Internet Sites Show Poker Pros the Money - Tuesday 12th of April 2005
In the last couple of years poker professionals -- many of them Las Vegas residents -- have struck endorsement deals with Internet poker sites and regularly tout them during casino appearances.
In a bar near the lobby of the Rio resort, poker legend Doyle Brunson recently held court with fans under the glare of camera lights to promote his latest poker book, SuperSystem 2.
Amid jokes and colorful stories, the so-called "Babe Ruth of poker" mentions Doyle's Room, a recently launched Internet poker site for which the Las Vegas resident is a paid spokesman. He also wears a cowboy hat with the site's logo.
Before the news conference, Brunson said he plays online poker on occasion and is working on a book about Internet poker strategy.
"It's so convenient you can play at home in your bathrobe," he said.
Most poker pros now gamble online, lured by multi-million-dollar jackpots that rival those of the biggest land-based casinos as well as nonstop games and rapid play, poker experts say.
Many of the world's best poker players live in Las Vegas or live between Las Vegas and Southern California, both home to some of the industry's most lucrative poker tournaments and richest live casino games.
"In Nevada you have a higher percentage than normal playing online than the rest of the country," said Card Player magazine co-publisher Barry Shulman, also a top pro. "The people who go into the casinos play online. It took the casinos about five minutes to figure that out and at first they were concerned that Internet poker would kill their business. Look around town. Poker rooms are packed."
Local pros also are well-represented online, Shulman said.
"It's easier for them to win online than to drive to Bellagio and play for eight hours straight," he said. "The Internet is bringing so many new people into poker. The quality of (online) poker on average is going up but for the pros there's more money in it."
Online poker helps supplement income for poker pros who don't have to travel around as much to play in big money games, said Russ Hamilton, the 1995 World Series of Poker champion.
Hamilton is a spokesman for UltimateBet.com, a site based in the Caribbean island of Aruba.
"The big pros play online," Hamilton said. "There's a lot of people making a living online."
Poker pros say the law surrounding online poker is unclear but are careful not to go too far in their relationships with Internet poker sites.
Brunson, said he is a consultant for DoylesRoom.com and does not have an ownership stake in the site.
"It's a gray area," Brunson said of Internet gambling. "That's why we can only be consultants, not owners. It's a touchy situation."
Las Vegan and poker pro Howard Lederer is paid to promote FullTiltPoker.com, an Internet poker site that opened in July. Lederer is part owner of the company that developed the gambling software for the site but said he doesn't have a stake in the gambling operation.
"The software is a constant project," said Lederer, a two-time World Series of Poker champion.
About two years ago, Lederer and other top players were approached by a group of players with the idea of creating a poker site with star power and input from professional players.
"The site was designed with well over 100 years of poker experience behind it," he said. "These are poker people, people who understand online poker. We play in small stakes games (with customers) and answer questions. It's a true endorsement of the site."
Lederer admits his poker game has suffered somewhat because he is now involved in so many related business opportunities.
"I'm so involved in the business side I really don't play side games," Lederer said. "It's very stiff competition. I have too much respect for (players) to put in 10 hours on the phone and then go down to the Bellagio and have enough focus for the game."
Mike Sexton, who also lives in Las Vegas, is a longtime pro who has nearly given up regular poker games for endorsements, book deals and other promotions.
Sexton is a commentator for the World Poker Tour, a traveling poker tournament with 16 events worldwide that is broadcast on the Travel Channel and across 56 countries. Tournament hosts range from Internet poker sites to the Bellagio and Mirage.
The owner of the tournament is West Hollywood-based WPT Enterprises Inc., the only publicly traded poker entertainment company in the United States.
Besides receiving a salary from the World Poker Tour, Sexton also is a part owner of PartyPoker.com -- the largest online poker room with an estimated 50 percent of the worldwide market.
"They were looking for someone who knew about poker," Sexton said.
Sexton helped develop the poker software, trained the site's customer service staff and created the PartyPoker Million, an annual tournament held on a cruise ship that has become the largest event in the World Poker Tour.
"Television is the No. 1 reason poker is so popular and none of these other shows would be around if not for the World Poker Tour," Sexton said. "We're the PGA Tour of poker and the money is bigger."
The tour is creating a "millionaire a week" and last week crossed the threshhold of $100 million in total prize money, he said.
Internet poker is the "No. 2 reason" for poker's rising popularity, he said.
Another local pro paid to promote PartyPoker.com is Kathy Liebert, a former Wall Street analyst who is known as one of the best female tournament players in the world.
In 2002, Liebert made history as the first woman to win a poker tournament offering a million-dollar top prize at the first PartyPoker Million, a tournament held on a ship that cruised the Mexican Riviera.
"People are playing online everywhere and I'm not aware of the government going after people," she said. Everyone's doing it and it seems like it's pretty well accepted at this point."
Online means more competition at casino tournaments but also means bigger prize pools, Liebert said.
"You still have to beat the people at your table but it's better because there's more money in the pot," she said. "It means you don't have to play tournaments as often to make money."
Liebert, who has residences in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, said she anticipates a day when poker pros are invited to sponsor other products besides poker sites.
"It's very popular on TV and people are treating poker players like celebrities," said Liebert, whose likeness will soon appear alongside other pros on a set of trading cards. "People are starting to come up to me asking for my autograph. Even at the airport."
Another local who has capitalized on the poker craze is Brad Daugherty, a host for EmpirePoker.com. Daugherty, the 1991 World Series of Poker champ, was that tournament's first million-dollar winner. He now travels the country playing major tournaments.
As part of his duties for the site, Daugherty coaches players during online sessions and answers questions.
"People learn to play so well and so quickly online," he said. "In one year you can learn what it took me 10 years to learn. You can play three games at the same time and play a lot more hands per hour. The learning curve has been cut way down."
Many players start out playing free games online to learn the ropes, Daugherty said.
"Everyone has an alias so there's no intimidation factor," he said. "At a tournament in San Diego a couple of months ago, I was playing a $10,000 buy-in and there were three women at the table. I'd never seen that before and it's because of the Internet."
Online poker strategies also are part of books on tournament poker Daugherty has written in recent years with local Tom McEvoy.
"Every player that I know loves to play on the Internet," he said.
Canadian poker pro Daniel Negreanu will be bridging the gap between online and land-based casinos when he assumes a position as "ambassador" of the poker room at the soon-to-open Wynn Las Vegas megaresort. Negreanu, a tournament regular and Las Vegas resident, also promotes a new Internet poker room called Poker Mountain.
Shulman said Las Vegas casinos have become schizophrenic because they welcome online poker players with open arms yet aren't doing basic things to promote the sites where many players learn the game.
"I don't think they're coming close to exploring how to work with Internet poker sites," Shulman said of the casinos. "Instead of pretending they're not getting business at the online casinos, they could do things to welcome players better."
"If it's not OK then don't let them in," he said of online players. "If it's OK then promote it."
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