The History of Late Night Poker Pt. 4: Family, Free Hotel & a Groupie

LNP2 John Duthie
John Duthie: Part of LNP Family.

Luke Schwartz takes his seat. He isn't happy.

"I was winning out there," he murmurs under his breath to nobody in particular. He was taking James Akenhead's money in a game of Chinese Poker.

Now he was angry. A woman was applying blush to his face.

"What's this for?," he asks.

"So you don't look so shiny," she says.

"Where's the girl?"

He's referring to Melanie Weisner.

"She's in the bathroom," says the makeup artist.

"Well, someone go and get the girl. I stopped my game because of her."

It's Late Night Poker Season 10. Schwartz would finish runner-up to Sam Holden. It was the last time the show aired. It was great. It was an institution. But why? What was the secret sauce?

Screen shot 2015 12 16 at 12.07.45 PM
Until LNP there was no poker.

There Was No Poker

"Two things happened that made Late Night Poker hugely important," says Vicky Coren Mitchell.

"One: this revolutionary TV show caught the attention of the British public, alerting them to the existence of poker in the UK (most laymen thought it only existed in America) and intriguing them and showing them, broadly, how to play.

"Two: Internet poker was invented soon after, giving them an easy way to get started without even leaving the house.

"That double whammy triggered the explosion of the game in this country."

As a working-class male I was raised to get my head down and work as hard as I could to put food on the table and a roof over my family's head.

There were only two ways this existence was going to change for the better. Either I would win the lottery or I would win a chunk of money playing poker.

Like many British men I would stumble home from the pub and flick the TV on. My yellow fingers - a combination of nicotine and Madras - would press ‘4' on my remote and Late Night Poker would appear.

As I watched I believed that I could be on that show. They looked like me; they acted like me. It was a working man's show.

Vicky is right. Until Late Night Poker there was no poker. It didn't exist in my world.

"The Players Loved It from the Word Go"

LNP set 2
Drama for all to see.

The production company Presentable brought poker into my world. There are two critical reasons why it felt like it should have always been there, nestled snugly underneath my ribs.

First, the Hole Cards

"All previous attempts at showing poker on television," says former Managing Director of Presentable, Megan Stuart, "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. At a stroke the glass-topped table, with cameras underneath, changed all that.

"Suddenly the strategies and the bluffs, the routes to success and failure, the reads and the misreads, were there for all to see.

"There had been some anxiety that the players would be resistant to having their playing styles laid bare but the truth is they realized straight away that television was transforming the game and in the process turning them into genuine poker celebrities.

"The players loved it from the word go."

The Card, the Chips and the Expressions

The hole cards were a revelation but we still have them today. Why aren't the poker shows of today as good, or better, than Late Night Poker?

Simon Trumper
A lot in the expressions.

"They chose those under-the-table cameras for a big reason and the big reason was the shot," says Jesse May.

"When you would see the person and you could look up and see the cards and his face - it was totally done for the drama."

Today the under-table cameras only capture the imagery of the cards. If you watch a show live streamed on the Internet you might not even have a shot; instead, an RFID chip will send a signal to a machine and you will get an on-screen graphical representation of the hole cards.

What made the hole-card shot so fantastic during Late Night Poker was it showed the cards, the chips and the facial expressions of the player.

Another great thing that Late Night Poker chose to do was not display the hole cards 100% of the time.

Not only did this leave the audience in suspense, but the commentators also.

No Idea What He Has

Padraig Parkinson Joe Beevers
Still doesn't like it.

There is a beautiful shot during the final table of Season 1 that captures the essence of my point beautifully.

Joe Beevers raises with 8 7 in the cutoff and Devilfish makes the call on the button. The production team decided to leave his hand a mystery.

The flop is T 8# 5s, to give Joe middle pair.

"He has no idea what hand the Devilfish has does he?," says May in the commentary booth.

"Neither do we," says his co-commentator Nic Szeremeta.

Beevers takes his time. He stares at the flop; head tilting to the right-hand side. The full shot is coated in cigarette smoke emanating from Liam Flood.

He is about to make his move when the production team shows us that Devilfish has flopped top set. Joe moves all-in and Devilfish calls.

"Joe is not going to like that," says May.

He didn't. He still doesn't 16 years later.

Characters Bring Life

I watch The Blacklist because of the way James Spader brings Raymond Reddington alive; the same as Kevin Spacey's character Francis Underwood in House of Cards.

Characters bring life to a story, but that alone isn't enough. There needs to be a plot. There needs to structure.

S1 Dealers Generic
Worked for free, even.

Szeremeta knew that the choice of cast was so important. What he wouldn't have been able to foresee were the ways those characters would form a family-like bond.

A bond that was so strong the strength of relationships translated into compelling viewing on the screen.

"It was like a family atmosphere," said Late Night Poker Season 10 winner Sam Holden. "Everyone seemed to know each other.

"Back when it started it was such a small community. They had probably been playing together for 10-20 years before Late Night Poker started."

This bond was crucial and it extended well beyond the players. Tournament Director Thomas Kremser and his wife Marina Kremser (formerly Rado), worked for free during that first season because the organizers didn't have any money in the budget for tournament staff and dealers.

Let the Banter Flow

The relationship between Presentable and the players was also tight.

"Rhiannon {Murphy} was always one of my favorites," said Beevers, "She was the one who looked after all the players.

LNP Peter Costa
Bond let banter flow.

"She would deal with Devilfish's requests - which were always a little over the top - and she would organize us all. Imagine having to coordinate 40 poker players, trying to get them to turn up and tell them all what they are supposed to do."

"Sian {Lloyd} was an experienced Director," says May, "She became an incredible poker junkie in the sense that she got into these players lives, and was a great director.

"The filming was done in a very small studio and she was big on making sure she captured everything."

The action on the felt was only a part of the larger tale. Speaking to May, Beevers and Coren Mitchell about the early days it was clear that the atmosphere in the Green Room and afterwards at the hotel were integral bonding sessions that would allow players to feel calm enough to let the banter flow on the tables.

"Everyone hung around during the early seasons," says May. "Now with poker players you get to a tournament, you bust, and you are gone.

"Back then the free hotel for the week was the biggest part of it. Everyone got there and stayed for the full five days irrespective of when they played because everyone loved the free hotel and hanging around at the bar."

Before Poker Players Got Jaded and Bored

"Another important person in the success of Late Night Poker was Vicky {Coren}," said May, "Back then she was the first Late Night Poker groupie.

S2 Vicky Coren
The first poker groupie.

"She had no official part to play when she first came down to Cardiff. Someone like Vicky was so vital to the spirit of Late Night Poker - without even playing."

"Jesse May was right that I was a groupie," says Coren Mitchell, "in the sense of a fan, anyway. I was pretty low-grade as a groupie in the other sense; I only dated one of the players.

"I was a very keen amateur poker player and like all, incredibly keen amateur players - was incredibly excited by the invention of this TV show and the opportunity to watch a game that otherwise would only usually appear on screen for about 30 seconds in the background of a cowboy fight.

"The main thing I remember that really sets Late Night Poker apart in my head from any other TV poker tournament series - apart from the revolutionary place in the culture and the brilliance of the direction and the way it was made - is the way we all used to go there and hang around all week, watching the matches we weren't in, drinking wine in the Green Room and having bets on the outcome of the matches.

"This was before poker players got jaded and bored by TV. It was fun, it was exciting, it was like a little holiday.

"For all the shady characters, dark glasses and beads of sweat, it was innocent. Incredibly, innocent."

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