Premier Poker Punch-up
Residing in the UK gives the cable/satellite television viewer a plethora of poker products to muse over, select and devour at weird times of the day and night.
No it doesn’t. The home-grown products are nearly all so shockingly dire that you really have to be excited by a family birthday video to be able to squeeze enjoyment from them. American shows like High Stakes, Poker Superstars and WPT have much higher production values and are at times highly illuminating. Only John Duthie’s European Poker Tour has wit enough to carry you through the expanding minutes of nothing whilst players decide on a bet. Duthie himself often commentates on proceedings with a dry style and an uncanny ability to read players’ intentions with no accuracy whatsoever.
Along comes a new pretender, this time on terrestrial television, available to be seen by every man, woman and dog in the land who has an hour to spare at midnight. It’s called Premier League Poker and the front man is the ubiquitous and effervescent Jesse May. Since the early success of Late Night Poker (airing on the same channel as this new one), Jesse has been all over the poker broadcasts in the UK. Without dwelling on the point it is suffice to say that if you take away the tools of an artist, the end result will be something to forget. Some of his wacky cable shows needed to be forgotten. I found vodka helped immeasurably.
Don’t get me wrong, Jesse is a pal from the first Poker Million in the Isle of Man. He’s an American living in Denmark, spending all of his working days in Britain. It was the Isle of Man where I commissioned him for what turned out to be a very successful four-year stint covering the World Series for The GGG, the first of its kind. But what new element would there be in the Premier League to lift it into the realms of watchable TV? Frankly, my hopes were low.
First, it’s a league format. You score points in the early rounds depending on where you finish in each heat. So what? Well that does provide a reason for players to box, fox and weave around their opponents to try and score a points total that will secure a seat in the later stages of the event. ‘Done before’, I here you say.
Next the presentation. My heart sank in the opening minutes of heat number one when I was hit by a montage of technicolour swearing featuring Devilfish, Hellmuth and Tony G. Yes that’s what we need more of. Reach for the vodka. Switch on the laptop.
The line-up is impressive, though. Phil Hellmuth, Dave ‘The Devilfish’ Ulliott, Tony G, Andy Black, Kiril Gerasimov, Liz Lieu, Ian Fraser, Roland De Wolfe, Vicky Coren, Juha Helppi, Kenna James and Eddy Scharf. These are people you know and love to hate, or hate to love, or at least have something that you would like to do to them. This makes sense as screens full of players whose combined charisma makes for less than that of a dead dog just can’t keep a viewer watching. But still I need something more than this. A reason to once again connect up the old, now dying, video recorder, just like the old days of Late Night Poker.
Heat one gave me little to root for. Hellmuth, Tony G and The Fish were in form with their mouths but basically the tall American outplayed them all to take maximum points. Kenna James as guest co-commentator was less than inspirational. Jesse did his his best to fill in for the lack of chronology and I finished the 65-minute show thinking that I could have used that time to sort out that jammed waste diposal unit in my kitchen.
Moving on with video player electro-shocked back to life, remote in hand ready to watch heat two, I could only wonder at how that small bit in the vodka bottle would get me through the hour. And oh dear, Devilfish was commentating. But hey! Guess what? The Fish had stopped being the egocentric, vile bile-spewing nutter from the east coast and turned into the giver of knowledge, the reader of plays, the doyen of card players. I liked it. I liked him. And I was sober.
Heat three was even better. This time Hellmuth took the chair beside Jesse and all of (well, most of) his unpleasantness had vanished and he too delivered the insights that only the best tournament hold’em player in the world could do. This may well be what we’ve been waiting for. Not just a good poker show but the realisation that away from the table and the cameras these people can be decent humans. Heat four and Tony G stunned me in the same way, not least because he knew more than I would have ever given him credit for.
Heat Five airs Tuesday at midnight on Channel 4. Hellmuth is way out in front. Vicky Coren is the guest clairvoyant. Something tells me that the Princess of Poker will not be able reach the heady heights of the others. But I will be watching!