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Poker Central's Sam Simmons Discusses U.S. Poker Open, Other New PokerGO Programming

Vice President of Content Talks About The Recent NBC Sports Deal And New PokerGO Content

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The start of 2018 has been very eventful for Poker Central. At the end of January, the poker media company announced an extension of their contract with NBC Sports to air episodes of their marquee high roller events, the Super High Roller Bowl and the Poker Masters through 2020. The extension also includes Poker Central’s newest series, the US Poker Open.

The inaugural running of the USPO is taking place right now at the Aria Resort & Casino. The eight-event series runs from Feb. 1-11, with final table coverage of all of the exciting high-stakes action.

Card Player caught up with Sam Simmons, Vice President of Content at Poker Central, to learn more about the USPO, the recent deal with NBC Sports and much more.

Card Player: So first off, I just wanted to ask you about your background in poker. Doing some research before I talked to you I discovered that you have some live tournament results, including a recent fifth-place finish in a $2,100 buy-in event at this year’s PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. What is your history with the game?

Sam Simmons: I’ve been around poker for a while. My family played a lot together growing up, and I’m only 25 years old, so the poker boom was taking place during my formative years. When I got older I played a bit online, and I moved out to Las Vegas originally for Real Estate and ended up connected with [Poker Central Founder] Cary Katz. I got involved in the business as a marketing guy, but transitioned over to content. My experience playing the game has definitely helped me provide some good insight in that role.

CP: In terms of content, you are offering shows that cover all the different aspects of the game. From returning favorites like Poker After Dark and coverage of existing events like the World Poker Tour and World Series of Poker, to the creation of brand new high-stakes tournaments like the Super High Roller Bowl, the Poker Masters series and now the US Poker Open. What has gone into the innovation of these new events?

SS: Our goal with PokerGO is to be the home of all the best live poker and poker content that the industry has to offer. That not only comes from bringing on pre-existing brands like the WSOP, which has been the pinnacle of live poker, but also for us to create major events as well. When you hear a name like US Poker Open, Super High Roller Bowl or Poker Masters, it resonates outside of the bubble of hardcore poker fans as well, which we feel is very important.

For years now, the high roller ecosystem has been thriving here in Las Vegas, and it has happened off camera. Our founder Cary Katz has been a big part of that, and now we are building these events around that scene. We created these majors of the high rollers, because these events attract the best talent and top players in the world.

CP: So the deal with NBC Sports is huge news for these major events. Can you tell me more about it?

SS: So the original deal included the Super High Roller Bowl and the Poker Masters, but now the deal has been extended through 2020 and also features the US Poker Open. PokerGO will air live streaming coverage and had video replays on demand, while NBC Sports will air edited episodes from these major events, which will run year round.

It is the best of both worlds for fans. For hardcore fans of poker, you want to see every hand and are interested in hours and hours of final-table action. For more casual fans, they might not be as interested in every single hand and some of the slower aspects of watching unedited action. So when I say it is the best of both worlds, I mean that you get the live coverage on PokerGO for the hardcore niche audience, but we also get to grow the game by bringing these pinnacle poker events to the mainstream through NBC Sports.

Nick Schulman and Ali Nejad commentating on the Super High Roller BowlCP: To that point, finding the balance between in-depth strategy and analysis that can be absorbed by casual fans can be tough. What are your thoughts on this challenge?

SS: There is certainly a barrier in terms of the complexities of the game when you are looking to bring in new viewers into this environment and get them caught up on the nuances. I sort of compare it to golf, myself. I’m not much of a golfer, I play a little bit and before I started I hated watching golf on TV. But once you get started you quickly appreciate some of the nuances and how hard it is for the pros to do what they do.

I think that is very similar to poker. You need to try to provide explanation and insight in a way that provides value to hardcore poker fans but can also translate it in a way that can be absorbed by a mainstream audience. It is an art form and we believe that the team we’ve put together that includes the people like Ali Nejad, Nick Schulman, Jeremy Ausmus and many more that are able to strike that balance.

CP: Having the founder of Poker Central be Cary Katz, someone who may be a businessman but has played poker tournaments at the highest stakes for years now, that has to be a fantastic asset. He has a relationship with the players involved and an understanding of the game that has influenced his vision for the company in a way that is really positive.

Poker Central founder Cary KatzSS: Yeah, undoubtedly. I know that with these high roller major events that we’ve created, the whole success of the event starts and ends with the players. That is to say, the event is only as good as the players who enter the tournament. So everything we do is with the intent of creating an environment that is optimal for the players.

Cary has built relationships with the top players of the last few years and has spent time at the tables with them, so the first thing we do when we are working on a new event is consult with the tight-knit group of guys and gals that have come out for these high rollers. So we are lucky to have gotten the feedback of incredible players like Daniel Negreanu, Bryn Kenney, Tom Marchese and many more. Their input has been invaluable to the success of our major events.

CP: One of the more interesting aspects of the Poker Masters that debuted in 2017 was that the eventual winner of the purple jacket was decided by the total amount of money won across the entire series. That approach has also carried over to the US Poker Open. Can you tell me about the decision to determine the series champion by money won instead of utilizing a points-based system?

SS: The measure of a poker player’s success is how much money they have won. So yeah, we could have created a player of the series system that scaled by number of entries and buy-in and all of that, but it’s not always clear what the best way to weight the different variables in these equations. Different types of players will thrive when different things are more strongly weighted, and that can breed controversy. So it made sense to us to simplify it and make it about they money that players cashed for. Also, the idea of players battling it out over the course of a whole series and really putting together an impressive run over the span of several events appealed to us. The way it is set up now, it is tough to win that Poker Masters purple jacket or the US Poker Open Championship trophy. The events run late each night and then there is another tournament the next day and the day after that. At the end, the measure of success being how much money a player won just makes sense for these series.

The 2018 US Poker Open Championship trophyCP: 2017 saw the debut of PokerGO airing coverage of the WSOP. One of the major bits of feedback to emerge from that was that hardcore fans were interested in seeing an expansion of mixed-game coverage in the future. Did that swell of support have an influence on the decision to include several games outside of no-limit hold’em on the schedule for the US Poker Open?

SS: Yeah definitely. The Poker Masters last year was all no-limit hold’em and it brought out the best players in the world in that discipline, but with this event we wanted to go a slightly different direction. I keep going back to golf, which has the major events and they all have a lot in common in that they are all very prestigious and the competitors are all still playing golf, but each of golf’s majors has its own identity and things that make it special. We hope to create the same dynamic with our events. The Poker Masters is centered around no-limit hold’em, but the US Poker Open has a several big mixed-game events and as a result we certainly expect the player who wins the trophy to have a multi-dimensional skill set. They are more likely to be able to have success at pot-limit Omaha, the mixed games and no-limit hold’em. I think that is what makes this series special.

As far as WSOP coverage moving forward, the feedback we got in 2017 was very helpful. We have been working very closely with the WSOP team and with the Caesars team on how the schedule will look so that it marries the appetite for mixed games on PokerGO and the TV schedule for ESPN and the main event. All of these things have been considered and we have done our best to create a perfect amount of coverage across the board. There will be more details announced at a later date, but I can say definitively that there will be much more mixed games and more final tables provided on the whole.

CP: So the Poker Masters was a new event in 2017, the US Poker Open was added in 2018. Do you think your schedule of major high roller events is complete, or will you continually be evaluating and considering creating new events?

SS: We are always looking to innovate and improve. We will look to make new events, but at the same time we don’t want to force it and over saturate the high roller market. We elicit feedback from the players often when it comes to scheduling and are in contact with a group of advisers in regards to potential times to consider hosting new events moving forward. We are also certainly taking feedback on past events and looking to improve the product when it comes to events we have already created.

CP: Not only does PokerGO offer poker fans access to live and archived tournament and cash game action, there is also a ton of content outside of people actually playing the game.

Matt Berkey, subject of the 'Dead Money seriesSS: Yeah, we have a number of series out there right now. Some of my favorites currently are Dead Money, which is the story of Matt Berkey’s 2016 Super High Roller Bowl run and how he trained for the event with the Solve For Why guys. It ended up working out incredibly in that he final tabled the event. It follows his journey from being predominantly a cash game player to buying into the largest buy-in tournament of the year and making the final table.

We just recently launched Stories From the Felt in which each episode chronicles an untold story of poker glory. There is everything from Brian Rast’s massive bicycling prop bet to Greg Merson’s battle with drug addiction and then going on to win the WSOP main event. Then we also have some more fun lifestyle stuff. We have a series hosted by Joe Ingram called Major Wager which has sort of a game show, prop-betting dynamic. There’s a dating show called Chasing Hearts that centers around the tells that people give away while they’re on a blind date. There will be some announcements coming soon about some exciting new content we have coming up in the first half of this year, including some behind-the-scenes looks at the players, the events themselves and all that goes into them.

CP: Is there anything else you’d like poker fans to know?

SS: I’d just ask poker fans to continue letting us know what they want. We very much appreciate when people let us know what they like, what they don’t like, what they want to see more of and so on. We talked about mixed game coverage earlier, that feedback that fans gave was something that we have more than taken to heart and will have a big impact on the scheduling of our coverage moving forward. The continued back and forth between us and our subscribers is very important and we very much value their input.Spade Suit

Photo of Simmons provided by Poker Central / Drew Amato.