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The Accidental Career of Jesse May, the Voice of Late Night Poker

I was in Malta at the Unibet Open when they asked me to co-commentate alongside Roy ‘The Boy' Brindley for the final table.

I agreed. I had never commentated before. I was nervous.

When I walked to the commentary area (which was right next to the final table) I was told that Brindley had gone for lunch. I was on my own.

One person sprang to mind at that moment. The only voice I hear when my mind pulls a poker TV show memory from the bank: Jesse May.

Nobody Brings a Poker Table to Life Like Jesse May

Nobody alive or dead brings a poker table to life like May does. His quips, one-liners and use of the metaphor are unchallenged within the industry.

He exudes confidence created by a lifetime in this business. He is a poker man. He is a gambling man. He is a future member of the Poker Hall of Fame.

Everyone has their start. I had mine in Malta. May's came by complete accident when the producers of Late Night Poker plucked him from the green room in a small television studio in Enfys, Cardiff.

Lee Davy: Where does Late Night Poker stand in the history of the game?

Jesse May: {Long pause} I pause because you should always be aware of the biases you have, and I have many when it comes to Late Night Poker. Let me be honest rather than right. It was critical.

LNP set 2
Atmosphere was everything.

Everyone knows about Henry Orenstein. It's true that he did come up with the first idea for under-the-table cameras.

What is not well known is that Orenstein owned a toy company and had hundreds or maybe thousands of patents.

The idea that he had for the under-the-table camera was a one-page document. Or, more aptly, a sentence that said, ‘what if there is a way we can see someone's cards?'

He never acted on the idea. Later on, in my view, he was given a lot of credit for something that he didn't deserve. A lot of the credit came along with the legal maneuvering about getting it onto TV

Late Night Poker was the first TV program to show under-the-table cameras and to show it in a way that would be palatable for viewers, and compelling viewing. If you watch the first six series the under-the-table cameras were an essential element of it.

But what stands out, and holds true to this day - and what astoundingly, in my view, isn't appreciated as much as it should have been - is the real breakthrough of not just presenting players' cards but showing poker in a dramatic way.

A lot of that has to do with the camera shots and the timing of the production. They took a lot of time and I wouldn't want to be critical of the shows that came after, but in later times, because of the way they were produced and paid for, there was a factory quality to a lot of poker shows that was very rote.

It was all, 'let's see a big pot, and go ooh and aah,' and that's pretty much what poker is. But it didn't start out like that at all.

Late Night Poker was unique. Even today it's still one of the only shows that presents poker in a dramatic fashion, and that's rare.

The production team has to take a lot of credit. The director Sian Lloyd, the producer Rob Gardner and the rest of the Presentable team. Particularly Sian and Rob, in my view, as far as holding the controls and the idea of how the show should be produced dramatically.

ESPN Cameras 2
TV poker in a rut.

TV poker has been stagnating for many years. And that's because they went away from understanding there is a story element and to present that story as a drama.

In many ways they had an advantage when they filmed because nobody had ever done anything like it before and nobody producing it knew anything about poker. It turned out to be a good thing.

The shots of the cigarette smoke in the first few series were incredible. Jin Cai Lin used to chain smoke and they would get a shot of him taking a deep drag and circles of cigarette smoke wafting around him as he made his decision.

The change from under-the-table cameras to lip cameras was dramatically different. They chose those under the table cameras for a big reason, and the big reason was that shot.

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. It was a collaboration. At the same time it was a selfless collaboration and it's one of the greatest things about it.

If you were in the green room or the party afterward we all felt like pioneers. We were doing something that had no positive value at all except it was good for poker and was exciting.

LD: Talk about the role that Rob Gardner played

JM: Rob became one of my closest friends, business partners, and creative muse. We had a production company at one point and he and I were creative directors.

We had an office in Cardiff and the first thing we did was go out and buy a 12-foot-long white board, put it on the wall, and we would sit there all day and fill the thing up with ideas, erase them and start all over again.

None of those ideas ever came to fruition but Rob was one of the most creative guys I knew. He had a lot of interests as far as TV goes. Presentable hired him essentially on commission. Submit some ideas to a couple of TV stations and if one of them gets picked up, we are on.

LNP Jin Cai Lin
Channel 4 took a punt.

I don't know how he came up with the idea of TV poker but I know he had consulted with Nic Szeremeta at some point, they put the idea together,  wrote it up and submitted it.

Channel 4 took a punt on it. They had something called C4 Later - total experimental off the wall stuff, and they went with it.

Rob's background was in a naked ballet dance troupe or something like that. He was hired as an ideas guy. He submitted a bunch of them and this one went forward. I know he had an idea for a dance marathon but it was never picked up.

LD: And Sian Lloyd?

JM: Sian Lloyd worked full time at Presentable and was an experienced Director. She became an incredible poker junkie in the sense that she got into the lives of these guys and she was a great director.

The stuff would be filmed in a small studio and she was big on making sure she captured everything. She was the lead for the filming of every series.

LD: Nic Szeremeta?

JM: Nic was the guy hired to get all the players and he asked me to come along. It was not easy to get those first players together. Most of the big players refused to play. They didn't want people seeing their hole cards.

Essentially, the only big names who played at the time were Surinder and Devilfish. Nic went to everyone.

When you look at the list in the context of poker history there was Devilfish, Surinder and the rest of us were the bottom of the barrel.

LD: The Hendon Mob.

Barny Boatman
Hendon Mob just 4 guys who ran around together

JM: The Hendon Mob were just four guys who used to run around together. I have the very first HM t-shirt.

They brought them to Season 2 or 3 and that was the beginning of the HM when they got the first t-shirts made.

The start of the HM was probably the Poker Million on the Isle of Man in 2000. That was when Vicky got the first big article out about them.

Everyone hung around that first series. 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.

LD: How did you get involved?

JM: I played in the very first heat.

The buy-in was $1,500 and I had about $1,900 to my name, so when I busted out from the show I was feeling like a complete fool sitting in the green room thinking I am going to look like a fool and I have just gone broke.

Myself, Ram {Vaswani} and Joe {Beevers} were doing some bets on the rest of the heats and the final. We came back in Season 2 and I had lost bets to Ram and Joe in the first Season.

I came back and Joe asked me if I was doing the book and I said, "yes." Joe said, "Let's all agree that Jesse will be the only bookmaker," and that's how I got the job as the first bookmaker. I didn't have a winning book until Season 5.

Joe Beevers
Beevers: Made bank on May's book.

I had a relationship with Nic. I had recently arrived in Europe. My book had been out for 2-3 years and I was writing a column for Nic's magazine and he was trying to get me some work. Essentially, I was the poker player/journalist and he thought it might look good.

I didn't have much of a reputation but I had some standing because I was writing articles and I had a book.

LD: How did you become the lead commentator?

JM: It was totally accidental. I had gone broke after the first heat. They didn't plan to have commentary at all. They were going to mic everybody up, they were all characters, and it was going to be electric.

Somewhere between the first and second heat they realized that nobody had been on TV before and despite being great characters everyone was totally terrified and only the Devilfish was speaking.

I essentially volunteered to do it for free. My thought was very simple. I had gone out in that first heat making a play with the 9-3 offsuit. It was 1999 and I knew nothing about poker tournaments.

When I got all-in with that hand they did everything but laugh at me as I walked out of the door. They are all looking at me thinking, 'do you know what you have just done, do you know how dumb you are?'

I thought if I did the commentary I could somehow give an explanation for my hand. It was about survival. The fact that it turned out into a career is one of those coincidences of nature.

I said to them, 'pay for my flight over and I will do anything you want.'

Wear this tam? Sure.

LD: Describe some of the highlights for you

JM: I remember the final table of the first series quite well. We were all watching in the green room.

They would send the live feed into the green room, and the hand where the Devilfish slow-plays aces to knock out Dave Welch - that hand was dramatic when it happened, it was incredible, but in the show it was the epitome of what they did.

The producers decided when to show the cards; it was a decision they made editorially. It was so dramatic. I remember that.

I also remember Surinder at that final table in what I call the very first squeeze play in the history of televised poker.

It gets raised up by Dave Welch in early position with the jacks, Peter the Bandit flats with the 79dd, Devilish flats in the SB with AQo and Surinder makes a squeeze form the BB with the king-jack.

This is how tight poker was back then. Welch tosses the jacks; Devilfish throws away the AQ. Peter the Bandit - who was the total live fish at the table - calls his chips off with the 79dd and makes a full house.

LD: Talk to me about some of those early stars.

JM: Back then Surinder had a reputation greater than the Devilfish. Especially internationally. Devilfish capitalized on Late Night Poker and it brought him to another level, but Surinder was my hero. I had run into him in Atlantic City in the 90s in the Taj Mahal.

Surinder Sunar
Sunar was legend.

It was Surinder, a player called Ken Flayton - who they called Sky Hawk - and Phil Hellmuth. Surinder made Hellmuth cry at that table.

It was the first time I had seen Phil 'do a Hellmuth' at that table. Surinder destroyed him and Hellmuth had a massive tantrum.

Ten years later when he came to Late Night Poker he was the guy I was excited to meet. I had never met the fish before then.

There was this guy called Chip Winton who came to the first few seasons. He was the American who came over. At that time he was known on the circuit. He lent a little credibility at the time. Hellmuth came in Season 3 but Winton helped earlier than that.

In so many ways Mad Marty was the spirit of Late Night Poker. All of my best memories of Late Night Poker are not studio based but the first few years at the bar.

We would all go into the bar at night in the Cardiff Hilton and Marty would start telling his stories. You could hear a pin drop.

Everyone was enthralled by Marty. It was incredible. Marty would tell the true stories that later on he couldn't say because he was more well known. I remember that quite well.

Howard Plant was an important character in the first couple of series. Number one he ran the cash game in the hotel. He would bring his two dealers with him and rent a big suite in the Hilton.

At that time he was more of a benefactor to a lot of those guys, he helped people out, put them into the game. He was a businessman. He was critical for the Late Night Poker economy.

Liam Flood taught me how to run the book but he also lent an aura. He gave credibility, as he was from the elder establishment. He was a lifelong professional gambler.

Victoria Coren
Coren: Essential.

LD: What about the women?

JM: There was a woman named Beryl Cook, she played in the first series. Nic's daughter Kate also played. Lucy Rokach at the time was the best in Europe if not in the world.

I would be reasonably sure she turned down the opportunity to play in the first couple of series.

Vicky {Coren} back then was the first Late Night Poker groupie. I don't know if she came down the first series but definitely series 2. Vicky had no official part.

She and I used to sit in the green room, and we would play word duel for money and I used to feel bad for her; she is quite good and I was better at the time.

She would be making bets with me, playing in the cash games, that was her start. Someone like her was so important to the spirit of the week without even playing.

LD: If you were to produce a show today what characters would you choose?

JM: I like to think that the Premier League, for most of their seasons, reclaimed some of the spirit of Late Night Poker.

The stated goal was to put the 12 greatest poker players in the world together but the caveat was they had to be great for TV, and that's how I would go about it today.

There are times when poker TV shows should select players based on merit and poker should be shown live and seen as a sport. Late Night Poker wasn't filmed like that.

Anytime you film something and edit it's not a sport, it's a TV show, and the two are different.

David "Devilfish" Ulliott

LD: Talk about the Devilfish.

JM: The Devilfish in so many ways created the popularity of that show. He turned up in a suit, and that was huge. The Devilfish was like - 'I am going to make a performance out of this.'

Also, I had said this before, Devilfish had a soft side. I remember at the party; he came in, we were all broke, and a good 50% of us had put our case money down.

Devilish came in and bought two cases of champagne, and he didn't drink at the time. When I knew him back then he was sober and serious like that and would help guys out.

It's been said many times by many people, but Devilfish winning that first series was the greatest thing that could have happened for the UK poker online or live. He was the best player but was also a hero and a villain.

Not the first season, but the following seasons, he would always bring his guitar. We would be playing the cash games at the hotel and he would play his guitar at the same time.

He would write little ditties while playing a hand with you. He would sing things like, 'You know you are not going to call,' and it would rhyme.

He was good fun. I miss him.

More Late Night Poker History:

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