Our theme, if you’ve been keeping up, has been looking closely at the pattern of images, the only way to truly analyze what is going on in the video medium, because that is the moving canvas of the work – no matter if you are Fellini or a humble poker vlogger. It’s just welded right into the structure. However, much as in the music theater known as opera, and the later “total work” which amazed and thrilled both the highest and lowest tastes before the easier distribution of film, there is still so much going on in visual entertainments, it’s easy to miss the entire, ah, picture.
I’m specifically thinking of this today because of the rather well-meaning dialogue over what needs to be improved in poker video productions, recently rejuvenated by two poker elephants on poker Twitter. They aren’t the first, naturally, nor will they be the last, to opine on the subject. After all, nothing ever will stop a poker player from complaining – clearly a key skill set for our scene. If you mount a spectacle, we’ll find a fault with it; see every tournament structure ever.
Nevertheless, the bigwigs badly missed two key and organic points of why some poker shows are more successful than others. As a side note, the irony for poker players, but not the main issue, lies not in their attempts to quantify what worked and what could work again, yet in the simple fact that it is a range of qualities that can appeal to the viewer, and not just one hand, that one must come to grips with. In other words, it’s very, very easy to be distracted by certain elements in evaluating what works, because single, strong performances based on one aspect succeeding can be, shall we say, results-oriented.
The mistake in understanding why many poker viewers are not satisfied but were satisfied and are sometimes now satisfied lies both in the range of what must go into the medium. The “total work,” the maturely developed opera, was such a phantasmagoria of possibilities and troubles that creators who truly satisfied the public were few and far between. Many composers who were otherwise legendary, including Beethoven himself, were not really up to the task. Just as was said of his mastery of counterpoint, he only “half-wrestled the demon” of the musical drama before calling it a day.
So it is for our more down to earth poker programming. We ask for and lean on, as Beethoven did, a few well-polished points – the interest level of the stakes, the celebrity of the players, the entertainment and expertise of the commentators. It’s a lot, yet the general case is that someone is invariably satisfied and someone else invariably dissatisfied.
What they all agree on, as the bigwigs do, was the excellence of High Stakes Poker, essentially the Rounders of poker play television. They pointed to several items, but mainly the nature of the characters. Of course, these can’t be repeated. No one can re-summon the magic of the right time and place – see Star Wars. However, that doesn’t mean the sci-fi epic simply died as a genre set piece. Now why is that?
For two very simple, related reasons – the very same ones that discussions of how to reinvigorate poker programming keep missing: the layers of drama that any good writer and camera work plus editor will provide. And that is the point of HSP’s first five seasons – a highly written vaudeville with classic emotive film technique. We don’t have to look to the other universe of music to understand our problem with poker programming and the promotion of the game, but to the basics of television.
You see, point one is that High Stakes Poker was a classic vaudeville performance. It had a primitive structure which every rich television and Hollywood producer knows. The hosts, Gabe Kaplan and AJ Benza, were fun of course, but they were nothing without their writers. Much as with advertising, you didn’t know you were falling for what they were doing, but they made the show work because their subplot and book-ending to nearly every scene is absolutely vital for the catharsis-seeking human mind. To restate, one first raises, yes, the stakes, then satisfies them. This artifice takes pressure off the game to entertain, and allows it to breathe. It’s not really the same as jokes and strat talk, which I will explain.
Now, a poor reader will simply say, but Chris, that’s stupid, we’re always talking about the commentators and what we want from commentary. You see, I’m not talking about that. The commentary, if you listen to it, wasn’t even that great! I’m talking about the subplot provided by the two hosts, one which was very cleverly written. AJ and Gabe perform the classic misdirection of having a simultaneous feud and a master/apprentice relationship. The heart of the success of the show, of course, was the players, but the skeleton was the sage efforts of the writers. Our hosts are not today’s buddy-buddy tour guides who fall over themselves trying to relay information to you, but characters with desires, motivations, and thus, conflicts. (It’s a big clue that no one ever, ever talks about those writers or even knows who they are.) Through this mediation the entertainment of the game becomes theater magic, and not just a competition.
This is easily demonstrated. For one thing, you barely saw any hands each episode! In today’s live stream/continuous coverage style, we see far more poker. The problem is, the viewer, without knowing it, doesn’t want that. He wants drama. Again, the objection is, but Persuadeo, we’ve mentioned that! We said we may need production! Again, the good reader will observe I’m not just talking about produced shows, but shows supported by the structure of a subplot, comedy, vaudeville. For HSP, the supporting structure was not the hosts per se, but the relationship of the hosts which was the context the game took place in.
For instance, as much as you long for HSP, you don’t exactly think of the final seasons. While Gabe was able on his own, the move to add Kara Scott, who is professional, lovely, and beyond reproach, was in fact the beginning of the end. Because now, we go the route of the lust object providing, on the surface, what you think you want: distraction, interviews and additional commentary. You think you want this, you tell people you want this, the bigwigs confirm you want this, but what your mind really craves is plot and subplot, aka drama. There was no conflict and resolution between Gabe and Kara, absolutely zero, and so the deeper dimension your mind seeks lies unattended, barren, listing.
Consider also the last season of HSP, rather painfully well set-up by casting. It was a fabulous one- on paper. We had the classic setup of pros versus fish. The pros were actually entertaining as ever, the hands often compelling, the businessmen whales as whaley as ever, the new host dry and humorous, yet no one names season seven as their favorite. Why? It’s because it was too raw for you, too simple: the veil had been lifted. The magic of subplot and misdirection that seduces the mind had fled the studio. The interlocution of dramatic structure was absent. The viewer, always a little reluctant, must needs be coddled with this formula, cajoled into the mood by the flow and layer of plot and thus forced identification with the characters.
And that is what no one really does much anymore. The structural element of a performance just can’t be disregarded, certainly not in cash game shows. Really, not even in the humble vlog. Now, of course, yes, yes, yes we can trust the patter of inanities by Joe Stapleton or Ali Nejad or Norman Chad to keep us from completely squirming, or lean on the expertise of Nick Schulman to carry us through on learning alone, but these flash points, much as Kara was, are at heart but cheap tricks compared to the universal need for conflict and catharsis that even a minimal dramatic structure provides.
And that’s just one element, which surely can’t account for everything – and of course it doesn’t. There is also a glaring, giant gulf in visual pattern between early HSP, later HSP, and other poker shows. The language of the camera is extremely personal in the early seasons, where we see endless one shots – real close ups and medium close ups – and timely jumps and matches between them. That’s a story, even without words. In many cases, the action of the hands is simply disregarded to focus on the rivalries and conflicts between players – pure genius compared to today’s literalist editing. This old-school production hustle brings us, in the manner of the wallet photo of your child or loved one, to the poker player. Much editing is done later to accomplish this soap-opera effect, and the result is marked: we aren’t just focused on the characters as much as the game, the characters are actually being created. This is the magic of expert visual story telling. If you were under the impression that they had a lot more character in those old days, you may be right but we’ll never know – because with this classic camera and editing wizardry being replaced by wide angle shots and medium two shots as the series closed and others began,we completely lose the story as told by the characters through the lens, and instead default to other, lesser plot clues, chiefly sounds such as table noise, pot and bet sizes, strategy and an over-reliance on commentator interpretation… uh, sound familiar?
This in many ways is more important than whatever written subplots are manipulating us, because we are in a visual medium. The more expansive but less sweaty contemporary approach pales as a story telling mechanism, as we are distanced from the object of the camera’s love all too often. On Pokerstar’s Big Game, for example, we have one shots but they are never as close up – the modern poker program prefers big, beautiful frames under the misapprehension that they create the moment, but all this generally sounds is an impersonal note, one that is too wise and lofty for the parlor game of poker. And by the time we get to Pokergo? The CUs are there, but they often simply follow the action rather than the interaction – key, subtle difference. (Not that one should be complaining – to get all those CUs and MCUs during a live stream is impressive. The talent, just not the structure, is there.)
Think back to our HSP season seven discussion: despite more money, equipment, a famous comedian as host, the camera work bombed, being all tableaus, two shots, and MCUs which didn’t invite us into the minds of the players. (It’s not CGI which made people love Star Wars, in other words, but tell that to pokerplayers, apparently.) Today’s producers, in their zest, love the game as landscape, see it as a kind of party, and want to show off their better “production value” (there’s an epic phrase of consumer stupidity), all while joining the elephants paying lip-service to personality in the game and trying to give the players what they want. The idea of poker as a party we want to watch always must appeal to the easy money types and surface thinkers, as what could be better than a fun time? THEY’LL LOVE IT, RITE??? The real answer is that we want to be inside the characters’ heads, to feel what they feel. Watching some dorks have a good time for three hours is frankly, just kind of sad: RIP Friday Night Poker, goodbye floating emojis.
But they don’t know much of what they want; who does? Asking players for opinions on what works is like getting your politics from polls. The bigwigs leading the blind and vice versa is not how greatness is achieved. In other words, the message really is the medium, and there is no substitute for expertise in the language of your craft. Our poker elephants and even less wise twits and wits may squabble and huff and puff, but this discussion – really the only one that matters in a filmic medium – is one of the prime reasons you feel such nostalgia for the great, early days of HSP: the real pros were not just on the table, but straining behind cameras and laboring on their computers, working you over. Appropriate enough – and of course poker players, those clever masters of information, never saw it happening.
Now, to wrap up, what did I mean by range? I’m referring to the easily understood idea that of course certain situations will simply take care of themselves. For instance, the Full Tilt Million Dollar Cash Game had far less exterior structural support, but in that case, the novelty and drama of such great players playing for such high stakes took care of itself. (The awed silliness of the commentators in this situation helped provide mood – hard to duplicate that. The reality is you want Tuchman 2009 not 2019 for good television, not an easy concept I know, but hopefully this essay gives you a hint why.) Some games, often sporadically, are so outrageous the viewer can’t help but be entertained; see LATB. But much as for Star Wars, you can’t just repeat that conflagration over and over again and expect the same response. A deeper structure has to make fresh that which is old – and that is what strong, simple television writing can provide. That is, if we are smart enough to see past what we think we want, and embrace what we actually need.
I’m not counting on it. Let’s look at a couple vlogs.
Addendum 8/27/2019: If it is not mentioned above, and that would make sense given the focus on image pattern, it’s worth noting something about poker table talk. It’s been taken as a given that the audience wants to hear the talk, which is fair, but I noticed many spots where a big hand was being played out on HSP. Total silence and intense drama. The moral is, making too simple conclusions rather than seeing the big picture leads to too simple outcomes.
Jaman Burton is a likable fellow who runs a light-hearted vlog. Burton has taken the viewer for now four arbitrary seasons of episodes. I suppose it’s a nice touch. Order is helpful, especially in the sea of amateur content where things can easily be lost. However, given that the order of videos does not run consecutively and I can’t easily find episode one, I’m not sure of the point. It appears to be the “Heatwave” episode in one list, but the comments indicate the vlog had already been running.
In any case, this episode is apparently day one of a WSOP visit in 2017. It’s light stuff, travel-focused, and set to splashy California dance-synth stuff. It might be awful in someone else’s hands, the gym and eating and walking around, but Jaman is so agreeable it seems reasonable to follow him through such quotidian stuff. He wears a Justin Bieber t-shirt. He’s up and then down at the game, and then he’s sleepy. Fair enough. The episode suddenly ends, with no discernible point but the travelogue, except for the plain observation that he won’t see us soon, we’ll see him. A vlog with so light and unpretentious a touch it’s almost disconcerting.
In the next episode, Jaman immediately begins to show some signs of style. Again, sparse but guiding commentary. He dares to go without music in one patch, giving us the sounds of the strip, before reverting to the California scene jam. It’s the jump cuts and shaky cam that give him the beginnings of distinction, however, as he seems to have a good sense of rhythm. His quick tour of the Bellagio conservatory is authentic and pleasant. Unlike many narrators, he convincingly seems to be sharing his thoughts as they come, and leaves us with no trace of anxiety – Jaman is a man who lives in a peaceful state. With less than a few dozen words, he’s managed to show his mundane day in a nice, easy light. What’s happening is he is using the phone camera well, telling the story in pure visuals. The question is, how will all this develop? What is our payoff? Is the vlog as airy as the soundtrack? Is he a flower in the conservatory? Even the vlogs’s title promises us some “good” form of racism.
Then, at last some poker. He shows some chops, squeezing in one situation with an ace wheel, then raising to a non-polarizing size in the right spot. Promising, and no painful analysis. Later he misplays a merged holding, but again, no fuss. It’s enough to put one in the mood to take a few hands in our game. In between, some health tips for shoeless pedestrians. This vlog seems to be purely “good for poker,” as the hand-wringers like to say.
However, in episode three, more reminders of his editing time and more time with his pal Dan. We’re getting self-referential, and need to know where this vlog is headed. Hints of fancier editing already, and there will be the drone coverage a few episodes later, as well as some pre-packaged effects. We need to know more about Jaman if this vlog is going to leave the ground and distinguish itself.
By the episode “Playing Poker with Good Problems,” we start to see post-hand analysis and graphics, starting with one where he takes advantage of a sizing error by his friend. Jaman is also a little more feisty now, growing comfortable with his vlog, perhaps. He appears to be a traveler, now in yet another location in what seems to be his Missouri home. In “Upstuck,” we’re promised maybe, at least the illusion of trouble. At this point, Jaman has added significant graphic interest to his visuals, including intersecting clips of film for emotional commentary, but the main pattern is the image of his right hand with cards and chips, then off-table one shots. It’s a relaxing, non-confrontational vlog. The “Drawing Dead” opening motif belies the low-key content.
Skipping ahead a few episodes, Jaman continues to be easy watching and listening. Is this entirely a quality or somewhat of a drawback? That will depend on the viewer and what he wants. As the idiots like to say, “it is what it is.” A small wave of poker players is currently learning poker from vloggers. Of course, this is a significant benefit to the game, as most of them are pretty poor and will not rise far without more serious investigation to the complexities and wonders of hold’em. From Jaman, in addition to the very smooth viewing, you’ll get a slightly looser, standard game with simplistic sizings, that will surely beat the live, low-stakes. Jaman’s surprising number of subscribers indicate that his approach is satisfying, and I can imagine the no-drama, relaxing appeal to the recreational player who loves the game. It is what it is, and that is what makes this sunny vlog a winner.
However, I may be judging a past Jaman at this point. There’s a lot more to watch (he appears to have multiple playlists, meaning he possibly has nearly 200 videos or more), and hints of big changes abound. Jaman appears to get involved with the meet-up game scene and the various other vloggers. His production value continues to improve and complicate. By a May 2019 episode, Jaman is using a comic book inspired hand presentation. His poker terminology has changed, and his analysis deepened. His voice is more assertive. However in a hand where he rivers the nuts, Jaman makes a polarization error, betting too small on the end given the formation. It’s a call back to one of the earlier episodes, where he was snapped and gives us the folkish advice that this means we bet too small. It is what it is: change is slow and hard, just like poker itself. What also hasn’t changed is that Jaman continues to be a steady voice in poker vlogging, and likely here to stay.
It’s tough to follow in Neeme’s (now slowing) footsteps, yet the full deck is in play at this point, with new vlogs popping up weekly. If Neeme is the ace-king, the relatively recent but established Ben Deach seems to be the ace-seven of the poker vlogger movement. This one is very competently produced. The problem is, Ben is the kind of person, despite his clear-weather demeanor, you don’t exactly want to root for.
In one blog he complains about how the games are bad, but the hands he describes indicate they are rather weak-tight and therefore just fine. He cools off a maniac in episode 31, while complaining that he had not made “my straight,” as if the board owed him some future hand, in classic dull reg language. He value bets and gets a better hand to fold. (His idea that the Peppermill is full of sharks is admittedly funny.) Uneasily, I peek ahead and it appears Ben is something of a poker celebrity hunter, with all sorts of our d-list types showing up across more than fifty episodes. Fair enough, though: the vlog movement has recreated and reorganized the home game into the casino using social media. That’s great, and the MUGgles keep ever-more ashen Andrew in the black.
I shake it off and give him a chance. After all, Ben’s got a lot of content, which is well organized and cleanly done. The problem is he’s just not making it easy on the attentive viewer. In one episode, he won’t tell us, with ornate reference to his principles, who the players are in his game; yet on the other hand, he wears his day garb from a local news agency in his vlog, in a tacky, possibly unprofessional show of quasi-authority. Still, maybe this augurs well: as someone forced to be comfortable in the eye of the camera, it suggests Ben has a core self-belief, a priceless quality and one that should lead us somewhere.
Just not yet. I next find Ben, in now classic “fake news” style, bragging about felting a “white supremacist.” From his description, his antagonist is more likely some grumpy fart who simply dislikes everyone, including Ben himself, who is as white as the snow he is an expert on. Depending on your intelligence, it may or may not be true that today’s world, as in a tired video game trope, is full of National Socialists requiring immediate extermination by bad-assed, fleece-armored social media soldiers, but this sort of placative, self-indulgent mock heroism definitely doesn’t make for much more than tepid viewing.
Let’s skip ahead to episode 43 and hope he’s past all this stuff. One of the nice things about being in control of your own production is how quickly you can make changes in your work. The standard soulless vlog music sets the mood for a dashing afternoon at the Peppermill; intentional or no? I’d love to give him credit. In one spot, Ben actually goes for a neck twitch tell, which is kind of cool and horrible at once. I hope he will talk more about this more novel content. (No Nazis punched yet, though.)
However, not much has changed – does anyone, really? His voice continues to be constrained and a touch Muppety. Ben constantly calls others Old Men Coffee and such, but this epithet loses its sting when you see he doesn’t really seem to have much game himself. He makes a polarization error versus Brad Booth and gets owned. He makes a garbage turn barrel into a terrible board, but given that he’s in a soft game, is unsurprisingly not punished. His bet sizing is indifferent to the board, and he suggests that in one spot a player will “jam his entire range” if he checks…? Absurd; however, Ben’s ABC strategy at this point just seems kind of sad, and suddenly humanizes him for me. Maybe I can enjoy this vlog by opening my mind and looking at Ben in a new way: as a student of the game.
Moving along to 44, we start with a review of his Tesla, which includes the admonishment that the future belongs to electric cars. “What I like” is the graphic on the screen – and this could really be the name of his vlog. So far, he’s never questioned himself or seemed remotely introspective or curious: he just sort of is. He hasn’t convinced me that I should care what he likes, and I don’t see how his colorless, self-assured opinions would impress or persuade anyone outside of his friends and family. (Yet there are people who will hand over their approval and surrender their judgment in exchange for belonging; a vision is forming in my mind.) In any case, over sixty percent of our electricity is powered by fossil fuels; his mildly haughty lecture is just more of the colorless, self-assured Ben Deach I’m hoping to dodge.
So we’re not going to get much Sturm und Drang perhaps, but what we do need from Ben, minimally, are more of his own twitches. His garage indicates a productive, happy, and well-organized life, so good on him, but this isn’t helping me want to continue. The Tesla lecture somehow drones on for eight minutes, then he tells us reassuringly he doesn’t want to make the whole video about the Tesla. He parks at the casino, starts walking in, and immediately resumes talking more about the Tesla. He’s not in weatherman gear, at least, but in ultra-bland, spotless and fresh corporate leisure wear. (It would be better if he just went with the weatherman shtick, I realize.) He sardonically comments on how the Peppermill is missing out on a big opportunity by not listening to him. Ben, I am learning, is the guy at the office you never want to be friends with, who no one ever tells the truth to, but gets promotions and is just fine without you.
We next get an extended fast-forwarding through a bunch of hands at the table set to some generic rockin’ stuff. The pattern of images of this vlog is mostly store-bought product, an easy hole to fall down in a removed media like video production. If I don’t see some real Ben soon, I’m going to start to wonder if there is any to find. Then, something: He walks out of the Atlantis in a bit of a state, immediately complaining about his other great enemy in poker – yet another OMC! – then says he doesn’t want to waste our time. I’ll take him at his word and skip ahead, all the way to his latest episode.
52 opens nicely. It appears he may have a new camera, as the setting shots of Gold Point are especially clear and fairly well chosen – the unmatched shot of town activity doesn’t jive with the rest of the stills- reflecting his professional life in television: well done. Arriving suddenly in Vegas, he gives us no more locale photography, but jumps into the Wynn 2/5. He starts by offering an ill-advised opinion suggesting tournament rules be applied to cash game all-ins: what Ben likes, part the nth. Ben plays ace-king passively but well against a poor line from his opponent. He is then given an even bigger gift holding a middle full house when his opponent punts stacks on the river. Clear skies, nice life, carry on.