I recently went to dinner with poker legend Doyle Brunson.
Prior to this interview, which took place at Roma Deli in Las Vegas in May 2018, I asked Doyle to come up with a list of his “20 favorite westerns.”
Doyle couldn’t restrain himself. He not only came up with 20 great westerns. He tripled the request and listed more than 60 favorites. Doyle probably could have listed at least 100 movies and talked about every single one of them. Most incredible, without any notes or references, even at age 84, Doyle was able to remember and recite intricate details about each movie and shared with us why each film on his list meant something special to him.
Here is PART 2 of the series, which ranks Doyle’s favorite movie westerns — numbers #11 through #30.
Miss the previous episode? Here’s a link to PART 1 — numbers #31 through #60.
These video clips last about 25 minutes each.
You can also see the complete list of Doyle’s favorite westerns ranked here at the 5th Street Sports website once Part 3 has been posted. The final segment will be posted shortly, which contains Doyle’s “Top Ten” list.
St. Patricks Day and March Madness weekend combine to create the perfect storm for skilled low- to mid-stakes poker players. It’s become the best calendar date of the year to play poker in Las Vegas.
I was astounded by all the craziness last night. Call it March Poker Madness.
Las Vegas poker rooms were packed. Every seat was taken. Waiting lists were long. More drinking and talking went on than usual. Almost no headphones were seen. Players looked to be having fun. The pots seemed bigger. Many games were great.
I got my ass kicked.
No, not really. Let’s just say it was a good night.
This was my overall impression after playing at four different cardrooms over an 11-hour stretch on a long Saturday night-early Sunday morning, which just so happened to overlap into a perfect storm of citywide poker action. My conclusion is this:
St. Patrick’s Day and the opening weekend of March Madness appear to create the best calendar date of the year to play poker, at least here in Las Vegas.
Surprisingly, I never realized this phenomenon before. Las Vegas has been my home for 16 years. One would think I’d have discovered this already. But I don’t recall going out to play poker during this specific weekend. In the past, for more than a decade I traveled frequently with the World Series of Poker Circuit, which meant I was off working, someplace else. If I was in Las Vegas during mid-March, it’s most likely that I avoided what amounts to “amateur night” for partiers and drinkers. Don’t misunderstand. I love drinking. But I don’t like drinking with drunken amateurs. Besides, the service sucks everywhere. It’s way too crowded.
Now, I realize the objective isn’t drinking with drunken amateurs. It’s to play poker with them.
Aside from the financial upside, the games last night reminded me of the way poker used to be. Players cracking jokes and laughing. Everyone talking about the ball game on TV. Gamblers discussing the next day’s pointspreads, while ordering another Miller Lite. You know, having fun.
If this all sounds manipulative, even exploitive, well — it is. In a game with tougher players and diminishing edges, every conceivable advantage must be hunted. That’s assuming you play for money. The formula for increasing one’s chance of winning is simple: You have to go where games are good and play at the ideal time. Oh, and you must play well.
Saturday nights are almost always the best nights of the year to play poker. This is true just about anywhere, especially in Las Vegas. Friday nights can be pretty good, too. However, on Friday nights many less-skilled players realize there’s still a long weekend ahead of them. They tend to remain in control of themselves and make table decisions that aren’t catastrophic. Not yet, anyway.
By Saturday night, the emotional bolts of self-constraint have rusted away and are about to snap. At least a few dozen beers into the weekend with a pocket full of losing sports tickets, the poker table becomes the last chance to get even. Sometimes maxed out on ATM visits and down to their last hundred, players will simply give up out of frustration. I saw this happen last night when an out-of-town visitor on a bad run got fed up with playing normally. He decided to blind shove his last $120. He lost.
Those kinds of bizarre situations happen a lot on Saturday nights, especially in the “touristy” poker rooms on The Strip filled with frat boys. But that’s merely the foundation for more craziness.
Combine Saturday night with the opening weekend of March Madness, which is four exhaustive days and nights of betting and watching television and cheering, then subtract the hours of much-needed rest, and low-to mid-stakes poker games all over town become even wilder. Then, to top things off, add in the party factor — St. Patrick’s Day. This is one of the most popular days of the year for casual alcohol consumption, perhaps second only to New Year’s Eve. All the scrumptious ingredients are in place:
Las Vegas + Saturday Night + March Madness + St. Patrick’s Day = Great poker games.
Admittedly, this was just one night. Perhaps, my experience was atypical. Maybe I’m exaggerating. Let’s open this up to other opinions.
Eager to know if my personal experience and hypothesis about St. Patrick’s Day/March Madness is shared by other poker players, I posted a poll on Twitter. Although the results are unscientific, these percentages show that a majority of poker players believe this is/was the best night (and weekend) of the year to play poker in Las Vegas.
Here are the results, so far (Note: It’s now 12 hours into the 24-hour poll — so the results are incomplete). The results do appear to be conclusive:
I don’t know what I’ll be doing tomorrow night — or the next, or the next. But I sure do know what I’ll be doing next March 16, 2019. I’ll definitely be playing poker.
Most poker players likely remember Paul from his disheveled appearance and quirky behavior. At times, it seemed like he was from a different planet. His nickname was “X-22.” He often quacked like a duck at the poker table, usually after winning a pot. When you heard “quack quack,” you knew Paul was in the room. Fittingly, his favorite Hold’em hand was pocket dueces, otherwise known as a pair of ducks.
What most people probably don’t know is the fascinating story of Paul’s life decades before he became a regular poker player.
From early childhood, Paul was a prodigal gamesman. He started out playing backgammon and chess. He won the New York State Junior Chess Championship just a few years after another prodigal talent, Bobby Fischer burst onto the scene. By the late 1960s, New York’s Greenwich Village became his personal playground. He frequented the Olive Tree Cafe on MacDougal Street, known to be the hangout of hustlers. Later, he spent most of his free time at Singapore Sam’s, and after that, the far more fashionable uptown Mayfair Club.
Within a decade, Paul was widely acknowledged as one of the greatest backgammon players in the world. He often played games for $1,000 a point — astronomical stakes at the time. He won the 1978 World Championship of Backgammon held in Nassau, The Bahamas. Months earlier, Paul was victorious in one of the greatest backgammon matches in history, a grueling 17-hour marathon in Athens, Greece against then European champion, Joe Dwek. Paul was so proficient at the game that he became known as the “Human Computer.” In 1977, he wrote a co-wrote a book with his first wife Renee Roberts simply titled Backgammon, which became the game’s bible. It sold 10,000 copies in the first two months of release. Later, Paul wrote the weekly backgammon column for The New York Times.
But that was just part of who Paul was, who most did not know.
This photograph (above) shows Paul playing backgammon against Kiumars Motakhasses at the Mount Parnis Casino in Athens.
Paul was more than a master of games. He attended the prep school at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. He earned a B.A. in mathematics from New York University, graduating at age 20. Next, he did his graduate studies at Princeton.
He was a math wizard, who loved numbers and relished the opportunity to solve complex puzzles. At night, he played games. During the day, he was a math instructor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, where he worked for seven years before deciding to finally put away the chalk and take up backgammon (and later poker playing) for a living, because the money was just too good a thing to pass up and there were plenty of suckers who wanted a game.
Back then, backgammon was a high-stakes web of rich people and cultural elites who gathered nightly at posh social clubs. Paul’s immersion onto that privileged scene, first in New York City then later around the world at the most exclusive resorts, was every bit as momentous as the indelible impact on games and gambling left by Ken Uston and Stu Ungar, every bit his contemporaries.
Paul’s exemplary talent was perhaps best displayed by playing backgammon while blindfolded. He couldn’t see the board. However, Paul could remember the placement of every piece and memorized the new layout after every dice roll. He barked out his moves with the authority of a military general. Paul regularly beat opponents who glared studiously at the board, ultimately forced to reach into their pocket at game’s end to settle a lost wager.
Quoted in a 1978 magazine feature, Paul explained his fascination with games as follows (see footnote below):
I think I’m addicted to backgammon. I’m addicted to games in general. Games are controlled violence. You can take out your frustrations and hostilities over a backgammon set, where the rules are clearly defined — in contrast to life, where the rules are not so well defined. In games, you know what’s right and wrong, legal versus illegal; whereas in life, you don’t.
Psychologically, backgammon is very different from chess. It’s an exercise in frustration — you can make the right moves and lose, or you can make the wrong moves and win. And chess didn’t have the gambling that I like.”
This photograph (above) shows Paul Magriel playing “blindfolded” against the legendary writer and adventurer George Plimpton at New York’s famous “21” Club.
It’s been said that backgammon offers the ultimate challenge of creating order out of chaos.
Making the leap from the king of backgammon during the 1970s to one of the many millions who became caught up in the poker craze three decades later posed a new challenge and even offered the rare chance of reinvention. Paul found a new game filled with chaos, but like even the game’s greatest players wasn’t able to create any sense of order.
You wouldn’t have known about Paul’s mastery of other games by looking at him in his later years, which were mostly spent grinding low-stakes poker games in Las Vegas, with the occasional tournament cash here and there. He rarely talked about his life before poker. The last time I saw Paul was a month ago. He was playing in a $70 buy-in nightly tournament at the Orleans.
Cynics might have gazed upon Paul, seen his wrinkled pants barely hanging around his waist, observed his distracting facial tics, and be very hard-pressed to imagine this same man was once a gaming giant who regularly dressed in tuxedos, dined at the world’s finest restaurants, and always flew first-class.
Indeed, Paul seemed to become what many old poker players become in the late autumn of their years, broken down men who long ago forfeited their riches and glory to old age and the creeping hands of all human clocks, their lost triumphs now long past in the rearview mirror of life, invisible to the casual eye.
But we shall remember Paul because it is the right thing to do.
To remember him. To honor him. To celebrate his life.
To have known Paul Magriel and remember who he was is to gain a better appreciation for those greats who proceeded us all and blazed their own path, often alone, and left their own mark.
Paul certainly blazed a path. And he certainly left a mark.
Photo Credit: The three photographs posted in this article were taken from an August 1978 feature story in Gambling Times magazine.
Some of the biographical content is also taken from the narrative, written by Susan M. Silver.
Here’s a link to another article, published in The New Yorker in 1977. “PLAYING x-22“
Correction: A previous version of this article identified Phillips Exeter Academy as being located in NewYork. It’s actually in New Hampshire
One afternoon early in 2004, my Motorola flip phone rang and I took a call that changed my life.
Rich Korbin was on the line with Dan Goldman, PokerStars.com’s Vice-President of Marketing. I’d known Dan for years, spending many a boisterous night trading chips back and forth playing Pot-Limit Omaha whilst arguing about bourbon. Dan and I developed a close friendship and strong working relationship when Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 World Series of Poker, during which time he was the up-and-coming website’s point guard. Dan was arguably the third most powerful mogul at PokerStars, after Isai Scheinberg and his son Mark Scheinberg, the site’s founders and owners.
PokerStars was determined to hire me. They created a new position to be called “Director of Communications.” PokerStars upped PartyPoker’s offer by ten percent, plus generous bonus incentives. One clause stated that if PokerStars overtook PartyPoker as the #1 poker-playing website, I’d receive an extra $100,000. There was also speculation PokerStars might eventually go public, just as PartyPoker soon did, in which case most execs would likely receive seven-figure packages. This was a real chance to become a multi-millionaire while doing something I loved. I had to pinch myself to believe my good fortune.
H.L. Mencken once said, “when someone says it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.”
Well, it wasn’t about the money.
Despite all the financial perks, PokerStars’ generous offer wasn’t the primary reason I decided to go to work for them. It was about having a voice and being heard. It was about having access to the top. It was about having a seat at the table. It was about the very real possibility of shaping an industry and making a difference in a multi-billion dollar company. It was about being in the game.
Everyone in poker talks about “the big game.” This phrase typically refers to a stratospheric high-stakes cash game going on somewhere, such as Aria or in Macau. In 2004, poker’s biggest game wasn’t dealt on a green felt table. The big game was played within the hidden walls of data centers stocked with servers uploaded with cutting-edge gaming software and sophisticated storage systems. The big game was played over fiber-optic cables carrying a multitudinous number of kilobytes every millisecond.
The undisputed Goliath in this new game was PartyPoker, which by mid-2004 had way surpassed ParadisePoker and had pretty much become the online poker industry’s equivalent of Coca-Cola and Pepsi combined. PokerStars ranked a distant second. Other sites were scrapping to increase their own market share — notably Full Tilt, UltimateBet, Absolute, BoDog, DoylesRoom, 888Poker, and others. Most sites were burning money trying to outspend each other. Between 2004 and 2006, every luck box who won a major televised poker tournament was signing a deal. Every D-List Hollywood celebrity who couldn’t get a call back from a studio was endorsing an online poker site. Online poker wasn’t the Wild West anymore. It was the Gold Rush.
I made a final decision and picked my team in the big game.
I accepted PokerStars’ offer and began working immediately.
But it wasn’t about the money.
Leaving the Horseshoe and joining PokerStars was like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.
PokerStars was growing so fast that no one could keep up. About the time I started working for them, there were maybe 60 full-time employees in the entire company spread all over the world, and half of those were assigned to customer support. Isai resided in Richmond Hill, a suburb of Toronto. Mark lived in London. Dan lived in Los Angeles. Rich lived in Denver. Terrence Chan, hired to oversee Customer Support, lived in Vancouver. Thomas Koo was also in support and lived in Costa Rica. Joe Versaci, who handled advertising, lived in Ohio. Lee Jones, hired about the same time who became Card Room Manager, lived in the Bay Area. I was the only PokerStars employee based in Las Vegas. Later, PokerStars set up company offices on the Isle of Man. But during the early years, most employees worked out of their homes.
Initially, most PokerStars staff were American or Canadian. That’s because most of the players/customers were North Americans. We sure as hell didn’t want the operation to resemble some call center based in the Philipines. That would slowly change during the mid-2000’s, prompted by unforeseen legal obstacles and the explosion of the European poker market, which would ultimately surpass traffic from the U.S. and Canada. Within five years, PokerStars would go from a tightly-knit cyber confederation of close friends and colleagues unified by a single purpose and a common mission to a vast European-based international company. But, stop. Misdeal. I’m getting way ahead of myself.
Every week was the start of some new project. Every day was an adventure. This edginess was totally crafted by design, inspired by the mysterious man at the top.
One of these days, hopefully soon, people connected to poker will come to know and better understand the monumental contributions made to the growth of the game by Isai Scheinberg. His personal ambition, his management style, his attention to even the most absurd tiny detail should be the curriculum for courses taught at Wharton or the London Business School. Blending his background in computers and high-tech from working as a programmer at IBM Canada, Isai created PokerStars in 2001 and until 2014 when he sold his company for $4.9 billion, never seemed to take a day off.
To give a better perspective of Isai, consider that he bought his family home in Richmond Hill sometime during the mid-1980, about the time he immigrated to Canada from Israel. Years later, after Isai had clearly joined the exclusive billionaires club, despite being perhaps 1,000-times richer, Isai was still living in the same house. Isai wanted no publicity for himself whatsoever. To this day, I don’t think he’s ever given a press interview. Most of the people in company never met him and wouldn’t recognize the man if he knocked on their front door.
This isn’t to say Isai was frugal, nor were there strict reigns on budgets at PokerStars. To the contrary. Isai was generous, almost to a fault. Some of the early programmers who worked with him on design and did preliminary Beta testing were awarded six- and seven-figure packages. Many deals were done the old-fashioned way, with handshakes. The man’s word was his bond. Isai also raised exorbitant amounts for charity and disaster relief, in most cases for causes that had nothing to do with gambling, poker, nor any relation to geography. A human need was a human need. To do the right thing was the right thing. Among insiders at PokerStars, the stories are legendary.
Perhaps the longer story will be told someday.
Things got off to a rocky start.
My first day began with the initial conference call, ultimately kickstarting the bold new venture which was to become the European Poker Tour (EPT). My preliminary instructions were, “We’re thinking about starting a new televised poker tour over in Europe and we need you on the call.”
Umm, okay. How exactly does on prepared for that?
PokerStars was the antithesis of a 9-5 job. You might as well have ripped clocks off every wall in the house and thrown your wristwatch into the garbage. Night or day — what time it was didn’t mean shit. I’d been tasked by Dan to be available at any minute, and since everyone was scattered across different times zones — Isai was in Toronto and the other main player in the project was John Duthie, who was based in London, plus a few techies from Sky UK (TV) — lining up all the moving pieces on the chessboard took some doing. That’s one of the disadvantages of living in the West because late afternoon across the ocean is very early morning here. Over the next many years, I was on many a conference calls scheduled at 5 am. At least I could explain the occasional lapse with the excuse, “I’m not a morning person.” But what I quickly learned was — I was now working for a 24/7 company which was engaged with clients and customers all over the world.
Given my background working for the WSOP which had provided close proximity to ESPN, Isai likely assumed I had intimate working knowledge of television production, costs, and so forth — which certainly wasn’t the case at the time.
Creation and financing of the EPT were to be done with one purpose in mind, and that was to get on television with a regular program that would blanket the European continent.
The pillar of success in the online poker business had been sculpted by our primary rival, PartyPoker. Just a few years earlier, PartyPoker had been a floundering startup company, very likely to go under and be forgotten had it not been for the exemplary marketing brilliance of Mike Sexton, then their main spokesperson. [ADDED FOOTNOTE: Vikrant Bhargava, Party’s Vice-President of Marketing also merits much of the credit]
Mike had dual roles in poker, much like myself, which was quite common back in those days. He was the announcer for the World Poker Tour (WPT). He also appeared in most of the commercials which aired during the broadcast for PartyPoker. Mike famously told the other PartyPoker executives, “Buy all the TV advertising you can! Buy it all up! Take every spot you can get!” That sage marketing advice might not seem so innovative in today’s climate. But back then, no one knew if television commercials promoting an online poker site would prove successful. It could have bombed. PartyPoker could have lost millions. I’m sure Mike was paid millions for his work at PartyPoker, but whatever they gave him wasn’t enough. They should have quadrupled it. Without Mike and his knowledge, the site might have ended up like HighlandPoker or any of the other bumblefuck websites which crashed and burned and ended up in the online scrapyard.
This point cannot be overstated as it bears to the overall 20-year history of online poker. Anyone watching the nationally-televised WPT, which was drawing about a million viewers a week, would eventually (perhaps inevitably) want to play poker. So, they’d log onto their home computers, easily download the PartyPoker gaming software, and be soon hooked to the action like bristlemouths netted by a giant fishing boat out in the Pacific.
In short, though he didn’t vocalize it in that way, we were determined to copy the Mike Sexton/WPT/PartyPoker strategy and apply the same model to Europe. Though PartyParty would be none too pleased, I suppose there’s a truism to the old line about imitation being the best form of flattery.
The phone rang, the discussion began, and then out of nowhere, the questions came….
“Nolan, what do you think of the show’s bumpers?”
“Nolan, are these production costs in line with what you experienced with ESPN?”
“Nolan, should we outsource the entire thing or hire entirely in-house?”
While someone from Sky UK asked me something about poker demographics in Europe contrasted with the network’s distribution, I was furiously Google searching — what in the hell is Sky UK (TV)?
Headlights meet deer.
My first day on the job was a disaster.
Fortunately, things were about to turn around fast. In poker, this is what we call — going on a rush.
Working as Director of Communications for PokerStars was like being the tour manager of the Rolling Stones at the height of their popularity, only with less heroin and lots more booze. We lived and played and worked and partied like rock stars.
I never worked harder. I also never had more fun. I traveled constantly. I had meetings at casinos at 2 am. I never called in sick — because there was no such thing as calling in sick. I never asked to take a day off nor requested a vacation — because there was no such thing as a day off or a vacation. You didn’t have to ask permission. Ever. So long as the work got done and the mission was advanced, which was to catch PartyPoker, no one gave a damn about your schedule or personal habits. It was the ultimate in Byzantine libertarianism.
We met with movie stars. We partied with the Miami Heat. We hosted Shaq O’Neal’s 33rd birthday party. We crafted deals with NHL teams. We sponsored boxers. We signed comedians. We paid celebrities to wear our logo. We went to Le Mans car races. We even met Donald Trump.
We held jam-packed press conferences in New York, announcing the signings of new poker ambassadors. We made the cover of Cigar Aficionado. We did a press event in Dallas with a poker game for celebrities, and half the Dallas Mavericks team showed up. We had a private box at a Mavericks game and owner Mark Cuban came up to see us, eager to meet the new 2004 world poker champion, Greg Raymer, who had just signed a major deal with us.
We even got a feature story aired on 60 Minutes, widely considered the pinnacle of mass media exposure. The show was watched by an estimated 16 million viewers, making it very likely the single most viewed poker-related television broadcast of all time. CBS legend Dan Rather was still working as one of the correspondents. Supposedly sick of interviewing presidents and prime ministers, Rather specifically asked for the assignment (I would find out later when I spoke with him in the CBS studio) and flew back from another story he had been working on in Japan just to interview Chris Moneymaker and do the voiceover for the feature. It was just about the coolest thing ever in the wacky wheelhouse of my experiences to say I got to stand there watching a story on 60 Minutes being taped at STUDIO 33, inside CBS Studios on W. 57th Street, which was the longtime home of so many iconic programs, including the CBS Evening News hosted by Walter Cronkite. By the way, the most popular TV show now being shot and recorded at that location is probably Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
More than a few times I secretly thought to myself — I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this. I love my life.
Ignited by Isai and Mark, and kindled by Dan, the spark of a new idea was always welcome in any discussion. We held phone calls and exchanged e-mails constantly. No idea was off the table. Nothing was too crazy. This “outside the box” thinking encouraged creativity. Knowing that you wouldn’t be laughed at by your peers (and more important — superiors) was a great investiture of confidence. I’ve never been a student of business school but if I was giving a lecture of prospective M.B.A.s, that attitude of openness would be at the top of my list.
PokerStars wasn’t a workplace. It was a culture. It was a mindset. While it will sound arrogant and probably piss off rivals who worked at the time for other sites, PokerStars had the superior product. We had the best game interface. We had exemplary customer support. For instance, one strictly-enforced rule at PokerStars was — all customer inquiries, including detailed complaints, were to be addressed within one hour. With thousands of players from around the globe who spoke dozens of different languages constantly sending in questions about money transfers, operations, the inevitable charges of cheating/collusion, and around the clock threats from hackers and blackmailers, I have no earthly idea how so many good people whose names will not be mentioned were able to do their jobs so well and maintain such a constant level of professionalism. Similarly, the people who specialized in online security, some who I knew quite well long before we were all working together at PokerStars, truly were the anonymous champions of the company.
When you get right down to it, being Director of Communications wasn’t hard. It was a glamor job. I might as well have been head of PR for Lexus or Apple — highly-respected companies widely acknowledged to produce superior products. Selling PokerStars to the booming online gambling market was like doing marketing for Guinness beer in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day — I mean, how hard could this job be?
By 2005, we’d locked up the previous three world poker champions under contract (Chris Moneymaker-2003, Greg Raymer-2004, and Joe Hachem-2005). We were about to sign two more superstars — Daniel Negreanu and Barry Greenstein. We were also carpet bombing the airwaves with television commercials just about everywhere. The EPT was underway. And PokerStars’ market share steadily continued to rise.
PartyPoker had been so far ahead at one point, they were completely out of our sights.
Now, we could see their taillights.
Sometimes, a believer in a cause can be made into an even stronger believer and when that happens, he becomes a diehard activist.
I became a diehard online poker activist in mid-2005 following a goodwill tour of Washington, D.C. which was designed to rally support for online poker’s legalization inside the United States.
More background is needed here: Although just about anyone could play online poker in the U.S., outdated federal laws made this a confusing issue. Online poker sites couldn’t base their operations on American soil, which would have been regarded as illegal gambling businesses and promptly shut down. All the major online gambling-related sites, including poker companies, circumvented federal intervention by basing servers and day-to-day operations outside the U.S. Technically, I wasn’t even an employee of PokerStars. I was a consultant. Some poker sites were located on Caribbean Islands. Others were based in Central America. Malta, an island-nation in the Mediterranean, became a haven for online gambling business startups. Even tribal lands in Canada, most notably the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, housed some of the world’s most sophisticated and highly profitable servers. Some shortsighted companies, many with shady ownership, wanted to remain in the dark and quietly go about their business. Others online poker/gambling companies, including PokerStars, sought total legitimacy and transparency. They/we wanted to be taxed and regulated. So, they/we helped to create and partially funded the Poker Players Alliance (PPA), which lobbied for online legalization and a sort of Bill of Rights for all poker players.
I’ve always been a political person. So, this was a natural calling. Before relocating to Las Vegas, I’d spent more than a decade living and working in Washington, despising those thousands of the silk-suited lobbyists jerking the chains of lapdog politicians and leading them to the puppy bowl of campaign money. This was familiar territory. This time I wore the silk suit.
Our poker delegation was a motley crew. It was comprised of reigning world champ Greg Raymer, who happened to be an attorney before cashing his $5 million title windfall; Chris Ferguson, certainly one of the game’s most recognizable figures; Howard Lederer, who like Ferguson was a major shareholder in Full Tilt, and myself in the less visible, behind-the-scenes role.
By mid-2005, poker was plastered all over TV, especially sports channels. Those who appeared on poker shows became the latest mavens of pop culture, with Andy Warhol holding a stopwatch. With his distinctive cowboy hat and Jesus-like appearance, Ferguson stood out on the steps of the U.S. Capitol like John Wayne riding into town on a horse. Everywhere we walked, Ferguson (and Raymer to a lesser extent) was recognized and approached for an autograph. Autograph requests became so common, they began carrying Sharpies whenever they went out in public.
Congress is a beast, its cranky machinery greased by a sizable contingent of super-dedicated and idealistic young people, most in their 20’s who watch sports channels during their off time. This I know, because I used to be one. Somehow, the PPA pulled off the political coup of the year when they somehow were able to commandeer an entire congressional hearing room located inside the Cannon House Office Building, which is kinda’ akin to the Times Square of political real estate. Lobbying groups typically don’t get afforded hearing rooms used for official business on government property. How they pulled off that feat remains a mystery to this day. Raymer, Ferguson, Lederer, and myself — we each made brief statements and answered questions — most directed at Ferguson and Raymer, naturally, because they were the recognizable stars everyone wanted to see and hear. The turnout was a shocker. The room was packed with perhaps 250-300 press people, congressional staffers and even a few congressmen, such as co-sponsors of some bills to make online poker legal. During my time in Washington, it was rare to see activities held in committee rooms draw more than a few dozen in the gallery, and here we’d drawn ten times that number. The poker players were greeted like celebrities.
The great irony (and tragedy) of this story is the hypocrisy. Some percentage of those young bright-eyed congressional staffers who gathered inside that room, who couldn’t wait to get autographs and cozy up for pictures with Ferguson and Raymer, would end up implementing the dirty work for the very same legislators who ultimately passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), which was the Pearl Harbor surprise attack on our industry a year later. On the clock, they were dutiful cavalrymen who muscled the bloody raid to stamp out online poker. Off the clock, many of these staffers were playing online poker on their home computers next to framed pictures of themselves with poker champions.
My resolve on this issue was about to turn into zealotry, and I don’t use that word hyperbolically.
The day following our press conference on Capitol Hill — Raymer, Ferguson, Lederer, and I paid visits to the Walter Reed Medical Center and Armed Forces Retirement Home both located on sprawling estates in suburban Maryland. We’d developed some close contacts with American military personnel, in many countries. A sizable contingent of America’s military force, including those on active duty serving in war zones, were avid online poker players. This was no surprise to us since military life comes with lots of downtime and poker has been a tradition with soldiers since the Civil War.
Nothing could have prepared me for the interactions I was about to witness. Many residents and long-term patients of the facilities were combat veterans who had suffered indescribable physical deformities and mental anguish. Some were unable to live and function in society, at large. They needed physical and emotional support. Arms and legs were missing and in some cases, their faces were blown off during battles in frightening, faraway places like Afghanistan and Iraq, two wars which had begun three years earlier and were still going full throttle. These were proud men who may have been confined to wheelchairs but who still stood tall. Without exception, they wanted to live their lives with some resemblance of normalcy. On the outside, they may have looked broken. But inside they were strong, even spirited. And many we met and saw that day were dedicated online poker players eager to meet the poker celebs.
When we arrived, these resident ex-soldiers — many in rolling wheelchairs, some hobbling on crutches, others resting in contorted positions — greeted our delegation with appreciation, when the sick irony of all ironies was, we should have been the ones bestowing our appreciation to them. Raymer spent hours talking poker strategy with wounded vets. Ferguson did some really cool magic tricks. Lederer told poker stories of what it was like to play for millions of dollars. The heroes who had toppled Saddam Hussein were just like everyone else, excited to be around famous poker people.
Soldiers shared their remarkable stories with us, but they didn’t want to talk about war. Their stories were unexpected and unrehearsed, told in various ways that online poker had helped them to recover. Confined to medical units in some cases for months or even years, poker enabled them to use their minds, compete with their peers, and have fun. It was a chance to feel alive again. No one knew the player with the screen name “Tommy1981” from Silver Spring, MD was covered in skin grafts confined to a burn unit at Walter Reed Medical. In online poker, there are no deformities. There are no handicapped people.
Most of those we met played small-stakes poker in .25-cent-.50 cent games. Some played in $5 or $10 poker tournaments where a few bucks provided many hours of entertainment and enjoyment, with a chance to make a few bucks or perhaps win a trip to a live event. In most cases, these wounded warriors couldn’t play sports or visit a live casino, but they could compete in an online poker game and have just as much fun as anyone else because it was so convenient.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, that’s when I realized the work I was doing wasn’t just “about the money,” as H.L. Mencken cynically proselytized nearly a century earlier. It wasn’t just protecting my self-interest. Working for PokerStars and becoming a tireless advocate for online poker’s legalization had become a calling, and a mission.
Tales of Fast Money, Wicked Beats, and Broken Mice:
Chapter Five — After UIGEA, the Party’s Over (2007-2010)
Photo Credit: With Dan Rather in New York at the taping of a feature story on online poker, which aired on “60 Minutes.”
The story could be told — and perhaps someday will — on the colossal clusterfuck that was the Binion’s Horseshoe casino and hotel during the final two wild wacko years while I worked there as the often graven and always half-shaven public relations man hired to faithfully apply lipstick on the frowning face of a pig.
An entire chapter could be filled with prose recounting dealings I witnessed during the first online-live casino negotiations, a contentious exchange that would foreshadow a constant tug-of-war between brick and mortar establishments and the new kids on the block loaded with money — the online sites. We were struggling to keep the doors open and the lights on, reading meanwhile about online poker companies doubling in size every few months. The Horseshoe couldn’t pay the employees’ health insurance coverage (yes, the insurance company got stiffed), and here were these arrogant online sites with virtually no overhead or regulators tossing around cash like it was confetti at a Mardi Gras parade. The uneasy truce between brick and mortar hardliners versus the online sites would occasionally be broken by threats and flash points. They were bitter rivals, when it seems so obvious now — they should have been partners working together. Old school poker rooms and Las Vegas casinos (specifically — their owners) hated the online poker sites.
GutshotPoker.com, was a U.K.-based poker club in London and affiliated website that desperately wanted to partner-up with the World Series of Poker, the biggest and most respected brand in the game. So, Gutshot’s executives flew across the Atlantic to try and negotiate a deal. We had glorious dinners with open bottles of Grand Mariner on white tablecloths maestroed by Horseshoe strongman Nick Behnen, peppered with dialogue seemingly taken straight out of The Godfather. Wedged in between Nick, who I directly worked for and reported to….and Barry Martin, one of the execs who owned and ran Gutshot, and Derek Kelly being the other, I felt like a fly on the wall trapped in between Hyman Roth, Michael Corleone, and Tom Hagen.
I introduce this chapter with the Gutshot story because it so painfully reveals the U.S. land-based casino’s (and my own) utter embarrassing and unequivocal cluelessness about online poker and the rapidly changing future of the game.
Even though I’d been an active online player for years, even at this later stage of poker evolution, I was still skeptical.
At one point during our conversation which was increasingly contentious and turned into more of an argument, Barry Martin flat out insisted that if we (the Horseshoe) gave Gutshot our blessing — which meant Gutshot could use our name in promoting satellites for the upcoming World Series of Poker — they would guarantee to ship us 100 players into the next year’s tournament.
I told Barry he was insane. Straight to his face. I think I even laughed.
Barry couldn’t have handled my insult with more class. Derek, too. The took turns calmly explaining the Horseshoe was sitting on an absolute gold mine, which was its proud tradition and the powerful WSOP brand. They conveyed that by granting (essentially licensing) online poker rooms to run satellites and other tournaments connected to the WSOP, we’d all come out way ahead.
Still, Barry’s boastful calculations seemed optimistic, if not absurd to me. The previous year, the WSOP Main Event Championship drew 631 entrants. Barry’s claim that Gutshot could ship in another 100 players into the pool amounted to what would have added another 1/6th of the field.
Preposterous. No online poker site can deliver that kind of traffic to a live poker tournament. The Gutshot execs were crazy.
Of course, Barry and Derek saw the future. They knew what was to come. And we did not. We were still wearing blinders and the race was already on.
The stunning and spectacular events of the 2003 WSOP would rip that blindfold off in a big way, fortunately leaving no scars.
[There’s far more to the Gutshot negotiations, of course. But some stories will have to wait for another time.]
I didn’t play much online poker during 2003 and 2004. I didn’t have the time. I was too busy.
Funny that poker pro David Bach (a.k.a. “Gunslinger”) made an interesting comment about yesterday’s chapter. Bach stated he regretted spending so much time playing online poker during its formative days. Instead, Bach asserts, he wished he’d worked on the house side of the equation, or perhaps owned a piece of the action. That might seem like an odd comment from someone who has risen to the top of his profession and earned more than $4 million in poker tournaments, to date.
I say Bach’s comment is odd, because — many of us who worked on the house side of poker for many years and dedicated much of our adult lives to working and running games and tournaments quietly wonder where we might have ended up had we applied our talents and spent all those hours becoming more proficient at poker. Might we have become the Raymer’s and Hachem’s? I suppose the grass is always greener….
As I said, there was no time to play online poker, anyway. My “come and go as you please” and “gamble and drink on the job all you want” dream gig somehow metastasized into a 70-hour-a-week job with no bonus paid for overtime, and a notepad of headaches.
One afternoon (my hours were typically noon ’til midnight), I went into the Horseshoe and saw Warren Schaeffer, who ran both the poker room and the sportsbook, but was really a close confidant of the Family. He told me about a meeting later that day with a couple of executives from PartyPoker.com. Like the earlier pitch from Gutshot, Party also saw the enormous potential of partnering with the WSOP for promotional purposes.
Four of us met, including Warren, myself and two executives from PartyPoker, including Vikrant Bhargava (I can’t recall the name of the other person). CORRECTION: A previous version of this text incorrectly identified the second executive as Anurag Dikshit, who was later charged by the U.S. Government for violating the 1961 Wire Act, resulting in the payment of a whopping $300 million fine. Thanks to former Party exec Michael O’Malley for identifying this error.
PartyPoker.com had gone bonkers during the span I was putting in crazy hours at the Horseshoe. The site no one had ever heard of with a kiddie-sounding name and seemingly level of seriousness that came with popping a bag of balloons flourished into the General Motors, the Apple, and the Chase Bank of the global poker scene.
Thanks to its affiliation with the weekly-televised World Poker Tour, incessant and clever advertising, and hyper-aggressive marketing savvy in numerous countries all over the world, Party became a giant. It turned its owner, Ruth Parasol, into one of the world’s richest women.
Party was eager to have it all and own everything. Not content with displacing Paradise at some point during 2003, Party not only wanted to be the “go to” site for the millions who were tuning in to watch the WPT on television. Party also sought an alliance with the Horseshoe, the WSOP, and by association — ESPN.
What they were really going after was something later to be called a “strategic partnership,” which is just an MBA’s fancy way of saying — “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” Years later, “strategic partnerships” would become standard business practice between major poker competitors when the online companies crafted deals with land-based casinos all over the world. But long before there was cooperation, there was suspicion and war.
The meeting went well, incredibly well as things turned out. Party’s execs must have thought they’d succeeded, by plucking the final prized jewel in the poker power crown. Warren and I expected to return to the Horseshoe, explain a possible new deal with Party that could have brought in some cash, and receive hearty congratulations from the Family.
Instead, we were told –no. All deals were frozen. No more negotiations would take place. We were not to have any more meetings with anyone.
Talks were underway in another part of Las Vegas. On another subject.
Discussions to sell the Horseshoe were underway.
Much has been written about the 2003 WSOP and I’ve contributed to some of that famous legacy. That series was surely the turning point. It was a demarcation. It made careers. It changed lives. There was an era pre-2003 WSOP, and the era post-2003 WSOP. For the modern poker era, it might as well be B.C. and A.D.
Shortly after Chris Moneymaker won, I made an off-hand comment with absolutely no forethought to a reporter who happened to be working for the Associated Press. The AP was the gold standard of print journalism. Being “picked up by the AP” meant your name would appear in hundreds of newspapers.
I labeled Moneymaker’s shocking victory “poker’s sonic boom.”
That line was plastered everywhere.
The description isn’t hyperbole. If poker before Moneymaker had been a propeller plane, his David slaying Goliath victory shown on ESPN that summer during a dead TV time because there was a Major League Baseball strike was essentially breaking the sound barrier with a rocket.
Traffic at online poker sites, particularly PokerStars.com, which had jettisoned a somewhat reluctant Nashville-based accountant to fly to Las Vegas and play in the WSOP, exploded as reports began to air and stories were printed. Party was still king, but Stars began making a major move and would soon become the second-largest online poker site, surpassing Paradise. Stars’ niche was multi-table tournaments, which increasingly became an attraction for new poker converts caught up in the excitement of seeing poker on TV for the first time and wanting in on the action. Moneymaker’s victory and the successive fallout also set off a second wave of new online poker start-ups, some of which were tragically flawed and stood no chance of succeeding. Others withstood growing pains and carved out their own niches in the perpetually bustling new online poker market.
In the coming months, casinos that had previously considered poker the gambling industry’s step-child, a common mindset which had all but made poker a dead game in Las Vegas by closing down rooms, began re-opening and marketing poker to traffic on The Strip. B.C. (make that “B.M. — before Moneymaker”) there were only a handful of busy rooms in the city. A.D. (make that “A.M. — after Moneymaker”) poker room opened up at Bally’s, Flamingo, MGM, Las Vegas Hilton, Golden Nugget, Union Plaza, Hard Rock, Tuscany, and several smaller properties.
Online poker wasn’t cannibalizing the poker market. It was creating it.
Online poker planted millions of seeds all over the world. During the next few years, those seeds would become a jungle of an estimated 15-20 million active online players.
Evidence that poker was in the midst of a tornado, aimlessly headed to destinations unknown, became abundantly clear when a bizarre thing happened at a poker tournament held a few months later in Atlantic City.
Matt Savage, the WSOP’s tournament director joined Barry Shulman, Card Player’s CEO who were consultants on what was to be the first (and only) major poker tournament ever held at the Sands, which would be imploded by a demolition squad just a few years later. The Sands wanted in badly on the poker action. So, Sands’ owner Carl Ichan (the investment titan, then the 15th richest man in the world) and his casino management team hired Savage and Shulman to run their event — and they brought me in to handle the PR. The Sands was going all out. They even worked a deal with NBC to televise the poker championship, which was to be called “Showdown at the Sands.”
The event turned into a sideshow and a circus. At one point, I spotted Doyle Brunson, who’d flown across the country to play, sitting in the back of the room shivering in a blanket. There were licensing issues and problems with the New Jersey Gambling Control Board. Staff got into fights. Then, the television crew came up with a crazy idea to place heart monitors on each player at the final table in some poorly-conceived attempt to add to the poker drama by showing the players’ heart rate when shoving all-in with a bluff. The only problem was, the heart monitors didn’t work because players kept scratching themselves, giving off false readings. The tournament was a disaster.
Even more interesting — Ben Affleck was dating Jennifer Lopez at the time. Both were scheduled to show up and stay at the Sands because Affleck decided he wanted to play. Affleck was in the middle of his poker phase at the time. J-Lo knew she’d be bored to tears for hours if not days while Affleck was downstairs competing in the championship. So, she invited her mother to come down from New York City and join the celebrity power couple. While everything else was going on, Affleck, Lopez, and her mom were seen hanging out in the poker room, the two Lopez’s were none too pleased with the arrangement. Hounded by autograph seekers, Affeck and Lopez openly argued. Eager to get away from the swarms of gawkers, Lopez’s mother started playing $25 slots, and hit a jackpot. That brief moment of ecstasy likely bought Affleck a little extra time and a temporary reprieve from J-Lo’s nagging. Still, Affleck busted out on the first day.
What was even more bizarre was the obscene bidding war that broke out between rival online poker sites when the final tablists had been determined. Eager to get their logos on national television, the bidding started at $20,000. Some players got $50,000. The chip leaders negotiated their price all the way up to a staggering $100,000.
$100,000…..to wear a fucking patch.
Poker had indeed changed. Nothing was the same.
The world had gone crazy.
When I returned to Las Vegas from Atlantic City, I received an interesting phone call. Apparently, my previous meeting with Mr. Dikshit had made an impression. Dikshit, speaking on behalf of Party Poker’s management team, informed that they wanted to hire me.
The offer on the table was $120,000 per year to start, plus a nice year-end bonus. I’d be a consultant. And, Party wanted me to continue working at the Horseshoe and for the WSOP. It was a stunning moment.
Officially, I’d be writing content for Party and their website. I’d established a pretty decent reputation as a fast and prolific writer, especially on the subject of poker. I privately wondered if Party’s generosity a payoff disguised as a job, but I learned that was not the case. Dikshit genuinely liked my work and thought I could add to Party’s position as the world’s preeminent poker site.
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to do.
As 2003 came to an end, I found myself at the apex of the poker universe. A bi-weekly column in Card Player. Director of Public Relations for Binion’s Horseshoe. Media Director for the World Series of Poker. A paid part-time consultancy for Shulman Media. And now, an offer was on the table to work in media for the world’s biggest and richest poker company.
I almost accepted the position but decided to wait until after the holidays and the coming new year. My concern with the odd arrangement (not to mention the conflict of interest) was — I didn’t know what the Family would say. By that, I meant Nick and Becky.
Those concerns were obliterated on the morning of January 9th, 2004, when Binion’s Horseshoe, the crumbling ruin of a former empire and the final vestige of the Old West that had once transformed dusty Las Vegas into a neon-lit magnet of vice, shuddered its windows and was padlocked by U.S. Marshalls in a legal struggle that would become the final nail in a coffin filled with memories.
Suddenly out of work and no place to go, I was about to gleefully accept Party’s offer. But by some accident, I ran into a dear friend who took an immediate and unexpected interest in my career and future.
When told of my intent to go to work for Party, Rich Korbin begged me to hold off and apply the breaks. “Give me 24 hours,” he said.
Korbin was the Director of Marketing for PokerStars.com.
Entirely out of friendship and my respect for Rich, I agreed to wait 24 hours before calling Party with my final decision and acceptance of their generous offer, made even more attractive now by the sudden realization I was unemployed.
I wasn’t sure exactly what Rich was up to.
And so, I waited.
It was a long 24 hours.
Tales of Fast Money, Wicked Beats, and Broken Mice: Chapter Four — Star of the Party (2004-2006)
Photo Credit: The photo above was taken by Eric Harkins (ImageMasters) at the 2003 World Series of Poker.