High Stakes Poker season 7 premiere review – spoilers within [Monday Editorial]
Monday, 28 February 2011
Being a United Kingdomer rather than a United Stater I was several hours behind the majority of the poker-playing world in watching the first episode of the seventh season of High Stakes Poker. By the time I had gotten around to it, I had seen the #HighStakesPoker hashtag on my Twitter feed light up furiously with hatred for Norm McDonald; the viewers lamenting the lack of an Ivey-Dwan-Antonius triple threat; some people even complained about the new setting at the Bellagio.
Generally, when everyone loves something I tend to hate it or at least try to. Perversely, when there’s so much hating going on I’m again inclined to buck the trend and had a good feeling about the new show. That said, I was dubious when I began watching the new-look High Stakes Poker: more so just a few seconds in when the changes were highlighted in an extended intro from Kara Scott. It wasn’t looking good, especially not when Norm McDonald first appeared on screen. Not only does he look like some kind of android, he looked like some kind of android who was pretty nervous about this gig and was absolutely not Gabe Kaplan. But, to the action...
Well, I couldn’t complain about that. Two $400,000 pots within the first twelve minutes of play was a nice touch from the dealers – first Vanessa Selbst ran her overpair into a set (“I just put it in based on the information I had,” she said regretfully – we’ve all been there, eh lads?) before David “Viffer” Peat flipped with a pair and a flush draw against aces. PokerStars Pro Selbst is doing an excellent job of taking up the mantle of durrrr, splashing around in a lot of pots and playing, well... with a lot of balls. Also, the inclusion of several fish (the politically correct term is “businessmen”) is a great touch.
The action is good and the look is good – Kara Scott still, er, looks good and the format of the programme is largely unchanged from the well-received season six. But how, you cry, does Norm McDonald perform in the wake of the poker community’s favourite commentator Gabe Kaplan? The former TV star turned poker player and host has something of a legacy among televised poker fans.
Well, I’d never heard of Norm McDonald before the announcement that he was to be hosting. A Canadian comedian, McDonald has had stints on Saturday Night Live and has performed stand-up comedy for decades. He certainly has the CV and the accolades of industry peers but you know poker fans: we’re a savage and fickle bunch who don’t care what awards or honours you’ve received, only whether you can call the action for the most popular high stakes cash game on television?
The main gripe that people had with the choice of McDonald in the run-up to this premiere was that Gabe Kaplan had played poker at fairly high stakes for years; had known many of the players for decades and was truly a part of our poker world as much as Barry Greenstein or Antonio Esfandiari are sitting at the felt on High Stakes Poker. McDonald simply is not Kaplan.
However, McDonald has played poker for years – hell, he’s a middle-aged man from North America and it would be surprising if he hadn’t. He even had a 20th place finish at a $3,000 NL event in 2007 at the World Series of Poker. He has – wisely – opted for a less analytical approach to the commentary than Kaplan offered, however. Think of his style as being more like Poker After Dark’s Ali Nejad. Rather than going for an account of thought processes as hands play out, he tends to call the action as it happens while bringing his dry humour to the table.
Overall, I’d say he did a fine job. If I had to grade him he’d get a C+. It wasn’t amazing but it was funny at times, never mind-numbingly stupid and only debatable on a couple of occasions. Over the season I wouldn’t be surprised if he improves as he falls into a natural rhythm and becomes more accustomed to the game. Gabe was a natural and despite losing ground when separated from five-season wingman AJ Benza, he was a favourite of the High Stakes Poker viewer.
Is Norm better than Gabe as the High Stakes Poker host? I wouldn’t say so. Not yet, at any rate. Was he bad? Not by a long shot. People are giving him far too much of a hard time, in my opinion, but people don’t like change so it is to be expected. This is High Stakes Poker, but not as we know it. It might take some getting used to but we’ll still all watch it like the poker-addicted sheep we are.