On Wednesday, Sept. 10 at 10 p.m. ET and PT, the Discovery Channel will air the pilot episode of the new poker television show Underground Poker, which stars longtime friends and poker pros Antonio Esfandiari and Phil Laak.
The show, which involved showrunner Jon Bulette, assistant editor Peter Hedberg, and production company Matador Content & Appian Way, isn’t your typical poker program; in fact, here’s how it’s being billed:
“Two poker legends and best friends, Phil Laak and Antonio Esfandiari, travel to the Big Easy looking for the perfect game — Cards, gumbo, booze, and voodoo... and a recluse named Neighborscheig.”
The show is basically the story about two professional gamblers, Phil and Antonio, who travel to different cities — in this particular episode it’s New Orleans — and their focus is to find private, high-stakes, underground poker games.
“Real poker games, none of the poker is staged," Esfandiari said over a phone interview with PokerNews. "We’re finding real games and we’re trying to get in them. There’s a little bit of banter between me and Phil, because you know that’s kind of our characters. At the same time we’re trying to get into these games, so we’re meeting interesting people along the way.”
The idea for the aptly named Underground Poker came a few years back thanks to an unlikely meeting with a Hollywood mover and shaker.
“We were on the movie set for Runner Runner to do a cameo, and on the set we met ‘Kingpin,’ who is Jennifer Killoran,” Esfandairi explained. “She was a producer on the movie. She was super cool and we became friends. She took a liking to Phil and I, and she thought we were hilarious. She said, 'You guys need a TV show.' We said we already had one, and she said, ‘Well, you need another one.’ We said that’s great, but nobody ever makes it happen. She said she could make it happen, and next thing you know we have a TV show. I can honestly say it is the vision of one human being that believed in Phil and I.”
Esfandiari revealed that the evolution of the show was fairly unique. First it started as a five-minute teaser, which quickly more than doubled to 13 minutes. Before long, the production company decided to put together a full pilot, which was shot in August 2013 in New Orleans.
“The end goal is the show does well, people like it, and we can do more episodes,” said Esfandiari. “So right now it’s just the one show that we shot, and when they air it we’ll see how it goes.”
At that point in the interview, Laak joined the conference call and it immediately became clear why Killoran thought the two deserved a TV show — they had uncanny chemistry.
“Phil, nice of you to join us for your TV show,” Esfandiari said with oozing sarcasm.
“I think it’s your TV show, but close, you’re only one person away," a hyper-energetic Laak replied humbly. "I am your costar. You know where all the games are, I just ride your coattails."
“You know it’s Phil’s show,” Esfandiari tried to clarify.
The two continued to assign credit to the other for the better part of a minute, though neither was willing to accept. It became clear that these two were a team, and one might not survive without the other.
With a premise in mind for the show, it was time to find a game. The producers set their sights on New Orleans and reached out to the local poker community for help, which was documented in a well-written blog by Bill Phillips of Gulf Coast Poker. Even so, Laak and Esfandiari decided to do some legwork.
“We called around to some people and said, ‘Hey look, we wanna come and play, are there any games?’” Esfandiari explained. “They said there were a few games. They had to be ok with being on camera, but we wanted real players, real money, and real games. Not a single hand is staged. Everything is legit.”
Laak seized on that to drive home the point that Underground Poker isn’t your everyday poker show: “Another thing to emphasize is that people shouldn’t tune into this show thinking they’re going to see 30 hands of poker. I think the entire show is 24 minutes, and they only show between two to five hands. It’s not a lot. It’s more about the feeling a pro has as he drifts around a city trying to find home games to play in. The who-do-you-know aspect.”
“Hopefully when the show gets picked up there will be more poker hands in the episodes,” Esfandiari elaborated. “So there isn’t that much poker, it’s more developments going on and what sort of stuff we have to do to get into these games.”
Eventually the pair did find a game, though they had to start from the bottom and work their way up.
“You can get into any home game nowadays if you bring your own fish — BYOF. But BYOF is a little tough,” Laak explained in a way that only he can. “We went to a game where it was literally $50 or $100 buy-in with $1/$2 blinds. Antonio didn’t want to play it, but I was stoked. I was like whatever, we’ll meet new people. Usually one of those guys are going to be going to a bigger game later that week or something, so I happily played in a super small game. It’s not about the money sometimes.”
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Right now, Underground Poker is just a single episode, but if reception is strong and the series is picked up by Discovery, both Laak and Esfandiari think there are plenty of creative outlets.
“We could go to any city where there’s private poker games — Atlanta, Charlotte, San Francisco, Vancouver — there are cities all over the world that have poker games, so it could be anywhere,” Esfandiari said.
Laak believed poker fans would be fascinated by the characters, including poker pros they’d inevitably cross paths with at various games. “I don’t think I’ve been to a game in 14 years without at least one pro,” he said. “A good game is usually one fish, or one whale, and eight pros. Maybe two marlin. You never get like eight fish.”
Laak and Esfandiari may be getting a bit ahead of themselves, but they have high hopes for the future of the show, though they admit it is dependent upon the masses.
“The more viewers we have, the better chance we have of having the show picked up and really creating something new," Esfandiari concluded. "You can never judge a series by the first show. You have to develop the characters. If we get the poker community behind us, we’ll have a show on Discovery for sure. Hopefully people will like it and won’t bash it too much. We want minimal bashing.”
Both Laak and Esfandiari plan on watching the premiere and live tweeting with fans, so be sure to either set your DVR or tune in at 10 p.m. ET and PT on Wednesday, Sept. 10 for the pilot episode of Underground Poker.
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