Monday, October 28, 2013

Why the World Poker Tour Failed (Part 3 of 3)

In early September of 2003, I got the call I had awaited for over a year - Steve Lipscomb, CEO and founder of the World Poker Tour opening the door to PokerStars possibly joining the WPT.

The call came completely out of the blue. I had made my monthly call to Steve a few days before, and had no reason to believe that it had any more chance of success then the 14 calls that had preceded it. I picked up the phone and heard Steve's always-ebullient voice exclaim "Dan Goldman!", as though he had just invented the name.

"Hi, Steve," I responded, puzzled and at a rare loss for words.

"I have Lyle Berman on the line with us," Steve said. I had met Berman once at a poker tournament in LA. I knew him mostly as the CEO of Lakes Entertainment, operator of several casinos in the Midwest, and as a world-class poker player (he has three World Series of Poker bracelets in three entirely different events - Limit Omaha, No Limit Hold 'em and No Limit Deuce-to-Seven Draw). Berman was the money behind the WPT, having been an original investor and ~80% stakeholder.

During our last call, I had taken a slightly different approach with Steve at the suggestion of my boss, Isai Scheinberg. I asked one key question: 

"If money were no object, how much would it take to get PokerStars on the WPT?" 

Steve said, "It's not that simple, and it's not just price." 

I responded, "Well, if I offered you $100 million, I'm pretty sure you'd take it." 

Steve laughed and said, "You're probably right."

Without missing a beat, I said, "OK, so we know what kind of girl you are. Now we're just negotiating price." This actually made Steve hysterical. "I knew where you were going, but I just had to let you finish," he said. The call ended soon after, but I had made an impression.

Back to the surprising call. "Let me help Steve cut to the chase here," Berman said. "Steve tells me that you've suggested you're willing to pay a premium to join the WPT."

"We're certainly willing to consider anything," I said cautiously. "You guys are having an impact."

Steve chimed in. "You know we really like PokerStars," he said. I didn't, but said nothing. "Everyone says you have the best software in the business, and you definitely now have a recognizable name associated with you [Chris Moneymaker]." I still said nothing.

After a somewhat uncomfortable silence, in which I imagine I was supposed to agree with him, Berman said, "We've had some discussions with the partners who we thought would object to another online partner, and we can get around it. So, we're willing to offer you a spot on the tour for 2004. The price is $XXX." 

I'm not sure if I'm still bound by confidentiality on this issue, but suffice to say that $XXX was substantially more than an order of magnitude greater than any other partner on the tour was paying. It was a staggering amount of money for what was essentially still a very small company. I had no authority to commit to that amount (it was, in fact, almost exactly equal to my marketing budget for the current year).

"You know we want to be on the tour," I said. "I need to take this back to management at PokerStars. But just so you know - I think it's the right thing to do. Give me a few days to work on it."

We exchanged the usual niceties and hung up. I sat looking at the phone, trying to figure out how to tell Isai that we'd made a bigger-than-pot-sized bet and been called. As it turned out, I was over-dramatizing the situation - PokerStars was willing to pay the WPT's extraordinary number. And this is when I began to see the seeds of the WPT's undoing, just as they were entering their most successful stage.

Before I go into any further detail, this is a good time for a few disclaimers. First, while my memory for detail about these events is pretty good, it's not flawless. Second, much of what follows is my personal opinion. I've been in marketing for 30 years, so my opinion has some heft, but it's still opinion. 

Last, and perhaps most important, I should clarify the definition of "failure." Yes, the WPT is still on the air, so I suppose by some definitions you could say that it's a success. I consider the WPT a failure because, 10 years after its first broadcast, the WPT now languishes on Fox Sports 1 (the successor to the Speed Network), sandwiched in among Pac 10 football, a few UFC fights and the NASCAR Sprint Series. Poker is played by an estimated 55-75 million Americans (according to American Gaming Association estimates), meaning that it has the biggest potential audience of actual participants of any sporting event or game. And despite these numbers, the WPT has never achieved greater than a 1.0 Nielsen rating - the current season averages about a 0.6, which translates to about 670,000 viewers per week.

This is incomprehensible to me. Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo gets 3.5 million viewers. Duck Dynasty routinely exceeds 9 million viewers. And a weekly broadcast of America's most popular game can't scratch a million viewers together? What happened?

There were a lot of factors that contributed to the WPT's downfall. I'm not doing a research paper here; I'm going to focus on the five that I consider the most egregious.

The WPT made enemies of its players
From the day the WPT shot its first episode, it treated its players with bare tolerance. The players on WPT episodes weren't invited to play on the broadcast - they paid cash out of their own pockets to play WPT-affiliated events. In many cases, the buy-ins for these events were $5,000 or $10,000. The WPT contributed nothing to the prize pools of these events. Despite this, the WPT dictated terms about WPT-affiliated events that were nearly unbelievable to players.

Example 1: Structures and payouts. The WPT's contracts with its venues allowed it substantial influence over not just the tournament structures (blinds, antes and length of rounds) but over payouts. From the beginning, the WPT pressured its partners to adjust payouts to pay at least $1 million to first place. This resulted in highly lopsided payouts in some events, although this problem corrected itself as the Tour events grew. 

Perhaps more egregious: the WPT had the right, which it exercised at almost every event, to change the tournament structure at the final table. This was to avoid having a 6-player final table take 12 hours, which could easily have happened. But this fundamentally changed the game, something players recognized but didn't do anything about until much later in the WPT game.

Example 2: Final table deals. The WPT explicitly forbade final table money deals. Think about this for a moment - players are putting up their own money, are sometimes subjected to playing for payouts that don't reflect normal tournament payouts, and yet are not allowed to do something that has always been a part of tournament poker - negotiate at the final table to flatten payouts and minimize variance.

Example 3: No logos. The WPT barred players wearing logos of any kind for many years. In interviews on this subject, Steve Lipscomb put the blame for this on the WPT's contract with the Travel Channel. Without attempting to pass judgment on the veracity of this claim (remember that PartyPoker and UltimateBet had actual events on the WPT, with their logos on the felt), if this were the case, it was incumbent upon the WPT to negotiate a deal with a network that understood poker.

One additional note here: as poker really began to boom in 2003 and 2004, more and more players received sponsorship money from online poker sites, live poker rooms and even mainstream product lines. The ultimate benefit to these companies is having their name and logo associated with winning players. There is no question that the WPT's rules had a dampening effect on the very boom they were trying to promote.

Example 4: Attempting to own player marketing rights. The WPT required all players in their events to sign a broadcast waiver, which was intended to convey to the WPT the necessary rights they needed to put together and broadcast their shows without further compensation to players. Very few players objected to this in principle, and these waivers were required in World Series of Poker events, as well. But in 2004, the WPT added something to their waiver that caused a near-revolt in the poker community. Here's an excerpt:
[Player] grants a perpetual release for the exploitation thereof and of other audio-visual works (including, without limitation, "behind the scenes" productions and public service announcements) and any and all derivative, allied, subsidiary and/or ancillary uses related thereto (including, without limitation, merchandising, commercial tie-ins, publications, home entertainment, video games, commodities, etc.)
Translation: if you play in a WPT event, you grant them the right to use your name and image, in perpetuity, without compensation, for any purpose they choose. Remember that this was in the midst of the poker boom, when you could visit Walgreen's and find no less than five different branded poker chip sets, often on point-of-purchase displays at the register. The WPT, WSOP and many others were actively promoting their brands in video games. And here was the WPT, declaring that they had the right to player images, depriving the players of their ability to market themselves. 

As a counterpoint - I don't usually hold up Harrah's (now Caesar's) as a model of corporate responsibility, but compare the above language to the language that the WSOP used that same year:
In consideration of my being permitted to participate in said promotion, I do hereby accept and irrevocably authorize [the host casino] and its successors and assigns (including but not limited to ESPN) to print, publish, televise or otherwise utilize my photograph or any likeness of me for promotional purposes without compensation.
In some cases, the WPT waiver actually prevented (or could have prevented) players from playing in WPT events because they would have been in violation of other contracts. Chris Moneymaker is a perfect example: his contract with PokerStars explicitly prohibited him from relinquishing marketing rights to any other company in this way. In his case, and a few others, the WPT quietly agreed to remove the marketing language. 

The situation became so bad that I was faced with a player revolt at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure event at the Atlantis Resort & Casino in January of 2006. Greg Raymer had just signed a deal allowing his image to be used in a videogame, and the WPT agreement was incompatible with it. The WPT refused to budge. Greg got other players to rally around him, and several did, in fact, boycott our event that year, including Greg.

To his credit, Steve Lipscomb did attempt to take the issue head-on in an open letter to the poker community in December 2005. Unfortunately, the letter only served to confirm players' worst fears - that they were indeed giving up marketing rights to the WPT. The full text of the letter is here. [Note: In this letter, Steve refers to an ad run by an affiliate of the WPT promoting the WPT's new online poker site. He claims that he removed it "because the players asked us to," but the reality is that I threatened legal action if it wasn't removed - Chris Moneymaker was one of the players.]

The WPT entered the market underfunded
The WPT raised $32 million in its 2004 IPO. This began what was, in my opinion, the company's most egregious mistake.

Most people watching the WPT back then speculated that they did the Travel Channel deal because they couldn't take the company public without it. The original deal was of five years' duration, and yielded negligible revenue for the WPT. But by mid-2005, the WPT's stock had risen from $8 to $18 despite continuing losses. 

Their market couldn't possibly have been hotter. What they needed to do was issue additional stock and use it to buy their way out of the Travel Channel contract (or buy it out with stock). The WPT would have done far better in this key period on one of the Big Four networks, even if it meant doing a time buy (paying the network to broadcast the show, rather than vice-versa).

The WPT saw something shiny
The WPT took their eye off the ball at several key points in the crucial years of 2004 and 2005. Perhaps the worst of these was their ill-fated entry into the online poker market. The company realized that there was substantial risk in pursuing this market in the US, so they launched a WPT-branded site in Europe, as well as a subscription-based service in the US. This put the WPT in direct competition with its online partners, and angered its land-based partners.

They also attempted to launch a poker tour specifically for professional poker players. Called the Professional Poker Tour (PPT), this new event had potential, but it was a money drain when the company couldn't afford it - they conducted and filmed five PPT events at a total cost of almost $5 million (including prize pools) without a network commitment to broadcast them. The PPT events were filmed in 2004 (I played in one of them - the Bay 101 event), but didn't show up on TV until almost two years later. By the time they were broadcast, they were dated and garnered very little interest.

The WPT erroneously believed that the WSOP was their competition
In 2004, poker was booming in ways that are almost impossible to describe. Poker books started to crack the top 100 on Amazon. Bookstores (remember those?) like Borders and Barnes & Noble had free-standing displays dedicated solely to poker paraphernalia like chip sets and cards, as well as books. Poker players were recognized on the street, elevated to the level of rock and movie stars.

Back then, there were two major forces in poker on TV: the World Poker Tour and the World Series of Poker. There were many minor players, as well - Celebrity Poker Showdown (truly awful poker, narrated in horror by pros), the Heartland Poker Tour, Poker Royale and about a dozen more.

The WSOP, to their credit, quickly realized that they were swept up in a national frenzy. Lon McEachern and Norman Chad, hosts of the WSOP broadcasts, freely referred to the WPT, even pointing out WPT champions at televised WSOP tables.

The WPT did exactly the opposite. When Chris Moneymaker appeared at the final table of the WPT Bay 101 Shooting Stars event, ultimately finishing second to Phil Gordon, the caption below his name read "Major Poker Championship Winner."

The WPT and the WSOP were far from competitors, especially during the key boom years of 2004-2006. No one had to choose between them - the shows appeared on different nights. And they were fundamentally different shows - the WSOP was a sports broadcast with cards, the WPT was a game show with cards. Had either the WPT or Harrah's had the guts to try to work together, even in the most general and benign of ways, the result could have been an even greater poker frenzy. Imagine an event pitting the last six players in the WSOP against the final table of the WPT Championship as the simplest of examples.

The WPT didn't focus on corporate sponsorships
One of the greatest irritants to players was the fact that they put up their own money but had to submit to the often-arcane WPT rules (as described above). Perhaps the smartest play the WPT could have made in its early days would have been to bring on corporate sponsors who were responsible for putting up prize pools. 

They started down this path with the Professional Poker Tour, but missed the mark by creating a speculative event rather than focusing on the key sponsors that could have put up big money. We discussed this with Steve Lipscomb on more than one occasion, but at the time (well prior to the UIGEA, which may have been the final straw on the overburdened WPT's back) the WPT believed in its model and was unwilling to relinquish the degree of control required for a corporate-sponsored event. It would have taken considerably less than the rumored $5 million a year that Jack Link's pays Caesar's for WSOP sponsorship, and could easily have started a stampede of corporate-sponsored televised poker events.

As a reminder, everything that I have said in this series is personal opinion and/or speculation on my part. I probably have given them less credit than they deserve for their role in the poker boom, and have likely been critical in hindsight in a way I couldn't have been in real time. But I can't help thinking that a huge opportunity was squandered because of a handful of mistakes that seem obvious in retrospect. And although the original principals (particularly Steve Lipscomb) are no longer involved, I still wish them success. It can only be good for the game I love.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Why the World Poker Tour Failed (Part 2 of 3)

Part 2: WPT helps launch a boom

[Note: This was originally intended to be a two-part story, but there's just too much to do it in two parts. This is part two of what I now expect to be a three-parter.]

The World Poker Tour did quite a few things right back in 2002-3, just before and during their broadcast launch. They were also in the right place at the right time. The WPT brought a glitzy program with high production values to market just when two other key factors fell into place: online poker started to gain traction, and a 27-year-old accountant from Tennessee parlayed a $39 $86 online tournament entry into a $2.5 million prize. [note: apparently we got the $39 number wrong for many years while I was at PokerStars. It was so firmly entrenched in the legend that apparently even Chris believed it - the subtitle of his autobiography is "How an amateur poker player turned $40 into $2.5 million at the World Series of Poker." Thanks to Michael Josem for the correction.]

It was in the spring of 2002 that I came into the picture. I had heard about the WPT, but PokerStars had only been live for a few months and had essentially no market presence, so my hopes for getting us involved in the WPT were slim. But two of our biggest competitors, PartyPoker and UltimateBet, were already part of the WPT and it was clear to me that we needed to find a way to get our foot in the door.

I called and emailed Steve Lipscomb, founder and president of the WPT, relentlessly. He finally agreed to meet with me in October of 2002. I drove to the WPT's offices in LA, where Steve showed me the WPT's sizzle reel and some in-process footage, and gave me a rundown of how they intended to market the show, which didn't yet have a broadcast slot.

We went to lunch at a pleasant outdoor cafe nearby, where Steve gave me the bad news: there was no way the WPT would entertain a third online site. In fact, there was no way the WPT could add us to the roster - according to Steve, their contracts with the Bellagio, the Bicycle Casino and the Commerce Casino expressly forbade it. We parted company that afternoon agreeing to "stay in touch," which I knew was the Hollywood kiss-off.

I was dazzled, too much so to drop it. The sizzle reel and the early footage were so far superior to the mediocre TV broadcasts of that time that I decided PokerStars needed to be involved. In fact, I was very concerned that the WPT could launch PartyPoker and UB into the stratosphere, leaving us behind. 

So I set a monthly reminder to call Steve. At the very least, I wanted to make sure he remembered who we were, just in case something changed. And to his credit, he always took my calls. He said no, but was always willing to talk, perhaps knowing as I did that we had a future together.

In early 2003, the WPT broadcasts started to air on the Travel Channel. This seemed like an odd choice to me, but I suspected that network TV wasn't read for an all-poker broadcast yet (that would soon change), so the WPT had likely been left scrambling. They had almost a full season of shows already in the can, some reasonable buzz in the poker community and a cable network that was willing to pay, so getting on the air was a higher priority than waiting for the right opportunity.

UltimateBet's Aruba Classic was the first online poker-sponsored event broadcast, on April 9, 2003. While it gave UB a decent boost, it was far from the bombastic result I had feared. Nonetheless, I still made my monthly calls to Steve. He continued to politely decline.

In late April 2003, PartyPoker did something I hadn't expected - they started buying TV spots on the WPT broadcasts. PartyPoker was a little bigger than PokerStars, having gotten started about a year before we launched. I was very surprised that they were willing to make the investment in TV commercials, especially since we were all operating in a marginal area - it wasn't clear whether the US DOJ would decide to come after any or all of us. But they did, and their numbers immediately reflected it. Paradise Poker, which had always been the 900 pound gorilla of online poker, slipped substantially. PartyPoker went from a distant second, to a close second.

And then, on June 11, 2003, the PartyPoker Million aired, and everything changed. This event had a hard-to-beat marketing triple threat: a branded WPT event, hosted by Mike Sexton (who was also the face and voice of PartyPoker), with PartyPoker commercials. In a matter of weeks, PartyPoker became the #1 online poker site, and within just a few months, Paradise Poker had sunk to #4, this after sporting a 75% market share on January 1. UB was in second place, PokerStars was a close third. But it was crystal clear to everyone, particularly to me, that PokerStars ran the risk of irrelevancy if we didn't do something right away.

Fortunately for PokerStars, our guy had just won the World Series of Poker. In case you missed them, here are a few posts about the 2003 WSOP:

Dancing with Moneymaker
How Olof Thorson broke my heart, and made history
2003 WSOP: The last lap to the final table
Poker's tipping point: the 2003 WSOP final table

These events had taken place just three weeks before the fateful WPT broadcast. So even though PartyPoker had a huge edge, PokerStars had arguably the biggest star in the business, although no one yet knew who he was (the WSOP broadcast that year wouldn't air until mid-July). So I brought Chris Moneymaker to LA in late June, and we shot three truly awful TV commercials. I bought a huge array of 30-second spots on the WPT broadcasts, and also tried to buy some spots on the upcoming ESPN broadcast of the WSOP, but they had no interest at the time (which would change).

The effect of the TV spots was immediate. For reasons none of us could figure out, UltimateBet chose not to air TV spots yet, and it cost them. We shot by them to #2 in a matter of weeks. This effect would be amplified just a few weeks later, when the PokerStars logo was highly visible on the WSOP broadcast (the "Dancing with Moneymaker" blog post includes a memorable, long look at the PokerStars logo on my jacket, which almost brought our site down).

A few weeks after the WSOP broadcast, something else happened that would completely change the landscape. I had started calling Steve Lipscomb in June of 2002, and called him every month thereafter. Not long after the WSOP final table broadcast, Steve called me for the first time. And he said the words I'd been waiting to hear for over a year:

"Just how badly do you want to be on the World Poker Tour?"

Next up: Five mistakes that nearly killed the WPT 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Why the World Poker Tour failed (Part 1 of 3)

[Author's note 1: I'm sure I'm going to hear from some of my old friends at the World Poker Tour about this - well, not about today's post but about Part 3. I'm just relating things as I remember and view them. If I've gotten anything factually wrong, feel free to take me to the woodshed.]

[Author's note 2: This was intended to be a two part story but needs to be three. I'll do my best to get Part 3 done in the next few days.]

I've been around casino poker for about 25 years now, the first half as a player and the past 12 years as both a player and an operator/marketing guy. Poker has always been popular, but it had never been a big draw for casinos in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and elsewhere because the upside wasn't big enough - casinos could make far more per square foot with a slot machine. Many casinos had poker rooms, but for the most part they were small (3-6 tables) and well off the casino floor. The theory was that poker players would also gamble (true) and their spouses might play slot machines (also true), so it was worth at least a hand-wave.

When I first started playing poker outside of home games (the topic of a future post), it was in California cardrooms. California has a long history of tolerance of cardrooms - I'm aware of one, Artichoke Joe's in San Bruno (about 5 miles from SFO) that has been in continuous operation since 1909. California left the decision about whether to allow cardrooms to local governments, and a few, like Gardena, Bell Gardens and San Jose, flourished as a result. (I heard years ago that 25% of the operating revenues of the city of Bell Gardens comes from the Bicycle Club, one of the world's largest standalone cardrooms.)

I first started playing in 1988 at a club in Gardena called the Normandie. The Normandie had about 50 poker tables and was hopping most of the time. I played low stakes limit hold 'em (mostly $3-6), and back in those days, at the hours I played (early evening) there was always a wait for a game. Poker was a pretty stable business back then - it seemed to be growing at a slow but steady rate, and most of the poker rooms in Southern California were expanding.

In 1994, Southern California cardrooms felt a mini-boom as a result of the first major new cardroom in many years - Hollywood Park Casino. Hollywood Park was located adjacent to the famed Hollywood Park Racetrack, and just down the block from the then-home of the Los Angeles Lakers, The Forum. From its opening day, Hollywood Park was packed. It wasn't unusual to wait two hours for a table at lower limit games, despite the club's having over 150 poker tables. 

In 2000, another boomlet resulted from the opening of the Hustler Casino, owned and operated by Larry Flynt of Hustler Magazine fame. Most of us expected a sleazy operation, with topless dealers dealing from porn decks. We were all stunned to discover that Flynt had built a real first-class joint, with padded walls to absorb sound, decorated with full-size, impressively realistic reproductions of Gustav Klimt paintings, and boasting unquestionably the best food in any poker room in the world (including a surprisingly high quality sushi bar).

If you've gotten this far, you may be wondering what all of this has to do with the World Poker Tour. Your patience is about to pay off.

Over the years, I've been interviewed in print, on radio and TV about the poker boom of the early 2000s. My answer has always been some variant on the following: 

There were three things that set off poker's bombastic growth:
First, online poker brought casino poker into people's homes. You can infer the rules of most casino games just by watching, but poker has its own mystique, protocol and even its own lingo that is intimidating to the average player. Online poker allowed players to learn the protocol and the lingo safely, without fear of embarrassment.
Second was poker on TV. Sure, there were broadcasts of the World Series of Poker back in the 90s and even 80s, but without hole cards, it couldn't have been more boring. But once hole cards were exposed, and ESPN and the World Poker Tour added quality commentary, poker looked much more like a game show than a documentary.
And last was Chris Moneymaker winning the World Series of Poker in 2003. All over the country, 27 year old accountants were saying to themselves, 'Hey, I could do that, too.' And they turned out in droves, packing poker rooms and online poker sites all over the US.
In July 2002, the World Series of Poker broadcast selectively showed players' hole cards for the first time. It used an extremely cumbersome system that had an under-the-table camera mounted just to the right of the dealer's box. Upon being instructed by the show's director via an earpiece, the dealer took specific hands and showed them to the camera. This was clunky and undependable, and players hated it. But it gave viewers a preview of what poker would become in the very near future.

The World Poker Tour was founded in 2002 by Steve Lipscomb, an attorney (he was with Gibson Dunn, one of the US' oldest law firms) turned director-producer (Turn Ben Stein On, Beyond Future Shock). Lipscomb produced the well-received documentary, On the Inside of the World Series of Poker, for The Discovery Channel and got his first real sense of the huge audience for poker on television and how underserved it was. A few years later, he produced and directed the 2001 Tournament of Champions of Poker (a tournament conceived and executed by his future host, Mike Sexton), and realized that the market was even bigger than he thought. And thus, the concept of the World Poker Tour was born.

Lipscomb knew that the 900 pound gorilla of poker was the World Series of Poker (WSOP), run each year at the legendary Binion's Horseshoe Hotel and Casino in downtown Las Vegas. He also knew that the WSOP broadcasts were poorly done, had no real production values and were shot and broadcast with little real regard for the audience. Lipscomb had access to all the right elements; the only thing missing were the tournament venues.

Until the advent of the World Poker Tour, there was a handful of large buy-in poker tournaments in the US. Most tournaments cost $100 to $1,000; Lipscomb was looking to reproduce the excitement of the $10,000 buy-in WSOP Main Event once a week on national television. He started by producing a demo reel of how he envisioned WPT events to be broadcast: part poker, mostly game show, lots of glitz, plenty of information so seasoned players and novices alike could enjoy the game. He brought his friend Mike Sexton into the picture as host, as well as a Hawaiian Tropic model, Shana Hiatt, for the true game show touch.

Lipscomb then took the demo reel on tour, presenting it to the largest poker rooms in the US. It resonated; within a few months, Lipscomb had signed nearly all of the US' largest poker rooms, with the elegant Bellagio poker room as the home of two annual events - the Five Diamond event and the WPT Championship. Each participating poker room paid the WPT a nominal fee (rumored to be $25,000 to $50,000, depending on the venue), and agreed to give the WPT exclusive rights to broadcasting poker events from their venues. The fees weren't where the WPT expected to make their money - that was just to ensure that the venues had skin in the game. Lipscomb believed that the WPT would reap their biggest profits from sale of broadcast rights to network television, and from marketing rights that they would extract from players in return for national exposure.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Getting lucky

[Author's note: Most of my posts have been about poker. This one isn't, at least not directly, despite the title. I'll return to poker with my next post.]

5,174 days ago, my life changed. Looking back, I can't say I saw it coming.

On January 28, 1999, I was playing cribbage in an online cribbage league on Yahoo and something called Case's Ladder. I had scratched my way to the top of the rankings among the 50,000-odd players. Rankings were based on the rank of the person you played against - if you were #200 and played #100 and won, your new rank was 150. I was around #10, and the top 20 players were required to host games so lower-ranked players had a shot.

My daughter Bree and I used to play online cribbage regularly. We had played cribbage since she was a kid, and had played a lot more in the years since her mother and I separated and she lived with me. When she left for college in the fall (at University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia), we just picked up our games online. 

On January 28, 1999, she was hanging out and watching me play, and playing a few games herself, when a player with the screen name 'meretseger214' challenged me to a match, which I accepted. I made some flip comment about serving cocktails, and offering some of the hors d'oeuvres that were over in that corner over there. Oh, charming me. But apparently it worked.

'meretseger214' promptly skunked me. For those who don't play cribbage, that means "kicked my ass." I probably made some graceful comment, although I may also have suggested how lucky she got. Bree, always there to defend me, challenged 'meretseger214' to a game. Bree skunked this upstart challenger, making me feel roughly 1% better.

Over the next few weeks, I learned that 'meretseger214' was in fact a player named Sharon. We played often, and were roughly evenly matched. We decided to start playing as a team in 4-person cribbage tournaments, and discovered we were a nearly unbeatable team. At one point, we had strung together 24 consecutive team wins, an incredible number given that, like poker, cribbage involves some degree of luck.

Sharon and I started chatting regularly online. I invited her to meet me in New York to see a play, and got this response (slightly paraphrased, as I don't remember the exact words): "You might just be some Internet Pervert!" I think I heard that very capitalization.

The problem is that I wasn't just some Internet Pervert. I was an Internet Pervert that had a lot in common with this woman, and really liked her. But I decided to let it rest for a while.

Not long after the Pervert Incident, Sharon learned that Bree lived less than 10 miles from her. For some reason, Sharon had been under the impression that Bree went to Penn State (several hours away). They decided to get together for sushi.

Brief interlude: Bree had not been a fan of the women I had dated since her mother and I separated. There was some parity here; I never liked one guy she had dated in her entire life, but then that's my job. But Sharon was different. Bree called me shortly after their dinner, and said, "I'm not sure if you're interested in this woman or not, but I really like her." 

Wow, a ringing endorsement! I still had no idea what Sharon looked like, but I was reasonably sure she didn't have horns or extra limbs, as I suspected Bree would have given me a heads-up on either. So, undaunted from the Pervert Incident, I redoubled my efforts to get Sharon to meet me somewhere.

I tried the NY play ploy again, which failed again but with less resolve on her part. I suspected that, having met my daughter, she concluded that my Internet Pervert score was lower than she had originally estimated. 

5,104 days ago, I was in Long Branch, New Jersey, attending a conference. As I had on several previous trips east, I told Sharon where I was going to be. I don't know what made this time different, but Sharon showed up in Long Branch. We went out for a drink, spent hours talking, even played a little cribbage.

5,103 days ago, we went out for dinner for the first time, at a restaurant next door to the hotel. I spilled a drink on her. Undaunted, after cleaning up the mess, I got up, walked around the table to her side, held her face in my hands and kissed her. I said something about "getting that out of the way." Dan, ever the romantic.

The waitress came to take our order. After she did so, she stood for a moment, looked at each of us and said, "It's really easy to spot the people who've been together for a long time. You have this shorthand. You seem really happy." There were a few moments of silence after she left, followed by semi-hysterical laughter.

After dinner, I decided to impress Sharon with my extensive knowledge of dessert wines at the restaurant's jazz bar. I had a reasonable excuse for extending dinner - rain was coming down in buckets, and even the 100 yards to the hotel would mean getting drenched. We worked our way through their entire dessert wine-by-the-glass menu. It wasn't until many months later that I learned that Sharon is disgusted by dessert wines (also by most things sweet). Apparently she liked me.

4,803 days ago, Sharon moved to Los Angeles to move in with me.

3,856 days ago, Sharon and I went to Las Vegas for a free weekend graciously provided to us by The Venetian. My best friend Randy joined us. We were really struggling back then, but hey, a free vacation is a free vacation. I carefully hid the engagement ring in my computer bag. I booked a gondola ride, which cost $50 for both of us. Sharon was - let's say, not amused. $50 was a lot of money for us. Have a look at the following picture, and note the three circled items: (1) Unamused look, (2) shit-eating grin and (3) engagement ring.

She said yes, by the way.

3,653 days ago, 10 years to the day, I married the love of my life. On that day, as part of our vows, I said we were embarking on the 'journey of a lifetime.' We honestly had no idea what that meant at the time, how true it really was. Since that day, we've traveled over 500,000 miles, made innumerable friends, lived in another country - and not a day goes by when I don't shake my head in wonder at my luck. 

I love you, Sharon. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Team PokerStars: Poaching Victor Ramdin

May 2006
By May 2006, the battle for supremacy in online poker had narrowed to three competitors: PartyPoker, Full Tilt Poker and PokerStars. Collectively we accounted for more than 80% of the market, and competition was fierce. While I don't recall the exact numbers (if you do, please pitch in!), at this point the score was something like:

PartyPoker:     45%
PokerStars:     20%
Full Tilt Poker: 15%

Note that these numbers represented huge progress for both PokerStars and Full Tilt. A little history: in January 2003, the 900 pound gorilla in online poker was Paradise Poker, with something like 80% market share. Once PartyPoker's first WPT event aired, along with their TV spots (the topic of a future post), they rocketed to the top of the heap, with PokerStars and UltimateBet fighting it out for second place. Paradise pretty much vaporized, and by the end of that year they were around 6th place (the topic of another future post).

The companies had taken diverse roads to reach this point. After the Armadillo Tim fiasco, I expected PokerStars to be reluctant to make deals with other poker players, but I was pleasantly surprised. We hired Tom McEvoy, the 1983 World Series of Poker Main Event champion, who immediately became a popular and charismatic figure on the site. And after Chris Moneymaker won the Main Event in 2003 and we signed him, I pressed forward with a plan to create Team PokerStars. This was to be a group of top pros, recognized names who would travel the world, playing in the biggest tournaments and making friends for the company.

Full Tilt Poker followed a similar strategy, although theirs was admittedly more organic. FTP was formed around a core of highly recognizable names, including Howard Lederer, Chris Ferguson, Phil Ivey, Andy Bloch and others. It was clear from their first appearance on the scene in mid-2004 that they were a smart, well-financed and serious competitor.

PartyPoker eschewed the whole notion of celebrity poker players, with the singular exception of Mike Sexton. PartyPoker hired Mike, a 1989 WSOP bracelet winner in Stud High/Low, as a consultant prior to launching their site, and then as a spokesperson. PartyPoker was one of two online sites (along with UltimateBet, which later went down in flames after a cheating scandal) that were part of the inaugural year of the World Poker Tour. The WPT hired Mike as one of their two anchors, along with Vince van Patten. The combination of PartyPoker on the Travel Channel, Mike Sexton as the face of both PartyPoker and the WPT, and PartyPoker launching TV ads proved a bombastic combination, rocketing PartyPoker to the top of the online poker market in a matter of just four months. 

Fast-forward a few years to May 2006. We had solidified Team PokerStars as a team of marquee pros, signing Greg Raymer in 2004 (who also won his seat on PokerStars) and Joe Hachem in 2005. We signed a number of somewhat less well-known but still outstanding players, as well as a few celebrities. My favorite among them was Wil Wheaton, star of Stand By Me and Star Trek: The Next Generation - also the topic of a future post. 

We had engaged in heated but reasonably friendly competition with Full Tilt in attracting these players. The poker boom was at its very peak at this juncture, and the numbers these players could command was up there in some quite rarefied air. It was at this point that my friend and coworker, Lee Jones, and I found ourselves in London on business. We were both living on the Isle of Man in May 2006, and these trips happened frequently - PokerStars had offices in London and we regularly had (or found) reason to be there.

Lee and I decided to go to the Grosvenor Victoria Casino (locally known as "The Vic") to play some poker. The Vic is a typically British casino, a membership club on multiple floors with a small but vibrant poker room. We were both seated in a pot limit Texas Hold 'em game, but really wanted to play Pot Limit Omaha, so we asked the floorman if he would start a game. We found a few other players, and just as the game was about to start, Victor Ramdin walked in.

I vaguely knew Victor. We had met a few times, the first time when he made the final table in the Showdown at the Sands tournament in 2003 (a player we sponsored, John Myung, won that event). Victor was the prototypical Team PokerStars player: smart, great player, well spoken and charismatic. Unfortunately, he had signed a deal the previous year with Full Tilt.

Victor asked what we were doing in London. I asked him the same question, and was surprised to learn that he was in transit, only in London for one night. He was taking 13 children from his native Guyana to India for heart surgery, which he was financing entirely with his poker winnings. I already liked the guy, and now I admired him, as well.

We played and chatted. Victor led off with a horrific bad beat story. The previous month, he had gone very deep in the World Poker Tour Championship, which had an astronomical $14.6 million prize pool that year. Starting with over 600 players, Victor made it down to the final two tables (18 players) when disaster struck. I don't recall the exact details of the beat - perhaps Victor will chime in here - but as he told the story, "This incredible donkey, a beautiful blond woman, made an amazingly dumb play with another player already all in. I don't think she could have played the hand any worse than she did, but she managed to hit a miracle card and knocked us both out." Victor finished 11th in that event.

I mulled this over silently, trying not to laugh. I knew the incredible donkey. In fact, I had just signed her to Team PokerStars: it was Vanessa Rousso. She went on to finish 7th that year.

Victor went on with the story as I tried to decide whether to tell him. I chose not to, at least not immediately. Instead, I asked, "What are you doing on Full Tilt's team, anyway? You're a much better fit with PokerStars, and you know we know how to promote our players' brands."

This sparked a lengthy discussion among the three of us. We talked about how PokerStars could help with his charitable work in Guyana, where he sponsored an annual medical outreach (much more on this in a future post). He seemed interested, but wasn't ready to make a commitment. We agreed that we would get together at the WSOP, which was starting very late that year (the first event was the end of June).

On July 5, 2006, Victor called me, and we agreed to meet in the Starbuck's at the Rio, which had become a sort of road office for me. We chatted only for a few minutes. I made him an offer. He thought about it for a minute, stuck out his hand and said "Deal." I happened to have a contract with me, which we both signed.

We announced the deal with Victor a few days later, and I then discovered that I had touched off a massive shitstorm between PokerStars and Full Tilt. Ray Bitar, FTP's CEO, called PokerStars' CEO to complain that I had broken an unspoken agreement between the two companies not to poach one another's players. I didn't know anything of this agreement, which is why unspoken agreements aren't a particularly good idea. PokerStars' CEO called me, read me the riot act in a friendly way, congratulated me on signing Victor and we hung up.

All in all, I considered it a job well done.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The girl with the $16,000,000 purse

July 28, 2006
PokerStars had been on a serious roll by the time the 2006 World Series of Poker came around. We were still #2 behind PartyPoker, but where they were five times our size in early 2005, by mid-2006 we had cut that to 2.5 times. And our impact on the WSOP went from "noticeable" in 2003 (37 players out of 839, or 4.4%) to "dramatic" in 2006 (1,624 out of 8,773, or 18.5%). In fact, the players PokerStars sent in 2006 almost doubled the size of the entire field just three years earlier.

If you do some simple math, you'll work out that this meant a total of $16,240,000 that went from PokerStars to the Rio that year. Just the tournament entry fees alone that the Rio harvested from that huge number were somewhere in the $1.3 million range. Given that, plus the huge exposure PokerStars gave to the WSOP by promoting it for 5 months, plus the impact on cash games, rooms, restaurants and everything else, and you should come to the conclusion that Harrah's (now Caesar's Entertainment, owners of the Rio) loved PokerStars. How could they not? PokerStars was their single biggest revenue source.

Except that it's not true. And not only is it not true, but Harrah's made life for PokerStars as miserable as they possibly could, both before and during the WSOP.

I won't belabor their reasons much - perhaps someone from Harrah's/Caesar's (I'm calling them Harrah's from here forward, since that's who they were back then) will pitch in here at some point and explain. But there was no doubt that Harrah's had no appreciation for what PokerStars brought to the table. I'll tell you two stories that exemplify this.

By May 2006 it was pretty clear that we were going to have an even more massive presence than the 1,116 players we brought to the WSOP in 2005. I went to Las Vegas in mid-May to work out details of some of our presence, along with our Director of Events, who is also my wife, Sharon. 

I met with a Harrah's executive to discuss the logistics of moving that much money from the Isle of Man to the Rio. I won't use this guy's real name - we'll call him Harvey. The first thing Harvey said to me when I walked into his office was, "Let me be very clear about something. We don't need you."

That seemed an excessively aggressive opening. I didn't say anything.

"You guys..." he continued, waving his hands to indicate some ethereal PokerStars employees, including me, "...make your fortunes on the back of the WSOP. It's not up to us to make it easy for you."

Now, this wasn't the first time we had a run-in with this particular guy. I had prepared for it, having discussed with senior management at PokerStars exactly how far it was reasonable to go.

"I don't want to start the WSOP by fighting with you about this," I said. "If you'd prefer, we can still just give $10,000 to each of the players who won. I'm sure most of them will still come and play in the Main Event." I wasn't sure. In fact, I would have booked bets on the actual number being below 30%, reducing the number of players PokerStars would send to around 500.

Harvey knew, and he knew that I knew. "I'm not suggesting that. But I want to make sure you know that we're not doing you any favors. Here's the way this is going to work: first, we won't accept any money from PokerStars. If you want to enter players, we'll allow it, but the funds have to come either from you personally or from the players. We won't accept a wire from any company associated with PokerStars. And we won't accept cashier's checks."

This didn't sound like much fun, but it wasn't a showstopper.

"Regarding registrations, we'll allow you to register your players, but we can't have you holding up our registration lines." Yes, Harvey, we know what a pain it is to take our $16,240,000. Sorry about that. "So we'll give you a slot between 2:00am and 6:00am every day. You can register your players then."

Again, not that big of a deal. The person in charge of all of this was Sharon, and she was just getting warmed up at 2:00am most days.

"One last thing - as you know, we don't have a real casino cage down in the WSOP poker area. If you want to register players the way I described, you'll have to figure out how to get funds from the main cage [which is in the casino, roughly 1/3 of a mile away] to the WSOP registration desk."

This sounded OK, too. I just hadn't thought it through.

Sharon and I set up shop in our house. Sharon hired two of our friends, Shaena and Steve, to help her process all of the player paperwork, along with a lot of other stuff that needed to be done. And we talked to the top guys at PokerStars and told them they needed to wire $16 million into Sharon's cage account at the Rio. And they did.

In early June, Sharon showed up at the casino cage to do a test run with the first 50 players. And that was when we finally figured out how difficult this was actually going to be. Sharon asked for a private area, produced identification and told the cage that she needed $500,000 to register players for the Main Event. Apparently this isn't a unique situation for the cage; unflustered, the clerk filled out a form, had Sharon sign it, went off and then returned with a rack of $5,000 chips. 

Sharon, who by this time was used to dealing with large quantities of cash, picked up the rack of 'flags' (the nickname coming from the red/white/blue edge) and dumped them into her (fortunately oversized) purse. 

Sharon's friend Shaena, who would serve as our accountant over the next month, grabbed Sharon's arm. "You have a half-million dollars in your purse," she whispered. Sharon said, "Uh-huh."

Silence. Then, a tiny bit louder, enunciating each word, "You-have-a-half-million-dollars-in-your-purse."

Sharon grinned, then looked at the clerk. "Can we borrow some security to walk us down there?" she asked.

The clerk picked up a phone, requested two security guards, and a few minutes later Sharon, Shaena and their two beefy companions made the 600 yard trek from the cage to the WSOP registration area. This would be the first of many such trips, in which Sharon got to carry anywhere from $100,000 to $2,400,000 in her purse.

The second situation that made it clear to us how Harrah's really felt happened at 11:50am on July 28, 2006. You may wonder why I remember the time so specifically. Easy - it's because at 11:50am on July 28, I got a call from Harvey informing me that the WSOP was going to suspend any player wearing gear that had any logo ending in .com.

I've mentioned one of the best guys in poker, Rich Korbin, in several other posts here. One of the many things Rich did for PokerStars was organizing the amazing swag bags that all players at the WSOP, PokerStars Caribbean Adventure and other live events received. He completely outdid himself in 2006. Players got a huge rolling bag filled with apparel, various fun and entertaining stuff, and even a one ounce commemorative silver ingot. The very best thing in the bag was a jersey - some baseball, some hockey, some football, some soccer - with "PokerStars 06" stitched on - not embroidered, but material-stitched. They were amazing. I'd guess that 80% or more of our players chose that item to wear on their first day of play.

So now, we had 10 minutes to figure out how we were going to either get rid of the .com logos or get the players to wear something else. We briefly considered buying a huge pile of WSOP shirts and handing them out, but sizes would be a problem. I huddled with Harvey and a few slightly more reasonable Harrah's people and they agreed to hold off taking any action until 1:30pm.

I sent someone to a nearby office supply store for a dozen rolls of duct tape and a few utility knives. We then fanned out, going to each table, finding the PokerStars players and taping off the .com part of the very prominent logo on their shirts and, in some cases, their hats.

Crisis averted, for that day. Since there were four starting days for the WSOP that year, we had to do the same thing every day. If you go back and watch any of the video from the 2006 WSOP, you'll see lots of little silver squares on players' caps and shirts - that's why. I should note that this happened with all of the online sites, not just PokerStars, so Full Tilt, UltimateBet, PartyPoker and lots of other sites were in the same predicament; ours was just more obvious because we had so many more players than anyone else.

Rich saved the day for us one more time that year - on very short notice he had gear made for a few players who went deep, featuring only the name PokerStars without the .com. 

For the record, the years since the US started cracking down on online poker have underlined the impact that online poker had on the WSOP. In 2007, the first WSOP after the Unlawful Internet Gaming Employment Act (UIGEA) passed, attendance at the WSOP dropped by 30%. And despite a brief resurgence in 2010, there isn't much doubt that, as online poker goes, so goes the WSOP.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

How the Moneymaker Effect almost didn't happen

May 23, 2003 (continued)
As I've mentioned a few times, this blog is in pretty much random order, based on when I remember things. I've tried to start each post with a date (if it has time significance), and perhaps someday I'll actually organize it chronologically. Don't hold your breath.

At any rate, this picks up immediately after Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 World Series of Poker in dramatic fashion at poker's most momentous final table. It was not, by far, the biggest final table money-wise - first place paid a very respectable $2.5 million, but that number pales in comparison with the WSOP's peak in 2006, the year Jamie Gold won $12 million. It wasn't the most star-studded table - while there were a few names that poker players knew back then (Dan Harrington, David Grey, David Singer), there were many years with more luminaries (my nominee: 2001, with Carlos Mortensen, Dewey Tomko, Phil Gordon, Phil Hellmuth and Mike Matusow, followed by 1996, with Huck Seed, John Bonetti and Men Nguyen, which featured a famous 3-handed flameout by Bonetti). But this was the final table that changed poker forever.

As I watched Chris hugging family and friends, I knew the implications for PokerStars were big, but I had no idea how big they might be. The WSOP was broadcast on ESPN back then, but hole-card cameras were pretty new, and ESPN frankly didn't do a very good job of promoting this new technology. As I mentioned in another post, the three things that fueled the poker boom were hole card cams, online poker and Chris Moneymaker, and here I was, watching from the sidelines as all three converged. I had no clue.

Security cleared the crowd out from the roped-off final table area, and Chris sat down for some publicity photos behind a giant pile of money and a bracelet. Becky Behnen, the nominal head of Binion's at the time, posed with Chris and various ESPN and other celebrities. I sat on the floor in front of the final table, still sporting my press badge as though I were really press, and took dozens of pictures. Then security pushed everyone back a little, someone brought out a few microphones and an impromptu press conference started.

Press conferences like this rarely produce any interesting results. Here we had a dazzled and dazed new champion, who really didn't grasp what had happened yet, answering one inane question after another. I watched with some fascination as Chris handled himself admirably; had it been me, fielding questions like "What are you going to buy?" and "Are you going to play again next year?", a reporter might have walked away with a pen in his eyeball.

Then came the one question that, along with the answer, stuck with me all these years. A reporter actually asked this question: "Have you ever won this kind of money before?" 

This question was so stunningly inane that there was, in fact, a long moment of silence. Chris looked at the reporter, and I thought it a good thing that there were no pens near at hand. But he in fact looked thoughtful, grasping for an answer that would somehow make the question appear less stupid than it actually was.

Finally, he picked up one of the five inch thick bundles of cash, representing $50,000, and said, "I've never made this much money (shaking the bundle) in a year before."

A shiver of dread went through me then, and I didn't know why. I'd find out a few days later.

May 25, 2003
Two days had passed since Chris won the 2003 WSOP. I'd talked to him only once on the phone, about 3 hours after his win, and had a lot of discussions with senior management at PokerStars since. I'd left him a few messages with no response. The one thing that was clear was that we needed to cement our relationship with this guy.

We did something that was controversial when we first started running WSOP satellites - we required players to agree to wear PokerStars gear during the Main Event, and further required that they sign a one-year endorsement deal if they made the final table. Like most online contracts, no one read ours. I was pretty sure that Chris would be OK with it, though - he obviously loved poker, and our intent was to put him out there in PokerStars regalia as much as we could.

On the Sunday after his win (two days later), Sharon and I had a busy day planned. We had been in Las Vegas for over a month, and were anxious to get home. It was Memorial Day weekend, and we thought it best to drive home on Sunday rather than fighting holiday traffic the next day. We packed up, checked out of the Golden Nugget and drove to a restaurant in Spring Valley, where a reception was being held for our friend Peter Costa and his new wife, Leah. We intended to just drop in and say hello and then get on the road.

Just a few minutes after we arrived, my phone rang. I hoped it was Chris, but it was my boss at PokerStars, wanting to work out some final details. I was forced to tell him that I hadn't been able to reach Chris, which didn't go over particularly well. I was confident, though, that he'd get back to me, and if needed I was willing to come back to Vegas to finalize things.

We wished Peter and Leah well and got on the road for the 300 mile, dead-boring drive to Los Angeles. The only bright spots for me on this drive are Baker, home of the World's Largest Thermometer and, more importantly, Alien Fresh Jerky, and Barstow, where there used to be some very good factory outlets (now they're mostly just plain old retail stores). We stocked up on Alien Fresh Jerky without having heard from Chris. I left another message.

We got to Barstow mid-afternoon on Sunday. It had been warm in Vegas and Baker, but when I opened the car door in Barstow a blast of 110 degree air singed my eyebrows. We bolted for the door of the Outlet Center. I tried Chris again; still no answer.

I stopped at my favorite bookstore, a Barstow mainstay that sells only remainder books (you know, the leftovers that Borders used to sell for $5). I moved on to a remainder CD store when my phone rang. I didn't recognize the number. I answered and heard Chris' voice, and let out a breath that I may have been holding for a few days.

"I saw you've been trying to reach me. I'm back in Nashville."

"OK, I guess things got crazy for you here," I said. "Must be nice to be home."

"Oh, I'm not home," he said. "I'm at work." Chris was an accountant for a small restaurant chain in Nashville. 

I thought about this for a minute. This guy had just won roughly 50 years of junior accountant salary, and he was back at work two days later, on a holiday weekend.

"OK, that's impressive. Listen, you're going to be getting a lot of calls from the press. The Today Show has already called me, along with a lot of other media. I want to talk a little about how to handle scheduling, and how to answer some of the questions you're going to hear."

There was a long silence. "You there?" I asked. 

More silence. Then, "I'm not sure I want to do this."

I had no idea, but I was about to say something incredibly stupid. "Chris, you're about to be a media sensation. Everyone wants to know about you."

Much longer silence. Then, "I know. I don't think I want to be famous."

As long as I was being stupid, I saw no reason to stop here. "I don't think you have a lot of choice here, Chris. The media is going to find you. It's really just a matter of how you handle it."

When he didn't respond to this, I said, "I'm not sure how important this is to you, but we'd really like to have you as a spokesman for PokerStars. It means getting to play a lot of poker, a lot of tournaments. The money you won is great, but this could be a career."

This seemed to make a little dent in Chris' resolve. "I need to talk to my family about this." I was OK with this - from the little I had learned about Chris' father, I was pretty sure he'd be happy about having his son become a poker celebrity.

Chris made me sweat for five days. During that time, he had to change his home phone number, but the press largely left him alone other than phone calls. On Friday, a week after his win, Chris called me to tell me two things: (1) he wanted to keep his day job, and (2) he was willing to be our spokesman, provided we could keep his family in low profile. I was fine with both of these requirements, neither of which I had much influence over. 

There's no way any of us could have anticipated what would happen over the following few months. Chris believed he could be our spokesperson and still retain some anonymity, and I believed that as well, at least to some degree. None of us believed that Chris would be swamped in airports days after the ESPN broadcast of his final table - it had never happened before. But Chris was a singular sensation - the right guy, at the right time, with the right name.

The Moneymaker Effect had started.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Poker's tipping point: the 2003 WSOP final table

May 23, 2003
Before I get started on the final table, since this will likely be the last post about the 2003 WSOP I want to add a few odds and ends:

  • On Wednesday, when Chris was emerging as a real story, the media was clamoring for stories. The New York Times did a front-page story. The Las Vegas bureau chief for the Associated Press, who had declined my dinner invitation the night before the Main Event started, suddenly had time for me. And the ABC affiliate in Los Angeles flew a crew out to recap the WSOP with a focus on the unknown accountant named Moneymaker. The fact-checker for ABC pulled me aside right before the interview and asked, "Is Moneymaker really his last name?" I had no idea, so I found Chris and said "Look, I'm really sorry to have to ask this..." at which point he said "Yeah, I know," pulled out his wallet and showed me his driver's license. As I was looking at it, I heard a voice from behind me say, "I'm Chris' dad, Mike Moneymaker. Want to see my ID too?" I turned around to find a shorter, rounder version of Chris holding out his wallet.
  • On Thursday, when we still had three players in, I was wandering around the room (still looking official with my not-totally-legitimate press badge) watching our players and the various poker luminaries who were still in. Howard Lederer had been crippled in a hand, staged a nice comeback, and when I approached the table he was all in against Kenna James, an old friend from my Hollywood Park days. Howard survived, winning a nice pot and was out of the red zone temporarily. A few minutes later I was watching one of our players who was at Annie Duke's table. Annie and I were competitors, sort of - she was fronting UltimateBet at the time - but were friendly. I told her about Howard's comeback. She then asked me how our guys were doing, and I told her that we still had three players in, which I thought was pretty good considering there were only four tables left. I told her I thought we had a good shot at having a player at the final table, maybe even winning the whole thing (remember that, at this point, Olof Thorson had a commanding stack). I remember what she said next, almost word for word, as though it happened yesterday. "This tournament is all about experience. That's why you see the same people at the final table year after year. Your guys have no experience. They have no shot."
  • Right after the hand that eliminated Ivey, setting up the final table, Amir Vahedi approached me. Amir and I went back quite a few years - we had played in $10 rebuy tournaments at Hollywood Park almost daily starting in 1995. He took a half-smoked Cohiba out of his mouth and asked, "Don't you work for PartyPoker now?" "No, PokerStars," I told him. Silence for a few seconds, as he tried to remember if he knew who PokerStars was. "You guys want to pay me some money to wear a hat with your logo tomorrow?" I said thanks, but no - "We already have a guy at the final table." He asked who it was. I told him. He puffed air out of his nose, as close to saying "harrumph" as he could get without actually saying "harrumph." 

I had a lot of trouble sleeping the night before the 2003 WSOP final table. After the Olof Thorson debacle, the tense showdown between Chris Moneymaker and Dutch Boyd and Chris's elimination of Phil Ivey in a classic suck/re-suck/re-resuck, all of which happened on the same day, I was exhausted but emotionally keyed up about sweating Chris one more day. What had seemed like a pipe dream when we first talked about running WSOP satellites was now a reality - we had a horse at the final table, and our horse was the chip leader. The fact that our guy had no live tournament experience - and I mean no experience - was irrelevant. In Cinderella stories, Cinderella doesn't show up as a beauty queen. 

Final tables back then had a lot less pageantry. There was a table surrounded by velvet rope, a few rows of nice chairs on three sides (none behind the dealer) and some splintery, fold-away bleachers for the live audience, which consisted of less than 200 people. The prior year, I had developed a decent working relationship with Becky Behnen, Benny Binion's daughter and the nominal head of Binion's. Becky had invited me to sit with her at the 2002 final table, and invited me once again in 2003. I wasn't all that comfortable with this given her close relationship with the lowlife that had threatened to kill me not long ago, who was still hanging around that day, but without this invitation, I knew I'd be sitting far from the action. We settled into our seats as the action was about to start. On my other side was Chris Ferguson, who was the statskeeper for the WSOP back then (not sure if this role was formal). He had a huge notebook on his lap, with hundreds of pages of templates for recording final table action - spaces for bets, flops, turns, rivers, almost everything you would need to recap the action later on.

I saw some lights and a video camera set up off to the side and wandered over to see what was going on. A couple was swapping spots before and behind the camera, providing an introduction to a video they apparently expected to be seen later. The male half of the team had a distinctly Eastender British accent, and sounded suspiciously like the Geico gecko. (I got to know him in subsequent years, and I'm still not entirely sure, as I've never seen them both in the same place.) I got there just in time to hear him call Chris "the Internet underdog who got into the WSOP for $39."

Somewhere around 3:00pm, there were a few brief announcements, after which each of the final table players was introduced. The crowd seemed to know many of the players, applauding and cheering as they were announced. When Chris was announced last, as was traditional for the chip leader, there was a loud "GO CHRIS!" from a few people in the audience. I looked up and spotted Mike Moneymaker. I found out later that Mike had bought 20% of Chris, as had Chris' brother, and his best friend (whose name, I swear to God, was David Gamble) had 5%. I often joked afterwards that the 2003 WSOP money went to Moneymaker, Moneymaker, Moneymaker and Gamble, which I always thought would be a great name for an accounting firm.

I don't remember many of the hands I saw in detail. Frankly I wasn't all that interested in any hand that didn't involve Chris. The first hand of any consequence that I remember involved all the money going in between Chris and Dan Harrington. Even back then, my impression of Dan was that he wasn't putting it all in on a bluff, so I can't say I was thrilled when Dan jammed on a JJT flop and Chris snap-called him after having raised Dan's big blind preflop. But both players had AJ, so a moment of excitement for the rest of the table turned out to be just another boring no limit hold 'em hand.

The first hand that shook me up came about five hours into the final table. Chris had been raising and taking a lot of small pots, but hadn't been involved in any big confrontations. He had a little over $3 million in chips, roughly 40% of the chips in play, when the following hand happened (note that this is from memory, so don't bother correcting small details):

Blinds were 15,000-30,000. Chris raised to 100,000 in early position, and Sammy Farha reraised to 300,000, which Chris immediately called. Flop was AKx and both players checked. Turn was another irrelevant card, and both players checked again. The river made a flush possible. Chris bet 400,000 and was immediately called. I don't recall if Chris showed or not; from my angle I was only able to see Sammy's AQ, which took the pot. This brought Chris and Sammy almost level at $2.5 million and was the first chink I saw in Chris' armor.

Not very long after this hand, they were down to six players, including Amir Vahedi, who had been active but hadn't shown down many hands. He had gotten caught in a bluff earlier and was now down to about 500,000. After no raise preflop (it may have been blind vs. blind), Amir jammed his whole stack on an Ace high flop and Sammy instantly called. Amir turned over 64 for a stone bluff; Sammy had A5 and we were now down to five players. More importantly, from my side it looked like Sammy was now the chip leader (I was sitting directly behind Chris so couldn't see his stack).

I turned to Chris Ferguson, who had been attempting to estimate players' stacks. He confirmed that he thought Sammy was now just over $3 million with Chris second at about $2.5 million. I tried to convince myself that this was OK, but in truth I was very worried at this point. Chris had been chip leader when the day started, and hadn't relinquished the lead until now. As this was his first final table, I could only imagine what was going through his mind. Amir had always had a huge hole in his game - if he lost a big pot or two he desperately needed to win it back right away - and I was concerned that this same need would hit Chris.

Not long after I had this thought, Chris got involved in another huge pot, and when the cards were turned over I was convinced that my fear was justified. In this hand, Dan Harrington had raised to 90,000 preflop (I think the blinds were still 15,000-30,000), Chris had called and then Tomer, who had been very quiet, moved all in for 500,000. Dan folded, and Chris asked for a count. He stood up, took off his hat and wiped his forehead. I had seen something like this before - when he made the hero call against Russ Boyd - and when he called and the hands were exposed I was right. Chris had A2 suited, Tomer had TJ offsuit. I don't recall details from here, only that I saw an Ace and saw Tomer get up and put on his jacket. That was enough. The final table was now four handed. I thought about getting up and moving the sign that showed the payouts (a hand-written thing behind the table) - Chris was now good for $440,000, and the last thing I wanted was for him to decide that was enough and give up. Don't laugh - it happens.

There was another 30 minutes of no action - any raise took the pot, and we saw no flops. Then, Jason Lester and Chris got involved in a puzzling pot. Chris raised to about 100,000, and Jason, who started the hand with 500,000, raised to 300,000. This felt very bad to me - with a stack that size, I would expect Jason to get all the chips in, unless his hand was so big that he wanted a call. Chris thought for a bit, eyed Jason's chips and finally called. The flop came 89T, Jason instantly moved all in and Chris couldn't get his chips in fast enough. When I moved up a little so I could see the cards, I understood - Chris showed QJ for the nut straight, against Jason's AQ. Jason had only a J for a split pot (or a miracle running KJ to win), but it didn't happen, and then there were three - Chris, Sammy and Dan Harrington. Chris and Sammy looked to be about even at about $3.5 million each, with Dan at around a million.

Dan stole a lot of pots for a while, with neither of the other players wanting to double him up. Then an odd hand developed - I don't recall the exact action, but Dan ended up getting his stack in with KT, and Chris called with AQ. The T on the flop put Dan way ahead, and it stayed that way. Sammy was now the chip leader, with Dan and Chris roughly tied at $2 million.

Another dead zone happened at this point, with about an hour passing with almost no action. Chris and Sammy did get involved in one large pot that had Sammy folding on the turn with $1.2 million in the middle. 

The action seemed to change at this point - Chris was still raising quite a bit, but both Sammy and Dan had started calling rather than reraising or folding. This wasn't working out well for either of them, though, and Chris was now up to just over $5 million.

And then, after so long with almost nothing interesting happening, everything changed. Dan Harrington limped in the small blind, Chris checked and a flop of T6x, all diamonds, came down. Dan bet, and Chris plopped a huge stack down, enough to put Harrington all in. Dan thought about it only for a few seconds, and called. The hands: T9 for Chris (no diamonds), K6 with the K of diamonds for Dan. Chris was ahead by the tiniest of margins - I ran the hand later on the odds calculator and it showed it as 51-49. But, as we say in my family, NBH (Nothing Bad Happened), and just like that, Chris Moneymaker, 27 year old accountant from Tennessee, was heads up for the WSOP Main Event bracelet.

At this point the players decided to take a break. I went out in the hall for a cigarette (a habit I've since dropped) and Mike Moneymaker waved me over.

"Chris wants to know if he should make a deal," he said. He then asked me what this meant, and I explained.

"Let me go find him," he said. He came back with Chris a few minutes later.

"I'm thinking about offering him an even chop," Chris said. I am pretty sure that my mouth literally dropped open. 

"Chris, you have what, $6 million to his $2.5 million? If you want to make a deal, I'll go get a calculator and figure out a reasonable offer, but that's not it."

There was a long silence. Chris put his hand on his dad's shoulder and motioned him aside. They chatted for a few minutes and then came back.

Chris said, "Do you think I can win this? Should I make a deal?"

This is the last place I wanted to be at this moment. I needed Chris to be 100% engaged in winning this thing. I didn't want a deal to take the pressure off. But the truth was that a deal was in his best interest. He already had $1.3 million in real money locked up, but a sensible deal based on chip counts would get him at least $2 million. I hedged.

"Look, it's not up to me to tell you what to do here, but I'll tell you this: at this single moment in time, you are the best poker player in the world." And what that, I shook his hand and walked away.

I heard later that Chris offered Sammy a straight-up even chop, a horrifically bad deal by any measure. I never asked him, so I don't know if it's true, but the rest of the legend is that Sammy declined the deal. I also heard that Sammy asked Chris if he wanted to play winner-take-all for $3.8 million, but I can't confirm this either.

There was some jockeying for 20 minutes or so when a now-famous hand developed. I won't narrate the details; if you play poker, you've already seen it. The short version: Chris raised preflop with K7, Sammy called with Q9. The flop was 9 high; Sammy checked, clearly intending to check raise, but Chris checked behind. The turn put a third spade on the board; Chris had the K of spades, and the turn gave him both an open ended straight draw and a flush draw. Sammy bet, and Chris raised, but interestingly he raised a relatively small amount - a raise that seemed to indicate that he wanted a call. Sammy obliged and called. The river was a blank, Sammy checked and Chris moved all in.

At this point, Chris Ferguson leaned over to me and whispered, "When you see the TV broadcast, you're going to see the best bluff in the history of World Series final tables."

The rest is history. Sammy folded and just a hand or two later, on a flop of J45, Sammy bet his JT, Chris raised with his 45, Sammy moved in and Chris instantly called. Chris jumped up, took his baseball cap and glasses off, then turned the cap around and put it back on. I stood up at the rail behind him, squinting to try to see the next card.

The turn was a harmless card - I think it was an 8. Sammy shook his head. Chris paced. I tried not to pee myself.

The river was a beautiful 5, giving Chris an unnecessary full house. Chris' dad jumped out into the final table area and Chris threw his arms around him. Becky Behnen, standing beside me, said "congratulations." I looked at Chris Ferguson, who just shook his head.

After hugging his dad and shaking Sammy's hand, Chris came over to the rail and hugged me. I really couldn't say anything. Chris started to walk away, and I called him back. He turned around, and I took his hat off and turned it around with the PokerStars logo facing front again. He laughed and said, "You marketing guys."