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A GOOD POKER WORLD WAR

By Wendeen H. Eolis
Bluff Magazine

April 2005

In a world of opinionated poker players, raging debates are daily fare and discussion will inevitably turn to the perceived war between the World Series of Poker Tournament and the World Poker Tour.

Until June 2002, the only poker tournament that drew the attention of every serious poker player was the main event of the World Series. However, just moments after the closing of the 2002 WSOP, the World Poker Tour raised the curtain on a new era of poker competition, with its inaugural event at Bellagio.

With the fanfare befitting a Fortune 500 corporation rolling out a spectacular business plan, Lyle Berman (Chairman of Lakes Entertainment Inc.) and Steven Lipscomb (President of the World Poker Tour) cooed to a rapt audience that the WPT was about to put poker on the map – like never before. The words sounded mere hyperbole then, but today no one can deny Lipscomb’s boast that he ‘has forever changed the face of poker’.

Not so fast, however, did the WPT work toward creating individual poker stars. The WPT business plan initially focused on making the game, rather than players, the mesmerizing force of the shows. At the heart of the WPT’s initial branding campaign was the production of poker as a spectator sport with the players as fungible pawns navigating the stage. It worked!

By the spring of the following year, the worldwide poker community was thrilling to a full season of WPT poker action on the Travel Channel. Players were consumed and awestruck by the new method of hand analysis , watching them as they progressed, on their boob tubes. Under the table cameras, dubbed ‘lipstick cameras’, were adapted from a concept created by toy inventor and poker player, Henry Orenstein, for the UK’s Poker Million Tournament in 2000.

No one could have predicted the impact of the WPT (in conjunction with the development of internet poker) on attendance at the 2003 WSOP until it was upon us. In fact, there were plenty of pessimists around at the time promising that the demise of Binion’s Horseshoe was near and that the fabled WSOP had already lost its luster. But at the opening bell of the 2003 Tournament, the whopping increase of entrants into the finale , 839 in all, set the record straight about the unstoppable growth of poker.

Clearly internet poker sites were rapidly gaining ground in attracting players, with relative newcomer PokerStars.com carving out for itself an untapped niche in poker tournament competitions, including satellites for the World Series’ ‘Big Dance’. It was at the 2003 Big One, that Chris Moneymaker, a strictly internet-based poker player on Poker Stars won a ‘super satellite’ that propelled him to the WSOP’s main event. His fairy tale story set the poker world on fire. A rank amateur, with a graduate degree in accounting and a job as a comptroller for a local Nashville restaurant, busted out one pro after another, until he was last man standing. And as word spread that this fellow had won his seat into the tournament with an initial investment of $40, that his name was Moneymaker, and that one of his two financial partners in the tournament was named David Gamble, the media went positively wild.

Even before Moneymaker’s name began to cross reporters’ lips during the five-day do, ESPN was prepared for an historical event, having decided that the purse in 2002 was big enough to warrant multiple days of coverage of the final event, rather than just the final table. So, the public got the full Monty!

Unlike the WPT, which was emphasizing the game of poker with an underlying theme of the destinations where the game was being played (as per the requirements of the Travel Channel with whom the WPT made its television deal), the WSOP seized the opportunity to create a reality show that highlighted the players and hyped personalities, as well as focusing on the broad international mix of players and the complexity of the relationships at the tables. The immensely successful productions of the WSOP and WPT events of the 2003 season did not go unnoticed by the pros. Royally miffed by the realization that their player-funded events had become money machines for casinos, producers and television networks, resentment began to simmer in the poker world, and talk of a player-owned tour, as well as the possibility of a poker union, surfaced.

WPT brass, hardly retiring wallflowers in the face of a threat, moved quickly to form a player management. The mission: to help grumbling WPT top performers make hay with increasing visibility. The World Poker Tour Management Company was to become Poker Royalty, Inc. with the WPT taking a minority financial interest in the new company.

In the meantime, to the relief of WPT honchos, there seemed to be no effective leadership for the concept of a competitive tour on the immediate horizon. And on a separate front, the Harrah’s folks, who had steeply increased player costs for the 2003 WSOP, calculated that their newfound World Series Tournament was hot as a pistol. Any worries they might have had before the opening day had long since evaporated. Meanwhile, poker pros were becoming increasingly aware of their integral role in the fortunes of the casinos and the surrounding entertainment industry.

Around the time of the 2003 WPT Battle of Champions, several high profile players began a march to get the WSOP organizers and WPT principals to throw some cash in their direction. Most tournament circuit regulars were united on one point: the producers of poker tournaments were making out like bandits on the backs of the players. To make matters worse, the casinos and their network partners were also locking arms with rules that banned logo wear, effectively cutting paid to player sponsorship deals. It was no wonder that the chorus of complaints grew louder and more persistent on the tournament trail.

Re-enter Henry Orenstein, the toy inventor who had invented the under-thetable cameras across the pond back in 2000. He arrived on the scene with a wheelbarrow full of cash , poised to jerk the chain of WPT honchos, while pulling on the heartstrings of disgruntled top players. Multimillionaire Henry, a seventy plus Holocaust survivor, is always at the forefront of something big. This time he reportedly went head to head against the WPT in a bid to produce a Tournament of Superstars in a deal with NBC.

According to a source close to NBC: “Orenstein’s presentation dislodged negotiations between the WPT and NBC for a second production of the WPT Battle of Champions.” Ultimately, the super wealthy independent entrepreneur got the nod over the WPT. Henry went on to create a one-table spectacular Invitational that featured a blend of icons, youthful stars, successful ‘luckboxes’ and a couple of ‘controversial choices’.

Henry forced WSOP and WPT executives to rethink their ‘belligerent’ positions by offering hundreds of thousands of dollars in added monies and serious player recognition. Harrah’s and ESPN figured out that poker was about to become a true cash cow, and that players could no longer be ignored in the process.

ESPN blew its filming time of WSOP events wide open to prepare for a full season of poker tournament shows, featuring not only No Limit events, but a wide variety of additional poker games (although No Limit proved to be the ‘mother of all poker games’ among viewers).

Harrah’s also responded to Henry’s gambit with one of its own, creating a partnership with ESPN to produce a two million dollar free roll , a ‘player appreciation tournament’ for a group of tournament pros that purportedly were voted most popular players of the 2004 WSOP. Of course, there was the usual groaning about who was in and who was not, but the notion of giving back to players was now firmly planted into the poker landscape.

Not to be outdone, or perhaps smelling more competitive initiatives by Harrah’s, the WPT made a series of titillating announcements about expanded Invitational events. And then it geared up full throttle for the first Professional Poker Tour.

No sooner than rumblings of a PPT were heard in Harrah’s executive suite, the quick footed, mega casino moved with its own tour, the World Series of Poker Circuit Events, which offer player points as well as prize money, with a monumental carrot , a two million dollar free roll tournament open to the top hundred point getters.

The battle for supremacy between the WSOP and the WPT continues to the definite benefit of the players. By virtue of the competition, there is a slow but steady shift in the balance of power between organizers and producers on one side, and players on the other. The results: the elevated stature of the game, accelerated visibility of players and a budding pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for poker players who have the stuff to make poker tournament competition a career.

Wendeen H. Eolis was selected as one of the six women at the final table for the 2004/5 WPT televised Ladies Night 11 event. She has to her credit seven world record-setting performances for a woman in major tournaments, four at the World Series of Poker. Her legal consulting company, Eolis International Group, Ltd. reviews law firms and selects counsel, worldwide , for companies, governments, and individuals. You may contact Ms. Eolis at wheolis@aol.com.