The news hit the poker world on Friday like a ton of bricks: Jeffrey Pollack had stepped down from his position as commissioner of the World Series of Poker.
"It's the right time," Pollack said, having just left his office at Harrah's for the final time on Friday. "Everything I set out to accomplish in 2005, I think I have accomplished. The World Series of Poker is bigger than ever before. The brand is in a strong position and the player experience is better than it's ever been. I think it's a good time to step aside and explore other opportunities in business. My career arc has seen me move every four to six years. This fits with that pattern."
It's a courteous, professional, diplomatic answer from a man who certainly embodies those characteristics. Part of Pollack's occupations with NASCAR then the WSOP has been to serve as a professional face for the brands he's represented. It's the kind of answer you'd expect to hear from a man who hopes for and deserves similar posts in the future.
Pollack's reigns as commissioner and steward of the WSOP may be unmatched. He joins an elite circle of men who are forever revered by the core group of players around whom this sport has been built.
"If I had known this was his last WSOP, I'd have quit my WPT job if necessary to photograph the November Nine," poker tournament reporter BJ Nemeth said. "Jeffrey's become a friend and this was the end of a very important era. He was a steward of the WSOP in the same way that Jack Binion was. Not many people have done that for WSOP over the years, which is why it stagnated before Jeffrey's arrival. It never stagnated under Pollack."
Names like Binion's and former tournament director Eric Drache get thrown around. Take Drache's hands-on accountability and the Binions' buck-stops-here accountability and you find yourself back at Jeffrey Pollack.
Pollack's tenure with Harrah's began in 2005, and he graduated to the commissioner's chair in early 2006. Since his emergence, the WSOP has successfully implemented myriad changes to a model that few saw a need to fix. The November Nine, expansion to London, a long-term TV deal with ESPN and the formation of the Players Advisory Council are just a few of the ideas brought to bear under Pollack's watchful gaze. As important as those changes were, however, it's the way Pollack administrated that garnered the respect of those who worked directly with him.
"I mean, I have a lot of respect for Jeffrey," said a saddened Phil Hellmuth. "I thought he was one heck of a commissioner. I really liked him. I have a lot of respect for him. He was a man of his word. If you asked him for too much he'd just tell you no, and I respect that. A clear, honest answer. He seemed to know where the lines were, you know? I think he tried really hard to be fair. I think he forged good relationships with all the great poker players. This might be a bad sign for the players at the WSOP."
"You have to give him credit for how much bigger the WSOP has become," said Peter Eastgate, the 2008 main event champion. "I liked him very much. He's a very cool guy and down to Earth. A bright guy as well. He was friendly and supportive and boosted my morale, but he let me be myself, which I appreciated as well. The industry will miss him."
More of poker's most familiar faces agreed that Pollack handled his tenure with excellence.
"Before Jeffrey took over, Harrah's was in turmoil over the relationship with the players," remembered Daniel Negreanu, a member of the Players Advisory Council. "He brought the two groups together with the PAC. We ran it professionally. We got a lot of work done and the WSOP is a lot better for it today. He did a great job of bringing poker to a different place, the mainstream. He was dedicated to making the WSOP brand prestigious and special. He and others have succeeded in that goal. They kept coming up with innovative ideas and made the brand noticeable."
"I really haven't met many people who don't respect Jeffrey Pollack," said Barry Greenstein, another PAC member. "The few who don't probably don't know him. I was very unhappy [upon hearing the news]. Jeffrey has done a great job of helping WSOP grow. He's repeatedly put in a difficult position where the players feel exploited and he had to balance that with talking to the higher-ups at Harrah's who are talking about making money. It's been a tough balancing act. You get to feel sometimes that he was put in a position where both sides would be unhappy by not getting everything they want. When you're in that position, the way you know you're doing a good job is having both sides feel you're being better to the other side. With that the case, he maintained the position and got respect from both sides. He's very well liked, respected by everyone. It's even gotten to where I feel he is the WSOP in a sense, the liaison between players and Harrah's."
Speculation among insiders is suggesting that last sentiment may be a troubling one. There are those who are asking whether Pollack -- who'd often spoken of reigning for decades -- was forced out of his office in the face of troubling bottom lines on the strip. Also, to his credit, Pollack's individual brand growth may have been uncomfortable for others under the Harrah's umbrella.
"We appreciate Jeffrey's contributions over the past four years and wish him the best in the future," said WSOP spokesperson Seth Palansky. "The World Series of Poker remains the market leader with this year's tournament exceeding all expectations, and we are well positioned for the future. There is no intention at this time to replace the commissioner role."
"This has all been very amicable," Pollack said when asked if he was forced out. "I'm very happy with my decision."
Always the diplomat.
Questions surrounding Pollack's and the WSOP's futures abound. Harrah's 2008 hiring of former PartyGaming CEO Mitch Garber may hold some of the clues, even if the actual commissioner's role won't be filled, since the buck must eventually stop somewhere. There are those, like Negreanu and Mike Sexton, who are confident that life will go on, with Pollack's team and his changes still in place. Others like Hellmuth and Greenstein fear for the future, or at least fear the unknown. Whether the next man in line will keep the players' needs in mind while looking out for the company's best interests is a question that won't be answered for months.
Pollack's future may be even cloudier than WSOP's.
"I'm going to take a moment to pause and reflect, then will think things through and make some decisions," said Pollack, who just turned 45. "I'm not one to sit on the sidelines for long, but I'll take the opportunity to take a breath and make a good decision about what happens next. The worlds that I come from are communications, media, sports entertainment and now, poker. Whether I focus on one of those going forward or a combination going forward I haven't decided yet. I don't know."
"I'm very appreciative of a couple of things," Pollack added. "For the opportunity Harrah's has afforded me these last four years. The company gave me a chance to do what I've done and for that I'm very grateful. [Harrah's CEO and president] Gary Loveman deserves a lot of the credit for that. I'm also very grateful to the poker community and WSOP nation for allowing me to step into their world. Folks did not have to take a chance on me or accept me but they did. I know I've had my detractors, but that comes with the territory. Anyone who leads in an organization like this will be subject to criticism, but in balance, people opened themselves up to my involvement in this very special community. I'll always be grateful to them for that. I will always be a fan and a friend to the poker community.
"I now may have the time to work on my game. I would not rule out my entering Ante Up for Africa or the main event next year or some time in the future."
Maybe when he's done playing those events, he'll be ready to get back to work. It says here that perhaps a conference call with Hellmuth, Greenstein and Howard Lederer would be in order. After Hellmuth's comments at the WSOP Europe, perhaps their hypothetical event could use a commissioner.
For now, Jeffrey, the poker world has only one more thing to say: Thank you.
Gary Wise is a poker columnist for ESPN.com.