Of all the people I've met in poker, perhaps no one has achieved more success yet received less recognition than my good friend, Rich Korbin.
High-stakes cash-game player, former head of marketing for the world's largest and most successful poker company, director of the Latin American Poker Tour, and former WSOP gold bracelet winner - these are just a few of the things Korbin has accomplished.
Yet, many poker players have probably never heard of Korbin. And that suits the 59-year-old American expatriate and San Jose, Costa Rica resident just fine.
Korbin grew up in Westchester County, located just north of New York City. Like many kids growing up in the 1950s and '60s, when the game of baseball was king, he spent his boyhood cheering for Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford.
He also enjoyed gambling from an early age, and eventually became a regular in several small-stakes poker games. It was perhaps fitting that a random act of chance thousands of miles away would ultimately change his life and set him on a new path.
Underground Poker in Denver to WSOP Gold
After graduating from college in Kansas during the height of the Vietnam War, Korbin decided to continue his way west. Uncertain of what job to pursue or what he wanted in life, he met up with a high school friend, packed his belongings, and moved to California.
There was only one problem along the way. The 22-year-olds ran out of money in Colorado, just shy of hitting the Rocky Mountains.
"We weren't quite sure what we were going to do once we got to California," Korbin explained. "That's just where we wanted to move. But as it turned out - we never got there. Instead, we ended up settling down in Boulder [near Denver].
"What's really interesting is that now, 37 years later, my high school friend still lives in Boulder, and I still own a home there as well. If I had not gone broke and had to take a menial job, my entire life would be different."
Running out of money turned out to be a blessing in disguise. While in Boulder, Korbin met a tall, slim brunette who would eventually become his wife. He married Kaye, and the couple had four daughters over the next decade. It seemed Rich was living the American dream.
But Korbin wanted much more out of life than a conventional nine-to-five routine. In fact, over the next 25 years he never worked a conventional full-time job.
"I owned and operated a few small businesses," he said. "But most of my money during those years came from playing poker. I played in little underground games scattered around Denver. Then, I started to play more and more and played a bit higher in Los Angeles and Las Vegas."
He also won events at the California State Poker Championship (Omaha Hi-Lo) and Amarillo Slim's Super Bowl of Poker (Seven-Card Stud).
Unfortunately, Korbin's tournament success came long before the poker boom and he wasn't able to parlay his skills into something bigger. He also concentrated most of his time and energies on beating poker, which served to pay the bills but which ultimately provided little source of real financial security.
There were tough times along the way, a job hazard faced by virtually all professional poker players.
"It got really bad at one point," Korbin confided. "I was in L.A. and the tires on my car were completely bald and the windshield was cracked. There were days when I did not have $50 in my pocket to buy into a $3/$6 limit game."
By 2002, Korbin knew most of the middle- and high-stakes players living in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. He knew upper management in almost every cardroom in the country. He seemed to be the perfect candidate to take a job and sell advertising for Card Player Magazine, then the poker's industry's leading source of news.
Today, Korbin cites his time with Card Player and Barry Shulman as one of the most positive experiences in his life.
A few months prior to the start of the 2003 World Series of Poker, Korbin received a telephone call. On the other end of the line was a representative from an online poker site ranked a distant fourth behind industry giant Party Poker. The name of the site was PokerStars.
After a discussion and a few meetings, Korbin was offered the job as director of marketing. He accepted. If anyone was in the right place at the right time in poker history, it was Korbin. Call it a lightning strike.
It has been widely accepted that Chris Moneymaker's astonishing victory in the WSOP Main Event that year was the perfect storm that blew across the mainland and changed the poker landscape forever.
In a sense, Korbin was one of the early taskmasters who quickly recognized the impact and potential of Moneymaker's unlikely victory.
It didn't hurt matters that Moneymaker had qualified to play in the WSOP at poker and wore the company's logo throughout the tournament - later seen by millions of viewers not only in the United States but worldwide.
In some ways, Korbin's job as marketing director was made a lot easier by having the world's suddenly most famous poker player thrust into the spotlight, fully aligned with PokerStars.
But as Korbin quickly learned, new opportunities also created higher expectations and an increased workload. Everything changed for Korbin. He no longer had time to play poker or enter tournaments in his spare time. He had become a full-time industry executive.
"My life suddenly became PokerStars," Korbin remembered. "I noticed that wherever I went and whatever casino I entered, people would look at me and think of the company I represented - PokerStars."
Over the next four years, with Korbin head of marketing, PokerStars increased in size by a factor of 18. This would prove to be brand-new territory. It wasn't an MBA that made Korbin so effective at his job. It was his street-smarts.
Along the way, he crafted deals with boxers and race car drivers. He set up parties and special events with media members and movie stars. He made PokerStars the official sponsor of two NBA teams - the Dallas Mavericks and the New Jersey Nets.
Perhaps it was a golden touch. Perhaps it was luck. Whatever it was - Rich Korbin had it, in spades.
He even produced results given the most unusual circumstances. One afternoon, on a routine flight from Miami to New York, Korbin found himself sitting next to an older gentleman who revealed himself to be a producer for CBS' 60 Minutes. Korbin sensed an opportunity and quietly pitched a story on online poker.
Intrigued by the conversation, the producer returned to New York, spoke with correspondent Dan Rather and eventually ran what was arguably the most-watched and most positive story on online poker ever to air on national television.
Characteristically, given his low-key nature, Korbin never received any credit within the poker industry for what became a glowing exposé broadcast to 25 million viewers.
When the European Poker Tour (EPT) was created in 2004, Korbin observed and attended many of the events. This paved the way for what would become the next phase of his professional life, his association with the Latin American Poker Tour.
Given his success in promoting both PokerStars and the EPT, it was only natural that he be hand-picked to work on a new project in a new arena of poker expansion.
By 2007, Korbin's duties at PokerStars changed and he accepted a new challenge as the director of the Latin American Poker Tour (LAPT). He moved to Costa Rica with his wife Kaye.
"We discovered that Central and South America were (and remain) our fastest-growing markets," Korbin explained. "It was such an important emerging market for us that I wanted to help get it all started.
"PokerStars strives to maintain quality standards from support to software and all operations throughout the world. We truly regard poker as a global game."
To no one's surprise, the LAPT recently ended its first season as a huge success. Attendance at each event exceeded the expectations of organizers.
The LAPT also cut a television deal which will enable the tournament to be broadcast throughout South America. Dozens of trips, business meetings, and the formation of new working relationships paid off for Korbin, yet again.
Today, Korbin is working his way to Canada on another venture that is important to the poker community. He is determined to help create a new poker tour based in Canada, patterned largely after the success of the EPT and LAPT.
But he knows there are unique new challenges ahead in the Great White North.
"Every situation I have been involved in has been completely different," Korbin said. "I was so fortunate to be involved in so many wonderful projects in poker, by working at poker and the LAPT. I have traveled all over the world and met so many interesting people.
"But I'm still a poker player at heart. Every time I make a decision about what I do and who I work for, I try to remember who I am, and what's good for poker players. Many things have changed for me. But one thing will never change - which is that I'm still a poker player above all else."
When poker's history is written and then rewritten to include the latest chapter on the game's expansion around the globe, the name "Rich Korbin" should be listed as a modern-day pioneer. If you had never heard of Korbin before, you certainly should know him by now.
And next time you see Mr. Korbin, say a word of thanks from all of us in the game of poker. He's earned it.
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