Every young poker player should know and thank Lyle Berman for his contributions to poker tournaments.
Berman was one of the driving forces behind the beginning of the World Poker Tour and was an early advocate of televised poker.
His innovations at the WPT changed the game of poker and helped create the level of opportunity that now exists for everyone in poker.
But before he was a poker executive, he was a successful businessman and part-time poker player.
Lyle Berman: From Poker's Old School
Berman played the game in his youth but it wasn’t until he picked up Doyle Brunson's landmark book, Super/System, that he took it seriously.
"Poker teaches you there are ramifications to your decisions."
“I played a lot of poker as a kid and in college; then I quit and went to work,” Berman said on a break from the $50k Player's Championship at the World Series of Poker last night.
“I bought Doyle Brunson’s book, put it on a shelf, and then read it in 1982-83 and said ‘I’ll go out and try it and I’ll play.’
“So I’ve been playing at a high level with professionals since ’83-’84. I’m kind of old school today.”
Berman grew his family store into a successful retail enterprise, Wilson Leather, before combining his business skill with gaming.
He put his money into a Minnesota Indian casino that expanded to form the Lakes Gaming Corporation, which later financed the start of the WPT.
Berman’s hard work made him a success in business and his philosophies translated well to the poker table.
“I think one of the big things is that poker teaches you there are ramifications to your decisions,” Berman explained. “In business, sometimes the results of your decisions can be two or three years, where in poker it’s two or three seconds.
“And yet it still reinforces that there are ramifications to your decisions. Decision making is very key.”
A Worldwide Phenomenon That Lasts Till This Day
In 2001 Berman met with Steve Lipscomb and the World Poker Tour was born. Of all the WPT’s accomplishments, he is most proud of the tour's longevity.
“We created a world-wide phenomenon that lasts till this day,” Berman explained.
“I know when we tried to sell the World Poker Tour the first time to TV executives they said ‘Is this a flash in the pan? Will anybody watch it?’ and here it’s 12 years later and it’s still on TV.”
WSOP wouldn’t be what it is today without hole-cams.
One of the biggest innovations in poker came with the WPT’s use of cameras to show player’s hole cards to the TV viewers. Berman tried to get the WSOP on air in the mid-80’s using the technology but no one was buying.
“I went to Jack Binion in 1985 and said ‘can I get the rights to put your show on TV?' I had written up a two-page synopsis of it and it was showing the hole cards.
"We went around and looked to sell it but nobody would put it on TV. Gambling was verboten on television. Nothing came of it until Steve Lipscomb re-invented it and the rest is history.”
“Some shows have come and gone but the two that have really lasted are the World Poker Tour and the World Series of Poker,” Berman continued.
“The WSOP wouldn’t be what it is today if they didn’t do the hole-cams. And we started that.”
Ungar "Tipped Well, Drank Cristal and Was a Great Tournament Player"
"Every time he paid back it opened up a line of credit for him."
Berman’s results at the table mirrored his success in business. He is a regular in the Big Game and has three WSOP titles, the last in 1994.
Berman happily recalls the old days with some historic players.
“Chip Reese, Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, Stuey Ungar, and all of the old guard,” Berman said before pointing to the WSOP Main Event banners hanging in the Amazon Room.
“You go and look up there; there isn’t anybody of the old guard I don’t know.”
Berman fondly remembers playing with Stu Ungar and laughed when talking about him.
“I go back a long way with Stuey. One of my favorite stories is whenever Stuey borrowed money and paid you back, it was like a bad beat,” Berman said.
“Because it opened up that he could borrow more. So if he owed you $2,000 and paid you back, now he could go to $4,000 then he’d go to $8,000.
"Every time he paid back it opened up a line of credit for him. That was a cute part of Stuey.
“No matter whether Stuey was high or broke; he tipped well and he drank Cristal and was a great tournament player.”
"I Sit at a Table and They Look at Me Like Strangers"
Berman continues to play in big mixed games but avoids No-Limit Hold’em due to the quality of new players. He still reminds those same young players where he belongs in poker history.
“There are so many great young kids that I don’t even know their names. I sit at a table and they look at me like strangers,” Berman said.
No stranger to the Poker Hall of Fame.
“And they’re good, they’re great. Personally, today I don’t even like playing No-Limit Hold’em. The young kids are too good.
“I think you have to take a number of bad beats to have fear. They don’t have any fear yet. I’ve had my share.”
“I travel a lot and I was in Israel two weeks ago when I met some young guys from the army,” Berman continued.
“I said ‘You know I’ve had influence on your life? Do you play Hold’em?’ Well, they wouldn’t have been playing today if it wasn’t for me.
“Back then there was one $10,000 tournament a year and now there’s one a week, and sometimes two a week.”
Berman was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2002 along with Johnny Chan but he’s not ready to retire any time soon. He was back in action looking for a fourth bracelet last night in the $50,000 Poker Player Championship, although he busted short of the money.