High Stakes Poker proves PokerGO worthy of the price of admission

Mo Afdhal
Posted on: August 30, 2023 09:18 PDT

PokerGO's paywalled content is a wedge issue in the poker community. It's a polarizing dividing line that not too long ago stirred up opinions and debate online following PokerGO's streamed coverage of the 2023 World Series of Poker Main Event.

There are some who are willing to pony up for the monthly, quarterly, or yearly subscriptions the platform offers. This side of the aisle either doesn't concern itself with the financial expense or deems the content worthy of its hard-earned money. Alongside acceptance of the paywall comes an understanding that PokerGO operates a business and, presumably, plans to make money from its enterprise. It's important to note, understanding doesn't always correlate with agreement. There are likely subscribers who pay for PokerGO's services and wish they didn't have to.

On the other side of the aisle are those who argue the paywall restricts the growth of poker, especially when it comes to showcasing the WSOP, the game's flagship tournament series. These people are unwilling to shell out the money for a subscription. They've decided the content isn't worth the expense or the paywall limits the number of new eyes on the game.

Informed perspective

In July, accomplished chess player and OpTic Gaming content creator Alexandra Botez wrote a widely discussed Twitter post while the WSOP Main Event played out. Botez, while still relatively new to poker, has unsurprisingly adapted to the game quickly. Perhaps more importantly, she has an in-depth understanding of the streamed content arena. Views, clicks, and eyeballs are her bottom line.

Botez opens her argument by asserting, "Paywalling the greatest spectacle of any sport will inevitably lead to a decrease in its relevance."

That's a succinct summary of what Botez views as a "shortsighted" decision-making process at PokerGO, one that could lead to poker to "a fraction of the cultural impact."

Botez likened poker to boxing; PokerGO to the pay-per-view format. She suggests that boxing's cultural relevance has decreased exponentially in the PPV era. Botez warns of a similar future for poker. The analogy is a reasonable argument from an individual who knows the terrain. Botez ended with a direct plea to the WSOP rather than to PokerGO, raising the question of a shake-up in the possession of the streaming rights.

If you're here for my one-size-fits-all solution to this quandary, I'm sorry to disappoint. I can't give you that. I can, however, give those who do not yet identify with either of the aforementioned camps some added incentive to buy in.

It's simple. Just three words:

High Stakes Poker.

Setting the bar High

High Stakes Poker is by far PokerGO's most well-known asset, and the show has earned that distinction both in the new seasons and in the classics from the mid-2000s. If you've ever watched the show, chances are you've seen the classics. Those episodes speak for themselves, and they're timeless. Poker strategy and gameplay may have progressed tremendously since then, but the early days of HSP won't lose their shine any time soon. The existing library of HSP seasons past needs no further justification. PokerGO, importantly, did not produce that content, they just own the rights to it.

The content the company actively produces is what needs justification, given the cost involved with laying eyes on it. This is where the latest season of HSP comes into play. The first four episodes, and possibly the rest of the season, are contenders for some of the best in the show's history.

I would avoid spoilers at this point, but I can't make my point without them. So, fair warning:

I'll do my best to leave the big pots untouched, but heed this warning: spoilers are real, they exist below.

An all-time great High Stakes Poker lineup?

The players at any televised table dictate the action. Familiarity, chemistry, rapport, rivalry. These are key elements that combine to drive the game. The action, if the deck cooperates, translates to entertainment for the viewers. If you're lucky, you'll get the added bonuses: disgusting coolers, witty anecdotes, well-told stories. The lineup through these first four episodes has it all.

Jean-Robert Bellande, Rick Salomon, Rob Yong, Andrew Robl, Ferdinand Putra, and Charles Yu. Plus, a one-episode appearance from Eric Persson that, although short-lived, was far from short of action. On paper, this collection of players might not strike one as an all-time great. On the screen, it's exactly that.

The first episode delivers quickly in the form of a Rick Salomon anecdote from Andrew Robl.

"Rick used to come into The Bellagio with a pillow(case) full of cash and chips. Sit down in the big game and straddle every hand and battle all the pros. It was like a bottomless pillowcase," Robl said.

"I wouldn't tell nobody how much was in it," Rick retorts, with a maniacal grin.

Instantly, the vibe of the game reveals itself. These guys are here to gamble. Even Robl, one of the most skilled and calculated cash game players in the world, a crusher, revels in the gamble.

Minutes later, Charles Yu and Ferdinand Putra play a pot. Yu's ace-jack of clubs against Putra's king-queen off-suit. The flop provides two pair for Putra and the royal flush draw for Yu. A bet from Putra, a raise from Yu, and a call. The turn card? Ten of clubs. Yu makes the royal flush. Putra draws dead but calls another bet, unknowingly hoping not to improve to a full house. The river brings another club, killing further action. The deck is cooperating, maybe not perfectly, but enough.

Finding the modern HSP groove

The first three seasons of the HSP modern era were well-made, but they didn't hit quite right. Now, in the fourth season, the show is finding its groove. The lineup is near-perfect, the stakes are higher than ever ($1,000/$2,000 with a $4,000 straddle to start episode one), and the commentary duo of AJ Benza and Nick Schulman pepper the action perfectly. Toward the end of episode one, Rick Salomon's biography graphic appears on screen, identifying him, in part, as an "actor." Benza and Schulman leap at the opportunity to get jokes in--good ones, at that.

If you know, you know.

In episode two, Eric Persson takes a seat with $700,000 in front of him. It doesn't take long for him to get involved in the action. Persson's ill-timed preflop limp with pocket queens--coupled with some tricky play from Rob Yong--leads to him calling a massive raise on the river, only to see Yong turn over the goods. Just like that, nearly $220,000 of his stack moves over to Yong. Persson, eager to claw back some of his losses, ramps up his aggression.

Then, the triple straddle comes out. It's Persson himself that puts it on. Robl, of course, picks up ace-king and makes a large raise preflop. Persson, not willing to let his 16,000 vulnerable soldiers die just yet, defends with the queen-nine off-suit. The flop hits both players but gives Robl a considerable edge with a pair of aces. Robl bets and Persson calls. The turn is clean and disconnected. Robl bets, and Persson responds with a declaration of "all in." Robl obliges the request to play for it all, and now there's more than $670,000 in the pot. The river brings no help to Persson, and he quits, taking his lumps with class and poise.

Letting the cards do the talking

I could go on. Believe me, I have more to say, but I wonder if that's really necessary.

What more can I say to convince you to check it out? If your mind is made up, fair enough. I won't convince everyone. But, if you're looking for the best poker content on the market, High Stakes Poker has it. The next episode airs fewer than five days from now.

As PokerOrg's Editor-in-Chief wrote recently, borrowing, as all good creatives do, from Hunter S. Thompson, "buy the ticket, take the ride."