Posted on

MAKING HISTOR-E

By Wendeen H. Eolis
All In Magazine

December 2007

NO SOONER THAN HARRAH’S ANNOUNCED IT had acquired London Cubs International (LCI) in late-2006, World Series of Poker Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack and his WSOP team hit the ground running with a bold plan in mind.

The forward-thinking marketing group of Pollack, Ty Stewart, Gary Thompson, and Craig Abrahams was poised to set down stakes for a spectacular poker event to show off the art and drama of the WSOP outside the United States.

The first meeting between WSOP and LCI executives was held at LCI’s headquarters in London a mere three days after the Harrah’s announcement. Accompanied by Abrahams, Commissioner Pollack opened discussions for a grand World Series of Poker Europe (WSOPE) event in London.

***
In September, the inaugural WSOPE, presented by Betfair.com, played to its thunderbolt conclusion at LCI’s flagship property, Casino at the Empire, on a poker stage that was fittingly a stone’s throw from the grand art of London’s National Gallery in the heart of the city’s venerable Theatre District. Even the group of creative thinkers that make up the WSOP’s marketing team could not have dreamed up the triple-barreled, record-setting performance of Norwegian player Annette Obrestad. More than 150 reporters from all over the world took notice of her astonishing play in the final event and have embraced her as the new media darling of the poker world. So has sponsor Betfair, which signed a deal with her to represent the company,even before her extraordinary victory.

Hours before her 19th birthday, Obrestad won the main event of the inaugural WSOPE, a £10,000 ($20,137) buy-in event that yielded a £1,000,000 ($2,013,734) first-place prize for her. Obrestad bested 362 players in a field of talent that included many of the most accomplished and seasoned players in the world. The likes of Doyle Brunson, Phil Hellmuth, Johnny Chan, David “Devilfish” Ulliot, Marcel Luske, and Gus Hansen were all part of the starting list. Obrestad had her work carved out for her.

In one fell swoop, Obrestad permanently destroyed any vestiges of a felt ceiling over the heads of female players, while also crushing the hopes of a large contingent of visiting American poker pros. Obrestad was the talk of the tables from the beginning to the end. A known quantity on the Internet, she was the new girl in town when she knocked out Jennifer Harman. She became the one to watch even before she took out Annie Duke.

Obrestad moved up the ladder passing every other male marquee player in her quest to reach the final table. With the departure of Hansen in 10th place, there were no more big-name live-tournament players to kick around anymore. After a grueling series of battles, Obrestad’s set of sevens overpowered John Tabatabai’s two pair, sending the young Englishman to the rail in second place. Obrestad raised her hand as the heavyweight champion of poker in Europe with a million pounds weighing her down.

Both Obrestad and Tabatabai were learned veterans of Internet card room competition. Their performances reflect ample proof that cyberspace offers an incomparable, fast-track training ground for young poker players. Obrestad had reportedly scored hundreds of thousands of dollars of winnings in online tournaments,against large fields of players that spanned six continents from America to Australia,prior to taking her seat at the WSOPE main event. Commissioner Pollack commented about Obrestad’s win: “It is a great message about the power of women poker players, and she clearly represents the new generation.”

***
At 18, Obrestad was of legal age to compete at Harrah’s London-based venue. Her highly publicized win, nevertheless, created a double-edged sword for Harrah’s. The American-headquartered company offers all of its other poker events across the United States, where the legal age to gamble is 21.
Her win put a brilliant spotlight on the WSOP brand in Europe, but from now until September 2009, she will not be able to journey to any of the WSOP Circuit Events, nor will she be eligible to participate in the fabled Las Vegas-based original WSOP. The World Series is the richest and most prestigious poker event on the planet. ALL IN asked Commissioner Pollack (who prefers to be called Jeffrey by friends, colleagues, and players he has met), “How does Obrestad’s win affect the image of Harrah’s and its responsibility to young people?” He responded, “Harrah’s is committed to responsible gaming in every market in which we operate. The legal age for gaming in the United Kingdom is 18, so Annette was welcomed to enter the tournament and we proudly crowned her champion. In the United States, however, the legal age is 21, so she has a couple of more years to go before she can experience the WSOP in Las Vegas.”

The conflict between the legal age to gamble in the U.K. and the U.S. did not impede Obrestad’s negotiations for a sponsorship deal with several European online poker sites in the weeks leading up to the WSOPE. Betfair was the successful suitor, picking up the wunderkind as its poker ambassador and as part of the Betfair Pro Poker Team. The U.K.’s largest online betting company announced its coup before her play at the final table, noting that it was her previously proven poker skills and personality that interested the company, without regard to the outcome of her final table appearance at the WSOPE.

How sweet it was, both for Obrestad and Betfair, to add to her resume in the WSOPE finale. Under the bright lights of television and in the presence of reporters from around the world, Obrestad expressed pride in her new association with Betfair and displayed humility about her history-making win, proving Betfair’s assessment on the money. Betfair also made a deal with Thomas “Buzzer” Bihl, who won the opening £2,500 pound H.O.R.S.E. event to become the first player in history to win a WSOP bracelet beyond American shoes.

***
If not for the marketing genius of the WSOP team that brought its product to Europe, Obrestad might still be branded as a Norwegian poker prodigy. Instead, she will be known henceforth as the European queen who beat the worldly kings of poker. The story of her historic WSOPE Championship performance is part of another story: Harrah’s decision to rev up the marketing engine of the WSOP brand.

In August 2005, Pollack joined Harrah’s as vice president of sports and entertainment. The two-time Emmy Award winning media and sports executive had previously been managing director of broadcasting and new media for NASCAR, where he led the use of advanced media and the newest technologies to increase fan accessibility. He also helped direct NASCAR’s network television partnerships and spearheaded NASCAR’s season-launch marketing efforts. As executive producer of NASCAR IN CAR, he received a 2003 Primetime Emmy for outstanding achievement in interactive television programming and garnered a 2004 Sports Emmy for outstanding innovative technical achievement. In 2004, he was honored with the first-ever Billboard Digital Entertainment Award for best interactive television programming.

Pollack was a natural to lead the way for Harrah’s in extending the WSOP brand worldwide. In January ’06, the formal role and title of commissioner was added to his initial responsibilities. “I have always been attracted to opportunities to do things that haven’t been done before, and it was obvious there were lots of opportunities here,” he explained when asked what about the new post appealed to him. He described his plans as follows: “to essentially modernize a 38-year-old brand that has rich traditions and heritage.” He added, “The job has been what I expected it to be, and more “all of it good.”

The commissioner also explained how the additional title came about. “Harrah’s management decided, given the nature of the work that needed to be done and our desire to further establish the WSOP as a leader and innovator, it made sense to hold one person publicly accountable–on the line when things go wrong.” Jeffrey sees the most significant mandates of his job as “community building and accountability.”

Immediately upon his arrival at Harrah’s, Pollack started to work the phones, reaching out to top players and others with longtime experience at the WSOP. He didn’t shirk from hearing or addressing complaints. The outgrowth of his listening tour was the creation of the Players Advisory Council (PAC). The concept of a player sounding board and a cooperative discussion group between players and Harrah’s WSOP executive staff worked so well that the group has evolved from a half-dozen players at its inception to 16 players today. “The PAC has had an enormous and invaluable impact on the WSOP,” Pollack observed.

“When we started, I thought we would meet two or three times a year and that would be it. The interaction and dialogue is year-round, and even weekly. There hasn’t been a major decision made about the WSOP in the last year in which the PAC hasn’t had an opportunity to weigh in on operations structures and other matters. Each member comes with different perspective and cares deeply about the WSOP. What is so special about the Council is they are open forums and every perspective is encouraged.” The PAC has worked so well that last spring Jeffrey decided to expand the concept for international players (called the “IPAC”), as the WSOP team readied to roll out the 2007 World Series and the WSOPE in rapid-fire succession.

Full disclosure: Early last spring, Jeffrey sat me down and proposed that I help organize such a group. Over lunch he reminded me, as he had in other more casual conversations, “Customer issues are immensely important in the scheme of growing both the WSOP and WSOPE brands. So much of my job is about listening, diplomacy, finding a way for people to understand each other. Getting to know your constituency is very important.”

Jeffrey Pollack is not afraid to talk to people with different views; he actually seems to enjoy the challenge of turning around people who are critical. Ask noted pro Steve Zolotow, who upon meeting Jeffrey was more interested in securing his boss’ telephone number to complain about him than in listening to the commissioner’s excuses for the long WSOP registration lines and the new playing cards that had been introduced without adequate testing of suitability. A week later, Pollack and Zolotow had a lunch meeting. Steve has since joined PAC.

Long before meeting up with Zolotow, however, Jeffrey Pollack recognized there was much to do to enhance the image of the WSOP and extend the brand. It was no surprise that immediately upon assuming his position at Harrah’s, Jeffrey assembled a highly credentialed, hard-charging team to consider, modify, and expand on the vision for extending the WSOP brand.

Gary Thompson, a longtime Harrah’s communications executive with a love for our game was already overseeing communications issues for the WSOP. Jeffrey quickly counted the blessings of having Thompson in the mix. Pollack also scored a touchdown in hiring his longtime friend Ty Stewart, who previously had a seven-year stint with the NFL in creative sports marketing. He joined Harrah’s as director of sponsorship and licensing. Craig Abrahams came aboard the WSOP team as director of broadcasting and new media after serving as an intern with Harrah’s the previous summer. The freshly minted Harvard Business School graduate had impressed one and all at Harrah’s throughout his internship, so Pollack scooped him up quickly. The blended experience of Pollack’s team produced the ideal think tank required to bring the WSOPE concept to life.

Jeffrey applauds everyone on the WSOP team, going beyond the front line of his marketing team to include all those that have paved the way for the possibility of a WSOPE through their significant contributions. He made special note of Howard Greenbaum, Geno Iafrate, and Joe Scibetta. He added more praise for the yeoman efforts of “hundreds of others at the Rio and throughout our company. Without these fine people, the business doesn’t work. Their expertise and passion make a big difference every day.”

Continuing to extol his praises for the people he works with, Pollack said, “In the instance of the WSOPE, Ty and Craig really led the charge with an incredible assist from Angele Marshall. Jack Effel, Gary, and I really showed up after the hard work had been done.” Jeffrey is never satisfied with merely rattling off a few deserved acknowledgments. He wants us to appreciate, as fully as he does, the value of others’ contributions,high level colleagues and critical supporting casts alike.

“Ty is simply one of the most creative sports marketers I’ve ever met,” he continued. “Craig is an analytic genius.” He called Thompson his consigliere and “the voice of experience and wisdom at every turn.” He continued, “Jack does a masterful job pulling together the tournament operations and helped us immeasurably in making the transition from Las Vegas to London.” He said of Angele Marshall, who had been based in London with LCI prior to the Harrah’s acquisition of the British gaming company, “She is an incredibly gifted, young event coordinator who has launched her career with the WSOP in grand style.”

While Laura Tibbs operates mostly behind the scenes, the commissioner wanted to insure that every top player and every customer knows that “Laura is the heartbeat of our team.”A dedicated assistant to Jeffrey and the entire team, Tibbs also helps manage player relations and coordinates everything with PAC and IPAC.

Given his credo, “Good ideas belong to the team; bad ones are my fault,” it is no wonder that he credits the idea for the recently concluded WSOPE as the brainchild of an exuberant team that developed its strategic marketing plan with gusto. He said, “We started thinking and talking about WSOP events outside of the U.S. in late 2005, really when I got to Harrah’s. We’d been exploring doing something in Europe for just about all of 2006, and when we acquired LCI, that accelerated our thinking and our plans.” Once Harrah’s was set to purchase London Clubs, “It was easy to decide to stage an event, it was just a question of when.” The rest is history.

***
In addition to becoming the youngest player ever to win a WSOP bracelet event, Annette Obrestad also eclipsed Annie Duke’s single-event women’s record for earnings, as Duke won $2,000,000 in the 2004 Tournament of Champions. Duke tipped her hat to Obrestad after the event, commenting that she had been seated to the left of this cool-as-a cucumber opponent during part of the tournament and never wanted to face that challenge again.

By anyone’s standards, Obrestad’s achievement is genuinely awesome, particularly in light of the stiff competition she faced in the main event of the WSOPE. From WSOP world champions Jamie Gold, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, and Greg Raymer to fellow Norwegian Thor Hansen, Obrestad was surrounded by the best of the best, including perhaps the premier all-around female poker player in the world, Jennifer Harman.

Like Obrestad, Harman is petite and known to be lethal at the poker tables. She has won millions of dollars in a single session at the Big Game in Las Vegas as well as two WSOP bracelets. In the opening event of the WSOPE, a £2,500 H.O.R.S.E. event, Harman cruised from the starting gate to the final table, where she accumulated a massive chip lead. She could almost taste a historic win. But a sudden reversal of fortune turned into a downspin. She landed with a second-place finish in the maiden WSOPE competition, while Thomas Bihl of Germany became the first player in the history of WSOP competition to earn a bracelet outside the United States. At the end of a 13-hour final table, Bihl, a four-year pro, showed the power of discipline, desire, and determination at the poker table to win £70,875, or about $141,000.

Between the hoopla of the opening H.O.R.S.E event and far more hoopla at the finale, the WSOPE rolled out a £5,000 Pot-Limit Omaha competition. Until the recent No-Limit Hold ‘Em craze, Pot-Limit Omaha had been the predominant game of choice in the major poker centers of the U.K. for decades.
As it was in the other two tournaments, so it was here,young Europeans rose to the top, with Italy’s 23-year-old Dario Alioto finishing first for £234,390 and Istvan Novak of Hungary taking second place to go home with £137,280. Americans Ted Forrest and Andy Bloch went deep into the tournament, pushing their way to the final two tables.

While the WSOPE did not see the kinds of numbers or the frenzy that invariably marks modern-day WSOP tournament affairs in Las Vegas, the WSOPE was a definite hit with the European players and is a surefire bet to become a tradition. Pollack, who never really feared throwing a party in an empty room, said, “We are very pleased with the turnout. It is never about quantity; it is about quality.”
During the WSOPE, Pollack and the rest of his team often held meetings and chatted up players in a restaurant overlooking the proceedings. The constant and boundless work required to strengthen the WSOP brand is evident in the efforts of a lot of folks, but it is the team of Pollack, Thompson, Stewart, Abrahams, and Marshall that stood out most here. Their quest to extend the WSOPE brand is unmistakable. Like Bihl, Alioto, and Obrestad of 2007 WSOPE fame, the WSOP team is a group of doers who will not be denied.

***
The WSOPE is over. But Pollack still has a few thank yous to extend. He cited sponsor Betfair as a “world class company with a similar DNA to ours,” and offered a few more final words of praise for others: “Launching a new venture and brand extension like we did is no easy task, but,thanks to the good folks at LCI and our terrific sponsors at Betfair,we all did it as one team with style, success, and impact. They helped make poker history and do what many thought could not be done.
“And, they tolerated our invasion with a smile,” the commissioner added. “We’re proud to call them colleagues and hope they welcome us back.”