Well-known poker writer and editor Brad Willis is joining Poker.Org as its new Editor-in-Chief.
Willis launched the PokerStars Blog in 2005 and has worked on the site ever since.
During that time, he has become widely respected as a poker journalist and was a pioneer of what became the “poker media” at live events.
Willis takes up his position at the beginning of September. He is the latest high-profile management hire for Triple Barrel Media, which owns Poker.Org and recently relaunched the site with a mission to become the independent voice of poker.
In readiness for his new role, Willis took time out to answer some questions. Below, you get some idea of what drives him and what you might expect from his editorial leadership at Poker.Org.
What are the most pressing issues facing poker players today?
I can’t speak from a player’s perspective because I don’t consider myself an active player in the way I would have 15 years ago. However, I’ve been an active part of the industry since 2005, and there are some major issues we’re still struggling to address.
For every advance we make on game integrity, there are new technologies emerging that make the fight against cheaters a battle that requires constant attention. That applies to both online and live poker. Taking a seat online or live is an act of faith on the part of a player, and the industry has to match that faith with an equal amount of effort to fight cheaters. That effort needs to be broadcast loudly. When cheaters get caught, operators have to be transparent about who cheated and how they did it. There are poker rooms that are very good about this. There are others that are not. The industry should have no patience for operators who don’t put every effort into finding cheaters and exposing them.
The past 20 years have shown us that the poker player community has either a short memory or very deep well for forgiveness. I don’t have to name names to recognize the people who have been given a seat at the table after being caught red-handed. That’s why I was impressed this summer by the announcement of the Player Integrity Council, a panel designed to investigate and blacklist cheaters. I have great respect for the founding members of the Council, and I think their work is a vital step in the transparency required to give confidence to players looking for a fair game.
I also worry about a recurring issue in the game surrounding a dwindling player pool. We still have lots of work to do in making the game more accessible to a wider part of the population, whether that be women or recreational players who can’t quite get into a game because of access, legislation, or simple discomfort with the current player population.
Though the situation is improving in the realm of legislation and regulation, it boggles my mind that we are more than 15 years removed from UIGEA and still haven’t managed to create a coalition of industry leaders that is strong enough to lobby and educate the legislators and public about poker.
I live in an American state where a person can spend a whole day straight up gambling between the Sour Patch Kids and soda machines scratching off a pile of lottery tickets that cost an entire paycheck, but I can’t legally play $1/$2 online poker – a game of skill with fair odds. I used to solely blame lawmakers for the hypocrisy, but the poker industry needs to accept some of the responsibility and work harder to make change.
In your 18 years in the poker media, what have you seen improve about the game for players?
When I started playing poker, we had a few books we could read that taught us some simple concepts that would get us ahead of the curve, but that was about it. Then Rounders came out and we read Positively Fifth Street and thought, “Well, hell, I guess I know all I need to know!”
Today, between websites, training sites, Twitch, poker broadcasts, YouTube, and live streams, we can study the game 24 hours a day for as long as we want. That doesn’t completely level the playing field, but it’s a much faster on-ramp for players who truly want to study the game.
Despite the ongoing concerns about cheaters, I’m certain that responsible poker rooms have made incredible advances in security and game integrity. I know I will seem biased because I worked for the company for so many years, but I have confidence in the game integrity team at PokerStars. I will never say PokerStars does everything right, and I’ll point out when the company doesn’t, but I know the people working security at PokerStars, and they are more serious about their jobs than anybody in the industry. That is a very important advancement for the players that needs to be replicated by every poker operator.
And what has deteriorated for players?
I probably don’t have to dwell on Ultimate Bet, Full Tilt, UIGEA, or Black Friday, but every one of those felt like an apocalypse when it happened. I feel like every one of those events set us back years from where we could have been if everybody had worked together toward the common goal of making the game as big as it could be.
I also don’t think anyone would deny that customer service both live and online is not what it used to be. There was a time when a player could feel confident that a poker room would correct mistakes in a timely way and offer direct communication for follow-up questions and concerns. It’s not like that anymore. Good customer service isn’t cheap, but I’ve always felt it’s imperative when it comes to player confidence. We have had too many collapses and scandals to leave players in the dark about anything that directly concerns their bankrolls or the integrity of their games.
I also routinely roll my eyes at many of the new online poker variants that operate more like a slot machine than a poker game. I think some of those offerings have earned their place and are fair, but there are others that make me question if the games are better for the players or the companies who are offering them.
And, while this will not be a take most of today’s pros will like, I think re-entry tournaments are bad for the overall poker population.
I don’t hate rebuy tournaments. I don’t even hate re-entry tournaments per se. But, man, I loathe when a tournament schedule is more than half-full of re-entry events. I wouldn’t go as far as to call them predatory, but a $1,000 re-entry event that appears fair and accessible to a guy with $1,000 in his pocket is simply neither of those two things when the vast majority of his opponents have 5-10 bullets in their pocket. I understand why re-entry tournaments exist. I understand that no one with only one buy-in is forced to buy-in. Nevertheless, anyone who is being honest knows the reality, and that reality is doing nothing to help grow the game.
What can a truly independent poker media outlet bring to the game?
It’s no secret that up until this year, I’ve worked for PokerStars in a media role. While I did my best to remain objective and tell every truth I knew, the elephant in the room always had a big red spade on its side. There were things I couldn’t write, subjects I couldn’t address, and a general understanding that no matter how transparent we wanted to be, we were still a business. In the latter years, that business became part of a public company with stockholders. That made things even tougher. Write the wrong thing, and it could affect the market.
An independent poker media outlet doesn’t have the vast majority of those issues. Ideally, independence means we write the truth as we find it. We don’t have to run a maze of compliance and regulatory cops. We don’t have to worry about shareholders. We find the stories. We produce the stories. We share the stories.
So, I’m very optimistic about this, but I’m not naive. No media outlet operates for long without making money, and where there is money, there will always be a perception of bias. There is no getting around that. The best an independent outlet that operates as a business can do is be as open and transparent with its audience as it can be. That’s my goal.
I play small stakes online recreationally, and I don’t care about so-called poker ‘stars’ or live poker. What will your site do for me?
Guess what… I’m a small-stakes player, too. There was a day many years ago when I played much bigger, but these days my play is limited to lower-stakes recreational games. What’s more, I live in a state in the U.S. that doesn’t allow for legalized online poker, so the online game hasn’t been legally available to me since Black Friday. Put another way, the editorial decisions on this site will ultimately be made by a person like you who plays at the same level. I feel like I know what kind of information you might want and need, because it’s the same information I want and need. With that said, after nearly two decades in the industry, I’ve worked and traveled among the highest rollers and all the players between their level and my own, so I have a very wide view of the game. My goal is to make what you find here both relevant and useful for anybody who plays poker for fun or for a living.
What do you think sites like Poker.Org can do to speed up legalization of online poker across the US?
As an independent outlet, Poker.Org doesn’t come with the baggage of being an operator with an agenda. We can be an educational tool that can champion the game, educate legislators, and inform the public about the beauty of poker, how safely it can be played, and how many people are dying to play if they only had access.
Aside from the US, what opportunities does the game have right now?
A better question might be “what opportunities doesn’t the game have?” I’m no Polyanna, but the next decade has the potential to be incredibly exciting for poker. We have an entire generation of smart young people who have grown up in the age of the internet, social media, and e-sports. We have what seems to be an unlimited number of platforms for content creation that are as democratic as the game of poker. Public perceptions of gaming and wagering are improving with every passing month, and the crossover potential between sports markets, e-sports, and daily fantasy sports seems ripe for an industry full of people who love those pastimes. Though the world economy is in shambles right now, it won’t be forever, and once it recovers, people are going to want to have fun. Poker has lived through depressions and recessions, wars and peacetime. With the right touch and right people involved, poker’s future could be something greater than we envisioned back in 2006.
What’s been the favourite poker moment you’ve covered in your 18 years in the industry?
At the World Series of Poker in 2005, a man named John Gale was heads up for his first WSOP bracelet. Six months earlier, he had won the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure Main Event, and he’d made a practice of hugging each of his opponents as he busted them. At the WSOP that same year, he was heads up and a two-outer away from winning his first bracelet. He lost that hand and never recovered. But, true to his character, John stood up and hugged the winner, Brian Wilson. That night, I sat in a near-empty bar with John and our friends Dan and Sharon. John drank orange juice. We drank everything else in the bar because we were more sad for John than he was for himself. Looking back, watching him hug Wilson represented everything I loved about John and, by extension, everything I loved about poker at the time.
John went on to win two WSOP bracelets (and a lot more money). He died in November of 2019, and I still miss everything about him and how he played the game.
What would you most like to see in poker that hasn’t happened yet?
PokerStars’ founder Isai Scheinberg inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame. That’s a hill I’ll die on.
What’s been the biggest change in the game since you started covering it?
Well, the game has gotten harder. That’s for certain. There was a day I could play four tables of $10/$20 NL with a reasonable expectation of winning. Those days are long gone. These days, everyone’s a wizard, and 10% of those wizards are smart enough that they seem to be playing in god mode. I’m obviously exaggerating, but that perception is actually a barrier to entry that is very similar to the days before online poker. Back then, recreational players were nervous about sitting down in a Vegas poker room with all the old leather-assed grinders. It took online poker to make folks realize they had a good chance of being better than the guys who had been playing live their entire lives. That’s why I miss some of the early days of the poker boom. Chris Moneymaker was an Every Man who made good at the World Series of Poker.
Back then, ESPN, 441 Productions, and the WPT did brilliant work in creating amazing characters out of both the pros and the amateurs playing the big events. Those shows made everyone realize we could all play on that stage.
I don’t see as much of that anymore. I miss the stories about people. Sure, we live in an analytical world, and we should always talk about the how and why of how the game is played. But we shouldn’t give up on the who of the game. The people who play are important. If they aren’t then we might as well watch robots play. Sometimes it feels like we are.
I’m also fascinated by programs like the Netflix series Formula One: Drive to Survive, because it so expertly takes what feels like an inaccessible sport and takes us behind the curtain with an all-access pass. The poker industry used to know how important that was, and I think a lot of folks have been convinced that the people behind the game are less important than a color-coded graph that tells us what is GTO and what isn’t.
A lot of folks will tell you that we’re well beyond the days where people and personality matter. If they’re right, then I’m bored, and eventually all the wizards will be Battle-Botting against themselves while recreational players find something fun to do. I don’t need everybody to be Tantrum-Level Phil Hellmuth or pre-robot-version-Hevad Khan (if you’re young, you can look him up). I don’t want people to stop looking for optimal solutions to the game. I just want everybody to remember that poker is only fun if people show up to play, and if we stop paying attention to the people and their stories, we stand a good chance of folks believing the game is only open to wizards.
What can readers expect to see from Poker.Org in the coming months?
From everything I’ve heard from the people behind the scenes, there are some incredibly ambitious plans in the works. They are the kind of endeavors that made me want to get involved. I’m not at liberty to discuss everything I’ve heard, but based on the many hours of discussions I’ve had, I feel incredibly confident that Poker.Org will work every day to be fiercely independent, be the voice of the players rather than the voice of an industry, and ask one question as part of every decision: Is it good for poker?
What do you like to do when you’re not writing about poker?
I’m a suburban dad, and the vast majority of people who know me in my “real” life have no idea that I’ve spent 18 years traveling to five continents and countless countries as part of a traveling circus of high stakes gamblers. They don’t know about the Mexican federale raid, Monte Carlo bar tabs, or the time I got run over in a Costa Rican PLO game featuring Humberto Brenes and how they cashed me out with counterfeit money that I eventually tried to use to buy my young son lunch back at home. That one involved the Secret Service!
These days, my greatest priorities are as a husband and a father. I have two talented sons who play baseball about nine months out of the year. When I’m not with them at a ballpark, I’m likely watching baseball on TV. Or playing fantasy baseball. Or thinking about when I can next do something related to baseball. I fill the rest of my time away from poker with the other hobbies that give me joy. I’ve played guitar and written music for most of my life. I’m obsessed with the sports trading card world (a world that has so many parallels to the early poker boom that I’d need another 2,000 words to break the surface). I spent most of the COVID lockdown learning woodworking and building three-string guitars out of cigar boxes. And, if you dig hard enough, you’ll find a 27-episode investigatory true crime podcast I produced and hosted about the 1975 murder of a law enforcement officer and his father and the subsequent investigation that put a likely innocent man on Death Row.
In short, I can’t sit still, and I’m excited to have this opportunity to do something new and important for a game that has allowed me to live such a fortunate life.