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


  1. Hey Dan, just wanted to drop you a line and let you know how much I am enjoying your blog posts! I look forward to them every week. Thank you for sharing them!

  2. It's nice to know that you had a great time working there. Keep us updated!