As poker's popularity skyrockets, many of the top names in the game are making more money as media darlings than as competitive players
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.
This was not lost on Brian Balsbaugh who, through most of the 1990s, was a sports agent focusing on professional golf, a game with famously large tournament purses that are rivaled by those offered at World Poker Tour events. No doubt, though, he also considered the fact that lucrative sponsorship deals turn winning golfers into extremely well-paid athletes. In 2003, he launched Poker Royalty, a company devoted to managing and marketing poker players in the same way that mainstream sports stars are handled.
Cut from the slim, handsome and confident mold that Jerry Maguire made famous, Balsbaugh is a hard-working, hard-hustling guy who came into poker at a time when few other people saw its potential. As a result, he's scooped up many of the game's biggest players for representation and has contributed mightily to the poker-is-bigger-than-poker cash grab. "When I first started, there was a stigma attached to poker; it sounded absurd for a Fortune 500 company to sponsor a poker player," says Balsbaugh as he sips bottled water near the Bellagio's jam-packed poker room. "I became encouraged when I looked at NASCAR and X Games and saw the evolution of sponsors. It always starts with something endemic—motor oil for NASCAR and skateboards for X Games—before the other advertisers come in. With poker, the online sites were the first sponsors. Then came poker products, such as chips and instructional materials. Now we're at the outskirts [of mainstream] with Oakley sunglasses and liquor and beer. The others will follow."
The degree to which someone such as Balsbaugh can help his clients was on display during the taping of NBC's Heads-Up event. For that single poker tournament, he quickly procured $300,000 worth of sponsorship deals, leading 10 or so players on the show to make no less than $25,000 each, which more than covered their entry fees. In time, predicts Balsbaugh, "We'll laugh at the notion of a guy like Daniel Negreanu spending $300,000 per year to play in tournaments that other entities are filming."
One player who won't be laughing, if the big free-roll comes to pass, is Howard "Poker Professor" Lederer: a former chess wizard turned mega-sports bettor turned poker pro who personifies all things brainy about the game. (He initially hated the nickname when it was bestowed upon him by poker commentator Jesse May; now, with all the positive attention it's brought him, he loves it.)
Like most of the top-winning pros, Lederer is happy to put his own money at risk. He wants to be fairly compensated for playing and for having his likeness on TV, but he prefers for the producing entity to sweeten the pot rather than merely provide it. "Poker is different from, say, golf," explains Lederer. "Top poker players make money by putting up money; we gamble. So I think something gets lost in the pure free-roll aspect. I say the production companies should make the players put up money—lots of money—and they should put up a lot of money themselves. I'm thinking $20,000 from each player and $20,000 per player from the tournament [producer]. Do that, have amateurs getting in, allow logos, and you really have something."
Indeed, in the currently rarefied world of big-money poker, prizes that used to seem juicy now elicit yawns. "I was in San Diego, playing with Phil Ivey and Gus Hanson; I was stuck $1.3 million before getting back to even," remembers Daniel Negreanu, winner of the best overall player award at the 2004 World Series. "Then the next day I had to fly to San Francisco to spend three days trying to win $200,000—if I finished in first place. I was like, 'You're kidding, right?' It's disheartening to play these tournaments with no buy-in"—and no chance at a seven-figure payday.
For Lederer, the ancillary growth of the game has allowed him to sign pacts with the online poker site FullTilt.com, Knob Creek Bourbon (Phil Hellmuth says that this is the $100,000 deal that he turned down) and an instructional DVD producer. Plus, Lederer has enough notoriety that he (like Hellmuth) has his own poker fantasy camp. "Life is richer now; I wake up every morning and know what I'm going to do that day. It's hectic, but it's fun," he says. The downside of all this, Lederer admits, is that the quality of poker ultimately suffers. As one who has moved out of the biggest cash games and into the higher-profile (but ultimately softer, less profitable, less financially risky) tournaments, he says, "Some of the best players in the game are very distracted right now. A lot of that is due to the fact that there are life-changing businesses to be built. And these are opportunities well beyond [poker]."
Not all of the opportunities are hard work. Poker's über-celeb of the moment is Negreanu, a Toronto native. He was tapped to throw out the game ball on opening day for the Blue Jays, and when the National Hockey League hosted a charity hockey game, Negreanu signed on to be a celebrity coach—and he says he attracted more autograph seekers than the hockey stars did. Right now he is the fresh young face of poker—with deals that are highlighted by his own Xbox poker game, being released through Microsoft and Sony, and a plum gig as "poker ambassador" for Steve Wynn's new eponymous casino. A friend of Negreanu's tells me, "He's going to make $1 million in 2005 without needing to play a single card."
Early in our conversation, I ask Negreanu whether or not this is true. He smiles and says, "If I don't make at least $1 million this year, I will be sick to my stomach." He lets that sink in, then adds, "What I mean is that a million is a low estimate, and that within the next couple years $2 million is attainable."
He'll make the money through sales of his Xbox poker game, speaking engagements (Negreanu, a high school drop-out, lectured the MBA-intensive marketing department of Kraft Foods on applying poker strategies to marketing and management), and endorsement deals such as the one he has with Clear Edge, a non-stimulant vitamin that supposedly battles mental fatigue (perfect for the tail end of a 36-hour poker marathon). Like other players who are finding fame and fortune beyond the felt, Negreanu has the four qualities that Balsbaugh seeks in a sellable player: A unique look, a good personality, a solid poker résumé and the desire to be marketed.
"I've always been a good guy and felt comfortable dealing with people," says Negreanu, ticking off traits that are rare among those who choose poker as a way to earn a living. "Even when I play poker, I entertain at the table. I talk a lot and keep things lively. Of course, though, I'm not stupid. I realize that the more likable I am at the table, the more it helps me at the table." He maintains that people feel better about losing to a nice guy and that they're likely to chat back at him, giving away valuable information in the process.
While the poker boom, and all opportunities associated with it, might very well be in its infancy—and, if the Balsbaughs of the world have their way, will only intensify—there are some players who are less than thrilled about it all. They secretly long for the bad old days, when being a poker player was the equivalent of belonging to a secret society and the only way the Binions could get the World Series of Poker on TV was by picking up the production costs and paying ESPN $100,000.
Adam Schoenfeld got into high-stakes poker after he made his millions in high tech, as the vice president of Jupiter Communications (an Internet analysis firm that went public before the technology bubble burst), and he loved the underground nature of poker back in the 1990s. "I miss my squalid, seedy backroom club on Houston Street [in lower Manhattan], where the Italian chef cooked pasta to order," says the lanky, burr-headed pro. "I liked being part of something that wasn't homogenized."
On the other hand, he admits, "Right now I'm playing in a free-roll in which we're down to 45 players, the first prize is $200,000 [with a total prize pool of $500,000], and my equity is $10,000 but my entry fee was nothing. It's good money. But poker used to be where I went to get away from the real world." It goes without saying that poker has become the real world, complete with guys worrying about their reputations and the deals they're cutting.
Underscoring it all, at this year's World Series of Poker, players were suspended for 10 minutes each time they said "fuck." It's bad enough that you can't smoke in many poker rooms, now you can't even curse at the most famous poker event in the world. What's going to be taken away next—gambling? And even as Schoenfeld—a nonsmoker and, more or less, noncurser—misses the more freewheeling days, he admits to feeling some stress about winning enough tournament money to maintain his professional status (necessary for getting into free-roll tournaments) and discloses having a bit of angst about a recent poker-related TV audition.
Nevertheless, before leaving to try turning his zero-dollar entry fee into a six-figure windfall, Schoenfeld says, "We can't return to the old days, because there's simply too much money in poker now. But if I could, I would like to turn back the clock"—maybe for just one last Hold'em and pasta binge at the seedy joint on Houston Street.
Michael Kaplan is Cigar Aficionado's gambling columnist.