Time for some good old-fashioned armchair quarterbacking.
Earlier this week, Federated Sports and Gaming announced a new professional poker league that will begin play in 2011. Participation will be limited to the world's top 200 live tournament players. A limited number of exemptions will be available; everyone else will have to play their way in under a proprietary formula that has yet to be released to the public.
The league will have four events, all at the Palms Casino in Las Vegas, between now and January of next year. At each event the game played will be no-limit hold'em. The league aims not to charge players any juice on their tournament entry and possibly to provide added-money to the prize pool.
Since the announcement I've purposefully avoided reading any blogs, forum posts or other media pieces about the league. I didn't want to taint my own theorycraft about the league. But I do gather from Twitter, at least, that the league has sparked a fair amount of discussion.
You can debate the merits of a PGA-like poker league. The as-yet-unknown critera for player inclusion. Whether the viewing public wants to see the "old guard" pros exclusively or a mix of old pros and rising young guns and amateurs. The likelihood of the league's success. You can debate all of those things until you're blue in the face. To me that's not the interesting part. The interesting part is the people and entities surrounding the endeavor.
FS+G is run by a few people who know something about poker and gaming: former WSOP Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack; several former executives of Youbet.com; and professional player Annie Duke, who will serve as Commissioner of the new league and will not participate as a player. Duke, you may remember, ended a long-standing relationship with UB at the end of December.
Although nobody predicted this transition for Duke, it's not entirely shocking. At the 2010 WSOP in particular she seemed unenthused during several events. She also has some nostalgia for the pre-boom days; during one $10,000 WSOP event last summer, she remarked to her table, "Remember when making a dinner break used to mean something?" This new endeavor allows her to branch off in a new poker direction, presumably renewing her enthusiasm for poker, while also restoring something of the old feel of poker from before the boom.
Pollack went over to professional bull riding in May, but has five years of poker experience under his belt. He's also something of a social media proponent. As Zynga has shown the world, gaming and social media go together shockingly well. Backing up Pollack's and Duke's live poker experience are the online gaming experiences of FS+G's other founders, who all are former Youbet.com executives. And Duke, of course, is well known to the world from her stint on Celebrity Apprentice.
See where I'm going with this?
Unless I've missed the mark entirely (possible, since I'm just theorizing based on limited information), FS+G and the Palms may be looking to get into regulated online poker, using Duke as the face of the product and using this poker league the way many of us assume the WSOP brand will be used by Caesars.
Currently, the live poker offerings at the Palms are minimal. The room is quite small, even by Vegas standards. It doesn't usually have more than a couple of tables running at any one time except during the two weeks of the WSOP Main Event when PokerStars and its (rapidly diminishing) hordes of qualifiers invade. So at face it's curious that the Palms would choose to get involved in this league, and that the league would choose the Palms -- especially given the usual "down-market" choices of the Golden Nugget and South Point.
FS+G can't do online poker alone though. With every piece of poker legislation we've seen so far a unifying element has been the need for a brick-and-mortar casino to be involved. That's where the Palms fits in. FS+G develops the social media gaming side of things in anticipation of regulated online poker (allusions to it are littered through their press materials); the Palms develops the TV brand awareness side of things and provides the required B&M presence.
I believe that FS+G is betting that the TV audience will tune in to see the "top professionals", the "colorful personalities" of the "old school". Those players won't be able to pass up money-added, zero-juice tournaments. The Palms/FS+G brand will be heavily marketed to the public, similar to the way PokerStars is marketed now (think EPT Live, the PCA final table, etc.) When regulation finally comes along, a combined FS+G and Palms partnership moves in and set up shop with regulated poker on the internet.
Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, WSOP / Caesars.
Look, I never believed for a second that Duke would go to "The Big Two" or some other UB analog. I also didn't believe she would get out of poker. At the time I remarked, "But Caesars / WSOP.com isn't the only company that's rumored to be sitting on the sidelines of the U.S. online poker market, waiting for its regulatory golden ticket to be punched. ... That could send Duke to one of those other idling companies..." Specifically what I had in mind for Duke was social media gaming, perhaps something like Zynga, an SMG company widely believed to be positioning itself for regulated online poker.
But if I'm right this move is even savvier. Pollack and Duke are essentially looking to hit a home run the same way all the Full Tilt founders did back in 2003 by creating their own poker site. If that happens the league becomes self-sufficient. The overlay money and zero-juice is made up for out of the coffers of the online poker site and accounted for as a marketing expense.
Regulated online poker isn't here yet though. The league has to survive on its own merits long enough for regulated poker to get here. That will require corporate sponsorship, angel investors, or maybe a combination of both. Pollack will have his hands full in that regard, convincing "reputable" corporations to get in bed with FS+G's "gambling operation". What's the line that the Palms is putting up some of the necessary money as an upfront investment on what it hopes is a lucrative long-term online poker return?
Again, I could be wrong about all of this. I probably am. But it's been fun to think about and if nothing else it will be fun to watch it all play out.
Thursday, January 20, 2011
Time for some good old-fashioned armchair quarterbacking.