On the first day of this year‚Äôs WSOP Main Event, Snake and I took a break from covering the action and strolled into the poker merchandizing convention room at the Rio. Start-up after start-up filled the convention floor, hoping to hock their tacky goods and cash in on the poker craze.
After walking past a number of totally uninspired clothing and chip manufacturing booths, we spotted a flat screen TV playing what looked like a World Poker Tour event. It turned out to be the Expert Insight booth, and amid the ‚Äúgot the nuts!‚Äù and ‚ÄúMonster in my pocket‚Äù poker shirts, it stood out as an oasis in a desert of lame.
Manning the booth was none other than Phil Gordon. And featured on that flat screen was not a WPT final table, but Phil‚Äôs new instructional DVD, Final Table. It immediately grabbed our attention. Compared to other instructional poker videos, there‚Äôs a quantum leap in production quality with Final Table. Think of dating Camryn Manheim and then moving up to Carmen Elektra. It‚Äôs that drastic.
WCP: First, provide some background on Expert Insight.
Rafe Furst: ExpertInsight.com really started with the Final Table Poker DVD. Phil saw an opportunity for drastically improving the quality of poker instruction. So he brought together two very talented film makers, Michael Keller and Jon Gunn, and he asked me to help out with the business side of things‚Ä¶
Very quickly it became apparent to all of us that we had a formula for producing really compelling and educational videos in a wide variety of different areas of expertise, including test preparation (like the SATs), home improvement, and of course other games and sports.
We decided early on that in order to apply the Expert Insight formula beyond the poker table, we would need to attract the top experts in each field. And in order to do that, we would have to build a brand that was well respected, and known for making the best instructional video content out there. We felt the name "Expert Insight" perfectly captured what we were trying to achieve, and decided to build our brand and website around that concept.
WCP: How did the idea of making Final Table come about? (other than making money, of course)‚Ä¶
Rafe Furst: Phil’s concept for how to make poker instruction much more compelling and effective was to put the viewer "inside the mind" of the pro at the table. Instead of the standard lecture format where the expert TELLS us what we are supposed to be doing, Phil wanted to SHOW us what he does in an actual situation. To accomplish this, Phil’s vision was to simulate an actual final table with believable opponents, shoot it like the WPT or WSOP, and lay over instruction in his own voice as if you were inside his head as he’s playing. Final Table Poker is the realization of Phil’s vision.
WCP: The production value of this DVD is off the charts compared to other instructional poker videos. What was the process for developing the script for this? Does Phil actively record key hands from tournaments and picked some that would make thought-provoking play for the DVD, did you make some hands up, etc.? How long did the pre-production and scripting process take?
Rafe Furst: I’m glad you asked this question. The process of creating the script was a critical element of the production, and Michael Keller did an amazing job on the writing. Much of the lesson concepts Phil had created in the process of writing his new book, the Little Green Book of No-Limit Hold’em (www.littlegreenbook.com). Michael took the most important concepts from the book and weaved them into a very intricate dramatic script with great characters (both real, like Chris Ferguson and composite, like Harmony Jensen), sub-plots, foreshadowing, echoes, and humor. The really impressive part was how Michael was able to make the script incredibly cinematic while always making sure that the instruction came first. In fact at various points we caught ourselves referring to the project as the "movie".
The second key to the script, believe it or not, were the revisions we actually did in post-production! Jon Gunn’s experience as an Editor and Producer really helped here. He and Michael worked around the clock for three solid months editing and revising. I remember one critical focus group we did where we brought in people with a range of poker experience to watch a rough cut. They were completely lost. We had tried to cram way too much information into each lesson and as a result, nothing was getting through. It really is a testament to Michael and Jon’s talent and hard work, that they were able to rework, refine and improve the project continuously throughout the process. It also helped that Phil has the (deserved) reputation of being a "one take wonder", so we didn’t have to waste time and money with many retakes and lots of studio time.
So to get back to one of your original questions above, each hand was carefully constructed to (a) teach one important lesson, (b) reinforce lessons learned in other hands, and (c) fit into the dramatic framework of the script and the simulated tournament that the script is built around. The challenge was to make the play of each hand as believable and entertaining as possible, while always remembering that education and instruction is our primary goal. It was very rewarding when we were previewing the finished product at the 2005 WSOP and some players walked by, talking to themselves about the DVD we were watching. One of them asked the other what it was, and the other replied, "Oh, it’s one of those poker shows on TV, like the World Poker Tour." At the same time, the players who we were screening it for were saying things like, "this is amazing, I’ve never understood Pot Odds until just now, even though I’ve read a bunch of different explanations of it." That’s when we knew we’d achieved our top two goals of education and entertainment.
WCP: It didn‚Äôt seem like Phil ever went on mega-tilt during the entire DVD. How did this not make it in the script???
LOL! There’s another Phil in the poker world whose trademark is his tiltability, so we were trying to go for something different.
Seriously though, there is a chapter where Phil addresses his rising tilt level after getting snapped off by an opponent, and he mentally coaches himself off tilt in a way that anyone can employ easily. But, if this is something that you don’t remember being in the DVD, then it sounds like an opportunity for another Expert Insight poker title that deals more with the emotional side of the game. Thanks for the great idea!
WCP: Anything you wanted to include in Final Table that didn‚Äôt make the final cut/fit into the script/etc.?
Rafe Furst: Definitely there is material that we wanted to include, but because of the challenges and strengths of working in video (as opposed to say in a book), we decided to cut some and leave it for future titles. However, we did prioritize the concepts in terms of their importance to success in No-Limit Holdem, and made sure that they were covered thoroughly in the first five hands. Inevitably when we did make cuts, it improved the flow and comprehension tremendously. We quickly realized through our focus groups that there’s an informational saturation point, past which you undermine the viewer’s ability to learn effectively. That said, we are very proud of the completeness of Final Table Poker, and think we hit the top of the curve in that regard. And players who have watched the DVD are telling us about some dramatic improvements they are seeing in their game and their tournament results.
We do plan to include and expand the supplemental materials and learning aids at ExpertInsight.com in a section called "Poker Toolbox".
WCP: Any ‚Äúprequel‚Äù plans for Final Table? Something on surviving the opening and middle stages of a tournament?
Rafe Furst: Yes
WCP: Thanks Rafe for the insight into Final Table. Wicked Chops Poker readers, check back on Monday for our full review of Phil Gordon’s Final Table DVD.