Mori Eskandani: New season of High Stakes Poker the most "thrilling" yet

Mo Afdhal
Posted on: February 17, 2024 01:57 PST

High Stakes Poker is back! Season 12 of the much-loved show returns to PokerGO on Monday, with old-school legend Phil Laak returning to the HSP felt for the first time in 13 years. There's one man who's been there from the start. Legendary producer and Poker Hall of Fame inducteeMoriEskandani bucked the trend for televised tournaments when he brought High Stakes Poker to our screens for the first time back in 2006. We spoke to him to find out why the show has been such a huge and enduring success, and what you can expect in Season 12.

PokerOrg: There's a great quote from Antonio Esfandiari about High Stakes Poker getting started. He said:"Mori, the producer, called me before its inception and asked me what I thought about a TV cash game – I told him I did not think it would work. Boy, was I wrong! To this day I still think it's the most-liked TV poker show because it is so real." 

It shows how revolutionary the concept of HSP was back in the day. Why did you think it would work when others, like Antonio, didn’t?

Mori Eskandani: At the time, I had 25 years of experience playing high-stakes cash games. I had seen and gone through the emotional ups and downs that come as a result of winning and losing substantial amounts of money with each hand. These emotions range from devastation to hilarity to jubilation and everything in between, and that is exactly what sells on TV. That's what made me such a believer that a show like HighStakesPoker could work.

People love drama, and few things offer greater drama than a high-stakes poker cash game.

Antonio Esfandiari and Mori Eskandani teamed up for Season 1

It seems that the cast of that first season, and each subsequent season, had a huge impact on why the show was so special. How did you select the cast for the first season of HSP? 

ME: If you can believe it, putting together the cast for the first season was easier than might have been expected. Having played with most of the players for years and getting to know them well, I became very familiar with their personalities, antics, and skill levels. I was confident in what we could expect from the quality of the shows that would be produced once we got these players into their seats.

Tom Dwan said he found HSP, "Really fun. It had a fun atmosphere." How important is the atmosphere on set to the show and how do you maintain that through all of these years?

ME: From the start, we knew what we wanted to create with HighStakesPoker, and having the right atmosphere was always a big part of that and ultimately an integral part of the show's success. We believed, and still believe, that the atmosphere is an extension of the cast. If we can put together the right mix of players, then the right atmosphere will follow. Of course, it always helps when the players have colorful personalities, are not camera shy, and provide action in the game, so it benefitted us to target those player types from the start.

What's your single favorite moment from HSP?

ME: Wow, there have been so many tremendously memorable moments on HighStakesPoker, especially when you're working on the production side and see it all. My favorite moment came away from the felt back when we were still filming HighStakesPoker at the Golden Nugget in Downtown Las Vegas. We had just wrapped up shooting a special feature with Tom Dwan, who had become one of the biggest stars in poker, especially on the high-stakes cash game scene. He had left a backpack filled with a million dollars in cash and chips in a back alleyway of the Golden Nugget. After shooting the feature, we realized that the backpack was left behind. Frantically, we went racing back to the alleyway to recover it, and, thankfully, the backpack was sitting in the alleyway next to a dumpster. Now that was a rush!

The cast has changed a lot over the course of the show – for obvious reasons. How do you balance the show today with the new generation of player influencers getting so many headlines?

ME: At its core, HighStakesPoker remains poker's most iconic cash game show, but there have certainly been changes over the years, such as with the cast of players. People get older, maybe they don't play high-stakes games as much, and there are always new players coming up the ranks. Even I've fallen victim to getting older in the sense that picking the right cast of players is something that has passed me by.

Mori Eskandani, Phil Hellmuth Mori Eskandani, Phil Hellmuth Melissa Haereiti

Fortunately, I'm able to lean on our younger team at PokerGO to keep things humming along while also maintaining the foundational pieces of High Stakes Poker that built the show into what it is. Most specifically, we rely heavily on Brent Hanks, PokerGO's Director of Programming, to put the lineups together and build out the shows. Brent is very much engaged with today's high-stakes poker community and is incredible at having his finger on the pulse. Brent fully understands what High Stakes Poker is at its core, while also having the right vision to continue to guide the show forward.

Looking back, what did you think of the HSP livestream? Do you think you'll do it again?

ME: In a general sense, I've always leaned away from livestreaming cash games throughout my career. I've felt that tournaments do better in a live format and cash games do better when edited into episodes. That said, it's important to remain open to trying new things, which is exactly what we did when we aired HighStakesPoker live. Did it work? Some would say that it did and some would say that it didn't. If we did it again, there are without a doubt things we'd look to improve, and maybe we don't ever do another version of HighStakesPoker live. Either way, I'm pleased that we took the leap and tried it out.

Can you share a secret no one else knows about the new season of HSP?  

ME: Without any exaggeration, Season 12 has the most thrilling poker action of any HighStakesPoker season ever. Period. Having been there for them all and seen all of the excitement in the past, that's saying something. Viewers should have the popcorn ready and buckle up because Season 12 is going to be exhilarating.

High Stakes Poker Season 12 airs Monday 8:00pm ET on PokerGO.