Poker Superstars Invitational

Poker Superstars Invitational

Poker Superstars Invitational was a series of no-limit hold’em tournaments contested by, as the name of the show suggests, a selection of some of the greatest poker players in the world.  This invitation-only television show (again, as the name would suggest) ran for three seasons, each time differing slightly in its structure. 

PSI Season One 

Season one of Poker Superstars featured eight pros: Barry Greenstein, Chip Reese, Johnny Chan, Doyle Brunson, Howard Lederer, Phil Ivey, T.J. Cloutier, and Gus Hansen.  Each paid $400,000 to play, with the winner receiving $1 million.   

The show was split into two series, each with a final match, and then the grand final to determine the winner.  Each of the first two series was comprised of two preliminary matches.  The combined finish of each player in the preliminary matches determined their starting chips for the series final, with the top seeded player starting with the most chips and so on down the line.  Similarly, the combined finishes for each player in the two series finals determined the starting chip stacks for the grand final.  

Gus Hansen emerged as the winner of season one, with Johnny Chan finishing second. 

PSI Season Two 

Things began to get complicated in the second go-round of Poker Superstars.  This time, there were 24 players competing.  In the Elimination Rounds, each played six six-handed single-table tournaments against randomly drawn opponents.  Players earned points based on the order of finish in each single-table tournament: 10 for first and then 7, 5, 3, 1 and 0 points for the remainder of the competitors.  The buy-in was reduced to $40,000. 

After all of these Elimination Rounds were completed, the top 16 point earners moved on to the “Super 16.”  These 16 players were split into four pools of four players.  Each pool had two matches, with a point structure similar to the Elimination Rounds.  First place won 10 points, second won 7, third won 4, and fourth place went scoreless.  After the two matches, the two players with the highest number of points moved on to the quarter-finals. 

The quarter-finals consisted of two groups of four players.  Each group played two single-table tournaments.  The winner of the first moved on to the semi-finals and the winner of the second (the first match winner did not play) moving on, as well. 

The semi-finals and finals were best of three heads-up contests.

The “final four” was Scotty Nguyen, Juan Carlos Mortensen, Todd Brunson, and Johnny Chan.  Chan defeated Brunson in the finals to win $515,000. 

PSI Season Three 

The third season was structured very similarly to season two with a few exceptions.  The buy-in was $50,000, the Elimination Rounds consisted of five matches per person, and the finals were best three out of five.  In the “Super 16,” instead of using a points system to determine who advances, the winner of each of the two matches moved on (the winner of the first did not play in the second).  This format was repeated in the quarter-finals. 

In both the “Super 16” and quarter-finals, the winner of the first match started with more chips in the next round than the winner of the second match, as reward for defeating an extra opponent. 

Todd Brunson defeated Antonio Esfandiari in the final, winning $400,000. 


While, in concept, this sort of tournament series is very intriguing, Poker Superstars Invitational has not been able to turn it into a good show.   

To the producers’ credit, a glaring flaw from season two was corrected for the next season.  In the “Super 16,” the scoring was faulty.  As Mike Sexton pointed out in an article he wrote, the second match of the round resulted in improper poker strategy.  For example, in Group D, Match 1, the finishing order was Johnny Chan (10 points), Mike Sexton (7), David Sklansky (4), and Huck Seed (0).  In Match 2, obviously Huck Seed needed to win to have a chance at the next round, but he could not just play good poker to do so.  He needed to see the order finish look exactly like this: Seed (10), Chan (7), Sklansky (4), Sexton (0).  That was the only way he would finish in the top two and advance.  So, if, with all four players remaining, Seed had chip lead, held the immortal nuts, and saw David Sklansky move all-in ahead of him, he could not call, even though this is completely counter-intuitive.  If he called and eliminated Sklansky, he would have left himself with no chance to advance. 

Another problem with the show is that it was difficult to follow the standings.  There were so many elimination matches and so many combinations of players that each individual episode did not stand on its own very well.  Sure, the standings and scores were displayed on the telecast, but it was such a jumbled mess that it was still hard to put the current match in perspective.  After all, since the matches were determined randomly, one player could have three matches under his belt in a given episode, while another might be on his first.  Thus, to the average viewer, the standings were essentially meaningless at that point.  It would have been beneficial to have comprehensive standings and a match schedule on the Poker Superstars website, but it has not been updated since season two. 

The biggest issue with Poker Superstars is the blind structure.  The blinds are so large compared to the chip stacks that, virtually from the first hand, the matches are all-in fests.  To see the most skilled poker players in the world push hand after hand after hand is not fun to watch.  And to see them push with terrible hands is almost depressing.  The blind structure made the show a complete piece of garbage. 

To be fair, the production values, while simple, are fine.  The show looks slightly lower budget than some of the other poker shows out there, but it is not bad.  The commentary is provided by Fox’s ubiquitous Chris Rose, who always does a decent job at whatever event he announces, and Howard Lederer, who is one of the best poker analysts on television.  Mary Strong’s backstage interviews are largely pointless.   

All in all, even though Poker Superstars Invitational was a television show with a very creative concept and was potentially a great series in which to determine a champion, the confusing way in which it was setup, combined with the terrible blind structure makes for a poor exhibition of poker.