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:
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.