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Poker News | People in Poker | Poker Interviews

Poker Player-Turned-TV Producer Mori Eskandani

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The sunny, warm morning in Las Vegas escorted me to the home of Mori Eskandani for a short interview about his contributions to the world of poker. I planned to ask him about his transition from long-time professional poker player to television producer but had no specific plan of action. I hoped the conversation would lead us in the right direction, and it did.

The home was a large abode at the end of a cul-de-sac, and as I approached the front door, I noticed a security camera perched above the front porch. The thought of entering a compound of sorts lingered only for a moment until Kevin, a colleague of Mori’s, opened the door and welcomed me inside. I was asked if I’d like a refreshment just as Mori appeared at the top of the stairwell and motioned me up. As Kevin went for water, I headed up to the office area, shook hands with my interviewee, and entered the massive office space.

With the double French doors opened to a balcony area, I took a seat in front of Mori’s desk as he apologetically took care of a few phone calls and e-mails. “I don’t like to keep the Nevada Gaming Commission waiting for anything,” he said to me with a smile. My eyes wandered around the room to numerous awards and plaques commemorating his few but productive years in television. There were several large, framed sketches of Poker After Dark tables with players like Chris Ferguson and Jennifer Harman seated there, and there was the framed felt from a Poker Superstars table used on set. And atop the file cabinet and desk were pictures of his family.

Once the business was complete, Mori turned his eyes from his computer monitor, business desktop phone, and cell phone…to me. “How did you get into this business?” he asked. After my two-sentence answer that included a mention of my stint at the World Poker Tour, he inquired about founder Steve Lipscomb’s current endeavors. My answer was again a short one, as I wanted to focus on Mori, but the conversation naturally went in that direction without effort.

Prior to Steve’s launch of the World Poker Tour, he was filming a documentary about poker and asked several players to participate in a shoot of a high-stakes cash game at the Bellagio, of which Mori was a part. Mori also hosted a barbeque at his home as an occasion for Steve to interview poker players and their significant others. It was through that documentary that Mori and Steve became acquainted, only to cross paths again a few years later when Steve and his WPT decided to license the hole card camera patented by Mori’s business partner, Henry Orenstein . All of these events changed the game of poker forever.

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Mori Eskandani started his life in the United States in 1975 as an exchange student from Iran. A friendship with Yosh Nakano during his stint at business school introduced the young man to poker, and though he made money in the games initially, he still made several attempts to enter the business world. However, when those ideas didn’t work out as planned, Mori took poker more seriously, even moving to Las Vegas in 1985.

Not only was Mori a skilled limit hold’em cash game player, but his tournament successes were quickly adding up. In 1985, he placed third in the Grand Prix of Poker seven-card stud event for a $16K score, and two final tables the following year brought him more than $13K. His first win came in 1987 in a Super Stars of Poker tournament in Lake Tahoe, and the cashes continued to add up through the 1980’s and ‘90’s. And all the while, his cash game improved as well, pushing him to some of the higher limit games being played in the Las Vegas area.

Through it all, Mori formed friendships with many members of the relatively small poker community, one of them being Eric Drache. Both worked at the Golden Nugget for a time before moving over to the Mirage, and Mori went on to play a significant role in setting up the poker room at the Bellagio when it opened. His friendship with Drache led him to many opportunities, but little did either of them know how their poker interests or friendship would bring them together on the set of television shows years down the road.

As Mori explained it, his experiences with the various casinos were a way to diversify and break the everyday routine of playing poker. Though he enjoyed the game, he also liked the challenge of helping various businesses and using other skills within (and sometimes outside of) the industry. “If I played 2,000 hours a year in poker, which was my average for twenty-something years,” he reflected, “I did the other thing about 200 hours a year, whether it was making a game called dice chess or being a host for Mirage or helping with hiring for the opening of the Bellagio.”

But it was his partnership with Henry Orenstein that eventually took Mori away from the poker tables for a longer time than he ever intended. He explained:

“I met Henry Orenstein when he would come into the Mirage and play stud, and he would sometimes come to Los Angeles to play with us. We became good friends, where he would send my kids toys and things like that.

“One day, Henry, being Henry, who had to change everything that he looked at, he hated poker on television, which was just a couple hours of World Series of Poker on ESPN. They were just reporting it really, and you didn’t see much of the action, just who won and not much beyond that. Henry was from the business world and came into poker, and he looked at things different than poker players. To him, looking at players’ hole cards was really no big deal, and it could make for good TV. But to us players, that was giving the goodness away! So obviously, all the pros laughed at the idea, including me.

“But Henry was determined to prove us wrong, and thank God he was determined. He actually started building the table [with hole card cameras] and called me to ask basic questions about where things should go. I knew he was going to do it, so I just rolled with it. The table came about, geared toward a seven-card stud tournament. But hold’em was a much more popular game and easier for television, and that was decided on later. Matter of fact, Steve Lipscomb was the first to license Henry’s patent and got permission to use it on televised events with the hole card camera. Steve was able to sell it to a television station, which Henry and I hadn’t been able to do after knocking on all the doors. We weren’t successful, but Steve was. He really should get credit for being able to get it on television, and Henry should get the credit for changing the industry the way he did.”

Mori and Henry took note of a television show called Late Night Poker from Europe but thought of ways to improve the production. Once the World Poker Tour began airing on the Travel Channel, they knew that the television audience was ready for poker and television networks would be more receptive to the idea. Their show concept for Poker Superstars was picked up soon after. “It was supposed to be a seven-card stud tournament,” said Mori, “but we saw clearly that hold’em was so much easier and popular for TV. The sexy all-in was what everyone wanted to see. We did Poker Superstars, if I’m not mistaken, with two hours on NBC and twelve hours on Fox Sports Net, but the next year we were asked for 36 hours; it was that popular.”

For a person who had no experience in television production, Mori was in a unique situation, with a show to produce. So, as any smart businessman would do, he hired two producers and watched their every move. At first, he served as the liaison between the producers and players, as he knew very well what the players wanted and could relay that information to the staff. “Eventually, I put the two things together, knowing what would work for TV and what would work for poker. Good poker for television has to have the right balance or it won’t work.”

Through the years, Mori has accumulated a great number of shows to his production credit. In addition to Poker After Dark, High Stakes Poker, and the NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship, he has produced Face the Ace, the World Series of Poker Europe, and most recently the upcoming Doubles Poker Championship to air on GSN in 2010.

When thinking about the various shows he’s done, he categorized them in a particular way as to the production efforts involved. First, he explained, open tournament events must tell a complicated story in a simple way, using a leaderboard to track names, showing how final table players arrived there, and telling the story of the final table itself as the winner is determined. Second, the invitational, such as Poker After Dark, is set up for relatively easy television with set blinds and buy-ins and a time frame in which to film it, and players are happy with those tournaments because they are all paid to be there, whether in hourly wages or promotional fees. “We’ve added roughly $8 million to the players’ pockets through the years,” Mori added. And third, the cash games are the audience favorites, as High Stakes Poker is the “crown jewel of cash games” according to Mori. That type of show allows the audience to see into the real world of high-stakes poker and lets the players make the rules for it.

When discussing how the shows are put together and the role that Mori plays on them, he described a little of what goes into the production:

“I used to be totally hands-on, watching every minute of footage. We have guidelines from the company and the network to protect the players, so I need to make sure those are covered. I also listen to what the players say to make sure that a bad joke or something hurtful doesn’t make it to air. I used to format the shows, too, and pick the hands that would appear on the show to allow the audience to see the actual flow of things; taking the right samples shows an accurate portrayal of the players’ actions. My friend Eric [Drache] runs iCare Poker Consulting works for us exclusively, and he has a world of poker knowledge; nobody is better than him. He’s the best! He helps make sure the poker side of shows made sense. The two of us are basically in charge of formatting the shows. But we’ve also been able to add people to our staff that are very talented in new technology and computers as well as being poker savvy. They have business backgrounds and schooling that we didn’t have, and they have been a huge help to our productions. Our VP of programming is Dan Gotti, and he was a graduate of Columbia who let go of his law business to come into this, and he’s a huge help. He does almost all of the formatting of the shows now to make sure the legal aspects of the show are being done properly. In short, post production is now being done by Dan and Eric, and I’m now more involved in the day-to-day operations. Especially for High Stakes Poker, I’m a lot more hands-on than any other show; I’m on every voice-over with Gabe Kaplan, and there are a lot more decisions to be made on that show.”

The complications of putting each show together, keeping the players and the television networks and sponsors happy, and keeping it all within the confines of the shows’ guidelines take up a good portion of Mori’s time these days, as evidenced by the fact that his associate, Kevin, was helping around the office during our interview and Mori himself was in constant demand. But one thing was missing from the entire bustling equation: poker.

My question was simple: Does he miss playing poker? His answer was complicated but started and ended with the same statement: “Yes, I miss playing poker.” After his first admission, he pulled a notebook from a desk drawer. “This is my poker book from way back,” he explained. He then read several random entries from it, as he would track his play and his hours but add a note of wisdom about poker in the margins. And most of the lessons he learned, he still remembers. But then he sobered a bit as he looked through the past years when his hours at the table began to fade. In 2002, he saw there was 106 hours of poker, and by 2004, there was virtually none, a sharp contrast from the thousands of hours he played a decade ago.

“Poker is a funny game,” he thought out loud. “I can’t play like some people do on vacation, a few hours here and there. When I’m out there, I still have to play really well. But through the years, I’ve lost some feel. There are a lot of games that I’ve never even played - Badugi, for example - but if I was playing every day, I would learn them because it would be my business. Now I go out there and get my behind kicked pretty hard, though I still do well in my games… It’s very difficult to be in a business and still play poker; it’s tough to mix them and make money from both. Right now my concentration is on business and producing the game.”

“But,” he added, “maybe I’ll retire at some point and go back to playing. For now, though, I’m very happy with what I’m doing. I like making everybody else famous; that’s fine with me.”

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