For poker fans, the highlight of the games was probably that story about swimmer Michael Phelps’ professed ambitions to play in the 2009 World Series of Poker. That one surfaced (pun intended) soon after Phelps had grabbed the eighth of his gold medals.
I saw it first in The New York Times (8/19/08), where in an article about Phelps’ intentions to “return to normalcy,” he was described as an “avid card player,” saying “it would be cool” to play in the WSOP. It was at an initial, post-medals press conference that Phelps spoke of his interest in poker. “‘My game is a little off right now, so I’ll have to start improving it a little bit,’” he is quoted as saying.
I then saw the Poker Shrink’s notice the same day as the NYT article that Phelps had already been invited to play in the 2009 NBC National Heads Up Poker Championship. Soon after that I read that the Asian Poker Tour had also invited Phelps to play in the Macau event (which begins on September 1). The letter to Phelps from Jeff Mann, an APT rep, explains how the APT would happily “fly you in, organize your accommodation, and buy-you in [sic] to the tournament.” Mann also goes on in a somewhat silly vein to joke that Phelps “almost certainly [has] more chance of making good money from our $1,500,000 prize pool than securing any commercial deals.”
Of course, everyone wants Phelps -- his star shines more brightly than any other celebrity at the moment, and will continue to glow for some time. Even before this year’s Olympics, Phelps had secured sponsorships with Visa, Nike, Speedo, Kellogg’s, Adidas, Rosetta Stone, Omega, and other large corporations. And he’s not going away. NBC has already announced its intention to televise the World Swimming Championships for the next three years, their primary motivation being to take advantage of viewers’ interest in Phelps’ exploits moving forward.
How should poker players and fans feel about these developments?
In the thread over on 2+2 one finds the usually high noise-to-signal ratio, but several posters are correctly identifying the development as “good for the game” (as they say). (One also learns there, incidentally, that Phelps apparently plays a lot of online poker.)
Why does poker -- or, more precisely, those who manage and direct large scale poker events like the NBC Heads-Up Championship or the APT -- want Michael Phelps? For the event organizers, Phelps’ presence instantly attracts the attention of non-poker fans, thereby enlarging their overall reach (very good for securing sponsors). For the poker community, Phelps identifying himself as a poker player instantly affords poker a kind of credibility in mainstream society. Which poker can use, frankly.
Who knows whether Phelps will pursue his poker ambitions or not. Even if he doesn’t, his acknowledgment on the world stage of an interest in poker most certainly helps the game’s proponents as they wage their battles in other (e.g., political, social, moral) contexts.