Lee Jones: From chaos to redemption: the High Stakes Poker season 11 premiere

Lee Jones poker writer
Lee Jones
Posted on: April 30, 2023 04:12 PDT

The poker community is currently experiencing a war of insults fired among some of its most respected and recognized leaders. That war, like World War I – partially triggered by a single mad assassin – has been caused mostly by a handful of new and directionless berserkers.

So it was with more than a little trepidation that I sat down to watch the premiere of High Stakes Poker season 11. Apparently, PokerGo asked themselves the question, "What would happen if we put the warring leaders and the directionless berserkers all together at a poker table?"

Their answer was, "Who knows? Let's try it."

The result – at least initially – was unwatchable, according to almost everybody in the poker world:

I won't go into it further, because my friend and editor, Brad Willis, summarized the entire show far more eloquently than I ever could. But partially because I am addicted to poker content, partially because it was my job, and partially because I hoped for some redemption somewhere, I stuck with it.

As it turned out, there were a number of highlights to take away. As to redemption, stand by...

Matt Berkey rises above the fray

The primary "beef" narrative behind the show was, "Everybody hates Matt Berkey."

Berkey is well-known as a high-stakes cash player and, more recently, the founder of a poker training site called Solve 4 Why. I come here not to discuss that narrative or its origins, but it was the elephant in the room as the stream kicked off. As it often does, the Universe got the first laugh by randomly seating Berkey immediately between his two primary tormentors – Doug Polk and Nik Airball.

As the cacophony began and crescendoed to "unlistenable," Berkey channeled his fellow Las Vegan, the magician Teller, and was completely silent. He won pots, he lost pots (including a monster to Airball), but he never said a word. He didn't respond to insults, he didn't deal insults of his own – he simply played his game, including quickly doubling through Jennifer Tilly to regain the chips he'd lost to Airball. Unlike Airball, however, he was a consummate professional about both losses and wins – no tantrums, but no celebrations either.

In the early doors of this eight-hour marathon, Matt Berkey set a standard for poise and class and gave one hope that we'd see a glimpse of the HSP that we'd loved all those years ago, in the naïve days before Black Friday.

Jennifer Tilly's redundant tiara

By way of transparency, I need to say that I have adored Jennifer Tilly since she first appeared on the poker scene some 20 years ago. I've met her a couple of times and immediately knew that I was in the presence of enormous intelligence, depth, and wit. That she ended up in an enduring relationship with one of poker's cleverest oddballs (savant is marginally too strong) – Phil Laak – speaks volumes about both of them.

So when Tilly appeared on the set attired for a formal winter wedding (or funeral), wearing a tiara that said, "THE INSTIGATOR OF CHAOS," I was content. That would have been enough, but she brought along a Chucky doll to be her familiar. Then placed a $5,000 "flag" chip in its hand (yes, it was in play). Ironically, an instigator of chaos arriving at this poker game was carrying coals to Newcastle, so Tilly immediately found her proper role. She was fun and talkative, but appropriately so. She was the guest that everybody wants at the party and the player that High Stakes Poker desperately needed. It is absurd to suggest that she learned her role from watching Phil Laak on HSP over a decade ago. She was simply carrying the baton into the modern era.

Jennifer Tilly doesn't need a tiara for us to know that she is truly a queen of the game.

Andrew Robl - the ghost of HSP past

Casino owner and nosebleed poker stalwart Rob Yong had been playing in the game but announced that he was leaving to go hang out with Andrew Robl. And sure enough, into the studio walked the legend himself.

Suddenly, all of us of a certain age were blasted back to the early days of late-night poker TV – Poker After Dark and High Stakes Poker 1.0. When the old-school gamblers such as Doyle Brunson, Barry Greenstein, and Phil Ivey were taking on the online-weaned upstarts such as Patrick Antonius. And Andrew Robl.

Robl parlayed his millions in online and live poker winnings into bigger, more lucrative investments, he sat down and played a couple of hands off of Yong's chip stack. There was faux outrage at somebody else playing Yong's stack. There was joking about what would happen if Robl dusted it off. But the fact is that everybody in the room, everybody watching, and everybody in the poker community knows that if there's a high-stakes poker game going on and Andrew Robl would like to sit down, you pull out a chair.

It was damn fine to see him at the table, even for just two hands.

Jean-Robert Bellande silences Nik Airball

Jean-Robert Bellande, better known as "JRB" in the community, has been a high-stakes player and game organizer going back to my first days in the poker industry. I recall meeting him in the Bahamas in 2005, so that's at least 18 years of serious professional play right there. He was having a rough game and was seriously stuck, with little time to recover.

As we were getting to the last hands of the night, Airball woke up with aces. I say "woke up" in the most figurative sense, because he was barely coherent, having consumed a meaningful percentage of the Aria Hotel's pinot noir supply. But somehow – it may have had something to do with how much he was going to pay a masseuse – he managed to raise to $25k over a $1600 straddle. Just your typical 15x open.

Whether Nik very carefully leveraged his drunk image (as Nick Schulman and Brent Hanks, in the commentary booth, suspected) or it was just dumb luck, JRB fell for it and shoved his $148k stack into the middle with pocket sixes. Nik gleefully flipped over his cards and called.

It was just an exclamation point on a game in which Airball had hit every card he needed when he needed it, and JRB could never catch a break.

After a brief exchange, they decided to run out only one board.

Did the Universe wink? Did Chucky, relegated to the credenza behind Tilly, giggle? We'll never know, but a beastly 6♦️️ was in the window as the dealer began to spread out the flop. And finally – finally, for the first time in almost eight hours – Nik Airball was silent.

Look at Tilly and Eric Persson, enjoying the reversal of fortune. Nik Airball, half-falling over the table in disbelief. But JRB? It's the face of a man who's won and lost tens of millions of dollars on the turn of a card here and there. It is another poker hand in an infinite series, and he'll have forgotten this particular one by breakfast.

The rest of the board ran out clean, Nik Airball's profit evaporated, and JRB was, if not whole, far less damaged.

The queen and the berserker

Watching the old scarred warrior find a 19% needle in the haystack, I thought I had found a little redemption. But the play was not over. The curtain had not come down yet.

The combination of the alcohol and JRB's set of sixes had Nik Airball on near-90° tilt. And he was yelling and laughing at Berkey, drowning out JRB as he attempted to answer Berkey's prompt to tell his origin story.

Now children – and Landon Tice, I'm looking at you – one of the greatest blessings of any community is the campfire stories told by its elders. Because poker is full of such colorful, shady, and glorious characters, our campfire stories are among the best. And JRB's origin story – of spinning a marginal bankroll up into professional and real-world comfort in a single poker marathon – is a corker.

But no matter to Airball who was determined to have the attention and cameras on him. Somehow, we eventually managed to get an abbreviated, broken-up version of JRB's story. But Jean-Robert, if you're reading this – drop me a note. I would be happy to buy you a nice dinner (even by your standards) to get the unabridged version of that tale.

But the Universe wanted a further word with Nik Airball. Literally the last hand of the night, Tilly min-raised her pocket jacks to $3200. Airball called with A❤️2♠️, as did two others. The flop came J♠️-9♠️-5♠️, giving Jennifer top set and Nik, well, a 2-high one-card flush draw. Nik led for $400 (they have a discussion about whether he can make such a small bet). Jennifer decided that she doesn't much care what the minimum bet is, because it was now $7,000 to go.

The action quickly folded back to Nik, who made a speech and called. Recall that this is literally the last pot being played, and as the hand is unfolding, the other players are racking their chips and leaving the table.

But the whole poker world tuned into PokerGo isn't moving a muscle.

The turn is a meaningless Q❤️. Airball checked, and Jennifer slid out three flags – $15k. Before she'd lifted her fingers from the chips, Airball said, "Fifty thousand."

Hanks and Schulman in the booth were both shocked and a bit awed by the chutzpah.

At the table, Airball started talking. And as the inebriated are sometimes wont to do, he turned sappy. He talked about how he dreamed of playing with JRB and Jennifer Tilly. How – win, lose, or draw – he's a happy man, and...

He was in mid-soliloquy when Jennifer ripped her $157k stack in his face.

JRB wounded him, but Jennifer Tilly, in her mourning attire, delivered the coup de grace.

Astonishingly, or maybe not, Airball didn't immediately fold. He talked to Tilly, trying to get some kind of read – perhaps in his alcoholic haze, he'd forgotten that she's a professional actor. He offers to chop the pot with her. She ignored him. He splasheed his chips all over, covering his cards.

Then he threw the 2♠️ face-up toward the dealer. This could have caused an awful incident as Tilly could have easily claimed that was a fold. Anybody conversant in poker actions would agree. But even Airball realized he'd crossed a line and said, "I'm not folding!" Whether that would have withstood a floor ruling, we'll never know.

But with nobody around to provide conversation and the severity of his situation coming into semi-focus, Airball deflated. He tried to engage Tilly, but she was regal, motionless, and silent.

From a poker strategy perspective, this hand could have been over long before. If Tilly had a made flush, Airball was stone dead. If she had a hand such as A♦️️Q♠️ or A♠️J♣️, he was stone dead. In fact, he had decent (18%) equity, but he couldn't know that, and it's unreasonable – even by his standards – to think he did.

As I watched, I don't know if I wanted him to call or not. Part of me wanted to see him give Jennifer a full double-up. But 18% is not zero, and nothing would be more agonizing than seeing a random spade fall on the river and wipe out her stack. So yeah, I was fine with how it ended.

Was he seriously considering a call, was he basking in the knowledge that the entire poker world had its focus on him, or was he simply in some fugue state? There's no telling how long it might have gone on had Doug Polk not called the clock on him. But Polk did indeed call the clock, and as the seconds ticked down, Airball surrendered, figuratively and literally.

"Fold," he said, face in his hands.

The berserker was vanquished, the queen triumphant.

If that's not a redemption story, I don't know what is.

Feature image courtesy PokerGO