Unlike previous seasons, where players exited and entered the game whenever they wanted, this season of High Stakes Poker has been broken up into three separate segments, each with eight players who compete for a series of episodes. This week’s episode marks the entrance of the second of the three groups of players on this season’s show. The table includes six professional players, including High Stakes Poker veterans Antonio Esfandiari, Phil Laak, Daniel Negreanu, and Patrik Antonius, plus newcomers Howard “the Professor” Lederer and Joe Hachem (2005 World Series of Poker Main Event champion) and two amateurs, Sam Simon (co-creator of The Simpsons) and actor-director Nick Cassavetes. The blinds are 400-800, with a 200 ante. One can only hope that these players can provide the same type of fireworks that the first group did. We shall see……
The first few hands included Antonius taking down a pot pre-flop with a re-raise with pocket aces, Lederer winning a hand with a continuation bet into a flopped that missed him, Laak and Hachem, and Laak scooping up the third hand by raising Antonius’ post-flop continuation bet when he hit a pair of sixes on the flop.
The first interesting confrontation came between Lederer and Hachem. Lederer raised to $3,000 with pocket tens and Hachem smooth called with jacks. The flop brought the , Lederer bet $4,500 into the $8,800 pot and Hachem called. Lederer was the only one of the two to have a spade in his hand. The turn was the , completing Lederer’s flush. He checked, and Hachem bet $8,500 into $17,800. Lederer, wanting to find out where he was in the hand, raised to $18,500 and Hachem re-raised to $38,500 without a spade, sensing Lederer’s hesitation! Lederer folded the winning hand, and Hachem gathered in $83,300.
After Cassavetes took down a small five-way pot when he hit trip aces on the flop and raised everyone out of the hand, Esfandiari raised the next hand to $2,500 with . Hachem smooth-called with pocket tens, and everyone else folded. With the pot at $7,400, the flop came Q-6-3, with no hearts. Hachem checked, Esfandiari bet $5,100 and Hachem called. The turn was the , and Hachem once again check-called the Magician’s bet, this time $10,200. Hachem began talking loudly about continuing to call Esfandiari’s bets, and how he was going to pay him off on the river, which prompted Antonio to save his money and just check the river down. Hachem’s pair of tens was the winner.
On the next hand, Simon raised to $3,000 with pocket jacks, Cassavetes called with and Negreanu, looking to take advantage of the two amateurs, called with A-5 offsuit. The flop brought 7-2-7, making Cassavetes trips once again. Simon led out with $10,000 and Cassavetes raised to $26,000. Negreanu folded and so did Simon, prompting commentator Gabe Kaplan to note that he was probably the only player at the table who would do so.
It began to be clear that the professionals were looking for opportunities to play pots against the two amateurs. Esfandiari was trying very hard to institute the seven-deuce game from the previous season, where everyone at the table pays $1,000 to a player who wins a hand with the worst starting hand in poker. Cassavetes in particular was refusing to participate. When Cassavetes raised to $2,500 with 7-6 offsuit, Esfandiari re-raised to $8,200 with J-5! After some yakking back and forth (and there was definitely more interesting table talk than scintillating poker play this night), Cassavetes folded.
On the next hand, Hachem raised to $2,500 with A-K unsuited, and Esfandiari, showing himself on this night to be an equal opportunity junk raiser, re-raised to $8,200 with 6-4, the hand Kaplan has come to call the “Eastgate”, after the World Champion’s huge win with it last week. Hachem called, and the flop brought 6-6-2. Hachem checked, and Esfandiari, having hit trip sixes, bet $12,200 into the pot of $19,200. Hachem, whose reads all night were spot on, said he had a bad feeling about the hand and laid it down.
The next hand featured a classic professional vs. amateur confrontation. Negreanu called with , Antonius followed suit with 9-6 offsuit, and Laak raised to $6,300 with . Sam Simon now made the first of two critical mistakes. He had wanted to make a move with 10-4 offsuit, and put in a raise, not realizing that Laak had already raised the pot. This meant that he now could only make a minimum raise to $11,800, which priced Laak into the hand. Everyone else folded, and with the pot $27,200, they saw a flop of J-9-8, with two diamonds. Simon led out with $30,000, and Laak called. The turn brought the and Simon now made his second error and checked, giving up the lead in the betting. Laak didn’t hesitate, putting out a bet of $50,000, and taking down the pot when Simon folded.
Hachem, who was the recipient of many premium pocket pairs this night, now found K-K, and raised to $2,500. Negreanu called with A-10 offsuit, and Antonius did as well with J-4. The flop was K-10-3, giving Hachem the set and Negreanu middle pair. Hachem bet $7,000 into the $9,500 pot, Negreanu called and Antonius folded. The turn was the , and Hachem now bet $20,500 into $23,500. Negreanu made the call once again. The river was the , which was the third diamond to appear. Hachem, playing a bit of small-pot poker, chose to check, and Negreanu did as well. Chalk up another one for the Aussie world champion!
The final hand of the night began with Negreanu raising to $2,500 with . Antonius re-raised to $11,000 with and Negreanu called. The flop came K-10-3, with two diamonds. Antonius bet $17,000 and Negreanu, with his flush draw, called. The turn was the and both players checked. The river was the , and Negreanu, realizing that he could not take down the pot in a showdown, bet $26,000. Antonius reluctantly folded.
Compared to the insane action of the first six weeks, this was a very lackluster hour of poker, with relatively small pots and not a tremendous amount of action. Some of the players seemed much more involved in side conversations and side bets (Laak and Esfandiari won bets from Hachem about what Cassavetes’ rating of Pulp Fiction would be) than in the actual play. Of course, as we have seen in previous seasons, playing with lots of chatter is the favored style of Esfandiari, Laak and Negreanu, among others. However, as charming as they can be, I personally prefer the intensity of the play that we saw in the first six weeks of the season. It remains to be seen if this group of players can similarly elevate the show as it moves forward.
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