Nolan Dalla: Poker's Historian, Part 2

I spoke with WSOP Media Director Nolan Dalla on Day 1 of the 2008 WSOP about the event's history. Here is the conclusion of our conversation.

Outside of being the WSOP media director, you also wrote a biography of Stu Ungar. How do you think he would feel about everything today?

You know, I've been asked that a number of times and I don't think there is really a definitive answer. It could've gone either direction. One could be him being the biggest thing in the game. It's hard to say that Stuey would be more popular or revered than a figure like Doyle Brunson - I don't think he would've been loved or admired as much as Doyle.

But as far as being an icon, someone who walks into the room and the room changes - very few people have that effect. Certain movie stars or political figures, they change a room when they enter it, and I don't know how it happens ... Stu Ungar had that ability when he walked into a poker room. It just went up a notch. And for all the WSOP's glory, I don't think anyone takes it to that threshold.

The other side is that Stuey was burned by so many demons that I don't know that he would've been able to appreciate this. He would've had incredible endorsement opportunities, signing with Web sites, making a lot of money on the side, but Stuey was a gambler at heart and it wouldn't have mattered.

Nolan Dalla in front of three-time WSOP champ Stu Ungar's banner.

He still could've ended up in the gutter like he did at the end of his life. It would've all found its way to the sportsbooks, or the horses, or whatever other bad habits he had. It probably wouldn't have changed Stu Ungar as a person, or his life, that much.

What kind of effect might Stuey have had on people here, even if the new environment might not have changed him much?

When you're here and you see people playing at the WSOP for the first time, especially in the Main Event, all I hear in the hallway is things like, "I'm sitting with Erik Seidel! Oh my goodness, Chris Moneymaker is at my table! I got to shake hands with Dewey Tomko, I can't believe it!" That's what you hear.

Everyone's starstruck. I'm still starstruck! We're all kids in a candy store here because we love poker.

I think that Stuey would be another one of those great icons that people would talk about. I think people would pick up on his game and learn from him, but I don't necessarily think he would dominate these events. I don't think he would come in and win three events a year.

A lot of people have caught up to his style. The thing about Stu was that he was the first to do something unconventional and play a hyper-aggressive game, and in my view he was probably the best post-flop No-Limit player in history.

So I don't think that people would change their behavior or something. It's kind of like, after Spencer Tracy or Henry Fonda or Humphrey Bogart dies - does Hollywood really change? I mean, these are just incredible figures, but the next generation will always have another.

Nolan Dalla
Nolan Dalla: just another kid in poker's candy store.

So looking at this year's WSOP - things are very organized. If last year was a messy desk with papers everywhere, this year someone has come in and stacked them up and cleaned the desk. There are a lot of changes this year. How does that elevate the WSOP to another level as a sporting event?

I think you can see here in the room with the banners around us, the corporate sponsorship, the media attention and the networks that come in to cover this event - this is really the major leagues now. I think we can agree, it was the minor leagues - if that - 10 or 12 years ago.

Now we're in the major leagues. Obviously the TV ratings are on par with what pro sports events get, and when you walk in the Amazon Room it's obvious that this is the Madison Square Garden of poker. And again, I think it's very fitting what the WSOP has done in terms of corporate sponsorships.

Jeffrey Pollack as the commissioner has absolutely elevated this event to new heights. He had a NASCAR and NBA background - and we can see that now when we walk in the room. I feel like I'm at the NBA finals or the Super Bowl. When you've been here and seen it compared to what it used to be, you realize that the changes have been good for all of us.

So what you're saying here is that all these changes are good for poker.

I think there are a lot of purists or traditionalists who remember how it was in the old days and they wonder if bigger is better. I'm nostalgic for the past as much as anyone - my role is pretty much as the historian for the event. No one reveres history and tradition more than me. It's the honest truth.

But at the same time, being able to take this event and expose it to people not just here but also overseas. People in Brazil, in Europe, in Asia - they're all able to find out what's going on at the WSOP almost as it's happening. That's an incredible thing. We didn't have that years ago. So is the WSOP moving in the right direction? Absolutely.

I think there's a certain cost, in that the intimacy is gone. The days when you knew everybody in the tournament are over. But does anyone really want to go back to the days when we had 85 people show up and the prize pool was less than a quarter of what it is now? No, I think most people like it the way it is.

Thanks for your time, Nolan.

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Given that so much of the WSOP's early history wasn't well-recorded, one of the best decisions Harrah's has made is to keep Nolan Dalla on board in a historian's capacity. Nothing escapes his notice, and the poker world is better off for that.

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