Already one of the two leading poker shows among critical audiences and poker players, including myself, Poker After Dark is proving yet again that it can stay ahead of the curve. In addition to its normal 6-person winner-take-all freezeout tournament, also referred to as the STT, the show has added two new formats: a cash game as well as a heads up competition. The results of these were mixed, but overall the show is still clearly the head of the class in televised poker.
Poker shows should all be getting the basics right -- that should be the easiest part. But sadly, many of them (e.g. ESPN's WSOP coverage) don't even show all the hole cards folded preflop. Congrats to PAD for doing the obvious, which is showing viewers not just which starting hands get played, but also which ones don't. Another fundamental quality Poker After Dark has to its advantage is its tournament flow -- since it's structured to fit its entirety into 5 episodes, we're able to see virtually every hand played. This gives viewers a true sense of the rhythms of activity, the periods where loose blind defenders get walks, the periods where short stacks push in raise-and-take-it situations, and the times when certain opponents get personal with each other.
By contrast, other shows (such as the WPT, which is forced to shorten 7 hours of playing time into less than 2) destroy the real sense of momentum and cut to the chase -- that is, the all-in coin flips. And it's those small moments and small pots between the big flips that makes poker interesting, which is why Poker After Dark is still a cut above the rest.
Now for the drawbacks, of which there are only a few: many fans have mourned the loss of Marianela Pereyra, PAD's sharpest and most likable host to date. The smoky-voiced replacement, Leeann Tweeden, has far less personality and adds very little to the already-forced interviews taking place during hands. Luckily PAD's voice in the booth, Ali Nejad, has been improving season after season. While some may object to his attitude at the table, he's quite likable at the mic. Nejad has the right mix of poker knowledge and sense of humor necessary to fill in the dead spots (often during heads up battles, when quiet players have no interest in table banter) and keep viewers entertained.
It's also frustrating that after 3 seasons, Poker After Dark is still stubbornly holding onto the idea of cash on the table along with the chips. For the cash game, it's understandable, but for the tournaments it's just ridiculous. And it's not just an aesthetic issue: Mike Matusow was involved in a recent hand where he interpreted a player's call (when Elezra tossed a 10k brick of cash into the pot due to lack of chips) as a raise, and mucked his hand. A producer immediately had to come to the table to change out Eli's cash for chips so such a mistake wouldn't happen again. Imagine viewers' surprise when the cash bricks still didn't go away after that episode.
And as a minor annoyance, the audio mix has never seemed quite right, as mentioned in the last PAD review published in April. This is especially frustrating when we're trying to follow an intriguing table conversation that gets swallowed up by Nejad. But overall, Poker After Dark is still the best poker show on television and it only got better this year with the new formats. Season 4 gets **** out of ***** overall, taking into account ***** for the cash game, **** for the STT weeks, and *** for the Heads Up Challenge. Read the following for specific comments about each format:
The Cash Game
Before Poker After Dark entered the cash game ring, the most notable entry in this genre has been High Stakes Poker, also produced by PAD's Poker PROductions. HSP is a great show, but suffers from too many clowns and showboats slowing down the action. But thanks to some clever casting this time around, PAD's viewers got a chance to see some of today's best cash game players -- both online and live -- compete at the table. HSP briefly attempted to give TV time to players like Phil Galfond and Brian Townsend, but eventually settled back on the celebrities. Poker After Dark's cash game had no Sam Farha, no Jamie Gold, and no Phil Laak to chew up camera time and babble endlessly. Instead they settled on sharks like Tom Dwan, David Peat, and Allen Cunningham (along with the requisite rich fish like hedge fund millionaire Mike Baxter and Cirque du Soleil founder Guy LaLiberte), and it made for a terrific week of televised poker -- something casual fans could enjoy just as much as the enthusiastic players.
There weren't too many changes to the winner-take-all freezeout format this season, aside from more refreshing themes. Some have complained about the strange lengths PAD goes to in order to find a weekly theme ("Cowboys" week last season, featuring the likes of Chau Giang and Gabe Kaplan donning ten-gallon hats just to fit in, was particularly wearying), but season 4 kicked off with a clever "Nets vs. Vets" week, an intriguing mash-up of online kids and grizzled B&M vets. And true to form, it ended up with a classic slugfest of a heads up match between Brian Townsend and Doyle Brunson -- what more could you ask for?
Future STTs this season also appear to have solid lineups and audiences are eagerly anticipating this fall's airings -- there's a week with players from NYC's old underground Mayfair Club, a "Close But No Cigar" featuring Main Event final tablers who didn't snag the bracelet, and even a "Brilliant Minds" week with 6 math geniuses including Bill Chen and David Sklansky. I expect these tournaments to live up to their billing, and if the Nets vs. Vets match was any indication of the Season 4 STTs, the other shows don't stand a chance in competition.
The Heads Up Challenge
NBC's sister poker show, the annual Heads-Up Championship from Caesar's, is not poker's finest hour and has deteriorated in quality over the past couple tournaments. But that hasn't stopped Poker After Dark from attempting to cash in on its popularity: this season, PAD assembled the 4 champions of that tournament from 2005-2008, and challenged them to a $50,000 buy-in, winner-take-all double-elimination format. Not a bad idea, but the results didn't quite pan out.
First of all, the casting was handcuffed with no flexibility -- past champions were Phil Hellmuth, Paul Wasicka, Ted Forrest, and Chris Ferguson, so those were the 4 players PAD was stuck with. And as nice and talented as they are, these guys don't make for great poker on TV. Forrest was surly and short-tempered, seemingly not even interested in being there. He was impatient and prickly (which actually made for some of the more vibrant moments of the week), Wasicka was quiet and measured, and Ferguson was a mute statue. Only Hellmuth had character, and many of us think that's a character who'd be better off under the wheels of a bus sometimes.
For the Heads Up Challenge to succeed next season they'll need to spruce up the production and cast some better players. That will take some of the pressure of Nejad to keep things going with his stream of clever one-liners (the best of which was during a point where Forrest sat there munching on bananas for a half hour, and Nejad quipped: "Ted Forrest is up to 2 on the Chiquita-meter"). Overall, the Heads Up Challenge is yet another well-made Poker After Dark show, but this season it's the worst of the 3 formats.
Feel free to post your comments below, whether you agree or disagree. See also the last full review of Poker After Dark.