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Before the WPT, before High Stakes Poker, it was the UK TV show Late Night Poker that led the way. To celebrate the 15th anniversary of its transmission, Julian Rogers speaks to the crew and players involved and uncovers a fascinating story
It’s gone 1am on a Saturday morning in 1999 and more than one million UK viewers are transfixed by an intense on-screen showdown. It’s Hull pawnbroker Dave ‘Devilfish’ Ulliott versus Brummie scrap metal merchant Peter ‘The Bandit’ Evans. Ulliott oozes charisma with his magenta-tinted shades slid halfway down the bridge of his nose, slicked-back hair and flashy gold jewellery. His brash exterior contrasts with the unassuming Evans who has a crumpled baseball cap casting a shadow across his wizened face. But this isn’t a no-holds-barred fight between a pair of pugilists in some working men’s club – it’s the final of Late Night Poker and there’s £40,000 in wads of tenners for the winner.
On paper, the synopsis for Late Night Poker probably wouldn’t have set pulses racing. A dimly lit playing arena with an inky black backdrop shrouded in plumes of cigarette smoke; prolonged pauses as the participants pondered tense postflop decisions; the silence punctuated by the clack of chips being riffled on the glass shielding the under-the-table cameras. Would audiences watch this? In reality, though, the innovative series turned out to be an unexpected smash hit for Channel 4, attracting a legion of armchair poker fans beguiled by the skill, subterfuge and psychological poker warfare on display. Late Night Poker was cult viewing.
Almost a year earlier, the late Rob Gardner, a producer for Presentable Productions, contacted the managing editor of Poker Europa magazine, Nic Szeremeta, to sound out the idea of creating a poker TV show. They met in a pub in Szeremeta’s hometown of Torquay and, over a pint, Gardner pitched the bare bones of his quest to put poker on the small screen.
However, it was soon apparent to Szeremeta that these telly folk weren’t exactly poker buffs. ‘They had no f♥♣king idea,’ he says bluntly. ‘They’d never even heard of Texas hold’em. Their idea was to have four f♥♣king stuffed shirts sitting around a table, dealing themselves five-card draw poker and their sparkling wit and conversation would carry the programme.’
Fearing this project would ignominiously ‘go right down the drain’, Szeremeta came onboard as a consultant. First off, he convinced Presentable that instead of cash games, tournament poker – specifically a shootout – would give each episode a purpose and climax with a winner. And they needed to play no-limit hold’em because draw poker was passé. The buy-in should be £1,500, and professional dealers were a must.
The sticking point was that TV poker was a divisive concept. Portions of the poker fraternity were resistant to exposing their skills – and deficiencies – to the nation and, more importantly, future opponents. These cardsharps cut their teeth in the clandestine world of shady poker dens and the backrooms of pubs. They shied away from the limelight – they didn’t court it.
Others, though, such as Simon ‘Aces’ Trumper, who appeared in the very first episode sporting a resplendent ponytail, didn’t need his arm twisted. ‘Unlike several pros who refused to play and show their hole cards, I, along with Barny Boatman, could see the potential, so agreed immediately,’ Trumper explains. Then there were the poker naysayers who dismissed the idea as a non-starter, says Szeremeta. ‘These people said it was illegal, they [the gambling authorities] will shut you down, you’ll lose your money and get arrested.’ Nevertheless, Gardner received the green light from the Gaming Board of Great Britain and it was all systems go. Esteemed tournament director Thomas Kremser and his dealers were coaxed over from Vienna’s Concord Card Casino to the studios on a not-so-glamorous industrial estate in Cardiff.
Meanwhile, Presentable had a monstrous oval poker table constructed to accommodate ten broadcast-quality cameras and ten individual lights to illuminate and capture each player’s hole cards. ‘It was like being sat on the Starship Enterprise – you couldn’t get your legs underneath,’ Ulliott recalls. Indeed, the sheer scale of the playing surface meant the players had to hurl their chips at the pot, while Kremser’s dealers couldn’t physically stretch far enough to gather in the players’ mucked cards. Szeremeta explains: ‘When you watch the programme you will see that one of the dealers hangs around at the back of the table to help push the cards forward.
It was comical.’
More worryingly, it was discovered in a dry run that players could sometimes catch a glimpse of an opponent’s cards in the reflection created by the glass panel orbiting the green baize. This potentially disastrous flaw was crudely remedied by sticking black tape around the hole cards. Because some scepticism and suspicion lingered about the whole idea of filming poker, director Siân Lloyd says game integrity was paramount. ‘We did a lot of tests before we went into studio because if there was any question about the players being able to see one another’s cards, we were finished.’ No pressure then.
The 40 players who descended on the Welsh capital included the likes of ‘Mad’ Marty Wilson, Dave Colclough, Ram Vaswani, Bambos Xanthos, Ross Boatman and Sir Clive Sinclair. Who knew the nerdy looking inventor who launched the ZX Spectrum and the risible C5 trike was a poker aficionado? Players’ partners were also roped in to make up the numbers. It made for an eclectic lineup of colourful pros and recreational players for the viewers to get to know. ‘They were real people,’ Szeremeta stresses. ‘This was how they were on the poker scene. It was genuine stuff.’
That realism extended to the studio where the crew strived to recreate the look and feel of a shadowy, subterranean poker arena for the combatants. Smokers were encouraged to light up. ‘I wanted to shoot the action on long lenses so that the players were away in the darkness like they were playing a private game,’ says Lloyd. ‘As well as the flop camera and one in the gantry for wide shots, we had four pedestal cameras to capture the wonderful close ups of beads of sweat and throbbing neck veins.’
Both on and off the table, there was real camaraderie and mutual respect between these gladiators. All stayed for the entire week and, when not playing, intently watched the action unfold in the green room via a live feed. ‘There was a family atmosphere, and people would bring their wives and girlfriends down, so it was a real social thing,’ says Joe Beevers, the urbane Late Night Poker regular who wore Armani suits and drove a Porsche 911. When not involved in a heat, Beevers says the players fervently placed bets on every game with self-appointed bookmaker Jesse May. ‘He wasn’t very good at it and I used to win a lot of money off him,’ he laughs.
That ’s a wrap
After five heats and an absorbing final in which Devilfish slayed The Bandit with an Ace-high straight, the players departed and Presentable then had to splice the multi-camera footage into five, 60-minute episodes (the final was 90 minutes long). But it also needed a voice. The crew had a hunch that author May could be an ideal commentator, but there was a snag: he competed in heat five. Commentating on himself would confuse the audience (commentary was an afterthought), so the on-screen May assumed the pseudonym Mickey Dane, a fictitious florist from New Jersey. Sorted, kind of.
The gravel-throated Szeremeta agreed to co-commentate, and his laidback persona complimented May’s inquisitive, chatty style. That said, May’s natural exuberance was tempered somewhat, as Lloyd explains: ‘We encouraged a [snooker commentator] ‘Ted Lowe’ approach with very hushed tones, which seemed to match the dark, thoughtful mood of the game.’ And it worked, according to Ulliott. ‘Jesse and Nic were great commentators – they made it sound so exciting for the public.’
On July 17, the first episode aired with its moody, monochrome intro accompanied by an eerie cackle of laughter. It went out shortly after midnight on a Friday, which was a slot in Channel 4’s schedules synonymous with edgy and experimental TV. Around 500,000 viewers – most of them probably wearing post-pub beer goggles – tuned in. A week later, fifteen of Beever’s mates squeezed into his London flat to witness him finish runner-up to Surinder Sunar in heat two. ‘It was exciting being on TV for the first time,’ says Beevers. ‘The show really caught people’s imagination.’ Each week the audience figures continued to rise, peaking at over a million for the final. It grabbed up to 30% of the terrestrial audience, leaving TV bigwigs dumbstruck.
Sure, Late Night Poker was a little rough around the edges, but the viewers – dyed-in-the-wool poker fans and newbies to the game – didn’t give two hoots. They were completely hooked.
And Ulliott’s victory, combined with his memorable marine moniker and the fact he was no shrinking violet on and off the felt, was the perfect tonic for the show. Ulliott believes his triumph was destiny. ‘I think it was fate that I won. With the black suit and shades, I was probably the best person to win for the show – I had plenty of character.’ After the series screened, Ulliott and the other players were regularly recognised in the street and in supermarket aisles. Beevers overheard drinkers discussing it in pubs. Suddenly this old cowboy pastime was sexy and in vogue. Mainstream, even.
With the show turning out to be an unequivocal ratings winner, commissioning a second series was a no-brainer. This time, though, players were queuing around the block for their 15 minutes of fame. Qualms about intrusive cameras and police raids had mysteriously evaporated. ‘People desperately wanted to be on Late Night Poker,’ Beevers explains. ‘When we [The Hendon Mob] saw certain people at poker tournaments they would come up to us and ask again and again to get them on the show.’
The original cast was given first refusal on seats for the seven heats this time. They were joined by fresh faces like Victoria Coren Mitchell, John Kabbaj and abrasive Iranian Korosh Nejad. The latter conveniently fitted the bill of pantomime villain. ‘We looked for troublemakers or loudmouths,’ Szeremeta admits. Even 1989 WSOP Main Event champ Phil Hellmuth made the trek across the pond for the third series and promptly won the whole caboodle, trousering £45,000 for his troubles. ‘I had heard about the technology and the huge ratings,’ Hellmuth recalls, ‘so I decided to come over primarily to see the hole card cameras as I suspected that it might be the future of poker.’
The show had quickly gained a reputation, sparking interest outside the British Isles. In the end it ran for six series until the plug was pulled in 2002, ironically on the cusp of the global poker explosion (it was resurrected in 2008 and ran until 2011). But it’s the cutting-edge and iconic original, which became a blueprint for subsequent poker shows all over the world and made the ‘hole cam’ a ubiquitous viewpoint, that is the one most fondly remembered by seasoned poker fans in the UK. Lloyd, who directed every series, reminisces about the programme with proud nostalgia, adding that it was an era when poker was still cloaked in a certain degree of mystique. ‘It was great to be part of that world before the online boom when it was still about the mystery and intrigue. We celebrated the game of Texas hold’em – at the heart of the programme, the game of poker was the star.
Watch episode 1 of Late Night Poker!
Relive the novelty and curiosity of the very first episode of Late Night Poker. The lineup includes drainage company boss Simon Trumper, ex-snooker pro Ram Vaswani, Irish bookie Liam Flood and the former editor of France’s Elle magazine, Michael Abecassis. Even commentator Nic Szeremeta’s piano teacher daughter Kate antes up the £1,500 for a seat. Just don’t expect to see any valiant five-bet shoves with rags. This is fairly one-dimensional poker, but it still makes for a riveting watch
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