Poker Stars Crossing Over Into The Mainstream

Poker Stars Crossing Over Into The MainstreamPoker really is a world within a world. For the people who can see it, they spend their time traveling to some of the most extravagant places in the world where they play cards for ridiculous amounts of money. The sums of money that exchange hands in events like the World Series of Poker (WSOP) can only be matched by boxing, so why can’t more people see what we see? Why are we still such a sordid little secret?

I recently decided to create a limited company and as part of the process I needed to open a business bank account. I did my research and chose one of the UK’s largest, and well-known, banks. During my consultation I was asked if I had relations with any company that has an affiliation with gambling. When I told them that I did, it was akin to telling the bank representative that I had leprosy, moments after shaking her hand.

One of the reasons that poker finds it so difficult to break into the mainstream is because the mainstream doesn’t want to know us. The poker industry is like a beautiful stripper and the mainstream is the man who has just fallen head over heels in love with her.

“I love you, you know I do, but can we keep your occupation a secret please?”

I think back to the time before I could see the poker world, and wonder what lure twinkled in the corner of my eye. There were three reasons that I gravitated towards poker. The first was the World Poker Tour (WPT), the second was the World Series of Poker (WSOP) and the third was the creation of a local game spurred on by the dreams of grandeur that spilled out of those shows.

The television coverage of the two shows touched two very different nerves. The WPT was a show about stars. If you look back at some of the early final tables when the buy in was $10k, there were some tremendous final table line-ups. Each show was a short little movie unto itself. There was always a protagonist, there was always an antagonist, Mike Sexton and Vince van Patten cleverly weaved the plot lines into our psyche, and who didn’t look forward to a shot of Shianna Hyatt and the Royal Flush Girls. It had great characters, a great plot and plenty of sex.

The WSOP sold a different ideal. It had its stars…but the show was more about the rags to riches story. It touched the same emotional panic buttons as reality TV shows such as X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, because the main plot line was about the underdog. When you watch the WSOP you are John Rambo walking through Hope and Rocky Balboa stepping into the ring with Apollo Creed.

The WPT coverage does not hold the lure it once did because it has lost a few of its main ingredients: characterization and plot. The pair goes hand-in-hand and it’s the loss of characters that has resulted in dissolution of plot. Try as they might Mike Sexton and Vince van Patten can only push their story telling so far. If poker wants to move into more mainstream areas it needs to create a show where it can manipulate the starring cast.

The Epic Poker League (EPL) was the first group to recognize this need. Cash games don’t work for the average person sitting at home, because they are used to league table systems. Cash games are just like cup competitions, but the truly top players can outlast the rest over a prolonged period of time, and this is what the mainstream want to see. They want the top players in the world battling it out over a league type system. A league system allows players to show depth and to come alive. Viewers can relate to that…poker can become a soap opera.

This is where I believe the Global Poker Index (GPI) will be incredibly influential over the next five to ten years. Alexandre Dreyfus is an incredibly intelligent man who loves poker. He has a plan to take poker into the mainstream and so far in his courtship he is merely making out. During a recent trip to Los Angeles the LA Times contained the leagues of all of its major sports, and taking pride of place amongst them was the GPI. This league system has the global appeal we need. It can become as important to poker as the Champions League is to European football. All Dreyfus needs is the cash to create a tournament structure that the top players in the GPI would want to play in regularly, and buy-in from the worlds top three tournament organizations.

The poker companies are also doing there very best to push poker into the mainstream with PokerStars leading the way, as you would expect with their treasure chest of gazillions. I love their philosophy when it comes to the plan to garner worldwide exposure – just sign up some of the world’s most recognizable sporting faces and voila.

The signing of Rafael Nadal as one of the faces of PokerStars is one of the most important signings in the history of the game. Boris Becker carries a mystique, presence and global media coverage to some extent; but Becker is a former tennis player. A legend of the game of that there is no doubt, but Nadal is in his prime. To have one of the world’s most recognizable athletes’ showcasing your brand is unheard of. This is poker after all. Who wants their sports stars admitting that they like to gamble? Fortunately, Nadal is not a part of a team. Nadal is just Nadal.

At a recent event held between bwin.Party and Manchester United Football Club, I was fortunate enough to interview one of my idols in Bryan Robson. I had a whole list of questions to ask the former England captain, but his team of advisors reduced them to a dribble of the type of information I really wanted to glean from him. Even with their name branded all over the stadium, the football team still wanted distance between the players and the brand. That’s how tough it is, and how Nadal’s signing is so important.

There are some poker players who are also trying there very best to push poker into the mainstream. Daniel Negreanu has starred in the show Millionaire Matchmaker on Bravo where Patti Stanger got to match him up with the lovely looking Lindsey; Annie Duke appeared in Celebrity Apprentice as well as appearing on Ellen and the Colbert Report; Vanessa Rousso has appeared as a celebrity judge on The Bank of Hollywood, and in 2009 became one of the only poker players to capture a mainstream sponsorship deal when she became the new GoDaddy girl.

In the UK, Liv Boeree appeared in front of millions of viewers on the Good Morning Television show shortly after winning the biggest European Poker Tour (EPT) event held in Europe; Andrew Feldman appeared on The Secret Millionaire (although he promptly quit poker); and Victoria Coren has starred regularly on British TV in shows such as Room 101, 8 out of 10 cats and Have I Got News For You.

As you can tell, the poker industry seems to be heavily reliant on its female stars to push poker to the masses; one reason, if any, for everyone involved in the poker business to do more to attract more female poker players into the game.

Maybe it’s the celebrities that play poker that’s going to be the key to our mainstream success, and not poker players becoming celebrities? Jennifer Tilly has joined those two bridges better than anyone. Don Cheadle, Brad Garrett, Ray Romano, Jason Alexander, Gabe Kaplan and Shannon Elizabeth are all regulars at the WSOP; and get involved in celebrity poker shows whenever they appear.

Then sometimes you just need a spot of luck. Take the time Michael Phelps happened to show up to rail Jeff Gross at a WPT event in Montreal. Phelps is a man in the same global appeal basket as Rafael Nadal. To see him then play at the WSOP was amazing, and let’s hope we see him involved in poker to a greater extent in the future…go get him PokerStars.

The infrastructure is all there. We have the GPI, we have tours such as the WPT, EPT and WSOP supporting that brand; we have a self-perpetuating system that generates some of the biggest prize pools in the world of sport and gaming; we have players like Negreanu, Boeree and Duke who have tried to take poker to the masses; we have sports stars like Rafael Nadal, Ronaldo, Shane Warne and Michael Phelps tied in with the game, and a whole host of celebrities of the silver screen such as Tilly, Cheadle, Ben Affleck and Tobey Maguire.

Yet despite all of the above there is still a hell of a lot of work to do with respect to our image. No matter how you dress it up, poker is a game for the corrupt. Each week brings a different scandal that tarnishes any hard work that the likes of Negreanu, Dreyfus, Nadal et al does for this industry. At times it’s like wading through treacle. There is a lot of effort being applied but we just aren’t getting anywhere.

If we want to see more poker stars crossing over into the mainstream, then we need to work harder at tightening up our security and regulations. We need people to trust our brand. We need people to trust in poker.