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The History of Late Night Poker Pt. 2: A Tree Grows in Cardiff
Joe McKeehen stares at his new, diamond-encrusted bracelet.
It's huge. He will never wear it. Only Mr. T would wear something like that.
Those he cares about the most surround him. In front sits a ton of cash bricks worth $7,683,346. He is the new World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event champion.
What a great moment. Or, maybe not.
It may have been magical for McKeehen and his entourage but for the 1.2m ESPN viewers who tuned in to watch poker's annual extravaganza, the buzz wasn't the same.
Their feelings, as they posted liberally online the morning after, were summed up in one word: Boring.
Take off that hoodie, slip on a pair of swimming trunks and dive into the Hot Tub Time Machine. Set the timer for 1999 and a remote TV studio in Cardiff.
There you will find Nic Szeremeta, the man with the unenviable task of trying to make the 'poker part' of Late Night Poker … well … interesting.
"The challenge was how to make a game as boring as poker watchable," Szeremeta wrote once in a 2007 three-part article about the making of Late Night Poker.
What Szeremeta came up with next was a stroke of genius. He wasn't prescient of the future. He had a gut feeling.
He would create a poker TV program focusing on the characters. People want to see belching angels, strange old ladies, suckers, suits and strangers.
The problem with the WSOP Main Event final table cast is its created by the skill and luck that falls out of the event. For every Israeli that seems to take an age to make a play there is an enigmatic Canadian juggernaut that just misses the cut.
Szeremeta countered this problem by seeding the heats to ensure that each table would consist of a well-known female player, a well-known pro, a foreigner and the big action player/troublemaker/loudmouth.
An Industry Needed Building
Popular posturing would have you believe modern-day poker players are puritanical posers. Mutes carrying their car keys in alligator handbags, ears sealed by expensive cans and mouths closed like Zippy from Rainbow after trying to back scuttle Bungle.
I don't believe that. There was, and is, something else at work.
While it may be true that poker is becoming progressively harder to beat, and, therefore, a more difficult acorn to crack, a modern day Charlie Carrel already has an oak tree to climb and fall.
There was no oak tree in 1999. The players knew this.
Sometimes words were uttered. Sometimes they weren't. But there was an understanding that an industry needed building.
There were pioneer badges everywhere and people were picking them up and pinning them purposefully on their chest. When the camera was upon them, they acted. They delivered.
It was as perfect a script-free performance as you could imagine. They had a job to do and it was to make poker interesting. For some of them, their futures in the game depended on it.
The Devilfish was at it from Season 1 through to the time he exhaled his last breath. But there were others.
One Day He Grew a Beard
Like Jac Arama.
"Each time we had a break in between sessions," recounts Joe Beevers, "Jac Arama would change his sunglasses to try and break up the continuity of the show.
"He had some weird sunglasses. He would turn up with a carrier bag containing 20-30 different pairs.
"One day he grew a beard and during the dinner break he shaved it off.
"People watching on TV would have seen this man with a beard one minute and then it would be gone the next."
Like Hemish Shah.
"Hemish was one of my best friends," says Beevers. "He was only 33 when he died.
"Hemish won Late Night Poker the year before dying. He was an incredible player; an amazing friend and one of the key people in the early days of Late Night Poker.
"He died when we were filming Series 5. He had won the previous series and we were filming when we got that call. I made it through to the semi-final and the funeral was the same day. I went to Rhiannon Murphy and told her I was going to the funeral.
"She said they couldn't change the filming dates. I told her to put my chips on the table and blind me away. Simon Trumper agreed to do the same. Soon enough more people decided to do the same."
What happened next was synonymous with the legendary family spirit generated through this amazing poker tournament.
Beevers continues: "They played the semi-final at 7 am and then Rhiannon flew us all by helicopter to Golders Green Cemetery where the funeral was.
"We all turned up from filming wearing black suits and sunglasses. One side of the church was full of poker players and the other contained about two hundred Indian people.
"It looked like two separate funerals. Then we came out after the funeral, spoke to his parents, got into a helicopter and flew back to Cardiff to continue filming.
"Everything snapped into place because it had to."
The Token American and Just Phil
Both Arama and Shah were well-known within the UK circuit but Szeremeta's formula included foreigners, and at the time all the best foreigners were American.
"It was important for the show to have credibility in those early seasons," says Jesse May. "There was this guy that we invited called Chip Winton.
"He was the token American that came over. Another important player was Howard Plant.
"Number one, he ran the cash game in the hotel. He would bring his two dealers with him and rent a big suite at the Hilton.
"At the time he was more of a benefactor to a lot of the guys. He helped them out and put them into the game. He was a businessman. He was crucial for the Late Night Poker economy."
And there was a certain young American by the name of Phil Hellmuth Jr.
"We were in the green room preparing to go for dinner. Phil Hellmuth was in there," says Beevers. "He had played his heat and was hanging around.
"Some of the players didn't want to invite him. Vicky (Coren) came up to me and said we should ask him, so I did.
"Over time you would see him walking around the WSOP lapping up the attention. He wants to be seen. He enjoys putting on a show.
"That night he was humble, chatty and respectful because he knew this wasn't his family. He didn't try to take over and steal the show.
"He was just Phil. I got to see another side of Hellmuth that players don't get to see. He soon became part of our family."
The Devilfish in So Many Ways
But it was a British show. The beating heart was red, white and blue.
Without the finest UK actors and actresses the game of poker had ever seen the show would never have produced comments the like of which I recently found on old poker forums going back to 2002:
"What a brilliant programme to watch after staggering home with a kebab after a heavy session."
"It was great, like watching a porn movie, except I didn't know what was going on and had no idea why I had a hard on?"
In Jesse May's eyes the two best players in the UK at that time were Surinder Sunar and Dave ‘Devilfish' Ulliott.
Both players went on to make the final table of the first Season. Devilfish won it.
"Back then Sunar's reputation was greater than that of the Devilfish," says May.
"Devilfish brought Late Night Poker to another level but Sunar was my hero. I had run into him in Atlantic City in the 90s in the Taj Mahal.
"It was Surinder, a player called Ken Flaton, who they called Skyhawk, 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."
"The Devilfish in so many ways created the popularity of that show," continues May. "He turned up in a suit, and that was huge.
"The Devilfish was going to make a performance out of this. Also, 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.
"Devilfish 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."
Still Here, Still Growing
Jac Arama, Hemish Sha, Chip Winton, Howard Plant, Phil Hellmuth, Surinder Sunar and Dave ‘Devilfish' Ulliott.
They were all acorns. Only one of them planted a tree.
"Mad Marty was the spirit of Late Night Poker in so many ways," says May.
"All of my best memories of Late Night Poker are not in the studio but in the first few years at the bar. Marty would be telling his stories and everyone was enthralled."
"When ‘Mad' Marty Wilson came to play in the second series he brought us a gift," says Sian G. Lloyd, Studio Director.
"It was a young cherry tree sapling. He told us to plant that tree beside the studio, and as it grew, so would the game of poker.
"Marty's tree is still here in Cardiff and it's still growing.
"I miss our days of Late Night Poker, the colorful characters, the early morning finishes, the buzz of the crew who couldn't believe their eyes as they were plunged, for just a few days, into an undercover world none of us ever thought we'd witness.
"We were proud and privileged to play a small part in the history of this great game. I hope we did it justice."
You did, Sian.
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12 March 2018 70