AJ Benza didn’t grow up playing cards, and has never gambled for massive sums of money, but the New York City native has become entrenched in the poker world for his work on one of the most iconic shows the industry has seen.
Benza co-hosted High Stakes Poker with Gabe Kaplan for the first five seasons of the show, which premiered in 2006 and quickly became popular with both professionals and amateurs watching at home.
After the fifth season of the show in 2009, the duo was broken up and eventually replaced altogether with comedian and avid poker enthusiast Norm Macdonald in season seven. But after more than a decade away from the game, PokerGO brought back both Kaplan and Benza to revive the famous cash game series for an eighth season.
High Stakes Poker featured world class poker pros and wealthy businessmen who were willing to put huge piles of chips in the middle, but it was Benza and his Welcome Back, Kotter star partner in the commentary booth that gave the show its initial legs at the height of the poker boom.
“It is so much fun to be back in the booth with Gabe,” said Benza about his return. “I have tremendous respect for his poker knowledge and his comedic timing.”
With several years working together, the two have developed quite a rapport. Kaplan, who has experience playing high-stakes cash games and first started attending the WSOP in 1978, serves as the expert. Benza, who has had many notable on screen credits such as Mysteries and Scandals, Rocky Balboa, and Celebrity Fit Club, serves as his straight man.
“There are times where I feel like Ginger Rogers to his Fred Astaire, because clearly he leads and I need to follow,” said Benza. “And it’s not always easy since I do not know the intricacies of poker like Gabe does. I am comfortable in my role [speaking for] the guy sitting at home who doesn’t quite understand all the terminology and odds and outs and percentages.”
Despite having a front row seat to some of the best poker minds on the planet at work, the 58-year-old doesn’t try to pick up any strategy tips. He just wants to enjoy the drama and be able to crack jokes with Kaplan along the way.
“It used to drive me mad because I wanted to try and catch up, but that’s impossible,” said the actor and former gossip columnist for E! Entertainment Television. “So while I love the action and the drama, I finally accepted the fact that I’ll never be anywhere near Gabe’s level of expertise. But what I have heard from so many people I run into is that they like the fact that I ask ‘dumb’ questions or occasionally get stuff wrong, because it allows many people to learn at home as they go.”
The C.W. Post College graduate also takes pride in the authenticity of his work and feels fortunate to work alongside someone he respects.
“I love that I’m back in the booth voicing the best poker show there’s ever been, with a guy who’s better than the rest,” said Benza. “And whenever things get a little complicated, I take comfort in the fact that we’re just two guys from Brooklyn. We have a shorthand.”
As someone who was still green in his poker knowledge when he took the job, the sheer amount of cash on the table took him by surprise. He began asking himself the question every non-poker player watching the show asks themselves.
“Initially, it was the amount of money laid out that caught my attention,” said Benza. “I remember seeing Daniel Negreanu betting a million bucks in season one and it felt fake. I couldn’t believe what was happening. Those stacks looked fake, but they were real.”
“Obviously, I was a neophyte at poker when I got the job, so I couldn’t believe the amount of money on the table,” said Benza. “But some hands stand out for different reasons.”
Benza recalled a hand from the first season between Daniel Negreanu and Barry Greenstein as one of his favorites. Negreanu raised with K 9 and Greenstein three-bet out of the small blind with A J. Negreanu called and the flop came down 7 3 2.
Greenstein bet $10,000 and Negreanu took two $50,000 bricks of cash and put them in the middle. Greenstein called with the nut flush draw and was all in for a pot of just over $200,000. The three-time bracelet winner drilled a club on the river, taking down one of the first big pots of the season.
“Barry caught the jack of clubs on the river to win and I knew right then… holy shit, this is real money.”
The hand between the two poker legends was likely more memorable to Benza than some more casual poker fans because it was the first time he saw money of that size change hands, all while the two combatants involved reacted the same as anyone would at a $5 home game.
“I know there were many battles between two of my favorites, Eli Elezra and Sammy Farha,” said Benza. “I loved seeing the way they battled and stayed friends throughout it all. It didn’t matter if the pot was worth $50,000 or $500,000.”
But even Benza, who has seen thousands of High Stakes Poker hands up close and personal, isn’t immune to the classics.
“I remember the hand when Brad Booth tossed out three bricks with just four-high against Phil Ivey’s pocket kings,” said Benza. “I remember seeing that before Ivey laid his hand down.”
With $300-$600 blinds, David Williams raised to $1,800 from the lojack with J 9 and Booth three-bet to $5,800 from the cutoff with 4 2. Phil Ivey was in the big blind with K K and cold four-bet to $14,000. Williams folded and Booth called. Booth had bought in for $1 million and Ivey started the hand with about $300,000 in his stack.
The flop was 7 6 3 and Ivey bet $23,000. Booth moved all in, placing $300,000 in cash into the middle. It became an iconic scene in high-stakes poker lore and caused Ivey to utter, “I wish you had put the chips in. The cash just looks so sweet.”
Benza acknowledged it in real time, saying, “It is a bit intimidating,” as Ivey tanked for what was almost another two minutes before laying his hand down.
And of course, even though it is from one of the most recent episodes, Benza said the laydown made by Doug Polk against Phil Hellmuth was one of his favorite hands to watch.
“It is one of the best lay downs in the history of the show,” said Benza. “It was just amazing.”
During its early days, the show captured fans because the program was unlike any other poker show available, pitting the most popular players around against each other. Tournaments with big prize pools made for exciting TV as well, but the lineup of players was unpredictable. High Stakes Poker ensured that the world got to see the most engaging personalities at the table.
After watching many poker shows come and go over the years, diehards in the poker community would often reminisce about the old episodes of High Stakes Poker with tons of cash being thrown around. And now that the show is back, some of the younger players who came up watching it have now even made it onto the broadcast.
“Many of the guys on season eight continually talk about how they grew up watching it as kids and now they’re playing against sharp pros,” said Benza. “I love to hear guys talk about how High Stakes Poker was the show where they learned how to play. And here they are many years later and we’re still calling the action. It’s very exciting.”
The game has clearly changed over the years as strategies and styles evolve. However, what drives the drama hasn’t changed at all. It’s still just a battle of wits for large sums of cash with a fair amount of luck involved.
“What stands out to me is how many times an [amateur] will go up against a pro and win,” said Benza. “I will always admire the balls on these guys, and how their play has improved over the years. I love knowing that Gabe and I – and the way we called the games – had a hand in that.” ♠
Doug Polk Makes Incredible Fold Against Phil Hellmuth
The year is far from over, but it’s going to be tough to find a better televised play in 2021 than what Doug Polk pulled off in a recent episode of High Stakes Poker against 15-time WSOP bracelet winner Phil Hellmuth.
The no-limit hold’em game featured blinds of $200-$400, and a rotating lineup that also consisted of Jake Daniels, Brandon Steven, James Bord, John Andress, Bryn Kenney, Phil Ivey, and Tom Dwan.
Hellmuth opened the action by raising to $1,100 from the hijack with Q 10. He was called by Bord on the button with 2 2 and Polk defended from the big blind with 10 7. The flop came down J 9 8, giving both Hellmuth and Polk a straight. The action checked to Bord, and he bet $2,000.
Polk check-raised to $7,000, and Hellmuth surprised the table by moving all in for $97,200. Bord quickly put his underpair into the muck, and Polk went into the tank for several minutes, engaging Hellmuth in some table talk before making his decision.
“Since Phil raised before the flop, I would definitely be putting him on a set,” said Kaplan to the home audience. “Doug’s got to call. He can’t possibly be putting Phil on Q-10.”
Despite Kaplan’s assertation, however, Polk was hesitant.
“This is insane,” said Polk. “It’s just such a monster raise. Phil, what do you got over there? I’m considering making a very big laydown. A very, very big laydown.”
Hellmuth, sensing he could possibly lose a customer, responded with, “I could easily have…” before Polk interrupted.
“What could you easily have?” asked Polk incredulously. “You just bet a lot into very little.”
Hellmuth continued to talk, telling Polk he could have a set, blockers with a hand like pocket tens, or a big drawing hand like A 10.
“Oh, now you’re busting out blockers? God, if I fold this and I’m wrong…” said Polk.
It was then that Hellmuth decided to stop talking, even though the far side of the table was busy placing bets on whether or not Polk would call.
“I think I’m dead a lot, given this,” Polk said, referring to Hellmuth’s table talk. He then showed his cards to the rest of the table, which only brought more disbelief from the other players. Despite their surprise, he still decided to muck.
“That’s not a fold, are you crazy right now?” asked Steven, who had bet on the outcome. “If he’s got Q-10, then he’s got Q-10. Pay the man and let’s move on to the next hand.”
Hellmuth decided not to show his cards on the night the episode was filmed, and even asked to rabbit hunt the turn and river, implying to Polk that he had a set. However, he couldn’t hide from the reality of the situation once the show aired.
“Imagine making like 15 big blinds here,” Polk jabbed, tweeting along with a screenshot of his laydown.
Hellmuth, to his credit, took the ribbing in stride.
“Sigh. I can see why you say that this was the best fold of your career. Great fold Doug! [You] saved $90,000 that everyone else would have lost. Everyone else! That’s $90,000 that is not in my bank account.”
Kaplan agreed, closing out the broadcast of the hand by saying, “Doug Polk is one of the few people on the planet that would have folded there.”