NBC Heads-Up Championship “Heavily for Television,” Says Producer
“Huge improvement” in player accountability since 2003: Interview with Mori Eskandani
Mori Eskandani is the veteran television producer behind some of the most successful poker television programming. His production company, Poker PROductions, is responsible for bringing us the World Series of Poker and the NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship that is taking place this week, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Popular and revered among the pros, Mori is also involved in the selection process of the 64 players who are invited to take part in the Heads-Up event. He sat down with GPI this week-end to give us a glimpse of what happens behind the scenes.
Marco Valerio: Tell me about this event. It did not take place last year, but you’re back this year. What’s it been like?
Mori Eskandani: Out of all the invitational tournaments that we do, this is by far the most challenging and the most fun event to have. I know people have asked what happened with the year that we skipped, but the way I look at it, this is going to be our eighth year. We are talking about big institutions like NBC, Comcast, Caesars Palace… there can be many reasons why they wouldn’t want to do it for a year, and I’m just happy they’re saying we’re back, let’s do it. I doubt that they’re telling me to come on back to do just one more year.
How have the players been this year about being on time, being ready and stuff? It looks to me like they’re getting much better!
There is no question they’re getting better, because they understand what poker television is all about. Especially when we are doing live programming, there is no room for wiggle. We have to start at certain time. This is obviously taped programming, but you still don’t want to be the last one walking out when there are fifteen players already seated, the lights are going and the cameras are rolling and waiting for you.
Overall I would say there has been a huge improvement from the first show that we did in 2003.
As somebody who has worked in poker television for so long and thus has a good read on the poker culture, what do you think of poker performance ranking systems such as the Global Poker Index?
Any ranking motivates players. As long as they’re well put together, well thought out and methodical, I’m all for it.
I cannot claim to know as much about GPI as I would like. I’m definitely going to learn as much as I can. From what I’ve seen so far, I think it’s super. It really does track nationwide and international tournaments. I don’t know exactly what their criteria is, but when I look at their top 10-15 players, they seem to be deserving of where they are.
I’m happy it’s there, and I know it’s getting a lot of credibility with the players. It definitely has credibility with us. It does help us to go back and double check ourselves, see if we have the right people.
The committee. The committee that chooses players for the Heads Up Championship.
Now that you bring that up, I’m curious to ask you… There’s always a debate following the selection of the 64 players in the Heads Up Championship, over who should and who shouldn’t have been invited. Are you involved in the selection?
So what’s your take on it?
It’s heavily for television. But can we just pick all the unknowns that are good for TV? No, that wouldn’t be right. We still want to have a poker tournament. So we are going to bring in well-known poker players and skilled poker players.
This field here is no easy field. You get this field and win it, getting past six or however many players you need to win – you have to know the game to do it. That said, we still have to bring in, for television and for casual viewers, a fun event. That goes away from the idea of “did you bring the top 64 players in the world,” no! We didn’t bring the top 64, that was never our intention. Our intention was, what could we do to make the game more fun?
A lot of players declined to play. They weren’t available, they had schedule conflicts, a lot of movie stars or businessmen that I wish could have made it, and if I could switch them with some of the pros, I would! Because they make the whole field more fun.
It’s unfair to judge this event saying that hey, how come this guy was number 11 or this guy was number 16 and you didn’t pick him, but you picked number 33… It’s not ranking that we pick here. We try to bring the tournament players as much as we can. There were 27-28 new faces that are, I believe, all tournament players, except maybe a couple who came in that were running hot. We tried to bring some high stakes cash game players who are well established just to see how they play. They don’t play tournaments every day but they’re really skilled. And then we add to them some poker players that are fun to watch, and I mean, I know Mike Matusow was just telling me, you know, “I’m gonna win this thing and show everybody that I’m back, because they haven’t seen me lately because I’m not on TV anymore.” And Mikey is fun to watch, you know, it’s just somebody that, if he’s there and he’s winning, he’s gonna grab you.
Then we try to bring celebrities and business people that really have passion for the game. The players you see here… there were so many we had in mind that we wish could have played. Hopefully we’ll catch them next year.