Come with me now as we journey back through the misty mists of time. To an era when High Stakes Poker and Poker After Dark ruled the roost. Before the proliferation of poker game shows, these were the only felt-centric TV spectacles worth talking about.
The differences between them were more technical details than anything philosophical. PAD featured almost exclusively single table tournaments, like insanely stacked online SitnGos. Old hands and up and comers would battle it out, dropping one by one as their skill or luck ran dry.
High Stakes Poker, on the other hand, has always been about the cash games. It was more like being a fly on the wall in Bobby’s Room. Huge ring games happen in Vegas all the time and the likes of Doyle Brunson have made a living sitting in on them. For the bankrolled pros at the table it was just another day, but for us it was a window into a ridiculous world where money means nothing and everything all at once.
Fast forward to the present day and you’ll see that things have changed a little. Once again PAD and HSP are the premiere poker shows, but this time it has less to do with their quality. Black Friday has networks squirming in their seats and the instant reactions has been to cull with reckless abandon. The Big Game, Million Dollar Challenge and crypto gambling T have all been axed, leaving our old favorites as the only remaining bastions of poker television.
But things are different too in these old haunts. Divisions now spread further than format, they drive right down to temperament.
With Norm MacDonald in the booth and a handful of rich businessmen at the table, High Stakes Poker has become more about goofing around than high class play. The attraction of HSP used to be seeing the best cash game players in the world compete for money that mattered. Now it’s just a case of seeing who can drain the whale the quickest.
The hands are still worth seeing and, with amateurs at the table, there are more big pots and exciting hands, but its a very different scenario from what brought people to HSP in the first place. The change of commentary team is more evidence of this shift. Norm does his best to add a insightful analysis to the table, but he’s no expert. Gone are the days of AJ and Gabe providing a little humor and a little expertise. Now it’s a mishmash of both that is often uncomfortable and rarely successful.
By contrast, the most recent episode of Poker After Dark seems to have been shot in a mausoleum. I expect a total lack of expression from Phil Ivey, but the usually animated Tom Dwan looked like he’d been lobotomized. Compared the trashy thrills and spills of High Stakes Poker, this was an exceedingly sombre affair.
That said, the action on the felt was far more interesting. PAD appears to be the show for poker purists and there’s no better testament to that than their choice to run two full weeks of Pot Limit Omaha cash games. PLO is undoubtedly a less exciting format to broadcast, but as Phil Ivey pointed out, it’s one that rewards more skillful players.
HSP hasbecome a party and PAD a clinic. Where they both used to be a mix it up, neither does a good job of addressing its shortcomings. There’s very little expert analysis on HSP and in any case, as affable as Kara Scott is, hearing why mega-rich billionaires decided to 3-bet that particular hand is of little interest. Equally, when Leanne Tweeden attempts a terrible post-game interview with the six players at the table, you can cut the boredom with a knife.
Neither show has become bad, I should stress. What they have done is narrow their focus in opposite directions. PAD is now for the poker geeks and HSP for those that love the action. Perhaps I’m being one of those sad idiots who think everyone was better “in the good ol’ days,” but if we could have a little more levity in our PAD and a little more finesse in our HSP I think the world would be a finer place.