For a poker player like Joel Surnow, who wrote for some of the 1980’s most popular TV shows including St. Elsewhere, Miami Vice, and Falcon Crest, inspiration tends to come from all kinds of places.
Naturally, the idea for 24, the smash Fox hit he created with fellow Falcon Crest scribe Robert Cochran, came to him in the bathroom. “Like most poker players, I think about numbers. Just sort of in daydream style,” says Surnow. “A normal TV season is 22 episodes. So I was thinking, what if you jump it up to 24? 24 hours in a day, what if you did the entire season in one day? It was as simple as that.”
Around the same time that buzz was circulating around Hollywood about the return of Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer in 24, there was another craze slowly starting to take over Southern California block by block. It was Texas Hold ’em, and a seasoned player like Surnow wasn’t about to let the popular game pass him by.
So he started playing with a motley crew of local characters. Before long, the cast of entrepreneurs, actors, producers, and poker players made up one of the biggest home games in the city. It wasn’t long before the world had gone Hold ’em crazy. “It was almost before the World Poker Tour’s Travel Channel show came on. Which is kind of crazy,” Surnow remembers. “Hold ’em was in the air. It was about to take over the country by storm. So we just started getting more and more guys interested in Hold ’em poker hands once the Travel Channel thing came on.”
Since then, the weekly game has seen several iterations as well as appearances from millionaire venture capitalists, actors like Lou Diamond Phillips and Sean Astin (both of whom have appeared on 24), players like Kenna James and Annie Duke, producers like Jim Wilson (Dances with Wolves, The Bodyguard), and record producers like Paul Brown (Al Jarreau, George Benson).
The group even includes a wheelchair-bound Vietnam vet affectionately known as “Sarge.” It’s all straight out of an HBO original series. “It’s classic. Guys giving each other shit and no holds barred,” says Surnow. “Everyone’s a character.”.
With the success of 24, the resources at Surnow’s disposal overwhelmingly pointed towards putting together the ultimate home game. Before long, he was using the lot where 24 was shot to host games, enlisting the show’s catering for the event and even paying his crew overtime to put the games together.
He never received a confirmation from Fox Television to make the lot games kosher, but then again, he never really asked them for permission in the first place. “I have so much resources at my fingertips here in production. So we would lay out every Wednesday night and it became the greatest game. Within three months, it was bigger than U.S. Steel,” says Surnow, who laments how the popular home game eventually became too big, even for him. “The problem was it ceased to have the home game feel. It was just too many people in there. Everybody wanted to get into this game. We decided after about six months of that to take a step back.”
With a simpler home game established in Hollywood and no longer having to worry about phantom players inviting themselves over to empty everyone’s pockets, Surnow and his buddies were content to focus on important things. Like poker with Sarge and the boys, for example.
With one of the most competitive home games in Hollywood, the league has even managed to tabulate a points system online. At the end of the year, the top ten players in these standings compete in the ultimate home tournament, the winner being awarded a commemorative trophy shaped out of a toilet bowl. It’s all just a little more guy stuff, really. It’s the reason Surnow joined this home game in the first place.
Even if the emphasis is and always will be on the game of poker, it wouldn’t really be a Hollywood home game without the odd player throwing out television and film pitches mid-hand. For Joel Surnow, it’s just an extension of his everyday life (he gets pitched shows almost daily).
Always a player first, he’s more likely to pay attention to the table than random movie pitches. “It’s funny. It’s usually not me pitching ideas to people at the game. It’s guys pitching ideas to me. Guys at the game who all come from different walks of life and they all have stories. Some are better than others,” says Surnow. “I haven’t actually acted on anything, but you hear some really crazy stuff at poker games, especially as it gets late. Everybody feels like they have a story to tell.”