One of the first things I do every morning (after downing my first cup of coffee of course) is check my inbox. And every morning there is no shortage of alerts and press releases from gaming companies and their PR firms to sort through.
During the past year or so, I’ve noticed a not-so-subtle shift in the type of stories landing in my email, as well as the content being pushed by online poker sites and poker tours. News of sponsorship deals and superstar poker players have been replaced with stories about poker-playing celebrities and everyday people.
Granted, there will always be an audience for a deep Phil Ivey run, a crazy prop bet, or someone winning back-to-back major tournaments. But what we’re seeing more often from poker media (and what the poker sites and tours want to trumpet) are the seemingly anonymous players in the events and their stories.
Some of these are truly remarkable, and far more meaningful than a Player of the Year race or someone cracking the top 10 of the all-time tournament money list.
Poker sites are in the business of bringing in new players and increasing player retention. Poker media websites want to engage with readers and drive traffic. What both are realizing — pretty much in unison — is not everyone wants to be a poker pro. Not everyone wants to read about poker pros.
They’ve discovered the poker world is a menagerie of people and personalities, each with an interesting tale to tell.
One angle poker sites and poker tours are pushing is the celebrity player. This is nothing new, as the World Series of Poker used to tout Gabe Kaplan and Telly Savalas as poker enthusiasts.
One of the most notable is PokerStars‘ ongoing marketing campaign, featuring Cristiano Ronaldo and Dwyane Wade.
- Breaking Bad star Aaron Paul joining the Global Poker League was big news. It grabbed headlines inside and outside the poker world.
- Former New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders defensive end Richard Seymour’s poker skills have captivated the poker community.
- Actor and comedian Kevin Hart entering the Super High Roller tournament at the PokerStars Championship Bahamas was also a headline-grabbing event.
Celebrities are the low-hanging fruit. The really good stories require a bit more digging to unearth. But some of them are truly moving and among the most widely read.
For instance, the most-read story on PocketFives.com in 2016 was Lance Bradley’s excellent long-form piece. It detailed the World Series of Poker journey of 55-year-old Bob Brundige. Brundige, dying of cancer, got to live out one last dream thanks to his friend Charlie Weis’ generosity and support.
— PocketFives (@PocketFives) January 2, 2017
At the 2015 WSOP, Brad Willis wrote about friends Vanessa Pacella and Nicole Rowe, which the poker community widely shared. Willis won the American Poker Award for the story.
More recently, the poker world learned about leukemia-stricken Damon Ferrante. After a chance meeting at the PokerStars Festival New Jersey, he got the opportunity to compete in a couple events at the Borgata Winter Poker Open as a PokerStars-sponsored player.
In search of the next Moneymaker
These stories don’t always have to be tear-jerkers to be captivating.
Sometimes the story of how a player wound up playing in a tournament is every bit as interesting as Chris Moneymaker’s legendary run in the 2003 WSOP Main Event, just without the signature win. This looks like James McManus’ 2000 World Series of Poker Main Event run chronicled in Positively Fifth Street.
But unlike McManus, who gave his story a platform, most of these participants go largely unnoticed, unless they’re brought to the attention of the media.
They’re the “randoms” some corners of the poker community tend to talk about as if they’re nothing more than a seat-warmer. They’re just a soon-to-be-replaced body destined for a middling finish.
For the serious-minded poker player, these stories are not as interesting as what Phil Ivey or Fedor Holz is up to. They view them as long shots with cursory understanding of the game’s complexities. To a seasoned player, they have little chance to win, which makes them irrelevant to poker aficionados.
But it’s their backstories that make them interesting to the general public.
Winning is secondary
Like a typical participant in a friendly home game, for the most part, winning isn’t the reason for showing up. Yes, winning is the ultimate goal, but most of these players are under no illusions about their chances; winning or big cash is icing on the cake.
It’s a difficult realization for some professional players. But what the poker community writ large (not just the daily visitors to twoplustwo.com) wants is the feel-good story, not to be bombarded on a daily basis by the exploits of the millionaire poker pro or high-level strategist.
This is why, in my opinion, we’re seeing major tournament series shifting away from being a potential life-changing event (monetarily). They are shiftting toward being an experiential event for as many players as possible.
It’s also why we’re seeing fewer sponsored pros and more targeted sponsorships. And it’s why we’re seeing poker media outlets devoting more time and resources to finding the hidden story at these events. They aren’t just finding the biggest name to write about.
In all of these cases, it’s about what engages the audience and promotes the game of poker.
Sometimes it’s a story of perseverance. Sometimes it’s a story of accomplishment. And, yes, sometimes it’s even a bad beat that captures people’s attention and goes viral.