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 PokerStars.com 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.