Poker's Power 20
The Most Influential People in Poker
5. Phil Hellmuth
Phil is the player we love to hate; his on-camera tirades are legendary. But he’s also a truly great poker player and one of the games genuine characters. He was also was one of the first players to recognize the huge marketing potential of the poker boom and his tireless self-promotion and WSOP success have made him a household name – something unthinkable for a poker player just five years ago. The Poker Brat has become a walking brand, and probably gets more camera time than any other poker player in the world. With its own line of Oakley sunglasses, clothing, books, DVDs, wireless poker games, and even a pin-up calendars, the Poker Brat Empire marches on.
4. Harrah's Entertainment
Harrah’s owns the WSOP, the premier brand in poker, and has already expanded it into a nationwide tournament circuit – a direct challenge to the WPT. The company’s recent takeover of Caesars Entertainment has made it the biggest casino company in the world, with over 40 casino properties globally, employing almost 100,000 people. Harrah’s acquisition of the WSOP was met with mixed feelings, but there’s no doubt that the contest has exploded under Harrah’s dominion. Along it’s director of poker operations, Howard Greenbaum, this is a company that likes to do things on a grand scale and, through its WSOP circuit tournaments and the Series itself, its influence will continue to extend throughout the poker world for years to come.
3. Steve Lipscomb / WPT
Founder, with Lyle Berman, of the World Poker Tour and top man at World Poker Tour Enterprises, Steve Lipscomb brought poker to the masses and remains at the cutting-edge of televised poker innovation.
Steve, how do you feel that the WPT has helped shape the poker landscape, and how has it contributed to the robust health of the poker industry over the past few years?
The World Poker Tour stands on the shoulders of giants – pioneers like Jack Binion, Jack McClelland, Doyle Brunson and numerous other great players. That being said, there is little doubt that the World Poker Tour is the predominant reason why poker has exploded in the last few years. When we reinvented poker to be “a televised mainstream sports sensation” and began airing every Wednesday night in prime time on the Travel Channel – the poker world experienced a fundamental shift. For the first time, poker played like a sport. And the new WPT poker format did more than reveal hole cards – it actually tracked them, so television viewers could follow the game. This made it possible for poker to be a spectator sport. The impact of the WPT television format has been accentuated by ESPN, Fox Sports and the numerous other broadcasters who have copied the WPT show to make their own poker programming – to the point where MSNBC recently reported that poker is now the third most watched televised sport – after NASCAR and football.
Just two and a half years after the World Poker Tour’s debut on television (March of 2003), it is already hard to remember the state of the poker industry in 2001 and 2002. Casinos were closing poker rooms across the country, poker luminaries were hosting seminars to figure out how to save the poker business, and a fledgling online poker site called PartyPoker.com was trying to sell its struggling business for eight million dollars. The World Series of Poker had just crossed the million dollar first prize mark – to the amazement of all.
This season of the WPT is on pace to top a hundred million dollars in prize money. If you had told anyone in the poker world in 2002 when we launched the World Poker Tour that it was going to be this big in four seasons, they would have told you that you were nuts. And now, with powerhouse ESPN using the WPT television format to drive World Series main event numbers above six thousand, we truly find ourselves in the golden era of poker. With Party Poker going public in the United Kingdom with a valuation of over eight billion dollars, there appears to be an awful lot of gold left to mine.
Legions of people deserve credit for making all this happen: Lyle Berman and Lakes Entertainment for daring to put up millions of dollars to fund a poker league when poker was in decline; Linda Johnson and Mike Sexton for shepherding the project; Robyn Moder and everyone at the World Poker Tour who have worked tirelessly to give birth to a new sports league and to guide it through its formative years; our extraordinary casino partners who had the vision to join the Tour when it was no more than a guy with a dream; The Travel Channel, which was willing to put poker in prime time every week when no one else dared to; and, of course, ESPN, which had enough vision to snap up the World Series of Poker, capitalize on the World Poker Tour television format, and capture a kid named Chris Moneymaker, transporting the image of him winning 2.5 million dollars into the living rooms of every sports fanatic in the country.
It is important to add the hard work and dedication of Vikrant Bhargava, and everyone in the online poker business, who seized the opportunity and grew that space into an important part of poker’s future.
What trends do you foresee in the future of the industry?
Our goal is to duplicate the poker phenomenon we helped launch in the United States – in countries and territories across the globe. The World Poker Television show is already licensed to broadcast in over 120 territories outside of the U.S. I believe the international poker market will continue to grow in importance. I also think that, relatively soon, online poker will be legalized and regulated in the United States. That will have a profound effect on the business.
Things that I do NOT foresee include the demise of poker, the interest in poker, televised poker or the World Poker Tour. Television numbers for the two big brands in the market, the World Poker Tour and the World Series of Poker, have settled into a comfortable and sustainable place on par with the NBA and the PGA. That bodes well for the future of both brands – and the poker world in general.
The WSOP is poker’s biggest stage, and ESPN postproduction editing can make you a star, a villain, or simply leave your moment of celluloid triumph strewn on the production room floor. Yup, ESPN will make you or break you. Commentator Norman Chad has free reign to praise or chastise players, and his opinions shape the way they are perceived in the public imagination. ESPN has been broadcasting the World Series since 1994, back in the days when – let’s face it – no one could see any cards and no one really cared. But it’s the network’s commitment to minority sports that should be commended and, when the World Series blew up in 2003, its faith in poker paid off in spades.
1. Doyle Brunson
When the Godfather of Poker speaks, the poker world listens. Doyle’s has been a life devoted to the game and, at 72 years, he remains one of the greatest players the world will ever see. Through his magnum opus, Super System, he introduced the public at large to the way a great poker player thinks, and through it he has inspired many other players to greatness. Doyle was a trailblazer back in the days when poker was a harsh and unforgiving existence. Forever a devout and gentle man, he spent his much of his life having to endure askance looks from ‘respectable’ people, while being robbed and cheated by disrespectable people. It is a testament to his single-minded courage that, in this more enlightened day and age, we are able to play poker in our cosy environments without risking harassment, social ostracism or eternal damnation. That’s why he’s number one and that’s why we will forever be in his debt.
Doyle, what do you feel has been your personal contribution to the poker industry?
I’ve always done my best to try to advance the industry, through countless radio and television interviews. I guess it’s because I’m the “elder statesman.” I try to do as many as I’m can, because I’m proud that poker’s got so big and become a respectable thing to do. Because of all the things I went through in my early years, I’m really gratified that people treat me now as a respectable professional (laughs).
Does it feel like a big responsibility that a lot of people look up to you?
It’s always been a big responsibility. I’ve always felt it’s up to me to tell people off if I feel they’re disrespecting the game. I don’t mind emotion at the table – like when Phil Hellmuth gets upset, that’s fine – that’s just Phil. But all this showboating that goes on, all this whooping and gloating and hollering – that’s not what poker’s about.
But I’ve just been real lucky to be able to play this long at the highest level and hopefully I will for a few years more. If people know you’re still competing and still one of the best players, then hopefully they respect you for that, and they’ll respect you because you’ve been around longer than anybody else. And I hope they respect the fact that I have brought a certain integrity to the game. It’s a combination of those things. And people generally do listen to me (laughs).
How does it feel to be the number one poker person?
I’m extremely flattered. I’m appreciative of the fact that people see me in that light. I try to do all I can for the game. It’s a great game and I guess I’ve done OK from it. (laughs) I know from some of my other business ventures that I would have been useless doing anything else.
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