PCA 2014: Daniel Negreanu and Andre Akkari are The Business
Each of the four Team Pro breakfast Q&As this week has been packed with invaluable insight. But there was a moment during the final gathering on Friday at which audience ears pricked more dramatically than at any other time.
Andre Akkari, the Team PokerStars Pro from Brazil, had the microphone and was describing how his social media profile in his poker-mad home country has managed to boost his bankroll.
"Every month I can make between $7,000 to $10,000 without even playing a hand of poker," he said (slight paraphrasing). "If you look after your fans, if you tweet, and use Facebook and YouTube, you are still making money -- $10,000 a month, without playing."
Pastries were duly placed back on plates, coffee cups downed and asses moved to the edge of comfy seats.
The subject under discussion was the business of poker, ie, everything that happens away from the tables. The star attractions were Daniel Negreanu and the aforementioned Akkari, two men who have managed more than any others to translate poker celebrity into a sustainable, ongoing, business concern.
Akkari has been at the very centre of an extraordinary poker boom in Brazil over the past five years, fanning the flames himself with his World Series bracelet win in 2011. He now has a network of poker schools, is offered endorsement deals with companies selling everything from telecommunications contracts to sportswear, and regularly stands shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Neymar, the Barcelona and Brazil striker, and Junior dos Santos, the former UFC world heavyweight champion--ie, mainstream sporting celebrities.
Akkari also has the same agent in Brazil as Ronaldo, the three-time Fifa World Footballer of the Year, and it is those marketing wizards who have managed to translate Akkari's peerless standing in Brazilian poker into cold, hard cash.
Akkari is polite, personable and tireless in his promotion of poker; his home game on PokerStars, known as Akkari's Bar, attracts 20,000 players each week. There are people one can employ to monetize these commodities, and Akkari was unequivocal in his advice. Young players should behave properly, manage their bankrolls sensibly and realise that poker offers as many chances for profit off the felt as it does on it.
Pulling together to promote poker can benefit everyone.
"Poker players so far haven't realised that there are a lot of opportunities for them," Akkari said. "They just want to play a $100,000 tournament or a $25K, $10K tournament. They don't realise that they are representing something. There are a lot of people following them. They can make this a business. They can make a lot of money doing this."
"Brand Negreanu" has been a market leader for decades. Even before the era of either televised or online poker, Negreanu was a regular contributor to the first poker magazines and forums, laying down a marker that would later pay rich dividends.
"Most of my peers weren't doing that," Negreanu said. "I just did it because I enjoyed it. I don't really think about it very much. I just do. I am just me. I have been myself in this industry for a long time and I do things that make sense, to communicate with fans, with people.
"I saw a very long time ago, before poker got big, that television would create an interest and that poker audiences would appreciate the game."
The line for autographs is always longest at Negreanu's table when Team Pros do their meet-and-greets, and his walk down the corridors of the Atlantis Resort or the Rio in Las Vegas takes longer than anybody else's. Fans want photos and Negreanu will always oblige.
It's an enormous part of the reason why Negreanu's bank manager is also significantly happier than many poker players', and why he is the first name on the wanted-list for magazine editors, television producers and other potentially money-spinning ventures.
Even so, the crossover into the mainstream in North America lags somewhat behind the full-on embrace received in Brazil by Akkari. Legislation for online poker remains uncertain, of course, and, at time of writing, poker is still mostly considered to be gambling in the US, whereas in Brazil it is accepted as a "mind sport".
"It's difficult to break into the mainstream and the mainstream isn't necessarily ready yet for a poker player to be advertising a hedge fund or something," Negreanu said. "I think that that's building a bit, the idea of a poker player representing a company. You might see a bit more of that."
The question of how to move poker into the legitimate mainstream, replete with full corporate sponsorship, dominated much of the questioning in the session. Lee Jones, Head of Poker Communications for PokerStars, compered the Q&A and addressed some of the fascinating issues arising in his most recent Blog post.
The discussion touched on issues relating to a dress code in the game, and what Negreanu described as "the paradox of poker", a pursuit to which many players are attracted for the complete freedom it offers them, but which is governed by an ever-lengthening list of directives.
There was, ultimately, a neat quorum reached between both professionals and their audience.
"In my opinion, what makes a mind sport big is fun," Akkari said.
Negreanu concurred. "In terms of how the game is perceived, I'm always a proponent of what's brought people to the game is fun. It's not seriousness. When you play sports sometimes, it can get serious. But poker is fun."
Our coverage of the 2014 PCA is comprehensive on PokerStars Blog, and it is simple to follow. The PCA 2014 Main Event page has a box at the top in which you'll find hand-by-hand coverage and chip counts after the action commences at noon. Below that are feature pieces, interviews and analysis updated throughout the day. The same applies for the $25,000 High Roller event, in which Akkari and Negreanu both play. You can also follow the action on PCA Live.