Ripples: Taking the PokerStars Blog to points unknown
This week, we are celebrating the tenth anniversary of the PokerStars Blog with a series of articles looking back on the blog's history and the people who make it what it has become.
On a pleasant day not too many years ago, we deplaned in Buenos Aires and found a kindly man with our names on a whiteboard. We'd been traveling for some 20 hours, and Kristin Bihr and I were both in need of a shower and a nap. The driver led us to his car and pointed the headlights toward Rosario. Our understanding was that we had another 180 miles to travel to the casino town. It would take a few hours, but it was a straight shot down the highway. We both dozed in the backseat as the drive began.
Before long, the car stopped. We opened our eyes to find ourselves stopped on the highway, blocked by a workers' rights protest. The driver paused long enough for us to dread how much longer we'd be waiting but not long enough for us to predict what he would do next.
He turned the wheel to the right, exited the highway, pulled into the grass, and steered the car down a steep embankment where he eventually landed on a side road. There was an explanation, but not one we could translate. Before too long, we were in the middle of the kind of poverty you don't see in many places, driving through towns with streets that might have been paved sometime around the beginning of the Cold War. Dogs ran in the mud, chasing homeless men with carts covered in the scraps of whatever the butcher had thrown out that day (I wrote further about the experience here in an article called Dogs at Large). Still, we remained confident we were headed toward Rosario, a confidence that waned when the driver pulled over to ask a child in the street which turn he should take.
I don't know how long it took us to make it to Rosario, but when we got there, it wasn't long before the protestors arrived, too.
"Go to Buenos Aires. There are two protests a day," said one of my Latin American friends.
An American traveling the same route I did asked, "How long are they going to stay there?"
The answer: "They put up inflatable jump-houses for their kids beside the road."
Martin Sansour won that event for more than $300,000. It was the last time we reported from Argentina and just one of countless adventures brought on by our quest to cover poker around the globe. By our count, over the past ten years, we've been to 43 countries on five continents. Like the spread of the game itself, our reporting over the past decade has spread out like ripples in a pond and taken us to places we'd never thought we'd be.
The mission has been simple, at least in its literal terms: if there is a PokerStars event to be covered, we'll be there.
That doesn't mean it's always been easy.
Our reporting teams range anywhere from a single reporter/photographer team on a regional tour to a team of ten or more for an event like the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. In any given week, I'm booking thousands of dollars worth of flights, hotel rooms, and airport transfers for our reporting teams. Within the span of a few days, we can have one team reporting from New Zealand, another in Nottingham, and another in Rozvadov. The action never stops, nor do any of our hard-working reporters and photographers. They work long days and hard nights in places where they often don't speak the local language or have any familiarity with the local customs. Even if poker is the world's game, clashes are inevitable.
In 2011, the European Poker Tour went to Loutraki, a Greek seaside resort. It was the first time the tour had been there, and there was none of the streaming live coverage poker fans have come to love.
Reporter Marc Convey remembers, "There were no TV or webcast teams to record the action, so the onus was on us to get across what was happening as best as possible. Play got down to three-handed between eventual champion Zimnan Ziyard, Hauke Heseding, and Joannis Taramas when things got interesting."
Ziyard was the chip leader and had a lot of online experience. Instead of hanging around and waiting for the short-stacked Taramas to bust out, he went on the offensive, attacking Heseding, making moves that ended up benefiting Taramas.
"Heseding's friends on the rail weren't happy with the tactics," Convey said. "German media - in the privacy of the press room - were mildly outraged, and the Greek media present were confused but grateful that their local hero was seemingly being gifted chips by his British opponent."
Ziyard went on to win the event and avoid an international incident. It was the kind of story that might have otherwise gone unreported but for the hard work of the team on the ground.
"Rick Dacey, Howard Swains, and myself were able to see that Ziyard was bringing his online game to the live arena, employing an ICM strategy to the situation that he found himself in, and we managed to get this across in the blog," Convey said. "We'd never seen that style employed so brutally in the closing stages on an EPT before, and we reveled in it."
For the first couple of years of the PokerStars Blog, readers from around the world were forced to read in the only language I could write. Before long, we realized English wasn't enough. We needed to serve more than people who could read in English. Over the next several years, we established regional blogs in countries around the world. Since then, we have published in French, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Greek, Portuguese, Dutch, German, Japanese, Chinese, and Russian. We've also created speciality blogs for Brazil, Belgium, and everyone in Latin America who speak a different Spanish dialect. Doing so has introduced us to whole new worlds.
Lina Olofsson was among the first people we hired. She knew the Nordic poker scene and players like nobody else. She spoke a language we dubbed "Hurdy Gurdy," the same one spoken by a group of young players who would take over the poker world. Like many of the other regional bloggers who we worked with, Olofsson was able to get inside big stories we could not. One of those happened during the first €25,000 High Roller in Monte Carlo.
Someone going by the name Isildur1 had been running roughshod over the nosebleed stakes online games. Many people rightly assumed Isildur1 was a young man named Viktor Blom, but no one had confirmed it yet. The irrepressible and often vengeful Tony G had done his best, inviting Blom to play on Tony G's own TV show in disguise. Blom had agreed to do so, but then backed out at the last moment. That's not the kind of thing you do to Tony G.
Shortly thereafter, Fate, being the funny little trickster she is, put Blom and Tony G together at that EPT €25,000 High Roller table.
"I stood there just waiting for Tony's revenge. I've seen him so many times tilting his opponents, and I knew he was just waiting for the right moment," Olofsson said. "It took more than an hour, but I stayed to get the perfect story, and finally there it was: Tony made a comment on Viktor's play, and Viktor totally blew up. The more frustrated he got, the more Tony G showed his skills of getting his opponent out of control. Viktor was flushed, and Tony's acting paid off. He took almost all of Viktor's chips."
Olofsson is just one of many people who have taken the mission of the PokerStars Blog and applied it to their home regions. From Sergio Prado in Brazil to Sergio Lopes in Portugal, from Reinaldo Venegas in Latin America to Jorge Iglesias in Spain, from Victor Saumont in France to Andrey Maksin in Russia, from Jenn Barr in Japan to Iacopo Bernardini in Italy, from Robin Scherr in Germany to Gaelle Garcia Diaz in Belgium, to all the other folks who have signed on with us over the years, we owe our thanks for what you have taught us.
"I've learned so much and have had the chance to work with the best in this industry," Lina Olofsson said. "The bloggers and photographers PokerStars picks are truly amazing--every single one--and to be honest, I had to count on my fingers twice because the time has gone by so quickly I lost track and couldn't believe I'm on my eighth year doing this."
This retrospective could go on forever, because the number of life-changing experiences we have had as bloggers is uncountable. Our travels and the life we were offered by our friends in other countries was a better education than we ever could've bought at a university. My friend and colleague Kristin Bihr put it best.
"Until I started traveling on the LAPT, the most raucous rail I'd ever witnessed was the one for Jake Cody's first WSOP bracelet win. The decibel level in the Amazon Room was off the charts. Grown men were drinking beer out of their shoes, for Christ's sake," she said. "Then I went to Brazil. A Brazilian rail is like an indoor World Cup match, whether a marquee player like Akkari is at the final table, or it's eight guys you've never heard of. At this point in the game's evolution, American players are, frankly, a bunch of jaded tankers with few exceptions. Watching Brazilians embrace poker brought me back to the pure joy of the game and reminded me why we play in the first place."
Our team has had too many experiences to list here. With that understood, there is one I shared with onetime PokerStars Blog reporter Dave Behr that changed us in a way we're both still struggling to explain. Our longtime online reporter (who read about it from home) David Aydt described reading our reports from that night like this: "There was one time when I wished Elon Musk or Stephen Hawking would invent a way to climb into a webpage and end up in the location of the live tournament story."
Behr and I had traveled to Sao Paulo to cover the LAPT Main Event there, one that coincided with Carnival season. We didn't rank high enough to get seats with the bigwigs in the Carnival stadium. Our man in Brazil, Sergio Prado, did his best to keep us entertained.
"We might find one place open in Vila Madalena," he said.
We trudged along, expecting exactly nothing. What we got was better than anything we would've ever found in the high-dollar Sambodromo. We went to a place that served the best of food in the best of atmospheres. When the meal was finished, I looked out the open window, and something remarkable was happening. Behr immediately ran down to the street. The next morning, I wrote, "We looked closer and realized it wasn't a riot. It wasn't a protest. It was one of the greatest things we had ever seen."
When we woke up the next day, we ignored the throbbing in our heads and gurgling in our guts. We agreed, no matter what happened with the poker in the next eight hours, we would tell the story of what had happened the night before. The result was these two stories.
The best thing I've ever seen on this tour (by...well, me)
We didn't write those stories because they had anything to do with the poker tournament. We didn't write them as vanity pieces we could post on Facebook. We wrote them because they were the most unique things we had seen in recent memory, and they deserved to be recorded.
When the PokerStars Blog began on April 24, 2005 it was more of an experiment than it was a mission. Since then, dozens of people have had a hand in what it has become. It started as a news site for what was then the #2 online poker site in the world. Since then, it has become so much more.
It's easy as someone who has lived every day of it to slip into hyperbole about this little site's importance. I don't deny that. We write about PokerStars. That's our job.
Still, when I see how far our initial efforts have rippled, I can't help but think we have something special here--something that transcends simple poker reporting, something that speaks to the importance of the worldwide appeal of the game we all love. It's something I can't help but hope continues to ripple for years to come.
Yes, we have been to five continents, but we're still missing Africa and Antarctica.
Even so, know this: when the call comes from Johannesburg or the South Pole, we have a go-bag ready.
Thanks for reading all these years. If you'd like to play in the April 22th 6:00 ET PokerStars Blog 10th Anniversary freeroll, you can find it by searching "Blog" in the PokerStars lobby. The password is entertaining.
Brad Willis is the PokerStars Head of Blogging