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INSIDE SCOOP ON POKER PLAYER ACTIVISM, PART 1

By Wendeen H. Eolis
Poker Player Newspaper

August 06, 2008

The summer of 2006 was a turning point for poker players and tournament organizers alike. Unimpressed with prior efforts to organize players or a player-management advisory board, I arrived at the World Series of Poker with no thoughts of getting involved with either the WSOPs nascent Players Advisory Council (PAC) or the newborn World Poker Association (WPA).

Two years later, I serve on the WSOP’s constructive PAC and am Immediate Past Chair of the World Poker Association, having resigned my post as Chair and member of the board this past June. History is instructive in what can work and what is destined to fizzle, as poker players, tournament organizers and card room executives continue to plow the course of player-management relations.

WSOP Commissioner Forms PAC

In 2006, Harrah’s Vice President and World Series of Poker Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack established a Players Advisory Council, consisting primarily of marquee players; most had ties to online poker sites. According to Pollack, it was Daniel Negreanu who approached him about the idea of a PAC in the fall of 2005.

The commissioner seemed to have a soft spot for high profile players, chatting them up since his arrival on the scene in August of 2005, but at the opening bell of the 2006 World Series of Poker, players found little evidence yet of Pollack’s grand plan to improve the customer experience. Poker pros and loyalists who had made the annual pilgrimage for years, railed at the hikes in tournament costs and bristled at the lack of attention to customer service. Players were ripe for an organized effort to change the rules of engagement.

Jesse Jones Pushes to Organize Poker Players

Directly outside the WSOP arena, Jesse Jones was holding court at his premiere positioned exhibit booth, stirring disgruntled players into battle. It was here that Jesse’s Organization came to life as the World Poker Association.

A successful poker pro and three-time cancer survivor, Jones had previously shown interest in organizing poker players. A couple of years earlier, he was an officer of the fast-failed WPPA (which was publicized as a unionizing effort). Jones resigned from the WPPA amid friction immediately following the first tournament.

Soon after, he helped develop plans for another poker player association, the IPPPA. He was reportedly eased off the steering committee of the IPPPA because colleagues perceived his philosophy as too rigid, too extreme, and too close to a union organization plan. The IPPPA never got off the ground.

“Jesse’s Organization”

Jones had recently sunk thousands of dollars from his own pocket to return to the business of uniting poker players and related poker entities. Pointing to increased tournament fees, higher-priced rooms, and unprecedented food costs, Jones promised to promote professionalism in poker competition, improve playing conditions, fight against corporate greed and balance the power between tournament organizers and players. He studiously avoided any references to building a poker player’s union.

His pitch attracted supporters like flies. Approximately 80 players anted up $1,000 apiece as founding members, including the likes of Phil Gordon and Daniel Negreanu who were part of the WSOP’s new PAC. Several hundred additional poker enthusiasts raised their hands with smaller bills.

Shortly after the WSOP, Jones contacted me, soliciting support for his cause. We discussed his needs for legal counsel and then moved to his plans: establish a Board of Directors, appoint committee chairs devoted to upgrading professionalism in poker competition and advocate for improved playing conditions. I was hooked.

Poker Player Groups Are Hot Commodities

The promotion of poker industry advisory boards and poker player associations had been fierce and frenzied for the better part of the past two years. In 2004, the World Poker Tour’s CEO, Steve Lipscomb, established a Player Advisory Board though the Committee was criticized as subjectively biased in selecting and excluding various participants for the Inaugural Professional Poker Tour.

During the same period, Louis Asmo, an experienced poker player and businessman formed the WPPA with visions of a poker player’s union and a “play for pay” policy. Jesse Jones served as his treasurer. The WPPA inked a deal with GSN for televised tournaments, but according to players involved there was little appetite for Asmo who promoted strife and mistrust in the burgeoning organization. Jones resigned after the WPPA’s first and only tournament. Both the WPT Player Committee and Asmo’s WPPA went down the tubes.

Other entrepreneurs came crawling out of the woodwork, too, attempting to unify poker players. The chant was becoming familiar: “The time hath come for the poker player to have a voice.”

Among the wannabees were Dallas–based entrepreneur Tommy Eubanks and a long established Denver-based speaker bureau, Brooks International, headed by Maureen Brooks.

Eubanks connected with Texan poker queen Clonie Gowan who in turn helped attract a potential Board that was to include Matt Savage, Tom McEvoy, Robert Williamson, Mike O’Malley, and Eric Morris. The poker personalities were impressive but ultimately players backed away as they came to believe that USPA’s founder would chew up membership dues in salaries for a few.

Brooks first reeled in David Chiu and then the likes of Johnny Chan, Jennifer Harmon, Marcel Luske, Daniel Negreanu, Annie Duke, Amir Vahedi, Alan Cunningham, Mark Seif, Phil Gordon, Phil Hellmuth, T. J. Cloutier, and Chris Ferguson and Chiu for a meeting.

A smaller steering committee included Jesse Jones. One Brooks executive recalls with admiration Jones’ passion to empower players but considered his views too extreme to work effectively in the group. A key meeting to lock in a management team was scheduled. Jones was not invited to attend the meeting. Later the business plan faded away.

In November 2005, Jones incorporated the WPA but it wasn’t until the 2006 that it gathered steam. Throughout the halls of that year’s WSOP players referred potential recruits to “Jesse’s Booth” and talked animatedly about Jesse’s Organization.

WSOP Starts “the List”

At the same time that the WPA was taking shape under Harrah’s nose, WSOP officials were actively responding to players’ biggest complaint: customer service had evaporated into thin air. Pollack and his team convened for a post-tournament debriefing with plenty of notes in hand.

In the next issue, Eolis traces the rise and subsequent unraveling of the WPA, and the PAC’s successful formula.