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POKER ROYALE WALTZ

By Wendeen H. Eolis
Poker Player Newspaper
October 6, 2005

When Matt Savage, premiere tournament director and current co-star in the highly anticipated Lucky You movie, calls, poker players listen! Matt has more connections than the ubiquitous poker gods when it comes to putting players center stage on television.

With Matt’s pull and my moxie, I was confident that lightning was about to strike, and that I would soon soar into the galaxy of the most au courant poker stars. So I dashed out to the 2005 WSOP, the most obvious hotbed of activity.

The top pros were preening while the second tier and understudies were cavorting about, like one arm paper hangers with a collective itch, attempting to curry favor with ESPN interviewers. And everyone was jockeying for position and stature, comparing their various invitations to red carpet parties.

With no headline-making tournament victories (playing only two of the forty-five tournaments did little to enhance the probabilities), I chatted animatedly about my biggest splash of the day. It was a jackknife dive at a local swimming pool.

And then I bumped into Matt Savage, manning his booth at the WSOP Lifestyles Trade Show. “Hey, Wendeen, there is someone I want you to meet,” he cooed. Pinning his cell phone to his ear, and turning toward the wall, Matt excused himself, to make the pitch on my behalf.

“She’s here,” he said. “You want to meet her?” That is how I met The Man. Every savvy tournament player wants to meet him. This guy is paying players to come to the table, and he is putting more money on the felt for those who excel. His GSN televised Poker Royale shows paint not only the story of tournament contests, but also vivid portraits of every participant- with footage that shines on their feats at home as well as at the baize, and often in unexpected interactions with their fellow players- from the dance floor to the ping pong table.

Jeff Mirkin, president of Mirkin Productions is The Man. He is the centrifugal force behind Poker Royale.

I was mighty pleased to have the introduction, even if my hair looked like I had just exited from the pool. Jeff began my “casting interview” for Poker Royale’s upcoming “Battle of the Ages” (which will be seen throughout November and into December) with appropriate incredulity that I was old enough to qualify as one of the six “60+ seniors,” on the team of “Seasoned Pros.” (Matt had informed him that I had just squeaked into the qualifying pit).

The other team would consist of three men and three women under thirty- the “Young Pros”. After promising me that the seniors contingent would not be dubbed the ‘Over the Hill Gang” and that grande poker dames would not be portrayed as Old Battleaxes,” I tossed my hat into the ring. I also threatened to use my untested tai chi training, if there were any slip-ups by the younger set.

After a couple of minutes of discourse, Jeff said, “I want you.” And then, the interview was over- just like that. He said I would hear from him. Could he be serious? I wasn’t sure if I had aced the interview, or if I had just been given a smooth brush-off. In a call from the Poker Royale offices, A few days later, I was assured the invitation, complete with an all-expense trip and appearance fee, was for real. And I also learned there would be another $50,000 on the table for the winner. I wanted to think that this good fortune had come my way because a group of top pros had enlightened Mirkin that I was among the top six senior poker players on the planet (as the show bills us), but I really think that Mirkin was more overcome by the two ringing cell phones that I answered, simultaneously during our interview, and then replaced and secured, one on each side, close to the vest.

A highly successful television game show producer, Jeff Mirkin (“Greed,” “Card Sharks”) has worked with his sharp-as-a-tack partner Maureen Fitzpatrick for more than two decades. John Faratzis (Olympic Diving Competition, “The American Poker Championship”) rounds out a triumvirate that operates seamlessly. But it is Jeff that stands out as the guy who has been bitten by the poker bug.

Jeff likes to say he ‘was born a poor black sharecropper” who has sort of made good. While confident about his capabilities, he has a genuine humility about his considerable accomplishments.

Born in Queens, New York in 1958, Jeff was graduated from Richmond Hill High School in 1976. He got interested in poker as a kid, and in television during junior high school, when the teacher brought in a porta-pak. Jeff reports, ‘It was neither portable nor in a pack”. It was clunky equipment; a black and white camera with a one inch reel to a tape recorder and monitor. He recalls, ‘The kids were breaking their necks to get on the screen.”

The son of a lawyer/accountant who had many game show clients, including the mega successful duo of Goodson and Todman, (Goodson-Todman Productions), Jeff was immediately hooked up in the television business after graduating from Temple University, making his entry into ‘reality TV” long before we called it that.

He went off to California in 1981 to go to work for the People’s Court. Still on the air, this syndicated show connected him to production honchos extraordinaire, Ralph Edwards (This is Your Life), and Stu Billett. Stu became Jeff’s mentor, teaching him the inner workings of the television business.

When not glued to his work, Jeff often repaired either to a poker game or a blackjack table. Jeff started playing poker as a kid. He added blackjack to his arsenal of gaming skills after college but preferred poker, believing that the game of bets and bluffs is less dependent on luck. But Jeff was intent on moving up the ladder of television; poker was limited to spare time fare.

It was while at Fremantle Media, where he was the executive in charge of development of programming when American Idol was sold to Fox. And Jeff adds, we sold a bunch of other stuff which included other game shows, including revivals of To Tell the Truth, Beat the Clock, Card Sharks and Press Your Luck.” No matter what he was working on, however, Jeff was also drawn to poker for its potential on television.

Before the concept of the World Poker Tour was even inked into a proposed business plan, Jeff and Vince Van Patten (commentator for the WPT, joined in an effort to sell a celebrity poker show , after seeing some celebrities playing cards at the Bel Air Country Club. Jeff explains, ‘People looked at us like we were from Mars.”

Intrigued and seemingly forever fascinated by poker Jeff was destined to take an influential spot in the poker world. During his stint at Fremantlle, Jeff says, ‘We sold Whammy, an update of Press Your Luck- 130 shows. Rich Cronin, the President of Freemantle loved Whammy. He got to know Jeff and picked up on the idea of a poker show right after the WPT came on the air. But a management change at Freemantle scotched the idea. Soon thereafter, however, Jeff was approached by an entrepreneur representing Louis Asmo, the self-appointed Commissioner Pro Tem of the nascent World Poker Player Association. Asmo had single-handedly founded a poker player association with a multi-pronged mission: to find television opportunities, sponsorships, and added monies to tournament prize pools for a wider selection of longtime experienced players, as well as current hot shots than were reaching center stage on the WPT, and at recent WSOP events.

Albeit feisty and too fiery for the taste of the poker community as a whole, Louis Asmo still must be given his due. He attracted the attention of GSN and Jeff Mirkin. A new collaboration was on course.

Mirkin found Matt Savage (or vice versa) to create a GSN tournament show that included 72 players. Mirkin nods to Savage’s considerable marketing prowess and relationships with poker players in making this initial foray into poker tournaments a respectable affair.

With one poker tournament under his belt, Mirkin thirsted for more. With Maureen at his side and John Faratzis, a nine time Emmy winner who has produced Super bowls and Olympics on the executive team, Poker Royale has already proven a winning gambit. John handles production matters and while Jeff handles creative and administrative matters.

For the next poker venture, Jeff Mirkin Productions tapped into a stellar final table with WSOP champion Carlos Mortenson and Party Poker Million winner Kathy Liebert among the contenders. With good critical and audience response Jeff was ready to push the envelope.

One thing was clear to the team: if the players were paid to participate, the producers could reasonably exert more control over the production values, and turn whines of poker player exploitation into exuberant cooperation. Jeff says that he has learned the benefits of putting up the money, explaining that you can steer the ship a lot better. Mirkin Productions offers the entire cast of a televised poker tournament airfare, hotel, hairdressing, make up and wardrobe assistance, and an appearance fee. While each show has some variations in the way, additional monies are distributed, the base fee is equal for all, and going out early does not banish you from the set. Every player’s story is highlighted in the course of his/her series.

The casts thus far have included movie stars the likes of Jennifer Tilly, James Woods and Patrick Warburton (a Seinfeld cast member) and champion players like Kenna James, Paul Darden, and Cyndy Violette, among scores of pros that have appeared thus far. Mirkin is always on the lookout for up and comers, as well as unique personalities fully committed to showing the full gorgeous mosaic of proven poker talent.

Rightly proud of his Poker Royale shows, Mirkin says that he and his partners share an unshakable position about how to treat people who come on their shows. To put it simply, Maureen said over breakfast one day, ‘Everyone on our team is primed to treat them like gold.” Jeff sums up their philosophy: “What differentiates what we do from other poker shows is that our stock in trade is really taking care of the people who come on our show.

He concludes, “Game shows are reality shows by another name. When we did these shows in the 80’s and 90’s, we saw ourselves as owing them for being willing to do it.” Mirkin Productions is music to our ears.

Wendeen Eolis has put in four record-setting performances for a woman in major poker tournaments in the past 2 years and will be seen in four shows of Poker Royale’s Battle of the Ages this fall. By day, she CEO of EOLIS International Group and currently task force commander of Hope’s Champion, a disaster counseling program that is currently assisting Katrina survivors from the Gulf Coast. You may reach Ms Eolis at wheolis@aol.com.