The phrase itself is almost an oxymoron.
Mike "Timex" McDonald has breathless fans following him into the toilet on the EPT circuit but wouldn't even get a nervous twitter in the Chipotle lineup.
Even our most revered and recognizable stars - Phil Ivey, Daniel Negreanu, Phil Hellmuth - hardly face police-taped legions of fans waiting outside of regional airports.
So why is "real" mainstream fame so elusive for a game with strong roots in nearly every corner of the planet?
Poker’s Big Three - Hellmuth, Ivey, Negreanu
Phil Ivey, Phil Hellmuth and Daniel Negreanu.
When it comes to poker accomplishments, fan recognition and marketability these three players sit comfortably atop the poker fame hieraechy.
If anyone from the poker world is likely to be recognized outside of a casino anywhere in the world, it's one of them.
During the World Series of Poker and other major tournaments across the globe their fame is evident.
They’re mobbed for pictures and autographs and their tables always have a dedicated rail of fans cheering them on.
But even for the big three, fame seems to evaporate the further away they get from the Rio’s frigid, air-conditioned poker tables.
In a sit-down interview with Nolan Dalla for WSOP.com, Phil Ivey said:
“It’s only like that here at the World Series of Poker. If I’m in a mall, if I’m walking down the street, I never really get that. People that play poker, they recognize me and they say, 'Hey how you doing.' I get it somewhat, but it’s not really like I’m Tom Cruise.”
Why, Phil? Why aren’t you Tom Cruise?
Google - specifically a search for "Why isn't Phil Ivey Tom Cruise" - could not provide an accurate answer.
The theory that poker itself is the limiting factor seems to account for this, but there are a few anomalies.
Some professional poker players are rich; some professionally rich people play poker.
Sidepot pros include actors, athletes, professionally attractive people and billionaire hedge fund managers turned pro.
There’s a certain level of celebrity hysteria when players like Matt Damon, Paul Pierce or Gerard Pique play but that mob follows them wherever they go.
They give poker an initial fame bump but it slowly normalizes the more stars get involved in the game.
One exception? Dan Bilzerian.
Bilzerian is a self-proclaimed poker pro who’s out-famed the big three by a large margin in just a few years.
The Big Three
Big Three Plus DB
The cause for this disparity doesn’t seem to lie in tournament earnings:
Or WSOP bracelets.
Those graphs give almost inverse Google trend results.
If this was the case, perhaps the opposite of a poker achievement was responsible for the disparity:
This graph is on the right track but fails to account for the nuances between Negreanu and the Phils.
This Instagram graph is a more accurate representation of the Google Trends but is not officially scientific since Hellmuth has no Instagram account.
Theoretical Instagram scientists hypothesized that the graph would be nearly the same if Hellmuth did have an account because it would consist of Hellmuth selfies, WSOP bracelets and have very few followers.
Instagram seems to be a good unit of measurement since its premise --sharing pictures of your life with the world-- fits historian Daniel J. Boorstin’s definition of a celebrity:
The celebrity is a person who is well-known for his well-knownness.
The Internet celebrates well-knownness. Like Instagram, YouTube has become a place where people skyrocket to fame for being themselves.
It’s also an area where the big three seem to falter.
Once again, Phil Hellmuth has the smallest online presence on YouTube.
The Poker Brat’s most-watched video, “Top 5 Phil Hellmuth Explosions,” has 1.25 million views.
While this eclipses the amount of views other Wisconsin brats have:
It only holds about 1.5 percent of the views of other popular freakouts:
To increase views, YouTube scientists recommend that Hellmuth’s next outburst include 60 percent more flailing and a 300 percent increase in remote controls.
Phil Ivey’s most-watched video --with 2.23 million views-- is “Phil Ivey v Paul Jackson - Bluff v Bluff.”
With nerves of steel and impeccable form, Ivey’s bluff is now the most-watched poker bluff in YouTube history.
Despite that, the video fails to surpass other demonstrations of amazing skill, poise and unwavering nerves of steel in the face of adversity:
Daniel Negreanu’s “Daniel Negreanu Amazing reads WSOP,” tops the big three’s YouTube charts with 2.85 million views.
When compared to other small, furry Canadians born in the 70s, Negreanu shows a strong lead.
Just 689,000 views for the Hobo.
But when compared to Seth Rogen, a furry Canadian export from the 80s, Negreanu starts to lose his dominance.
Then, when 90s export Justin Bieber comes into play, both Rogen and Negreanu become mere blips on the radar.
It’s been rumored that the Canadian government is still developing an export from the 00s to overtake Gangnam Style as YouTube's most viewed video.
People Like Just "A Little Bit of Poker"
Poker’s unique blend of mainstream accessibility but lack of mainstream fame is partly due to the effort required to succeed in the game.
Online poker’s peak popularity also coincided with the softness of the games:
The effort involved in just following professional poker is also strenuous.
While most professional sports have a set roster of professional players, professional poker allows anyone with a buy-in the chance to compete.
To be fully up-to-date, fans have to follow an array of international tournaments, high-stakes cash games and online poker. This creates a flip of the previous graph:
These graphs suggest that people just like “a little bit of poker.”
This evidence supports the Bilzerian Instagram account, which in order of frequency tends to show:
- 1) Boobs
- 2) Guns
- 3) Money
- 4) Beards
- 5) Poker
Instead of the countless hours of work and study required to be a modern poker pro, Bilzerian also manifests the road several amateur players wish they could take:
- 1) Be born with millions of dollars
- 2) Play poker
These results also coincide with recent studies on fame.
In 2008, researchers who wrote “Socialization to Work in Late Adolescence: The Role of Television and Family,” discovered that American college students associated more with famous, well-off characters than everyday broke-ass ones.
In “Rise of Fame,” Uhls and Greenfield found that values in media such as benevolence and sharing have plummeted while individual values like fame, physical appearance and wealth have risen since 1967.
In their conclusion, Uhls and Greenfield state:
The changes in multimedia content and the possibilities for the interactive construction of fame on YouTube may have a measurable impact on the goals and desires of emerging adults[...]
Media, ever prevalent in the lives of today’s youth, are an important source of information for their developing concepts of what the social world outside their immediate environment is all about.
However, early adolescents are not watching characters in everyday environments; instead they are watching and likely identifying with youth who have enormously successful careers to the point of becoming famous.
If tweens observe characters they admire succeeding and achieving wide public recognition and material success with little effort or training, they are likely to believe that this success is entirely possible and easy to achieve. This is an important issue for future research.
Poker players are therefore not doomed to limited stardom. To break that glass ceiling, players, tournaments and media outlets should simply just focus on the luxury lifestyle aspect of poker.
Also: more guns, jets and sex.