Let’s ask ourselves: just exactly what is the WPT trying to do here at the Wynn with the WPT World Championship?
We are seeing a no-expense-spared culmination of a months-long public relations offensive that’s awash in online qualifiers, Thank You parties, lavish VIP rooms, celebrity appearances, and huge player pools.
It feels very much like, if you’re old enough to remember it, the old days of the poker boom.
Let’s start with a thought experiment for poker fans: make a quick list of the various ways the WPT has affected your life.
Even when I asked myself to do it, it seemed like a thought experiment that wouldn’t last very long. But, the longer I thought about it, the longer the list of impactful moments got.
So, here’s a quick accounting of a few things in my life that might not have happened but for the World Poker Tour showing up on television two decades ago:
I ended up on the desert side of an island driving offroad with my wife, climbing up on top of a boulder, and waiting for a small pack of large feral dogs to get bored and leave me alone so I could somehow navigate our jeep back to proper society.
I had a chance to become an instant-millionaire in poker.
I gave up a chance to become an instant-millionaire in poker.
I quit a career I’d been working on for a decade to join a traveling circus.
And all that was just in the first few years the WPT existed.
By way of explanation, the WPT introduced me to the idea that Aruba was a place I’d like to visit. That happened during the first season of the WPT when Juha Helppi won the Ultimate Poker Classic. I quickly booked a trip to Aruba and somehow ended up offroading with my wife. Cue the dogs.
The dogs not withstanding, I started playing online poker and eventually won a seat on the Party Poker Millions cruise. I also started writing about playing poker, and that led PokerStars (which had partnered with the WPT for the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure) to offer me a one-week freelance gig at the 2005 PCA.
That gig led to PokerStars hiring me full time (one of the conditions: I’d give up that seat on the Party Poker Millions boat and join the traveling red spade circus–you’re welcome, Party Poker Million Champion Mike Gratz).
What exactly is happening here?
Somehow a couple decades passed.
In those early days, my wife and I sat in our living room and wrote player profiles for the WPT that are probably buried in some very early cache of the WPT website archive. I worked with the WPT crew on three PokerStars Caribbean Adventures (all three of which occurred before most TV crews mercifully stopped trying to tape poker events outdoors).
Because I spent so many years after that dedicated to events run exclusively by PokerStars, I lost touch with the behind-the-scenes life on the WPT. And I have to confess I didn’t see any of this coming.
This operation. This festival. This apparent dedication to conquering the winter poker wars with an offensive unlike anything I’ve seen in poker in recent memory.
The online chatter about the WPT World Championship has been beyond flattering with some people calling it the winter World Series. Some people have, in whispers, called it the new World Series. They whisper because that may, for now, be a little presumptuous, and even if it’s not, it’s probably one of those things one just doesn’t say….again, for now.
Nevertheless, there is no ignoring the effort the WPT is making right now. They have courted qualifiers. They have courted VIPs. They have courted the media. CEO Adam Pliska took a moment out of his day to simply stop into the media room and thank the assembled poker journalists for taking the time. Yes, it’s a PR game, but in the world of poker events, what isn’t?
The WPT news arm hired a slew of professionals and re-engineered its reporting team with a dedication to covering–and this might be the most surprising part of the overall effort–covering poker events, news, and companies that don’t have anything to do with the WPT.
I would have liked to have written this before the WPT did something today that filled me full of bias. When the WPT announced it was going to give its WPT Honors Award to Isai Scheinberg, I couldn’t help but applaud with the rest of the crowd. Scheinberg was the first person to hire me in poker, and he changed my life immeasurably. I hadn’t seen him in more than a decade, and today when I reached out my hand to shake his, he smiled and acted as if we’d been somewhere together last week. Scheinberg has deserved the highest of honors for a very long time, and the WPT has seen fit to make that happen.
Put another way, the WPT was one of the things that put me in Scheinberg’s orbit nearly 20 years ago, and the WPT is the reason I was in Scheinberg’s orbit today.
How I feel about the WPT World Championship isn’t important, but in terms of the kinds of impacts the WPT can make in poker, it feels very much like this is an inflection point we’ll talk about someday.
And this is one impact that–with the best of luck–won’t end up with me trying to escape a pack of feral dogs.
Photos by Joe Giron, PokerPhotoArchive