Over a decade has passed since Rob Yong and his mate Nick Whiten were turned away from their local card room for running late.
It resulted in Whiten flippantly remarking, "Why don't we build our own?"
So Yong did. He transformed a crappy old building on an industrial estate in Nottingham into Dusk Till Dawn (DTD), one of the most revered poker rooms in Europe.
He cares about poker. He cares about people. And the game is better off with him a part of it.
In a new ongoing series on PokerListings called "For the Love of Poker," focussing on some of the most inspiring people in the game, I spoke to Rob's friends and colleagues to give those who don't know him a sense of just how far Yong's contributions go.
True Connection is Difficult to Fake
Bernadette Jiwa is a marketing genius. I read her book, then her next one, and the one after that. I joined her email list. I paid for her training course. And she never had to sell.
When it comes to the art of persuasion, influence and selling it's your experience with the influencer that makes the difference.
Jiwa is in my mind. She gets me, and because of that I trust her. She makes me feel calm, connected and inspired because she is calm, willing to connect and deeply inspirational.
Understanding your client's worldview should be the primary purpose of every person born into service but it isn't always the case. The drive to make a profit supersedes a stretched earlobe and connection.
But this is a mistake; you need to understand what's valuable and important to your customers and it's not EBITDA. People buy from trustworthy sources and true connection is difficult to fake.
And that's why, when you sit opposite Rob Yong at a poker table, business table or dining room table, you know you'll end up buying everything he has to sell.
The Biggest Poker Event in History
Rob Yong sells a dream.
"When we built Dusk Till Dawn," says Live Poker Director at DTD, Simon Trumper, "my remit was to take the best from my playing experiences and regardless of cost incorporate it in the club.
"Rob's primary focus has always been to create the best experience but most importantly create a level playing field encompassing everyone from grassroots to the professional."
"I met Rob at the opening night of Dusk Till Dawn," says partypoker Ambassador and Europe's most successful live tournament player, Sam Trickett.
"I was so excited. There was no other place like it. It wasn't just another Casino. It was a place specifically for people to play poker and that made it special.
"Nobody knew if it was going to be a success but Rob was willing to take the risk. We are lucky to have someone who gives so much back to this game.
"It won't surprise me if Rob ends up running the biggest poker event in history one day."
The 'biggest poker event in history'? How?
Poker's Jon Snow
Game of Thrones fans will remember the scene when Jon Snow is facing the onrushing might of Ramsay Bolton's army. He stands in the mud, facing certain death, but pulls out his sword in a 'come and have a go if you think you're hard enough' way.
That’s Rob Yong.
“He never holds back and wants to be the best in everything he does," says Welsh Wizard and partypoker Ambassador, Roberto Romanello.
“Having that talent and the ability to always execute such gutsy, risky, dangerous ideas is what puts him in a league of his own.”
Rob Yong is a leader. He is in the middle of the battlefield organizing some of the most innovative poker tournaments in the business.
When Yong crams his £50 notes into his gob like he did with the International Stadiums Poker Tour (ISPT), he is saying I take chances for you, now take a chance on me.
But Yong isn't ABBA. He's a rock 'n' roll star. He held a fucking poker tournament on the hallowed turf of Wembley Stadium. Had PokerStars done that they would have called it the 'biggest poker event in history.'
What Yong did with the ISPT, and continues to do, was to show the poker community that he delivers. When someone shows you that kind of spirit, you want to stand beside him when some bastard starts firing arrows his way.
You believe anything is possible because he inspires that belief.
Infectious. Credible. Trustworthy.
Yong has learned how to harness and be guided by the creative energy of life that flows through all of our veins. He is infectious, credible, trustworthy.
"Rob is always looking forward, planning the next step in keeping poker fresh and innovative," says Trumper.
"After Wembley we had the Grand Prix Poker Tour, the two Caribbean parties, the upcoming MILLIONS and now partypoker LIVE - all taking DTD products around the world.
"His enthusiam for the game has never waned. The poker world is very lucky to have him."
Rob has earned trust and credibility. He has put in the hours, sat across the table showing punters he knows what life is like down their alley.
“I first met Rob when we filmed the partypoker Big Game around 7-8 years ago," says former WPT General Manager Neil Barrett. "I heard he was the owner and all the pros liked to play with him as he was an all-action gambler.
"Sure enough, the biggest pot of the night ended up with him and Tony G involved in a pot worth over £100k."
When Yong sits down at the table with the biggest bankrolls in the game and then sits down in the £10 Freezeout, he shows the players who come to his card room that he cares.
Your relationship matters to him. He wants to provide value for you. You eat first. He takes what's left.
A Rare Specimen
"I spent time negotiating with Rob to take the WPT to DTD and found him to be engaging, intelligent and sharp," says Barrett. "All the traits of a good businessman. But there was another side to him: the gambler.
"To be a qualified accountant and a gambler makes him a rare specimen; you are usually one or the other."
Yong certainly is unique. When I think of a gambler, I think of someone who makes me feel uncomfortable and pressures me to do things I don't want to.
I don't trust gamblers, and I certainly don't feel connected to them. A gambler doesn't care about my worldview because they are consumed by their own. They don't care about relationships unless there is something in it for them.
Yong doesn't embody any of those traits. There is another side to him that keeps the darker side of the gambling man in check.
He cares about people.
People Make the Business Work
I was once privy to a Rob Yong team meeting. He was lying on the couch with his dog by his side, slobbering over his knuckles.
Members of his team were sitting around him, shouting out ideas, and he twirled his baton. You could see the special bond between them. They trusted him, and he trusted them.
Great businesses are born this way. People make the business work, not the person.
"Rob surrounds himself with good people," says Barrett, "and allows them to do their job so his passion doesn't overspill. And he gives everything away. Poker will always be a passion more than a business for him."
"I'm sure you'll have loads of friends and employees telling you about his loyalty to his staff," says new partypoker LIVE President John Duthie, "but it's true.
"I'm not sure I've ever met anyone who treats his staff and his customers the way he does. I don't want to blow too much smoke up his arse because he'll just give me loads of grief, but he is a great guy and the poker world would be a much lesser place without him."
It Begins with the Players
It's not just his team that Rob has in his heart. Most importantly the players have a place in there. When it comes to DTD and anything Yong touches, it all begins with the players.
"Rob makes the decisions at DTD based as a player first and businessman second," says Barrett. "He knows it's all about EV to players and he delivers it in spades."
There's no personal hierarchy in Yong's world.
"Andrew Jankowski is a DTD local who played our £15 beginner tournaments," says Trumper. "Then he played a 1c satellite on partypoker which he parlayed up to an $1,100 WPT National buy in.
"He outlasted 885 players to win the title, trophy and $192,000! Rob was stood watching the final table and was delighted for him."
"Rob's true nature came out when Devilfish was dying," adds Duthie. "He visited him regularly and has run testimonial tournaments since his death to help out his family.
"He won't want anyone to know that because beneath all the bravado lies a very humble man. He's a very loyal friend."
It's that loyalty that keeps players turning up at the live and virtual tables in droves. But loyalty only gets you so far. You need to do the work -- something that seems to be in Yong's DNA.
A New Robin of Loxley Statue in Town
There was a time when the market lauded PokerStars as the front runners in customer service. Over time, as they grew, their eye turned from people to profit and service, in most players' eyes, deteriorated.
There is a danger in getting too big as it creates distance between the throne and the loyal servants. DTD's relationship with partypoker allows Yong to take his ideas, passion and willingness to put the people first to a global audience.
As he achieves success after success the brand will grow and it will be curious to see if his level of influence reduces with it. Neil Barrett doesn’t think it will.
"What I found was a desire to be a big player in the industry to which he genuinely loved," Barrett says. "He had made his money outside of poker but it was within poker where his heart truly laid.
"The output of this benefits one leading group, the players. I joke there will be a new Robin of Loxley statue in town if he carries on and I hope players realize how pivotal for the UK scene he is. With his vision to grow partypoker internationally, that can only be good for the industry."
An Enjoyable Game Where the Players Come First
"Yes he's a businessman but you wouldn't know it from his demeanour," says Duthie. "Like me he wants poker to get back to where it used to be; an enjoyable game where the players come first.
"There's nowhere quite like DTD in Europe at the moment and the more it's used as a template by other venues, the better. The problem is not all venues have a personality like Rob in charge so they lack that innate respect for others that permeates DTD's card room."
Duthie is right. DTD is a unique place. It's homely. It's lively. It's the perfect poker den. I can almost see Rob Yong building it around a table; nine chairs and nine working class heroes.
Because it's not about money. It’s not about fame. It’s all for the love of poker.
Thanks to Roberto Romanello, Sam Trickett, Simon Trumper, John Duthie and Neil Barrett for making this tribute possible.
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