A Personal Note: The 2017 World Series of Poker begins this week. This will be the first WSOP in 25 years which I don’t plan on writing about, or attending. With poker becoming a faint glow in my rear view mirror, this seems like a suitable occasion to clear out some personal files and post a few (previously unpublished) articles that were written up last year, but never posted. These next few days, I’ll post some behind-the-scenes leftovers of my final series.
There was a time not too long ago when Ryan Laplante might have faced ridicule, and even hostility inside a poker room.
Because he’s an openly gay man.
Years ago, before being who you are was acceptable to many, the shackles of unwavering expectation sired a strict conformity. If being gay was widely viewed as unacceptable, then being out about it was downright scandalous within many social and business circles.
It took a while, far too long many would insist, but the poker community became an unlikely coadjutor in the broader at-large struggle for gay rights, and in some peculiarity even progressively far ahead of other arenas of society, especially male-dominated sectors, like sports. This wasn’t at all expected, and was surprising even, given poker’s jaundiced past where one’s masculinity was once tethered to a cowboy hat, a smoky cigar, and a dirty joke.
But poker turned out to be a most welcoming scene for those considered a little different. Just about anyone and everyone was permitted to sit down and play — male or female, black or white, gay or straight — so long as the minimum buy-in was posted and no one tried to impose themselves on the competition. Sure, unrestrained prejudice still burgeoned systematically away from the tables outside the poker room, but was muted once the cards were dealt. To its credit, poker has acquired a startling egalitarian quality.
This seemingly odd kinship between serious-minded poker players and disparate subcultures which have been the targets of varying degrees of discrimination, including the gay rights movement, came to pass by means of the shared common experiences of society’s outcasts. Like gay people, poker players too, were once cultural castaways, often viewed with suspicion and mistrust. Perhaps it’s the ability to identify with those who have historically been excluded from the traditional mainstream. Perhaps this is what makes serious poker players of today generally more tolerant and accepting of others different from ourselves. Poker players would be among the first to challenge the old adage that being normal is no virtue.
Indeed, we must accept our differences. That is because so often, we play, we work, we socialize, and we engage is so many activities with others who are not like us. Sometimes, they are even the opposite of us, and oppose the very things we believe in. Welcoming those who are different from ourselves isn’t just good for poker — it’s the right thing to do.
Getting here was a rocky road.
There was the time not long ago, July 2007 to be exact, when Rep. Barney Frank made an unlikely appearance at the World Series of Poker, held in Las Vegas. At the time, Rep. Frank, who represented a congressional district in Massachusetts was the only openly gay member of Congress. He was also a tireless advocate for legalizing online poker in the United States. Although Rep. Frank didn’t play poker at all, and knew very little about the game, he viewed our cause as his own. And so, Rep. Frank became arguably the most unlikely proponent for legalizing online poker. He introduced pro-poker bills in Congress. He appeared frequently in media and often went out of his way to bring up initiatives supported by the Poker Players Alliance (PPA). His appearance at the biggest poker event of the year seemed to be an ideal setting in front of a friendly audience.
What could possibly go wrong?
I was there, that afternoon, when Rep. Frank — joined by other dignitaries at the Rio — took the microphone to say a few words to rally public support, just before giving everyone the customary tournament opening, “Shuffle Up and Deal.” However, when Rep. Frank was introduced by name, the crowd’s reaction turned out to be an embarrassment. About half the room containing a few thousand players, completely ignored the introduction. Only a few clapped. Others booed. A few hecklers hurled shameful insults at Rep. Frank.
I was standing near one particularly boisterous section of the crowd, positioned next to Rep. Frank when I heard someone yell out — “faggot!” Right there, I nearly lost it, and yelled something profane back into the crowd. That didn’t help the matter, of course. It was just my gut reaction.
I was so angry afterward that I had difficulty staying in the same room among so much indifference and hostility. Desperate for an emotional sanctuary, I walked back to the main casino at the Rio with Rep. Frank. Along the way, I made a feeble attempt to explain that this wasn’t truly representative of the way most of us felt about what he was doing for poker and the players. “Don’t worry about it,” Rep. Frank replied. “I’ve been hearing shit like that all my life.”
Years later, a young poker player named Jason Somerville made his first appearance at a WSOP final table. That’s a really big deal, especially to a player who has serious aspirations of making poker a career.
Before the finale began, it was customary to introduce each player to the crowd and the viewers watching on the live stream. It was pretty simple, really. We normally announced the player’s name, hometown, occupation, plus a tidbit or two provided by the finalist via something called a “Player Bio Sheet,” usually completed the night before. Some players used this rare occasion of making a final table to call out their friends and supporters. Others listed interesting things about themselves. Pretty standard stuff.
Somerville decided to use this occasion to send an important message. On his bio sheet, Somerville wrote that he was an openly gay man and was active in the fight for equal rights and protections. He hoped that this public acknowledgement on a major stage would encourage others who were watching, particularly those who might still be comfortable about disclosing something still viewed as controversial at the time.
We customarily followed the wishes of each player, unless something written on the bio sheet was terribly inappropriate (which alone might make for another good column, someday). After all, this was Somerville’s time to shine under the public spotlight. If he wanted to acknowledge something personal about himself, then who were we to censor his wishes?
Unfortunately, the announcer didn’t honor Somerville’s request on the bio sheet. It was simply ignored and the occasion was mostly forgotten. Somerville never made an issue of it. But the incident did stick with me, long afterward. I thought we made the wrong judgement call that day by not following the player’s request. Then again, at least we avoided a possible repeat of the Barney Frank episode from four years earlier.
One can never predict quite how a crowd will react — especially a poker crowd.
[Reminder: This previously unpublished article was written June 14, 2016]
Ryan Laplante won the largest non-Hold’em tournament of all time at the 2016 WSOP, defeating a field of 2,483 players in the $565 buy-in Pot-Limit Omaha event, good for a hefty payday of more than $180,000 — plus his very first gold bracelet.
Then, he woke up Sunday morning to the news of a terrible tragedy.
The worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11 took 49 lives when a madman stormed into a popular Orlando nightclub and gunned down more than four dozen people, mostly young gay men. Since the attack occurred very late on a Saturday night, most of us didn’t hear the news until the following day.
The scimitars for poker and the real world do not often cross. It’s as if what goes on outside the highly-competitive, almost circus-like arena of the WSOP stands as some kind of island or desert mirage apart from the rigors and ritual of reality. I recall that a major tournament was even played on the very afternoon of the morning right after the events of 9/11, a disgraceful decision by tournament organizers made considerably worse by the callousness shown by the dregs of humanity — those morally-bankrupt poker players who bothered to show up to play, all while the towers of our national identity were still smoldering in ashes.
The Orlando shooting was certainly shocking, as all terrorist acts are, but to most of us — it didn’t touch us personally. The deranged gunman who targeted people just for being gay wasn’t personal for me (or others) in the same way it was so very personal to Laplante, and presumably many others.
On what should have been a day of celebration instead had become something far more surreal. Laplante had been scheduled to receive his gold bracelet on that Sunday, barely 12 hours after the Orlando murders. Moreover, as was the custom on occasion, I was to be the fill-in emcee privileged to award Laplante his poker amulet. As horrific images of the Orlando nightclub shooting aftermath were being shown on televisions throughout the poker arena, we were about to award an openly gay man with poker’s supreme honor.
One of the perks of working in an executive position at the WSOP is the occasion to take something to a whole new level. Indeed, this was a time for elevation and we owed it to ourselves to aim especially high.
That morning, during my drive from home to the Rio, I pondered the unprecedented quandary of just how to handle the upcoming daily gold bracelet ceremony. This wasn’t just any day. This wasn’t just any winner. This wasn’t just a typical five-minute ceremony, with no lingering afterthought. This was a celebration blunted by a terrible tragedy, fronted by a remarkable young man of courage and conviction fully prepared to use this occasion to educate us, heal us, and make us all better. It was about making the event bigger than just himself, bigger than all of us.
When I met with Laplante just moments before he was to take the stage and receive his gold bracelet, it became instantly obvious he’d been thinking the same thing. Gleefully standing upon a stage and going through the usual routine in light of terrible events just didn’t seem appropriate. What did seem fitting however, was to have Laplante’s fiance, Chris Katona standing on the stage with him to present the bracelet in front of the poker world. Typically, this honor is reserved only for poker legends and sometimes the relatives of players, mostly wives and parents. Having two men in a committed relationship onstage together in celebration would be a poker first. Stung by the tragedy, but also empowered by the occasion to do a pubic good, Laplante agreed with the alternative plan.
At about 2 pm during a tournament break, I took the microphone. I introduced Laplante as the latest poker champion. Then, the stage was all his. No one knew what he would say, nor what to expect. No one knew how the huge audience — comprised almost exclusively of poker players and tournament staff — might react.
Once Laplante took possession of his gold bracelet, next he stepped up to the podium. Few players opt to speak at these events. I think I understand why. Public speaking can surely be scary. Many players don’t really have much to say. Besides, no one comes to the WSOP to hear a speech. Everyone wants to play poker.
This time, the room fell silent.
Rather than post my recollections of the speech given my Laplante, instead I’ll let this short video clip (provided by Card Player) speak for itself:
After the speech ended, everyone in the audience rose to its feet and applauded simultaneously for what seemed to be the longest duration in anyone’s recent memory. The memorable occasion didn’t make up for past sins, the ill treatment of Rep. Frank or the refusal to acknowledge people for who they are. The cheers weren’t some false notion that everything now is okay. But it was a big step in the right direction.
June 13th, 2016 was was very good day for poker. It was a day to be proud, not because we are, or we aren’t gay. It was a day to be proud because we’re human.
Note: Special thanks to photographer Antonio Abrego for the photographs.
You can find video poker machines at some mighty strange places here in Las Vegas.
Video poker can be played at local bars and restaurants. You can also try your luck at grocery stores and even gas stations. Only in Las Vegas might a loaf of bread and gallon of milk end up costing $500.
Now, add hospitals to the list of predators.
Not content with bankrupting sick patients, overcharging insurance companies, and ripping off the government, at least one major Las Vegas hospital is about to plunge full steam ahead into the casino business.
Oh shit, I missed my straight flush draw. Code Blue in the waiting room!
The hospital even paraded out a mental health “expert” to the curious media, who defended the unusual practice of installing video poker machines inside the facility’s rehab center. Despite video poker having all the health benefits of watching television while scarfing down a bag of Ruffles, the “expert” professed that playing video poker stimulates the brain’s prefrontal cortex.
See you later — I’m off to get my prefrontal cortex stimulated.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m all for legalized gambling. I even support some forms of so-called convenience gambling, which means offering easier public access to various forms of wagering — particularly live poker and sports wagering.
However, shouldn’t we be drawing the lines somewhere? What next — craps tables at the funeral parlor? Come to think of it, those padded wooden caskets might serve a remarkable duel function. Seven out! Line away!
At a time when just about every big casino on the Las Vegas Strip is grabbing gamblers by the ankles, turning us upside down, and shaking us like wilted rag dolls until every last nickel has spilled out onto the floor, the very last thing this town needs is another rigged game with a 10 percent house advantage. Everyone’s involved in larceny now. Even the Mormons, who own many of the supermarket chains with the worst video poker payouts on the planet, are in on the heist. Why would we expect anything less from greedy hospitals who basically wrote the “how to” book on fleecing?
So, how did your annual physical go? Well, there’s bad news and good news: I just got diagnosed with herpes. But I hit a royal flush!
With all the talk about Trumpcare recently, the notion of video poker machines flashing and ringing inside hospitals does give an entirely new meaning to reaching one’s deductible. Gee, I wonder if I go on tilt and blow a grand in the Deuces Wild machine — will that apply to my annual out-of-pocket? Can I get my 80-20 co-pay reimbursement on that brutal session of Double-Double Bonus?
That machine next to the urology center doesn’t pay out worth a damn!
Unfazed by criticism, one therapist at the local hospital which is scheduled to introduce Clark County’s first video poker machine offered up a novel idea as to how gamblers might multi-task during a playing session. By the way, my dear readers — I’m not making this up. The therapist really suggested this. And I quote:
“We can also have them put wrist weights on, and they’re playing for a whole 15 minutes (a session),” she said. “It can get you tired after doing it for 15 minutes.”
What? Huh? Seriously? Weights on wrists while playing video poker? Those hospital patients are going to come out of therapy looking like The Rock on steroids.
Since the cat’s now out of the money bag when it comes to unbridled greed, pretty soon hospitals are likely be looking for even more creative ways to expand their video poker profits. Just think of the possibilities: Hospital rooms. Diagnostic centers. Ambulances.
[Siren at traffic intersection] Watch out for that ambulance with the flashing red and blue lights! Ahh, everything’s fine — the guy in back on the stretcher just hit a progressive.
Paging Dr. Bob Dancer. Paging Dr. Bob Dancer. Please pick up the white courtesy phone. Your services are needed in the waiting room immediately! We need to know — should the patient hold Jacks and Tens on a 9/6 machine?
Update and Correction: At least two articles have appeared on the local press on this subject. The article in the Las Vegas Sun noted that the video poker machines will not be for cash play, but for amusement only.Read More
Note: This is the second part of the story, “The Night I Met Donald Trump at Shaq O’Neal’s 33rd Birthday Party.” PART 1 can be read here.
After zonked-out Tara Reid had to nearly be carried across the red carpet in front of the step-and-repeat banner, the parade of A- to D-list celebrities swarmed the media trough and boarded the “look at me” train.
Vivica A. Fox; “The View” co-hosts Star Jones and Al Reynolds; Miami Heat owner Micky Arison and President Pat Riley; Rapper Timbaland; Miami Heat teammates-Eddie Jones, Alonzo Mourning, and Dwayne Wade; Houston Rocket-Tracy McGrady; Chicago Cub-Sammy Sosa; Chicago Bear-Brian Uhrlacher, Oakland Raider-Ray Crockett, New York Met-Mike Piazza — the guest list went on and on. That’s who I remember seeing.
No surprise — Shaq won top prize for the “wow factor.” The guest of honor arrived at his party decked out in regal splendor, chauffeured in some futuristic-looking car so exotic it didn’t even have a brand name. Accompanied by his wife who was shorter than her husband by at least two feet, Shaq waltzed down the red carpet decked out in a bright-as-Tide white Zoot suit, his giant basketball-sized head topped off with a Panamanian-style fedora.
Celebrity events can be wildly unpredictable. You never know for sure who might show up, and perhaps more important, who will not show, despite accepting the earlier invite. That’s the danger of coaxing lots of media to attend and throwing a high -profile bash. If all the cameras and reporters show up, then it becomes essential to deliver on the goods. That means plenty of A-list celebrities.
Any remaining fears that the evening might turn into a clunker were put to rest when, out of nowhere, Donald Trump showed up with his entourage, along with his new wife, former model Melania. The Trumps were married just two months earlier in West Palm Beach, some 70 miles north of Miami. They still looked and behaved like newlyweds together. Their son Barron was born about a year later.
This was long before Trump had expressed any political aspirations. However, a new television show “The Apprentice” had debuted a year earlier on NBC which had already spawned a spin-off. The Trump name was hotter than the Manhattan commercial real estate market, and the cleverest con-man and carnival barker of them all was about to take full advantage of his swelling notoriety.
Newly married, with a hit-TV show in full production, his name plastered on consumer products from beef steaks to fancy hotels and golf courses — hell, he even had his own university! — Donald Trump was about to launch the mega-roll of a lifetime. Following more than a decade of ugly divorces, business collapses, bankruptcies, and embarrassing personal misfortunes, Trump was about to embark on the most remarkable personal marketing campaign ever witnessed in American politics and culture.
However, no one knew any of this way back on the balmy Miami evening of March 7, 2005 in South Beach.
He was still just Donald Trump, a.k.a. “The Donald,” there to pay his respects to Shaq O’Neal on the occasion of the NBA star’s 33rd birthday.
Parties attended by celebs are full of players, and by this I don’t mean the sporting kind. Everyone’s a player. Everyone has ulterior motives.
Well, maybe not Shaq and his immediate circle of teammates and “friends.” However, the people who go to all the trouble of fancying themselves up and attending such events do so for a variety of reasons — some personal and others professional. Perhaps it’s to make new contacts and/or re-establish relationships currently in the works. Maybe it’s to gold-dig a rich athlete into a paternity suit or better yet, marriage, which for some conspiring females amounts to cashing a lottery ticket. It might be a way for a nobody who aspires to be a somebody to get cheap publicity. Sometimes it’s just to giggle and gawk at the rich and famous.
At least I was paid to be there.
As the party’s official sponsor — make that co-sponsor, along with the surprise co-partnership of Hennessy — PokerStars.com was permitted to set up two live-action poker tables. Hopefully, the party guests would make their way over to compete for various prizes and charity gift certificates and we could get some good press out of all this. Like I said — ulterior motives.
Unfortunately, there was a huge problem right from the start.
Without any forethought by those put in charge of logistics, the two poker tables were positioned outdoors on the second-floor terrace next to a swimming pool overlooking the ocean. That might have been perfect for a poker game in the afternoon. But for games to be played much closer to midnight and later into the early morning perhaps, the night sky presented a huge problem.
No one could see their hole cards!
Making matters considerably worse, South Beach evenings are known for steady breezes off the ocean. This made each poker table a potential confetti machine. The flop would be put out, a gust of wind would suddenly blow off the waves, and the cards would go flying towards to pool.
Wait! I flopped a full house!
Too bad — misdeal!
Despite the hardships poor lighting, wind gusts, and flying cards, the poker games still proved to be a good draw. Trouble was, none of the celebrities were showing up. Sure, it was nice that lots of stargazers and broke nobodies wanted to play poker with us and compete for chip sets and schwag bags. But what was the whole point of spending $135,000 (plus expenses) as the host, if we couldn’t get the A-listers to come over and join the game for at least a couple of minutes?
That required Rich Korbin and I to get creative.
Rich and I made it a mission to work on the big two. That meant getting Shaq and Trump.
As manipulative as it all soudns, we had to get at least one photo of Shaq towering over the PokerStars.com table, confidently holding a poker hand, putting on a convincing shit sham that he was indeed having a total blast along with the PokerStars.com crew. Basically, that’s the real background of just about every publicity photo you will ever see. Fake. Staged.
Rich, you go get Shaq!
I’ll get Trump!
At this point, an argument broke out. Some public relations person who had been involved heavily in the pre-party planning approached. In a testy exchange, we expressed some considerable disappointment that the celebrities weren’t coming over to play poker.
Get us some celebrities!
The lady had sure talked a great game for weeks before, but come to find out — she didn’t really know Shaq from shit. She’d promised to deliver everyone from Kobe Bryant to Robert De Niro at this party, and she came up about four diamonds short of a flush. But, to her credit, we were drawing to a solid pair — Shaq and Trump.
“Where am I going to find Shaq in that crowd?” the PR lady asked. “There’s at least 500 people at this party.”
My reply was something to the effect — “Gee, I don’t know. Try looking for the 7′ 1″ Black guy dressed in white suit topped with a fedora.”
The xenostrobe flashing at Miami International Airport couldn’t have stood out any more than Shaq O’Neal in that room.
So, the PR lady worked her considerable talent on getting us Shaq. That left Rich and I to do some Trump trophy hunting.
The party downstairs had turned into a mob scene. Chaos. Security had apparently departed for the evening, and with the doors of a fully-functional hotel now wide open on a Saturday night, ass jokers were streaming in off the street, drawn like a steel to a magnet to the prospect of a free open bar and hanging out with a bunch of celebrities. You couldn’t move. Thick as flies on a rotting corpse.
Rich and I barreled our way through the crowd. To our quick surprise, we spotted Trump. He was standing off to the side near a wall, whispering something to Melania. Incredibly, no one seemed to be bothering Trump much, who appeared somewhat bored with what was happening. This was our big chance to nab a celebrity for the poker game.
Rich and I darted straight ahead for Trump when all the sudden what few lights were on inside the cavernous room went dim, and out of nowhere a spotlight appeared onto a makeshift stage close to where the Trumps were standing.
Boom boxes started blasting a rap song, bursting all but the most buttressed of eardrums, and then a sexy young woman dressed in a black evening dress stepped into the spotlight. The entire room was transfixed on the spectacle. Rich and I stopped dead in our tracks.
Cheering. Haaaaaaaaappppy 33rd birthday — Shaaaaaaaaaaaaaqqqqqqqqqqq!
Boom! Boom! Boom-boom-boom! Boom! Boom! Boom-boom-boom!
The pretty woman hoisted a violin onto her shoulder and launched into one of the most rousing displays of musical creativity I’ve witnessed. Come to find out later, the rapper was off to the side rapping live, and the woman joined impromptu into the makeshift duet with a staggering virtuoso of electric violin, superimposing a Vivaldi concerto layered brilliantly over the top of a bunch of indecipherable, but catchy lyrics. The classical violinist. The rapper. It was mayhem. It was also fantastic.
Shaq, the star and beloved birthday boy, was standing in the middle of the room some 15 feet away, bobbing his head up and down to the beat like a steady dribble. Within another minute or so, the music became infectious. Pretty soon, everyone’s head was bobbing to the beat like the wave. Rich’s head was bobbing to the beat. We looked over and Trump’s head was bobbing. Melania, too. Gee, this spectacle was great and all. But this music was shooting our poker plans all to shit.
After about 20 minutes, the performance was over and our prize catch was still swimming in the party pool. He had our hooks set. Trump was within sight.
I don’t remember if it was Rich or me who started with the small talk, which we both admittedly don’t like. Trump hates small talk too, from recent testimonials of his personality. Gee, I wish we’d just come right out and said what was really on our minds at the time — Mr. Trump….we need a favor….would you help us out for a couple of minutes? He’d likely have gone along. But instead, we wiggled through the usual conversational gymnastics trying desperately to get Trump to join the poker game upstairs. Trump politely declined.
I will say, and this comes as no surprise — Trump was cordial and even somewhat charming. One doesn’t get to that level without some degree of personal magnetism, and even though I didn’t like him even back then, he was a perfect gentleman. One might even say given his penchant for being famous, that he was (and is) naturally gifted at parties and in social engagements.
While Rich and I were congratulating the Trumps on their new marriage, a photographer appeared from nowhere and asked if we’d like a photo.
Rich and I aren’t exactly smitten with celebrities. However, the image of a couple of PokerStars.com guys hitched alongside Donald and Melania Trump would be a nice PR nick knack.
The grimy photographer didn’t seem very professional about his job and the way he was handling things. Presumably, he was going around the party, taking shots of famous people. He could have been a freelancer. He might have been paparazzi. He might have been off the street. Who knew?
I knew one thing. I had to get that photograph, no matter what it took. In the conniving world of modern marketing and PR, photos with famous people are currency.
To make certain I got the photo, I gave the photographer my business card, which listed my mailing address and telephone number. To guarantee the photo was sent, this required something a bit extra. So, I slipped him $100.
The photographer took a few photos. We all smiled and shook hands.
We never saw or heard from the photographer again.
To this day, there’s no actual evidence showing me meeting Donald Trump.
Well — at least, there should be evidence out there which shows that we finally got Shaq O’Neal to play poker. Right?
Uh, read on….
The PR lady had promised us Shaq. It was long past time to deliver. Now, it was close to 2 am and guests were starting to leave the party.
Shaq remained a no-show.
Pissed as hell and trying to figure out what we were going to say to higher ups at PokerStars.com, explaining why Shaq didn’t play poker that night despite paying the freight for the party, the NBA All Star was finally coaxed into coming outside by the pool. By this time, all the boundaries of security were long gone and Shaq was pretty much a moving target of anyone with bold enough to approach him for an autograph, or a photo, or a business idea, or a joke or any other mindless time-wasting augmentation of being a rich and famous celebrity.
Hey Shaq! Over here!
Look, it’s Shaq!
Shaq, my man!
Got a sec, Shaq? This will just take a second. My brother’s on the phone. He’s a big fan. Can you just say hello?
The PR lady made good on her promise and Shaq scurried his way over to the poker table with a trail of fan barnacles. The look on his face revealed this was the very last place he wanted to be at 2 am on his birthday, while his basketball buddies were downstairs partying their asses off. Even though we were in the midst of a Sit n’ Go, no one at the table cared about the interruption. Chips were fished out of the rack, and placed in front of Shaq like he was some Egyptian pharaoh.
Look! Shaq’s playing poker! Shaq’s playing poker! Go Shaq!
Within a few seconds, it became painfully obvious something was very wrong.
“What do I do now?” Shaq asked.
The dealer explained the action, that it was his decision to either call the bet, raise, or fold. Shaq didn’t have a clue what was going on. However, he’d apparently seen enough poker on television somewhere to move all-in. Shaq moved all-in.
Shaq’s raise was snap-called in two spots, and Shaq rolled over something like 9-4 off-suit. The board didn’t help, and Shaq was out of action in one hand.
I forgot if it was me, or Rich, or Brad Willis (who was blogging that night for PokerStars.com), but one of us yelled out, “Give Shaq more chips! Rebuy! Don’t let Shaq leave!”
Shaq was promptly given another fresh stack of chips. On the very next hand, the same thing happened. Shaq went broke.
Again, Shaq was given more chips and the Sit n’ Go suddenly had all the integrity of a rigged South American soccer match.
Three stacks into the game, and Shaq dying to split and go back to his party with pals Tracy McGrady and Alonzo Mourning, we suddenly realized that no one had a camera. This was a few years before smart phones came out, which enabled everyone with an instant camera-phone.
Where’s the photographer?!!! Where’s the photographer?!!!
Someone came to our rescue and quickly produced a camera, and Shaq was photographed shoehorned into the six seat, his giant 350-pound frame crushing a fragile metal folding chair, his mammoth size and stature overwhelming the felt while holding up two hole cards like he’s just drawn out on Johnny Chan heads-up for the world championship, pearly whites flashing brighter than his ivory suit.
High fives all around.
We got it! We finally got it! We got the photo with Shaq playing poker!
Now, twelve years later, I still have not seen that photo of Shaq playing poker — that elusive photo that essentially cost us $135,000 to get. But, that photo is floating out there somewhere. Somebody has it.
Cynicism is the final tumbling domino of broken illusions.
I’m betting if you surveyed those 500 or so people who attended Shaq’s 33rd birthday party that night, and queried them on who was the official sponsor, no more than 50 would have answered “PokerStars.com.” Perhaps 1 in 10. Hennessy probably would have polled only slightly better.
PokerStars.com might as well have handed out $20 bills on the streets of Downtown Miami. That would have been money wiser spent.
By 4 am, the party was done and we’d broken down the poker tables and put away the cards and chips. Time to leave. We were about to say our goodbye’s, until the next gig.
Then, out of nowhere, Rich Korbin appeared with a marketing idea.
“Have you ever heard of Katt Williams?” he asked.
No. Never heard of him. Rich explained to me that Katt was waiting for us downstairs. He wanted to meet both of us, interested in the prospect of receiving some kind of paid sponsorship with PokerStars.com. At the very least, Katt was interested in playing for the site, if we agreed to post the $10,000 entry fee to Main Event of the World Series of Poker, just three months away.
“It’s four fucking a.m.”
Rich, I must say, is on the ball. Always. 24/7. Somehow, he set up an impromptu meeting which was to take place in exactly 15 minutes, inside the hotel cafe, which was closed and completely dark.
Wait, we’re going to meet some aspiring stand-up comic right now at 4 in the morning, in a dark restaurant? After a party? Really? What the fuck?
So, Rich and I went downstairs and were met by Katt Williams and his sister, who served as his manager. The meeting lasted about 45 minutes.
Katt’s sister impressed the hell out of both of us. What a pistol. She was an astonishingly convincing marketer and pitch person. You couldn’t say no to her. Within just a few minutes, Rich and I might as well have been eating of out of her hand.
This meeting was a godsend. Admittedly, the rest of the evening had produced mixed results. However, we were ready to sign Katt that instant. ON. THE. SPOT. He was young. He was edgy. And, he was Black, which might sound racially biased, but from marketing standpoint — which should focus on the future rather than the past — was a noteworthy diversion from the usual sponsored poker players and celebrities made up pretty much of white bread. He was also extremely polite and couldn’t have been more impressive, in person. Then and there, Rich and I knew instantly that Katt Williams was going somewhere in show biz. Within just a few years, Katt Williams was appearing in his own HBO specials.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t get PokerStars.com to sign Katt to a sponsorship. That was a huge disappointment to us. The decision to pass on Katt was one of the few marketing mistakes our company made during my years I was with them.
No worries. Katt ended up doing pretty well on his own, without the help of PokerStars.com.
Katt Williams even appeared in a comedy special a few years later, “Friends with Shaq,” the friendship likely bonded that night in South Beach.
That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
Revealing my own complicit behavior in going along with the sham, here’s how I was quoted in the official party press release which was distributed the next day to all media via PR Newswire:
“We were thrilled to be invited to join Shaq’s friends and family for this intimate gathering,” said Nolan Dalla, Director of Communications for PokerStars.com. “It was a great way for us to come together with many of our celebrity poker fans and wish someone who continues to give us year after year of truly memorable basketball a very happy birthday. We were thrilled with the turnout, which included so many great athletes and celebrities.”
Twelve years ago tonight, I met Donald Trump at the most unlikely of affairs — former NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal’s 33rd birthday bash in Miami Beach.
Why was I invited? I have no connections to the NBA or Miami’s hipster social scene. I hate going to parties. And, hanging out with celebrities is way overrated.
Well, I wasn’t invited to Shaq’s party, exactly. But I did fly all the way across the country. I stayed the entire evening. I also hung out with celebs including Shaq O’Neil, future President Donald Trump, and a young up-and-coming comedian who shall be mentioned later.
I’m writing about this story for the first time.
Two months earlier, right after New Years, I was at the Sea World park in San Diego on a family vacation. Miami Beach, Shaq O’Neal, and Donald Trump were 3,000 miles away, but might as well have been somewhere on the moon — for all I cared.
That’s when my cell phone rang.
The voice on the other end informed me about a potential marketing and public relations opportunity for the company I was working for at the time. In addition to my annual seasonal work at the World Series of Poker, I also worked full-time for PokerStars.com, serving as their Director of Communications. Those were exciting days to be working in poker, when we all had money to burn and the sky was the limit.
For the princely sum of $135,000 PokerStars.com had the chance to be the “official sponsor” for Shaquille O’Neal’s 33rd birthday party. That figure amounted to pocket change for Isai Scheinberg, PokerStars.com’s enterprising founder and then-owner/CEO. Shaq’s party was certain the be the social event of early 2005, even going so far as to generate national attention, especially in the sports and entertainment media. O’Neal was then at the top of his game. He’d just left the Los Angeles Lakers where he won an NBA title, signed as a free agent with the Miami Heat where he joined legendary head coach Pat Riley. He’d lead them to their first world championship the following year.
O’Neal wasn’t just a basketball player. He was a superstar. He appeared in movies and was one of the most recognizable athletes in the world.
$135,000 sure sounded like a bargain.
Sponsoring the birthday bash meant paying for the mega-party which was to be held on ritzy South Beach, on the night after the Heat played a home game in Miami in early March. Everyone who was anyone was invited and expected to attend. This party included a stellar guest list certain to generate lots of publicity and perhaps even some much-needed goodwill with numerous celebrities. TMZ would even be there, their cameras rolling, just in case anything wild happened.
After a follow-up conversation with Dan Goldman (PokerStars.com’s Director of Marketing) and Isai, we jumped at the chance to host Shaq’s party.
This wasn’t just about poker. This was Creative Branding 101. This was being hip. This was being at the center of the scene where much of our player demographic wanted to be. We were about to entertain the most popular sports stars in America, numerous A-List celebrities, and one brash New York real estate developer who a dozen years later would become the 45th President of the United States.
What could go wrong?
In early 2005, PokerStars.com ranked the second-largest online poker site in the world. The site was raking in millions, remarkable since at the time there were no more than about 200 employees worldwide. The site might as well have been a mint. PokerStars.com was printing money.
But for Isai, and his son Mark (who was just as instrumental in building the site and creating the empire that was to come), ranking second was totally unacceptable. We knew our software was superior to the game design used by industry kingpin, PartyPoker.com. We knew our customer service was top notch in the industry, out hustling every other company in the gaming sector, including the land-based casinos which might as well have been living in the previous century. We knew that our top management was genuinely driven by something more than just making money and was run by dedicated poker people who knew the game backwards and forwards and were clued into what players wanted in a poker experience.
The push was on to become the number one poker site in the world, both in terms of daily traffic and reputation. Sponsoring non-gambling mainstream events like Shaq’s birthday party was yet another way to try and legitimize our company — which despite our best efforts — was still tainted as a shady gambling company based someplace that might as well have been Outer Mongolia, and therefore was quasi-legal.
Of course, no one gave this financial shakedown a second thought. The irony of multi-millionaire athletes, presumed billionaire financiers, and movie stars having their personal entertainment paid for by an outside company was preposterous.
We’d all jumped the shark. This was cultural insanity.
Shaq’s birthday party took place at the swanky Hotel Victor, a refurbished Art Deco percolator for Miami’s “in crowd,” where South Beach’s thriving gay scene intersected with local elite. Think of the movie — “Birdcage.” A few years earlier, fashion icon Gianni Versace had been gunned down just steps away from the main entrance to Hotel Victor.
Rich Korbin and I became the chosen ones. We were plucked to play the role of party hosts, representing the official sponsor — PokerStars.com. My qualifications for this role were suspect, at best. However, Rich was essential to the operation.
Rich was known as the man to get things done at Stars. “The fixer” has a bad connotation. But if we had a fixer, it was Rich. He made things happen, and it was usually best not to ask about details. We didn’t want to know. When we’d ship stuff to events and ran into the Teamsters Union, and we needed our freight moved before everyone else’s shit got rained on at the loading docks, Rich greased the wheels and got us set up before everyone else. When it came time to negotiating a new deal with a supplier playing had ball on the contract, Rich ball-busted the shit out of them. That was Rich’s talent. “The Art of the Deal” should have been written by Rich Korbin.
Rich also seemed to have connections just about everywhere. So, he hired a handful of local poker dealers based around Miami to pitch cards all night. We planned on running two poker tables non-stop as long as they’d let us run the games. Given the legal restrictions against gambling and the precious time demands of party guests, we agreed it was best to run something called Sit n’ Go’s. That’s basically a small tournament of 9-10 players, usually lasting not more than 30-40 minutes. We expected to give away thousands of dollars in prizes. Hopefully, the media would stick around and we’d get some “free” promotion for PokerStars.com, which would only end up costing us closer to $160,000 with all the extras added in.
Who knows — maybe Rich and I might even make TMZ.
Sometime around 30 years ago, an unknown marketeer saw a tremendous opportunity in the mundane. Take a closer look at old movie newsreels of athletes and celebrities. When out in public back in those days, famous people up through the end of the 1970’s were almost always interviewed while bunched up in crowds along with other people hanging out in the background. Entertainment and sports media lacked much in the way of commercialization. There were no logos. Corporations didn’t dabble in what later became known as — entertainment marketing.
Then, at some point during the “Greed is Good” 1980’s, a marketing maven somewhere who likely never got proper credit (more fittingly, the blame) for the idea saw lots of precious media real estate being wasted and decided to change every aspect of how pop culture is covered in the modern age. And so, that’s how the “Step and Repeat” banner got invented. When the person of the focus took a step, the logo was imagery repeated over both shoulders. It didn’t matter where the celebrity stood or the position of the head and face. There was the logo behind. Note that’s how the banner got its name.
Today, you can’t watch a soccer game or see an interview with a movie star on television without absorbing a corporate logo plastered somewhere on the screen. The Step and Repeat banner is now used everywhere, in all sports and major media events. After a ball game, athletes are interviewed with corporate logos emblazoned in the background. Now, even parties have the unremitting Step and Repeat banner in the background, and Shaq’s Miami bash was no exception.
Our banner that was special made that evening included logos from PokerStars.com and — much to my shock when I initially saw it — Hennessy, the brand of cognac which has a reputation for being a favorite of hipsters.
What in the hell was Hennessy doing on our Step and Repeat banner? We paid a premium for that space!
That was the first time I’d seen Hennessy was involved in our party. I’d been led to believe PokerStars.com had an exclusive on the marketing. Gee, I wonder if Hennessy had to fork over $135,000 for their role as the “official sponsor?” Err, make that — “co-sponsor.” Something seemed dirty about this deal. Of course, this is how those deals work. It’s standard practice. This is the bait and switch game, and companies fall for it — hook, line, and sinker — every time.
Still, if we were going to share media exposure, then I suppose we could do a helluva’ lot worse than being connected to Hennessy. Poker and a premium liquor — that’s a coveted pairing. Fortunately, we didn’t have to share the limelight with chewing tobacco, or tires, or worse — an insurance company. Thank you, Geico — for presumably not returning the phone call or we might have been paired with that green lizard.
That night, the Miami Heat defeated the Philadelphia 76ers 108-100. That was a good thing. We didn’t want the Heat to lose, which might have cast a spell over the jovial expectations of Shaq’s birthday party. Winning basketball players are happy basketball players. Oh, and thank goodness the game didn’t go into double-overtime, which could wrecked the evening.
Sometime around 9 pm, Tara Reid was among the first celebrities to show up on the red carpet and walk the Step and Repeat, which marked the glitzy entrance to Hotel Victor. Reid was either so drunk or so stoned off her ass that she had to be helped up the ramp to walk. She was a hot mess.
Limos and Bentleys and Rolls Royces pulled up in front at the red carpet and one by one the celebrities paraded like pretty people in front of the cameras. I worked the red carpet “line,” making sure the dozens of media outlets got the shots they needed while making certain no celebs were held up for too long by any one photographer or interviewer. My mission was to keep the line flowing steadily, getting the shots, and making sure the celebrities weren’t overwhelmed.
My career had been reduced to an ass-kissing enabler.
Coming Next in Part 2: Meeting Trump and Playing Poker with Shaq