Sam Simon

Sam Simon

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Remembering the poker-loving Simpsons creator.

Unless you’ve been living in the Amazon jungle for the past 30 years, there is a good chance you may have seen some of Sam Simon’s work. This creative genius, who loved a good poker hand, and also had a major hand in developing numerous hit television shows including Taxi, Cheers, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, The Tracy Ullman Show and The Drew Carey Show. His greatest success, however, came as the co-creator of the Fox network’s biggest show, The Simpsons. A proven winner in the television industry, Simon collected twelve Emmys, a Peabody and a People’s Choice award. He showed a knack for maximizing returns from his creative investments.

Simon sadly passed away in March this year, after a battle with cancer. From the wealth of tributes pouring out from the poker, television and acting communities it is clear that the 59-year-old philanthropist - who donated much of his fortune to animal welfare charities - was well-loved by those with whom he came into contact.

Like many other creative people, Simon was a poker nut. He may have claimed to have been a recreational player, but his love of the game suggested otherwise. After stoping pursuing television work full time, he played the game on a regular basis and could clearly hold his own, cashing three times in the World Series of Poker Main Event, in 2007, 2009 and 2011.

First introduced to the game by his family as a youngster, Simon recalled that he began learning the ins and outs of the game during weekly games at home. “On Sundays, we played Stud on the dining room table and we would order Chinese food. We played small stakes, usually nickels and dimes. We weren’t a real functional family, but something about poker made it possible for my family to make it through the night together. Poker’s a mean-spirited game. Maybe that is why we could do it as a family.”

His love of poker continued to grow as he kept playing during high school and college. It was during those years that Simon began frequenting casinos in Temecula, California, with his grandfather. Having had little live experience outside of his home game, he found only lukewarm success at first, but, he said he didn’t care because he enjoyed playing.

“I don’t think I really knew what I was doing at the time, but then again, a lot of people didn’t know what they were doing back then. It’s not like today when there’s so much information on how to play available.”

After college, Simon shifted poker onto the back burner while he concentrated on his television career. Despite playing regularly while working, it wasn’t until he started watching episodes of the World Poker Tour that he began to think seriously about the game again.

“After watching several episodes and getting excited about playing. I found myself at a dog park one day where I met up with writer David Steinberg. He invited me to his Wednesday home game. It wasn’t a high-stakes game and featured a $5/$5 limit, butsome of the players were real serious and scholarly about the game. They would reconstruct hands and discuss the results. Playing with these guys inspired me to read some books and learn more about the game.”


Bitten by the poker bug again, Simon began reading poker strategy books and started playing regularly in small buy-in tournaments at Hollywood Park Casino. He also began testing himself against online players and soon found that he preferred to play online except when with friends.
“When you play live at a casino, you sit with some of the biggest jerks in the world. Some of these guys are really angry. I also like online play, because I don’t have to get dressed up to play and I can smoke cigars. Also, you can be a lot braver online.”

Like thousands of other poker players, Simon decided to test his mettle at the 2007 WSOP. After going deep in several events, he capped his WSOP by finishing 329th in the Main Event, earning a cash of $39,445. According to Simon, he enjoyed the Main Event, but he found a sense of irony in his results.

“In 2007, Phil Hellmuth won his 11th bracelet and he proved he’s probably the greatest No Limit tournament player ever. I’m not very good, but I finished 329th in the Main Event, which was way ahead of Hellmuth, so I don’t know what that says about how good the tournament play was. I did have a $100,000 last-longer bet with Norm McDonald that was featured on ESPN, which I won. That was fun.”

A fan of the split games like Omaha and Stud, Simon also developed an affinity for No Limit Hold’em, thanks to the game’s luck factor.

“Norm has a theory that applies to No Limit and I think it is pretty accurate. ‘No Limit Hold’em takes a minute to learn and five minutes to master.’ There is something to be said about the wisdom of that line. It is fun to be able to compete successfully in a game that you are not really that good or experienced at. There is just so much luck involved in the game and if you are willing to shove all of your chips in the middle, you can make people who are better than you fold,” he said.

Simon also says he liked the fact that the WSOP Main Event is open to everyone.

“It’s wild that you are allowed to buy your way into the championship event in poker and win it. If you were a golfer and you could buy your way into the Masters, you would have to play your best golf just to be respectable, but there is no way you are going to win it. In poker, you can buy your way into the world championship and play badly and still win. It’s a pretty amazing thing.”

Despite having great success in television, Simon is found it harder to achieve the same success in poker. He acknowledged that winning a poker tournament is a “million times” tougher than writing a television show, because with television he could fix his mistakes which he couldn't during a game.

Fortunately for Simon, some of what he had learned from his prestigious career helped him at the tables. “I have always been very involved in negotiating my contracts and I think that I have done well, because I have used some of the attitude that is required at the tables during the process. There have definitely been times when I have taken risks and gambled by turning down sure things for the bigger payout. That’s a major reason why I have done well with my deals and done reasonably well at the tables,” he said.

One thing that didn't translate from his career to the tables was his celebrity status. Often seen as just another anonymous face at the tables, Simon told us he enjoyed not being recognized.

“I like having to be resourceful and not being catered to. When I sit at the table, I know it’s not about what I have done in the past or who I am. It’s a level playing field and I like the challenge of being just a poker player who gets cards like everyone else.”

One example of Simon’s table anonymity occurred during the 2007 Main Event when he busted noted pro Dan Harrington.

“I thought he knew who I was, because we had talked a bunch at the table; but then he was interviewed and he was told that the guy that busted him was the creator of The Simpsons, and he said, ‘Who?’”

Playing more for the challenge of the game and the spirit of competition than the money, Simon made it clear that he wanted to be competitive with the pros but said he had little chance of ever becoming one.

“I made situation comedies and was successful at it. With that, you give away the product and make people happy. Professional poker is about taking people’s hard-earned money. It just isn’t right for me.”

A philanthropist at heart and the founder of the non-profit group The Sam Simon Foundation, Simon’s charitable nature also made it tough for him to cross the threshold between being an amateur player and a pro who played for a living.

“I’m a little put off by the predatory nature of being a professional poker player. Not so much in the tournaments, because it’s kind of like playing the lottery, but definitely in the cash games. There are some really dangerous characters, and you have to be careful or you’ll go broke. I would also feel uncomfortable as a pro because I would be taking other people’s money on a regular basis when I know I’m better than they are.”

The Home Game

When asked about his home game, Simon said things were always interesting when you play with a bunch of writers and comedians.

“It’s kind of funny, because they change the name of the games constantly. There was this game we played called Mini-Draw. It is a high/low split game where you get three cards followed by a round of betting. Then the flop comes out. You are trying to draw to the best five cards. You can play your hand or you can play two cards on the board. You then have the option of getting one card or two cards. You can discard one and get two or you can draw one card.

“First it was called Mini-Draw, then just Mini. Then they started calling it The Dreamers Game and they began constantly saying, “I want to play Mini-Draw, the Dreamers Game.” Then it changed to Dreamer, but now it’s called Awesome, because they think it is the most awesome game. That’s how writers think.”

Jamie Gold 2

The game has an all-star talent roster with regular appearances from celebs Norm McDonald and Drew Carey, and over time Simon was joined by more frequent guests including Amir Vahedi, Jamie Gold, Jennifer Tilly, Ben Affleck, and Hank Azaria.

After starting out at $10/$20, Simon dropped the stakes because he hated the thought of people coming to his house to play poker for fun and having them leave $20,000 down. Despite the smaller stakes, the game remained highly competitive and, according to Simon, “No one wants to lose.”

The Simpsons

Simon won nine Primetime Emmys for his work on The Simpsons, the longest-running sitcom in television history. Although the writers took until Season 24 to put together an episode specifically on poker, they did do a gaming-based episode on sports betting in which Lisa Simpson successfully learns to pick winning football teams.

“According to people like Art Manteras and other top figures in the sports betting industry, this was the only fiction about sports betting that they could tell was written by degenerate gamblers,” Simon said.

We asked Simon to profile the Simpson family as card players and to give readers the inside scoop on how they would play and who would be the best player. Here were his thoughts.

Homer: He is a dope and he would play any two cards. He would be bad. If he did hit a flop after playing his 7-2 off-suit, he would jump up and down on his chair and start shouting. He’s totally hopeless.

Marge: I don’t think she has enough gamble in her. She’s way too conservative.

Lisa: Lisa would be a good player. We know she can do the math because she could pick the football teams and she is an analytical genius. She’s along the lines of a Chris Ferguson-type of player and she would do well.

Bart: I think Bart could be the most successful player, because he’s a bad boy and there are the “Bad Boys” of poker. He would be very aggressive and good for the game. If the cameras got on him, he would be like Phil Laak, and his antics in front of the ESPN camera would endear him to the poker-playing audience.

Maggie: She’s too young to play live, and anyway I don’t think she would be very good, because she is a baby.

Image courtesy of Mercy For Animals.

Tags: Sam Simon, The Simpsons