Thursday, February 11, 2010

Who Has the Power?

Who Has the Power?Saw that “Power 20” list put out by Bluff Magazine recently, a list of “the most influential and powerful people in the poker industry” here at the start of 2010.

The magazine has compiled similar lists in the past, polling media types and other industry insiders to create it, and has usually included not just individuals but companies or organizations, too. The idea for such a list likely comes from other, similar catalogues of important, influential types from various industries. That annual “Forbes 500” springs to mind -- a list of the 500 top U.S. companies that identified the “largest” companies by looking at various factors, including sales, profits, assets, market value, and number of employees. They turned that into the “Fortune Global 2000” a few years ago, following a similar rubric to compare companies around the world.

The Bluff list of powerful poker people doesn’t come accompanied with a particular set of criteria other than to say these are the “movers and shakers” of the poker world, which I take to mean folks whose actions necessarily get noticed and have some substantial effect on everyone else involved in poker, such as players or others whose livelihood is shaped by poker in some fashion (e.g., casino employees, media, etc.).

Of the 20 spots, nine are occupied by professional players, most of whom have numerous ties within the industry that help extend their influence: Howard Lederer (#4), Doyle Brunson (#6), Joe Cada (#7), Tony G (#9), Daniel Negreanu (#10), Phil Ivey (#11), Mike Sexton (#13), Joe Sebok (#17), and Barry Shulman (#18).

The rest of the list is comprised of two folks who represent important poker industry entities, Mitch Garber (Harrah’s) at #3 and Ty Stewart (the WSOP) at #5, two agents (Brian Balsbaugh [#15] and Per Hagen [#20]), the Executive Director of the Poker Players Alliance (John Pappas [#12]), a tournament director (Matt Savage [#19]), a television producer (Mori Eskandani [#14]), a lawmaker (Barney Frank [#8]), and Bluff’s editor, (Lance Bradley [#16]).

I didn’t really want to get into the merits of the list itself, which certainly names a lot of important people but -- as always happens with such things -- seems to omit some obvious ones, too (e.g., no Annie Duke?). For more discussion of who got picked and who got left out, see Wicked Chops’ post on the list as well as the one over on Pokerati. (The latter includes a number of interesting and insightful comments as well.) They also talked about the list some on last week’s episode of The Poker Beat.

I did, however, want to say a word about the top of the list, where one finds not individuals but two online poker sites, Full Tilt Poker (#2) and PokerStars (#1). Their listing is preceded by a disclaimer that “Given the murky legality involved in owning an online poker site, the top two names... both asked to have their names removed from the list” and Bluff did so.

While not entirely surprising, I nevertheless find this to be the most intriguing aspect of the entire list -- the fact that the most important two individuals in poker as voted upon by more than 100 industry folks and members of the poker media are uncertain about being identified at all, never mind being highlighted as especially powerful within poker. Says a couple of important things about the industry as a whole, I think.

For one, the list seems a pretty strong argument for the centrality of the online game and the influence of online poker over just about all other aspects of the industry. Many, many jobs within poker are tied directly to the health of online poker, and in particular to the continued growth and success of a couple of two “U.S.-facing” sites. We knew that already, but the list certainly clarifies that to be the case.

Secondly, the fact that those who own those two sites shun this sort of publicity says something about the highly uncertain status of the online game at this moment in time, most particularly in the U.S.

ForbesRegarding that subject -- and speaking of Forbes -- an article appeared on the business magazine’s website today with a headline asking “Are the Feds Cracking Down on Online Poker?

The article notes how PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker together “account for maybe 70% of the $1.4 billion in revenue the U.S. [online poker] industry brought in last year.” Speaking to the issue of the legality of operating an online poker site that serves U.S. customers, the article reports that “PokerStars, situated on the Isle of Man, claims it has legal opinions from five U.S. law firms saying it is not violating any laws.” Forbes tried also to talk to Full Tilt, though their representatives “did not respond to requests for comment,” likely because Full Tilt “has deep roots in the U.S. and close connections to famous American poker players who can be found in Las Vegas regularly.”

The article goes on to summarize recent history, including the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 and its aftermath, PartyGaming founder Anurag Dikshit’s guilty plea to violating the Wire Act back in 2008, and the seizing of $34 million by federal prosecutors in 2009 from companies processing payments for Stars and Full Tilt. It also mentions Barney Frank’s current efforts to get online gambling licensed and regulated in the U.S., as well as that June 1, 2010 deadline for banks to start implementing the UIGEA.

Thus are we in a world where “Online poker operates in the law's shadows.” And since the entire poker industry is so enormously affected by the status of the online game in the U.S., anyone appearing in poker’s “Power 20” today may well be more vulnerable than their listing might suggest.

In other words, they have the “power” right now, but everyone continues to worry and wonder -- could others come in and pull the plug?

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