20 Years of Online Poker: Star of the Party (2004-2006)
Tales of Fast Money, Wicked Beats, and Broken Mice:
Chapter Four — Star of the Party (2004-2006)
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.
[One example of PokerStars’ freewheeling management style was my proposal to buy the NFL’s New Orleans Saints right after the Hurricane Katrina disaster. The Sporting News story can be read here. My original story, “How PokerStars Almost Offered to Buy the NFL”s New Orleans Saints,” in much greater detail can be read here.]
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.”