Monday, March 31, 2014

70,000 drunks clinging to a rock (Part 2)

Author's note: I want to disabuse you of the notion that I plan these posts well in advance. The truth is that I have a lengthy list of topics that I know I want to write about, and each week I pick one and just start writing. When I started writing Part 1 of this now-lengthy tome, my intent was that Part 2 would be about living on the Isle of Man, and our very challenging decision to leave. Apparently there was more to tell than I realized. My apologies that this post doesn't exactly adhere to my "Next up" note from last week. And I make no promises that I'll adhere to this week's, either. 

September 2005 - April 2007
Sharon and I felt like we had officially moved once she arrived on the island in early December 2005. But our life bore one very distinct resemblance to our prior life: we spent a lot of time on the road. 

Within a few days of Sharon's arrival on December 9, we were getting ready to head to the Bahamas for the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. To our delight, we discovered that, for the exact same airfare from London to Nassau we could go London-Los Angeles-Nassau and spend a few extra days with the friends we had left behind. For Sharon this meant returning after a few weeks, but I had been gone since September. 

Our friends Sandra and David were house-sitting for us/leasing from us (they left our bedroom alone so we would have a familiar place to return to, but lived in the rest of the house). Sandra's three delightful sons lived there part-time. We surprised them by arriving on Christmas Eve 2005 after an 11 hour flight. We all had a delightful, unexpectedly fun Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with them.

Sharon had started complaining about pain in her leg right after the flight. This was always a concern for us - Sharon had a blood clot in that same leg in 1999 and a very minor second blood clot during the first PokerStars Caribbean Adventure on a cruise ship. It was a little worse on Christmas Day, but by that evening it seemed to be better.

Until the next day, that is. Sharon awoke early, complaining of severe pain in that same leg. We decided not to take any chances, and headed straight for the emergency room. The hospital staff knows not to take any chances with blood clots, and took us immediately. After an hour of tests, including a Doppler Study (which I assumed involved someone driving past her very quickly while blowing a car horn), we got the bad news - Sharon did indeed have another blood clot. This one was considerably less severe than the first, which had been a really bad one, but it was still a blood clot. 

If you've been following this blog, you know by now that one of Sharon's primary responsibilities at PokerStars was running live events, including the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. The event was due to start in ten days, on January 4. There were roughly 100 staff members and over 1,000 players depending on her. This was not looking good for the home team - flying is one of the primary causes of blood clots (well, actually it's more the inactivity), and we still needed to take a five hour flight and a one hour flight. I was pretty sure that Sharon was going to be grounded, and I had absolutely no idea how we were going to make PCA 2006 happen without her.

[Side note: In addition to all of this panic, we had a major associated scare just a few days before this. When we flew to the Bahamas on commercial airlines, we arrived at Lynden Pindling Airport in Nassau, which was 45 minutes from the Atlantis Resort. And we invariably hit massive crowds at immigration and customs, so it was often 3-4 hours from landing to arriving at Atlantis. 

A year before, we discovered a commuter airline called Chalks, which ran seaplanes from Ft. Lauderdale. Instead of landing at the airport, the seaplane landed in the water right off the coast of Paradise Island. It was inexpensive, delightful and much quicker. There was a tiny immigration office in a trailer about 100 yards from the resort, and we invariably got in and out in 15 minutes or less.

One week before Sharon's blood clot diagnosis, the very Chalks plane we had taken several times before fell out of the sky and crashed into Government Cut, just off the Miami coast. There were no survivors. We were left scrambling for what ended up being a very expensive Continental flight. And we had more than a few moments contemplating our own mortality.]

An ER nurse put Sharon on an IV drip of Warfarin (fun fact: this is the active ingredient in D-Con rat poison). An hour or so later, the doctor came by to check on her progress. After telling us that this was a relatively minor clot, we couldn't wait any more, and asked the big question: could Sharon fly in five days?

The doctor was much more positive than we expected. Because the clot wasn't particularly severe, he opted to treat it with injections of blood thinners for a week, followed by oral doses for three weeks. He didn't love the idea that we were about to get on a long flight, and would have another one less than two weeks later, but he believed that it would be alright as long as I was willing to give Sharon the blood thinner injections. This surprisingly didn't bother either of us.

This experience underlined for us what a challenge we might have living on the Isle of Man. We needed to come back to the US regularly - as often as every 6-8 weeks - and the idea that we'd have to sweat Sharon's health on every flight was scary. But we were committed at that point, so we just added it to a growing list of things that made the Isle of Man less than thrilling.

By the spring of 2006, we had pretty much settled in on the island. Although it seemed remote while we were there, IOM is, in fact, only about 250 miles from London, a flight of less than an hour. We found that we were able to get to a lot of wonderful destinations in Europe very easily, and took advantage of it. We went to a poker tournament in Vienna, visited Italy again, went to Dublin, even took the train through the Chunnel to Paris for our third anniversary in March 2006. We chose our destinations carefully, making sure Sharon didn't have to endure more than a two hour flight unless absolutely necessary. I also had the unenviable task of making sure she got up and walked around every 30 minutes or so.

In May 2006, we both returned to the US for the World Series of Poker. This was a particularly huge and stressful event for both of us (see "The Girl with the $16 Million Purse" for one example), with PokerStars sending over 1,600 players to the WSOP $10,000 Main Event. I had been promoted and given considerably more scope and staff, so I shuttled back and forth between Las Vegas and the Isle of Man every few weeks rather than staying for the summer as I had in the past. Most of the responsibility for this massive presence at the WSOP was on Sharon, so she stayed in Las Vegas throughout. 

During that trip, Sharon realized just how much she missed the US and our friends. It was a tough summer, but she was grateful for getting to spend even a little time with the people she cared about the most. We resolved to come back to the US no less than every six weeks, staying for at least a week.

But like most resolutions, they are subject to the intervention of fate. We stayed in Las Vegas through early August, returned to IOM, and made exactly one trip back to the US before the most stunning development to date in the star-crossed history of online poker took us all by surprise.

There had been a number of legislative attempts to ban online gambling in the US over the years. PokerStars kept a very close eye on legislation, of course, and generally knew in advance what pieces of legislation were being debated or might come up for votes. But no one saw this one coming. Late in the evening of September 29, 2006, hours before the Congress adjourned for the midterm elections, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) was smuggled into law, attached to the SAFE Port Act, a must-pass bill. It was never debated or even fully read into the Congressional record. Dozens of legislators who were interviewed later admitted that they didn't even realize that they had voted for it.

The UIGEA was earth-shattering legislation. It didn't attempt to make Internet gambling illegal. It took the tricky and clever route of making the financial transactions that facilitated Internet gambling illegal. The sponsors of the legislation knew they would be trampling on states' rights if they attempted once again to pass anti-gambling legislation. But the UIGEA was almost as good - it made a critical component of online gambling illegal.

This created an untenable situation for the public companies that offered online gambling in the US, most particularly PartyPoker. PartyGaming plc, PartyPoker's parent, had gone public a year earlier, and immediately had a market value greater than British Airways, peaking at over $12 billion. But the company had a very tough choice to make - leave the US market, which represented about 50% of its business, or be delisted by the London Stock Exchange. PartyGaming watched its stock lose 60% of its value the following day, and one day later, they left the US market, along with a number of other public companies in the online gaming sector.

I'll tell the longer story about the next few days in another post. But the short version is that PokerStars decided to stay in the US market. This put a few people in PokerStars senior management, particularly Lee Jones and me, in a very difficult spot. It was not at all out of the question that either of us might be arrested upon coming back to the US. 

So this was it - the UIGEA officially made us expatriots expatriates [thanks Terrence]. If we were to stay with PokerStars, we couldn't return to the United States for the foreseeable future. How long? No one knew. We harbored some hope that there would be a legal challenge to the UIGEA, but things didn't look good.

Next: the toughest decision of our lives.

Monday, March 24, 2014

70,000 drunks clinging to a rock (Part 1)

September 2005 - April 2007
Sharon and I had it pretty good working for PokerStars. And when I say "good" I mean "incredible." 

After many years of working for companies that stretched from "pretty good" to "stunningly awful," by the spring of 2005 Sharon and I were firmly entrenched in jobs that can only be described as nearly perfect. PokerStars was a terrific company to work for, we were both working for a company whose only business was a game we both loved and, possibly best of all, we were working from home when we weren't traveling. And the travel certainly didn't suck - we had been on a cruise, went to Australia, did an annual event in the Bahamas, spent three months a year in Las Vegas. We were the envy of our friends.

Back when I was first interviewing with Isai, he told me that the job would be work-from-home for the foreseeable future, but that there was a distinct possibility that the company would open offices at some point, and that we would be expected to move if that happened. Costa Rica was a distinct possibility, since the company had located its support and payment processing operations there. He also mentioned the British Virgin Islands as a likely candidate. Either sounded OK to me (I knew little about Costa Rica back then). So it was with some surprise that I fielded a call from Isai while on vacation, asking if we could divert to the Isle of Man on our way home.

PokerStars had struck a deal with the European Poker Tour, a classier and better-run version of the World Poker Tour that was started by John Duthie, winner of the very first poker tournament with a £1 million guaranteed first prize (the Poker Million, held on the Isle of Man - oh, the irony). The Grand Final of the EPT was held in Monte Carlo in March 2005. Sharon and I hadn't had a vacation in a long time, so we arranged a trip to the Grand Final as a sort of vacation, followed by a real vacation in Italy.

On the second day of our first real vacation since starting with PokerStars, Isai called. He told me that a combination of changing laws in the UK and dramatic courting by the Isle of Man had caused him to seriously consider IOM as a potential headquarters for the company. He asked if we could take a few days at the end of our trip and visit the island.

Isai had mentioned the Isle of Man before, so this wasn't a complete shock. But as recently as January of 2005, he was still talking about Caribbean venues, so I was a little surprised. However, I could think of worse places - by then, I had been well-educated about Costa Rica, so that was one of them - and we were going wherever PokerStars sent us in any case. We changed our return reservations, and planned a five-day trip to take a look around the island.

After a few further calls, it became clear to both of us that Isai was well down the road on this decision. In fact, the company had leased office space. The only thing holding up a decision was whether the UK Gambling Act of 2005 would actually pass into law in April 2005 (a virtual certainty). This provoked some long discussions during our trip to Italy. It would be a substantial cultural change for us, and brought along a host of other issues. My dad was 88 at the time, and I didn't love the idea of being very far from him. My daughter lived not far from us, in Orange County (about an hour). Most of our friends were in Southern California. 

But we loved the company, and were always up for adventure. So the last week in March, 2005, we found ourselves taking a puddle-jumper from London City Airport to the Isle of Man.

We arrived in the early afternoon, and took a taxi to the Hotel Sefton, one of two larger hotels on the island (the other was the IOM Hilton, site of the only casino on the island, and the venue for the Poker Million). We checked in and decided to walk around our potential new home.

I have always wondered if we were the victims of a massive conspiracy involving the Isle of Man government and some deity. The weather the day we arrived was nothing short of perfect. 70 degrees, clear skies, slight breeze, in all a near-perfect day. We walked Strand Street, a pedestrian-only street in Douglas, the capital of IOM. There were delightful and eclectic shops. There were dozens of bars and pubs, all of which served Guinness, the only beer I like. There was live Celtic music. 

The following day, we went to the prospective new offices. They were still under construction, but we were able to look around, and saw the construction plans. There was even an office with my name on it, and one for Sharon. We went to dinner that night feeling pretty good about what seemed likely to be our new home.

The next few days were more of the same. We looked at houses, drove around the island and were quite impressed. And the weather remained exactly, and I mean exactly, the same. By the time we boarded our return flight to London, we were feeling pretty good about relocating.

Over the next few months, targets changed a few times, but since the Gambling Act had passed, we knew the move was happening. Right after the WSOP ended that year, Isai called to tell us that the official opening date of the IOM offices had been set for early September, and that we should start planning our move. We did, with some trepidation and a lot of excitement. There were downsides, certainly, but this was shaping up to be a great adventure.

For a variety of reasons I won't go into here, Sharon and I ended up moving at different times. I moved the second week of September 2005, but Sharon didn't arrive until December. In the intervening three months, I got us pretty well set up on the island (something that was usually Sharon's forte). I got involved in perhaps the world's best home game, which I'll cover more thoroughly in a future post. I found some decent restaurants, made some friends and was generally OK with the move, excepting being separated from Sharon for so long.

If you've lived in a small town, you have some sense of what the Isle of Man was like, but I doubt that many people have lived in a more intimate, insular environment. There are many stories I could tell that exemplify what it was like living there, but the following two will give you a good sense of just how small a town the island really was.

The company was buying us a car, but the dealerships on the island didn't carry much stock; almost every car had to be brought over from the mainland. So PokerStars rented us a car, which I picked up the day after I landed at a rental shop in Douglas called St. Bernards. I was helped by a very friendly chap named Clive, who gave me some maps and a few hints about driving ("always yield left in roundabouts," "don't be surprised when you find that most streets can't accommodate more than one car"). I took off feeling only a little trepidation about driving a right-hand steering car with a stick shift.

About a week later, I was in the office when I received a phone call. 

"Hi, is this Dan?" the voice said.

"Yes," I said, with no clue who I was talking to.

"This is Clive over at St. Bernards. We rented you a car last week."

I didn't say anything.

"Is everything good with the car?" he asked.

"Yes, it's just fine," I replied.

"No problems with the car?"

"No, it's just fine," I said, puzzled by the conversation.

"Getting around the island OK?"


There was a lengthy silence. "One question - are you aware that your car is a no-smoking vehicle?"

Hmmm. I was a cigarette smoker back then, but the question still seemed odd. "No, I didn't know that."

Another silence followed. Finally, Clive said, "Well, I was standing outside the shop yesterday and saw you drive by, and I noticed you were smoking."

And with that, I realized just how small the island really was. There were quite a few similar incidents over the next few months, most of which I related to Sharon during our daily calls, but she got her own dose of just how small the island was on her very first day in early December.

I had intended to pick Sharon up at the airport when she arrived. Unfortunately, the company Christmas party was that very day, and I asked her to take a taxi to the house, and maybe to the party if she was feeling up to it. 

After she landed, Sharon picked up her luggage and went out to the taxi queue. The driver loaded her luggage and asked her where she was going. "10 Douglas Head, please," she said in her distinctly Philadelphia accent.

The driver, not missing one beat, said, "Oh, you're American. Are you Dan Goldman's wife?"

Sharon was unable to hide her shock that the driver knew who she was. But the driver wasn't done.

"Welcome to the Isle of Man! Are you feeling up to attending the Christmas party? I'd be happy to wait for you while you freshen up."

Next: Living on the island, and a painful decision

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

In which we learn what "expensive" really means, and Dan has a brush with fame

January 9, 2005
In 2005, PokerStars ran its second World Poker Tour event, the first on dry land (for more on the 2004 cruise ship debacle, see "How I almost went to jail as a terrorist" and "Revenge of the girlfriend"). The 2005 event marked our first time ever at the Atlantis Resort & Casino in the Bahamas, a relationship that continues to this day. 

We had a whole host of challenges in putting this event together that we hadn't adequately planned for, or even thought about. For one, Atlantis was among the most brutally expensive places I'd ever been, and I've been around the block a time or two. On the first day of one of our planning trips, I went to the lobby for something, and stopped at the lobby bar/lounge for a cup of coffee. The bartender poured me a cup, brought me cream and sugar and set the check next to my cup. I was stirring a creamer into my coffee as I looked at the bill: $7.75. And that didn't even include the automatic 15% tip, so we're actually talking just over $9.00.

$9.00 for a cup of coffee. And I'm not talking about a foofy half-caf peppermint latte with an extra shot - this is ordinary coffee from a carafe, just like Denny's serves, with free refills, for $1.75. In fact, it was a half-step below that - Denny's has sufficient turnover to ensure that its coffee is fresh.

On our first trip to Atlantis, a scouting trip, we were wined and dined by Atlantis staff and never saw a bill. Now just to be clear, we weren't really babes in the wood here - we knew Atlantis was expensive. But now we were footing the bill ourselves and seeing exactly what everything cost, and it was stunning. The breakfast buffet was impressive, but at $38 it was hard to do enough damage to make it worthwhile (and remember that $38 is actually $43.70).

We had no idea how big of a deal some of the logistics would be. We needed to bring 40 poker tables with us - Atlantis had none, since poker wasn't yet legal in the Bahamas. We learned (or rather Rich Korbin, perennial lifesaver of PokerStars events, learned) that bringing stuff into the Bahamas was not as simple as filling out customs declarations. And he learned a trick - there's a big difference between shipping stuff and bringing stuff. If you put 40 poker tables on a boat and sent them to the Bahamas, you paid $X. But if you got on the boat with those same 40 poker tables, then you weren't shipping them; you were taking them with you, and you paid $X minus 75% of X. The rules didn't always make sense, and they also weren't always the same from month to month, or from customs inspector to customs inspector.

Everywhere we went, someone was there to 'help' - and by 'help' I mean they had hands discreetly held out. I'm not talking about bribes - I'm talking about paying people to get things done that are normally taken for granted. Example: we had a shipment of boxes coming in by boat. Our primary logistics contact at Atlantis, a wizened fellow with the delightful name of Lincoln Hercules, offered to help. He knew what day the shipment was arriving, and arranged transport from the dock to the Atlantis storage facility. He arranged for manual labor to get the boxes unloaded and moved into the facility. He also connected us to a third party who helped us with the paperwork to get everything into the country.

We didn't know any better, so we just filled out the paperwork, paid the people who gave us invoices and moved on. But we started to see that it was taking more and more time to get stuff from point A (usually the dock) to point B (usually the storage facility). All of this was under Lincoln Hercules' control.

And suddenly I noticed that everything had started to move faster. I was having lunch with Rich that day, and I mentioned that it seemed like the dock staff and the Atlantis staff were getting better about delivering stuff to us in a timely fashion. It was then that Rich revealed the reason - after fielding some rather broad hints, Rich had slipped Lincoln $500, and suddenly everything worked the way it should have. We later came to realize that this was just the way business was done in the Bahamas. We came to take it for granted in the same way that we took "Island Time" for granted. it's just the way business is done.

We had an amusing exchange with the Atlantis Food & Beverage team just before the event started. Since poker isn't a house-banked game (that is, the house can't win from the players; it charges a fee for the right to play), F&B and the Casino decided there would be no free drinks. This wasn't too surprising, and in fact this is the way most California card rooms are. But we knew that players would want cocktails and beers, and wouldn't want to traipse all the way to a bar or the casino to get them. We leaned on the F&B management very hard to put portable bars in the poker room for the duration of the event.

They were surprisingly reluctant to do so. Finally, the head of Food & Beverage called me about a week before the event.  He had decided that they were willing to put portable bars in, but only if PokerStars was willing to guarantee a set amount of gross revenue for each bar shift.

I didn't like where this was going, but asked the logical next question: "How much?"

My contact immediately responded: "$500."

"You're asking us to guarantee $500 per bar per shift?" I asked. 

"No," he said, "just $500 total per shift."

Atlantis charges $8 per drink, and they were worried that our 1,000+ guests would drink less than 63 drinks per shift. 

"OK, we're in," I told him.

I didn't keep close track of this because I didn't need to, but the head of Food & Beverage later told me that they grossed just under $8,000 that first day.

I'm going to advance the time wheel here a bit, mostly because the tale of the next five days is a substantial story in itself that I promise to get back to. Suffice to say for now that, with a substantial amount of sweat and horror, we got through to the Final Table.

The prior year, since we were on a cruise ship, there was a lot of flexibility about who could do what. I dealt in the poker room a few times, something I find a great deal of fun (probably because I wasn't doing it for a living). Sharon and Lee dealt, as well. But this year, we all had to get gaming licenses, and what we were allowed to do was severely limited by Gaming Commission rules. I'm not at all certain that the Commission understood what they were telling us not to do, but we were certainly not in a position to challenge them, especially because they had only granted us a provisional license to deal poker.

The day before the final table, I was surprised and pleased to have Steve Lipscomb, then-CEO of the World Poker Tour, ask me if I wanted to deal a few hands at the final table. I have to admit that I thought this would be the coolest thing ever. I knew how to deal and could easily pass any audition the Gaming Commission wanted to subject me to (they didn't - they just said yes). I just loved the idea that, since I couldn't play, at least I could participate in the event in a way that would have some permanence.

This was setup day for the WPT crew. Their teams were filming B-roll on the floor, the stuff they use to round out the story they try to tell. The logistics team was working out camera and sun angles - we were shooting outdoors - and took a few minutes out to give me some instruction on final table procedures. They put six players around the table and asked me to deal a hand. I did.

"Uh - Dan, can you deal with your other hand?"

I had never really paid much attention to it, but l deal left-handed. I'm one of those people who probably would have naturally been left-handed, except I was discouraged from writing with my left hand so I became a righty. But I kick left-footed, throw a Frisbee left-handed, and deal left-handed.

I tried. I just couldn't do it. Dealing right-handed seemed entirely unnatural. I asked why it mattered, and to my dismay they did have a good reason. Left-handed dealers spread the flop from right to left. This was inconsistent with the way all of the other (right-handed dealer's) flops came out. It wasn't "visually appealing." Just what I wanted to hear.

And just like that, I was out as a dealer. True, it's not big in the larger scheme of things. But I was already mentally gearing up for it, and this was a very disappointing development.

Not long after skulking away from the table, unable to deal the way they wanted, my cellphone rang. It was Linda Johnson, the delightful and highly professional in-studio commentator for the WPT. She had heard about the Lefty Dealing Debacle and knew I was upset.

"How about if you take a turn doing the studio commentary?" Linda asked. Wow, I thought, this could be even more fun than dealing! I would be out there at the final table, announcing to the studio audience and getting some substantial face time on TV. I told her I'd be thrilled to do it.

I suddenly realized I had no clothes that were suitable for the occasion. I talked with the WPT wardrobe people, and they didn't, either. But there was a Paul & Shark store in the Coral Tower, so Sharon and I headed over there to find me an acceptable wardrobe.

$1,300 later (this is Atlantis, remember), I emerged with white slacks, a Tommy Bahama silk shirt and new shoes. Just then, my phone rang again.

This time it was Steve, and he was none too pleased that Linda had made the offer. He had no idea whether or not I could stand in front of an audience and do poker play-by-play. He was worried about continuity. He just absolutely hated the idea of anyone but Linda doing in-studio commentary.

After a great deal of wrangling, I was very honest with Steve. "Look, you wouldn't let me deal because I'm left-handed. I can live with that. But I've been in front of audiences all my life. And I really, really want to do this. At least give me a shot."

Unbeknownst to me, Linda called Steve right after this call. She must have done quite a sales job. Steve called me back and told me that I could do the first ten minutes of play-by-play, and that he'd make his decision then.

And it all went very well. I didn't realize it, but well over ten minutes passed. After about 30 minutes, while we were on a break, I asked Linda if she wanted to tap me out. She smiled, told me I was doing a wonderful job and moved on.

In the end, I did play-by-play for nearly the entire final table (save the occasional bathroom break). I don't know if I ever told Linda how much that meant to me; I hope she's reading. But just in case not, I think I'll go write her a thank-you email.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The World Championship of Battleship Poker

or, How I stole a great idea and turned it into an event

[The following is a reprint of a post I made to the PokerStars blog on January 16, 2006. We had just finished that year's PokerStars Caribbean Adventure, and without question, the most popular event was the wildly successful World Championship of Battleship Poker.]

There is a great song from the early 1960s, "Lobachevsky," by a guy named Tom Lehrer, that includes the following quote:

Plagiarize! Let no one's work evade your eyes. 
Remember why the good Lord made your eyes, 
So don't shade your eyes, 
just plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize!

I'm a marketing guy, and I think Tom Lehrer was one at heart, as well. He knows the fundamental rules of marketing -- find the best ideas, take credit for them and make them your own.

On October 13 (2005), while we were in the midst of Phase 2 of PokerStars Caribbean Adventure Panic, Brad "Otis" Willis came up with a brilliant idea -- conduct a Battleship event at PCA, in which PokerStars players play heads up matches, live on their computers, sitting face to face. My initial reaction was:

"I love this idea, but we can't do it. If the Bahamas Gaming Board realized that people were playing poker for money, on the Atlantis network, in THEIR conference space, they would have a collective stroke. Let's leave it informal."

I promptly forgot the idea and moved on.

Then, on December 21, I woke up in the middle of the night with a brilliant idea. What if we conducted a massive, online/live heads-up tournament at Atlantis, where players could play online against opponents that are sitting right across the table from them? I suggested this stroke of genius in one of our regular PCA idea email exchanges, and practically everyone was all over it.

And then, Brad spoiled the party. He reminded me that he had suggested almost the exact idea in an email to me several months before.

Now excuse me for a minute. Great ideas don't come around that often. It was a great idea, and why should I be punished because I happened to come up with the very same idea, two months later?

I could write it off to Getting Older, and say I just forgot. After all, at the prior year's PCA, I celebrated the birthday that officially represents Getting Old (50). But I shouldn't have to. The fact is, I'm Brad's boss, and the right thing for him to do was to just suck it up and tell me what a great idea I had. One of these days, we will hire him a junior blogger, and he can steal great ideas from that guy. In the meantime, he should continue to come up with great ideas that I can steal; when he manages to steal his own, we will know he has a future in management.

For the record, we applied to the Bahamas Gaming Board for approval for the first annual World Championship of Battleship Poker, they approved it, and it was a huge success. Sixty-four players entered for $1,000 each, all had a great time and the crowd loved it.

(Please note that *I* was the one that pulled all of the cables, set up the routers and switches and made the whole thing work. Well, along with Lee Jones, Nolan Dalla, Steve Wood, a bunch of Atlantis staff -- hell, Brad may even have been there. If so, he's probably trying to take credit for that, too.)

So, it all turned out for the best. Brad's My idea turned into a huge success that has been reported widely in the media and gave our players a great time and a great show. Perhaps this can serve as a lesson for Brad. Go find some good ideas, make them your own, and, in Tom Lehrer's words:

                              Plagiarize! Only be sure always to call it please, "research."

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The long shot (Part 2)

"Oh, hi Dan, this is Isai."

Those are the first words I heard in my first telephone interview with Isai Scheinberg, CEO of PokerStars, the guy who would become my boss, and would go on to lead a billion-dollar business and change the face of poker. 

Isai had a noticeable accent, but his English was perfect. I couldn't quite identify the accent on that first call - I would later learn that he was born in Lithuania, educated at Moscow State University and had lived in Israel and Canada. When he said "hi" it came out sounding much like the Hebrew word "chai," with the "ch" being a gutteral sound. "Oh, chai Dan" became a catchphrase in our house, as that's the way Isai started every call. The "oh" always amused me; it made it sound like he was surprised I was on the phone, even though it was almost always Isai initiating the call.

Isai and I had exchanged a few emails prior to this first call. I had sent him my resume, he had asked a few basic questions and we went back and forth trying to set up a time to talk. As I mentioned in Part 1 of this story, I was working for at the time, and this first interview took place in my late morning on a weekday, the only time Isai was available. I asked him to hold on for a minute, grabbed my cigarettes (a habit I've since given up thanks to Lee Jones) and slipped out the side door of our office to the parking lot.

I've been through a lot of interviews over the course of my career, but this was my first-ever phone interview. I'm a pretty good communicator, but I rely a lot on visual cues and intonations, skills that did me little good here. Isai's accent made it difficult to pick up anything of value; I was going to have to rely on content.

I don't recall all of the details of this first call. I do remember, though, that it didn't start off like any other interview I'd had until then. He didn't ask about past jobs. He didn't toss off any of the usual, often absurd, interview questions (like "What's your greatest weakness?"). He wanted to know what I knew about poker, and what had led to the success I'd had in marketing and other online businesses with which I'd been involved. The conversation rambled from one topic to another, but it quickly became clear that (1) Isai had something specific in mind for his new VP of Marketing, and (2) he cared much less about where I'd been and who I knew than how I thought.

After what seemed like twenty minutes or so, Isai told me that he had another call coming up, and asked if I were available for another call the following day. We set a time and said goodbye. I looked at my phone and discovered, to my great surprise, that we'd been talking for over an hour. I endured some questioning looks when I returned to the office, but I skipped lunch to compensate for the time I'd been gone.

The following day, I decided to take an early lunch to allay any suspicions that our CEO might have had - we had a typical Internet open-office setup, and I didn't want to be too obvious. I drove to a nearby Quizno's, picked up lunch and sat on a bench in a nearby park. Isai's call was almost a half-hour late, long enough that I started to be concerned that I had the time wrong. The phone rang, I said "hello" and heard the soon-to-be-very-familiar "Oh, hi Dan."

This second interview was quite different. Isai told me that we had a lot of things to talk about (an encouraging sign), but first he wanted to get my opinion about something (ditto). PokerStars was in negotiations with a very big name in poker, Chris Ferguson. Chris was indeed a big name - he had won the 2000 World Series of Poker and a few other major events, and had an immaculate reputation (unlike others we would later do business with, like the infamous Armadillo Tim). Isai wanted to know what I thought.

I was torn about how to respond. My honest reaction was that I didn't have a lot of faith in celebrity endorsements. I thought that they had some influence on customer behavior, but that they were largely overrated, a feeling I still have today, although the online poker business would develop differently and prove me wrong.

I considered a middling response. I didn't want to give him the impression that I thought his thinking was wrong - insulting the CEO didn't seem like the best choice here, especially because I had the sense that things were going in a positive direction. But I also had the sense that this guy had an acute bullshit detector, and I didn't want to set it off. I opted for the truth.

I told him that I thought he was in an interesting position in trying to develop the business. For online poker to be successful, it needed to do more than appeal to the hard-core players (read: players who knew the names of recent WSOP winners). There was an audience of perhaps 80 million people in the US who played poker regularly - that was the core audience. Just like live poker rooms, whose bread-and-butter was low-limit players, PokerStars would succeed by cultivating a core group of players whose poker bankrolls were in the two and three figures.

Isai didn't appear to agree. He told me the company had a 900 pound gorilla to deal with - Paradise Poker - and needed a way to distinguish itself. We went back and forth for almost an hour. I had played quite a bit on Paradise Poker, and thought the software was marginal and the customer service abysmal. I thought that these two facts were Paradise's Achilles heel.

I had no idea at the time, but I had just locked down the job. Isai believed exactly the same things. He had painstakingly overseen the development of software that would soon be the gold standard in online poker. And he had hired staff that built a support team with a single goal in mind: dazzle the player with service.

He didn't let go immediately, though. He circled back on this issue a number of times in this and subsequent calls. He approached it from different angles. He forced me to defend my position in a variety of different ways ("What if he would work for us for free? Would he behave differently if we gave him an equity stake?") While most of the interviews I'd been through in my life consisted of shaping the interviewer's perceptions of me, my career and my skills, in this interview I had to take real positions and defend them vigorously.

The thing that made me the most concerned about this call was that I had done something that seemed obviously dangerous and wrong: I had disagreed with the guy who could give me this job. I discovered as our relationship developed over the years that this is how Isai worked - there was no pride of ownership in the ideas he came up with. When he asked my opinion, he really wanted it. And whether I was right or wrong was less an issue than how well I was able to defend my position. And disagreeing with him turned out to be what he wanted - he needed people around him that were willing to stand up to him.

Once again, Isai needed to take another call. He wanted to talk again (!), and this time I was able to arrange a call on the weekend. We hung up, and when I looked down I saw that I had smoked five cigarettes during the call. I checked my phone and discovered that this call had been two hours long. So much for not arousing suspicion at the office.

The next day was a Friday. I came into the office early, as I usually did on Fridays, armed with a box of Noah's Bagels and cream cheese, which I always did on Friday. There was no one in the office yet. I looked around to confirm this, and then fired up PokerStars to see how many players were online. There were about 100, as I recall, a big number back then. I dropped in on a few tables to see what players were saying. After twenty minutes or so, I closed the software and went to the kitchen to get a bagel. My boss, Kamran, was getting a cup of coffee. 

"Come see me when you have a minute," he said. This wasn't normal - Kamran usually came and sat by my desk to talk. I had a call with one of our vendors, and told him I'd be in to see him right after the call.

The discussion wasn't pleasant. Kamran had seen me on PokerStars and was not amused. He made it very clear to me that playing games in the office wasn't acceptable behavior.

This was quite bad. I couldn't explain to him that I hadn't been playing - what would I say? I had been scoping out the company I might go work for? I said nothing. He wasn't done.

"I noticed that you were gone for a long time yesterday." I still said nothing. "Is there anything I should know?"

"No, and I'm sorry I was gone for so long. I had some personal business I needed to attend to." Kamran knew that I had recently been through a divorce, and had in fact seen some of the results. I think he assumed that this was what I was referring to.

"OK. Look, no playing games in the office, OK?" I agreed.

The next day, Isai called me at the agreed-upon time, and this was the longest call yet. He still asked me no questions about any of my prior positions. This call was almost strictly about marketing. He wanted to know what I thought about the company's launch and progress so far. He was very interested to know what I would have done differently. Given what I had already learned, I was pretty sure I was safe giving him honest reactions, and I did.

He then did something that I have had other prospective employers do - he asked for a work sample. He asked me to write a mini marketing plan - not a detailed budget, but some broad strokes about what I thought would be effective.

I'm usually reluctant to do projects like this. Work product like this has quantifiable value. It's not like a writing sample or a math skills test - it's something that can be used. I don't like working for free. But by this point, I was sold on PokerStars and really wanted the job. I agreed.

He then asked (prematurely in my opinion) the question that all interview candidates want to hear: "If I decide to hire you, when can you start?"

This is always tricky. The answer I really wanted to give him was, "How about today?" But PriceGrabber (my boss notwithstanding) had been very good to me, and it would take them some time to replace me. And I wanted to send Isai the message that he could expect that same kind of loyalty from me.

It was the first week in February. I told him that I needed to give PriceGrabber six weeks' notice. He said "OK," but with his accent it actually came out "Ooookeee..." (rhymes with cookie), and I could actually hear the ellipsis. I wasn't sure how to interpret this. I then told him that I thought I could give him something to look at by the following day (Sunday). We agreed to talk again late on Sunday. We hung up. We had been on for just over three hours.

The call the next day was comparatively short. I had sent him a two-page marketing plan, outlining a strategy and a few tactics, along with a budget. It was my turn to ask some questions - I had a clear sense that we were close to a deal, and needed to be sure I knew what I was getting into. I asked the hardest question first.

"Do you have the money for me to execute the plan I sent you?" 

Isai seemed entirely unsurprised at the question. "We have investors who are happy about where we are right now, and are ready for us to take the next step. You'll have whatever you need." I really liked the way he had put this.

There was a somewhat uncomfortable silence. I was determined not to be the one to talk - it was his turn.

"I'm going to make you an offer," he said, and then described the offer. To call it generous would be laughable. It was almost exactly double what I was making. I later learned that this wasn't specific to me - PokerStars' hiring strategy back then (maybe still) was to be way on the high end of the pay scale for most positions. It was a very sensible position - it made employees loyal, and made it much more difficult for competitors to poach them. And he took it one step further - he agreed to my six weeks' notice requirement, but asked if he could hire me as a consultant at half salary in the meantime. If you do some quick math, you'll realize that this meant I'd not only be making double my current salary in six weeks; I'd be making it immediately.

I told Isai that I needed to discuss the offer with Sharon, and suggested we talk again the next day. The only real question was how comfortable we both were with my taking a job with an unproven online company. The answer was "a little uncomfortable," but given the potential, it seemed like a risk we had to take.

For the next six weeks, I essentially worked two full-time jobs. I spent about nine hours a day at PriceGrabber, came home, had dinner and went to work on a detailed marketing plan for PokerStars. For that six weeks, my days started at 7am and ended at about 1am.

But don't get the wrong idea. This was the very beginning of the most exciting years of my life. I'd do it again in a heartbeat. PokerStars was the long shot that came in.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The long shot (Part 1)

In early 1998, a tiny company called Planet Poker quietly launched a multi-billion dollar industry. Planet Poker had a very simple idea - they provided a venue where poker players from all over the world could play against one another online for real money.

I heard about Planet Poker very shortly after it launched from Rod Peate, who was a shift manager at Hollywood Park at the time. Rod was a pretty savvy poker guy - his claim to fame was finishing second to Tom McEvoy in the 1983 World Series of Poker, and he won a bracelet in 1995. One day in mid-1998 he came into the top section at Hollywood Park sporting a $400 check that he'd just received from his winnings playing $3-6 limit hold 'em on Planet Poker.

The idea got my attention right away - while I loved playing poker, and was doing well at it, actually going out to play wasn't all that much fun. Hollywood Park was a reasonable 25 minute drive from my house; there were better games at the Commerce and the Bicycle Club, but they were close to an hour away. Hollywood Park was in a dodgy neighborhood at the south edge of Inglewood, less than four miles from the infamous Florence and Normandie intersection, the epicenter of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

A few days after Rod reverently showed us his check, I deposited $100 on Planet Poker and played my very first hand. Ten minutes later, having lost my online bankroll, I started down the same mental path that millions would take during the next few years - trying to work out exactly how I had been cheated. I was a good poker player, was posting regular wins at Hollywood Park, and there was just no way I had lost $100 playing $3-6 that quickly. I decided that I had been playing against one guy, with eight computers, who had been sitting at the table waiting for the next fish to come along. That was almost the end of my online poker career - it was almost three more years before I played another hand of online poker.

In early 1999, I met Sharon, who is now my wife of eleven years, playing cribbage online (more on that here, if you're interested). We met in person a few months later, and started a two year long-distance relationship, commuting almost monthly between Redondo Beach (my home) and Philadelphia (hers). In early 2001, Sharon moved in with me in Redondo Beach. I had taught her how to play poker a year before, and we started playing for very small stakes in some of the LA card rooms. Not long after, we decided to give online poker another try.

At first, our experience was not all that different from my first debacle at Planet Poker. We played mostly on Paradise Poker in very low stakes Sit & Go tournaments ($5 and $10). We were both working regular jobs at the time, and were struggling. We finally ran our combined bankrolls down to $8, and decided that we'd had enough. We made a deal - we'd play Sit & Go tournaments together, on one account (mine - I had the $8), and if we lost the $8, we'd be done with online poker.

Fortunately not just for our bankroll but for my career, we had a huge turnaround starting that very day. We played in $1 tournaments, then $2, then back to $5, and then bigger. Over the next year, we would build that $8 into a poker bankroll that allowed us both to play considerably larger tournaments. Any time our combined bankrolls exceeded $600, we would withdraw $400 and play the rest. By the time we withdrew the last of our bankrolls at Paradise Poker, we had built a poker bankroll of close to $11,000.

A few years earlier, I had met a guy named Steve Badger while playing in some small tournaments at the Crystal Park poker room. (You may recall my mentioning Steve before - he introduced me to the infamous Armadillo Tim.) Steve was a smart guy and an up-and-coming poker player at the time - in fact, he won a WSOP bracelet in Omaha High Low in 1999. Back in the Crystal Park days, Steve and I would occasionally take pieces of one another in tournaments (exchanging percentages of anything we won), and spent a lot of time talking about computers and the Internet.

In August of 2001, Steve called me. I hadn't heard from him in several years. I knew he was still playing - I occasionally saw his name in Card Player and elsewhere - but we no longer traveled in the same circles. He was doing some consulting with a company that was launching an online poker site specializing in tournament poker, and wanted to know if I was interested in helping them test the software. It was free, and they were awarding $250 or so in prize money in each tournament they ran, one per day. I was interested, and Steve arranged for both Sharon and me to play. The company had what I considered a pretty terrible name, which should cement my reputation as a brilliant marketing mind. The company was called PokerStars.

In early September, PokerStars ran tournament #1, although if you were to look it up in the PokerStars database it would actually have a number around #42 - they had conducted a few internal tournaments before opening it up to beta testers. I'm proud to say that I won the very first tournament on PokerStars. I'm embarrassed to say that it wasn't actually me playing. I don't recall why at the moment, but I was unable to play. Sharon hadn't set up her account yet, so she played my account, I think I won $50 - if one of my former colleagues is reading this, please feel free to fill in the correct amount. I played under the name smalltalkdan

In another embarrassing revelation, I'll now admit that Sharon won tournament #2, but on that particular night, Sharon in fact had a girls' night scheduled. She suggested that I return the favor and play her account. I did, and I won. I have never quite decided if this vindicated me for the prior night or just compounded the evil we had wrought.

Over the next few months, we played quite a few tournaments on PokerStars, and suggested many changes and improvements that persist in the product today. We had both been beta testers for a number of software products in the past, and knew our way around. At the end of December 2001, PokerStars ran a big "tester appreciation" tournament - I think it was $25,000 - which Sharon and I played from a hotel room in Las Vegas. We didn't cash, but we had each built bankrolls of $500 or so and were excited for PokerStars to go live for real money, which happened only days later.

Just after New Year's 2002, Steve Badger called me again. PokerStars had launched, and suddenly they needed a marketing guy. Back then, PokerStars had what became a legendary policy - if you wanted to work there, you had to be a poker player. It didn't matter what your actual job was - this was PokerStars' way of ensuring that poker was in the company's DNA. It was a brilliant, risky strategy that I'm convinced was a key factor in their early success.

At the time, I had a pretty interesting job as Director of Marketing for one of the original shopping comparison sites, I was comfortable, if not happy, there, and PriceGrabber offered the added benefit of allowing me to work with my daughter Bree for the first time. The idea of leaving a comfortable and very visible job at an up-and-coming company for an online poker startup was scary and exciting and fun. Truth was, I loved the idea, but I made an effort to look at it as though I were a reasonable adult.

Sharon and I sat down to discuss whether I should take the interview. I expected some pushback - seriously, I was going to leave a solid job for a completely unknown quantity, working remotely for people I'd never met? But as she has done so often over the years, Sharon surprised me with her reaction. "You are out of your f***ing mind if you don't at least talk to them," she said.

And that line launched my career at PokerStars.

NEXT: The longest interview ever