Jesse May Looks Back on Premier League Poker Season IV (Part Two)
The birth of deep game theory in a league format poker tournament, fancy dress headwear and a confrontation that still gets talked about today — the partypoker Premier League Poker opened up all sorts of avenues in the game when Season Four was unleashed to the public back in 2010.
In Part One of our look back at the iconic series, the series’ main commentator, Jesse May, talked about what made Season IV unique and exciting, including the drama that built up throughout the preliminary heats. As play moved towards the final, it got even juicier. A clash had been brewing between loud-mouthed British player Luke Schwartz and the more reserved French poker pro David Benyamine, and it eventually came to a head.
Schwartz and Benyamine Clash
“When I first met Benyamine, he had come to Las Vegas from France as a guy with a great sense of humor," May recalled. "He was good for the game. By the time that Season Four took place, he was on a bit of a bad run, and he was a total Vegas denizen.”
Benyamine was a cold member of the group, "showing up and then going home almost like he wasn’t part of the whole thing," according to May. By comparison, Schwartz was much-loved by players and crew.
Benyamine was rumored to be a last-minute replacement and it proved to be an addition that would lead to some sparks at the table. During that season, the two had this famous confrontation that showed Schwartz’ characteristic way of making things personal at the table.
“Schwartz was probably our best winner. Negreanu, and Laak, who was the chip leader going into the final table, were both awesome. But it was probably the last Premier League Hellmuth ever played.”
The Poker Brat would not come close to winning and continued his terrible run in the show. By 2010, Hellmuth had found four seasons of the format tough to beat, due at least in part to some rivalries on the felt that didn’t help his cause.
“Between Tony G, Negreanu, Luke Schwartz, and Roland De Wolfe, they did not let him have a second. They were relentless.”
Season Four Changes, Putting the Party in partypoker
The way the points worked was unique. With a league format having failed years before in Vegas with a tournament that contained luminaries like Gus Hansen and Chip Reese, Premier League Poker needed to get it right. They’d tried three years of leaving all the payouts to the final, but in Season Four they awarded prize money during the heats. Filming took a fortnight, end to end.
“We were all locked up in the M Hotel. It’s not really on the Strip, it was a mile south from Mandalay Bay. It’s a nice place, total luxury, but everyone – apart from Benyamine – was holed up in the same place, people like Mad Marty Wilson and Eddie Hearn for a fortnight straight. It was a total scene.”
Filming was only the half of it. The event was sponsored by partypoker, and they lived up to their name, bringing all of the party.
“The games would go for two a day. I’d start at 11 a.m. and finish at midnight. Everybody would be at the bar, in the restaurant or at the craps tables. It was absolute mayhem.”
When they weren’t raising hell at the craps table, they were raising each other at the felt. Outside of that time, everyone wanted to be in the commentary truck, which for May was a new phenomenon.
“Players who normally you couldn’t have got them to do commentary if you’d put a gun to the heads, they knew that they could get in there and see how everyone was playing because you could see all the cards. Nobody turned it down.”
A packed house in the casino, it would be just the same in the truck.
“It would be me, Roland and Luke, with Phil hanging his head through the door. It was the greatest ever having all those guys in there doing commentary.”
Of all the characters May shared live air with, de Wolfe was the most unique. The British player has disappeared from the world of tournament poker these days, but back then, he was an enigma off the table – and in the broadcast truck.
“One time, we were in the box and he came in with a bowl of cashew nuts. These production trucks look like spaceships, there are levers and buttons and monitors and plugs all over the place. Without realising it, Roland had taken these cashew nuts and plugged up every single input hole in the truck. He’d ruined a million-dollar truck, not intentionally, just because he needed something to do with his hands while watching poker.”
The series came on the back of a WSOP Main Event final table which featured Joseph Cheong raising all-in with ace-high, a move which wasn’t as readily made as it is today. Schwartz did even more of that in Season Four of Premier League Poker.
"For whatever reason, Schwartz never really won the big tournaments that everyone had predicted him for, but he was such a natural at no limit hold’em. Vanessa Rousso had opened under the gun and it was clear to everyone at the table that she wasn’t that strong. Schwartz raised and Yevgeniy Timoshenko, who was a really sharp player, re-raised Luke with king-jack off-suit or something.”
Back to Schwartz, typical options would be fold or fold quicker, but Schwartz went in a different direction. The man was made for TV poker.
“Schwartz just shoved all-in with 6-4 off-suit. Now that sort of thing seems more standard, but in terms of TV poker, it was quite a unique move to four-bet shove with nothing. That was how the game was changing. The old school certainly didn’t play like that.”
The uniquely complex format was paying off, with audience numbers up and players loving the action in each heat. When it came to the final, Phil Laak had the lead, while Schwartz had stacks of chips too. But it was Benyamine who had the last laugh, beating Schwartz heads-up. You can watch that match in the clip below:
Televised Poker Leaves Premier League Format Behind
The strategic element to the season had made waves in poker, and as May says, "It would change every hand and that’s what made it really exciting." May can definitely see the format being popular if it came back today.
“They had the Poker Masters the last couple of years in Vegas which has a point element to it, but it wasn’t integral to it. I’d love to see Dominik Nitsche, Fedor Holz and those guys get involved in this kind of league format.”
The league format is something May believes is needed in no limit hold’em, not least because "the best heads-up player in the world can’t beat the best computer right now." But May himself, once heralded as ‘The Voice of Poker,’ won’t be expecting to return to the commentary booth.
“You’ve got guys like Nick Schulman and Ali Najed, who are a great team; they’re so clever and great personalities. The whole thing about televised poker is that it needs to evolve to keep people interested.”
Maybe TV poker has evolved in the last nine years, and commentary with it. May feels like he was always watching – and commentating – as a fan.
“My style of commentary would be more what you’d call railing – sitting there and appreciating it. That was what I liked best about the Premier League – it felt like it was an evolving part of the game.”
There can be no doubt that Premier League Poker pushed the format into prominence in a way that league format poker hadn’t achieved before. It would continue in that direction for its remaining seasons.
“Every Premier League after that, we started getting the game theory onto the screen in a deeper way. In the later years, we really started to get the cream of the crop, with Dwan, Selbst and Seiver – real top of the tree players. But I’ll always love the line up in Season Four.”
Whether league format poker will return is a tough question to answer. But Premier League Poker Season Four, for many participants and viewers, will go down as one of the most epic forays into the televised league poker format.
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