PokerGO might have just saved televised poker

Brad Willis
Posted on: April 27, 2023 21:55 PDT

Sixty hours ago, I learned that PokerGO had said yes. 

I’ll be honest: I didn’t expect a yes. PokerGO’s people had assembled what amounted to every media company’s dream cash game line-up. Beyond that accomplishment, PokerGO controls the High Stakes Poker brand, and one could argue there isn’t a going concern in the poker world with a more venerable legacy. You don’t even have to be as old as me to remember when HSP featured the likes of poker’s most respected veterans. When I think of High Stakes Poker, I think of Phil Ivey’s eyes and Doyle Brunson’s drawl, and if you know what I mean by that, you know what I think about that show. 

So, not only had PokerGO convinced some of the most famous and infamous modern players to sit at the same table, and not only was PokerGO able to put them all together playing with a minimum $100,000 buy-in, PokerGO had also decided to do something that had never been done in the show’s history: PokerGO was going to do the show live. 

A hundred years from now, poker players will wonder why live merited an italic type-setting, but today, anyone over the age of, say, 30 years old will understand that it’s only been in the last few years that production teams began to perfect the art of producing almost-live poker for a mass audience. For those future readers who will know nothing different, we called these things “live streams” back in the 2020s, and they were all the rage in the years after we emerged from that pandemic your grandparents told you about.

That’s all a discussion for another time. The point is this: 

PokerGO could have–maybe should have–said, “Oh, hell, no” to our request to be a fly on the wall in the PokerGO studios during a live broadcast of the game’s most respected show. 

Because…that’s what almost every production company in the history of poker has done. That industry cloistered itself, protected itself from outside scrutiny, and kept itself safe from any predators who might have designs on being the next big thing in poker. 

So, 60 hours ago, I learned PokerGO wasn’t playing things safe. It was going boldly where it had never gone before, and it was willing to succeed or fail with PokerOrg watching. 

I’ve spent the last 21 hours working to report on that grand experiment, and it might be the hallucinations that are starting to set in, but I think PokerGO–by design or by accident–might have just saved poker.

And I feel almost certain if you’ve read this far that I don’t mean what you think I mean.

The rules of live poker televison

As a veteran of live television, I recall the first two lessons I learned from the people who came before me. The best in the business explained how I could avoid sure peril when working without a net–or, if you will, a 90-minute Gaming Commission-mandated delay.

Lesson #1: Never eat on live TV. The mouth is a fickle part of your body, and you never know when it will turn against you.

Lesson #2: Never do a live broadcast with a live animal. Animals are more fickle than your mouth, and those TV lights will turn animals into something you don’t understand. 

My TV mentors didn’t know from poker, so when they talked of animals, they thought of casual predators and calm mammals and not the genus Fuscinae Ludicrosus, or whatever you would call the modern predatory mammal known as a “poker player.”

PokerGO knows these things. The people behind the scenes there are veterans of the industry. Some are younger than me, and some are older than me, but none of them are naive. They knew they were onto something because they had somehow managed to convince a collection of people who seem to legitimately loathe each other to go on live TV and play for meaningful money for no greater compensation than what they might win and the fame or infamy they might earn from the delicate proceedings. 

But really, the PokerGO folks were purposefully breaking the second rule of live television. They were doing a live broadcast with live animals. And they were doing it on purpose. 

I haven’t asked them directly, but I’d put down a small wager that less than 90 minutes into the nearly-eight-hour broadcast, there were important people in the PokerGO offices who were wiping sweat from places on their bodies that they didn’t know could sweat. 

Because…well, because live animals, man. 

High Stakes Cackle-Fest

If you watched any of the stream–especially–the first couple of hours, you know. 

You would be hard-pressed to find many if any production people in the world who are more versed at doing poker TV, and even those pros were struggling to control the personalities at the table. 

It wasn’t just the fact that the entire live stream had been purposefully created to capitalize on the conflict and sometimes toxic nature of modern poker. It was more that many of the players in the lineup came in knowing that the conflict was part of the show, and whether by design or by accident, many of them decided that conflict was pretty damned hilarious. Or so uncomfortable that you had to laugh. Loudly. Or both. Or whatever. 

There is no accounting for live animals on television. The rescue dog is always going to hump the morning TV anchors’ leg, and the marmot at the zoo is always going to try to bury itself in the undercarriage of a well-meaning field reporter. A poker personality is always going to rise to the occasion, and when the occasion is as big as High Stakes Poker’s first-ever live steam, a poker personality is going to rise like it had snorted a cocktail of baker’s yeast and Cialis. 

Don’t blame me. It’s science. 

And so, the internet did what the internet does: it took every unbelievable accomplishment PokerGo had achieved and said, “This sucks! This free thing sucks! Stop giving me free things that suck!”

More than 13,000 people stuck around during that experience. I was one of the ones who was there for the entire thing. And despite what you might have thought by everything I’ve written up to this point, I had one simultaneously cacophonous and clear thought about the first hours of the stream. That thought was: “This sucks. This free thing sucks. Stop giving me free things that suck.” 

Or, as I told my wife when she came home late from work and asked how it was going: “It’s an absolute shitshow. And we still have six hours to go.”

"Buy the ticket, take the ride"

Here’s the thing: I signed up for this gig. I wanted PokerOrg to have insider access at this thing because I knew it was all that the poker world would be talking about today. What’s more, I was a huge advocate within the PokerOrg staff for dedicating as much of our bandwidth as we could to covering the effort. 

And why wouldn’t I? 

It should come as no surprise to you that in the seven months I’ve been Editor-In-Chief at PokerOrg, we’ve received some of our best traffic and engagement with content that included the likes of Doug Polk, Matt Berkey, Eric Persson, or the guy they call Airball. I can’t say that I necessarily like that we’ve been successful in that way, but in my pre-poker days, I didn’t like that I covered murder, mayhem, and political scandal. It’s the nature of the business. I took this job with the intention of covering poker in a new way, but even with that goal, there is no ignoring the most influential and/or controversial people in the business.

So, regardless of all the things you will see, hear, and read about the loudness, the laughing, the oneupmanship, and such, I’d bought the ticket, and I was taking the ride. 

I hoped for poker, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t see a glimmer of it peaking through from time to time. I hope for something quieter, and I’ll be damned if the seemingly meaningless cackling didn’t abate. Maybe that was the adrenaline wearing off in the studio, or maybe it was a guiding word from the production team. Regardless, the show got better as the night went on. 

Jean-Robert Bellande brought an unexpected calming nuance to the game. Rob Yong somehow seemed served to diffuse the focus on the myriad beefs Matt Berkey had with the crew assembled to hate on him. Jen Tilly provided something almost magical, a combination of grace and mischief that was as royal as her tiara (emblazoned with the words “Instigator of Chaos”). 

Matt Berkey was measured and mature. Doug Polk dialed back his recent vitriol and played his game. Eric Persson, though a bit loud in the early going and accused of having some crazy eyes for a bit, never seemed to get out of line in any way that I’d consider objectionable.


Well, you remember the marmot and the field reporter, right? Imagine if you gave that marmot a bathtub of wine and the atavistic nature of a mammal brought up to believe studio lights were the modern hand of God. 

No shade on Airball, though. He accomplished something no one else in the poker world has been able to do this year. 

He made every other person at that table seem, by comparison, to be a reasonable and mature human being. 

That’s no small feat. 

So, you wanna be a poker fan...

You will hear a lot in the coming hours and days about whether this High Stakes Poker attempt at a live stream was good, or good for poker, or anything we want to see again. Come to your own conclusion about what you want to do with the free stuff on the internet. 

For the limited amount of worth it has, here’s my take:

Yes, for those first couple of hours, the stream was nearly unbearable. It was a loud circus of not-poker. 

But, like a lot of poker games, the game settled in as best it could, and we saw some poker. And some personality.

Was it the best poker?

It was not.

Were they the best personalities?

I’m not sure my opinion on that matters. 

Was it the High Stakes Poker I remember? 

Not so much.

Was it important?

Hell yes, it was.

Here’s why: 

PokerGO had the courage to take its most-trusted brand and use it to highlight–say it with me–what the market wants.

That’s right. It doesn’t matter if you or I or Doyle wants the reality show beefs, grudge matches, and live animals on TV. Individually, we can stand on our own soap boxes and feel very superior. But none of what we say matters when our feelings compete with what the market wants.

Listen: it’s been very clear what the market wants. The market wants a cheating scandal. The market wants a popcorn GIF. The market wants toad-poison licking. The market wants Berkey and Airball nose-to-Adam’s Apple in Bobby’s Room. The market wants what every market has wanted since Russell Crowe fought in the Colesseum and Joey Ingram got locked in.

But, here’s another axiom: markets change, and that’s why I believe this High Stakes Poker stream could end up being an inflection point for the game we all love. 

A little more than 12 hours ago, High Stakes Poker gave the market everything it wanted in spades, and the reaction was something akin to Seinfeld’s Kramer finally seeing a reflection of himself after smoking too many cigars. Put another way, there was a collective scream that was somehow louder than the laughing in the first two hours of the HSP stream. That scream said, “Do. Not. Want!”

The post-mortem will take a long time. Poker fans and, yes, The Market, will probably spend an undue amount of time talking about Airball chugging Pinot, belching in the general direction of Queen Tilly (Long May She Reign), and his tantrum about wanting to play bigger while almost simultaneously–and literally–burying his hole cards under a scatter of unstacked chips.

Sure, Airball's performance is worth talking about, and maybe we’ll all talk about it so long that we forget that, for a period of a few hours, we DID NOT WANT. And if so, there’s a pretty good chance we’ll be doing this again in a month or so. 

But there is a part of me that desperately wants to believe that something good happened tonight. I want to believe that we all saw what we didn’t want to be and that by seeing that, we might be in some way better. 

I admire PokerGO and its people for last night’s experiment. It was a worthy one, and it confirms everything I believe about the people who work to make that company what it is. I feel certain PokerGO will protect the High Stakes Poker we have always loved. I don’t even blame the PokerGO folks for breaking the second rule of live television. All of it was worth doing. 

Put another way: if I were PokerGO, I would keep doing what it’s doing: give the market what it wants. 

And the rest of us? Well, I’d suggest it’s up to us to stop washing the drama popcorn down with the Kool-Aid we’ve been drinking for a little too long and act like people who actually have a choice about what kind of content they support. 

Because here’s the thing: as long as we keep acting like we want to listen to the noise, the louder the noise is going to get, and eventually we’ll hear nothing but the sound of wild animals who insist on raising the blinds in between their Pinot belches. 

And we’ll deserve it. 

For a full recap of our live behind-the-scenes stream, check out the PokerOrg Instant Live feed from High Stakes Poker.