Poker is all around us. It’s on our televisions, in our movies and even in the way we turn a phrase. But for all that, it’s still not truly mainstream.
New stars aren’t being minted like they were during the poker boom, and mainstream audiences are still more likely to recognize a player like Mike Matusow than Jason Mercier, despite what the results say.
Poker fans aren’t engaging with poker stars like they did in the early 2000s, and it’s limiting the industry’s ability to establish itself in the mainstream.
The endorsement opportunities for players and sponsorship options available to major poker events are narrow, largely confined to online poker sites, casinos and a handful of other Internet players.
And while other outsider sports like snowboarding have done big things to break into the mainstream, poker is held back by a unique set of challenges.
These are the issues standing in the way of poker’s continuing growth, and it’s what the Epic Poker League hopes to overcome.
A Pro League and Fan Engagement are Key
“When you have someone win a tournament like the Main Event and they’re supposed to be the world champion, but no one’s ever seen them before and you might never see them again, that feels like a step backwards,” says Annie Duke, Commissioner of the Epic Poker League.
“I think skill should be rewarded and today’s really great players should be given the same kind of platform that players from my generation had,” Duke told PokerListings.com.
Annie Duke was among the first crop of real poker celebrities, players who managed to break out of the poker world and gain at least some mainstream recognition.
The sister of poker figurehead Howard Lederer, and one of the few legitimate female pros on the scene, Duke was in the right place at the right time when poker got big.
But despite making many TV appearances playing poker, the average American is more likely to recognize Duke from much more mainstream television.
Duke finished second on Celebrity Apprentice and has appeared on shows like Ellen and The Colbert Report.
She’s written an autobiography and she’s appeared side-by-side with Don Cheadle for many Ante Up for Africa charity events.
She’s also won more than $4.27 million playing poker tournaments.
In short she understands that the opportunities available to poker players extend beyond the felt, or at least that they should.
“I was really lucky to have been around right at the beginning when there were only 100 people or so playing every event,” said Duke.
“It was a limited group of people that the fans were engaging with and it allowed them to get to know the players really well.
“They were seeing the same people over and over again and when I was thinking during the early days of Epic, about who poker’s biggest stars are now as far as the average American is considered, and it’s still these same pros that were around in the beginning,” she said.
Despite prodigies like Jason Mercier and Vanessa Selbst crushing the live tournament circuit they’re not getting much mainstream traction.
And that should be surprising, because their stories are eminently compelling.
Vanessa Selbst isn’t an introverted online grinder or a lucky degenerate. She’s a 27-year-old Yale Law student who heads her school’s Queer-Straight Alliance and fights for civil rights.
And when she wasn’t doing that she was busy winning $4.74 million traveling the world playing tournament poker.
Jason Mercier is a young, clean-cut Floridian who has succeeded in poker beyond what most thought possible, earning over $7.6 million since 2008.
Both of these players have endorsement deals with PokerStars but neither of them have done much to break into the mainstream.
Professionalism and a Standard of Conduct in Poker
In addition to providing a framework that fosters fan engagement, Epic Poker has introduced the poker world’s first formal code of conduct.
And that’s an element Epic believes is critical in attracting the kind of mainstream corporate sponsorship that could really open things up for players.
Stephen Martin is the head of the Epic Poker Ethics Committee and one of the central developers of their Code of Conduct.
Martin is a former federal prosecutor who took what he’s learned about ethics in professional sports and corporate America, and applied it to poker.
“What we’re trying to do is professionalize the sport of poker and do it in a way that’s going to have significant benefits for professional poker players,” Martin told PokerListings.com.
“Meaning more opportunities for them, more prizes, more corporate sponsorships, more of the mainstream stuff you see associated with more traditional sports,” he said.
In Martin’s opinion the closed system of the Epic Poker League offers the continuity and safety that major corporate brands find appealing.
But he also believes a lot of the work will fall to the players themselves.
“This isn’t really about discipline,” he said. “We want poker players to conduct themselves professionally and personally in a way that maximizes the ability of the community as a whole to do well.
“So with that comes with some responsibilities. The people who really need to embrace this and lead this isn’t Epic Poker, it’s the players.
Martin looks to other sports, and the progress they’ve been able to make, when plotting out poker’s future.
“There’s a bit of a maverick streak in poker, sure, but that’s true of professional snowboarding or the X-Games,” he said.
“At one point they really were an outside organization and very maverick, and we can look at what they’ve been able to do professionalizing those sports, and the benefits it has had for everyone involved,” Martin added.
Following Snowboarding’s Lead
Despite obvious differences, poker and snowboarding have followed similar trajectories as outsider sports embraced by mainstream culture.
But while the public pulled snowboarding close, many have kept poker at arm’s length.
“I think the biggest obstacle really is just the perception of poker,” explained Annie Duke.
“When Joan Rivers went on her diatribe (on Celebrity Apprentice) about who poker players really are, she’s not alone in that opinion unfortunately.
“There’s still a large part of the population that are sort of scared of poker and think that it’s shady or some sort of backroom activity,” said Duke.
Snowboarding doesn’t have the same kind of image problems, and beyond the inherent danger of flying down a steep sheet of ice strapped to a piece of fiberglass, it’s pretty easy for people to get behind.
But the explosion in snowboarding’s popularity didn’t happen on its own.
“The biggest step was when snowboarding started getting on mainstream TV,” Snowboard Canada's Editor in Chief Scott Birke told PokerListings.com.
“Corporations saw that they could make a lot of money by aligning themselves with snowboarding even though it was a bit of an outsider sport,” he said, explaining why you can turn on the television today and see a nationwide snowboard tour sponsored by Mountain Dew.
Snowboarding had everything that poker still needs, the key points being good public image and the opportunity for fans to engage with the sport’s elite players.
Snowboarding is what poker wants to be, and it didn’t have to change its image to get there.
But just like snowboarding, poker’s maverick streak, its personality and independent spirit, doesn’t have to be crushed under the boot of corporate sponsorship.
In fact, mainstream exposure and an expanding fan base will only help grow the personalities in the game.
“If anything the personalities in snowboarding are even bigger now because of the cult of personality and being able to reach the mainstream,” said Birke.
“Like Shaun White who’s this sort of larger-than-life individual that’s essentially a product of snowboarding becoming mainstream.”
The bridge from poker to true mainstream audiences will come from the new generation of elite poker pros, and it will come in the form of someone with the same ‘coolness’ factor and ability that puts Shaun White posters on kids’ walls around the world.
The poker world needs a savvy poker pro capable of doing amazing things at the poker table. We need someone successful and cool enough that fans want to engage and emulate.
Players like Tom Dwan and Viktor Blom fit the bill and with the introduction of newer, high-profile leagues like Epic, they just might have a chance.
Annie Duke Interview Transcript
PokerListings.com: Do you think it’s possible for poker to make big advances as far as getting more mainstream? What are the biggest obstacles in the way?
Annie Duke: I think the biggest obstacle really is just the perception of poker. When Joan Rivers went on her diatribe (on Celebrity Apprentice) about who poker players really are, she’s not alone in that opinion unfortunately.
There’s still a large part of the population that are sort of scared of poker and think that it’s sort of shady or some sort of backroom activity.
So it’s important to show people that poker really is about skill. Just like the best basketball players in the world excel and end up in the NBA, you can do the same in poker. It’s not about gambling.
That makes it much more palatable to sponsors because it’s just like any other skill game.
When you can say to a sponsor that you’ve got a closed group of people that are going to be cycling through these events, and they’ve signed a code of conduct, that’s does a lot.
But the biggest thing is figuring out how to engage fans better.
I was really lucky to have been around right at the beginning when there were only 100 people or so playing every event. So it was a limited group of people that the fans were engaging with and it allowed them to get to know the players really well.
They were seeing the same people over and over again and when I was thinking during the early days of Epic, about who poker’s biggest stars are now as far as the average American is considered, it’s still these same pros that were around in the beginning.
That doesn’t mean that they’re the best players, but in the mainstream they’re still the most recognizable.
Because we haven’t seen any other really big stars generated since then. The only person you can point to is durrrr and even though he’s done a great job, he’s still hasn’t been able to get to the level of Phil Hellmuth and I think that’s because it’s just so hard to get the mainstream exposure.
So, looking at what was happening back then in the first half of the 2000s, and trying to sort of reverse-engineer it now, you realize that there are a few things you can point to as far as what made these players the big stars.
There were small tournament fields, about 100 of the people that the fans got to see over and over again. That just hasn’t been the case since about ’04 so it’s tough for fans to really get to know these players and build them into real stars.
PL: Given that poker does have a certain stigma attached to it, and it actually shows up in some professional sports’ codes of conduct, do you think there are unique challenges to moving it more into the mainstream?
AD: I think it’s the same challenge that poker has legislatively. It’s just about getting people to understand that if you’re going to accept something like options-trading as a skill-game, you have to accept that poker is as well.
So the challenge is educating people. I’ve always said that poker is really unlucky to have started in the same building as craps.
People kind of group all these things together and think of them as similar activities but the truth is they’re not similar at all.
But I think it’s important that we have some continuity. It’s tough when some guy wins a tournament and then you never see him again.
We need to showcase the amazingly talented poker players that are in the game and are being objectively measured.
When you have someone win a tournament like the Main Event and they’re supposed to be the world champion, but no one’s ever seen them before and you might never see them again, that feels like a step backwards.
PL: What was the biggest motivation for making ethics and the code of conduct a key part of the Epic Poker League?
AD: Really early on when we were discussing Epic Poker, the issue of a code of conduct came up as a discussion point.
The idea was that if you’re professionalizing poker, it’s important to realize that players within a closed pro league are going to be representatives for the sport and they’re going to be representing poker to the public, the sponsors, advertisers and everyone else.
So if you realize that poker presenting itself in a more professional light is really important I think these ethics and codes of conduct issues, within a closed league like Epic, become really important.
Poker’s never had that before and a big part of that is just a practical matter. When you have thousands of people playing in open events it’s not like you can vet anyone.
But once you’ve got a closed system, in terms of qualifying for membership, it becomes easier to start holding people to the same standards we see in other professional sports.
And there’s no other professional league that doesn’t have some sort of code of conduct that the players have to adhere to.
PL: You mention veteran players like Phil Hellmuth as being the biggest stars in poker, but do you think there’s an opportunity for a new generation of these superstars, given the amount of talent we’re seeing in younger pros these days?
AD: Not only do I think that but that exact idea was one of the biggest driving forces behind creating the league.
When you run the numbers fully 50 percent of the league is 30 or under, and that reflects where the stars of this generation are right now and this huge part of the elite poker playing community that’s largely unknown to the mainstream poker audience.
I think skill should be rewarded and today’s really great players should be given the same kind of platform that players from my generation had.
So if you give these players a chance to enter events with limited fields people are really going to be able to get to know the Jason Merciers and the Adam Levys and the Isaac Barons and the Noah Schwartzs and the Mike MacDonalds and the Chris Klodnickis and the Andrew Lichtenbergers.
These guys are just so amazing but they’re pretty much unknown to the public because it’s just too hard to get on final tables in these huge-field events enough in order for fans to engage with you.
In the beginning Jeffrey (Pollack) and I were saying, “It’s not the players you know, it’s the players you should know.”