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More than the Games

As poker's popularity skyrockets, many of the top names in the game are making more money as media darlings than as competitive players
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Antonio Banderas, Nov/Dec 2005

During the course of this year's World Series of Poker, some of the biggest names in the game—guys such as Erick Lindgren, Howard Lederer and Daniel Negreanu—failed to win a single bracelet, and had no more than a few in-the-money finishes apiece. Considering that the field was more massive than ever, coupled with the improvement of amateur players through countless hours of online action, this was not entirely surprising.

While it was disappointing for the pros, the real bummer didn't stem from any one of them yearning for a bracelet or even the six-figure paycheck that comes with winning a preliminary World Series event. No, the more critical loss was in TV exposure.

Every big player these days has something to sell—Web sites, books, video games, T-shirts, liquor—and those promotional opportunities are centered around them looking like winners in the public eye. It requires them to log loads of TV time, and no poker event gets more exposure than the World Series.

So when you see Phil Hellmuth throwing one of his notorious fits after getting busted out of a tournament, his anger may have as much to do with opportunities lost away from the felt as it does with his decimated chance to go for Hold'em gold. He, like just about all the other highly publicized pros, realizes that the business of poker has gotten bigger than the game of poker, and that the real opportunities are in the corporate world rather than in the casino.

In conversation, away from the table, Hellmuth comes off as the game's Donald Trump. Derisively known as the Poker Brat (a nickname that he's embraced), he is a big, ballsy, go-for-it kind of guy who has the disturbing habit of referring to himself in the third person. It's as if he is continually driving home the point that he's a product as much as a human being. While Hellmuth's 2005 poker season has been highlighted by a big ratings-grabbing win—the National Heads-Up Poker Championship, which aired on NBC—it's not the game that he wants to talk about when we meet for a cappuccino at the Bellagio in Las Vegas a few months before the Series. Hellmuth has just gotten knocked out of a Professional Poker Tour tournament—dubbed the PPT, it's a series of invitational events for pros only, with prize pools of $500,000, and, most importantly, limited restrictions on the logos that can be worn—and he is in the mood to talk marketing.

Immediately, Hellmuth starts reeling off his non-playing projects: posters, a cell phone game, T-shirts, a line of children's clothing ("Poker Brats," he says with a straight face. "You can print it. But you can't tell anyone."), hats ("I'm going to sell a million, with my P.H. logo on them."), a reality show, a biopic (Hellmuth insists that "a major star" will be named imminently, but it hasn't happened yet), a fantasy camp. He talks about his lawyers, his agent, a CEO he recently hired, and meetings with hedge-fund managers in New York. "If you get chunks of money—10 million or 50 million or 100 million or more—there's a lot you can do with it," he grandly states. "I'm expected to get hundreds of millions."

I tell him that it sounds as if these ancillary ventures are almost eclipsing the game of poker for him. "Almost?" he asks, incredulously. "It's not even close. Right now it seems like I could [ultimately] make a billion dollars from this craze. Plus, I have a lot of equity in companies. I've bought pieces of tournaments. I have a piece of Card Player magazine—and I don't see that as a conflict of interest. When my cell phone game came out ["Texas Hold'em" by Phil Hellmuth], I asked for a million shares of Summus [the company releasing the game] and they gave it to me." Told that it sounds like a pretty sweet deal, Hellmuth shrugs and admits, "The stock has since done a reverse one-for-ten split, but I still have 100,000 shares [valued at $2.95 per share as of mid-October]. And I think it's gonna blow up."

Hellmuth speaks nonstop; his favorite subject is himself. Of course, he's hard to take for long periods of time. A lot of what he says seems like so much speculative hot air—he dreams of doing a Phil Hellmuth edition of a Cadillac: "It'll come in gold, be their top-of-the-line model, sell for $100,000, and only 1,000 will be produced..."—but his vision is remarkably undeniable. Back when his fellow players routinely dodged press attention, Hellmuth made himself irresistibly available. He's always carried himself with a professional demeanor (viewing poker as a career, rather than a game) and long ago predicted that one day there would be value in wearing logo-ed hats. He was among the first poker pros to have a Web site and worked hard to ink a couple of book deals (his first title, Play Poker Like the Pros, eked its way onto the extended list of New York Times best sellers). Back when online poker was in its infancy and UltimateBet.com was looking for players to sponsor, Hellmuth vigorously jumped on board.

Like it or not, he might be the future of poker: the player as play-ah, the card shark who's gotten too big for the game that made him famous, a strident self-marketer who can't resist slapping his name everywhere. "I have hundreds of people selling Phil Hellmuth right now; there are lawyers, publicists, Oakley, UltimateBet, my manager, my agent, my book publisher—they're all promoting the heck out of me," he says, maintaining that he's about to buy four $100,000 Tourbillon wristwatches for his most valued business partners. "Now I have to back it up by winning tournaments." He hesitates for a beat, and retreats a notch: "But I don't even have to [win tournaments]. I'm considered a poker icon. I was offered $100,000 to be a liquor company's spokesman this year, but I turned it down. I felt like 100,000 bucks wasn't enough for me. Look, everything I've touched since 1998 has turned to gold." He considers this, then corrects himself: "Wait, not gold—platinum."

Hellmuth comes off as a caricature of a young man on the make, but he's not the only one cleaning up from the poker boom (albeit, others do it with more subtlety and modesty). Even second-tier pros have managers and publicists and various promotional deals. This ratcheting of high-stakes commerce was ignited when three things happened: online poker took off, suddenly allowing millions of people to play at any time; televised tournaments exploded, making poker look like more of a sport and less like gambling; and the hole-card camera became de rigueur, permitting home viewers to see players' cards and dramatically enriching the experience of watching poker on television. "World Poker Tour," far and away the highest-rated show on the Travel Channel, is produced in such a way that it turns each tournament into a mini drama—and, intentionally, makes stars out of the players.


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