Was High Stakes Poker S8E01 everything that we hoped for?

Jon Pill
Published by:
Posted on 12/18/2020

With the exception of Edward Norton announcing Rounders 2, there aren’t many pop culture announcements that could get the poker world as achingly nostalgic (from the greek nostos meaning “return home” and algos meaning “pain”) as the news that we were getting fourteen new episodes of High Stakes Poker.

We can all breathe a sigh of relief. PokerGO has done it right.

HSP Season 8 is not perfect by any means. Some of the graphics are a little goofy and the set feels more like a TV newsdesk than a poker room. But for a show that has to contend with the legacy of the first seven seasons — well, the first five at least — it acquitted itself admirably.

“It’s been 9 years since new episodes of the legendary ‘High Stakes Poker’ series have been created,” said Mori Eskandani, the producer of this and previous seasons, on the PokerGO website. “With this show being such a favorite among fans, it was important to us to capture the exhilarating spirit of the game in a way that makes it come to life through each viewer’s screen.”

Clips remain few and far between, but PokerGO did tweet a couple. One shows a hand between Tom Dwan and baseballer Michael Schwimer.

“I’m Gabe Kaplan…”

There is something poetic in the degree of reverence the new season shows to the old. The format is the same, many of the players are the same, and there is a breathless fanboyishness to many of the players.

But above all, A J Benza and Gabe Kaplan are back. Losing them was the downturn point in the original series.

Their patter is just as sharp and prickly as it was a decade ago. A J continues to play an enthusiastic amateur. Kaplan is, if anything, more passive-aggressively cutting, negging A J at every turn. “You’ve come along way,” he says in mock praise when A J recognizes a three-bet.

The first episode starts with $400-$800 blinds and a minimum buy-in of $100,000.

No one seems to have gone nuts with the stacks yet. Gone are the enormous bricks of cash. And whereas in previous seasons we saw million-dollar-plus stacks in some episodes, things are a little more measured here. The biggest stack is $200,000. There’s a recession on, haven’t you heard?

PokerGO very sensibly put their biggest hitter up first. Tom Dwan was the fan favourite in previous seasons and he’s here from the start. He’s a much more personable presence than his previous appearances. Though unlike previous seasons, he doesn’t seem to be operating in the far reaches of what can be done with a chip stack and a deck of cards.

Along with Dwan and Schwimer, other players in the first episode included Jean-Robert Bellande, Bryn Kenney, Rick Salomon, Nick Petrangelo, Jason Koon, and car salesman Brandon Steven.

Bellande is a fun, if not terribly likeable presence at the table. Someone of whom Rob Yong tweeted: “Great to see ⁦some of the world’s best live cash game players […] and also @BrokeLivingJRB.”

The only game in town

What made the original seasons of HSP so beloved was partly that it was the first poker on TV that felt like it was made for poker fans. ESPN’s WSOP coverage and the Travel Channel’s World Poker Tour were hour-long highlight reels that were usually five or six pre-flop all-ins and one big bluff.

HSP gave us every hand. Every bit of table talk. It let us track the prop bets and watch players tilt, personalities clash, and fortunes change hands. It made Tom Dwan’s name a household word. It popularized the seven-deuce game. And it spawned every version of Live at the Bike and every full-length FT stream. In a very real way, it made PokerGO possible.

It was a product of the very peak of the poker boom which started with the 2003 WSOP main event and ended with Black Friday.

Coronavirus robbed us of most of the live-streamed outlets. So suddenly, once again, HSP is the only game in town for serious players.

None of the players wore masks. The virus was barely mentioned in the table talk. If it wasn’t for the dystopian gag on the dealer’s face, for sixty minutes last night it was like being back in the golden years of the Moneymaker effect.

Nostalgia indeed.

Featured image source: Twitter