Poker as acting, acting as poker

I haven't been playing many live tournaments lately, but I have been busy working on an interesting new project. I've been involved with a new TV series being produced in Holland about poker, a drama series called Bluf.

It's about four guys -- kind of an Entourage-type situation -- with the main one being a poker player who has been grinding and finally wins a big tournament. That changes things for the group, and they get an apartment and do all sorts of crazy stuff together.

I'm on the show playing a poker player who the main character is having trouble beating -- kind of his nemesis. PokerStars is involved and there probably will be cameos from some other Team Pros like the de Meulder brothers, Lex Veldhuis, and maybe Marcel Luske.

We've been shooting in Monte Carlo as well at the EPT Grand Final. We're using the TV table and shoot scenes there after play concludes each day. It's been a lot of fun so far, and cool also to show the actors something of the real poker world.


Getting a little sun during a rare free moment in Monte Carlo

There really is a lot of acting in poker, if you think about it. It has been interesting for me to talk to the actors about the game and everything involved with it. As actors they are so focused on human behavior, which is obviously a big part of poker. But they don't know much about how to play, so I've been giving them workshops. They're curious and want to know about it all, and it has been interesting teaching them about things like tells and how to people act at the poker table. They're asking a ton of questions, too. They want to know everything -- the workshops are pretty tiring!

It's funny how people always are very intrigued by the subject of tells. I've taught workshops before, and it's something that always gets people interested, perhaps because they can identify with it more readily than with other aspects of poker. They think "Ah, I can look for tells and interpret them, too!"

I'll describe a hand to them I played in Monte Carlo once where I guy put me all in on the river in a spot where he could only have been bluffing or have the nuts. The board was seven-high with a possible flush and four to a straight, and I was sitting there with a pair of eights. But by then I'd gathered a lot of information about him throughout the day. I was able to figure out that more of what he was showing me in his behavior led to the conclusion he was bluffing, and so I was able to call him (and was right). Stories like that help make poker seem more "real" to them -- like something tangible they can understand and imagine doing themselves.

Besides giving the actors workshops, I've also been consulted in other ways for the show. I read the script and went over the poker hands with the writers, because it's important that the way poker comes across is both realistic and something the viewer can follow and connect with, too.

That's a difficult task -- more difficult than it might seem -- making poker seem realistic but also accessible to viewers, a lot of whom don't realize poker is a lot more complicated than they might think. I'm helping with details like specifying positions when showing hands or making sure the hands make sense when players reraise-shove or make other plays. But it's such a challenge.

If you want to create drama, the viewer has to understand what is happening and be able to identify with characters and their decisions. Since poker isn't necessarily understood that well by a lot of the audience, you have to simplify it. But you can't simplify it to the point of making it violate ideas of what is probable or realistic. For one thing, the poker players who watch will be very critical and analyze details and will be ready to criticize anything that doesn't make sense.

A lot of people think of poker as guys in a basement late at night, smoking cigars, drinking whiskey, and throwing their watches in the middle or betting their wives or whatever. A very "underground" world, that is often shown in movies and so has shaped those ideas. The games are usually cash games, too -- not tournaments. But we know these days poker is very different, especially tournament poker played during the day in hotel-casinos with lots of tables and days starting at noon and so on.

So that's what we're hoping to show. The poker will have to be simplified, obviously, but credibly simplified. Hands need to make sense and be able to be followed and understood, but they have to be probable, too, and ideally will present poker as a thinking game that requires real skill to play well.

The show is in Dutch and air on RTL 5, probably starting in September. There's a long way to go before then, but I'm excited to be involved and see how it all turns out.

Fatima Moreira de Melo is a PokerStars SportStar