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High Stakes Poker

An Interview With Kevin Belinkoff

Part 2

By Justin West


Last week you read the first part of my interview with Kevin Belinkoff, VP of gaming over at GSN. Formerly "The Game Show Network," GSN has brought us the wonderfully refreshing High Stakes Poker, a televised no-limit cash game featuring some of the most notable faces in poker.

Doyle Brunson returns this year, along with Daniel Negreanu, Sam Farha, and Barry Greenstein. New to this season are magician-turned-poker-pro Antonio Esfandiari, Todd Brunson, Jennifer Harman, and more.

You won't find any silly glass-plate cameras in this show, as High Stakes Poker features Henry Orenstein's patented (literally) in-table 'lipstick' cameras, first featured on the World Poker Tour. Orenstein actually produces the show, and the production quality is just as high as one might expect.

Without further ado, I give you part two.

Kevin BelinkoffJustin West: What are some changes that you made going into season 2?

Kevin Belinkoff: We were at the Golden Nugget for our first season but we're over at The Palms now. We've also got more players coming in, different players. Other than that, the game kind of changes on its own. Within every hand or every several hands there's always a sense of new excitement and new energy. That, and because it's different than a tournament, the players' personalities come out through the game play. You're going to have certain players that play more aggressively, some that play more passively.

The head games that go on are just amazing. I'm a pretty good poker player but if I sat at this table they'd eat me up, psychologically. Even if I were to get good cards every hand I'd still lose money. That's what these guys really are experts at. It's like watching a poker school, to see players at this level. Some of the less experienced players - less skilled players - they'll hang in there for a short time, but in the long run the pros are gonna kill 'em because they're not afraid to lose. You know, Daniel Negreanu lost hundreds of thousands of dollars the first season and didn't blink... just another day at the office.

Justin West: How long does the filming of a season take?

Kevin Belinkoff: We shot two 14-hour games at The Palms. There were even some players that played 14 straight hours of poker. We'd have to take breaks for the crew and they'd just continue to play. That's just the dynamic of what goes on. When we set forth to do this show we wanted to simulate what would really happen at one of these cash games as best we could. Everything from our set - which is kind of a high-end, exclusive suite - to the blind structure... how the whole game was put together.

Justin West: Do you think the presence of the in-table 'lipstick' cameras affects the way the hands are played?

Kevin Belinkoff: These day's it doesn't. When the cameras first came about there was a lot of talk about how players were going to have to change their game. If anything, it's made the players better to the extent that they have to mix up their play a little more, and they don't want to be embarrassed on television. Gabe will point that out quite a bit. There were one or two times in our first season when he referred to a hand, he said: "That's a call for television."

You don't want to get bluffed on TV. The players, actually - and this was one of the interesting things we found as we came back for the second season - they study the game; they watch the show. Not just because it's entertaining and they want to enjoy a television show, but also to learn, to watch their play, to watch the play of the other players. They really want to improve their abilities and their skills, and that's one of the ways they do it.

Justin West: The growth of poker has been incredibly exponential in nature, and I think television has a lot to do with it. Do you think we've reached a plateau in poker's popularity, or is the sky the limit?

Kevin Belinkoff: I think in terms of poker ratings on television, they've kind of leveled off. They haven't really exploded at the pace they did a few years ago. One of the things with our High Stakes Poker that we're really excited about is that it's different. I think that's been, really, the measure of its success.

The poker that's still popping up on television is very similar to what you've already been able to see. The WSOP has glamour to it, and the WPT really forged its way forward as well, and nothing after that has really been able to take hold until we did High Stakes Poker. And it's because it's an alternative to the other poker shows, an alternative to what people have already seen.

Only the best can play. We're never going to drop the $100,000 requirement because that buy-in means that you're either very good, or very rich and stupid. Of course, we take the "very good" side. Even the amateurs that play are incredible poker players. You have to be a good poker player to sit down with six figures in front of you. That's why it's done, as well. I don't think poker will continue to explode at the rate it did a few years ago, but hopefully we've got a third alternative for people to watch.

Justin West: Have you received any feedback about the show from the players, themselves?

Kevin Belinkoff: Oh, yeah. The players love it! Daniel Negreanu, particularly, has said it's the best poker on television. If you're watching the WSOP you're going get a good level of play, but it's a tournament. It's open to the public. It's like watching a marathon. Ours is like the NBA of poker.

I was talking to one writer and I said: "You don't get to see Roger Clemens pitch against Willie Mays." But here, on High Stakes Poker, you do. These are the best poker players that have ever lived, sitting down, playing with their own money for an extended period of time. There are no restrictions in terms as in a tournament where the blinds have to escalate at a specific pace so that they can fit it into a TV show. There are some episodes that take place almost in real time for us just because of the way the poker played out.

Justin West: So what are the blinds, actually?

Kevin Belinkoff: It's a $100 ante with $300 and $600 blinds. That's never changed. We talked about changing it, but until we see a need to, we won't. I don't know what the average pot is, but pots can quickly escalate to several hundred thousand dollars.

We had a hand in the first season in which Barry Greenstein lost $190,000 on a single hand of poker, which at that point was the most ever lost on a televised poker show. Barry had pocket aces and Sammy Farha had pocket kings. They each had a couple hundred thousand dollars in front of them and it all went in the pot.

The pots are even higher in the second season, too. You're at the mercy of the cards, but when you've got players that aren't afraid to lose that kind of money, even without a premium hand, they're going to push it out there.

Justin West: Would you say that High Stakes Poker is geared towards a more intelligent poker audience?

Kevin Belinkoff: That's actually a very good question. The people that are good poker players, experienced poker players, knowledgeable poker players... they watch it on an entirely different level from somebody who knows the basics of poker and likes to watch poker on television, but really is excited by the entertainment value of watching these players, these high stakes gamblers, push out their own money. Everybody gets something different out of it.

Justin West: So with all these jokesters crammed into one room… any good stories to tell?

Kevin Belinkoff: Oh, there's so many! It's just amazing to watch these players do what they do. We were worried, "Oh, they're not gonna talk at the table." They don't shut up at the table! It has nothing to do with the cameras. When Phil Hellmuth walked in during the first season Daniel Negreanu looked at the camera and said: "Oh, yum, yum! I'm gonna get even!" This is one of his best friends, and he was totally serious!

There was a great conversation that took place in the second season - Mike Matusow started it - over who the most famous poker players were. You're watching these guys at the table discuss who's the most famous poker player. I'm a big baseball fan, you know. It's as if I'm at the baseball hall of fame and Johnny Bench is sitting there discussing with Carlton Fisk who the greatest catcher of all time is. To be able to sit and hear that stuff is just amazing.

So it really is the cream of the crop in terms of poker players, and just an insight on what they do. This is just another day at the office for these guys. The stakes are a little higher than they would normally play, but that's not by their choice, it's just generally they can't get a game together. But our game brings in the amateurs from out of town, the players from all around Vegas, and players from all around the country that want to play.

Justin West: Seems to me that they couldn't turn it down. The value for the players is incredible, it's not raked, they get national exposure, and the potential for profit is huge.

Kevin Belinkoff: Well, we had an interesting thing happen, where there were a number of players we heard from after we aired our first season, or in the middle of it, saying: "When are you gonna come back?! We gotta find out... I wanna be part of that." And of course, we extended a number of invitations for the second season to people that hadn't played before. And then the interest started to wane as we got closer and closer. The reason that we were always given was: "I don't wanna lose to these guys! I don't wanna go on TV and lose my $100k!" And these are some pretty big names out there.

So, it's still the best game, and the players that have the fortitude to sit down and play, they're running a risk but for those that want to be part of the biggest game there is then this is where they come

High Stakes Poker airs Monday nights at 9:00pm (8:00 central) on GSN , with the new season kicking off on June 5 .

Part I | Part II

More Interviews

Justin West Justin West played poker since the age of 17, he spent more than a year earning a living on the green felt; a modest living, to be sure, but a living nonetheless. His aim was at one point to win the WSOP main event, thus causing Hell to freeze over. However, given his penchant for sin and his extreme dislike of cold weather, Justin has put that dream to rest.

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