There’s a new cash game on television! Big deal, right? But Poker Stars’ The Big Game actually does put an entertaining new spin on an old concept, with a few twists that make it eminently enjoyable to watch. The best idea that the producers hit upon was the concept of the “Loose Cannon.” This is a player who wins his/her way on to the show through online qualifying, and is staked by Poker Stars to a $100,000 buy-in for the game. The catch? He or she only gets to keep any PROFITS amassed during the week, which requires this amateur player to get right in there and mix it up with the five top professionals at the table. As a result, the viewer is treated to how the pros try to exploit a relative newcomer, just as they might if a rank amateur were to sit down in Bobby’s Room at the Bellagio.
Each week of play comprises exactly 150 hands, obviously edited for television, with $200-$400 blinds, and a $100 ante. All of the antes for each hand are paid by the player on the button, which provides extra incentive for that player to protect his investment. Hands are played pot limit pre-flop and no limit afterward. In addition to this week’s Loose Cannon, Ernest Wiggins, sitting in Seat One, the murderer’s row of pros at the table were, in order of seating, Daniel Negreanu, Doyle Brunson, Phil Laak, Tony G, and Phil Hellmuth. The dynamic set up with this particular arrangement of players created two noteworthy relationships. First, Negreanu, sitting immediately to the left of the amateur, used his position to repeatedly abuse the Cannon. While Wiggins kept choosing to limp into pots with hands that were raise-worthy, Negreanu continually came over the top of him, trying to isolate him, only to steal away the pot at some later point in the hand, often when he was far behind. Negreanu exploited his always friendly table demeanor to the max, continually appearing to be the nice guy cheering on the newcomer to the game, while robbing him blind, proving you just can’t trust those professional poker players, as if we didn’t already know that.
Even more powerful was the continuation of a long-standing televised cash game rivalry between the irrepressible Tony G. and the trying-to-reform-his-act Phil Hellmuth. Hellmuth claims to be attempting to rehabilitate his table behavior with the help of a life coach, who is trying to keep Hellmuth focused on the present moment at the table, rather than getting caught up in what has already transpired, particularly Hellmuth’s tendency to dwell on what he perceives as bad luck. Tony G., with some additional goading from Hellmuth’s long-time foil Negreanu, repeatedly tested Hellmuth’s resolve not to blow up, stating over and over again that he wanted to see Hellmuth reduced to a puddle crying on the floor in defeat, and insulting both Hellmuth’s cash-game skills and his behavior.
In what was certainly the most memorable hand of the week, and one of the most bizarre ones in televised poker history, Hellmuth held A-9 against Wiggins’ pocket kings, only to have a flop of 9-9-10 magically appear. During the post-flop betting, Hellmuth clearly slow-rolled the amateur, making a big show of asking if he would call if Hellmuth pushed all-in. All the money got into the middle eventually, and Hellmuth convinced Wiggins to run it four times. Of course, the more times it was run, the more of the pot Hellmuth, who has always liked to buy insurance from other players when he is a big favorite in a cash-game hand, figured to win. However, after Hellmuth won the first run, Wiggins improbably (calculated at one-tenth of one percent!) won the other THREE, catching his set the first time, four-flushing Hellmuth on the second, and hitting the case king for yet ANOTHER set on the third one. The merriment that ensued from the other players, particularly Negreanu and Tony G., tested Hellmuth’s patience to the limit, as he struggled to stay as calm as possible. Rubbing salt into the wound, Tony G. stated in no uncertain terms that Hellmuth’s behavior was “a disgrace to the game.”
Going into the last show of the week, largely due to that hand, Wiggins was up about $57,000. If he finished the week with a profit, he would need to decide whether to take the money and walk away, or continue to play next week, trying to amass an even bigger stack, since the Loose Cannon who wins the most during the season will also earn a North American Poker Tour passport worth $50,000. Unfortunately for Wiggins, he went largely card dead for the last set of hands, and was never a factor on the final show.
The big winner for the week was the new Guinness Book of World Records record holder for the longest continual time playing poker, Phil Laak. While Laak’s very conservative play has often not served him in televised cash games, here he was able to do extremely well, largely by letting Tony G. continue to bluff off chips to him when Laak held the better hand. At one point, Laak reminded Tony of the words of Devilfish Ulliott, “Never try and bluff the calling station,” but both Tony and Negreanu kept trying to push Laak off of hands without success.
In the most significant hand of the night, Tony G. straddled, and Wiggins limped with K-10. Negreanu then kept up his pattern of raising to isolate the Cannon, making it $3,500 on the button with 6-5. Laak woke up with A-Q and called in the big blind, Tony G. called with and Wiggins folded. The flop of A-K-2 caused both Laak and Tony G. to check, and Negreanu fired out the continuation bet of $6,500. Laak called and Tony G. folded. Another ace came on the turn, and Laak checked once more. Negreanu bet $9,000 and Laak called once again. The river was a jack, Laak continued to check and Negreanu bet $28,000. Laak agonized about his decision, running through the hand aloud, saying that he knew he was beat but just couldn’t fold. He finally made the call, seeing Negreanu’s bluff.
In a final confrontation that was inevitable from the beginning of the week, Hellmuth and Tony G. got all the money in pre-flop, with Hellmuth holding pocket nines and Tony G. having A-K. Tony G. decided to go for the kill by only running it once, and it looked like a bad decision when the first four cards were J-5-3-5. But he caught an ace on the river to felt Hellmuth.
In the final count, Laak wound up profiting $219,700 and Negreanu won $37,200. Tony G. lost $52,600, Hellmuth was down $97,600 and Brunson, who had a brutal week, lost $158,900. Wiggins finished up $50,300, and just couldn’t pull the trigger to stay and play for another week. As his profit was based on the one extremely lucky result against Hellmuth, his decision was almost certainly the right one, as his weak-tight style was just getting chewed up against the professionals.
We will be featuring a weekly write-up on The Big Game here at PokerWorks, as well as interviews with some of the principals involved in the making of the show. Check back with us every week for coverage of the newest televised game in town!
*PokerWorks talks with Tony G about The Big Game*