Behind the scenes of the HCL $1 million game

Craig Tapscott
Posted on: May 29, 2023 03:52 PDT

I arrived at the Hustler Casino Live’s (HCL) $1,000,000 buy-in cash game early on Day 1, the first of what had been hyped as five consecutive days of must-see nosebleed TV. 

I took a moment to scan through my Android as I watched the production crew hustle to set the stage. The haters on Twitter already hated the show, and the curtain hadn’t even risen. 

I wasn’t surprised. Tap, tap, tapping, 280 bitter characters or less per post. Rubberneckers on a highway will always slow down and look, so at least the haters on YouTube were watching.

As for myself, I was bloodthirsty for trash talk, smackdowns, and a ton of fun poker action. Why not? I’d become accustomed to that on the high-roller Friday nights at HCL.  

This $1 million game had been billed as historic, monumental, and even record-setting. 

I wanted the hype to be real, contrary to the haters hating for hate’s sake.

Here's what one of the show's creators had to say just before the game began.

The usual suspects and special guests

At the outset of the day, I understood that the main storyline for these few days was the poker, as always. A game most of us love, perhaps a little too much. But you have to admit, the cast of characters for Day 1 was pretty epic. 

The lineup included the OG poker villain "Tony G," the usual HCL suspects “Blank Check Ben” and “Prince Charles” with special guests Jean-Robert Bellande, entrepreneur Brandon Steven, Door Dash founder Stanley Tang, wildcard casino owner Rob Yong, and a last-minute addition to the party, the enigmatic Alan Keating.  

Norman Chad put it eloquently. Click on the video below to watch.

On the sidelines and equally entertaining were the hostess and host of the stream, Veronica “Angry_Polak” Brill and Joey Ingram. Throw into the mix HCL co-founder Nick “Nitucci” Vertucci, and bada bing, bada boom, you have a cast yanked straight out of a Francis Ford Coppola poker movie. 

So, yeah. I had high expectations.

A personal wish list

I wanted to see multi-million-dollar pots bounding around the table like a shiny pinball smashing frenetically against rubber bumpers. 

That’s action.

That didn’t seem like too big of an ask. It was an obscenely deep-stacked game.

Commentator Bart Hanson told me he was hoping for the same.

But what actually occurred on day one was only one $1M+ pot. And it was chopped between Ben Lee and Tony Guoga. 

Contrary to popular opinion no one likes a chopped pot.

Next on my list: watching at least one mega-tilted player punt $1MM, seeing someone chug one-too-many chardonnays, and hearing anybody engage in rambling, nonsensical table talk. 

I saw none of that. 

Maybe that's because Nik “Airball” Arcot wasn’t in the lineup for day one (I kid--sort of), because he definitely would’ve thrown a welcome monkey wrench into the fray, Versace shorts and all. 

Was I disappointed overall? A little. 

Surprised? Not at all.

That’s poker. 

But let’s get real. 

That’s what most casino poker games look like any other day of the week. 

Pretty boring. 

The late Poker Hall of Famer and legendary WPT commentator Mike Sexton once said, “Poker is hours of sheer boredom mixed with a few minutes of ultimate terror." 

So, the first day of the big game poker as usual. A little boring, very little terror, and still highly entertaining if you’re a true-blue fan of the game.

Andy Stacks watched it all and said it best the next day. 

The $1M cash game so far

A record 41,000 plus fans were watching at its peak.

On Day 1, the show had 41,000+ fans watching at one time and a whopping $8.5 million on the table. Charles, Ben Lee, and Brandon Steven were the big winners. Rob Yong and Alan Keating were the two biggest losers. Poker Twitter’s responses were once again mixed but predominantly leaned toward people calling the show boring and asking why the top cash game crushers such as Phil Ivey or Andrew Robl weren't in the game.

Blah. Blah. Tweet. Tweet. Why care? Why watch? WTF?

By Day 2, haters had more ammunition to spew when producer Ryan Feldman felt compelled to lower the buy-in to $500K to accommodate a well-known and beloved action player – Aussie Matt. 

Nevertheless, Day 2 didn’t disappoint. Not for a second. Nor did Aussie Matt who entertained the table from start to finish and walked away chipless. 

Jean-Robert Bellande got stuck early, and stuck deep. Ben Lee flipped the switch from being one of Day 1's biggest winners to one of the biggest overall losers. Charles followed suit by losing close to $1M.

Bellande eventually turned things around and built a $494K profit, not far behind the session’s biggest winner, newcomer Huss, who took home $651K. 

Tony G also walked away healthy with a $313K profit for the evening, and Rob Yong closed the night a modest winner.

And finally, HCL’s answer to WWE’s Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and the Undertaker combined, Nik Airball joined the table after pacing in the wings itching to play. 

Day 3 brought the confrontation everyone had been dreaming about when Airball cracked Tony Gs pocket aces with 10♦️️9♦️️ after check-raising his draw on the flop and making a straight on the turn. It was a $690K pot. 

As Tony folded the turn to a massive Airball bet, he walked away from the table mumbling, “I quit. That was a set-up hand. I quit.” 

Airball had probably been waiting for this moment all of his poker life. As Tony G walked away from the table, Airball cackled, “On your bike, Tony. You and your aces!”

Guoga didn’t look back.

Watch it below.

My advice: watch the whole show from start to finish. Rising high-stakes star Rampage eventually joins the game as does fan favorite Handz, a ferocious and entertaining player. 

The reality: this has been a good show

The scattered HCL haters on Twitter lambasted Day 1, hated the lineup of players, hated the uncooperating cooler-less deck, and hated it all so much… that they watched all twelve hours. 

Let’s say that another way: Haters be hating, but haters be watching.

I put that in the plus column for the show’s creators, Nick Vertucci and Ryan Feldman.

“Here's the thing: you're never going to please everyone,” shared Vertucci. “What we're trying to do is put on the greatest poker show in history. I think we're doing it. I think we’re making the majority of people happy. We're giving you free poker. And I think this $1MM game is historic.”

Hustler Casino Live has exploded globally and brought more fans to watch poker five days a week than any stream that’s come before. 

They’ve spawned high-quality competitors such as Doug Polk’s Lodge Card Club in Texas and the return of a new and improved Poker Night in America at Studio 52 in Las Vegas. 

That’s good for the game. Good for the players. And good for the fans. 

This year could easily be a record-breaking year at the WSOP Main Event. You have to give credit where credit is due. The popular streams have created a new fervor for poker, one we’ve not seen since the dark days post-Black Friday.

Sure, HCL has had its share of ups and downs, some if which have been pretty damn serious. (Believe me. I’m not watching with rose-colored glasses). But the show has weathered the storms, made improvements, and grown a bigger audience along the way, haters or no haters.

“I will tell you this,” said Vertucci. “The haters on Twitter are also views. The people that push back are talking about the show. And that's okay. We’ll take it.”