Back in 2010, amidst a boom period in the poker world, PokerStars launched The Big Game, a high-stakes televised cash game with a truly compelling twist. Each six-handed table featured five big names in the world of poker, and a “Loose Cannon” amateur. The Loose Cannon was staked with their buy-in, and anything they had over that initial amount was theirs to keep at the end of the night.
From the very first episode, the concept was a smash. Ernest Wiggins famously tangled with Phil Hellmuth, getting all in well behind with pocket kings to Hellmuth’s flopped three-of-a-kind nines. They opted to run the turn and river four times, and after Hellmuth won the first runout, everything went sideways for the poker legend – much to the delight of Wiggins and Daniel Negreanu, who was also at the table.
The Big Game was intricately linked to PokerStars’ North American Poker Tour, which allowed for additional promotion and prizes. After running for two seasons, the fallout from online poker’s Black Friday helped to scuttle both the NAPT and The Big Game concept. Twelve years later, both are back.
In what served as an unofficial open to the return of the NAPT at Resorts World Las Vegas, a three-day process for finding the first two Loose Cannons for the Big Game On the Road started Saturday morning. Hopefuls showed up as early as 8 a.m. to claim one of 180 freeroll seats. Those who got their names on the list were randomly placed at one of 20 tables over two sessions, and the 20 table winners became the Loose Cannon finalists. Those winners, regardless of whether or not they are selected for the show, also received a $1,650 seat to the NAPT Las Vegas main event.
The opportunity brought out hopefuls from across the poker spectrum, from low- and mid-stakes pros hoping to make the leap to amateur players hoping to cash in big without having to invest a dime.
Among the first to show up Saturday morning was Lori Ann Persinger, a face that fans of the World Poker Tour would certainly recognize. Persinger won her seat into the 2022 WPT World Championship at Wynn Las Vegas via a Twitter contest run by Andrew Neeme, and turned that freeroll into $119,300 with a 30th-place finish.
If anyone can speak to the value on the line in this contest, it’s Persinger.
“People are like, ‘How do you keep winning?’” Persinger said. “I try to tell them you can’t win if you’re not in it. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”
While she’s already shown off her poker chops, the variance in play in a single table satellite actually had Persinger more nervous than the pressure of sitting down and winning over the producers of the Big Game.
“I actually like my chances better in the interview casting part than I do at the table, because that’s where I’m more comfortable,” said Persinger. “I think my strength is from my pageant background and doing game shows. That’s where I get to shine and bring my personality out.”
While players lined up to register on Saturday, PokerStars’ commentary team of Joe Stapleton and James Hartigan turned out to meet some of the potential Loose Cannons, posing for pictures and chatting them up.
Stapleton was also part of the commentary team for both original seasons of The Big Game, and after watching all 17 of the original contestants get their shot he has a pretty good sense of what makes for a good Loose Cannon.
“It’s kind of like when you go to the DMV and you’re trying to get your license,” Stapleton said. “We need either two things from this list, or four things from this other list, right? If you’re not going to be the most ridiculous, wild sort of entertainment value person, then we want a good story. We want someone where it’s a dream come true for them. Someone who could potentially win life-changing money. Someone that’s been working on their game for a really long time and they want to be a professional poker player.
“None of those things are musts. But they’re all things that help. Obviously, we’re looking for someone that has some gamble in them. If we get someone on the show, and we stake them $50,000, and they win a $5K pot and just lock it up for the rest of the day, that defeats the purpose, and no one’s going to be happy. That’s probably the biggest overall factor. The one thing is that you’ve got to have the gamble in you and you’ve got to be willing to compete on this level without wanting to walk away with just a little bit.”
Players came back on Sunday afternoon to play out their single-table satellites. Over the course of a couple of hours, the numbers dwindled. Entrepreneur and mindset coach Lily Newhouse became the first player to lock up her seat. Nikki Limo, who co-hosts the Aceholes poker podcast with Caitlin Comeskey, won her table as well.
There were a handful of hopeful amateurs as well. Tracey Moore was all about taking her shot at getting on the Big Game, and talked her best friend and roommate Texiera Bostic into joining her.
“I’m a huge poker fan,” said Moore. “I saw that they were bringing back the Big Game, and I’ve always wanted to be a Loose Cannon. I saw [the promotion] on Twitter and I told her about it. She was like, ‘Man, I don’t think so. I have homecoming coming up and all these other things.’ But we love poker. We literally met on the poker table about five years ago. She plays pretty much exclusively recreationally. I used to play more seriously, and now I just play for fun as well.”
“She was like, ‘Oh, it’s free.’ That was the thing, you know?” said Bostic. “Sure, why not, I said. I’m not a big cash game player, so tournaments are what I like.”
Moore’s luck didn’t come through on Sunday, but Bostic played all the way down to heads-up with a local mixed game player known best as ‘Coach.’ And when the final hand was settled, Bostic won her table, the seat to the NAPT main event, and a shot at being on The Big Game. She generally found the table dynamic to be friendlier and less cutthroat than she thought it would be. Overall, the dynamic wasn’t too different from the poker games she’s usually in.
“Generally, when I play poker, I play free bar,” said Bostic. “I go for the experience of it. I just enjoy being around people and shooting the shit, practicing doing different things.”
In her day-to-day life, Bostic settled into Las Vegas in 2017 after years spent as a traveling nurse. And for someone who typically plays free bar poker, an opportunity to play the NAPT Las Vegas main event and potentially get on the Big Game will be a fun shot at turning something into nothing.
“I am excited. Anything that I can do for free to make some actual money is alright in my book,” said Bostic. “It’ll be fun. It’ll be a really good time, I think. And a new experience, of course. I think I would definitely bring a very good, positive fun vibe to the table.”
Bostic, along with Newhouse, Limo, and 17 other hopefuls, returned Monday morning to roll through the interview process and make their case to be one of the two Loose Cannons. It’ll be a quick turnaround for whoever gets picked, as filming will take place later this week. The air of excitement in the room was as palpable as the overwhelmingly positive reactions to the news of the Big Game’s return on social media.
In a world in which there are so many different poker shows on TV and other streaming platforms, it’s clear the name value of the Big Game still carries on despite more than a decade on the shelf.
“I wouldn’t say I was surprised that people were as excited as they were for this, because I kind of expected it,” Stapleton said. “But I was still delighted. It’s still pretty fresh in people’s minds, even though we’re talking about a show that hasn’t been on in 12 years. It comes back to that Loose Cannon aspect, even as much as I would love it to be about me.
“Lots of other high stakes shows have taken place over the years, especially in the age of streaming. And some of them play for higher stakes. But none of those people are being given the buy-in with the pep talk of like, go ahead. What’s the worst that could happen? We’re not going to be mad at you if you lose the money, even though we want you to win and we want you to do well. That aspect of just plucking someone from relative obscurity and putting at the table with absolute sickos, it’s just that underdog story. Any movie, any TV show you have, it’s about someone who is pulling off the impossible, and that’s what I think still makes people so excited for this.”