Chemistry Lessons: Building the Perfect High Stakes Poker Cast
When Brent Hanks took on the role as PokerGO’s Director of Programming, a good friend texted him with a congratulatory note – and a warning.
“You are going to make and lose a lot of friends because of this,” the text read.
The job meant having some say in who was – or wasn’t – invited to play on some of poker’s most popular shows, including Poker After Dark and the recently relaunched High Stakes Poker.
Putting a lineup together for Poker After Dark, Hanks is often working with two variables: the first is a theme for the show while the second is, well, who’s available. For High Stakes Poker, Hanks has the extremely enviable position of taking a backseat to Poker Hall of Famer, Mori Eskandani.
“High Stakes Poker was a little different because that was pretty much going back to the man, the myth, the legend Mori and his connections to so many of the great players,” Hanks said. “Obviously Mori being able to network with Jean-Robert Bellande, and Tom Dwan especially, who has some connections to some fun players as well. So it’s like herding cats a lot of the time.”
One of the key sponsors of the return of High Stakes Poker has been Poker King, an Asian-facing online poker site that has relationships with Dwan, Bellande, Nick Petrangelo, and Phil Ivey. That helped ensure that all of those players were part of the HSP cast this season. The nostalgic appeal of Dwan and Ivey, combined with the likes of Petrangelo, Jason Koon and a few new faces have helped forge a table dynamic that reminded many poker fans of the original incarnation of the show.
Finding on-air chemistry amongst six to eight randomly chosen poker players isn’t easy, but Hanks has figured out that ensuring producers don’t end up with those players buried in their hooded sweatshirts, too dialed in to the game to be talkative or entertaining once the TV lights go on.
“A lot of the times you want to bring what you know is sort of maybe a game that’s happening elsewhere, or these guys have a ton of history playing with each other and you bring that chemistry and you bring those lineups together,” Hanks said, pointing to the times Phil Hellmuth has been the center of a show featuring a number of his friends from Silicon Valley. “This game is amazing because they just rip on Phil. Like they’ll pay him not to talk. Jason (Calcanis) and Chamath (Palihapitiya) are just so brutal with Phil Hellmuth. You don’t really see that but you realize that that’s what it’s like in their home game. He’s kind of the whipping boy.”
The cast for the first episode of High Stakes Poker included Bellande, Dawn, Petrangelo, alongside HSP newcomers Bryn Kenney, Brandon Steven, Rick Salomon, and former major league baseball player Michael Schwimer. While poker fans will recognize Kenney, Steven, and even Salomon, it was the addition of Schwimer to the roster that got Hanks’ blood pumping.
“I believe he’s friends with Tom Dwan and that was the connection to the show, but he is special. That guy played so many hands. His comments, you couldn’t tell if he was being genuine and he would say something like, ‘Oh, that’s a bad card’ and he’d bet anyway,” Hanks said. “And everyone would just die laughing. He’d be up a million, he’d be down a million. Yeah, wait till you see the next episode. It’s crazy.”
If poker fans who watched the first episode of the new season liked Schwimer, Hanks thinks they’re gonna love what’s to come when some more new blood grabs an open seat.
“Another guy that stood out for me, who you haven’t seen yet, that’s going to be in the show is Jake Daniels. He is a recreational-slash-businessman-slash semi-pro. Hails out of Texas. He is electric when it comes to his play,” Hanks said.
With the entire season already in the can and being voiced over by Gabe Kaplan and AJ Benza in Los Angeles, Hanks already has some ideas in mind for new players to add next season that might have been overlooked.
“I think Garrett Adelstein was the biggest snub, and if I had my control of it, he would have played in the games, but obviously there’s the politics involved,” Hanks said. “The reality is we had a huge list. When we film again, hopefully in March, which is the plan … I’m just going to fight for him. When I think of high stakes poker, I think of Garrett Adelstein, he’s one of these modern players and I think that most people that are fans of the game would agree.”
Another one of the challenges that Hanks and Eskandani face with every casting decision is making sure that not only is the PokerGo core audience going to be happy and want to tune in, but they also try to attract viewers who might not quite be poker diehards.
“The key is getting outside. So it’s, can we target the hardcores? Yeah, we’re doing that. We’re giving them the content that they love, Poker After Dark, High Stakes Poker, all the tournaments, obviously the World Series of Poker,” Hanks said. “But what else can we do to make sure that we get outside of that? And that’s the difficulty, that’s the trick that, unfortunately, we’re still trying to learn and solve every single day from the industry side.”
That text message about making and losing friends comes in full view for Hanks when new shows air. Whether it’s a group of familiar faces or a new face or two, he always ends up hearing from one or two players, either privately or via social media, who are disappointed or even upset that they weren’t included. Hanks always has to ask them what including them in the show would have done for the metric that matters most, total viewers.
“You’re the best player in the world. That’s how you make a living. That’s how you print money. No problem. But if you really care about your brand and if you really bitch about not being on shows, well then let’s build, right?,” Hanks said. “I don’t care if you want to be an introvert and you just want to print money and do your thing in poker. I’m all about it. Have at it. You are the man. Awesome stuff. I just don’t want to hear it when you say, ‘Well, why can’t I get on that show?’”
When Black Friday shut down the three busiest online poker sites in the United States, the first defence that poker industry advocates turned to was that poker was a game of skill. Hanks understood the thinking at the time, but as daily fantasy sports and most recently sports betting, have become accepted forms of gambling, Hanks thinks poker needs to lean into that side of the game to help build a more mainstream audience.
“I don’t see why poker should be any different. It’s time to embrace gambling for what it is. Poker is gambling. And we should be allowed to say that without hushing and not saying the G word. And to me, I think we’re there. I think the industry is there,” Hanks said. “We’re going to turn a corner and we should be sort of seen in the same light as daily fantasy or fantasy football or just sports betting in general. Is there an element of skill? Sure. But for the most part, this is gambling and you should have fun.”
That belief is also something reflected in how Hanks puts lineups together for Poker After Dark and when he looks at the cast for this season of High Stakes Poker, he knows they’ve got a hit on their hands thanks in large part to just how much gamble there is amongst the players.
“Do I like it when you’ve got guys that are willing to mix it up, maybe gamble, do prop bets on the side, talk about that? Yeah, I think there’s a culture there that is appealing,” Hanks said .”And I think the mainstream, the masses, really sort of resonate towards that as opposed to just so much of the solver study.”