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The History of Late Night Poker Pt. 1: A Cast and a Revelation
Victoria Coren and James Akenhead are flicking cigarette ash on the floor.
Luke Schwartz, Daniel ‘Jungleman' Cates and Andrew Feldman are playing Chinese Poker on a bench.
Cates stands up, irate, sending £20 notes flying into the air.
Everyone is quiet. Even the ash stays still.
Then in he waltzes: The Devilfish. Wearing a black leather jacket, shades and playing the harmonica.
He looks as if he has just woken up, slapped his hair back with lard and jumped into a cab. He strides into the building, stopping every few steps to kiss and hug a member of the production team.
He passes next to me.
"Hi Dave, I'm Lee Davy. I was wondering if I could grab a few minutes of your time for an interview?"
"Fuck off, kid."
He squeezes Vicky Coren's ass and heads into the green room.
"Who do I have to bang to get a cup of tea in here?" I hear him scream.
It's Season 10 of Late Night Poker, perhaps the most groundbreaking and influential poker show of all time.
The birthplace of the likes of Devilfish, Jesse May and the Hendon Mob.
But where did it all begin?
Transporting Magic of Paris to Studio in South Wales
As everyone was gearing up for the arrival of the next century a young man named Rob Gardner was thinking of innovative ideas for television shows on behalf of the entertainment production company, Presentable.
"One of his suggestions was a chat show where the conversation happened around a poker table," says former Managing Director of Presentable, Megan Stuart.
"The guests chatted as they played, but the emphasis was on the chat rather than the poker. The poker was simply an add-on to make the show feel distinctive and cool."
At the time Channel 4 had something called '4 Later' where it was airing a lot of experimental, off-the-wall type programming.
Both Gardner and Stuart pitched their idea to Channel 4's late-night commissioner and, fortunately, he turned out to be a poker nut.
"He wasn't remotely interested in our idea of a chat show," says Stuart, "but he said very clearly, and with a bit of a glint in his eye, that if we could come up with a way to make poker work on television he'd commission it.
"In terms of a response to a pitch this was about as good as it gets."
It was at this point that Stuart drafted Sian G. Lloyd into the fold. Lloyd would become LNP's studio director.
Gardner brought Nic Szeremeta into the team. Szeremeta was the only member of the quartet who knew anything about poker and his influence would become crucial for the success of the show.
The four of them put their brainstorming hats on and started to figure out how they could make it work on TV.
Gardner had the germ of an idea, Stuart had the television company, Szeremeta knew the game and Lloyd knew how to knit it all together to create compelling viewing.
But it was a trip to the famed Aviation Club de France (ACF), to watch the final table of the Euro Finals Main Event, that would change everything.
"I was transfixed," says Lloyd. "Human drama in all its forms unfolding right before my eyes.
"The characters barely saying a word, the cigarette smoke curling its way around the room enshrouding the players in its romantic haze.
"With these images imprinted on my mind I rushed back to Cardiff and sat down with my technical team. Together we had to come up with a way of transporting the magic I'd seen in Paris to a television studio in South Wales."
From the Casino to the Living Rooms of Millions
Late Night Poker wasn't the first television show to try and drag poker from the casino to the living room of millions. The rest of them had failed.
The Presentable team had to decipher why. As it turned out, it was blatantly obvious. Joe Beevers explains:
"A few VHS videos were knocking around from some World Series of Poker (WSOP) events that you could buy in Binions, but you could never see what cards people were playing unless they deliberately showed their hand or got to showdown."
"All previous attempts at showing poker on television had been hamstrung by the fact that the viewer had no idea what hole cards each player was holding, so the drama inherent in each decision was totally hidden," says Stuart.
The Presentable technical team, led by Technical Manager Alwyn Roberts and designer Gerald Murphy, sat down with Gardner, Szeremeta and Lloyd to discuss their Parisian experience.
"It was critical that the audience at home could see the player's hole cards," says Lloyd. "But I desperately didn't want to interfere in the game.
"I didn't want to impose rules upon the players that might affect their demeanor in the studio."
And then came the moment that not only put Late Night Poker on the map as a pioneer but paved the way for every single poker TV show that followed.
A glass-topped poker table with a small DV-camera and light that would allow the viewer to see the players hole cards, their face and their chips.
It Wasn't Easy
The idea of a hole cam was a revelation. There was only one problem.
Professional poker players were horrified at the thought of giving vital information to their competitors.
Szeremeta was given the task to find 40 players for the first show. It wasn't easy.
Many of the top pros at the time refused to play on the show. Some even suggested that showing hole cards was illegal.
Those players were thinking short term. Undeterred, Szeremeta kept ticking the names off his list until he came across a dedicated group of players who were thinking long term.
"Ironically, some of the faceless back-stabbers could not wait to get in the lineup after the first series proved a success," wrote Szeremeta in a three-page article called The Making of Late Night Poker.
So where do you go to find the very best poker players in the UK?
Austria, of course.
"They struggled to get people onto that first show," says Joe Beevers. "I remember being in the Concord Card Club in Vienna playing in an event called the WSOP Trial.
"One day I was at the bar when Nic Szeremeta came in and started talking about this show he was advising on called Late Night Poker. It was a £1,500 buy-in with a £40,000 first prize.
"He was telling us that players were so scared about the reaction to people seeing their cards. It seems weird now but at the time it made sense.
"We decided we would play with the promise that we would be looked after in future shows if it was a success."
A Cast and Star Was Born
Beevers and his mates from Hendon -- Ram Vaswani, Barny Boatman and Ross Boatman -- decided to play.
Liam Flood, Simon Trumper and Dave Colclough were also in.
A young American called Jesse May was invited to play.
And the two most famous UK poker players at the time, Surinder Sunar and a cocky young man from Hull called Dave ‘Devilfish' Ulliott, also threw their £1,500 into the ring.
Late Night Poker had a cast.
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