Monday, February 3, 2014

How PokerStars saved the Aussie Millions

Author's note: In order to put some teeth in my commitment to post at least once a week, I make this pledge: if more than one week passes between posts, and you're the first person to point it out, I'll donate $100 to the charity of your choice. 

Back in 2002, I spent a lot of my time just trying to figure out how to get PokerStars noticed. The poker boom hadn't really started yet, but it was starting to build a head of steam. Online poker sites were coming out of the woodwork. Where in 2001 there had been only about a dozen sites, by mid-2002 there were at least 50 of reasonable size. 

Paradise Poker remained the 900 pound gorilla, accounting for more than 75% of the market. PartyPoker had signed poker legend Mike Sexton, who was about to become famous as the spokesperson for the World Poker Tour in addition to his PartyPoker affiliation. UltimateBet made a deal with both Phil Hellmuth and Annie Duke. And, of course, PokerStars had a brief brush with signing a poker celebrity (see Armadillo Tim and the Threat of Death) that nearly brought my nascent online poker career to an early end.

So there I was, in the early fall of 2002, just trying to figure out how to be heard above the fray. Advertising on TV didn't yet make sense, although it would in very short order. Traditional mainstream advertising was far from a target-rich environment. I had some substantial success with keyword advertising on Google and a few other less-known search engines, but competition was fierce, and the real truth was that we didn't have that much that made us unique.

Now, if you're a PokerStars player, especially if you were back then, you might dispute this, and you'd be right. Without bias, I can say that PokerStars had the best online poker software in 2002 and maintains that lead today. But how do you convey that in a 25 word blurb on Google AdWords? We were one of the first sites to offer multi-table tournaments, but PartyPoker and UltimateBet did, too, so that didn't really distinguish us (although our lack of any spectacular public site meltdowns probably did).

While reading Card Player one day in September 2002, I saw an article about an upcoming poker tournament in Melbourne, Australia. The article was mostly about the venue, the Crown Casino, which was the largest casino in the southern hemisphere. Crown was about to launch their first big poker tournament, the Aussie Millions, to be held in mid-January. The tournament featured a $10,000 buy-in (Australian dollars, which back then were worth about $0.55) and a $1 million AUD guarantee.

I did some searching and came up with the name Danny McDonough, the tournament director for the Aussie Millions. I checked the time difference, which was +19 hours and called the poker room at Crown. I was lucky enough to catch Danny in his late morning.

I was even luckier than that. It turned out that, not only did Danny know who PokerStars was, he had played on the site. And he was a partner in a pretty well-known poker portal, as well. After exchanging pleasantries and comparing notes about playing online and live, we got down to the meat of the discussion.

Danny was very straight with me, a refreshing trait I found common among the Australians I've done business with. He was very worried about the Aussie Millions. He knew that the local Melbourne market wasn't big enough to support the guarantee. He hoped to attract players from as far as Sydney, but until my call, he hadn't considered how Crown might promote the event outside of Australia.

I had just the thing. I immediately offered to buy five Aussie Millions entries as an opening salvo. I thought this might help move things along; I had no idea how well that would work. Danny immediately offered terrific rates at the Crown property (more on that in a bit - it's an amazing place), as much exposure as he could legally give us, both in the press and online, and any other help he could provide. 

After the call, I convened a meeting of the PokerStars Marketing Department, which at the time consisted of me, with a little help from my wife Sharon and my geriatric cat, Nicole. The three of us talked the idea through, and decided that there were, in fact, two opportunities here. One was to give away the five Aussie Millions entries, along with airfare, hotel and travel allowance, to PokerStars players who could use their Frequent Player Points to enter. The second was to run online satellites for additional trip packages. 

This second item may seem obvious, but in 2002 that was far from the case. No one was giving away anything like this. PartyPoker had run the first PartyPoker Million cruise a few months earlier, but that was their own, dedicated event. Running online satellites to live poker room events had never been done, as silly as that may seem.

I put a plan together and ran it by Isai, my boss. I expected opposition, and was quite surprised to find none; in fact, he wholeheartedly supported the idea, including the cash satellites. We had our first partnership with a land-based casino. As a gesture of good faith (and to lock in the exchange rate), we immediately wired $50,000 AUD to Crown, and I got to work putting a marketing plan together. I told Danny that I thought we could be bringing as many as 10 additional players from satellites, which seemed to thrill him to an inordinate degree.

A few weeks later, we launched our first Aussie Millions satellite, and were stunned by the response. The total package value was about $8,500 including airfare, hotel and a $1,000 travel allowance. We guaranteed one seat, and would have been satisfied giving up a little on the guarantee. Instead, we gave away three Aussie Millions packages. There was no doubt - we had hit on something.

By the time our online satellites ended in early December, we had given away an astounding 18 Aussie Millions packages, in addition to the five that we bought to give away to players. There was no question that we would be a force at the Aussie Millions. We had no idea exactly how true that would be.

Sharon and I got ready to head to Australia on New Year's Day 2003 (a great day to travel, btw). I had been to Sydney once, back in 1988, and had fallen in love with the entire country. This was our first big trip together as a couple - we'd been to quite a few places in the US, but other than a four-day cruise to Mexico we had never been out of the country together. When we booked our tickets, we found that we had a layover in Hong Kong. Singapore Airlines was kind enough to let us take a few days in Hong Kong for the same price.

After playing for three days in Hong Kong - and incidentally spending exactly all of the money we had brought with us on gifts - we boarded a late afternoon flight to Melbourne. Danny told me he would arrange airport transportation, which was great - the flight was close to 10 hours, with a +3 hour time change, so we were arriving at around 6am.

After coming through customs and immigration, we found a pleasant guy named Sam waiting for us with the requisite sign that said "Goldman." He arranged for our luggage, and led us to a monstrously large stretch limo bearing the Crown logo. He apologized for the impending long trip (about 40 minutes, as I recall), but we brightened considerably when he opened a thermos of coffee. He gave us a little history about Crown and let us know that he would be our contact if we needed anything during our stay, which would be just under two weeks' duration.

The limo should have given me a clue as to how we would be treated, but I wasn't fully with it. Upon arriving at Crown, Sam arranged for our luggage to be brought to our room. We passed the check-in lines and headed straight for the elevators, which brought a raised eyebrow from me. "Part of my job," Sam said. "I'll get a credit card imprint from you later."

We zipped to the 30th floor, where Sam walked us to double doors at the very end of a long hallway. He opened the door and escorted us into the largest and most opulent hotel room I've seen before or since.

The hotel is curved, and so was the 18 foot high wall of windows facing us when we entered. Stretching about 50 feet wide, the window wall offered a jaw-dropping view of the Yarra River below and Melbourne Park (home of the Australian Open) to the right. 

And that was just the living room. The bathroom had a shower, jacuzzi and steam room. The bedroom had what is undoubtedly the largest bed in the southern hemisphere. I didn't know exactly why yet, but we were royalty. The next two weeks were going to be fun.

Sam shook our hands, refused to accept a tip, and told us that our luggage would be up momentarily. We gawked like hillbillies seeing indoor plumbing for the first time. Sharon found a remote control that opened and closed the absurdly long curtains. We played with that for a while. We had trouble getting an Internet connection; within five minutes of our call to the front desk, a technician was there helping us.

The rest of that day consisted mostly of gawking, pointing and taking pictures. We had arranged to meet with Danny for dinner that night, our first face-to-face meeting. He took us to a steakhouse in the Crown complex (one of about 40 restaurants on the property).

"We're cutting it really close," Danny told us over cocktails. "Your 23 entries are a huge help, but we're still probably going to have to make up some of the guarantee. We have 40 satellite winners so far (the tournament was two days away), and expect about 10 cash buy-ins."

Over the next two days, we watched an impressively large and busy poker room bursting at the seams to accommodate the crowds. It was summer in Melbourne, and that fact, combined with the Aussie Millions and the upcoming Australian Open, had packed the room. Danny kept us updated on the count - and it was going to be very, very close. 

With 90 minutes to go before the Main Event, the count was at 76 entries from satellite winners and direct buy-ins, plus our 23 entries - 99 total, one short of making the $1 million guarantee. Danny had set out on this path with an audacious goal, made even more audacious by the fact that the biggest tournament Crown had run prior to 2003 was a $1,500 buy-in event. Danny decided to run one last satellite, a super-duper-turbo (they had a name for it that I don't recall), in which players started with 1,000 in chips and 100-200 blinds. He managed to find 10 players willing to put up $1,000 each in what amounted to a lotto for a Main Event seat. And history was made.

I do wish the story ended there. But stunningly, over the four hours of late registration, 22 more players showed up. The final number was 122 players. But if you do the simple math, you'll realize that, were it not for PokerStars' 23 entries, the first Aussie Millions would have had 99 players. Instead, we helped them smash the guarantee. And while at the height of the poker boom, this event would sport close to 800 players (with much help from Full Tilt Poker, another story), 2003 was the year that put the Aussie Millions on the poker map.

Ironic epilogue to this story: In 2004, PokerStars joined the World Poker Tour with the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure (see my three-part story on the WPT starting here and the saga of our first year's event here). That same year, Crown moved the Aussie Millions to the third week in January, in direct conflict with PCA. 2003 was the first and only year that Sharon and I were able to attend this terrific event.

Happy epilogue to this story: I tried relentlessly from 2004 forward to recruit Danny McDonough to come work for PokerStars. I'm sad to say I didn't succeed, but after I left, someone else wore him down. After a few years helping get the Asian Pacific Poker Tour and PokerStars Asia started, Danny is now President of the APPT. He was, and remains, one of my favorite people in poker.

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