The Good Life

Poker 2.0

Pro poker's Wild West days are probably gone for good, but players and promoters are betting on new ways to profit in a changed, leaner environment
| By Michael Kaplan | From Sean Combs, May/June 2016
Poker 2.0
Illustration/Dieter Braun

It's impossible to look at the Poker Central website, launched in 2015, without feeling a twinge of nostalgia. Its homepage is dominated by rectangular links to old poker-themed game shows like NBC's "Face The Ace," GSN's "High Stakes Poker" and "Poker After Dark," which once aired after "Last Call With Carson Daily." While Poker Central also offers current programming, its streaming content of reruns instantly evokes the glory days of card playing—say, 2007—when ordinary people marveled over gutsy shoves by Tom Dwan. Or the short-tempered outbursts from Phil Hellmuth. And how could one forget the lobbing of nasty-bombs courtesy of purple-haired David "Viffer" Peat.

But it's also impossible to forget that the era is gone, entangled in snarls of controversy and bitterness that followed the end of poker as we knew it for much of this millennium's first decade. That happened in 2011, after the U.S. government undeniably banned online poker. It didn't help that the online poker site Full Tilt was shown to be insolvent, and, worse yet, that players looked like they would be stiffed for large sums of money. While the game still thrives in locations that range from the high-stakes card rooms of Las Vegas to friendly home games around the world to computer terminals of online operations (in jurisdictions where it remains legal), poker's best days seem to loom in the rearview mirror.

Erik Seidel is suitably positioned to offer an assessment. A backgammon player turned options trader, he got serious about poker after the stock market crashed in 1987. The following year Seidel finished second to Johnny Chan in the World Series of Poker Main Event. He's been crushing the game ever since. Lanky, loose-limbed and resourceful, Seidel found success in poker before there were million-dollar endorsement deals and opportunities for making money outside of winning it. Then, when online started to pop, he emerged as one of the original representatives of Full Tilt. It stood out in an industry that was great for a while; then everything went busto, with sites disappearing, operators getting arrested and endorsement deals washing out. At this very moment, with ancillary opportunities all but incinerated, poker is pretty much back to where it used to be: largely a game where you need to play well if you want to earn a living.

Seidel has landed on his feet with more than $7 million in tournament winnings over the last three years and he doesn't mind existing outside of the poker spotlight. "I don't think poker will ever be as big as it used to be," he says, sitting in the living room of his nice but not ostentatious home in a gated community on the suburban fringe of Las Vegas. "Unknown people used to get paid a lot of money to wear patches at final tables. You didn't even need to be a winning player. People got paid for playing online and received rake-back [they were refunded their share of the rake from each pot]. I don't know that the sites got much of a return on many of their players."

These days, Seidel estimates, there are maybe a few hundred people earning $200,000 per year or more from poker. "Being a poker baller is a lot harder than it used to be," he assesses dryly. "If you think you will make a couple million dollars per year, steadily, from playing poker..." His voice trails off momentarily. "Well, it's not going to happen unless you have some very juicy spots."

If nothing else, Seidel is a realist. So he does catch my attention by capping all that pessimism with a dollop of hope: "In the future, though, I do think there will be more opportunities and more chances for poker players."

Clint Stinchcomb is betting heavily on that outcome. As the CEO of Poker Central, he has created a network—available via online and streaming apps—that he hopes will one day mimic the success of the Golf Channel. Express any skepticism to him about the broad appeal of poker right now, and he fires back with an anecdote from two summers ago: "I spent a week on a lake with my family, and my 17-year-old son came running up to me. He wanted to know if I had seen the video of a hand between [high-stakes non-pros] Cary Katz and Connor Drinan. It was a million-dollar hand at the WSOP that generated more than nine million views online. My son was watching it on WorldStarHipHop and it was going viral. That was an ‘ah-ha!' moment. There's crossover appeal on the digital side, with people gravitating to niche networks."

Then Stinchcomb busts out a few statistics. He says that there has been 15 percent in growth for land-based poker and that the top 10 poker players earn incomes in line with those of the top 10 pro golfers and tennis stars. "Chrysler is now in the poker space," he says. "So is Unilever, Monster and Budweiser." Poker Central is endearing itself to the poker community by putting on tournaments without charging the usual commissions that, according to one frequent participant, "usually adds up the money paid for second or third place." The network also shows sophistication through its deft leveraging of social media and the video platform Twitch.

Tellingly, for Poker Central's $500,000 buy-in Super High Roller Bowl, which coincided with the 2015 World Series of Poker and paid out a first prize of around $7 million to the highly respected pro Brian Rast, blue-chip company Amazon (the owner of Twitch) signed on as a major sponsor. Seidel sees that as potentially game changing. Stinchcomb sees it as being integral to his concept's success. The network can't count on poker-oriented businesses for total support. Considering that, he describes the first poker boom as having been "built on sand," with cash-flush online sites (which were never 100 percent legal) underwriting all of the TV shows. As for his prestigious sponsors, he says, "They make big statements about the firmness of the foundation. Amazon, for example, is moving more aggressively into the content space and they saw a connection with us that helps to enhance their media proposition."

Stinchcomb looks forward to the day when he will have more than 50 percent original programming on Poker Central. That may include a wildly ambitious endeavor that's being touted as a poker sports league. Alexandre Dreyfus, who made money in 2012 by selling the B2B gaming platform for his online gambling site, ChiliGaming, to Bally Technologies, heads up the undertaking. Using some of the Chili money, he purchased Global Poker Index (a system for rating tournament poker players) from the defunct Epic Poker League (it, too, promised to radically change the way in which poker tournaments get played). The Index has proven to be a solid way of getting a handle on who are the best tournament players in the game. But Dreyfus plans on taking things a lot further.

He dubs his newest project Global Poker League (GPL) and it looks like it's being modeled after sports leagues such as the UFC. GPL owns 12 franchises, assigns a team-manager to each franchise and the managers draft players from a pool of top poker talent. Details on exactly how much players will be compensated and what they will be playing for remains under wraps. But Dreyfus expresses certainty about at least a few things: Poker matches will take place in arenas, there will be a shot-clock to keep action from lagging, and the table will be positioned underneath a sound-proof cube. This will enable the live audience to see hole cards with no apparent risk of information transmitting to players. Getting back to pay, Dreyfus hints that it will be somewhere between $10,000 and $100,000 per player on an hourly rate. Whatever the number is, he's managed to attract top players such as Vanessa Selbst and Phil Galfond. By the time this issue goes to print, Dreyfus says the league will be up and running.

All that said, his ideas sound interesting in terms of where poker is now and what can break it out from its perception of stasis. "Poker has become more modern," says Dreyfus. "The top players are under 30; they are super fit; they do sports and yoga; they are not from the old school. Inside our equivalent of the UFC octagon, they will stand up instead of sitting. That will force them to show more emotions. Matches will go for 45 or 90 minutes. There will be no hoodies or sunglasses. Players will have to control their tells and our cameras will capture the full range of emotions."

Like a lot of people in the business of poker, Dreyfus acknowledges that a second poker boom is closely tied to the legalization of online poker. He claims that 2017 is a likely target date for online to be legislated in New York and Pennsylvania. Then, he says, there are short odds for a compact being signed that will align New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. If players from those three states are in the same pool, it will begin creating the kind of buzz and liquidity that made the aughts so great for playing online. "Besides the legalization of online poker, we need to have sites putting in marketing dollars," he says, maintaining that New Jersey's recent approval of Poker Stars for online will bring momentum to that necessity. "We need to build something new, something that will engage the audience."

Inside the Amazon Ballroom of Rio All-Suites Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas this past summer, World Series of Poker tables sit empty and flashing signage around the so-called TV table is static. Executive director Ty Stewart proffers a couple of high-end cigars and looks over his domain that is deserted only because players in the midst of the Main Event are on break. Before running the World Series, Stewart served as a marketing executive for the NFL. He may have taken a risk leaving the established sports league for an up-and-comer like poker. But he has no regrets. Even so, Stewart knows that the game has reached a plateau where it will remain until something big happens.

He acknowledges that broad legalization of online poker will go a long way—"California is a bigger poker market than France"—but also thinks the really big thing is something that remains out of his control. He pretty much concurs with Dreyfus and Stinchcomb in believing that the real accelerant will be a new posse of poker stars. No longer hot-shot iconoclasts, the Hellmuths and Negreanus and Iveys of this world have grown into being the game's grand old men. In their wake, nobody has truly stepped up to replace them. Stewart knows who he wants. "We need fresh faces," he says. "A woman winning the Main Event one of these years would be a wake-up call to the market. Right now women comprise only six-percent [of the World Series of Poker market]. It would be huge for a girl to win."

Despite the fact that 10 minutes from now, the Amazon will be filled with talented players angling for a first prize of $8 million, even Stewart is not immune to a touch of misty-eyed nostalgia as he looks across the room, taking in giant flags with portraits of previous WSOP champs. He gestures toward a familiar face. "Chris Moneymaker got through to the pop culture and he changed poker in 2003," says Stewart. "We're still waiting for the next Chris Moneymaker."

Then there are those who love the game and are too busy capitalizing on its potential riches to sit around worrying over who will be poker's next embodiment of salvation. Andrew Robl—singled out in a 2008 article in this magazine about poker's top young practitioners—used to make half of his living from lucrative online games. Now he does extremely well by staying competitive in the world's largest live poker showdowns. Whatever happens with poker, as far as he's concerned, the impact on players at his level will be limited. Besides, he's never been one to pine for the past or hope for a miracle down the line.

Over dinner at Michael Mina's recently opened Bardot, an elegant bistro inside Aria, where he just busted out of a high-stakes poker tournament, Robl says, "The secret to life is adaptability. Black Friday [the day in 2011 when the government shut down online poker in America] was the best thing that ever happened to me in my career. I went to Macau and other parts of the world to find big games. I made more money than ever before due to Black Friday. Other people got really angry and wondered how the government and Full Tilt could screw them over.

"I think, in any situation, there are good solutions that can make your situation better. I looked for other poker games I could play in and make money with. Since I started playing poker, every year has been more profitable than the previous one. I didn't expect the demise of online to change that."

While Robl likes the advent of Poker Central—playing in rake-free tournaments can't be beat—and he would welcome the full legalization of online poker in America, he believes that the glory of playing on the Internet will be short-lived. "In the next 10 years," he says, "there will be computers playing better than any humans. At that point, nobody will play high-stakes poker online."

Fortunately for him, the live game, played for nosebleed stakes among seasoned pros and action-hungry amateurs who can afford it, will not be going anywhere—barring a collapse of the world economy or some other unexpected disaster. He knows all too well that easy money ensnared from online sponsorships and cagey deal-making can be short-lived at best and illusory at worst. Those who think otherwise ought to have a chat with Brian Rast. Nobody to feel sorry for, Rast netted nearly $9 million in tournament wins during 2015 while largely operating as a high-stakes cash player. But in the dog days of the poker boom, Rast—along with a cadre of young pros including Robl and Antonio Esfandiari—got stung by the allure of splashy Victory Poker, a site that never quite took off.

Victory Poker had young, suddenly wealthy players funding it, but the site died as a victim of timing. It was supposedly poised to accelerate just as online poker got banned in the U.S. However, there are also allegations of money being spent frivolously on big parties and lavish trips. "Victory was a total disaster," says Rast, sipping bottled water at the bar near Aria's poker room. "Management had a go-big strategy and we [young pros helping to fund the site] all lost money. It was a negative. I had a piece and literally got no money out of it. Done."

Fortunately for Rast, he also happens to be one of the canniest, most talented players in the world. He knows how to sublimate his ego and work hard on his game. It's gotten him way beyond needing to hope for a sponsorship lifeline, and allows him to thrive in the current environment. "Poker has gotten tougher," he continues. "If you want to do well [with there being few options outside of playing] you need to keep improving your game. Andrew and Antonio are two of my best friends and they are both doing better than ever."

Esfandiari, who famously finished first in the debut Big One for One Drop million-dollar buy-in tournament in 2012, has a big personality, good looks and a knack for instinctively playing up his gambling. It's part of what led Clint Stinchcomb to make him a spokesman for Poker Central. That same charisma helps Esfandiari to finesse his way into the kinds of "juicy spots" that Seidel references as being integral for poker-success these days.

As much as he enjoys playing the game, Esfandiari is a big proponent of finding a better way. If things go as hoped, he will most likely be among a fortunate minority who can cash-in away from the table, even if the new poker environment proves to be less frothy than the old one. "It all has to do with how much people like watching you on television," says Esfandiari, endeavoring to quantify what it takes to be a successful poker celebrity. "I've always had a good time and enjoyed making people laugh. Other players look so serious at the table. Who wants to follow them? Me, I'm the same on TV and off. When you leave, I'll go shoot the shit with the concierge of my apartment building. Most younger pros take poker too seriously. I think they're ruining the game. They take a minute for each decision and lock eyes with opponents. They ruin themselves [for other opportunities] without realizing it."

Asked how good those opportunities may be, Esfandiari smiles and replies, "My opinion is that when you can make money in your sleep it makes a big difference in your life." 

Michael Kaplan is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.


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