The PokerNews Interview: Mori Eskandani, Part One
Though well known as a cash-game player for many years, Mori Eskandani is better known in the modern poker world as one of the two brains behind POKER-PROductions, a poker-telecast production company that dominates the poker market. POKER-PROductions has had a hand in "Poker SuperStars," "Poker After Dark," "High Stakes Poker," "The NBC National Heads-Up Championship" and the pay-per-view final table of the World Series of Poker®, among many other poker-themed shows.
Eskandani's foray into poker production had an interesting origin – it all started with the guy that invented the hole-card cams.
PokerNews: Tell us how you got into the poker production business.
Mori Eskandani: It started by meeting Henry Orenstein. Henry and I were good friends for a long time, and he asked me to help him out in 1995 in a project we had in mind, where we brought people to a seven-card stud tournament with all the best players in the world, and have some money and show hole cards, which was all his idea – the hole cards. That time, we actually had a demo tape of the graphic of the cards and the hole cards, very much like the way you see now on television. We were not successful to have a television station convinced to air it. Also, we were trying to do live, and live only. We weren't trying to have a recorded show and do post-production and everything that happens now. Basically, that was my first experience with trying to produce poker for television.
After the World Poker Tour licensed Henry's patent, and they were able to sell to Discovery, people saw that it can be a magnet for an audience. Then we went back again, and we were able to sell Poker SuperStars to FoxSportsNet. There was my first experience with editing a televised show that was prerecorded.
PN: That was actually the next question: Henry Orenstein and the hole-card cam invention. How important do you consider this to televised poker?
ME: It's everything! It is absolutely everything. Henry changed the way audiences viewed poker. Nobody enjoyed poker the way it was, and nobody thought that professionals would show their hole cards! That was their tool. Here's what people missed and Henry had it just right. As professional poker players, we never thought poker would get big enough that players would actually benefit from sponsorship and things outside of their playability and skill at making money at the game. So if players' hole cards and playing style was the only way that they made their living, they were not going to jeopardize it by exposing it to anybody. We wouldn't be comfortable if someone came and sat behind us for half an hour and saw hands that we played, let alone – we're gonna show it to the whole world? Let everybody know how we're going to play? It'd be the end of our career, we thought! There were not a lot of players!
Henry had it just right. Henry – his vision was: don't worry. This will all take off. You'll get sponsors, you'll get – I mean, he could see the whole thing at a time when nobody else could really see it. Is it possible that other people had thought of showing hole cards? Many people might have thought of something like that, but nobody ever believed in it! Some people want to claim that they thought about it, I don't know of any – all I know is that, we were sitting at the Mirage, and Henry brought this out, and we all started laughing, and we're good friends, and he went back and he called me and said, "I'm putting the table together – I don't care what you guys think." And then he kept calling me every week and telling me how far it's gone. It just started rolling, so I rolled with it, and I'm glad I did! He's an older gentleman, but he's still sharp as a whip. He knows the society and he knows what people want.
PN: Tell us about your role with the POKER-PROductions company. What do you do?
ME: POKER-PROductions is basically, we do poker shows from soup to nuts. Eric Drache and I, his company is iCare Consulting and mine is POKER-PROductions, and together, we're exclusively working with each other and bring a poker show from an idea that we might have – let's bring a bunch of players and do this or do that – all the way to talking to TV executives and sponsors and all that, and making it happen – inviting the players. As many people know, Eric is a Las Vegas legend. He was pulling the World Series of Poker forward when there was no TV, no Internet. His ideas, like starting satellites and things like that – for 17 years, he pulled the poker world forward with a horse and carriage. Now it's on the Internet at the speed of light. He's well-respected, his knowledge is really unmatched when it comes to poker and tournaments and all that – rules and regulations.
I've been a poker professional myself for 20-some years, playing mainly cash games, and decided basically – we didn't think anyone was going to break out from the ranks of players who have expertise like us to do television. So we started getting involved more and more, and now we do Poker After Dark, High Stakes Poker, the NBC National Heads-Up Championship. Henry contracted us for the Intercontintental Poker Championship. We've done many, many shows together.
PN: What criteria do you use to determine which poker pros get invited to some of the invitation-only shows?
ME: Basically, we are looking for players that play good poker. In many ways, good poker doesn't mean 'sit down and play the nuts.' Good poker, meaning that they can win with many different styles. Players that have different styles, they can change gears, they're very exciting, good poker – and they're good TV. A player like Daniel Negreanu is just a shoo-in. Or Antonio Esfandiari. Just look at those two guys, and Phil Hellmuth, for example. Sammy Farha. Eli Elezra. Mike Matusow. The list goes on. People that know the game, but can get animated and create a lot of fun, because you can't always count on the cards. Cards can go cold. If cards go cold, you don't want to have no show, because everyone's waiting for the blinds to go up and move all in and end the game. These people can create things from nothing, and they're good television. They can create situations from nothing, even if they don't get big cards. Those are the players we're looking for.
In tomorrow's Part Two of the interview, Mori Eskandani talks about the UIGEA, the challenges of creating a poker broadcast for pay-per-view, and the upcoming fourth season of "High Stakes Poker."