Sometimes, no news is good news. That was most certainly the case for online poker during its formative years when the industry converted thousands, then eventually millions of otherwise ordinary people into loyal poker players.
"No news" meant nothing bad would happen to derail the seemingly unstoppable online poker express steamrolling ahead and picking up new passengers each day.
"No news" meant that pesky lawmakers, consumed with other more worldly issues, tended to overlook what had become a globalized multibillion-dollar industry.
But gradually, things changed. Many online poker sites realized that in order to sustain expansion they would need to adapt cutting-edge public relations campaigns and marketing strategies. Online poker companies had to transform themselves into organizations like conventional businesses - with aggressive advertising and promotional activities.
So, they hired top-flight PR firms. They signed up experienced management personnel who knew the poker industry. They started airing television commercials. Pretty soon, some online poker sites were operating with high-octane advertising campaigns that rivalled those of movie studios and beer companies.
In 2004, I became the director of communications for PokerStars.com. My objective was simple - to generate as much positive publicity for my company as possible. That task was made considerably easier by having appealing players such as Chris Moneymaker, Greg Raymer, and Joe Hachem all winning the World Series of Poker.
In a sense, I was hired to be one the drivers in a Ferrari sports car. All we at PokerStars had to do was steer the wheel, drive forward, and hold on tight.
Unfortunately, the inevitable by-product of success in almost any industry is backlash. It happened to Microsoft, and it was bound to happen to poker companies, too. Online poker's meteoric success was certain to attract the media's attention.
With millions of people all connected online, many with active online poker accounts, virtually everyone knew someone who was playing or who had at least tried online poker.
20Somethings Play Online Poker
This awareness club includes many journalists and lawmakers. No one is immune anymore to the reality that online poker has become the favorite pastime of a whole new generation, consisting mostly of 18-35 year-old males.
Twentysomethings aren't bowling or joining softball leagues. They're playing online poker.
In March 2006, 60 Minutes II became the first national television organization to ever feature a positive story on poker.
In the past, 60 Minutes had done hatchet jobs on anything that was gambling-related - whether it was exposing bookmakers and their ties to mobsters or questioning the operations of tribal casinos. The most infamous 60 Minutes episode on gambling/poker aired in 1994. Correspondent Ed Bradley ran a ridiculously misleading expose on The Bicycle Club casino in Los Angeles.
So when Dan Rather signed on as the correspondent to do an expose about online poker, the news seemed like a mixed blessing. None of us who were on the inside knew what to expect. And given Rather's roots and reputation as a fiercely combative investigative reporter, the story could have been a disaster.
Instead, 20 million people tuned in to view what was essentially an unabashed endorsement of poker, and by inference - online poker. I remember being consumed with a feeling of euphoria.
For someone involved in public relations, getting a positive piece on 60 Minutes is about as big a catch as there is. Indeed, I had been on location in New York at CBS Studios during most of the filming while the interviews were actually being conducted.
Rather had just retired from anchoring the CBS Evening News. I was somewhat surprised at how amiable Rather was, putting those around him completely at ease. His natural charms certainly won me over and were engaging enough to make a new friend out of Chris Moneymaker.
Rather hit it off so well with the 2003 WSOP champ that he overstayed his interview by 45 minutes, chatting with the poker celebrity. I doubt if Richard Nixon or George Bush ever got the same royal treatment.
(Quick side note: Moneymaker was running late that day. Imagine - making Dan Rather wait. While awaiting our star's arrival, the professional makeup artist working for CBS told me that she was more excited to meet Moneymaker than anyone else she had worked on. Thinking she was perhaps very new to the business, I asked her who else she had made up. After rattling off the names of five or six famous people, I finally stopped her when she said "Bill Clinton.")
Not a Poker Puff Piece
Fast-forward to 2008. Someone inside the newsroom had been alerted to a developing online poker cheating scandal (at the time, only the Absolute Poker story had broken).
Indeed, the real heroes of this despicable affair were the players themselves who tenaciously investigated the misdeeds. The Web site www.twoplustwo.com also deserves high praise for its pivotal role as the forum where many of the allegations were initially posted.
Canadian-based poker writer Gary Wise (who pens a regular must-read poker column on ESPN's Web site, in addition to PokerListings.com's Hand of the Day) was involved very early on with producers at 60 Minutes. For his part in researching and writing a thorough expose of the entire ordeal, Wise became a temporary consultant to the 60 Minutes.
Over the next several months I witnessed Wise working tirelessly, doing his best to provide essential industry insider knowledge, based on his obvious awareness that this was a critical junction in history as to how online poker was and would be perceived by the American public. Wise should be properly credited with trying to steer the story toward a balanced view of the industry.
The segment's producer was Ira Rosen, known as a top-flight documentarian. He had previously worked on subjects ranging from war profiteering to prescription drug scandals to global warming, and other hot-button issues.
The correspondent chosen was veteran 60 Minutes newsman Steve Kroft, who had usurped the mantle of the media's toughest-minded interviewer since the retirement of bulldog Mike Wallace.
It was becoming all too clear. This was not going to be a puff piece.
A timeline of the joint CBS News/Washington Post investigation reveals early uncertainty as to what the focus of the piece should be and which direction to take in order to gather facts. It seems that CBS and the Post started out with no hidden agenda.
Sure, the subject was to be an online poker cheating scandal. But beyond that, the canvas was bare.
That brought up the sticky matter of how exactly to tell the story. First and foremost, packaging a highly sophisticated, high-tech poker scandal into only 15 minutes of airtime (or a 1,500-word newspaper article) was going to be challenging.
The most critical decision for the 60 Minutes crew was not deciding who to interview or what to include in the segment. The tougher choices were who and what should be left out.
The investigation began back in March 2008 when a CBS film crew was dispatched to Costa Rica. I'm not sure what the teams expected to find on the bustling streets or inside the offices of chaotic San Jose. Whatever they found didn't materialize into much, as only a few seconds of film gathered there actually aired on the finished program.
Although they weren't quite sure which direction to go, Absolute Poker was clearly the story's central focus. According to anonymous sources, representatives at AbsolutePoker were contacted numerous times to set up an on-camera interview.
The location didn't matter. New York, Costa Rica, Canada, Las Vegas - AbsolutePoker could set the terms, pick a time and place, and Kroft and his cameras would be there, ready to roll.
AP's management was reportedly split as to whether it should give what would be the first and only public response to the internal crisis. An interview could be risky and potentially devastating if the right spokesperson was not chosen, or if the front man appeared flustered.
Should AP representatives go on camera and try to explain what had happened? Could such outrageous acts possibly be explained, let alone justified? Most important, would 60 Minutes be the appropriate forum for an attempt at public rehabilitation of the company's tainted image?
For whatever reason, officials at AP declined on-camera interviews. Perhaps hoping the scandal would simply fade away, they took what can only be construed as a cowardly position, by refusing to step into the public eye, take the heat, and provide an explanation.
Absolute Poker may now correctly point out they have paid back stolen monies to many of the players who were cheated. But purely from a public relations perspective, the company's reaction to this entire episode from start to present has been appalling.
If the AbsolutePoker scandal was an earthquake, the UltimateBet scandal which soon followed (at least as a breaking news story) rocked the online poker industry to its foundation. No longer could anyone, even the industry's most ardent defenders, claim the AbsolutePoker mess was an isolated incident.
For 60 Minutes, the UltimateBet scandal only served to reinforce the perception that online poker operates in the murky world of cyberspace, without proper regulation and oversight.
It was no surprise that 60 Minutes showed up to film part of its story at the 2008 World Series of Poker. The appearance of Steve Kroft stepping onto the tournament floor at the Rio in Las Vegas, strolling among hundreds of poker tables bustling with action just a few feet away, was obligatory, given it is poker's highest-profile event.
The WSOP provided the perfect (although entirely inappropriate) visual backdrop for an otherwise lackluster news story with no photographs of any smoking guns. This story had no dead bodies or crying widows. The victims were poker players. Although completely unconnected to the scandal, the WSOP was referenced at least three times in the final piece and footage was shown throughout the broadcast.
Kroft and Rosen watched one of the final tables taking place that day at the Rio, which was being televised by ESPN. Part out of genuine curiosity and perhaps trying to ambush one of the public faces affiliated with AbsolutePoker or UltimateBet for an impromptu on-camera interview, the film crew stayed just around long enough to be turned down by Phil Hellmuth, and a few others.
(Note: There is no evidence to suggest that Hellmuth is connected to the scandals in any way. However, 60 Minutes was understandably eager to get Hellmuth on camera since he represents UB's brand and is one of the world's most famous poker players).
Over the four months of their so-called "investigation," by my estimate 60 Minutes probably interviewed no fewer than 30 people. The vast majority of these interviews would never be aired, of course. But the crew did due diligence trying to obtain as many different points of view as possible. The crew filmed in New York, Costa Rica, Las Vegas, Washington, D.C. and Kahnawake (in Canada).
A few weeks before the story was scheduled to air, 60 Minutes tried one more time in vain to get representatives from either of the two tainted online sites to appear on camera. No surprise: they declined - as did Russ Hamilton, whose baffling silence on this issue appears to be a symphony of guilt.
And so, on the night of November 30th, I sat down in front of my television to watch the culmination of countless hours, energies and passions from hundreds of people, all manifested in a 15-minute window of opportunity on one of television's highest-rated and most respected shows.
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