For my money, the World Series of Poker is the best poker show on television (did you notice that it got a sports emmy nomination?), but if you're looking for the purest poker being played on the tube, you'll find it on High Stakes Poker. No show gets you closer to the biggest names in the game, playing hold 'em the way it was originally played: with a lot more on the line than any tournament buy-in. This is the game that separates the men from the boys.
After HSP's first five seasons, they announced a change in their construction. Entering this latest season, the duo of Gabe Kaplan and AJ Benza were the voices behind the action. Entering season six, Benza was dropped and Kaplan would fly solo during the play-by-play, but Kara Scott joined the show for player interviews.
Of course, as happens anytime the status quo is disturbed, there was an uproar. Long-time viewers of the show complained that the sky was falling and that the show would be lost without the immeasurable contributions Benza made, serving up batting practice pitches for Kaplan's one-liners and seemingly talking about anything except what was going on at the table. Six episodes in, the complainers should be eating some serious crow.
What we're seeing on the show now is a lot more player interaction where it was previously interrupted. We haven't seen the biggest hands in HSP history, but we're seeing the kind of domination from Phil Ivey and Tom Dwan that legitimize their respective standings amongst the best in the world. We're also seeing the two engage one another in a way that we haven't in the past, with Durrrr betting Ivey $1 million that Ivey couldn't go vegetarian for a year. Ivey has since already lost that bet.
Benza's absence has taken the staccato out of Kaplan's wit and Scott's contributions have been a marked improvement. Kara's table-side accomplishments and knowledge of the game gives her credibility with the players, who seem more than willing to give her the time she needs for one on one interviews (really, who can blame them). The end result is a smoother feel to the show, more focus on player chatter at the table and as a result, more feel for the viewer of the table dynamic. Finally, we're sitting at the table and it makes for a much more rewarding viewer experience, at least for this viewer.
There's a lesson here for all of those TV producers out there looking to get into poker broadcasting, namely to stay focused on the task at hand. The WSOP is as much about the stories as the poker so it can stray into the personal stories and even the Norman Chad ex-wife jokes. Its venue and viewership demand a broad telling of the tournament story because it's the central event of the poker calendar and demands the telling of stories big and small. HSP, however, is about the hands that get played. That's what makes it pure. Subtracting Benza from the equation furthered that goal and it's a better show for it.