This fall, the poker show Game of Gold became a surprise hit. Hundreds of thousands of viewers were waiting for new episodes, and then excitedly discussed them on social media. Patrick Leonard did not sleep at night and wrote long reviews of each episode on Twitter, and the blog of participant Olga Ermolcheva became the most popular diary on the GipsyTeam forum in November.
Daniel Negreanu, Adam Schwartz, and Terrence Chen gathered after each episode and analyzed what they saw on the DAT Poker podcast. The last broadcast turned out to be especially powerful – for it, Daniel interviewed Fedor Holz and the author of the show, director and producer Spanky Huang. By the way, he is not only the creator and ideological inspirer of Game of Gold, but also one of the most popular crypto bloggers in South Korea.
Disclaimer : Don't be afraid to read this article, even if you haven't watched Game of Gold yet . There are breakdowns of a couple of important hands from the final episode and some minor spoilers, but not even the names of the heads-up players.
Adam Schwartz: Hello everyone, welcome to the final discussion of the first season of Game of Gold! Today we’ll talk about the final two-hour episode: six participants, one table, one prize.
Terrence Chen: And what a deep finale it turned out to be! In general, I haven’t been very interested in watching people play hold’em for a long time, but this is a special case. I'm worried about the players, I'm hooked!
Daniel Negreanu: Yes, in the golden years of TV poker, people watched the show primarily for the colorful characters. For the sake of stories: like I said my mother packed a lunchbox for me, and now for the audience, I am already a “mama’s boy”, there is an instant connection with the hero on the screen. Or how everyone called Chris Ferguson Jesus, remember? People were given the opportunity to get to know the characters at the table a little – and Game of Gold did it again. It’s not just 6-max SnG in the finals: we fucking know every one of these guys, they’re all like family to us! We know what they went through, who is the underdog and the favorite.
Terrence Chen: And we know who needs to apologize to all of Ireland for the monstrous accent!
Daniel Negreanu: I was amazed by Josh Arieh in a suit! Remember years ago when there was a main final at the stadium when Stu Ungar won? Ron Stanley then suddenly showed up in a suit too! Josh clearly took inspiration from there. And what about Jungle? It was clear that she would dress up! The dude always tries to make himself interesting to watch.
Terrence Chen: Yes, and he is not short of self-irony. When Phil Hellmuth dressed as an emperor at the WSOP, he really felt like the king of the universe. And Jungle is just having fun, it’s all for the audience.
Adam Schwartz: How do you like the idea of an hour and a half of pure poker in the last episode? And even without comments!
Terrence Chen: Not true, there were tons of comments! Didn’t you hear how Fedor, on the river, counted out loud all the combinations that Maria could have? Where do professional commentators get to such heights?
Daniel Negreanu: The decision to make the final purely poker was definitely risky because most of the show was about the backstage stuff. So the logical question should have arisen – will it be possible to hold the attention of the audience? It seems to me that if this were just a random SnG, then few people would be interested in this. But we watched the denouement of a great drama, we knew the whole backstory. Of course, no comments are needed there anymore: nothing could be more important than the dialogue of the players.
Adam Schwartz: Let's discuss the hand that shocked everyone. Maria opened with , Fedor called on the button with , Johan Gilbert defended the BB with . On the flop Johan led 30k to 250k and got two calls. I can't imagine the solver would approve of this, but ok. On the turn Johan bet a decent amount with a straight, 270k to 340k, Maria paid with two pair and a gutshot for a straight flush... And Fedor just folded the flush! What was that all about?
Terrence Chen: Imagine if it wasn't Fedor Holz! The community would simply tear him to pieces for this fold. Yes, I was shocked myself: I thought he was choosing between a call and a raise. When he folded, my jaw hit the floor. But multiway pots are a specific thing, no one really studied them in a solver, so Fedor simply trusted his instincts. I decided that even if he was ahead on the turn, his two opponents had so much equity that he wasn't that big of a favorite.
Daniel Negreanu: Yes, I was also very surprised, I even thought that I didn’t see the board correctly. But did you see how confident he was after that fold? And how quickly did you make your decision? He clearly knew what he was doing and why. You can't become a great player without making folds like this – when you think your opponents won't bluff often enough in a particular spot and their ranges are very strong. After all, what does Maria have? Well, at least a straight, right? A powerful fold – and the fact that he was actually mistaken does not change this.
Adam Schwartz: And let's discuss another unforgettable hand. Fedor opened with , Kayna pushed about 25 BB with , Maria chose to call with , Fedor also decided not to move further and called. On the flop Top set for Fedor, nut flush draw, and gutshot for Maria. Holz bet small on both the flop and the blank turn. (less than 25% pot!) – Maria happily paid and made a straight on the river and got 1.8 million into the pot of 8.7 million. Before calling, Fedor analyzed the hand out loud for several minutes, but still called. What do you think?
Terrence Chen: Excellent master class from Fedor, brilliantly laid out all its possible combinations. But Maria made a stunning choice of sizing on the river: she knew how few bluffs she had, so she held back and didn’t shove. And Fedor, even realizing that he was hitting almost nothing, could not refuse the odds of 5 to 1.
Daniel Negreanu: It was a special pleasure to see how emotionally Fedor took this hand. Usually, he is so calm, but then she hit the river – and it was painful to look at him! Terribly unpleasant spot, nasty sizing. But still, I will say that he was wrong to name AQ among her possible hands – like she decided that the hand on the river was not good, and turned it into a bluff... I don’t think that this could happen. Rather, she would rely on her showdown value. In big hands, Maria constantly played more defensively and chose passive lines. In general, I trust Fedor, he knows better, you can come up with something else like – but it looked, of course, as unlike a bluff as possible.
Adam Schwartz: And poor Kayna sat all this time with her useless and just waited until I could go home. A poor girl! I hope they call her back next season.
Conversation between Daniel Negreanu and Fedor Holtz
– And here he is, the one and only Fedor Holz! I want to say that you are an excellent coach, I watch a lot of your videos. You see the game in a unique way. And thanks to the show, we also got to know you as a person!
— Yes, they write to me about this all the time now. My friends know what I’m like in life, but the poker world has never really seen me outside the table. Well, yes, I’m cheerful and cheerful, I like to fool around and chat.
— Often, after appearing on a reality show, people, on the contrary, begin to prove that in life they are completely different.
– No, that’s what it is. But, of course, there were unique circumstances. You sit locked in a room, rooting for someone for 14 hours straight. After several days I could no longer find a place for myself, I wanted so badly to sit down at the table. I played for 4 hours, and then watched for 40 hours and thought, God, give me the cards already, huh!
— Why did you choose Maria and Josh in the second stage?
– How could you not take Maria? For me, this was a snap decision. First of all, I'm sure she was one of the strongest players on the show, no matter what the game. And she played SnG perfectly, unlike many others. Secondly, I’ve known her for a long time, we understand each other perfectly. I believed that in any situation we would agree. Well, the fact that by the end of the set of teams, no one took Josh was a great success; the other captains were clearly mistaken.
— Shall we discuss a fold with a flush in the finals? In the interview after this hand, you were so confident in your decision, although you didn’t yet know your opponents’ cards. When you saw that you were actually better than everyone else, did anything change?
– Listen, how many times have I mistakenly folded or bet into nothing in my career? An incredible amount! I just try to be consistent and trust logic and reads. The most important thing for me is to determine whether my decision is influenced by a subconscious desire to choose the easiest path or to beat someone specific. In general, I rarely have questions about my own folds – because on average, on the contrary, I cling too much to the pots. In this case, I felt that they both had strong hands – and so it was, they just didn’t beat my hand on the turn. Well okay, what to do now!
— I remember Josh Arieh and Andy Stacks playing in the heads-up round. Josh tried to get away with the worst hand twice, and Andy folded better hands both times. And backstage everyone went crazy, like, how can this be! And you were the only one who said – well, the reads are right! Josh really thought he was better both times, and Andy sensed it.
— Yes, but when you play against a person for the first time, of course, you shouldn’t pay so much attention to reads. What's more important is whether you have a good bluffcatcher.
— Let’s discuss the hand with QQ again. When Kayna shoved and Maria called, why didn’t you 4-bet?
– I messed up. I knew that Maria's cold calling range was very narrow and tight. I was trying to figure out if TT, JJ, AK were there. I decided that post-flop I would be able to play simply and straightforwardly without any problems – it was unlikely that she would go to bluff me. And even if I lose, I’ll still have a good stack. Well, I didn’t believe that if I pushed, she would call with JJ. Basically, I called, and then shit happened!
— Yes, when one of the worst cards in the deck fell on the river, what made you still call?
— Odds, first of all. It was enough to win, how many, like 15% of the time? I thought, well, what if she really decides to turn AQ into a bluff. In general, it was necessary to fold, of course. To win in these very 15% of cases, she must have some kind of bluffs there. And it is quite likely that they would never have been there, just zero. Bad call.
— What can you say about the project in general? Were your expectations met?
– Yes, I didn’t expect anything at all! But I was hoping to play something other than poker. I wasn’t able to take part in the Indian poker round, it’s such a shame! It was amazing, hilarious, and cruel at the same time. But overall everything was great, the organizers were great. The idea of seating us in rooms so that everyone could comment and root for their own people was, well, brilliant. After a few hours, you completely forget that there are cameras everywhere, and you behave naturally.
— Will you go to the second season if they invite you?
– Definitely. But in general, I’m sure there will be a line now. Everyone will want to go there.
Negreanu interview with Game of Gold showrunner Spanky Huang
– And here is the man who gave us the Game of Gold show! On behalf of the entire poker community, I want to say a huge thank you for this magnificence. How did this all come about?
– Thanks a lot! I'm happy that everyone liked it so much. We tried to make poker exciting again – and in a way that would appeal to both professionals and those who are seeing the game for the first time. Glad we made it.
— The production was simply at a transcendental level, but I was lucky to see everything from the inside. These countless cameras, the studio – obviously a lot of money went away. And they showed it all for free on YouTube, no paywall.
— Reality shows are always expensive if they are done well. And it was this format that we decided to try after several years of searching. Today poker content is very monotonous, so I wanted to come up with something that would surprise everyone. We thought first of all about making it cool, and not about how much it would cost.
— How did you come to the reality show format?
-- Do you remember a few years ago we were filming another show, and we sat and talked in the room for several hours? Me, you and a few other people? And then someone said, it’s a pity that there weren’t cameras here all this time? And this thought never left my head.
I also relied on my own viewing experience: in recent years, I like to watch not basketball games themselves, but the streamers who watch and comment on these matches! They sit and chat in the background of the broadcast, and it turns out to be more fun than the “real” commentators. And so I thought – how can I do something like this with poker? There are so many emotions in the game, but the participants themselves at the table cannot show emotions. But if someone else watches at this time and experiences all this with them... That’s how I came up with the idea of teams.
“And we had no idea where we were going!” Just a trip to Korea, into complete uncertainty. It must have been difficult to organize all this. And also expect that all the participants will trust you and come to film?
— I produced a similar show in Korea, with local poker pros. And it was a colossal success; the local poker community now calls it a “poker classic”. So we were quite confident that everything would work out. But it was really difficult to convince some players to come without giving anything away. I simply said: “Yes, come! It will be a unique experience! It will be very cool!”
Korean show that became the prototype for Game of Gold
— I recently watched Physical 100 on Netflix and thought, damn, Koreans still know a lot about reality shows! But success in Korea is one thing, and success all over the world is another. How would you rate the feedback from the community?
– Yes, complete madness, in fact. I am so grateful for all the kind words I have heard. The show was received exactly as we dreamed. We tried to get the audience involved and rooting for the characters. And so it happened! Everyone was able to find their favorite. A powerful emotional connection emerged between spectators and participants. The players went through trials, worried, struggled – and the audience lived all this with them.
— And at the same time, for the finale you chose only poker – no backstage, no commentators. How did you decide to do this?
— The key idea of Game of Gold is to show everyone how great poker can be. And we knew that by the end the audience would already be charged, the audience would be rooting for the heroes. Here I was hoping to emphasize that just watching poker is also exciting and fun. Especially when you know people who play when you've already gotten into their head to some extent. So nothing more is needed. Except for good music.
– Listen, your music producer needs a salary increase, he has jumped over his head. All these tense moments when the musical accompaniment brings you to the denouement... Amazing! But okay, let’s get to the question that worries everyone the most. Will there be a second season? And if so, what should we expect there?
— Yes, there will be a second season. As for expectations... In the first season, we tried to demonstrate that poker is a strategic, competitive game. Despite all the funny and dramatic moments that were there, we wanted to convey that poker is serious. No scriptwriters can come up with a drama greater than that which can be created by a bad turn or river... We have already figured out how to take this drama to the absolute level in the second season. It will be even tougher, even more intense. Expect more surprises than you can imagine.
“Wow, what a devilish expression you had on your face when you said that!” Will you leave the format? 16 players and so on?
“I’m not ready to say anything specific right now, except for one thing: there will definitely be more participants.” As for the format, something, of course, will remain. There is no point in reinventing everything from scratch. But at the same time, we will change a lot. The main focus will again be on the characters – there are so many amazing people in this game!
– Listen, a friend asked me to find out – is there any chance that one of the heroes of the first season will return to take revenge?
– Why not? Surely the audience will be happy to see familiar faces. You know, some famous participants left too early, the fans were upset...
– Cool, call me! Ready for the test! Just don’t make me eat super-spicy kimchi there—I definitely can’t stand it.