Lee Davy, sits down with Garry Gates, Senior Consultant of Player Affairs for PokerStars Live, to talk about his first year in the job.
The first person I see when I walk into the Pullman Hotel, Barcelona, after travelling for 20-hours is a sweaty, happy looking Garry Gates, the man PokerStars felt was the right person to fill the position of Senior Consultant of Player Affairs for PokerStars Live.
The sweat is a byproduct of a crack of dawn workout.
I’m not suggesting for one minute than Gates has a body odour problem. He smells quite lovely.
I can’t think of a man I would rather sit down with, and shower with complaints about Balinese earthquakes, near death daughter experiences, and the fact that I don’t have a room for the next five hours.
But I am sure, had I sat him down, I would have gotten my room a lot quicker.
12-months have passed since Gates wrote a personal montage of poker history, love and promises, and I wanted to find out if he’s made the headway he expected.
So we sit down at a table directly opposite the European Poker Tour (EPT) Main Event title, and I ask him why he took the role?
“At the time, I was working on business development in the US, working on the launch of the New Jersey festival, and various ad-hoc projects,” says Gates. “At the time, for someone player-facing like me, I felt the relationship between the business and the players was strained. We were in the waning moments of the Supernova Elite changes, and I felt the relationship, and the attitude of the players towards the company had changed a lot. We had gone from a time where PokerStars had just paid back the Full Tilt players and our reputation was at an all-time high. I felt I was in a position to give the players a bit of a voice, and address some of those things and bridge the gap and create a dedicated channel for players to be heard and open up that dialogue. So for me, more than anything, I viewed it as an opportunity to help.”
When I joined the rail industry back in 1991, a weekly vacancy list as thick as a phone book would land in your in-tray on a weekly basis. A decade later, and we were down to a single sheet.
I asked Gates if he applied for the job, or did someone consider him the right peg for the right hole?
“It was the latter,” confirms Gates. “I was working closely with Edgar Stuchly and Scott Goodall at the time. In the five years before I took this role, I was entrenched in the Super High Roller VIP world, and I think the relationships I had built with the players to that point tipped them off that I may be a good fit for this type of role.”
I ask him to expand further on why he was the right man for the job.
“I have a background as a player. I packed up everything in my life at 24 years old to travel across the country to achieve my dream. Coupled with understanding the lifestyle and what that entails, and the relationships I have built through my PokerNews days and my SHR experience, I think I was well positioned to meet those needs.”
Think about Gates’ challenge for a moment.
PokerStars players were amongst the most fiercely loyal in the business. At the time PokerStars saved the bacon of Full Tilt customers, PokerStars was like Kansas to Dorothy for so many people.
And then The Stars Group came in.
The private became public.
And the business took a hard look at the viability of the product and the player ecosystem over the long-term, focusing on what would improve the environment for all stakeholders, with a focus on engaging and retaining the recreational players.
Changes began and many of the professional players’ voiced their thoughts.
They were not happy.
And then Gates gets his job.
How do you even begin to face the pushback, and create a plan of action that ultimately ends with those players falling back in love with you?
“For me, we had to go back to basics,” says Gates instantly. “I knew my primary role would be working with players at live events, and at these events, we are very player facing. It’s about listening to and understanding what people care about.
“We started Player Councils and had one in Monaco last year and another one in Barcelona. We had to rethink where we were at, and take a look at where our offering stood compared to what our players expected. It was all about going back to basics.”
Gates has a difficult job.
The players tell him what they want to change. But Gates doesn’t hold all of the keys. He has to take those concerns to the right people, and the proper departments. I am sure he would want to solve everyone’s problems, but that’s impractical.
I ask Gates how tough it’s been dealing with the players knowing he can’t solve everyone’s problems?
“I think you make a great point with regards to the wants and asks we get on a daily basis,” says Gates. “If it were up to me, I would say ‘yes’ to everything, but we all know that’s not possible. More than anything else it’s a matter of making sure there is a channel for players to be heard. That’s more important than anything. There will be things we can’t take action on, but where we can, we will get those things to the right departments, and create that dialogue and at least give those kinds of things a chance to happen when they can.”
What are those platforms for dialogue?
“Firstly, it begins with being available,” says Gates. “Social media is great for this. I am available directly on Twitter. We just opened up a Facebook Live group where players have direct contact and engagement with the Live Events team. Other things are going on here like the ‘Have Your Say’ initiative later this week, where we will be sitting down with players all across the poker spectrum to talk about their expectations for the Players Championship and other projects we have going on. I think that’s it. Utilizing every means possible. When at events I try to touch base with as many players as I can and take that back offsite when I am back home and continue that dialogue via email, text and social media again. I try to be as accessible as I can, and I never turn a player away.”
Somewhere in the near past or the near future there should be a cake with one candle on it. I ask Gates how his role has evolved in his first year?
“It’s changed quite a bit, to be honest with you,” says Gates. “The launch of the PSPC is the biggest change and has impacted my day-to-day work the most being one of the key stakeholders on that project. We have been as bold as to call this event the PLAYERS No-Limit Hold’em Championship. That word is key. We want this to be for the players, about the players, by the players. A great example is the ‘Have Your Say’ initiative. Last week, we sent out a massive survey asking people what they wanted the structure to be like, whether to have shot clocks, a big blind ante, those types of things – really making sure when all is said and done the player’s fingerprints are all over this event.
“A lot of my time and attention has been devoted to the PSPC. I am also involved in a few initiatives in the US. Naturally, being from the states and rooting for online poker for years now that’s near and dear to my heart. So I have helped launch the Moneymaker Tour, and we’ve done a lot of cross-promotional work with US-based casinos giving away Platinum Passes and helping reintroduce players to the brand there.”
With thousands of poker players walking into PokerStars live events throughout the world, I know it’s a tough question, but I ask it all the same – what do PokerStars players want?
“I don’t find that question to be as difficult as you might think,” says Gates. “As a poker player myself, I would want an open, honest company to work with. A business that’s transparent and listens when players have gripes, complaints and ideas. They want a safe place to play, and I hope players say that we never lose sight of that and are always delivering on these things.”
Last week, PokerStars, along with many of its competitors, suffered from Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks. The criticism from a core group of players was once again harsh, despite Stars apologising and putting on $650,000 in freerolls. I ask Gates how it feels to be so invested in rebuilding trust only to hear still the dissenting voice loud and clear?
“I understand more than anything else when those things happen that they are unfortunate,” says
Gates. “From a business perspective, we were not happy. Looking at this from a players’ perspective it’s easy to see when they are unhappy as well. Thankfully though, most our of players were patient, and when we were able to provide a clear picture of what was happening, how we were going to fix it and how players would be affected, they were understanding and positive. They understood that these things can happen in our industry, like any other online or web-based industry.
“One thing that alleviates this tug of war that happens in those cases is creating the opportunity for dialogue and having open communications. For any business that’s going to be an ongoing process. But I can assure you, not only through my role, but through our corporate communications team, and the many colleagues that I work with who are passionate about our business, that’s a priority for us – making sure all of those kinds of problems are addressed, listened to and actioned whenever possible.”
So how do you know the tide is turning?
How do you measure love, trust and loyalty?
“For someone like me, who has been very player facing for the past 6-7 years, that metric is easy to see through the lens of a project like the PSPC,” says Gates. “Obviously, in the years after the SNE changes the times were turbulent and as you mentioned earlier some of those still exist. A project like the PSPC is for the players, by the players, about the players. We have made this event so accessible to the entire poker spectrum. It’s easy for players to get excited about that, and to see the direction we are heading with projects like this. From my humble seat, I think it’s moved the needle quite a bit in a positive direction, and I have never been this excited for a poker tournament in my life. I hope, come January the proof is in the pudding, and we build some momentum from there.
“I think there is a misconception that there are people in the business who don’t know about poker or maybe aren’t as much in the know as our players, or that relationship is not there, but I can assure you there are people in this business who really care and listen and I think again it’s all about going back to basics, open the lines of communication, and being in touch with our customers as best we can. It all starts from there.”
I can’t think of a man I would rather have as a conduit between my complaints and the PokerStars hierarchy.
And he smells great too.