There are some members of the old guard -- Tom McEvoy comes to mind -- who will tell you that the attention paid in the poker world to younger, less-established players with the good fortune to have been blessed with charisma is unfair. After all, these "poker entertainers" haven't paid their dues. They haven't paid their toll of 50,000 hours at the table or shared their wisdom in books or done what they could to promote the game for a quarter-century. At least McEvoy, as a former world champion, still gets his occasional knockout hand broadcast on ESPN.
Some guys can only dream of seeing their knockout hands despite paying those dues and giving back to the game and both playing and approaching the game in the right way. Blair Rodman is one of those guys -- a true pro and a poker author. Rodman, along with fellow lifer Lee Nelson, was the author of "Kill Phil," a book that ESPN.com's own Andrew Feldman said "changed the poker world forever." He owns a WSOP bracelet, has twice been to World Poker Tour final tables and has for 25 years been one of the most successful all-around gamblers in the world. Thing is, he understands that in itself wasn't enough for stardom.
"I understand poker television is an entertainment business and the demographic is young," said the 55-year-old Rodman. "I'm not an entertainer, that's not my personality. Do I understand it? Yes. Do I think it's fair? Not really. Would I like to be different? I guess so. I screwed up by not playing every tournament and not getting an agent [when poker exploded in 2003], but that's not my thing, though. I'm not willing to act out in front of the camera to get more time. It's not my personality and not what I want. I struggled with the specter of whether I want to be famous. It's nice to be known. It's kind of an interesting scenario where all these guys I've played with for years were nobodies and now they're superstars, I don't know."
Rodman will finally be getting some much-deserved camera time Tuesday night at 9:00 p.m. on ESPN's broadcast of the 2009 WSOP main event.
Part of Rodman's decision to not rush to embrace stardom when the opportunity came half a decade ago may stem from his ability to make money in gambling without the benefits of sponsorship.
"He's the best gambler nobody knows," said Anthony Curtis, himself a gambling expert who has served as running mate, friend and publisher among other capacities for Rodman over the years. "He's been here a long time. He's done a lot of good, positive things in gambling. He's known for poker, but as all-advantage guys go, there aren't many better."
Rodman got his start in poker as a kid in his hometown of Troy, N.Y., where he lived until he completed college.
"I had $400 in my pocket," Rodman remembered. "I threw everything in my car and started driving. I didn't know for certain where I was going, but in the back of my mind was Las Vegas. At the time I didn't know much about advantage play. I got a great education once I got here. I thought I could make my living playing craps and lost almost all of my money. I was overwhelmed by the town. Coming to Vegas was more than I could handle."
His money all but gone, the young Rodman moved on to California for four years before returning to take on the town a second time.
"I matured a little bit," he said. "I took some real jobs, was reading and studying about Vegas. The first time I saw the World Series of Poker was 1977. I started salivating, thinking 'This is cool.' I remember sitting at the baccarat table at the Horseshoe and watching them shuffle $100 chips and that became my goal, to shuffle $100 chips like they didn't mean anything."
Slowly, the dream started becoming the reality. Rodman took work as a craps dealer and learned from his environment and hard study.
"About a year after I'd been playing in the stud games, a friend introduced me to hold 'em. I was like 'Wow, I really like this game!' I would work during the day and then go to the Bingo Palace [since renamed Palace Station] and I'd play all night with the prop players. Tough games, but I learned fast. I read and studied a lot. I must have read 'Theory of Hold' em' 20 times before I had that 'aha moment.' That's when I finally considered myself a poker player."
Poker wasn't the only gamble that was paying off. Rodman did well in blackjack and sports betting, the latter of which took up the majority of his attention through the '90s. When the group he worked with disbanded in 1998, Rodman rededicated himself to poker.
"Poker went crazy, so I really focused on my game. I'd always been a cash game player, but I made the decision to focus on tournaments, one thing only. They're different disciplines and I felt I had to really focus my energy on one, so I stopped playing cash games."
The result has been remarkable consistency that's allowed Rodman to cash at least three times in every WSOP since 2004. In a game whose face is constantly changing, he's been able to adjust to the times and the players who define them. That's why he was such a suitable choice for 'Kill Phil,' a book that found its niche by teaching inexperienced players the best way to compete with the best in the world.
"You can play against the best players in the world, shove and they're on a decision for all of their chips," Rodman explained about the book's primary message. "For the beginning player, it's an effective way to stay competitive."
"I always wanted to be a writer," he continued. "I used to write reports after every tournament. Anthony called and said Lee Nelson wanted to write a book around '03. I put them in touch with the bigger names, but they all had other commitments. I'd spent a lot of time talking to Lee in the mean time and he asked, 'Why don't you do it?' so we did. It's more or less a book about no-limit hold 'em tournaments for the beginner in which we teach them how to move over the top and then teach them the little things later. Most people who learn the little things first get their brains beat in and quit."
Nurturing the provider is a key tenant of Rodman's approach to poker. While generally speaking in glowing terms about poker's new generation, he makes a valid point about one mistake they're making in this regard.
"I think they've been great for poker in a lot of ways, but I think a lot of these kids don't understand that the hoodie, sunglasses and iPod is bad for poker," he said. "The No. 1 job of a pro is to take care of the producers, keep them coming back. These kids not only don't do that, but they speak derisively and drive them away. That doesn't build the sport."
Now, Rodman is continuing to do his part to build as he continues work on another book.
"I always thought I had another poker book in me," said Rodman. "Not strategy, but my life in the poker world. I started keeping voice-recorded notes throughout the main event and tell people what it's really like to be a poker player. People see the stuff on TV, but don't really understand what it is to be a real poker player. Most people don't understand that the pros have all been playing every single day for weeks before the main event, that it's a real war of attrition, so I just wanted to build a story around this year and my experience in the WSOP."
In part, the new book is an effort to get back on the map. "I'm kind of a forgotten guy and I understand that. I wish I could have played every tournament like a lot of these guys. I didn't play a single tournament between the '08 and '09 WSOP, but my tournament record is really good. Without a sponsor, you can't really hop on that merry-go-round, so I need to find a sponsor. Part of this book is getting me back on the merry-go-round."
On Tuesday, you'll get a preview of Rodman's new book. More than that, though, you'll get to see a true professional ply his trade at the poker table. If you don't know who he is, that just means you haven't been paying enough attention to a guy who is obviously deserving of that kind of respect. Be sure to fix that Tuesday night.
Gary Wise is a poker columnist for ESPN.com.