Can Alex Dreyfus Sell Poker As A Game, A Sport And Entertainment?

September 27, 2015
Can Alex Dreyfus Sell Poker As A Game, A Sport And Entertainment?

Poker entrepreneur Alex Dreyfus, best known for touting the Global Poker Index and his attempts to “sportify” poker, has landed a new gig, as a semi-regular blogger for the Huffington Post.

It should be noted that bloggers at Huffington Post aren’t paid money; they are paid in exposure — which is a currency Dreyfus has no problem trading in, considering one of his main goals is to bring poker (his version of it) to the masses.

His first submission was, unsurprisingly, about his company’s (Mediarex) poker initiatives, and his desire to disrupt the way the game is currently perceived and marketed to the masses.

In the headline for his introductory blog, Dreyfus calls poker “a game… a sport… and entertainment.” He spends the next several hundred words explaining his vision for the game, talking to what is hopefully a new audience at Huffington Post.

“My vision is to change that image and to make people see that not only is Poker a game but it’s a sport and great proposition for entertainment too,” he wrote. Then he explains where he comes into the picture, “The industry needs a shake-up and that’s what I’m here to do — tip it on its head, rebuild and reinvigorate the game so that it gets the audience it so rightfully deserves.”

The question is: Can he make it happen?

The Dreyfus plan

Within the game of poker, Dreyfus sees opportunity and untapped potential. In general terms, he believes the poker industry is being mismanaged, often saying that its pulling in several different directions at once. For a more detailed look at Dreyfus’ goals and vision, you can read this column.

I think a very key element of Dreyfus’s plan can be found in an oft-invoked statement he makes: “Poker is an old game but a new industry.” I couldn’t disagree with that sentiment more. Poker is a somewhat old game, but poker has had various industries built around it since it first started traveling up the Mississippi River in the 1830’s.

In my opinion, what Dreyfus is really saying, is selling professional poker as an entertainment option is a new phenomenon — although Benny Binion tried doing that decades ago. My belief is poker will always be a popular game people play; what Dreyfus is banking on is people will continue to be interested in watching professionals play poker, provided it is packaged correctly.

Turning poker into a sport

One part of Dreyfus’ vision that I’ve never fully bought into is his desire to create an over-arching narrative built around the game’s top players. Dreyfus wants to take poker out of the smoky backrooms and into the light of the day to attract advertisers, and at the same time create a format where people tune in and see a relatively consistent lineup of players. And because of the new sponsors, these players will compete in his events.

That’s the key to it all, as he wants the game’s elite players to be on display week in and week out, and he wants viewers to develop rooting interests for these players, much like they would a professional athlete, which brings in the sponsors.

In simpler terms, Dreyfus’ plan is a self-reinforcing cycle of players, viewers, and sponsors.

Remove one aspect of this and it crumbles.

Does poker have an image problem?

Another problem I foresee is the idea that poker’s image is what keeps advertisers away, and his belief the game needs to be “cleansed” of its perceived stench.

As someone who was drawn to the game before the poker boom, for me, and for many people I’ve spoken to, part of the allure was the colorful characters and the perception of poker being something of a prohibited, or frowned upon activity.

Taking the sordid history and the romanticism out of poker is a bad business model in my opinion. It keeps poker headed down its current path, where professional players have a rather boring skill set built on game theory optimal strategies. The appealing skill set — the skills people thought professional poker players possessed (reading opponents and spotting tells, and being a wizened gambler or a borderline hustler who knew when to bluff) — is no longer on display.

People weren’t drawn to Rounders because of the quick primer on seven-card stud strategy Mike gave Professor Petrovsky; they love the film because Mike read everyone’s hand blind, and because he spotted Teddy KGB’s Oreo cookie tell. The fact that this was sensationalized didn’t matter, those perceived skills are what made poker appealing.

I’m also convinced they were taken in by Worm’s cheating, and the notion that they could, like the police officer, catch a cheat in the act. Nobody like’s a cheat, but is there anything cooler than being able to spot one?

In 2003, poker was like watching a magician. The people were drawn to poker thanks to Rounders wanted to see the unbelievable and try to figure it out. Was it a trick? A scam? Or did the best poker players have mystical abilities, honed from years of practice and god given talent?

And most importantly: Is it something I could learn to do?

College-aged men who previously went home and worked as landscapers or in a fast food restaurant were drawn to the game because they wanted to make a big bluff or rake in a big pot because they were that much better at poker than the other guy. It didn’t matter that the perception of what made someone a good poker player was wrong. Until they learned otherwise, this is how they viewed poker.

Even if they weren’t going to become poker millionaires, they all believed they could all be Mike McDermott, grinding out $20/hour playing a card game, and that’s a hell of a lot better than making $10/hour landscaping in August. What could be better to an 18-year-old kid than the idea of making money on your terms in an unconventional way? And how cool (there’s that word again) would it be to tell the other people in the dorm how they lined their pockets with cash?

And for the people who caught the poker bug because of the 2003 WSOP on ESPN, the appeal was nothing more than an updated rags to riches story. Catch lightning in a bottle for a week, and you could win millions playing in the WSOP main event. Chris Moneymaker was no different than a lottery winner to most people.

Yes, it was virtually all a myth built on ignorance and misconceptions, but it was a romantic myth. A myth people wanted to believe in, even if deep down they knew it was a pipedream. Because it was a really cool pipedream.

The current sales pitch the game of poker is making to players is a bit different. If you bust your ass for a couple years, you might be able to beat some mid-stakes cash games, or give yourself a chance at winning a big tournament. That’s assuming you get staked, routinely sell pieces of yourself, and grind out hundreds or thousands of hands every day. Also, you’ll probably want to buy some software and subscribe to training sites. You’ll need to hire a coach at some point too; a good one is about $400/hour.

Is it any wonder the general public’s interest in poker has dwindled over the years?

If this is how Alex Dreyfus is going to continue to pitch poker to the masses, as a game of skill that takes mastery to play at a high level, I don’t expect a second poker boom to come of it. Not that I think someone can create a second poker boom in the first place.

Final thoughts

Dreyfus always has a lot of irons on the fire, and is a very creative and innovative person, so there is no telling how he will package his poker initiatives, or how successful he will be selling poker as a game, a sport and entertainment.

He’s already succeeded on a number of levels (creating synergy between the Hendon Mob and the GPI, and creating the American Poker Awards and Conference, as well as several other new products) so even if his vision falls short, I wouldn’t deem it a failure.

For me, Dreyfus’ ultimate success will hinge on how he sells the game and its players. Are poker pros finely tuned mental athletes armed with a doctoral level understanding of math and logic? Or are they the real world versions of Lancey Howard, Doc Holliday, Brett Maverick and Mike McDermott? People on the street can quote poker movies; they don’t quote game theory or talk about balancing your 4-bet range.

My hope is Alex Dreyfus can sell poker as a romantic pipedream, but so far I’m not convinced this is the path he is taking. I hope I’m wrong, and I’m sure Alex will tell you I am.

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