By Nolan Dalla
Originally published at nolandalla.com

Poker Night in America made a first-time visit to Philadelphia this past weekend. The ever-expanding and constantly improving Sugar House Casino hosted three fun-filled days of high-stakes poker action, which were filmed for the popular weekly show on the CBS Sports Network (tune in Monday nights). This series of shows is expected to air sometime next fall, during Season 3.

Here are some of the highlights of what happened at the poker table during our production:

Chad Holloway Proves He Can Play with the Best

I have a soft spot for writers, and Chad Holloway is one of the very best in poker. The writer-reporter who currently works full time for PokerNews.com has become a “must read” for anyone who follows the game’s history, its colorful cast of players, or what’s going on in terms of the contemporary poker scene.

During the last couple of years, Holloway, who lives in Wisconsin when he’s not out on the road covering a tournament somewhere, has increasingly been playing more poker. He “arrived” in a big way at the 2013 World Series of Poker, winning a gold bracelet in the Casino Employees Event. Since then, he’s played and cashed in other events, too. However, until this past weekend, one could honestly say that Holloway hadn’t really been tested in the manner of playing against the best players in the world for any serious length of time.

Holloway asked us to appear on Poker Night in America and was a sentimental favorite of all those who follow his work and who like to see intense dedication rewarded with success. He took a seat in a lineup that included — Shaun Deeb, Phil Hellmuth, Darren Elias, Alec Torelli, Dan Shak, Tom Schneider, Kyle Bowker, Moe Farah, Aaron Mermelstein, Andy Frankenberger, and others. Despite that murderer’s row of well-financed talent, Holloway not only held his own, but walked away from the game as a winner following two days of playing. His victory had much more to do with leaving a lasting impression than the money he won. A few times, Holloway made table decisions that obviously stunned some of his opponents, which is not to say Holloway had been underestimated as much as making plays that took courage. On one instance, Holloway faced constant heat and called down a huge bet on the river with top pair and a marginal kicker, surmising that his opponent (Hellmuth) was bluffing. Holloway’s read was dead on.

At one point, Hellmuth turned to Dan Shak, the wealthy hedge-fund manager and high stakes semi-pro and asked “why don’t you stake Chad in all the WSOP events this year?” Hellmuth was only half joking. Shak replied that he doesn’t normally stake people, but after watching Holloway in action over two days, he thought the writer-poker player would be a solid investment.

Here’s a prediction: Chad Holloway is going to continue to improve, both as a writer and player. I expect him to be around the poker scene doing both for many years to come. He’ll certainly be invited back to play on Poker Night in America.

[Note: The photo above was taken following Holloway’s appearance on the second day]

A Great Poker Laydown, or a Shocking Decision?

One of the most talked about poker hands of this season is sure to be the remarkable laydown made by Alec Torelli against Chad Holloway. Here’s how the hand played out.

Pre-flop, with 25-50 blinds, Shaun Debb raised and then Alec Torelli re-raised. Holloway called. I don’t recall the specific amounts of the bets, but what matters is what happened next.

The flop came 9-T-J. Rainbow.

There was an initial bet, then Torelli raised a significant sum. Holloway was next to act and moved all-in.

Deeb folded. The action was back to Torelli. Amazingly, Torelli folded and surrendered the pot to Holloway. That wouldn’t normally cause much of a rumble, but then Torelli turned over pocket nines as his cards flew into the muck. Torelli had folded a set of nines!

Just about everyone at the table hollered out something, showing their collective disbelief. No one could believe that anyone would fold a set on the flop, particularly in a cash game (the circumstances of a tournament where chips are limited might be different).

Phil Hellmuth immediately came to attention and snapped, “that’s a brilliant fold!” A debate ensued over the next several minutes about what was the correct play in that spot.

Hellmuth claimed that only he (and Torelli) knew what a great play that was, and that “97 percent of the poker world would have insta-called that raise, and then been broke.” Hellmuth went on and on about what a great play Torelli made, noting that winning poker is always based not necessarily on the strength of your own hand, but its relative value to what you think the opponent has.

Torelli didn’t need Hellmuth’s blessing. In an interview I conducted with him later, he was entirely comfortable with his highly-unusual decision to fold a set. That sense of confidence is why Torelli is one of the top players in the game and has prospered in some of the highest-limit action in the world, particularly over in Macau where they play really big. Second guessing Torelli probably isn’t the wisest thing to do.

By the way, Holloway later revealed — and the hole card cameras did indeed show — that he had flopped a straight holding a K-Q to the 9-T-J flop. Torelli suspected this, which would have made him a significant dog with two cards to come. The other possibilities were that Holloway had flopped a higher set (tens or jacks) in which case Torelli would have been a monster underdog, down to one card as an out.

That was certainly one of the most memorable hands of the session.

The Very Best (and Worst) of Phil Hellmuth, Jr.

Love him or loath him, and I’ve been on both sides of that debate within a single day, Phil Hellmuth is certainly a major presence in our game. Hellmuth is always good for a few quotes, and a few laughs. One day, I decided to list all the “Hellmouthisms” at the table. Here’s just a partial list all uttered within about a three-hour period:

“When I’m asked how far away I am, I always tell them double the time I expect to get there. If I’m 10 minutes away, I say 20. That way, when I arrive early, they’re always happy to see me.”

[After rambling on about how great he played the previous hand] “..wait, I’m not finished yet. Let me finish my speech.”

“Except for me, no one gets how great a play that was.”

“I went to Eva Longoria’s event.”

“I went to President Clinton’s event.”

“I’ve raised 6 million of Children’s Hospital. Justin Timberlake is my biggest contributor.”

“I’m appearing on (ESPN’s) SportsCenter this Friday. I’ve got to see if I can get Floyd Mayweather to come on the show with me.” [the day before the championship fight against Manny Pacquiao]

“I’m known for drinking Dom (Perignon), even though I don’t really like it very much. Usually when I throw parties I order like 40 bottles of Dom for my guests and that’s why everyone associates me with Dom all the time.”

“Ladies Night 2″

“Ladies Night” is turning out to be far more than just a novelty. It’s an opportunity for women to showcase their skills in a unique setting, and also have some fun among their peers. Poker Night in America was the first program to ever show a ladies-only high stakes cash game, and based on what happened in Philadelphia, which was the second occasion we held “Ladies Night,” it certainly won’t be the last.

The starting lineup included — Samantha Abernathy, Natasha Barbour, Jessica Dawley (888poker pro), Cate Hall, Karina Jett, Jamie Kerstetter, Nancy Levin, Christina Lindley, Beth Shak, and Jennifer Shahade. Abernathy came out at the biggest winner of the day.

Aside from poker, the most enjoyable part of “Ladies Night” is hearing the table conversation. Given that women represent only about 5 percent of the fields in major tournaments (sometimes less), and perhaps only 10-15 percent of the overall poker-playing population in casinos and cardrooms, usually when a woman is at the table, she’s playing alone among several men. While poker isn’t gender-centric, this constant dynamic does tend to alter the natural progression of discussion and content at the table. After all, 8 or 9 men at the table will tend to talk about different subjects than if women were occupying those same seats.

Well, nothing was off the table so far as conversation went. It was fun to hear the ladies share stories and experiences. Some of the more misogynistic revelations of what they encountered in the poker scene were eye opening. None of this conversation was planned or staged, of course. The ladies at the table simply felt more comfortable in that setting sharing their thoughts among themselves, which just so happened to be streamed out to a mostly male viewing audience. I expect those who watched (and digested what was said) might have learned a few things. Hearing women talk about women trying to make it in poker is sometimes very funny, sometimes very sad, and always worth listening to.

Who Makes the Best Philly Cheesesteak?

That’s a question for another time, which probably won’t ever be solved. No doubt, hard-core Philadelphians are serious about their cheesesteaks.

However, one issue was indeed settled this past week. Poker Night in America and the Sugar House Casino invited three of the best “Cheesesteak Kings” in the city to play poker together in the live cash game. The three chefs made a last longer bet amongst themselves. Tony Luke Jr. (from Tony Luke’s), Frank Olivieri (from Pat’s Steaks), and Geno Vento (from Geno’s Steaks) sat down with the pros. To their credit, all three bought in for $5,000 and all lasted nearly three hours — playing for high steaks.

Frank Olivieri ended up lasting the longest, and winning a trophy that was presented to him by the casino. The guys were a lot of fun to have on the show and added some real spice to a stellar lineup.

Should We Humans Fear Artificial Intelligence?

Rush Street Gaming owns the Sugar House Casino. It also owns the Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh, on the other side of Pennsylvania. Coincidentally, while the high-stakes game was being filmed in Philadelphia, a Poker Night in America crew was also dispatched to Pittsburgh, assigned to shoot part of the groundbreaking match between a computer program and four of the world’s top heads-up poker pros.


What does all this mean? The consequences of this watershed match could be devastating, or at least transformative in a big way. Cutting to the chase, if a computer program is developed which can beat the best human player(s), then it’s probably just a matter of time before the program is copied, revised, and eventually broadened to play in actual online poker games, similar to how bots have already been programmed. If indeed, the computer program is superior, then players who obtain (or develop) this technology will theoretically be unbeatable, since they will play optimally all the time.

Could this development spell the doom of online poker as we know it? I’ll let others debate this at least for now and will eventually write more about this subject. Moreover, the implications run far deeper than just poker. “Artificial Intelligence” will increasingly be a part of the discussion in virtually all forms of life in the years to come. It’s probably a valid reaction of marvel at it, be intrigued by it, have hope for it, but also to fear it.

Special Thanks to..

There are lots of people to thank from this past weekend. Let’s start with the Sugar House Casino and its excellent staff. Frankly, the casino in its present state does pose some challenges for visitors. It’s currently expanding, and this requires overlooking some minor annoyances like construction, noise, and so forth. However, the courteous staff more than made up for any discomforts. Every person I encountered at the casino and the poker room was well trained and helpful. In particular, I want to call out Wendy Hamilton (General Manager), Rosemarie Cook (VP of Gaming), and Raye Ramsey (Poker Room Manager). Also, thanks to our dealers — Mike, Joel, Anna, and Glenn.

If often take our excellent Poker Night in America film crew for granted. This Fargo-based crew really is the best, starting with Todd Anderson (the show’s creator), Chris Hanson (our host), and our three on-site producers and directors — Tucker Lucas, Tony Mangnall, and Matt McGregor.

Also, a shout out to Mark Hoke, who hosts a popular radio show in Las Vegas and has become and integral part of the poker scene in recent years. Hoke was wrapping up an assignment at the World Poker Tour at the Borgata, and decided to stop in and visit out set for the second time. We discovered that we desperately needed a commentator for the live stream, and Hoke was eager to step in. Over the course of three consecutive days, Hoke never missed a hand. Thanks to him for filling the impossible shoes, which normally belong to David Tuchman, who has called out action in the past for the live stream. By the way, all three days of broadcasts are archived and available at the Poker Night in America website.

Finally, I want to thank all the players who participated. Aside from the “Ladies Night” players listed above, this illustrious group of players who participated in the open game included: Shaun Deeb, Phil Hellmuth, Andy Frankenberger, Chad Holloway, Akim Akimov, Alex Torelli, Moe Faraha, Kyle Bowker, Darren Elias, Esther Taylor-Brady, Karina Jett, Dan Shak, Tom Schneider, Aaron Overton, and a few other local players.


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