This is a guest article written by Rich Glanzer, edited for publication by PartTimePoker’s Alex Weldon.
Back in 2014, a group of professional poker players sat down to play a cash game and shoot the pilot episode for a new experiment in televised poker. It didn’t take long for sparks to fly.
Mike Matusow had gone all-in with a pair of Jacks on a 10/5/5/4 board. Shaun Deeb tanked for what seemed like minutes, but was in reality only 26 seconds. Deeb turned over pocket 5s, for four-of-a-kind. Quads. It was an epic slow roll. Every single person at the table cracked up laughing with the exception of Matusow, Kristy Arnett and the dealer. Arnett, seated next to Matusow, had her mouth wide open in shock. The dealer did a poor job hiding his smirk.
Matusow threatened to punch Deeb in the face.
Poker Night in America was born.
It might get loud
Matusow left the table and production had to shut down for 30 minutes. Todd Anderson, the creator of Poker Night in America, or PNIA for short, didn’t mind. This was the first crisis and although the slow roll was unplanned, it did a great job of setting the tone. This wasn’t going to be your regular poker show. As Anderson said, “We’re gonna push the envelope. Playing it safe goes against my personality and it doesn’t jive with poker.”
Having fun with poker is important to Anderson. Like many, Anderson plays for the love of the game, not to chase fame, fortune and World Series of Poker bracelets, although those things would be nice.
What Anderson was after was to put on a show to entertain the masses, not just the poker rounders. He says, “Poker was getting kinda boring, so we wanted to make it interesting.” For Anderson that meant that the show couldn’t just be about blind steals and optimal play. He decided that the only hands that would make the broadcast would be big pots, or periods of entertaining table banter. “Preferably both,” Anderson added.
Anderson decided in order to produce table dynamics with broad appeal, he needed not only the most recognizable faces, but also to keep the stakes low enough that fun could be had at the table. No matter how rich the players are, a $500,000 pot will silence even the most talkative poker pro, so Anderson fixed the blinds at $25/$50, hoping that would be the sweet spot capable of producing big enough pots to generate excitement, while still keeping the conversation flowing.
Anderson said, “We’re trying to make the game light. It’s real money but it’s not so outlandishly high that people are only worried about the money. The best compliment I receive is when a man tells me that he likes my show, and his wife also likes my show. That’s what we’re going for, a wider appeal. If you just preach to the choir, you’re not going to grow.”
Nits not welcome
David “ODB” Baker is a PNIA regular. According to the Hendon Mob, ODB has won more than $4 million in live tournaments. That $4 million comes in handy, because on PNIA, ODB is no “nit.”
“Nit” is poker slang for a tight player, that is, someone who doesn’t freely put their chips in the pot. Tight players can make a lot of money, but they also make for boring television. Baker says that if you play like a nit on PNIA, you won’t get invited back.
“If you’re there to play perfect poker, you won’t be on again. You have to try to do things. Sometimes if I raise and my opponent re-raises, I might just call or re-raise them, just because it’s part of the show. I know it’s not the correct play, but we’re there to have fun. It’s ok to have the worst hand.”
Samantha Abernathy understands. In perhaps the most famous hand in PNIA history, she risked thousands, not only to make Mike Dentale fold a monster hand, but also because it would make great TV.
Abernathy is a 26-year-old player with more than 130,000 followers on Instagram. Dentale is a 47-year-old old-school New Yorker. The only thing bigger than his personality may be his biceps.
The contrast between the two couldn’t be more distinct. Yet at the poker table, Dentale’s brawn and Abernathy’s beauty have no bearing. It’s why so many people love poker. No fan could beat LeBron James in basketball, hit a Clayton Kershaw fastball, or defeat Brock Lesnar in an MMA match. But on the poker felt, Abernathy vs. Dentale is a fair matchup.
Here’s how the hand played out. It was season two of the show, being shot at the Turning Stone Resort and Casino in New York. Dentale had Ace-King, with the board reading: King of Spades, Nine of Hearts, Five of Spades, Five of Clubs and Queen of Spades. Abernathy had an Eight and a Six. Dentale had top pair, top kicker, a monster hand. Abernathy couldn’t even beat the board.
When the third Spade hit on the river, Abernathy bet $6,200 to make a pot of $14,125. There were a lot of hands she could have that would beat Dentale’s: a flush, of course, but also a straight to the King, trips or a full house, even just King-Queen for a better two pair than the Five made for Dentale. Dentale thought long and hard. It was a tough spot. The Queen of Spades was the worst card in the deck for his hand, and Abernathy knew it. On any other show, hell, probably in most home games, everyone would shut up and let the man think. They
would give Dentale the respect that they would want if they were in his shoes.
A difference in etiquette
But Poker Night in America isn’t a golf match. There are no hushed tones.
The players all continued chatting between themselves until finally Dentale had taken so long they decided to talk directly to him. One player even got a look at his hand while it was live. Dentale showed his Ace-King to explain his agony. His gut told him his hand was still good. But, pained, he had to admit, “The biggest problem for me was the river card completed everything.”
A fellow player, Mike Sigel grew impatient. He actually told Dentale, “All you have is Ace-King? Come on, throw that hand away and let’s play another hand.”
This is an egregious violation under normal circumstances. You are not allowed to tell another player what to do. Try saying this at your local casino, or actually don’t. Take my word for it that it won’t go over well.
But, as ODB explains, “Some of the antics on PNIA don’t fly in a normal game. But in our game it’s fine.”
Dentale eventually folded, and Abernathy showed her bluff to Dentale, as she’d promised him she would.
After such a big pot and emotions running high, you would expect the table to either settle down and be quiet, or try to make Dentale feel better. After all, $14,125 is not chump change to Dentale. Instead, the table erupted. Abernathy and a few others showed class and tried to stop the heckling. It didn’t work.
Dentale immediately took his frustration out on Sigel. With only the dealer between them, Dentale leaned over and told Sigel, “You made me fold. I folded because of you.” Sigel seemed uninterested and said, “Alright, I’ll take the blame.” For the record, Dentale was bluffing. He admits now, “No it didn’t affect my decision. I just wanted him to feel guilty for opening his mouth.”
Once again the play and table talk came about naturally, but the tone was set. If you’re looking for sympathy after losing a huge pot or even just avoid being needled endlessly, Poker Night in America isn’t the place for you.
Adrenaline, not testosterone
On the other hand, Anderson says that if you’re a woman, Poker Night in America is exactly the place for you. Anderson laments that prior poker shows haven’t featured enough women for his liking. He understands why, that it’s just about demographics. He says, “I like to see more and more women play poker. It’s hard to grow if only one gender is playing. Let’s say at the WSOP, 5% of the players are women. That’s pretty low. That’s just too low.”
PNIA regular Esther Taylor – or “E-Tay” as she is known in the poker world – agrees. She says, “I’ve been playing poker for 10 years. The amount of women playing poker increases every year, and by a lot. But the numbers are still too low.” Anderson says he’s trying to change that. The PNIA creator says, “It’s a concerted effort to bring women into the game.”
E-Tay has noticed. She says, “Poker Night in America is doing a great job because there is typically at least one or more women sitting at the table on almost every show. Some of these women aren’t pros. Some are actresses or business owners. It shows you can be any type of woman and enjoy playing poker.”
E-Tay adds that the men at PNIA make her feel welcome. “This is what I love about poker. I’m a 5’2” little Asian woman. Through poker, Mike Dentale is a good friend of mine. Our paths would never cross if it wasn’t for poker. To me, this is the coolest aspect about poker.”
Perhaps E-Tay’s and Dentale’s friendship epitomizes PNIA. Two vastly different people, sitting down at the table getting to know each other, playing for stakes that won’t make or break them, and having a blast while doing it. Because Anderson feels if the players have fun playing, the viewers will have fun viewing.
That’s poker folks.
(Poker Night in America airs Monday Night’s 10 p.m. eastern on the CBS Sports Network. The show debuted in 2014 and has aired approximately 150 shows over 5 seasons.)