Monday, October 14, 2013

Discovery Channel Poker Pilot in New Orleans

So, in the past couple of posts I've been cryptic about a recent opportunity that presented itself that I said  was really cool.  It is... or I should say was really cool... as unfortunately, my involvement, ultimately, was practically zero.

I met with the producer of a new poker show that is filming its pilot in New Orleans a couple of weeks ago over lunch at Mothers.  All this was going on just as I learned of the potential heart condition of my soon to be born son and the expedited delivery to find out if he'd need surgery.  So despite being in a bit of fog in my personal life, I still enjoyed a great conversation about poker, poker in New Orleans, and specifically discussed the pilot and premise of the show.  To be honest it was a really nice diversion.  We had a freewheeling exchange of ideas. I came away happy with the vision of the producer and impressed that one of the aims of the show to really highlight locals who play poker.

We also came to the first of what I thought were two understandings.  He had been interested in possibly casting me for the show and was getting a feel for me.  I wasn't all that interested in being on the show, it would have been nice, but I'm self-aware enough to know I'm probably a little too reserved to be good TV.  Though when I want to, moreso in my younger days, I can get into a Jaime Gold mood aka Wild Bill or as some of my friends would call it Super Bill mode no doubt.  Usually with help of a Blue Moon or six... or twelve.  He also saw the meeting just as an information gathering exercise for tips on other players to cast, locations to shoot and that kind of thing.

We discussed a few players.  I learned he and his staff had a number of these meetings with local players, including Ryan Lenaghan.  He had a high opinion of Ryan after that meeting and I said that I didn't know him personally but I shared that opinion.  I've also seen via facebook and other places some of the other players they contacted.  All good choices.

The premise of the show is that Phil Laak (pictured above with his lovely Hollywood beauty Jennifer Tilly) and Antonio Esfandiari travel from city to city to play home games.  It's a reality show, albeit with a structure.  I'd say somewhere in between Gold Rush and Amish Mafia, maybe closer to Gold Rush.

At this point in our conversation, once I realized that I potentially could offer the show a lot of value, the poker player took over in me, and (warning cringe-worthy poker analogy ahead) I played my cards tight to vest.  Maybe too tightly.  As we talked I realized besides offering connections made traveling the circuit to far flung outposts, in my chase for the National Championship seats in years past,  I also had this secret network at my disposal that was perfect for their intentions.

I ran a satellite tournament for the World Series Main Event for a long time, in fact, that's how I got started in poker.  That transformed from a bunch of college friends who all lived in different cities who watched Chris Moneymaker on TV trying to figure out how to get somebody they knew into the Main Event, (to naively chase the dream) to basically, a beast of its own.  We each held a tournament in our home towns and sent a winner to New Orleans where we played for a seat.

As the years progressed my friends passed the baton to friends, or friends of friends who were poker players or essentially home games hosts, many of them high stakes, who would take a night off and run the satellite to send a qualifier to supply the final table in New Orleans.  Always a fun trip and nice little prize for their regulars.  At the same time a number of folks started showing up in subsequent years to play the last chance table and we formed a weird far-flung tight nit group.  We made some good bonds on those nights out in New Orleans.
Pic from the show lifted from Barth M.

 So, I essentially have a high stakes network of home games in different cities at my disposal.  And to repeat... the show is about Phil Laak and Antonio Esfandiari traveling from city to city to play home games.  As one of the contacts I made that I now consider a close friend and trustworthy confidant said to me, "Dude, they couldn't have asked for a better person to help them with this.  How did you fall into their lap?"

During the meeting, I recognized this, and the opportunity before me and told the producer he should hire me as a consultant.  He said "I was just thinking that."  (Sweet.) As for casting the local show, with my time on GCP, I knew of a hundred possibilities of players that would fit what he was looking for and all were a phone call or two away.  In fact, for whatever "type" he wanted to cast I can think of a handful off the top of my head just from updating the site over the years.

He agreed that he saw the value that I could offer, not just in New Orleans but if the pilot got picked up, in other locations too.  He said TV shows don't have "consultants" in the budget but perhaps he could give me a writing credit and then if the show got picked up a producing credit.  That sounded... really cool.  Then a game of cat and mouse began.  I no longer wanted to just give him everything for nothing, it there was a possibility of doing it for something later.  So I withheld some information with the idea I'd be sharing it and more soon.

At some point in the process, he asked me to discreetly start to find players.  Initially he said they were about to have a production meeting and he'd have somebody call me to work out the details of my "employment."  He also urged me not tell anybody about our arrangement locally as then everybody would want some sort of deal.  I honored both of his requests and as vaguely as possible began to ask folks about their schedule in the time frame allotted.  Some I hinted at something really cool, my apologies to you for being cryptic, others I coyly asked what their short run plans were without them really knowing why.

I think that night, he emailed me the short they used to pitch the show to the network to get the pilot made and I was impressed.  Totally different feel for the show then I got while we were talking. Also, I thought Antonio and Phil in that segment really brought it.  In the format, they'd play real live games, but presented in a much more cinematic, stylized way and then they'd kind of pigeon hole the story around that.  The play would be authentic and from it they might find a narrative.  Which is kind of easy to do in any poker game really.  The more we talked the more I realized this was something I'd really like to be involved with on the behind the camera side of things.

We also agreed to meet the next day after the Harrahs weekly tournament.  He no-showed that one.  Ugh... I know, warning flag, but side note, I can't say it wasn't lucrative. To meet with the guy downtown, on the first day I sat down for thirty minutes to get my free parking at Harrahs and doubled up on the 29th minute.  Sorry for the hit and run but was not a day I scheduled to play.  The second day, I made third or fourth in the donkley and then as I waited for him to call me I played cash.  In a couple of downs I got the nuts three times and got paid off every time to make 5x my buy-in.  Lol.  I should get stood up more often.)

He called, after apologizing for missing me in an email, and hooked me again.  We talked about my role going forward and we even got into what type of compensation there would be.  There would be some payment, not a lot, but I wasn't really looking for much as to be honest, I was most excited with how they wanted to portray the poker and having some role in it.  Again, he told me there would be a call from the girl in charge of these things to formalize our agreement after he got back to New York.

I didn't want to get too excited about things, but I couldn't help but envision traveling ahead to the all these different cities and getting to see all the high stakes games that supplied our little satellite tournament to the Main Event every year, and helping cast the TV show and assisting with locations.  Instead of all these people coming to me every year, I'd get to come to them, and maybe bring a camera crew for those interested.

Doing entertainment work is something I've always harbored aspirations to do had life taken a different path or two.  Went to law school with an idea of going into entertainment law.  Gobbled up every creative writing and film class my University offered, and graduated with an English degree.  In fact, I was passing through New Orleans on a journey to LA to pursue just that kind of thing when I got waylaid (poor verb let's instead say "when I changed my mind") after meeting my wife.  A fun stop that was to include Mardi Gras, a Superbowl and Jazzfest became a permanent move and those Hollywood aspirations became a unrequited dream I kind of put to the side.

Talking about opportunity knocking on your door?  Right?  So as far as the show was concerned I was willing to do the grunt work just to get a taste of a previous dream that would be in confluence with a current one.  Considering there was an opportunity to do this and travel to play poker, the other life passion I developed while living here, things couldn't be better.  Too good to be true?

It always is.

Over the course of talks, we vaguely discussed a format for a poker related show that has a similar theme to this one.  It's one, my friend a film school grad in New York and I, have played around with and would pitch to a network if we could ever sit down in front of an executive.  We've discussed filming it as a documentary but it sets up perfectly for a serial format.  I think it would kill and would be great for poker.  As the years go by, I'm still amazed that something like it hasn't been made.  I'd drop everything now if I could work on that project.  Hopefully, one day I'd get the chance to revisit this idea with the producer.  Maybe if the Phil Laak/Antonio Esfandiari show is a hit they'd want more programming in the same vein.

We also talked about some great venues for future episodes like Lafayette, Nantucket, Biloxi, Austin and other places I could practically gift wrap him a show right now.  As we formalized things a little bit he told me the dynamic he wanted for one of the games, and I started to ask around, discreetly about players I knew that would fit the mold and pop on TV.

Meanwhile, the phone call never came.

All the while, I had never been able to shake this nagging feeling after walking out of our first meeting with no contract signed like the car dealer who could only get a handshake but not get the ink... that the buyer was going to back out as soon as he left the dealership.

Later that week I get an email that started out "Hi Bill!"   Is an exclamation point the appropriate precursor to bad news?  Feels a bit like a slowroll to me...  In short, my friend told me that after talking with Antonio and Phil they'd just call up some of their friends and cast the show themselves and fly people in.  If that's what they wanted to do, how could I argue against it.

Of course, I immediately felt a kick to my stomach.  I thought this poker show could go a long way to showcasing players not just locally, but across the country that don't get the spotlight but have a lot of respect in the community.  I was super-excited that this format could really put the shine on locals that I respect and I wanted to push for.  It sounded like that wasn't going to happen.  If Laak and Esfandiari were just going to fly in the regular buds it would be another showcase for talent we've seen one too many times on poker programming. Ugh.  I was doubly dispirited.

As for my frustrated dreams, I understand I was dealing with somebody in the real world.  In the poker world, our understandings, would have been just that and the way things were left both times would in essence be binding.  I purposefully said at the end of our last phone call something along the lines of I'll go ahead and start recruiting if you are telling me for sure there is somebody that will be calling me next week to work out the arrangement.  Once I got that verbal confirmation I treated it as such.

Anyway, despite a really shitty week (see previous blog), I actually did a good bit of groundwork trying to track down some locals that might not be in my circle but could fill out the "seedy" game they were looking for in the first segment.

I'm a big boy though.  I don't want to cast the Producer I dealt with in a bad light either, rereading it I feel I do--so let me be clear I harbor no ill will, nor do I want to sound like sour grapes.  I understand what happened, and despite that I still genuinely like the guy.

I think he is somebody who would be comfortable in my group of friends and I would enjoy chewing the fat with and having a beer or two.  I also was impressed with how he approached the project as a sponge and was soliciting as much information as he could.  He wanted, maybe at the directive of PL + AE, maybe on his own intuition, to be as realistic/authentic as possible, and show poker for what it really is, giving light to a part of the community that doesn't receive it.  That could be awesome, and I think really appealing, if done right, even for a mainstream audience.  The little details of our subculture were important to him.  I got that when I told him not to skimp on the chips, and he said that's exactly what Laak said, and that was illustrative of their approach.

When we talked I told him if he wants the community behind it, he needed aspects that would garner the support of the 2+2 crowd, the internet kids, and the live regs, and he assured me that was a directive in the show--to be authentic.  We have a diverse community, with many sub-groups, and some that straddle a lot of those groups, and much of it is never represented on TV.  There were a lot of segments he should look to appease, and I had ideas for representatives of each casting wise, and thought an honest reality show could get the entire community behind it.  The fact that was a goal of his, made my day.

So despite, the "mis"understandings, as I said we never made a formal agreement, and as he said to me in an email later, he approached our conversations with good faith.  Things change.  I'll take his word for it.  I can handle it.  Disappointing sure.  He said he also wanted to keep the door open to me being a resource later.  Maybe the pilot gets picked up and there is a place for me to help out then.  Maybe not.

Anyway, even if not, I'm confident the finished product should be good TV and think from my meetings with the guy the show is in good hands.

The really good news is the friends of Antonio Esfandiari and Phil Laak they were flying in from LA wasn't friends plural it was just Eric Cloutier, the transplanted Lafayette high stakes regular.  Through what I've gleaned on facebook and various channels of the folks that got called in for the show, I think Eric did a great job presenting a local cross section of poker.  Surprised at how many names we would have overlapped had I had a role in casting things.  In fact, he would have been on the shortlist of names I would have provided.              
So to wrap up... There is a very real possibility a pretty decent poker related show is headed to the Discovery network.  Laak and Esfandiari will be involved and they seem intent on casting a wider lens on the community.  The pictures and bits of information I've gotten from the sessions they've filmed sound pretty cool.  I had illusions of grandeur for a week or two,  but back to life as a poker player/fan, I'm real excited to see what they've produced and can't wait to see some friends on the small screen.

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