The History of GSN's High Stakes Poker

Posted: September 14th, 2012

History of High Stakes PokerHigh Stakes Poker is a program on the Gameshow Network which started in 2006 and is now in its seventh season as of 2012.

The show has been popular with fans because it avoided the conventional tournament format that most televised poker follows these days. Instead, Texas hold'em poker was played in a cash game or ring game scenario, in which each player had to buy-in at a $100,000 minimum. In later seasons, the buy-ins were raised to $500,000 for certain periods. 

Where Is High Stakes Poker Taped?

High Stakes Poker has been taped in a number of settings over the years. The first season was taped at the Golden Nugget Casino in Las Vegas. Season 2 was taped as the Las Vegas Palms Hotel. For seasons 3 and 4, play was moved to the South Point Casino, which is on Las Vegas Boulevard, but technically isn't on the Strip. The fifth and sixth seasons once again were located at the Golden Nugget, while season seven was taped at the Bellagio. Where season 8 is going to be is unknown. 

Though the show has been a big hit for GSN, the company's executives announced after the season 7 official sponsors, PokerStars, pulled out of the U.S. market following the United States v. Scheinberg arrests. The Gameshow Network announced it would scale back airings, though not end the show's run entirely. Season 7 had its own sponsorship-inspired problems, as members of the Full Tilt Poker team (sponsors of seasons 1-6) did not appear on the show. 

High Stakes Poker Hosts

Over the 7 seasons of the show, High Stakes Poker has had a variety of hosts and presenters. A couple of these people were relative unknowns when they appeared on the show, while the color analysts have both had long careers in comedy. Like one would expect, all have a love for real-money poker games.  

Kara Scott

Kara Scott is a Canadian tv presenter and poker player, but most of her career was spent in the United Kingdom. She moved to the UK at age 22, where she started her broadcasting career as the host of the first-ever background program, the 2006 World Series of Backgammon. It was in covering the poker industry Kara Scott has stood out, though. She's worked as a presenter on Poker Night Live, while writing articles for Poker Player Magazine and Flush. She's also appeared in "On the Rail", a poker podcast created in the United Kingdom. Many poker fans in the UK may remember her face from the Sky Television channel 865 show "Sky Poker", while also being the tv host of Season 4 of the European Poker Tour. Some might recognize Kara Scott from an appearance in Danny John-Jules' Sucker Punch (not the Zack Snyder film). 

Since moving to Los Angeles in 2009, Kara Scott took over as co-host of High Stakes Poker, replacing AJ Benza. She was also a sideline reporter for ESPN's World Series of Poker 2011 Main Event. 

Norm MacDonald

Norm MacDonald first became known to the American public as a player on Saturday Night Live from 1993 to 1997. For three seasons, Norm MacDonald was the host of the “Weekend Update”, the news segment on SNL. He was known for an acerbic style that "told it like it was" on scandals of the day, such as O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson, while offending some viewers. It's said that Norm MacDonald's comedic influences were the odd pairing of Don Rickles and Bob Newhart. Norm MacDonald was also known for his impersonations, including Burt Reynolds, David Letterman, Larry King, and Bob Dole. 

Since leaving SNL, Norm MacDonald has appeared in a number of movies, while starring on a couple of his own sitcoms. His tv shows have include The Norm Show (1999), A Minute with Stan Hooper (2003), and Sports Show with Norm MacDonald (2011). None of these shows were hits, though MacDonald retained hard core of fans throughout these commercial failures. He's also had well-received guest appearances on television shows like Family Guy, Fairly Oddparents, and My Name Is Earl. Meanwhile, Norm has appeared in movies like the underrated Dirty Work, Man in the Moon, the Dr. Dolittle movies, and the Deuce Bigalow films. 

Gabe Kaplan

Gabe Kaplan is best known for creating and starring in the hit 1970s sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, the show which first made John Travolta a star. Before the show, Gabe Kaplan was a writer and a comedian. At a time, Kaplan was popular enough with US public that he was a captain on the Battle of the Network Stars, a 70s and 80s show which pitted the biggest celebrities from ABC, CBS, and NBC. He's responsible for one of the all-time great tv moments, when Gabe Kaplan defeated Robert Conrad in a grudge match footrace. 

Gabe Kaplan is also a respected professional poker player with a number of top finishes dating back to the early 1980s. As a successful entertainer, Gabe Kaplan pursued Texas holdem as a hobby, not a profession. As televised poker tournaments got bigger over the years, Kaplan worked as color commentator on ESPN's coverage of the World Series of Poker (eventually being replaced by Norm Chad). Gabe Kaplan co-hosted the first six seasons of High Stakes Poker, first alongside AJ Benza and later alongside Kara Scott. For season 7, Kaplan was replaced by Norm MacDonald. 

A.J. Benza

Alfred Joseph Benza is a gossip columnist and television broadcaster who hosted the first 5 seasons of High Stakes Poker. A.J. Benza was raised in Brooklyn, New York, and became a gossip columnist for first Newsday and later the New York Daily News. He first got national fame for appearances on E! Entertainment Television, then appeared on tv talk shows like Maury Povich, Montel Williams, Geraldo, and Hard Copy. AJ Benza had a role in the 2006 Rocky Balboa film, while appearing with other D-list celebrities on the Fox Reality program. After hosting High Stakes Poker for 5 seasons, he was replaced by Kara Scott. His parting shot was an open letter to GSN executives whose title can't be repeated in polite company. 

Broadcasts of the Program

Broadcast of the seasons on the Game Show Network followed an irregular pattern, as the first two seasons appeared in 2006, while the third and fourth seasons showed in 2007. After a one year hiatus, television's best cash game reappeared in 2009 and has since launched once per year. The producers have been Henry Orenstein and Mori Eskandani, while broadcast time per episode is 43 minutes (in a 1-hour block). In all, seven seasons have been shown, including 98 total episodes. 

Format of the Show

Throughout, the concept of the show has been consistent: broadcast a real-life cash game where the players stake themselves. This is much different than most television Texas holdem shows, which tend to follow a field of contestants in an organized poker tournament. In these events, people continue until they're eliminated, with tables being eliminated until only one exists. In this format, the final table is often given the lion's share of the coverage, after a certain buildup. 

High Stakes Poker has the action at one table and one table only, so at first glance, it has the appearance of a final table setting. The cash game is much different, though, since no one busts out if they don't want to bust out. Also, no formal winner is named. Like you would at a weekend game of cards with friends, players cash out when they decide to cash out. Winners and losers exist, but you can have several net winners or net losers sitting at the table. The cash game is how most of the professional poker players make their fame and fortune, as the big events with huge jackpots are a recent phenomenon. 

High Stakes Poker Season 1 - 2006

Throughout most seasons, players at the table needed to bring with them a minimum of $100,000. Since these players presumably were staking themselves, this added an edge to the events that doesn't exactly exist at the many poker tournaments. For instance, when Phil Hellmuth or Phil Ivey enter the World Series of Poker Main Event, they invest $10,000 to enter the event, with a chance to win $15,000,000 or more. When the big-money professionals bust out of that tournament, they might feel disappointment that they lost a chance to add an 8-figure prize to their winnings, along with the prestige, but they can't lose more than ten thousand. In a cash game, they can lose all they stake. 

The competitors in the first season of High Stakes Poker included professional poker players Doyle Brunson, Todd Brunson, Daniel Alaei, Johnny Chan, Freddy Deeb, Antonio Esfandiari, Sammy Farha, Ted Forrest, Barry Greenstein, Jennifer Harman, Phil Hellmuth Jr, Daniel Negreanu, Shawn Sheikhan, and Mimi Tran. Also among the players were LA Lakers owner Jerry Buss, restauranteur Fred Chamanara, businessman Eli Elezra, and physician Amir Nasseri. 

High Stakes Poker Season 2 - 2006

The field in season two consisted of Brad Booth, Fred Chamanara, Mike "The Mouth" Matusow, Amnon Filippi, Ted Forest, David Grey, Gus Hansen, John Juanda, Phil Laak, Erick Lindgren, Minh Ly, Michael Mizrachi, and Cody Zeidman. Familiar players like Doyle Brunson, Daniel Negreanu, Daniel Alaei, Phil "Unabomber" Laak, Eli Elazra, Todd Brunson, Antonio Esfandiari, and Sammy Farha appeared, as always. 

High Stakes Poker Season 3 - 2007

Mathematician William Chen, businessman Dan Harmetz, John D'Agostino, Chris Ferguson, Jamie Gold, Phil Ivey, Gabe Kaplan, Erick Lindgren, Daniel Shak, Shawn Sheikham, Brian Townsend, David Williams, and Paul Wasicka joined the action in Season 3. Returning players included like Doyle Brunson, Todd Brunson, Daniel Negreanu, David Benyamine, Mike Matusow, Patrik Antonius, Eli Elazra, Phil Laak, Daniel Alaei, Antonio Esfandiari, and Sammy Farha. 

High Stakes Poker 4th Season - 2007

The newest players in High Stakes Poker Season 4 included Professor Brandon Adams, hedge fund manager Mike Baxter, Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte, real estate partner Bob Safai, Peter Galfond, Antonio Solorio, and sports better Haralabos Voulgaris. Once again, crowd favorites like Doyle Brunson, Phil Laak, Daniel Negreanu, David Benyamine, Eli Elazra, Todd Brunson, Patrik Antonius, Antonio Esfandiari, Sammy Farha, and Phil Laak made appearances on the show. 

The fourth season's final episodes required players to bring $500,000 apiece to the felt. This season had 17 episodes and was said to have been quite popular with the younger demographic, perhaps because of the even higher stakes. The producers made a point to lure in big-money amateurs like Guy Laliberte, knowing this would lure many professionals who might not normally risk a half-million-dollar cash stack.

High Stakes Poker Season Five - 2009

In the fifth season, newest additions included actor Nick Cassavetes, Tom Dwan, Peter Eastgate, Full Tilt Poker co-founder Howard Lederer, David Peat, Ilari Sahamies, Sam Simon all appeared, while Mike Baxter made a reappearance. Once again, top players like Doyle Brunson, Daniel Negreanu, David Benyamine, Eli Elazra, Phil Laak, Antonio Esfandiari, and Patrik Antonius were a part of the proceedings. 

High Stakes Poker  Season 6 - 2010

Joining the proceedings in season 6 were Andreas Hoivold, Jason Mercier, Andrew Robl, Dennis Philips, Lex Veldhuis, and Dario Minieri, while Phil Hellmuth and Mike Matusow each made a return. Continuing contestants from the previous season were Doyle Brunson, David Benyamine, Daniel Negreanu, Phil Laak, Eli Elazra, Patrik Antonius, and Antonio Esfandiari, appeared as always.

High Stakes Poker  Season 7 - 2011

In the latest season of the show, people like Johnny Chan, David Peat, Haralabow Voulgaris, and Mike Baxter returned to the broadcasts. Pro gamblers like Robert Cloak, Jonathan Duhamel, Vanessa Selbst, and Phil Ruffin made their first appearances, while Jason Mercier and Andrew Robl appeared for the season season in a row. Mainstays like Doyle Brunson, Daniel Negreanu, Phil "Unabomber" Laak, and Antonio Esfandiari all appeared once more. When giving recaps of Texas hold'em events, it's customary to give a list of the 1st place winner. Since no overall winner existed, I'll demur on giving out the cash figures. In fact, if Mike Matusow is to be believed, it might be that the cash figures are immaterial--at least for most players on the show. This has something to do with a mini-controversy on High Stakes Poker and even a little to do with the show's abrupt cancellation. 

High Stakes Poker Cancelled

As the latest victim of Black Friday, the Game Show Network announced there would be no Season 8 in 2012. This was a bit of a shock for viewers, because the show was still popular with fans. While the later seasons might have dropped off a bit, this hardly warranted a cancellation. But if Mike Matusow's viewpoint is right, a deeper reason might exist. 

In one season, Mike Matusow and Phil Hellmuth got criticized for a hand they pulled back most of the money and bet a smaller amount. To defend himself, Mike Matusow posted online that he didn't like to play $100,000 hands (where the pot was), because he was playing with his own money, unlike many on the show. He went on to suggest that most of the other players on High Stakes Poker were playing with Full Tilt Poker money. In other words, the show had a sham element to it, because it was a paid advertisement for Full Tilt. If that's the case, then with Full Tilt Poker in trouble with the US authorities and those revenues dried up, it's no surprise that the Game Show Network program was cancelled.  

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