Just a few days ago, CalvinAyre.com’s own Lee Davy wrote that Gus Hansen and Viktor Blom were facing off in poker’s version of The Biggest Loser. When I saw the headline, I imagined these two pasty Scandinavians breaking themselves down through brutal exercise routines while Jillian Michaels repeatedly screamed at them that they’re not good enough and I thought to myself, “That’s something I could watch.” Unfortunately, the actual promotion isn’t nearly exciting. Hansen and Blom are going to play each other heads-up for $50,000 later this month.
There are some twists designed to make this otherwise dull heads-up challenge between Blom and Hansen interesting. Each player chooses his favorite game for one of the three rounds of their heads-up match and the public votes on the game for the third round. And the loser of the match will either have to record a silly video or play 1,000 hands of $.05/$.10 Razz. None of it exerts much of a pull, though. Sponsored players can be interesting when they’re winning obscene amounts of money, if only because doing so usually means they’re showing off their A-game. But when they’re losing, especially in matches where the entire prize pool is promotional, they don’t have nearly enough skin in the game to make it interesting.
Blom has certainly has been entertaining to watch over the years, though he was arguably at his most interesting in the earliest days when he made his reputation without anybody knowing his true identity. Back then he became an online poker folk hero for enduring those massive swings on a seven-figure bankroll that he’d run up through his own play at lower levels. There’s vastly less on the line these days when Blom sits down to the tables as a sponsored pro, especially so long as his only fellow sponsored pro is the loser of $20 million. No matter how badly Blom might end the year, he’s nowhere near the biggest loser among Full Tilt’s two-strong stable.
And while Hansen’s $20 million in losses all-time on Full Tilt has people talking just because of the sheer volume of that number, there’s been no real cost to him personally. He might eventually lose his sponsorship but even if he does, he’ll still have played the highest stakes for years on someone else’s dime. Maybe there’s some sort of toll in pride, but it’s not like he had to put his lone WSOP bracelet in hock to buy in to a cash game. He’s never had to prostitute himself. He hasn’t been depraved for the simple sake of sitting at the table. All he’s done is lose consistently while playing cash games on a phantom bankroll against tough competition, something most of us could probably do with just as much consistency as the Great Dane.
Lee Davy wrote earlier this week that you couldn’t blame Full Tilt because “it’s not as if they have rich pickings when it comes to their choice of sponsored pros.” If promotions like these are what passes for excitement, though, maybe they should just drop the idea of having sponsored pros in the first place. It’s hard to believe that they pull in enough regular customers to make their expense, whatever it might be, worthwhile. All the money that goes toward keeping these losing celebrity players at the table could be poured back into the players who put in time at the tables, playing on their own bankrolls because they love the game, not because they’re under contract to do so regardless of results. But that’s a hard thing to promote with a billboard or banner ad.
The concept of the sponsored pro is a holdover from a very different poker economy, one where American money flowed freely and aspirational models from the poker world could drive serious traffic. The market has changed dramatically over the years but we still haven’t seen the end of this mode of sponsorship for poker pros. Maybe it’s because it’s all the rooms know how to do. Or maybe it’s because no one really want to ask what it means that massive losers are being used to promote poker. Whatever the reason, the Hansens and Bloms of the world keep being thrown into sharp suits, having black-and-white photographs taken of them, and having their mythologies pumped up. It’s a bore and that’s par for the course when it comes to poker’s sponsored celebrity players.