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Return of the Late Night Poker Legends

by Warren Lush |  Published: Feb 01, 2008


In 1999, production company Presentable embarked on a great adventure. Its very first Channel 4 commission was a late-night series, perceived as experimental and probably unlikely to work in the minds of most television critics. Poker had been televised before, and nobody had found a way to show the viewers at home what cards the players were holding, whilst they had no knowledge of any cards but their own. For the first time, the full drama of the game, the bluff, the deceit, and the intrigue would be presented to an audience of millions. Televised poker was about to change forever, and so was born Late Night Poker.

As Sian G. Lloyd, a director of Presentable said, "Late Night Poker became mesmerising late-night television. It was a heady combination of the passion of the production team that brought the glossy pictures to the screen, the fascinating characters who travelled the world betting enormous amounts of cash on the flip of a card, and, perhaps most of all, the genius of the game itself - the way it played on human emotion at every level, exposing our weaknesses and allowing us to exploit our strengths."

"Mad" Marty Wilson was one of those involved in the first series, and he planted a cherry tree on the lawn outside the studios in Cardiff during the first series. Sometime later, he was sent a picture of a bowl of cherries by line producer Rhiannon Murphy. The tree had grown and blossomed, and so had the show. What had started off as an experiment had become a sensation; even Thomas Kremser, the dashing tournament referee, was being recognised on the high street. Move forward to 2008 and there are now a total of 61 employees involved in creating the show, ranging from catering staff to post-game reporters. There is a Channel 4 backdrop for interviews. It has come a long way from the time when Jesse May turned up not knowing what to expect with his last £1,500. He was down to play, ended up doing the commentary, and is now regarded as the "Voice of Poker."

Late Night Poker now has the muscle of a big sponsor in, and this year the decision was made to go back to the original format, with a focus on the old faces and characters who kick-started it all. The first series was won by a streetwise, fast-talking man from Hull by the name of Dave Ulliott. This created the monster they called the "Devil Fish," and before his heat this year, the UK's most familiar poker face spent time chatting and signing autographs for the Wolverhampton Wanderers football team before getting in his car to the event. As he likes to remind you, he's even been a topic of conversation for characters in the top UK soap opera EastEnders.

Backstage Antics
This year, the Devil Fish was back, as were the likes of the Hendon Mob, Padraig Parkinson, Jac Arama, and Korosh. Despite a lot of them becoming, in the words of Barny Boatman, "semifamous cult figures," they were all the same. The Devil Fish had a dispute with hotel reception about why he wasn't allowed to play the piano in the bar, while pantomime villain Korosh arrived without his buy-in - something about leaving it in his Mercedes rather than his Porsche. Jac Arama explained that he is retired from the game but came armed with his extravagant wardrobe that would obviously grab the attention of the cameras. These poker leopards don't change their spots …

An invitation to Late Night Poker is prestigious. There may be more than a total prize pool of $325,000 on offer elsewhere, but with's muscle, the tournament is syndicated around the world and offers a poker player brilliant exposure and the chance to star on the show that started it all. Amongst those invited for the first time this year were Annette Obrestad, Roland De Wolfe, and Jon Kalmar. For Holland, there was the return of the Flying Dutchman, Marcel Luske. For the Swedes, there was the guile and mathematical prowess of the likes of Bo Sehlstedt and Anders Henriksson.

The sponsor even put in a couple of wild cards with international distribution in mind. Top Polish daytime television presenter and boxing champion Agnieszka Rylik swapped features on flying fighter jets for poker lessons from Mike Sexton and a baptism of fire on the felt. Then there was the beautiful Dutch Pop Idol runner-up Maud Mulder, winner of the recent PartyPoker Dutch Open. They all joined a lineup that included the likes of the charismatic Robert Williamson III, German giants Michael Keiner and Eddy Scharf, plus French ace Pascal Perrault. Andy Black, Rene Mouritsen, Jen Mason, Praz Bansi, Ian Frazer, and Martin Wendt were also amongst the group of pros who made their way to Cardiff. Jamie Gold was even in town to play, but illness quashed the opportunity for some of Europe's finest to get their teeth into him.

One of the great aspects of Late Night Poker is the social atmosphere throughout the week. For many, one of the highlights of the week off the felt was when the Fish and Simon Trumper were both upstaged by a pitch-perfect Mulder at karaoke night. The Devil's Shall I Play or Shall I Fold helped pack out the bar, but the growing crowds were transfixed when pinup Mulder belted out Creedence Clearwater Revival's Proud Mary after a number of gin and tonics. The face on the upstaged Ulliott was a picture! Trumper was great at Elvis, but definitely needed a wig to give it more impact.

For me, a highlight was trying to persuade Padraig Parkinson to approach former Republic of Ireland football manager Mick McCarthy in the hotel and tell him that he was a Roy Keane man. There was also much mirth when Mulder introduced herself to Ram Vaswani and he said he played poker "a bit," and Padraig told her he was an online qualifier. A riotous night out with Robert "Monkey Nuts" Williamson III, when he wore a gorilla suit, also sticks in the mind.

High Drama
The field also featured 10 online qualifiers who won their seats in exclusive online tournaments on Party. The majority were German, and every night they were in the Steam Bar at the Cardiff Hilton, discussing strategies with recent Premier League Poker runner-up Eddy Scharf. What I will always remember about Eddy is that he is an airline pilot, and is not full time on the poker scene despite worldwide success, including a World Series of Poker bracelet. Just imagine: "Hello, this is your captain speaking. I am going all in; I repeat, I am going all in." It sounds like something Tony G would say. Instead of sending an opponent back to Russia, Eddy could say, "You should leave the country; I will even fly the plane to make sure you do!"

The total prize pool for this year's tournament was $325,000 ($90,000 added), with $125,000 going to the eventual winner. There were 49 players paying a $5,000 buy-in, with seven heats featuring seven players, followed by a semifinal and a final.
This year, there has also been a change to how some of the hands will be shown. "The convention for every poker show these days is to show all the players' cards as soon as they enter a pot," explained producer Rob Thomas. "When Late Night Poker started, the style was very different. Players' cards were revealed at appropriate moments during the hand to create more drama as the hand progressed. Twice in each show, we will see the hand from one player's perspective. We'll see only his particular holecards, which gives the viewer a different perspective as the hand develops. TV poker is about creating drama and tension, and in these instances the commentators will have great fun guessing what the opponent might be holding, and then there's the excitement of the "reveal" moment at the end of the hand. We believe this will enhance the viewer's enjoyment."

This year's production was certainly affected by the tragic news that the original pioneering producer Rob Gardner had passed away. His contribution to televised poker was massive, and tributes have poured in. Then there was the unexpected death of commentator and presenter Vicky Coren's father, Alan, but Vicky headed to Cardiff for the final and was as brilliant as ever. Late Night Poker airs on Channel 4 each Tuesday at midnight. We are not going to let you know who won; you'll have to watch to find out!