Gaming Industry Innovators: Jez San, Founder of PKR, OBE, entrepreneur, innovator, husband and father

TAGs: Gaming Industry Profiles, innovators, Interviews, Jez San, OBE, Order of the British Empire, PKR.COM, Rebecca Liggero, UIGEA, Video

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Jez San is a familiar face and name in the online gambling industry and beyond. He’s most commonly known amongst our circles as the founder, yet his accomplishments go far beyond the creation of an online poker site.

San is a self taught computer programming genius who received his first computer at twelve, started his first company at sixteen, developed blockbuster video games, created the world’s first 3D graphics chip with Nintendo, earned the first OBE in the video game industry, founded PKR and is now able to take a lot more time for himself and his family.

San’s online poker visions originated from his love for the game and he had a concept that differentiated his product from what the rest were offering at the time.

“When I first started PKR, the goal was to try and get as close to real life poker as we could”, San said.

An avid poker player himself, San explained that before PKR, playing poker around a table with friends was a very different experience than what you would find online.

“On online [poker sites] it was all about cards and numbers and when you play with your friends its all about making fun of each other and having a laugh and being more social, so I tried to come up with a poker idea that would be more about the fun aspect, more about what its really like to play poker with your friends”, said San.

What’s so unique about PKR is that the avatars are real 3D people and you as a player instruct the avatar how to act, hence playing poker on PKR isa much more social experience than on other poker sites.

PKR may have been one of the last poker sites to launch in a very competitive marketplace, but San and his team came up with something different, the exact ingredient that has allowed the company to survive and grow into what it is today.

San had actually had hoped for more success with PKR, but just after the site was launched, UIGEA was passed and PKR decided not to operate in America.

“Our product would have been fantastic launching in America, and hopefully it will again be that”, he said.

Rewinding back to his first computer programming exposure, it was San’s father who was in imports/exports at the time, who managed to find a computer in America and bring it back over to the UK for San- it was one of the very first computers around back in 1978.

“I was very geeky and I was into electronics and geeky pursuits and scientific things, so computers were a natural thing for me to get into”, San said.

Self-taught San learned basic and assembly language programming very early in his life and wrote computer programs for himself initially.  At sixteen years old he took a summer job writing games for one of the first computer games company, then started his own company “Argonaut” shortly thereafter.

San’s first 3D computer game was called Starglider and it was a big hit in the ‘80s, rewarding him with his first big sum of money. Rather than spend the money, San wisely invested it into his company, hired a team and allowed the company to grow organically with no investment from outside; only the success of the games grew his company.

Once of San’s most impressive lifetime achievements was capturing the attention of Nintendo’s President in the ‘80s, Hiroshi Yamauchi. San and his team actually reverse engineered the Gameboy and super Nintendo systems and figured out how they were built, without Nintendo’s help.  San and team then built 3D games for the systems and decided to personally show these games to Nintendo.

“I went to Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and I walked up to the highest level person I could find at Nintendo and whipped out the Gameboy weeks after it had just come out, so no one was developing games for it. I showed them our 3D game on it and they were just blown away”, said San.

And the story gets even better. The very day San returned to the UK after the CES he got a phone call from Nintendo inviting him to fly to Kyoto and meet the President of Nintendo, Mr. Yamauchi, and talk about potentially doing something together.

“This was my first big business deal and I was sat in front of the godfather-like boss of Nintendo and through his translator he said, ‘We want to work with you, we want to do some 3D games, how much do you want?’ I thought of the biggest number I could possibly think of – and said 2 million dollars – it was the biggest number I could possible think of – and he just said ‘yes’ and I knew then I could have asked for 10 million dollars or 100 million dollars and he probably would have also said yes. So that was my opportunity to think big and I didn’t think big enough”.

After that fateful meeting in Kyoto, San and Yamauchi formed a relationship and built the first 3D games for games consoles and designed the first 3D chip for Super Nintendo.

It should come as no surprise that San’s career has been full of firsts, full of innovation and full over very hard work. When he was younger, San was working just about twenty four hours a day and regularly pulling all-nighters, but now that he’s achieved so much, he’s able balance his work with more family time.

“I’m working all the time, really, because I’m not in the office, I have a home office, and I take calls and email day and night, although it’s not as intensive as it used to be”, he said.

San will always maintain that entrepreneurial drive and work ethic, but now he has an excellent team running PKR and the company is able to run itself.

“It’s very difficult when you’re an entrepreneur and you start new companies,” said San. “It’s very difficult to let go of the reigns and let someone else take over, I’ve got it wrong many times in the past and brought people in too early or too late, so I think it’s a work in progress to try and get the right balance”.

In the midst of all his success, something that San is able to recognize is that he’s more of an “ideas guy” than a CEO, a realization that takes a lot of strength to admit.

“I know I am better at coming up with ideas and starting new companies than I am at running them because I’m too nice, so I couldn’t fire anyone if I wanted to. You need a more experienced management team to actually run the company, but I think coming up with the initial ideas and technologies, things like that, I’m good at that”, he said.


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