Adelstein, HCL poker, and soft stream lineups

Craig Tapscott
Posted on: March 27, 2023 03:20 PDT

Behind the theater of podcast takedowns, Twitter slap-fights, and let's-take-this-inside heads-up invitations, poker players and the stream houses are competing in a game viewers don't see on YouTube. The people with access to that private battle may not agree on the winners and losers, but if pressed most will admit: if what most people see on the stream is WWE, the scrum behind the scenes is much closer to UFC.

Make no mistake--both battles are bloody, can make their players rich, and count on an audience to survive as much as they count on the players.

What is harder to suss out is just how much of either game is--as the poker gods intended--an individual sport. How often do stream producers and players openly cooperate? How much favoritism do the star players receive, and how quickly can they find themselves in exile?

PokerOrg has spent the last week talking to producers and players in and around the current imbroglio surrounding Hustler Casino Live and its co-founder's announcement that onetime HCL star Garrett Adelstein would not be invited back to the stream.

Included in this reporting: fresh conversations with HCL co-founder Ryan Feldman, Doug Polk, Matt Berkey, Nik Arcot, Ben Lee, Art Papazyan, and Lynne Ji, all of which accompany the first Q&A with Garret Adelstein we published earlier today.

In a developing story in which it's hard to find people who agree, the players here are singing the same chorus: it's business.

Garrett Adelstein: Banned or not?

Few stream-loving poker fans could avoid the news last week.

It played out first on High Stakes Poker Productions co-owner Nick Vertucci's titular podcast after venture capitalist and high-stakes cash regular Ben Lee decided to push Vertucci about whether Adelstein would be invited back to the Hustler Casino Live stream.

Vertucci told Lee that Adelstein, who has been in self-exile since the now-infamous J4 hand with Robbi Jade Lew, would not be invited back. Later in an interview with PokerOrg, Vertucci said, "Our players don’t want him back. And you can see that our games have grown even larger. Players are buying in deeper because Garrett is not there. So, there’s more action, which makes the pots bigger and more exciting.”

Following a week in which Adelstein briefly dropped his gloves and declared the exile was his own, suggesting the podcast and ensuing news was little more than clever promotion. "Stay thirsty and keep using my name for clicks," Adelstein wrote on Twitter before linking to Vertucci's podcast.

PokerOrg spoke to the co-founder of Hustler Casino Live, Ryan Feldman to clarify the company’s stance on Adelstein’s future invitations to the show.

“Garrett is not banned,” said Feldman, who is responsible for booking the players on HCL. “I want to make that crystal clear."

Adelstein and Feldman worked together

If the HCL show was a three-ring circus, Feldman was the ringleader, plate spinner, juggler, and savvy carival barker all at the same time.

"Garrett was always very picky about lineups. He doesn't want to play with a bunch of tough pros," Feldman said. "I had to constantly figure out how do I please those players and Garrett. That was always a constant juggling act--to make him happy and have a suitable lineup. The truth is, he was the star that drew the viewers.”

The vast majority of stream insiders understand that HCL is a live-streamed poker game in a licensed casino, but it’s organized like a private home game. It’s not first come, first serve for a seat at the table, like most casino games. Often, Feldman conceded to Adelstein's wishes for the good of the show.

That began to change following the J4 debacle, Feldman explained, and he revealed how players reacted to Adelstein’s lineup preferences. 

“Number one: Garrett is really good. He's won a lot of money,” Feldman said. “Number two: after how he handled the J4 hand situation with Robbi Lew, a lot of players got a bad taste in their mouths. The combination of those two things turned a lot of players off. Many have come to (HCL) stating they never wanted to play with Garrett again. When that happened, it was really hard for me to put games together for Garrett that fit his criteria.”

Feldman, known as a savvy businessman, grappled with the Catch-22 for clicks and views. In reality, most players also knew the score, because they too benefited from the overwhelming popularity of the show; many were happy to take a seat regardless, with no complaints. But eventually, blocked or otherwise dissatisfied players began to speak up as the lineup manipulation by Adelstein and Feldman wore thin.

Eventually, the chips hit the fan. Over the past week, players -- both past and current participants on the HCL stream -- began to express their candid opinions on Twitter and during interviews.

Nikhal ‘Nik Airball’ Arcot, a boisterous and tricky player people love to hate, was among the loudest voices stoking the controversy on Twitter.

When reached by PokerOrg, Arcot said, “I see a lot of people saying online it’s Ryan's fault regarding the stacked soft lineups. I don't think it's that simple. Garrett had a lot of power, and a ton of leverage as the star to get the most advantageous spot on the show. You have to remember: Ryan is running the game. It's a business. And he wants to give the fans what they want to see.”

Responding to the suggestion Adelestein was simply game-selecting at a high level, Arcot said Adelstein went too far.

“Yes, it’s well within Garrett’s rights to want to block some players from the stream,” Arcot said. “I said that exact statement last week on Doug Polk’s podcast. But eventually, the player pool is gonna get tired of being treated like a piece of meat--as Garrett’s buffet. And when that happens, it’s a catalyst. The players are going to speak up. Eventually, many of them told Ryan they don't want to play with Garrett."

Body count: HCL victims or collateral damage?

Two-time World Poker Tour champion, Art Papazyan, is a highly-respected professional regular on Los Angeles poker streams. Conventional wisdom named Papazyan as one of top pros who were consistently blocked by Adelstein and Feldman from playing in the HCL games.

“I’ve done some deep soul-searching recently,” Papazyan said. “I’d rather do what I feel is morally right as opposed to taking the route that makes me rich. I think it would be disingenuous to say that Gman (Adelstein) is the sole reason I haven’t been invited to play the streamed HCL games over the last couple of years. Yes, he is a part of it, but it’s not entirely his decision. Gman hasn’t played in six months, and I still get rejected weekly by Ryan for a seat.” 

WPT Rockstar Cash Game Season 2017-2018 Joe Giron/www.pokerphotoarchive.com

Papazyan also declined to pile on the criticism of Adelstein from a number of high-stakes regulars and poker fans. 

“I decline to publicly execute Garrett,” said Papazyan. “I don’t even blame him for using his fame to maximize his win rate. Is he fake? Yes. Is he a cornball? Yeah. But the audience for one reason or another likes him, and he rode that fame to an easy seven-figure win. It’s my fault for not using the audience I built to propel me to get invites into juicy games. It’s not Garrett’s fault that Ryan doesn’t see any stream appeal in me.” 

PokerOrg talked with Lynne Ji, a popular player on the Los Angeles live-stream poker scene. She said Adelstein blocked her from a seat on Live at the Bike.

“I’d been told that I had a last-minute seat for the Live at the Bike stream,” Ji said. “I showed up and everyone seemed happy to see me except for Garrett, who quickly informed me that I wouldn’t be allowed to play. I fought back but ultimately lost my seat. I think what rubbed me the wrong way was his insincerity. He’d always been friendly to my face but didn’t think twice about blocking me from playing when it served him to do so.”

Adelstein: Sniper or scapeGOAT?

As a private company running a private game, HCL is under no obligation to offer anyone a seat. Those who are conscious of that fact have started to see the entire spectacle as a referendum on either Adelstein or the business he chose.

“I play for fun,” said Ben Lee. “But it’s not my job. I would never play consistently against these pros. Only a stupid person would. But I love a challenge versus a player who is a good sport. That’s not Garrett. He’s a sniper. He’s selfish and cynical. If I lose to him, it’s standard. But if I beat him, will he say I cheated? Perhaps demand the money back? None of us know at this point.”

Doug Polk, a three-time WSOP bracelet winner, UpSwingPoker founder, and a popular YouTube poker personality, approached the conversation from the perspective of both a businessman and someone who has competed against Adelstein.        

“I know he’s rubbed a lot of people the wrong way,” Polk said. “He’s a good player, and he definitely makes sure he has an edge in the games he plays. But from my experience, he’s been a very upstanding guy. I don’t know him on a personal level, and can’t comment on the accusations he’s fake, et cetera. What I can say, in everything I've seen from him over the years, he’s always conducted himself very professionally.”

Longtime high-stakes star, SolveForWhy founder, and popular podcaster Matt Berkey spent hours covering every detail surrounding the hand between Adelstein and Robbi Jade Lew. 

“Garrett and I have a very cordial working relationship,” said Berkey. “He’s always been kind to me on and off the felt. Make no mistake: he plays poker because it's his livelihood and he prioritizes that over everything. I think a lot of the backlash, however, is scapegoating. He hasn't been on HCL ‘controlling lineups’ for months, yet everyone (aside from Nik Airball) is complaining he blocked them from playing, but still has no seat.”

Garrett Adelstein decides to tweet...then talk

Over the weekend, Adelstein posted a long statement about the nature of high-stakes cash games and streams in Los Angeles. 

“There is a finite amount of money to be made in any micro industry within poker, especially the cutthroat high-stakes Los Angeles ecosystem,” tweeted Adelstein. “Anyone who is profitable (or even trying to minimize their losses) in that ecosystem sees me as competition.

He responded to the allegations that he had assisted in putting together Los Angeles streamed games to his advantage.

“Yes, I have worked together with stream game builders to put together profitable and sustainable games,” wrote Adelstein. “I am at peace in doing so. These soft games are mutually beneficial to all parties, aside from the pros who can’t get into said games.”

“No, I did not control lineups,” shared Adelstein. “I assure you they would have looked much different if I did.”

PokerOrg sources said that even Adelstein was blocked from some high-profile juicy games on HCL. When Alan Keating (a noted action player) came to Los Angeles, Adelstein couldn't get a seat due to a request to HCL from Keating. Adelstein verified during his Twitter storm that this was 100% true.

“Why do you think I was always shut out of any Alan Keating game? With the crazy way Keating plays, he was able to leverage me out of those lineups. Alan is a cool and savvy businessman and I never took it personally.”

“High stakes live poker is a bloodsport played for mind-boggling amounts of money’ concluded Adelstein. “I often reflect on if I’m cut out for that world anymore, especially the politics. But I still love the game. And I suspect I’ll be back in some form soon enough.”

As it happened, Adelstein opted for a Monday public appearance on Doug Polk's podcast, but not before providing his exclusive first interview with PokerOrg .