When High Stakes Poker first came out it was a revelation. I'd never seen a cash game on TV before, and getting to watch some of the greatest pros play for so much money was amazing. Even back then, though, I realized that the show had some serious flaws. For example, it didn't show all the hole cards. The only other one of the big five American poker TV shows that doesn't show all the hole cards is ESPN's WSOP coverage, which I consider to be the worst of the major poker shows. Poker After Dark, on the other hand, shows all the hole cards and most of the hands. On Poker After Dark you can really see how the players are playing and get a feel for the game. You don't get that feel watching High Stakes Poker, just seeing a selection of the hands and a few of the hole cards.
I expressed the opinion that High Stakes Poker had jumped the shark a long time ago on a public forum. The moment I felt it did so was when they got Daniel Negreanu to pretend he was leaving the table to do live commentary (commentary is added in post production, and they'll let Daniel see live hole cards just as soon as he gets a Nevada Gaming Commission badge). Just how much fictional content they've added over the seasons we'll never know, but I've never forgiven them for that piece.
The first season, on the other hand, felt like an actual high-stakes game that they just happened to film. The players acted like this was a game that they played all the time. At that time the players didn't know if anyone would watch the show. High Stakes Poker has since become a big hit of course. I get the impression that the producers sold out after that, and now we have to watch a one-hit wonder like Jamie Gold and Sammy Farha ham it up for 12 minutes on a single hand (leaving time for only 7 hands versus 13 in a season one episode).
Besides the feeling of flat reality that I loved in the early episodes, they were better in some other ways. I loved the beautiful set, and looking at an old episode recently confirmed that it was more attractive than the current one: a classy setting with those lamps and paintings. I loved the beautiful cocktail waitresses even more. Some of them were world-class beauties, and the way they dressed was very classy and sometimes extraordinarily sexy. The current season's waitresses are neither world-class beauties nor dressed as well.
By far the most frequent comment in my notes on the current season is that I wish Gabe Kaplan would shut up so I could hear the table talk. The players are frequently talking about things we'd be interested in hearing about. Sometimes Gabe covers up the table talk then explains to us what they're talking about, which is extremely frustrating. More often we simply can't hear what they're saying and end up asking each other, on message boards, what they were talking about and trying to piece their conversations together. For example, I remember Jennifer Harman asking Sammy Farha how many times he'd lost a half million dollars, and Gabe talked over the answer! In addition, the audio level for the announcers is set higher than that of the table talk, making the latter harder to hear. I wish a poker producer would have the nerve to produce a show without any commentary, and provide excellent onscreen graphics so that we could easily follow the game.
Some consider Gabe's analysis to be a cut above, and I don't disagree, but I've never been a fan of his commentary. Much of it is devoted to humor, which I don't tune into a poker show to hear.
The show also wastes time on non-poker content that could be used to show more hands. Every episode has scenes from last time, opening credits, opening shtick from Gabe and AJ, closing shtick from them, scenes from next time, and closing credits. Surely they could get in at least one more hand instead of showing those segments. Fortunately, this show is restrained in showing interview segments, but interviews so seldom add real value that I'd prefer they cut them back to almost zero (e.g. the few occasions where they really add value, like the time on Poker After Dark where John Juanda told us how he was going to exploit David Williams's playing style, then promptly did so).
High Stakes Poker's basic strength is that it's a high-stakes cash game. I find it hard to believe that after all this time most of the poker on TV is still tournaments. Sure the major tournaments (such as the WSOP, WPT, and EPT events) should be televised, but why televise minor tournaments or create tournaments for TV? Remember Doyle Brunson saying on Poker After Dark that he preferred real poker to tournaments? I prefer real poker as well. Real poker makes better viewing and is more commonly played in the real world. The whole idea of tournaments, when they were invented in about 1971, was to inject enough luck into a regular poker game to get all the chips in one person's hands in a certain amount of time. Therefore the winners of tournaments are more a product of luck than the winners in cash games, which makes tournaments less interesting viewing. Additionally, tournament hands are often played entirely preflop, especially at the shortstacked final tables that are usually shown on TV. All-in fests are boring compared to seeing decisions made on every streets.
I do wish High Stakes Poker were more of an actual cash game that just happened to be filmed, instead of an invitational event filmed on a set in some event space (as opposed to the casino floor). Producer Mori Eskandani has made it clear (1) that people are invited based on his estimation of their "entertainment value." I've read that under Nevada law games must be open to all comers, so I'm not sure how they manage to run these invitational games.
I frequently get the impression that TV producers think that poker is boring and we'd really rather watch a circus. Infuriatingly clear evidence of this is regularly provided on High Stakes poker when a hand is in progress but the cameras are focused on players talking. We can hear table talk whether the cameras are on the speakers or not, but we can't see what the players involved in a big hand are going through, or pick up tells, unless they are on camera. I also remember one occasion this season where they chose to show Phil Hellmuth telling the story of a hand we'd seen on a previous episode instead of showing us another hand.
People regularly express the wish to see The Big Game, or a high stakes NL Hold'em/pot limit Omaha rotation as sometimes runs in Las Vegas, televised (producer Mori Eskandani longs for the stud he used to play though). I just want to see real, whatever that is. I wish they'd just set up hidden or unobtrusive cameras to film a table on an actual casino floor. They'd need automated methods of determining hole cards and chips (which rules out labor-intensive hole-card cams). The brush's job would just be to keep the highest-stakes game going on that table that he could. Player demand would determine what game was played. It would be streamed over the internet 24 hours per day with a slight delay. No commentary would be necessary, as computer-generated graphics would provide all the play-by-play we needed. Perhaps they could schedule a whale game once a week, which the high-stakes players would know to show up for. For television, they could schedule one hour a week of prime-time "big hands" for the channel-surfer audience that poker producers seem to want to target. For people who are actually interested in watching poker on TV I'd like to see an hour daily, as on Poker After Dark, perhaps covering every hand of a segment of the weekly "whale game."
No poker show's onscreen graphics are as good as they should be, but High Stakes Poker's are below average. They don't even usually show the win percentages (meaning I frequently don't have time to figure out who has a significant hand), let alone the action, outs, odds, pot odds, chip stacks, holdings (e.g. flush draw or two pair), hand numbers, etc. that they should be showing. As I've said before, one of the show's greatest weaknesses is that it doesn't show all the hole cards. The hole cards also disappear while they show the board being dealt, and aren't visible yet while players are making preflop decisions (even, at times, while the announcer is telling us what they hold). The hole cards they do show are arranged in a cryptic order on the left side of the screen. If you haven't figured it out yet, they're arranged so that the top ones act earlier postflop. Why they can't just arrange all the hole cards around the screen in order of table position, with the blinds at the top and the button (clearly indicated onscreen) at the left, I don't understand. It's such an intuitive and simple way to show hole cards.
One of the viewers' most frequent requests is to see the profit and loss of the players. It's not difficult to understand that there's more drama to a competition where we can follow the results. Other televised cash games have provided profit/loss information, and there's no excuse for High Stakes Poker not providing this information at the end of every episode.
There's been a lot of criticism of running hands multiple times, insurance, and, especially, Guy Laliberte going easy on his opponents. Certainly a lot of time has been spent showing those parts of the game, which you could argue would be better spent showing actual play. Also, some people feel it's a letdown when the entire pot isn't won or lost by someone as they expected. I don't really oppose those elements of the game, however. As I've said before, all I care about is that they show what's real, without modification by the producers. Unfortunately, the producers haven't taken the path of reality. Instead, they've chosen the "reality TV" path at times. For example, first they banned the prop bets that are a real part of high stakes poker, then they introduced their preferred prop bet, the deuce seven game. If something is dull, it's better to edit it out later than to alter the reality of the game. As Alfred Hitchcock said, the ideal of film is "life with the dull bits left out."
Some viewers (and Barry Greenstein) also believe that the $500,000-minimum-buyin game at the end of season four was a bad idea, as the players were out of their comfort zone and some played too tight.
I appreciate High Stakes Poker for bringing the cash game to TV. Unfortunately, the show has declined over time. At this point I believe an average poker producer (e.g the World Poker Tour) would do a better job with the same format than High Stakes Poker does (why the World Poker Tour doesn't film a side game at every tour stop is beyond me, as many of the best players in the world are there and actually playing such games). High Stakes Poker is still my second-favorite poker show on TV, but it's unfortunate that it isn't nearly as good as it could be.
- From an article on Poker Pages: Asked if he would ever pull a player who was not living up to expectations, Eskandani was emphatic: "We tell them before they sit down, 'if it looks like you don't belong, we're going to ask you to leave.' After all, it's a television show. You can't have bad poker and good TV, or good poker and bad TV. It has to be good poker and good TV."
- Phil Galfond's experience: "... I wasn’t good TV because I was so tight and didn’t talk enough to the players who don’t know me. So, I lost my spot on the table."