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Opening Night at The Real Deal

I saw the opening night of The Real Deal tonight. I hadn't expected to, but I won a ticket during a cash game at the Venetian as various players were splashing the pot during the game. I started to develop a story for Poker Pro…here are my thoughts on The Real Deal:


Adventures of a Poker Dad

Opening Night at Poker’s First “Interactive Live Show” – The Real Deal

By John Blowers

Ahhh, Vegas! I’m here for a week. My flight and hotels have been sponsored by various charitable souls and a good run online has covered my tournament buy-ins for the week. Now I’m just relaxing for a bit at the Venetian card room playing a friendly game of 4/8 before dinner. Suddenly a complimentary ticket to the opening night of The Real Deal appears in a pot being pushed my way. My new friend Frank is hooking me up so I return the favor with an autographed copy of my book and head to the show since it starts in 30 minutes.

For the uninitiated, The Real Deal is the poker version of The Price is Right. Six audience members “come on down” to play poker with two of the revolving door of poker pros. The cast is a list of popular names in the poker world including Doyle Brunson, Phil Hellmuth and Daniel Negreanu. The show plays daily Tuesday through Sunday at 5 PM, with extra shows at 8 PM on Tuesday and Wednesday. The show has been in the works for about a year and had its media screening last night. Apparently my Poker Pro credentials did nothing for me since I missed out, but I’m happy to check out the show with mere mortals.

One of the hostesses, Michelle, shows me to my seat in the Venetian show room. There are computer devices for those in the front, middle section, but I’m on the side toward the back. Before disappointment sets in too much, Michelle is back and I’m suddenly upgraded to the front row with my very own computer device. Now this is the real deal! The crowd isn’t exactly what I expected for opening night. Ten minutes before the show there are less than 50 in the audience. Several people in the audience, including the Asian woman to my left, have no idea what the show is about.

Each person in the audience registers themselves so they can play along with the action on stage. Several computer devices are malfunctioning and the audience seems a bit restless as the show’s host, Vinnie Favarito, comes out. He has his own comedy show at the Flamingo and brings a sort of Don Rickles style to warm the audience up. He asks a few softball questions (“who has the most World Series of Poker bracelets”, “how often does a player get pocket aces”) to help select six audience members to play onstage. Joe, Vernice, Brad, Darcy, Peggy and Roberto make their way to the table. Roberto is apparently a ringer, as he teaches poker in Las Vegas. The audience is asked to pick who they think will win. This becomes a challenge as several names are jumbled on the computer device so we don’t know who is who. I make my random selection.

Next we are introduced to “the sexiest woman in poker”, Lacey Jones. She joins Vinnie and explains the rules. We are then introduced to “the prize girl” Lizzy Harrison and the dealer, who – like Cher and Madonna – goes by one name, Clarissa. Then Lacey asks the audience to make five prop bets, such as which color will come on the flop, which suits will come on the flop, etc. These bets are not clear to the poker novices in the crowd, but it doesn’t matter. The bets were never referred to again during the show, so it was unclear if they have any bearing on the outcome.

Next we are introduced to tonight’s pros. Gavin Smith is the first out. I’m glad to see him as he’s one of the truly funny people in poker. He is introduced as a World Series of Poker bracelet winner, although he hasn’t won one. Next up is Phil Hellmuth, Jr. and he comes out in his trademark black jacket and shirt, wearing a hat with his logo on it. As always, Phil is Phil…in complete command of the set and sure he will win it all (spoiler alert: he doesn’t).

Now the audience has to pick which pro will last longer. I check the scoreboard and discover the audience numbers 89 in this theater that seats 700. It’s about twenty minutes into the show and we’re ready for the first hand. Well, almost. As it’s dealt the audience is shouting questions from all over. “How do we bet?” “My device isn’t working” “Where’s Oprah?” The queries go largely ignored and play continues. The audience’s hand is A/6 off-suit. Gavin Smith goes all-in and everyone at the table folds. Clarissa deals out a board of 5/7/8/7/9 giving the audience a straight. When this happens, Michelle and Lizzy come running out to distribute t-shirts, playing cards and restaurant gift certificates. If the audience wins five hands during the show, everyone wins a prize.

The play on the computer devices is pretty wonky. First of all, your choices are to either fold or call, making the audience a bunch of passive donkeys or, at best, calling stations. Several players in the row behind me keep muttering “This show is very confusing” and “I don’t understand what’s going on”. The girl next to me, Krista, paid $150 for her seat and her device keeps locking up. Vinnie keeps looking backstage to someone for help as the scoreboard is out of synch with the action and the devices seem a step or two behind what’s happening on stage.

Two hands in a row Lacey announces “the short stack will be eliminated after this hand”. However, no one leaves the table until the third hand she announces this. I attribute this to opening night kinks, although the show did live rehearsals with an audience the previous week.

The Real Deal is billed as “the first live interactive poker show” and, during the fifth hand, Phil decides to bring this to life by heading into the audience to talk to a youngster. The boy is clearly terrified of this 6’7” man dressed menacingly in black. When Phil asks if he plays poker, the boy whimpers “no”. When Phil asks if he knows who Gavin Smith is, the same response is given. When Phil asks if the boy knows who Phil is and gets a third weak “no”, Phil realizes the interactive piece isn’t working and returns to the stage. The boy’s mother is on her phone…probably making an appointment with Phil’s wife, the psychiatrist, for her son.

We’re now 15 minutes into the game and I hear murmurings such as “How long is this?” and “Where’s Doyle?” Peggy from Henderson, Nevada – a self-described poker pro who plays $20/$40 limit games – is the first eliminated and wins dinner at a restaurant at the Venetian. Lizzy tries to announce the prize, but we can’t hear her. Next to be eliminated is Danny from Orange, Massachusetts who plays at Foxwoods. He wins a subscription to an online poker site.

There is music constantly playing during the show, which is at a slightly distracting level. However, the show does make effective use of it occasionally. For example, when Danny went “all in”, the staccato notes from Psycho’s shower scene are played. When Phil goes “into the tank”, Vinnie says, “let’s hear what’s on Phil’s mind”. Then a comical pre-recorded Phil rant comes on as he declares, “Look at them. The audience wants to be me, to hold me.”

Joe from Las Vegas is the next eliminated and wins a subscription to a poker magazine. The next player is eliminated when Gavin goes all in with K/4 and his hand holds up against Vernice’s Q/10. The sound system plays the opening chords of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony to accentuate Gavin’s move. The next hand, we get to hear Gavin’s inner thoughts, which include “Isn’t this an open bar event? I could use a drink.” A moment later Vinnie introduces us to Lacey’s inner thoughts, which are the obligatory chirping birds.

Gavin eliminates two more players moments later with pocket kings against Brad from British Columbia’s Q/9 and Phil’s 9/8 suited. Vinnie forgets a player gets a prize, but Brad won a portable DVD player. Suddenly, spotlights are flashing everywhere and we are told we are in the million dollar hand. Well, not quite. We are in a qualifying hand. All 89 of us pick five cards at random from the 52 cards that are displayed face down on our computer device. The top three hands then get a chance later in the show to play for a million dollars. I don’t qualify with my ace high.

A new audience member, Qgirl, comes on stage to play poker. She won her way by virtue of accumulating the most points playing along in the audience. Phil has volunteered to be her coach since she seems nervous. Meanwhile, the audience continues to win hands. So far, I’ve received an autographed poster, a deck of The Real Deal playing cards and a $25 dinner certificate.

The action is hard to follow at this point, but Qgirl winds up in 3rd and gets a spa certificate, while Gavin loses the brief heads-up match to Roberto, who wins the coveted The Real Deal bracelet. Had he lost he would have won a signed, framed poster of the cast. Phil comes out and treats a couple of fans to bottles of Dom Perignon for wearing Redskins and Cowboys hats. The show lasts about an hour and forty minutes, but we’re not done yet. Michelle asks for the VIPs to join her. Having natural entitlement issues, I assume this means me and I tag along for a meet and greet session with Phil and Gavin. Since I was just in LA filming a TV show with Phil, he looks at me like I’m stalking him. Both Phil and Gavin are gracious with the fans and liberally sign paraphernalia and pose with audience members.

If you’re in Vegas, you might want to check out The Real Deal. As a poker enthusiast, you owe it to yourself to experience this. But try a little $4/$8 hold ‘em first and see if a complimentary ticket makes its way into one of your pots first.

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