A little surprising for most, I think, that this year’s November Nine -- with Phil Ivey, Jeff Shulman, and a few other personalities/stories to generate added interest -- didn’t improve on last year’s total. But perhaps our perspective is blinkered a bit, for a couple of reasons.
One might simply be the fact that a poker show can only attract so much attention; that is to say, there might well be a ceiling of sorts when it comes to the number of viewers even the best possible poker show can attract -- a possibility some don’t necessarily want to consider.
There’s another reason, though, why I think we tend to see a lack of obvious growth as a negative. Having witnessed the recent “boom” in poker, we came to expect big, dramatic jumps from year to year, and when they don’t come, the resulting impression is unfavorable, even if holding steady ain’t necessarily such a bad thing, big picture-wise.
The week concludes with yet another big WSOP story, this one regarding the Commish, Jeffrey Pollack. Pollack came on the scene just as the “boom” was booming, and has been at the helm ever since. He has announced that today will be his last day as Commissioner of the World Series of Poker.
Pollack came to the WSOP from the professional sports world. He started The Sports Business Daily in the mid-90s, a trade publication covering the business side of sports that still exists as an important “insider” voice today -- the sort of thing that industry leaders routinely consult for its commentary and reporting.
Not surprising, then, that from there Pollack would move over into the business of sports, first as a communications consultant to the NBA. Pollack began working with the NBA during the 1998-99 lockout, and eventually was named the league’s Vice President of Marketing & Corporate Communications. Then Pollack moved over to NASCAR, where for five years he held a similar position -- Managing Director of Broadcasting and New Media -- in which he was heavily involved with the promotion and marketing of the sport.
In 2004, Harrah’s Entertainment purchased Binion’s Horseshoe, which included taking over the World Series of Poker. The following year Harrah’s relocated the fast-growing Series from the humble downtown casino to the spacious ballrooms of the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino (although the WSOP ME final table was played back at Binion’s in 2005 as a kind of last waltz).
Among its other initial moves, Harrah’s hired Pollack away from NASCAR to become the Vice President of Marketing for the WSOP, and so he joined the circus right as the “boom” was happening. Then, at the start of 2006, Harrah’s created a new position -- a Commissioner of the WSOP -- and named Pollack as the first occupant of that seat.
That first year -- 2006 -- was the WSOP’s biggest ever in terms of Main Event entrants (8,773). Then came the surreptitious passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006. Coincidentally, it was also Friday the 13th (10/13/06) when then President George W. Bush signed that sucker into law.
The “boom” was over, but the WSOP would still continue to grow, and Pollack certainly deserves a lot of credit on that front. Poker is a much harder sell than is basketball or stock car racing. Our buddy Otis wrote a terrific piece last summer over on Tao of Poker in which he did a nifty job characterizing the difficulty of Pollack’s task.
“Pollack has a big league ‘My Fair Lady’ job to do on the World Series and he has to make sure it sticks,” writes Otis. “He's working with a world that polite society doesn't want to admit exists and he has to put enough makeup on it to make sure it can handle the occasional smeared mascara. And he has to do all of it without painting the WSOP into a whore.”
Pollack faced other challenges as well, most particularly from the old guard who regarded the WSOP changing from a relatively small, private gathering of friends to a massive, public spectacle with either discomfort, frustration, or outward disgust. It was easy for those critics to target the new guy Pollack, though in some respects he wasn’t necessarily the one deserving of such invective. Like others, I, too, have misgivings about the seeming “corporatization” of poker and the WSOP, but all things considered found Pollack a highly positive figure whose contributions to (and management of) the WSOP’s growth was especially constructive.
I also found Pollack an amiable and very forthright guy whenever I heard him interviewed in podcasts -- something he did on many occasions. Dr. Pauly notes how the Commish never gave him any indication that he couldn’t write whatever he wanted when gonzo-reporting on the WSOP, and while I can’t pretend to speak for everyone, I think most others in the media probably shared that appreciation.
I remember last summer during one of the dinner breaks sitting in the Amazon Room having a Capriotti’s sandwich and surfing online. Read a tweet from Pollack noting that he was watching Game 7 of the NHL finals on the other side of the Amazon, so I walked over and joined him to see the Penguins beat the Red Wings in a thrilling finish.
“Have a seat,” he said invitingly as I arrived, indicating an available chair.
Indeed, that was the message Pollack most earnestly tried to convey time and time again as the WSOP Commish. You’ll recall the Day 1d debacle this year, when players who’d come for seats in the Main Event had to be turned away, a day that I’m going to guess was Pollack’s most difficult during the nearly four years of his tenure. Because really, the message one always heard Pollack trying to convey -- either explicitly or as a subtext -- was that when it came to the WSOP, everyone was invited.
Best of luck to Pollack, and to whomever ends up taking his now empty seat.
By the way, my second Betfair piece appears this morning -- an interview with James McManus. Check it out. Will probably move on to write about other, non-book related topics over there soon, but will always be including book reviews (and hopefully more interviews) as well.
Have a good weekend, all.