Late Night Poker was the first TV show to use hole card cams. Six series of it ran in the UK from 1999 to 2002. Rob Gardner, who died last week at the age of 34, produced the show. Nic Szeremeta helped create the show and did commentary for the first 3 series. He wrote a fascinating 3-part series about his experience with the show in Poker Europa magazine. It is reproduced below.
The Making of Late Night Poker
Whenever newspaper reports appear about the current boom in TV poker LNP is invariably mentioned as the forerunner the show which started it all off. This is not strictly true, as the main reason for the present rash of televised tournaments and other shows is the Internet poker rooms desire and willingness to sponsor competitions on TV to expose their brands.
However it did prove two important things. Firstly that it was possible to televise poker. Secondly that there was an audience for it not just players but ordinary television viewers who did not play and had no intention of doing so.
As I was there when it all began I decided to put the record straight. One thing that almost nobody knows is that if the studio and Channel 4 bosses had gone ahead with the first series in the way they originally wanted to do it there would almost certainly not have been a second series.
How it all began
It was in the autumn of 1998 that I was contacted out of the blue by a person saying that he had been commissioned to produce a poker programme for Channel 4 and asking for my help. He had apparently found my name and details on the Internet as former secretary of the European Poker Players Association.
As I had been trying unsuccessfully for several years to interest the UK television stations in poker I agreed instantly. I stipulated one condition, that no one else was involved a condition which was met in writing.
The person was Rob Gardner, who was involved with Presentable Productions, a small company in Cardiff, Wales. He came down to discuss the project with me and we met up in my local pub (where else?) where he told me how it had come about and what the plan was.
The sudden desire to televise poker, he explained, had come about as a result of one of the commissioning editors of 4 Later (a branch of Channel 4 responsible for late night experimental programmes) running a home game on Friday nights. Hmmm I thought thats how its done.
At the back of my mind though was a nagging doubt that Rob Gardner was a chancer that he was floating an idea which like my poker pitches to TV previously had come to nothing. I put him in his mid to late 20s and he was all I imagined a youthful television person to be earnest, breathless and clueless about poker.
Ok I asked him, whats the plan?
The idea he put forward was typical of the luvvies in TV land. What we are going to do, he explained, is get a group of players to sit around a table and play for an hour. They will chat amongst themselves as the game goes on (presumably their witty repartee would have the nations couch potatoes glued to their seats) and then they will come back again next week.
What game are they going to play?, I asked. Not sure Hasnt been decided yet. Probably five card draw, were the somewhat vague responses. Dealers? I continued. The players would deal themselves, he said. What about money? I said. Where will this come from? They will play for their appearance fee he said. And how much is that? I asked. Each of them would get 250 for turning up and be expected to play with it (No expense spared there then).
I was horrified. If the studio and Rob Gardner put this piece of crap on television I thought it would be the last time ever poker would be shown. I believed that there would be one opportunity to televise poker and if it was not successful that would be the end of that.
So, armed with my assurance that no one else would be consulted, I decided there and then to get involved. Breathless, Rob waited for my opinion. I was thinking of a diplomatic way to tell this young man, who clearly had absolutely no idea about the poker scene, that the concept was truly terrible.
Its not much money, I ventured. Do you realise that in a lot of poker games 250 is the opening bet? He did not. How about poker tournaments, do you know about these? No again. Luckily I had drawn up a made-for-TV tournament format which I had unsuccessfully tried to pitch at other television companies in the previous few years. So I decided to pitch it at him.
Listen, I said, Ive got a much better idea. Why dont we film reality? (And this was some time before reality TV became flavour of the month). Rob gazed at me wide-eyed like a 9-year-old who had just been told how babies were made. To the day I die I will never forget his answer. Whats reality? he said.
Ill show you reality!
I explained to Rob about the poker scene, how tournaments worked and how no limit holdem ought to be the game used for the televised poker tournament I had in mind.
More importantly, I said I reckoned I could get the support of enough players to take part in it players who were going to be asked to put up 1,500 to buy in. Back in those days it was quite a lot of money.
But the trick I was most proud of was to persuade him and the director Sian to come over to the ACF in Paris to watch the final table of the EFOP at the start of 1999. I gambled that once they had seen how a one table shoot out worked, met the characters and experienced the atmosphere, they would be hooked on the idea. And they were.
Sian stood by the table for eight hours, gazing at the finalists presumably dreaming up camera angles and figuring out how she could transfer the tension to the small screen. I had already prepared the format, chips and a list of possible players but was waiting for the final go ahead to go public.
After Paris my Late Night Poker tournament format got the green light.
It will never work!
My first target was to get enough players. A total of 49 were needed to fill the seven one table satellites. I headed to the Concord in Vienna, where I knew there would be a room full of the better tournament players - but if I expected them all to jump at the opportunity I was sadly mistaken.
They divided into two distinct groups. The enthusiasts included people like Ram Vaswani who saw the potential straight away. This is where it all begins, he said. You can count me in and Barny, Ross and Joe. Simon Trumper, Dave Ulliott, Surinder Sunar, Dave Colclough, Jon Shoreman, Malcolm Harwood and many others were equally enthusiastic and committed to take part.
Rob Gardner had also promised that all the players who took part in the first series would be given first refusal on seats if the show as a success and a second series was commissioned. This went down well with the yes camp.
But there was a no camp as well. Behind the scenes there were negatives influences trying to undermine the project. Some spread rumours that it was illegal and would be stopped by the gaming authorities (even though Rob had cleared the tournament with the Gaming Board of Great Britain). Ironically some of the faceless back-stabbers could not wait to get in the line up after the first series proved a success.
How do we make this interesting?
The challenge was how to make a game as boring as poker watchable - not by the poker anoraks and train spotters but by Britains army of couch potatoes who would be invited to switch on after midnight.
Having examined what the magic ingredient in other sports and games shows might be I came to the conclusion it was the characters and the way an audience would perceive them. The solution was to seed the tables.
It was decided to have an open draw but to make it from various categories of players. This meant that each of the satellite tables would include: one woman player, one reasonably well known professional, a foreigner and one person who would create either action or trouble. The rest of the seats went to whoever drew them.
The idea was to give the audience at home players to love or to hate and to keep them watching. It apparently worked. According to Rob Gardner during the first series 16 per cent of those watching TV tuned in, a figure which rose to over 30 per cent as the programmes progressed. And the audience stayed to the end. An audience of 1.7 million saw Dave 'Devilfish' Ulliott win the first final.
Here are a few excerpts from what the world's media said about Late Night Poker at the time:
'The sporting head-to-head of the summer' Independent on Sunday
'The action is arguably the least predictable you'll see in televised sport' The Guardian
'Channel 4's Late Night Poker series was last year's surprise TV Hit' Esquire
'Few would have guessed that poker would make such an entertaining spectator sport... but viewers became mesmerised by the subtlety of the game and the intensity of the players.' Time Out
'It hardly seems the stuff of ratings heaven. But like the genesis of snooker on the telly three decades ago the green baize of Channel 4's Late Night Poker unquestionably has something about it. Poker, once the Wild West cardsharp's game, has become trendy.' The Daily Express
Not everything went quite as expected when the first series of shows was made. What made the programme different to other attempts at filming poker for example the early efforts at televising the World Series in Vegas was that a special table was being used.
The producer, Rob Gardner, was quite excited about it. It had a glass panel around the edge in front of the players. The idea was that the downcards were put on the glass and cameras strapped to the table legs could see them. Such a revolutionary concept needed a trial run before filming began for real which was just as well.
A bunch of poker-playing guinea pigs turned up at Presentable Productions studio in Cardiff, Wales for a 100 tournament to test the system. Unfortunately the table had been built without taking into consideration such questions as: "How long are a dealers arms?" Maybe this was because when the original poker programme idea was conceived the idea of even having dealers was not on the list of things to do.
Anyway, when Marina Rado sat down to deal she ran into two minor problems. The table was so big that she had to pitch the cards an extra two feet or so a feat she achieved without making it look too odd. Reaching the chips though was an impossibility. The solution to this was to have the relief dealer standing around by the side of the table helping to drag the chips into the pot.
There was also the small problem that the glass made it possible to see a reflection of the players hole cards. Oops. Never thought of that.
Dealers? Sorry - Nothing in the budget
I was never let into the secret world of the Late Night Poker budget but I suspect not much was allocated for the skills of those who made it happen. From the outset I had insisted that the event need a tournament director and some skilled dealers, dealers who pitched the cards rather than slid them across the table as is the practice in England. English dealers would probably not be allowed to take part anyway as someone would have found something in the Draconian Gaming Act to prevent them.
The best dealers and tournament director I knew were from the Concord Card Casino in Vienna so I suggested to Gardner that we use them. "Great idea," he said. "Just one thing though they will have to do it for free". Nothing in the budget eh!
So I was given the task of persuading Thomas Kremser to do the job without getting paid and to provide dealers on the same generous terms. The argument I used was that if it worked they would get paid next time and it might develop into something in the future.
Thomas - god bless him agreed. And in the light of what has happened since he probably regards it as one of his better decisions. For their trouble the Concord team also got a mention in the programme credits as sponsors.
Who wants to be a commentator?
Another obvious requirement I had drawn to the studios attention was the need for commentators. The audience I envisaged was not poker players but ordinary people who had never even heard of holdem, let alone knew how to play it. The commentators job would be to unravel the mystery for them as simply as possible.
Having studied other sports programmes I recommended that an experienced presenter do the lead-ins and introduction and a reasonably expert player do the whats-going-on-now analysis. They ended up with me and Jesse May!
It was not a job I had wanted but in a rash moment I had told Rob Gardner that I would help out if needed. The reason was that I was somewhat nervous about who they might come up with if left to their own devices. When I went to the sound studio to do the commentary for the first series I had no idea who the other guy was going to be. How Jesse got involved I never knew nor asked.
Our trial run was somewhat unconventional. It took place in a hotel room where Rob Gardner and the studio boss Chris Stewart had rigged up a tape recorder to the TV. "Were going to run a tape and we just want you to talk about it," said Chris Stewart. So we did. For about two minutes.
The glamour of TV? Forget it
Dont believe the rumour that working in TV is a glamorous job. Far from it. Most of those I know in television (and that is not very many) spend long hours beating their brains out and not getting very far.
Jesse and myself were no exception. We were in the sound studio from around 9 am and sometimes did not finish until 11 pm. It was taking us around four hours to do the overdub (telly speak for commentary) for a single programme so we just about had time for a sandwich for lunch. In the later series I was involved with, series two and three, we speeded up a bit but it was still a grind.
And then it became boring. One writer commenting on the shows observed that I was somewhat "dry". This was a deliberate move on my part. I was attempting to offer a contrast to Jesses wild exuberance - he seemed to treat the conclusion of a hand as if he was commentating on the end of the Grand National!
And of course everyone had to have a nickname whether they had one or not beforehand. Plus the hands also had to have nicknames. After hearing Q-3 described as the gay waiter (queen with a tray) for what seemed like the tenth time it all got too much.
One of the minor problems we had to overcome in the first series was that Jesse had actually played and it would have seemed somewhat bizarre to the audience to have a person on screen commentating about himself. The solution a complete new identity was cooked up for the on-screen Jesse. He was described as a florist from New York and it gave Jesse the commentator the opportunity to make a few amusing comments such as: "This guy doesnt seem to know what hes doing, does he Nic?"
Hammered by the Sunday Times
By the time we got to do the commentary the programmes had already been edited back to under an hour a job which neither of us was invited to advise on. This was left to the experts at Presentable who a few months earlier had thought poker was a thing you stuck in the fireplace.
Not surprisingly then there were a number of incongruities in the programmes such as one player having a big stack of chips one minute and then being shown with virtually none the next. I was understandably nervous about what an audience would make of it and also what the TV critics might have to say.
Two days after the first showed aired A. A. Gill, one of the most respected critics in the UK, devoted almost two pages of his column in the Sunday Times to our efforts. He didnt like it. At all. He suggested Channel 4 was sinking to new depths by showing it: "scraping the barrel deeper than ever before", he said. The commentary was gibberish, the players all caricatures and the whole thing a waste of air time.
But his closing comment demonstrated his knack for fence sitting. "I wouldnt be surprised if it became cult viewing," he said. How right he was
Even more quotes...
Here are a few more excerpts from what the world's media said about Late Night Poker at the time:
'If ever there was a fashionable television show that demonstrates how poker should be televised to a mass viewing audience, this production shows how to do so.' Card Player, USA
'It was brilliant... I couldn't stop watching.' Card Magazine, Australia
'The tension is palpable from the very first hand.' The Daily Telegraph
'Boasting real-life, high-stakes gambling, Late Night Poker is the ace up Channel 4's sleeve. Like snooker or darts, poker might have been conceived for the small screen: emitting claustrophobic drama and exploiting its rich potential for the close-up.' The Guardian
'TV's hottest cult series LNP is a hidden gem' Esquire
Despite the success of the first series the powers at Channel 4 still categorised the second series as “experimental”. This appeared to be a euphemism for “you are not going to get much more money”. Rob Gardner, the produced said that the first series had drawn audiences of 16 per cent to 30 per cent plus.
But after the second series continued to pull similar numbers the third series was also put into the “experimental” category. It was at this point that I began to feel uncomfortable for a number of reasons.
“I THOUGHT I WAS PROMISED A SEAT!”
All the original players who had supported the tournament had been promised that they would get first option on seats if future programmes were made. This happened when the second series was put together but by series three and four some of those who had expected invitations did not get them.
And guess what – they thought it was my fault! At first it had been a problem filling all the seats but by series three there was a queue of players desperate to take part. So new faces were invited in and some of the originals were given the cold shoulder.
MORE OF THE SAME...
There was little doubt in my mind that improvements to the programmes were needed. The fact that over three hours of play was edited down to an hour meant that one hand a player had a big stack of chips and the very next they were short stacked and moving all in – with no explanation. A clock or a hand counter might have been a good idea but the suggestion that these be used was rejected.
Another innovation I proposed was to show the percentage chances of each hand on screen as is now common practice. This too was turned down by Presentable Productions experts. My concern was that unless the programme was developed it would become a bore and be dumped by Channel 4 – which of course it eventually was.
HOW STUPID CAN YOU GET?
By the time the third series was made Gardner and the owners of the company Presentable Productions, Chris and Megan Stewart gave the impression that they knew it all. So a little plot was hatched to have some fun with them. Each satellite normally lasted about three and a half hours and these were edited back to an hour for broadcasting. All the players in one of the satellites agreed to move all in on the very first hand.
Because all he pocket cards could be seen in the director’s box the hands had to be convincing so tournament director Thomas Kremser rigged a deck which gave everyone a good hand. And when the flop was dealt everyone had a part of it. Marina who was dealing cold decked the table under the full view of the cameras and the acting by the players should have won them an Oscar. Pre flop there was a raise which all of them called – dead pan faces, totally serious, cautious.
Up in the director’s box they could see all the pocket cards – A-A, A-K, 7-7 ,KK etc. On the flop everyone had a piece of it. An initial bet was made and met by an all-in raise which was called by the whole table Malcolm Harwood’s wife won the pot with four 7s, jumped for joy and all the players stood up and began to leave the studio. The whole game had lasted about three minutes. Chaos.
In the green room where other players were watching a live feed of the game there was a general agreement that it was a hoax. But the studio bosses did not see it that way. A highly agitated Megan Stewart ran up to me and said: ”Quick, quick go to make up.” “What on earth for?” I asked. “We’ve got to make it last for an hour,” she said. ”It’s in our contract.”
They seemed to imagine that Jesse May and myself were going to spend 55 minutes talking about the odds of such a thing happening….slow motion replays and all that. The players also latched on to the fact that the studio people had not realised it was a joke so they pushed it further. The late Hamish Shah asked for a taxi so he could get back to London for a game. Others were commiserating with one another and also making for the door. One of the studio people asked: “Can’t we play it again?”
Anyway the panic about what to do continued for about 20 minutes until Liam Flood, who had been one of those at the table, took pity on Chris and Megan Stewart and told them: ”I think you ought to know that you’ve been had.” The comical thing was that at first they refused to believe him! At last they did and Megan wandered up to me in the green room and said: ”That was a jolly good joke. I wonder who organised it.”
“I can’t imagine,” I replied.
FREE ENTERPRISE IS ALIVE AND WELL
One of the amusing sights at the Cardiff Hilton Hotel where all the players stayed was the arrival of Howard Plant. Never one to miss the chance to make a bit of money he decided to set up his own card room in the hotel. So he booked connected rooms and brought his own dealers, chips and enough free alcohol to keep the players happy.
As he checked in two of his helpers were standing around in the background with a poker table hidden under a cloth cover. The receptionist seemed anxious to know what it was but Howard just ignored her curiosity and carried on as if there was nothing out of the ordinary.
In the hotel room the bed was propped against the wall, the complimentary bar set up and the Howard Casino opened for business.
DON’T WORRY- I’LL FIX IT FOR YOU...
At a very early stage it became apparent to me that Late Night Poker was not going to be a big money earner – well certainly not for me. It also occurred to me that a useful spin-off might be a poker book from which I might make some cash.
What I had in mind was a simple book for beginners – a sort of Idiot’s Guide to poker. So I drafted one up as fast as possible, put the proposal to Rob Gardner and he said he would handle it on my behalf. He first problem was that the Channel 4 publishers did not want to pay any royalties – just a flat fee.
I knew that the book would be around for a good few years and that a royalty would be a money-earner in years to come so I put this to Gardner. “Don’t worry about it,” he said.” I’ll fix it for you.”
He was still saying this six months later when I got an urgent message from Brian “Cowboy” McNally, the Scottish player who had taken part in one of the programmes. “Can you help me?” Brian asked. “ I’ve been asked to write a book for the Late Night Poker programme and there are a few things you might be able to help me with.” “Congratulations,” I told him. “Just out of curiosity how did you get this commission?” I asked. “Rob Gardner recommended me,” he replied. It was at this point I realised I was being turned over. Brian’s book was published and is still selling now.
Just one thing though – they didn’t even spell my name correctly.
- Nic Szeremeta resigned immediately after doing the co-commentary for the third series.