Welcome to ESPN's online poker Think Tank.
Consider this an effort to educate the world a little better about the goings on, issues and mind-set of the online poker world. The end result should be some entertaining chatter, some education and a lot more interaction between the best online poker players in the world and our readers.
Each week, we're going to choose one question. For our first two discussions, we've picked the topics, but that's only a temporary fix. At the end of this page you'll find a link to a submission form where you can send your discussion suggestions. Out of your suggestions, we'll choose the future subject matter.
Once a given week's topic is selected, we'll pose it to an e-mail list we've put together consisting of some of the top online players in the world. Thus far, we have nine participants, all of whom find the roots of their success in the online world. A brief introduction to our nine:
Annette Obrestad: She rewrote the record books when she won the main event of WSOP Europe this year just two days shy of her 19th birthday.
Brian Townsend: Part owner of Cardrunners.com, Townsend is a cash-game specialist who's probably best-known for taking part in some of the biggest live games ever played at the Bellagio during the 2007 WSOP. He's also appeared on "High Stakes Poker."
Isaac Haxton: The runner-up at the 2007 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure and one of the online community's most outspoken personalities.
Justin Bonomo: A young star of the live game, Justin is better known by his online moniker, ZeeJustin. After getting banned from multiple sites two years ago, Bonomo has worked hard to reform his image. He's since become one of the game's most outspoken anti-cheating advocates.
Kevin Saul: Most recognized as online tournament monster "BeL0WaB0Ve." Saul produces online training videos for pokerxfactor.com.
Mike Schneider: Our second Cardrunner.com instructor, "Schneids" is a limit cash-game specialist who's become one of the community's most respected voices.
Phil Galfond: Another "High Stakes Poker" alum, Galfond is one of the most respected poker players in the world, live or online.
Todd Witteles: The controversial "Dan Druff," Witteles is our only WSOP bracelet winner.
Tom Dwan: One of online poker's most successful cash game players, "Durrrr" has started making a splash in the live tournament arena, most notably with a fourth-place finish at the 2007 World Poker Finals at Foxwoods.
After the list has a week to discuss the question posed to them, I do a quick edit, write up and introduction to the topic and a conclusion on the discussion. Simple as that. The participants have been told that the main goal is to get dialogue flowing, so they may get off on tangents, but that's why Andrew Feldman and I are part of the conversation. We're here to keep things on track.
This week's topic was designed to get the ball rolling and inspire an emotional response. I think you're going to find out quickly that not all is as it seems in the televised poker world, at least to some incredible poker players who mostly exist outside that vacuum. What you'll see after the question are the responses we got from our group in the order we got them. I think you'll find it illuminating. Here we go:
"Given that the televised poker industry values entertainment equally with competition, will online players ever gain the respect they feel they deserve as elite players? Are their feelings justified?"
Bonomo: The TV-viewing public will never have a good idea of who the best players in the world really are. The WPT and WSOP broadcasts have made it a high priority to market a select group of entertaining personalities and then to showcase them to boost their ratings. There's simply no market for Internet players that will never be on TV, even if they are 10 times as good as many of the famous TV pros. It's often a trade-off that the online players make: money over fame.
Witteles: I agree with Justin's assessment of the situation, and I'd like to add a few thoughts of my own.
Thanks to the intense TV exposure of no-limit hold 'em tournaments, there is a common misperception that the faces people often see at televised final tables are the best all-around poker players. This is usually very far from the truth. Some great tournament players are terrible at cash games. Some great no-limit players have no clue when it comes to playing limit poker. There are some players who are a force at whatever type of game they sit down at, but these people are few and far between. It is interesting how top (albeit relatively unknown) cash game pros often flock to the table when certain TV pros sit down, knowing that they've just found a live one.
On the flip side of things, it can be very dangerous judging a book by its cover at live no-limit tournaments these days. With the plethora of excellent online tournament players out there, the baby-faced, unfamiliar 22-year-old at your table may have thousands of tournaments under his belt and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cashes.
With that said, top online tournament players are likely to eventually make it out to live tournaments, and will make a name for themselves there. Annette Obrestad was perhaps the best example of this last year. The ones who are likely doomed to live in relative obscurity are the online cash players, but then again, live cash players were never glamorized too much in the first place.
Galfond: Wow, hot topic.
Firstly, the televised poker industry values entertainment over competition, not equally.
I think that as online players continue to play more live tournaments, the results will come (for some of us, not all; the best player in the world could go years without making a televised final table), and eventually the respect of the general public. We're just at a disadvantage because we aren't already established in the eyes of the media.
The media's job is to attract viewers. Viewers enjoy poker either for the entertaining personalities, the large amounts of money in play or the world-class competition.
So, if Internet players want more exposure, they should both go out of their way to be more entertaining when given the opportunity and should have enough money to play in the big televised games (which they probably should if they are good). Knowing the right people and being entertaining when given the chance should lead to invitations to televised events. Also, putting themselves in a position to get some TV time (entering lots of TV tourneys, networking, etc basically everything I dislike doing) will help their chances.
Basically, they should give the media a reason to like them.
If Internet players have a problem with that part of it, I understand it (especially because I do too) but they aren't necessarily justified in being upset about it since they can do something about it.
The upsetting part is those that tune in partly to see world-class competition. If world-class poker is graduate school, the average viewer is in first grade. The viewer who thinks he knows a ton about poker is in second grade. The average "expert" analysts and commentators are about to start high school. I'm not being dramatic here. This is not an exaggeration.
Like, seriously. That's not at all an exaggeration. Really. OK? Cool.
So most of the people watching to see world-class poker have no idea what world-class poker looks like. It's the job of the media to tell them.
Just like any other sport, poker benefits from having superstars: players idolized and put on pedestals by the commentators and analysts. Some of the players whom the media decides to put on a pedestal are world class players. Many are not.
I wish that the real world-class players could be identified as such. I don't know the way things work, but it's either on the Norman Chad's and Gabe Kaplan's of the world or whoever it is that tells them what to say, to find out who really are world-class players and pass that along to the public.
I don't expect this to happen though. The public doesn't know the difference, so it doesn't matter whether you tell them to idolize Tom Dwan and Brian Townsend or Men Nguyen and Humberto Brenes. They'll just do it, and ratings will be similar.
Sorry. I can never write anything concise. The short answer is, no, many world class online players will never get the respect they deserve. And no, they aren't really justified in being upset about it. They've spent a ton of time training to be world class poker players, not TV stars. It's a different skill set.
There's an entirely separate issue which bothers me a bit as a cash-game player: Tournaments are mostly opened to the public, so if you can afford to play enough of them, play well, and/or run well, you'll get your fair shot. However, cash games aren't run like this. They are for the most part invitation only, and very short term. There is no level field for televised cash games.
Wise: I would submit to you that there's an irony to the frustrations of the online community. It seems to me that despite the digitalization of poker, they're playing the same game the TV pros were playing before they became TV pros. The TV pros are playing a different, more advanced form of poker.
We all know that the object of poker (dumbed down) is to make money, and the TV pros have done that and then some. As good as the players on this list are, I highly doubt they've made as much money in this game over the past half-decade as Phil Hellmuth, Howard Lederer, Jesus Ferguson, Annie Duke and other players who fall into their demographic.
Where online players live and die by the table, the above folks never leave the table. When Ferguson goes out, he wears the black hat and coat. Phil wears the cap and shades. It's not just that they're playing the game, it's that the game is getting played for all it's worth, and I mean that with all of the respect in the world. The televised pros are just superior players of the bigger game, the one of TV time, branding and the perks of stardom.
I hold massive respect for the way Galfond plays the cards, but his HSP performance gave us a good example of what I'm talking about. The man in me respects the discipline that took. The gamer in me admires the skill he demonstrated. The businessman in me, however, says that a 5 percent VP$IP (voluntarily put into the pot, also a totally made up number, but you get the idea) makes for boring television. Just like any poker game, if he doesn't make the needed adjustments, he's going to eventually find himself stacked out of the spotlight.
Online players, generally at least, haven't figured out these parts of the game (there are a couple of exceptions on this list). They think it's all about two cards in hand, five in the middle and hours at a table. Since we agree that televised poker is as much entertainment as competition, until online players figure out how to make the needed adjustments, they're going to be also-rans in the game that really matters.
Following that logic, their complaints are unfounded.
Obrestad: Hahahahhah! I thought we played poker to win money! Not to get the public to like us because we play way too many hands and know how to entertain. Galfond was on HSP because he knew he had an edge on the players and he wanted to make money. Unfortunately he just had a bad run of cards that session and ended up playing really tight. He wasn't on to get everyone's attention. He was really just practicing good table selection (I know that sounds ridiculous, but most of the pros are playing soooooo bad). Just take Sammy Farha as an example. He's calling 10-X open raises preflop with any two cards hoping to hit a flop, and when he does, he rarely folds. Is that good poker??? No, but it's fun as hell to watch. Same with Jamie Gold. He makes terrible bluffs and tries to win every pot because that's what he wants everyone to remember him for, but he's not playing good poker. They are making countless mistakes, so Galfond would be stupid to not play in that game.
Wise: You don't think there's money to be made in getting invited back?
Bonomo: There's also an issue of respect here. Respect is something I probably care more about than it would be in my best interest to. Take Humberto Brenes for example. He used to be extremely well respected. Then a couple of years ago he brought his shark along and concocted this fake personality and played a much tighter game -- all just to get more TV time. Since then he's been considered a bit of a joke in the poker community. The same can be said for Phil Hellmuth (except of course that a big part of that personality is real for him).
Personally, I would rather be respected like Barry Greenstein or Chip Reese, known for my poker ability and character, rather than my juvenile behavior. Obviously, that's a lot harder to do.
Galfond: There is money to be made in getting invited back. I definitely misplayed my chance on HSP, though partially because I was promised more chance than I got, and I've learned from it. Enough about me though.
"As good as the players on this list are, I highly doubt they've made as much money in this game over the last half-decade as Phil Hellmuth, Howard Lederer, Jesus Ferguson, Annie Duke and other players who fall into their demographic." -- Gary
If you are talking about money made from playing poker, I think this isn't true. Many players in this category make money from endorsements, sponsorships, poker related business, etc. They are put into tourneys for free, and even still, many don't have as much money as most people think (from my understanding at least).
Even if they have more money than us, think about the fact that some of us, like me, started 3-4 years ago with $50 (when I started learning how to play poker), while many of these people had just hit a big score for near seven figures. You need money to make money, so it's been a much longer road over the last few years for many of us. We've certainly increased our bankrolls by a percent so much higher than theirs, it's ridiculous. I've made exactly 0 percent of my money from sponsorships or pieces of a poker site. I've been put into exactly zero events for free. I think this is true for many of the people on this list. We've made our money from playing poker.
In addition to all of that, many of these players have most of their money from a couple of big scores. (Though some like Hellmuth have consistently produced tourney results.) I submit that had two or three coin flips not gone their way, many of the people on the public's list of poker all-stars would be relatively broke.
Actually, if we're using money made from poker as a measuring stick, isn't Jerry Yang much better than almost all of these players?
Feldman: "If you are talking about money made from playing poker, I think this isn't true. Many players in this category make money from endorsements, sponsorships, poker related business, etc. They are put into tourneys for free, and even still, many don't have as much money as most people think (from my understanding at least)." -- Galfond
I'm going to quote former ESPN Poker Club columnist Steve Rosenbloom here: "Poker players are now making more money while they sleep than playing."
High-profile players are making out very well with endorsement deals which have, as we've seen, reduced their time at the table. That said, I think I'd be confident in saying that Phil is right here. I think that the newer crop has made more money playing poker over the past five years than the faces we've come to know from our television.
Keep in mind that the games have gotten bigger as the years have increased. More fish, more money in prize pools lead to bigger tournaments and bigger payouts -- both online and live. So yeah, Jamie Gold is still the man in terms of money earned, but as Galfond essentially said, after years of smaller fields, lower buy-ins, the money earned category has become completely out of whack when trying to determine the world's best players over the course of time.
Galfond: Just wanted to point out:
"Since we agree that TV poker is as much entertainment as competition, until online players figure out how to make the needed adjustments, they're going to be also-rans in the game that really matters."
I don't think that TV poker is "the game that really matters."
If an online player thinks it is, you are absolutely right. They should make the adjustments or stop complaining.
Schneider: For many years now there have been consistent debates about whether online players are better or worse than primarily live players, and the debate will probably never really ever meet a resolution. In my experiences, all poker players are ego-driven, though there are some differences in some of the mentalities between online and live players. A lot of the guys who started off playing live first did so because they crave the action, love the swings, and live for running it up then busting then running it up and busting. They play for the notoriety and respect of their peers and they want everyone in the casino seeing when they're playing in big games.
Conversely, a lot of the Internet players started playing online while treating it more like a video game to be won, where the only measuring stick is, "How many dollars can I win?" They tend to treat the game of poker more academically and are less likely to willingly take the worst of it. For example, live players appreciate the fact that sometimes you start a bad game just to have a game going in case a big donator walks in; an online player is going to be much less likely to sit in that game to get it started.
I think because of these two differing mind-sets, we'll probably never see online players given as much respect by the general public. Joe Blow gets to see on television the live pros who crave the attention. Most online players aren't playing for the attention -- they're playing to make money. That said, thanks to some of the major poker publications beginning to spread more stories about online poker and its players, some Internet phenoms are gaining semicelebrity status in the poker world. I would expect this trend to slowly continue over time, since the amount of money some guys make online is too mind-boggling to be ignored.
Haxton: The distinction between "live players" and "online players" is on its way out. Online cash games (and to a lesser extent tournaments) and big live tournaments are both such incredible money-making opportunities that I expect to see fewer and fewer people who are sufficiently talented to succeed at both neglecting either one. Especially among the younger poker professionals there's almost no such thing as a live-only player and the majority of the very successful online players are playing a lot of the bigger live tournaments. In 10 years I don't think people will still be categorizing everyone as either a live player or an online player. There will be a few people known as live specialists or online specialists, but most pros will just be poker players and will play both live and online.
Gary wrote that "the televised poker industry values entertainment equally with competition." This is pretty generous, in my opinion. I think competition is little more than an afterthought in televised poker. I've jokingly called TV poker "celebrity coin-flipping" in the past, but I think it's actually pretty accurate. The shows edit out the more strategically interesting hands to focus on all-in pots. ESPN's WSOP coverage has begun a disturbing trend of beginning their coverage of a hand only after the play is over and the players are all-in. They'll just cut to a table and with no mention of how the situation came up the announcer is saying, "So Joe is all-in here with a pair of kings against Mike's flush draw. Will he be able to dodge the two remaining cards or will Mike pull it out? OH MY GOD! MIKE HAS DONE IT! He hit the flush! I don't believe it!" and then they show the players reacting for a few seconds and cut to the next hand.
Saul: I actually disagree with the statement "the televised poker industry values entertainment equally with competition." I think it's safe to say that the entertainment value of a poker tournament or final table is definitely valued more then the actual competition itself. The perfect defense of my argument is the coverage of the '07 WSOP main event, where Scott "ScTrojans" Freeman finished in 19th place. He had exactly one appearance on TV, his WSOP claim was being the guy who busted "the blind guy." He was probably the most talented player left in the field at that time, and was doing well with a lot of chips up until he busted out, yet he had two things working against him. First off, he's what most everyone would consider an online celebrity multitable tournament player. He's one of the best players in the world, but a nobody to the general public because all of his results so far have come online. The second thing is, he's a quiet guy, just goes about his business without making himself known at the table and quietly just taking down pots. He didn't get into poker for the notoriety, but rather for the competition it brings and the money to be won. I'm pretty sure that sums up most online players today, so while we will never be as known to the general public as some of the other "live" players today, we are OK with that. We'll just sit quietly and keep raking in pots.
I also agree with Isaac, at the tables the online players are fitting in just fine with the live players. They are gaining the respect of their peers at the tables and most of the biggest online names are showing up at most of the $10,000 live events.
Townsend: First I want to say that I agree with Isaac in that the distinction between online and live players is becoming more blurred. I suspect it will continue as well.
It pains me to say this, but I do agree with Gary in that live players make better TV. I know I was very nervous before I was on HSP. I wasn't myself and was very stoic. I was almost completely silent throughout the entire show. I saw the error in my ways and when I filmed the Poker Den and the Full Tilt Poker million dollar cash game, I was much more comfortable. I was smiling the entire time and generally enjoying myself where as on my first TV appearance I was awkward and silent. I guess what I am saying, not very eloquently, is that it takes time to practice being good on TV. It wasn't something that came naturally for me (I still have many improvements to make) and I suspect it doesn't come naturally for many others as well. But by reviewing my actions and thinking about ways to improve I have become much more enjoyable to watch. I suspect the same thing will occur with other online pros as more and more of them get TV time.
"As good as the players on this list are, I highly doubt they've made as much money in this game over the last half-decade as Phil Hellmuth, Howard Lederer, Jesus Ferguson, Annie Duke and other players who fall into their demographic. "
I don't think that quote is fair because these pros generate huge amounts of revenue off of their businesses. I could see some of the people listed above making as much as these four do in due time. But the simple fact is you will never be truly rich off poker, because you have to play to make money. These four have huge passive revenue streams and we haven't had the time to build and develop our own businesses. I think some of the people on this list have the opportunity to be as wealthy as the four mentioned above (actually probably none of us will be as wealthy as Howard and Jesus), but to compare our earnings now just isn't fair because they have had a 20-year head start to build these businesses. If you were to compare the players on the list to the four when those four were in their early to mid-20s, I think you would find that our mean net worth is much higher than theirs was at the time.
Dwan: The people who my non-poker friends think about when they hear poker are not always the most successful live players. They know of the people who are the most entertaining, whom also happen to be at least decent at poker. This is because the qualities TV producers look for in people are: entertainment value and past success (in that order). Skill doesn't hit anywhere near the top of the list (even if producers think it does). This is simply because most people are completely helpless in determining who out of a group of 10 above-average poker players is the "most skilled" -- partly because poker skill is an extremely difficult thing to measure. The best tool the public has is a person's results, which definitely are somewhat correlated, but by no means exact.
There are very few successful players who play only live, or only online, instead most people play a mix of the two. As Ike and Brian have said, I think the difference between "online" and "live" players is quickly diminishing, as the more successful online players start playing in even more live tournaments and cash games, and the more successful live players find that they can play poker without leaving their house through a new invention called the Internet. A lot of "Internet" players underestimate the intelligence and skill level of many "live pros." Conversely, almost every live player is even more flawed in their estimation of "online" players' skills. As the two worlds mix more and more in the coming years, online players will eventually learn that one mistake they saw on TV does not make someone a bad player. Also, in the last few years quite a few online players have had large successes in live tournaments, and more regularly online players are playing in the biggest televised cash games. These will both result in more notoriety (or respect), which some online players may feel they deserve.
OK, this was obviously a pretty one-sided debate for this particular group due to their similar background, but even in their almost singular voice, there were strong points and admissions made:
• Televised poker is entertainment in addition to competition and its aspiring stars need to recognize that.
• There is a skill set that differentiates merely great poker players from poker stars.
• The gap between online and live players is closing.
• I needed a whoopin' for suggesting the business of poker was a part of the game.
From the content we collected this week, it was a statement that Phil Galfond made that stood out to me the most:
it's either on the Norman Chad's and Gabe Kaplan's of the world or whoever it is that tells them what to say, to find out who really are world-class players and pass that along to the public.
I don't expect this to happen, though."
It's the only portion of this week's discussion I can take issue with, for the simple reason that these people have been gathered here specifically to give the online community a voice and to set the record a little straighter. Nice to know we're already addressing some issues that need addressing.
So, do you agree with the list? Are the Humberto Brenes' and Sammy Farha's of the world really just overhyped characters? Or does the online world buy a little too much into its own hype? Sound off in the comments section and if you have a question for the Think Tank, let us know here.
Gary Wise is a regular contributor to ESPN.com, Bluff magazine, worldseriesofpoker.com and other publications. His podcast, Wise Hand Poker Radio, can be heard at roundersradio.com and airs at 8 p.m. Wednesdays.