Poker marketing guru Warren Lush and TonyBet CEO Ugnius Simelionis have been around the poker block.
TonyBet has been around for five years and is in the process establishing itself as the first poker room to bring OFC to online poker.
Lush has worked in the poker industry for over a decade and was responsible for some of the greatest hours of televised poker.
Having left PartyPoker earlier this year he’s now freelancing for several different companies, among them TonyBet.
Too Many Boring Poker Players
We caught up with both of them at the ongoing Prague Poker Festival for more on the state of the industry and Tony G.'s prospects for Prime Minister.
PokerListings: Warren, how did you actually start out in poker?
Enjoyed poker's Golden Age.
Warren Lush: I was in politics, working for the European Minister in England. I got into poker when they were headhunting people back in 2005, just in time for the glory days of poker.
At the time it was more lucrative and also more fun than a career in politics, so I switched. It was the beginning of a Golden Age and I got to travel the world and meet everybody.
I’m now working with TonyBet, Adjarabet, PlayTech, the King’s Casino, among others. The long term project now is TonyBet, where I’m also a minor shareholder.
Ugnius Simelionis: He will have work and projects for the next 40 years, and money for 35 years.
PL: So the last five years he’ll have to work for free?
US: No, the first five years.
WL: (laughs) The Open Face Chinese Poker Championship is the big thing we’re looking at now. We’ve added a third event [the €350 Progressive Pineapple] and it’s something new, something exciting.
The numbers last year were very promising; we were almost shocked by the amount of players in both the main and the high roller event.
PL: Actually, it seemed to us as if OFC was already going out of fashion again.
US: It’s a game that grinders like to play when they want to get away from the daily grind. OFC will never be like Hold’em and that’s why we went the other way.
Urbanovich on board.
We started out only offering OFC and now we’re adding Hold’em and PLO. And it’s working. Players like the new sensation Dzmitry Urbanovich are coming to us.
He’s playing every day, he’s also in the OFC high roller event, and he also plays Hold’em and Omaha.
PL: They say you have to play all the games well to be a great player.
WL: Yeah, they particularly throw that at Phil Hellmuth.
PL: But then Hellmuth came second in the WSOP Players Championship once.
WL: Yes, so now Tony G likes to tell him that he can’t play cash games.
PL: Tony G would probably do anything to needle Hellmuth. Is he a difficult character?
US: Not at all. He’s wearing a mask at the table. In real life he’s very easy going and very easy to work with. He’s actually very positive and creative.
WL: He’s now much more about politics than about TV poker and Phil Hellmuth. For example he organized a big exhibition in Lithuania.
PL: You’re supporting Tony G’s political career. It seems he’s banned from taking certain political positions.
WL: There is an argument going on concerning Tony G potentially running for Prime Minister. There is a constitutional tweak that might keep him from taking that position because he has an Australian passport on top of his Lithuanian one.
US: There are politicians in Lithuania who have never competed against a globally thinking man like Tony G. He only started his career a year ago and already he’s made it into the top three most popular politicians in the country.
The older, established politicians don’t like to watch that kind of development. It has nothing to do with his background in poker; they just see him as a rich guy whose sudden success is threatening them.
PL: Does he really intend to run for Prime Minister?
US: We’ll see.
PL: That’s a yes.
US: Maybe it would be better if he waited a little longer and then ran.
PL: Warren, will you still be there when he does that?
WL: We’ll see how it goes but for now, yes I will be. It’s interesting to be back in politics and it comes quite naturally to me considering what I did before poker.
PL: TonyBet has recently started to offer rake-free poker. How’s that going to work?
Rake still the future.
US: We have a couple of new ideas that we want to implement and we’re testing these on several tables. We do this to find bugs and cure teething issues, which naturally will be there.
So we decided it would be unfair to take money from the players who are basically doing the tests for us. It might only be temporary, though.
PL: So, rake-free poker isn’t the future?
US: I don’t think so. We have to pay for everything in life. Nothing is for free, and we also have to invest money into development and people.
But the other question is, does rake have to be so high? I play poker myself and I’m happy to pay rake for the service but not if it’s too much.
WL: Look at the changes that PokerStars are making now. It’s obvious there are changes needed. They have commercial priorities they need to accommodate.
The only thing that maybe doesn’t go down well is the one about the Supernova Elite players. I wouldn’t be surprised if they back down on that one.
PL: PokerStars is getting a lot of criticism but it seems that 90% of the players aren’t even affected by the changes.
WL: They’re saying it’s 98%, so only 2% are affected. They’re just operating their business. And I can say from my previous experience with PartyPoker that everyone’s trying to protect the recreational player.
US: The problem is that the poker industry is a little stagnant. If one poker room makes changes, all the others follow. What we need is a little bit of creativity and innovation.
Bring back the bad boys.
The Spin & Gos are an example of that but the game needs to develop a little more. We’re going to introduce a couple of very simple but effective tools very soon, for example the straddle.
Everybody knows it, many players like to straddle, but you can’t do it anywhere if it’s not live poker. We’ll be the first ones to offer it online.
PL: What can we do to make poker more interesting for television again?
US: There are too many boring players today. We think that the old guys have to come back. It’s just like in film. The old action heroes like Stallone and Schwarzenegger are still popular.
So we need to bring back the all-stars like Hellmuth, Tony, Negreanu. They are the most fun and for them it’s not just about raising wars pre-flop, but more about fun, jokes and performance.
WL: Yes, more banter at the table! I was always a massive proponent of the Devilfish gang and I thought there was an injustice, and I got massively angry, about no European introduced in the Poker Hall of Fame this year.
The bias is absolutely ridiculous, it really annoys me.
PL: Are you thinking about players like Chris Bjorin, Thor Hansen…
James Blunt of poker?
WL: … Marcel Luske, you got John Duthie, even Tony G. These were people who changed poker.
In the new markets the players who people recognize are exactly these older stars who’ve made the game popular. I wish we had more of these today.
Look at the WSOP final table where this one player was in the tank all the time. You sit in front of the screen and think, ‘oh, no, please’.
I liked it a lot more when everything was crazy. I agree that we should have more invitationals, where we pick the players and bring the bad boys back to the table.
You have to build the atmosphere yourself and you can’t do that if you just go into a big event. My dream table would have Hellmuth, Tony G and preferably Luke Schwartz.
If you want entertainment you have to fire it up. And then you can add an online qualifier. The Big Game for example was a good concept in that way.
One of the guys I signed who made a difference was Marvin Rettenmaier, who seemed to belong more in a boy band than anywhere else.
A German poker player who would sing songs and be the James Blunt of poker, that made a difference. You just need some form of marketability to make things interesting.
US: Charlie Carrel is someone like that, with his nice haircut and his outrageous clothes. Now and again you find someone who sticks out.
Even the King of Nerds agrees.
PL: Why aren’t there more of them?
WL: Because the game has become so mathematical and theoretical.
PL: So the nerds are more successful than the loudmouths?
WL: (laughs) Yes, but they don’t sell the game as well to the public.
But then there’s someone like Dan Cates, who’s seen as the king of the nerds, but even he understands that we need to find new ways and find more marketability.