A PokerStars Conference Call: The Creation of the European Poker Tour (EPT)
I worked for PokerStars.com for nearly three years. I served as the company’s Director of Communications between 2004-2006. Until now, I have written and said very little about my time spent with PokerStars. This was largely out of respect for the confidentially of the company and those I worked with closely during those years. However, the recent sale of the company by the Scheinberg Family allows me now to be more candid about what I did, and the activities I observed. Today marks the ten-year anniversary of the following telephone conference call, which essentially created the European Poker Tour (EPT).
Some day, the remarkable story of PokerStars shall be written. Provided that I’m not the one who authors it, I most certainly will long to read it.
A few days ago, sale of the world’s largest and most successful online poker site was officially finalized. The reported price: $4.9 billion. That’s a lot of mouse clicks. Ownership transferred from the Scheinberg Family (primarily Isai and his son Mark) to Amaya Gaming, a public corporation based in Canada.
Calling this moment the end of an era would be a gross understatement. Given Scheinberg’s relentless dedication to the company they once founded, and the intense loyalty they earned over the past 13 years from their employees — I being just one of many — we’re unlikely to see anything like this ever again. PokerStars wasn’t the sole reason for what became known as the “poker boom.” But the company now based on the Isle of Man was most certainly an integral part of the game’s crescendo in global popularity. Moreover, it profited more from average poker players than any other gaming-related entity in history.
The following story is my recollection of one of my first conference calls with Isai Scheinberg.
* * * * *
Dan Goldman had extraordinary power at PokerStars. As the company’s Director of Marketing, he was presumably in charge of things like advertising and publicity. But Goldman did so much more. He actually made decisions that would come to shape the history of poker.
I reported directly to Dan. That also meant I exchanged emails and phone calls regularly with Isai Scheinberg (and to a lesser extent, Mark).
My first official day with PokerStars was August 1, 2004. Less than one week later, I was on a four-way conference call that would lead to the creation of what became known as the European Poker Tour (EPT).
For the purposes of being more comfortable telling this story, I’ll refer to both Goldman and Scheinberg by their first names, from this point forward.
* * * * *
No matter where you were or what time it was, when Isai called — you took it.
You dropped everything.
Isai always impressed me as a no-nonsense owner who was eager to get things done. No detail was ever too small for his attention, nor scrutiny beneath his wrath (some of the stories are legendary). Isai didn’t just micromanage his company. He ran it like someone who was determined to change the world — at least the world of online gaming.
And he did.
Dan called me first. Next, he said Isai wanted me to be involved in a highly-confidential conference call with someone named John Duthie, who I knew marginally as a poker player from England who came to the World Series of Poker every year. The topic of conversation was to be the creation of a new poker tour over in Europe.
Now you have to understand something that’s hard to grasp. My first instinct upon hearing this news was one of overt skepticism. If a poker player is involved in business development, and even bigger than that — an international television agreement — my opinion was that it’s got no shot at succeeding. Period. Sorry, but poker players know how to play ace-king. They assess hand values. They don’t know shit about complicated high-profile negotiations with television moguls and creating a new business. Looking at the devastation left behind by poker players who turned into business executives in recent years is proof of that. Recall — Full Tilt Poker, Absolute Poker, UltimateBet, and on and on. Like asking circus clowns to do surgery.
John Duthie wins a million dollars in a poker tournament over in Europe and suddenly he wants to create a poker series that will rival the World Series of Poker and the World Poker Tour? Yeah, right. Kiss that million goodbye, John.
Well, John Duthie was and is no fool. And in the years since then, I’ve come to develop immense respect for him as a businessman and a person. John was the perfect bridge between a lot of different interests, and the fact he brought all these divergent parties together and eventually created what became a successful poker tour is a tremendous testament to his tenacity and ability.
But I didn’t know that back then. In fact, I didn’t really know much of anything. I’d been marginally involved in the initial ESPN negotiations with Binion’s Horseshoe back before the 2003 WSOP. However, I don’t know jack shit about business or negotiating finances. I certainly didn’t know anything about the European gaming and television landscape. However, I was asked to be on this call for the simple fact that I was now within the inner-circle at PokerStars, and it was presumed I was one of the pillars of the ESPN-WSOP alliance (I wasn’t).
What if you work your whole life for a seat at the table, but once you get that seat you don’t know how to hold a knife and fork?
* * * * *
The call took place during the middle of the afternoon. Dan was here in Las Vegas. John was over in London, which meant it was around midnight over there. Isai was still living in the Toronto suburbs, so it was late afternoon, his time.
John, Dan, and Isai had already worked out some preliminary agreement. PokerStars was going to bankroll the deal. Title sponsorship was ours in an emerging market with intense competition, already crowded with PartyPoker (the world’s biggest site), UltimateBet (who no one ever thought would budge from being a marginal player in the bigger global game), Full Tilt Poker (in only its first year of operations, which meant it wasn’t taken seriously), ParadisePoker (by then, on a steep decline in traffic), and a bunch of other smaller sites fighting over the scraps. No doubt, PokerStars was absolutely destined to not just be the second-biggest site in the world but would come to threaten its primary competitor PartyPoker for supremacy. NOTE: It took PartyPoker voluntarily leaving the U.S. market after UIEGA was passed in 2006 for that to eventually happen.
As I said, I didn’t know how to hold a knife and fork, which is essentially a metaphor for me confessing that I had no fucking idea what I was doing.
To be clear, I am good at what I do and won’t feign false modesty about that. But creating a new poker tour with a television deal and then actively producing a show for a market I knew virtually nothing about basically put the surgeon’s gloves on me, with no instructions to perform the operation. When that happens, the patient dies.
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?”
Headlights meet deer.
Well, Dan wasn’t interested in the team’s new star player to ass-love the bench and watch the game as some disinterested bystander. He wanted me to play, and score. John Duthie was just as eager for my opinion, even though I didn’t have much of one. As for Isai, I can only imagine what was swimming through his perplexed mind as I stuttered and stammered through a torturous 90-minute phone call desperately trying to grasp for advice that might justify why I was even on this phone call in the first place.
Imaginary Isai thinking to himself…
“Who in the fuck is this guy — he’s our new Director of Communications?”
Okay, so Isai never said that. I hope he never thought that. Actually, I know he never thought that. That wasn’t him. I never once in all my conversations with Isai ever heard him utter a swear word.
* * * * *
Of course, we all know the history and it’s pretty damned amazing. We know how it turned out. History properly records PokerStars with making it all happen, although everyone involved behind-the-scenes knows very well that John Duthie was the real pioneer and the passion behind it all.
John Duthie deserves a medal, or whatever the equivalent is in our game. Okay, so I hope he eventually gets a gold bracelet.
Now entering its 11th remarkable season, the EPT has brought poker and the excitement of tournaments to many countries throughout Europe. It continues to provide a state-of-the-art poker experience for all who attend.
I shall always feel privileged to have been involved, if in no other way, at least as an observer.
Once upon a time, John Duthie had a dream. And Isai Scheinberg had a bankroll.
Together, they changed the poker world.
Addendum: More PokerStars stories to come later.