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The Phil Hellmuth Hosted, Prop Bet TV Show That Never Aired – Part 1

True Tales From A Hollywood Poker Hustler


If someone would have bet me whether or not my book, Billion Dollar Hollywood Heist, would end up beating out Molly’s Game after its sales quadrupled due to the Oscar-nominated feature film, I don’t think I would have taken that bet. Yet, as I’m writing this my book is no. 1 on Amazon’s poker category, Molly’s Game is no. 4, and I’m certainly not sad about it.

As card players, winning is often all about the money… but considering how I haven’t seen a dime for my book yet, I’m going to file this one away in the “proud to be on top” category and call it a day. It’s important that we take a little time to remember our wins seeing as how such moments are not only few and far between, but often fleeting when they finally arrive.

And speaking of celebrating a win, let’s get into this issue’s column, which is a subject matter that always manages to squeeze the maximum amount of joy out of every win… Prop Bets!

Ok, I friggin love proposition bets! Chances are if you are reading this then you too enjoy the undeniable giddiness often accompanied by getting the best of it with either friends or foes, while wagering on fun props that are all too often wacky, weird, or just plain wrong.

It’s hard to even fathom anyone in the professional poker community who doesn’t participate in or at the very least enjoy sidelining around the occasional prop bet. The World Poker Tour’s very own Vince Van Patten just released a very funny film called 7 Days To Vegas that is based on poker and prop bets.

Come to think of it, I don’t recall having ever met a card player who didn’t enjoy seeing someone either winning by a long shot on a prop or getting their ass handed to them after being overly confident. So, to satisfy our collective prop bet sweet tooth, expect to see me devote the occasional column to this great gambling past time which will feature a range of tales including never-before-revealed high-stakes props from top players of today and in year’s past.

To kick off this debaucherous, Schadenfreude-filled jaunt, I’d like to share the story of the time I pulled a prop bet show out of my ass, right after bombing out on a courtroom-based reality series pitch back in 2007. The pilot I ended up selling that day was called, I’ll Take That Bet.

Never heard of it? That’s because it never aired. We shot it with the likes of Phil Hellmuth, Mike Matusow, Layne Flack, Erica Schoenberg, Evelyn Ng, and the late Gavin Smith, among others.

The show does exist, however. If you’d like to see it, then keep reading.

After producing the Aruba Poker Classic, and more than two seasons of The Ultimate Blackjack Tour, I knew one thing to be certain. Poker players can often be difficult to wrangle.

It makes perfect sense when you think about it. All of us in this profession love the feeling of being free to go where we want, when we want. The only schedule that ever matters might be getting to the main event before you get blinded out or showing up to the cash game before the fish have all been caught. That’s why I chose to shoot the majority of I’ll Take That Bet at one single location, which was my buddy and then-producing partner Sam Korkis’ house in Vegas, on a day when no major tournaments were being held.

There were many issues, such as dragging Phil Hellmuth to the set straight from an all-night Chinese Poker game at the Bellagio sporting fever blisters on his lips and what looked like a 72-hour session of fatigue, or the fact that all the other cast members were placing big side bets on whether or not Mike Matusow would arrive to the shoot either drunk, late, or not at all. But before I star into those stories, first let me tell you how the show got sold in the first place.

The year was 2007 and my agent had set up a pitch a month out for me to meet with Court TV about a courtroom reality series. By the time the actual pitch date rolled around, I had almost forgotten about the show concept I was supposed to show them. Always eager to give it a shot, I gathered up my material for the pitch and went in with the mindset that I was going to sell another TV show. At that time, I had The Ultimate Blackjack Tour airing on CBS, and a pro wrestling series on MTV, plus a couple other pilots in production.

As soon as I started my pitch, the development executive politely stopped me and said, “Didn’t your agent tell you? We are no longer Court TV. We have just changed the name of our network to TruTV and aren’t interested in court room-related series anymore.”

Trying to draw attention away from the fact that I felt like an uninformed jackass, I turned it around and started asking them questions about what they saw for the future of their newly re-branded network. There were three executives in the room including a vice president of development, and a director of development. I was surprised to hear how excited they all were. They didn’t know exactly what they wanted, but they knew it was going to be “cool.”

That’s when I asked them if they knew what a prop bet was. A young assistant literally raised his hand as if it were a pop quiz and answered by saying, “Oh I know what that is. That’s when you sucker somebody out of their money right?”

I laughed and said, “Well, sometimes it can mean exactly that!” And I began to tell them a story about one of the greatest prop bet hustles I had ever witnessed.

So, what was this crazy story that sold them on the idea? Well, if you’ve read my book, Billion Dollar Hollywood Heist, then you will remember the million-dollar golf bet between entrepreneur and poker playboy Kasey Thompson and the infamous, former WSOP champion, the infamous Russ Hamilton. (Hamilton, of course, was later implicated in the UltimateBet scandal, but that’s a story for another day.)

For those that haven’t read it, here is an excerpt from the book that explains how I became the first producer to sell a show concept to the newly formed TruTV.

Out of all the hustlers I’ve ever known, none even came close to Russ. Whether it’s poker, golf, or a gum-spitting contest, you never want to make a wager with Russ unless you’re ready to lose a ton of dough. He might even lose a bet to you on purpose just so he can beat you for more money down the road at something else.

Russ HamiltonRemember my friend Kasey Thompson? The guy Tobey let off the hook for a million bucks out of the kindness of his heart? Well, one time Kasey had a million-dollar golf game set up with Russ. He was confident he would win because he had a much better handicap than Russ did.

The day before the game, the two of them were having lunch near a big old palm tree. Out of the blue Russ bets Kasey ten grand that he can’t shimmy up to the top of the tree in under five minutes. Kasey not only took the bet, but he shot up the tree like a monkey and then came back down to collect his winnings, which Russ quickly paid, in cash.

And what happens the next day out on the first fairway? Kasey’s hands were so scarred up and mangled from climbing the tree that he could barely hold his driver and his golf game completely went to shit. Unlucky coincidence? Or as sweet a long-range scam as you’ll ever find? You decide. But suffice to say Russ easily took Kasey for the million bucks on the golf course that day.

As I’m casually telling this story to the TruTV execs their faces lit up like a first time hold’em player with pocket aces. They were hanging on every word, and bought the show in the room, even calling my agent to make a deal before I had time to get back to my office.

For those of you who are wondering if selling a TV show is your ticket to fame and fortune, I’ll spare you the mystery and just tell you it’s far from it. Once a network decides they like your concept, about 100 other things need to go right before the show will ever see the light of day.

In my case, I wanted to produce one big prop per episode, similar to the one I told them about in the room. However, they wanted to turn it into some form of a competition. Doing a competition would be fine, but to do it right would require a bigger budget and a lot of moving pieces to pull it off correctly.

Sadly, If I remember correctly, they offered up about $20,000 for a presentation tape when a full-blown pilot budget for a show of this nature could range anywhere between $125,000 to $400,000 depending on the scope.

Needless to say, wasn’t going to cut it, so we decided to do a bare-bones presentation. What we came up with was a fun little show that fit into a log line that went kind of like this: Seven professional gamblers put their own money on the line… winner takes all!

It was a fun little concept that included basketball wagers, mini golf, some eight ball and other fun bets. Hollywood Dave Stann bet professional gambler Brian Zembic, (the man who got breast implants for $100,000 and then decided to keep them) on who could borrow a stranger’s cell phone and use it the longest. Mike the Mouth and Gavin Smith were betting on who could hit tennis balls over a house and make them land near the basketball court on the other side. And meanwhile, my buddy Phil Hellmuth, forced awake and wearing a ton of makeup, played host, and officiated over all the wagers.

It was actually a really fun atmosphere for people to see Hellmuth in. While I enjoy seeing him yell at the tables, Phil can be very endearing and even more entertaining away from the poker table, especially playing a host to a bunch of poker pros and gamblers.

The show was designed to have an elimination format so at the end of each episode, so somebody had to go! After a long day, and lots of laughs, the person who lost the most would be kicked off the show. So, between Matusow, Flack, Schoenberg, Smith, Ng, Zembic, and Stann, who do you think was the first to be eliminated? Stay tuned to part 2 of this article to find out.

The more important question is, why didn’t the show air? Since it was just a presentation, we never thought it would air, but hoped it would be a stepping stone towards a real budget so we could add more bells and whistles into the series if it got picked up.

Things were looking promising, but it wasn’t long after that when 60 Minutes ran a piece on the god mode superuser online poker cheating scandal involving Hamilton. After that, networks didn’t want to touch a show about gamblers, card players, and prop bets.

So, as much as the network enjoyed the show, they ultimately passed. Would they have done better with a smash hit show centered around props? Who knows? But if you think that means my show will never see the light of day and is gone forever… well, I’ll Take That Bet!

And remember… stay sharp! Stay KardSharp!

Houston Curtis Houston Curtis, founder of and author of Billion Dollar Hollywood Heist has lived a successful double life as both a producer and card mechanic for nearly 30 years. His credits include executive producing gambling related TV shows such as The Ultimate Blackjack Tour on CBS, The Aruba Poker Classic on GSN and pioneering the poker instructional DVD genre with titles featuring poker champion Phil Hellmuth.

Barred for life from Las Vegas Golden Nugget for “excessive winning” at blackjack, Houston is one of the world’s most successful card mechanics and sleight-of-hand artists of the modern era. Curtis, who rarely plays in tournaments, won a 2004 Legends of Poker no-limit hold’em championship event besting Scotty Nguyen heads-up at the final table before going on to co-found the elite Hollywood poker ring that inspired Aaron Sorkin’s Academy Award-nominated film Molly’s Game.

Curtis resides in Phoenix, Arizona where in addition to running a production company and independent record label, he is also a private gaming/casino protection consultant to clients across the globe seeking insight into master level card cheating tactics via advanced sleight-of-hand technique. To reach Houston for a speaking engagement, consulting or production services send email to

All views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Card Player.