By late 2005, the battle for the online poker market was all but resolved. PartyPoker was the clear leader, although their lead over PokerStars was steadily diminishing. In early 2004, the PartyPoker/PokerStars ratio was about 5:1; by December 2005 it was just under 2.5:1. Full Tilt Poker was a clear threat, but they were well behind the two leaders.
In January 2006, PokerStars held its second WPT event at the Atlantis Resort & Casino (actually our WPT third event; the first one was on a cruise ship). The people at Atlantis, who didn't take us seriously enough to even talk to us about an event in 2004, had become believers - in fact, one of their executives told me in a meeting just before our 2006 event that we were one of Atlantis' five largest customers. We were working closely with Atlantis on several fronts, including their attempts to bring other major poker tournaments to the resort.
It was in this mindset that this same executive mentioned to me during our 2006 event that Atlantis was working with Eon Productions on the upcoming James Bond movie, Casino Royale. In fact, part of the movie was being shot at The Ocean Club, the upscale neighbor/partner resort to Atlantis (as well as other locations in and around Nassau, Grand Bahamas). Then, as if planned (which it may have been), the senior marketing guy for Eon walked by, and my Atlantis contact pulled him over for an introduction. In the interest of not being sued, I'm going to call this guy Gene Voltshiker.
Gene was one of the savviest marketing guys I'd ever met. He started by telling me that, unlike the original Casino Royale, the new film's climactic gambling scene would be poker, not baccarat. Within just a few minutes, Gene and I were discussing with increasing excitement the possibilities that this presented for a partnership between PokerStars and Eon. We decided that we each needed a little time to think about this further, but agreed we should get together for lunch the following day.
By the next day, I had roughed out an idea in my head for a series of online tournaments, culminating in a final table held at the very same table and location as the climactic Bond-Le Chiffre scene. When Gene and I met at the Atlas Bar & Grill at Atlantis for lunch, I led with this. Unsurprisingly, Gene had a similar idea. Of course, he wanted it to be a $100 million tournament just like in the movie, which wasn't going to happen, but I loved his enthusiasm and was thrilled that we might have a chance to participate with one of the most iconic brands of the past fifty years.
We concluded our lunch by agreeing that we should talk the following week, once the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure was over and we could all dedicate the time to this idea that it deserved. I made a note to myself to formalize the idea and send something to Gene the following week.
Gene beat me to the punch. Two days after I returned to the Isle of Man, he called asking if I had plans for the first week in February. The "Bond Partners" were meeting at Atlantis to craft a unified marketing plan. I asked who the partners were. Gene told me that the list hadn't been finalized, but the confirmed partners were Aston Martin, Sony, Omega, Heineken, Smirnoff, British Airways, Atlantis, Sunseeker Yachts, Brioni and Electronic Arts.
No, I told Gene, I wasn't busy.
I quickly sketched out my ideas for the poker tournament and a variety of other ways we could take advantage of the Bond brand. I set up a meeting with Isai and Mark (CEO and COO of PokerStars) and outlined the ideas I had come up with. For the very first time since I had started with PokerStars, Isai and Mark greeted an idea with unbridled enthusiasm. They understood the value this association could bring us, and were willing to commit to it as long as we were a full marketing partner.
I returned to my office and checked my email, and to my surprise, I found a 51-slide PowerPoint deck from Gene outlining some of his ideas for the tournament and an overall partnership. He had already spoken with Atlantis about the tournament, and they were over-the-moon excited about the prospect. In fact, Atlantis agreed to store the entire final table set, which we would use to produce a truly one-of-a-kind live final table. And he had already booked travel for me to attend the partner meeting.
Over the next three weeks, the project took on even more massive proportions. I asked Gene about product placement in the movie, which was quite rare in Bond films, and without actually committing to it, he indicated that it was a possibility. He suggested that there were many obvious partnerships we could develop, which made the partner meeting even more critical. And while we hadn't signed anything, it was becoming very clear that this deal was not a pipe dream - it was happening.
The partner meeting was perhaps the most energetic and exciting marketing event I've ever been involved with. There were 21 official Bond partners - including PokerStars, which was prominently featured in all of the promotional materials and PowerPoint decks we saw over the course of the three-day meeting. I was stunned at how many of the partners were lining up to associate with PokerStars, including Sony (who wanted to discuss an ongoing TV series), Aston Martin (who wanted us to sponsor a racing team) and Omega (who wanted to produce a limited-edition Omega/PokerStars watch). Meetings with various potential partners stretched way into the nights. By the time I left, I was in the enviable position of having to choose which of the powerhouse brands we really wanted to do business with, since we clearly couldn't do them all.
Side note: The Eon team went far over the top to impress us. We were all put up in massive suites at Atlantis. Each dinner was more spectacular than the one before. On the second day, we were all instructed to meet at the yacht pier, where three yachts (serious yachts - 100+ feet each) ferried us to a location shoot. That same night, they ran a casino night during which they gave away about $20,000 in prizes (I won a one-pound Sony computer worth about $2,500). And just wandering around with the rest of the guests were Daniel Craig, Caterina Murino (who played Solange) and Giancarlo Giannini. I'm not that easily impressed, but I was impressed.
When I returned to PokerStars headquarters, I was still having trouble figuring out how we were going to choose who to work with. I expressed this concern to Isai and Mark, who thought I was crazy. "This is an easy problem," Isai said. "We work with all of them."
The marketing department at PokerStars had grown substantially, but we still only had about 20 people, and there was no way we could handle this. But the potential was so great that Isai suggested I recruit a branding guru to run the Bond relationship, and hire as many people as we needed to extract the maximum from the relationship. I was fortunate enough to find Stefan Kovach, a recognized brand expert whose CV included Virgin Atlantic Airways and Beenz (an early Internet affinity marketing company).
Stefan saw Aston Martin as having the greatest potential for us. Within a few weeks of hire, Stefan negotiated deals with Aston Martin that gave us sponsorship of one of their racing teams, as well as the first new DB9 to come off the assembly line (which we gave to one of our players).
Stefan and I also negotiated deals with several of the Bond partners who wanted PokerStars to run tournaments for them during the year, including Heineken, Sony and Smirnoff. And we moved forward with integrating the Bond name and logo into the site throughout the year.
Perhaps most importantly, we started working on the tournament at Atlantis. Sony got involved in the discussion at this point - they had been looking for a way to get involved in the massive popularity of poker on television, and were willing to pay some significant money for the exclusive right to broadcast this event. We settled on a $10 million guarantee tournament, with $2 million for first place, making it the third largest tournament in the world (behind the World Series of Poker Main Event and the World Poker Tour Championship).
By March 2006, we had spent about $300,000 on this project, not including the salaries of the various people we had hired to work on different aspects of the event. We had signed a 'heads of agreement' letter (the UK equivalent of a letter of intent), and were hammering out the final details of the contract. I traveled to London to meet with the Eon legal people, and all seemed to be well. I was even treated to a short meeting in the coolest office I've ever seen - the 5,000 square foot office of Barbara Broccoli, Eon CEO, producer and daughter of Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, the genius behind the Bond movies. The office, in a 200 year old building with a view of Buckingham Palace, featured a fireplace that could hold 16' logs (which I think should properly be referred to as "trees").
We had a short vacation scheduled in April 2006 - our friends Shaena and Steve were getting married in Hawaii, so we planned to take a week to attend their wedding. Shaena has played a part elsewhere in this saga, including "The girl with the $16 million purse" and "70,000 drunks clinging to a rock." I was a little nervous about leaving - we were very deep into the Bond project, and our WSOP presence was looking to be massive (over 1,000 players had already qualified), but we had committed to attending.
By early April, the final contract still wasn't done. More troublesome - the Eon lawyers were taking their good-natured time completing it, which was very scary - we intended to launch satellites at the very end of the WSOP, which was less than three months away. And even more ominous: starting the first week in April, I could no longer get Gene on the phone.
Prior to early April, Gene and I had spoken every day, sometimes more than once. We were coordinating the activities of a number of large companies (Sony, Atlantis, Aston Martin and others), and our own companies had their own bureaucracies, so getting all of the moving parts to work in coordination with one another was no simple task. I wasn't particularly alarmed at first; we were all busy, hurtling at high speed down a path that would ultimately lead to huge opportunities for everyone involved.
We were scheduled to leave for Hawaii around April 15, and by the day before we left, Gene had gone dark for 10 days. Isai, Mark, our lawyers and I discussed this regularly - we had been confident that the HOA we had signed would turn into a contract, but the Eon lawyers weren't giving us much, and Gene even less. By this point, we had not only a big investment in money, but in time and marketing efforts. If this event didn't happen, we had a huge hole in our marketing plans for the second half of 2006. And we had already finalized and signed contracts with Aston Martin and others, some of which were dependent on the tournament taking place.
I spent almost the entire week of our vacation (except the wedding itself) emailing and calling Gene and others, attempting to figure out what was going on. By the time the second full week of silence had passed, it was clear that something was terribly wrong. I finally left Gene the message I had been avoiding, which went something like "Look, if you're backing out, at least have the decency to call and tell me so."
When even this didn't work, we collectively decided that we needed to do something. We went quietly to a few of the partners, each of which also had a substantial investment in the tournament, and asked them to press Gene on our behalf.
This worked. Gene finally called me on our last day in Hawaii to inform me that Eon's outside counsel believed that Eon was taking a substantial risk in a partnership with us, and as a result, we would not be participating in Casino Royale in any way. As further insult, the day I returned to the Isle of Man, I received a letter from said outside counsel, warning me that our right to use the Bond name, trademarks and logos had been revoked.
By this point, we had hired five people for the project, and had spent countless hours of other peoples' time building marketing materials and tournament plans. None of it was usable. I even received a veiled threat from Eon that our relationship with Aston Martin might be in violation of Eon's rules for partners (fortunately, the president of Aston Martin intervened on our behalf).
In a way, this ended up being a blessing rather than a curse. When the Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act (UIGEA) passed in September 2006, Eon would have been forced to terminate our relationship anyway, and by that point we would have spent $5 million or more that we couldn't recoup. But there's a valuable lesson here that we all knew, but ignored: don't spend money until you have it in writing.
By the way, I might have fired me had I been Isai or Mark. But they knew that we had all gotten swept up in the excitement, and everything we did was with their knowledge and approval. Which brings to mind a quote from Die Another Day that sums this up:
Do you believe in bad luck?
Let's just say my relationships don't seem to last.
I know the feeling.