Godfathers, robots, and the future of poker

Brad Willis
Posted on: December 13, 2022 11:47 PST

A poker player who has been around for the last 20 years can be forgiven for skepticism when hearing about a "special presentation" in between levels of a poker tournament. That’s because tournament players have been witness or fallen victim to just about every sort of marketing wizardry the poker world and its hangers on could conceive. Live long enough, and you will see everyone from Wayne Newton to Motley Crue’s Vince Neil utter the words, “Shuffle up and deal.”

Play long enough, you’ll see young men become old men at the table in front of you. You’ll see young women in the game suddenly pushing their children in strollers through the tournament hallways. You’ll see the words “tournament prize pool guarantee” become less literal and more a fanciful hope. 

Follow that arc long enough, and it seems all of these people–the crooners, the men, the women, the babies, the players, and people calculating the guarantees–could just become robots. 

In the middle of Day 1B of the WPT World Championship at the Wynn, one could be forgiven again for thinking that moment of AI Inception had come. The robots were here, and Tuesday was gone with the wind. 

When a guarantee really is...

Robot worries and guarantee performance anxiety would have ignored a few things, the most important of which was the fact that the second Day 1 flight had pulled in more than 1,000 registrations. When added to Monday’s first flight (and not even considering that there is another full Day 1 flight on Wednesday), the $15 million tournament guarantee wasn’t a matter of hope or some teetering promise. It was a guaranteed prize pool that had already been eclipsed by tournament buy-ins and was growing steadily toward some unpredictable, silly and real fortune. 

If the WPT brass was looking for a hard number to justify this 20th anniversary celebration and winter-blitz effort to impress, the brass found that number only climbing tick by tick on the registrations counter.

WPT CEO Adam Pliska stood on the stage with a Wynn casino executive and all the faces of the WPT. Pliska looked out across the room and said to the assembled army of players at the tables the only thing left to say.

“Thank you for 20 years. We love you. We appreciate you,” Pliska said. 

And then came the robots

WPT Halftime Show Joe Giron/Poker.org

Indeed, there was no Vince Neil. There was no Wayne Newton. There was neither Michael nor Bruce Buffer. There were three jugglers from the Vegas Absinthe show who somehow managed to dance, jitter, and juggle everything from bowling pins to toilet paper. On their ever-moving heels came the closest thing to robots as we’d see today.

In what can only be described as a joyful cacophony, the Vegas Golden Knights’ DrumBots paradiddled and sycopated to a degree that even the most jaded and grizzled poker media might have been the first to welcome their new robot overlords. 

And to the sounds of a literal damned drumroll, the players in the field followed every command, including shoving their newly-braceleted and LED-lit wrists in the air, because those bracelets could mean a thousand bucks in their pockets if the drumroll landed luck at their table for yet another thank you WPT giveaway.

If you ever wanted to know just how willing poker players are to accept technology, just offer them a fancy LED bracelet, a couple instructions, and the chance of making a little extra cash. 

There’s your new army. 

Absinthe Jugglers Joe Giron/Poker.org
DrumBots Joe Giron/Poker.org
Bracelet Army Joe Giron/Poker.org

Wait, is it okay that we're doing this?

But what, the same grizzled reporter might ask, would the old guard of poker have to say about this flash-bang circus show of a poker tournament? What, indeed, would the Godfather of Poker, have to say about it?

Well, just ask him. He’s sitting in the middle of the room. 

Indeed, Doyle Brunson was right there in the middle of the lightshow and taking it in like everybody else. Given a chance to speak his mind, he did. In all his decades of playing poker tournaments, he said, “I’ve never seen one like this. This is the best one.”

WPT Halftime Show Joe Giron/Poker.org

Brunson and the old guard know as well as anybody that the very concept poker tournaments began as a promotional gimmick to get people in the doors of Binion’s Horseshoe more than 50 years ago. The idea worked, so the nascent poker industry kept doing it. The marketing grew and changed through the years. Amarillo Slim did the late night shows. Johnny F’ing Chan did a cameo on Rounders. Chris Moneymaker wore a PokerStars patch on ESPN. Phil Hellmuth dressed like Caesar. 

And here’s the thing:

Among that old guard was a man who became the first face and voice of the WPT. 

And this week’s WPT World Championship trophy is named for that man: the late Mike Sexton.

So, when the drums fell silent, everyone looked to Doyle Brunson, the rounder who has lived through every moment of modern poker from the Texas white line to the LED robot rainbow.

Brunson, seemingly content with all that had just happened before him, offered the only blessing the tournament players needed to hear. 

“Shuffle up and deal,” he said.

Photographs by Joe Giron, PokerPhotoArchive