Annie Duke is one of the most recognizable faces in poker, and she owes much of that popularity to how much time she spends in the mainstream media.
Having appeared on Celebrity Apprentice, Ellen and The Colbert Report, and now acting as commissioner of the Epic Poker League, Duke was the perfect person to talk to about the ongoing battle to professionalize poker.
Click through here to read our feature article, Why Poker Isn’t More Mainstream, and keep reading for the full transcript of our conversation with Annie Duke.
PokerListings.com: Do you think it’s possible for poker to make big advances as far as getting more mainstream? What are the biggest obstacles in the way?
Annie Duke: I think the biggest obstacle really is just the perception of poker. When Joan Rivers went on her diatribe (on Celebrity Apprentice) about who poker players really are, she’s not alone in that opinion unfortunately.
There’s still a large part of the population that are sort of scared of poker and think that it’s sort of shady or some sort of backroom activity.
So it’s important to show people that poker really is about skill. Just like the best basketball players in the world excel and end up in the NBA, you can do the same in poker. It’s not about gambling.
That makes it much more palatable to sponsors because it’s just like any other skill game.
When you can say to a sponsor that you’ve got a closed group of people that are going to be cycling through these events, and they’ve signed a code of conduct, that’s does a lot.
But the biggest thing is figuring out how to engage fans better.
I was really lucky to have been around right at the beginning when there were only 100 people or so playing every event. So it was a limited group of people that the fans were engaging with and it allowed them to get to know the players really well.
They were seeing the same people over and over again and when I was thinking during the early days of Epic, about who poker’s biggest stars are now as far as the average American is considered, it’s still these same pros that were around in the beginning.
That doesn’t mean that they’re the best players, but in the mainstream they’re still the most recognizable.
Because we haven’t seen any other really big stars generated since then. The only person you can point to is durrrr and even though he’s done a great job, he’s still hasn’t been able to get to the level of Phil Hellmuth and I think that’s because it’s just so hard to get the mainstream exposure.
So, looking at what was happening back then in the first half of the 2000s, and trying to sort of reverse-engineer it now, you realize that there are a few things you can point to as far as what made these players the big stars.
There were small tournament fields, about 100 of the people that the fans got to see over and over again. That just hasn’t been the case since about ’04 so it’s tough for fans to really get to know these players and build them into real stars.
PL: Given that poker does have a certain stigma attached to it, and it actually shows up in some professional sports’ codes of conduct, do you think there are unique challenges to moving it more into the mainstream?
AD: I think it’s the same challenge that poker has legislatively. It’s just about getting people to understand that if you’re going to accept something like options-trading as a skill-game, you have to accept that poker is as well.
So the challenge is educating people. I’ve always said that poker is really unlucky to have started in the same building as craps.
People kind of group all these things together and think of them as similar activities but the truth is they’re not similar at all.
But I think it’s important that we have some continuity. It’s tough when some guy wins a tournament and then you never see him again.
We need to showcase the amazingly talented poker players that are in the game and are being objectively measured.
When you have someone win a tournament like the Main Event and they’re supposed to be the world champion, but no one’s ever seen them before and you might never see them again, that feels like a step backwards.
PL: What was the biggest motivation for making ethics and the code of conduct a key part of the Epic Poker League?
AD: Really early on when we were discussing Epic Poker, the issue of a code of conduct came up as a discussion point.
The idea was that if you’re professionalizing poker, it’s important to realize that players within a closed pro league are going to be representatives for the sport and they’re going to be representing poker to the public, the sponsors, advertisers and everyone else.
So if you realize that poker presenting itself in a more professional light is really important I think these ethics and codes of conduct issues, within a closed league like Epic, become really important.
Poker’s never had that before and a big part of that is just a practical matter. When you have thousands of people playing in open events it’s not like you can vet anyone.
But once you’ve got a closed system, in terms of qualifying for membership, it becomes easier to start holding people to the same standards we see in other professional sports.
And there’s no other professional league that doesn’t have some sort of code of conduct that the players have to adhere to.
PL: You mention veteran players like Phil Hellmuth as being the biggest stars in poker, but do you think there’s an opportunity for a new generation of these superstars, given the amount of talent we’re seeing in younger pros these days?
AD: Not only do I think that but that exact idea was one of the biggest driving forces behind creating the league.
When you run the numbers fully 50 percent of the league is 30 or under, and that reflects where the stars of this generation are right now and this huge part of the elite poker playing community that’s largely unknown to the mainstream poker audience.
I think skill should be rewarded and today’s really great players should be given the same kind of platform that players from my generation had.
So if you give these players a chance to enter events with limited fields people are really going to be able to get to know the Jason Merciers and the Adam Levys and the Isaac Barons and the Noah Schwartzs and the Mike MacDonalds and the Chris Klodnickis and the Andrew Lichtenbergers.
These guys are just so amazing but they’re pretty much unknown to the public because it’s just too hard to get on final tables in these huge-field events enough in order for fans to engage with you.
In the beginning Jeffrey (Pollack) and I were saying, “It’s not the players you know, it’s the players you should know.”