The Verdict So Far On High Stakes Poker Season 7

With the first session drawing to a close, now seems like a good time to take a look at how High Stakes Poker Season 7 is shaping up. Going into this year’s run, the show was hit with a couple of high profile changes, which make the scrutinising of the format a little more interesting than usual.
The most obvious change, and the one that has lit up comment sections around the world, is off screen rather than on. Norm MacDonald, of Saturday Night Live fame, arrived in the wake of the ousted Gabe Kaplan. The Welcome Back Kotter alumnus has been a mainstay of the poker community for years and was a regular at the Vegas card rooms long before the boom hit. Over six seasons he had made the High Stakes Poker booth his own.
If he weren’t wandering into the wake of such a competent card caller, you could say MacDonald was doing an decent job. He reports the action competently and makes questionable comments, as befits an amateur trying to second-guess the best players in the world. There’s no doubting MacDonald is a fine comedian, but he doesn’t have the history with the game that Kaplan can draw on. Gabe knows the likes of Doyle Brunson personally and can use that history to make incisive, if corny, quips.
Ironically, what MacDonald would benefit most from is a cohost, which is exactly what Gabe was intended to be. It was only in Season 6 that Kaplan was stuck in the booth alone, after regular commentator A. J. Benza was fired in favour of front-of-house dame Kara Scott. The Canadian belle, who is no slouch at the tables herself, goes about her work amiably, but I’d swap her for another voice in the booth any day.
But what about the action on the tables? There’s a reason I’ve left it until the fifth paragraph to talk about actual poker. There have been a few interesting confrontations and some hands worth chatting about, but no real crypto gambling moments. The only pot that’s generated any column inches was a big all-in between Barry Greenstein and Antonio Esfandiari. It was a set vs. straight flush draw situation and the players built a pot of $593,900. It’s only the money that makes this interesting, the play itself was standard.
That’s not to say that this series has made for poor television. The overall quality from a spectator’s point of view has been decent, but it’s difficult to pick out one individual hand that demonstrates that.
For my money, there have been too many amateurs. I understand that whales fuel the cash game scene, but this isn’t a regular game. The promise of air time ought to be enough to tempt 6 pros to step into the ring, without the need to prop up the table with piles of easy cash. These billionaires might be very interesting people. Models of capitalist excellence even, but I don’t care one tiny bit about how they play poker.
This influx of businessmen may be the result of the second big change to hit High Stakes Poker. Their new sponsorship from PokerStars lead to a knee-jerk reaction from Full Tilt, who banned all their pros from participating in the show. That means no Phil Ivey, no Tom Dwan, no Patrik Antonius, and no Gus Hansen. Some of the biggest and most exciting cash game players will never be seen again on the world’s most popular poker show. I hope those PokerStars bucks are worth it.
One thing I will most certainly give GSN credit for is uploading every episode on Youtube a few days after it airs. They’re smart enough to realise that a bootleg will hit online video sites within a matter of hours whatever they do and if they offer a high quality version, people will choose their official channel over any grainy knock off. It also means that poor saps like me who live outside the U.S. can keep up to date without feeling like grubby criminals.
It would be patently unfair to pass definitive judgment on Season 7 of High Stakes Poker so early into its run. Still, the show has stumbled rather than leaped into 2011 and will need to quicken the pace a little if wants to quiet the hordes of detractors venting their spleens onto the nearest message board.