[3 August 2005]
“These players aren’t just bad, they’re bad to the bone,” cries World Poker Tour commentator Mike Sexton in his typically overexcited style. He’s talking about the stars of Bad Boys of Poker, a one-off poker event and special episode from the Travel Channel’s popular poker series. The purpose was to bring together the game’s most colorful characters in the hope that sparks would fly. They do, but the fact that these guys are so carefully selected raises questions as to “authenticity.”
The five professionals (the sixth player is an amateur, Mark Richards, who won a competition in order to qualify) are known for their outrageous playing styles or offbeat conduct during play. Phil Laak, known as the Unabomber, wears only gray sweatshirts when he plays so he can wrap his head up in the hood to hide his face; Antonio Esfandiari, known as The Magician, is young, rich, and arrogant; Paul “The Truth” Darden is painfully calm during play, with a deep, intimidating voice; David “Devilfish” Ulliott looks like an extra from White Heat and as the oldest player at the table, has disposed of his fair share of opponents; and lastly, Gus Hansen, the Great Dane, is fearless, taking huge risks on bad cards.
With poker everywhere right now, it’s public knowledge that these guys are for the most part old friends. So, Antonio snapping at Gus to “Go back to Denmark!” and “Stick to backgammon!” doesn’t create much tension. Such exchanges for the cameras simply build on Antonio’s reputation as an unabashedly self-confident player. Laak’s performance is similarly theatrical: he usually bops around like a five-year-old who missed a Ritalin dose, but here he does it more forcefully than during the WPT‘s entire run. He also runs into the crowd, high-fiving poker fans when he thinks he’s about to score from a particularly large pot.
It’s hard not to see this behavior as showing off, even when hearing Laak reflect on it during his commentary with Esfandiari. “Look at this goofball jumping around,” he says. “I humbly submit that I should be punished for that.” Laak chuckles away at his antics, occasionally coming across as genuinely surprised at how crazy he gets when he shouts out lines like “I’m a genius!”
Laak and Esfandiari don’t take their “bad boy” titles too seriously, and that’s probably why their poking at each other seems so friendly. The players mostly agree they all deserve their spots (Esfandiari questions Gus’ seat, but Phil asserts he should be there), and spend much of their time discussing girlfriends and parties at the Playboy Mansion.
The DVD does feature some bad boy moments from various finals tables and other tournaments (this is the only extra, along with a section of player profiles that are also scattered throughout the episode). Champion Phil Hellmuth criticizes Esfandiari for his gloating after winning a hand: “Show some class, kid, and shake my hand.” Other instances of acting out include George Paravoliasakis shouting, “Island of Crete!” whenever he wins a hand, and Hon Le crowing at players he beats. And cocky Paul Phillips shows his dud cards to the crowd and his fellow players following a major bluff. (Hellmuth must have been sick the week they filmed this, because if anyone deserves a spot here, it’s him).
Oddly, winner Gus Hansen is not featured in the DVD’s “10 Bad Boy Moments,” and never really misbehaves during play. The guy plays by the rules, sits calmly at the table, stands when he’s supposed to stand, and never, ever trash-talks or intimidates his fellow players. Hansen has gained his reputation by winning and doing it with skill so outrageously precise that the only reason he’s picked for a game like this one is that he’s the most envied guy in the room. Everyone wants to beat Hansen.
“I want to concentrate 100 percent on my game,” Hansen says during his profile. Maybe these more rambunctious guys should take a lesson from him. Fun as it is to watch them spit the occasional dummy or leap in the air with excitement when all goes their way, Hansen’s more compelling, taking it all in stride as he wins pot after pot after pot. There’s something to be said for sitting down, shutting up, and playing cards: it seems authentically calculated.