My father was usually the first to greet me at the door during visits home from college. One fateful summer day in 2002, I received no such greeting. It was a day that would alter the course of my existence for years to come.
I was 20, entering my senior year at Westminster College; a small private school nestled in the heart of Amish country, in Western Pennsylvania. A routine, ordinary visit, I walked into the house and found my father stationed behind our family computer; his eyes glued to the screen. I dropped my bags and exchanged hugs with my mother and sister before joining my old man behind our now-extinct Gateway 2000 desktop computer.
He was playing a card game.
“What’s all this?” I asked.
“Poker,” he said. “Texas.” My dad has a habit of dropping the “hold’em” from Texas Hold’em.
“On the Internet?”
“Against real people?”
Intoxicated by the sights and sounds of animated chips and cards moving across a digital green felt, I pulled up a chair beside him. That’s all it took.
My passion for poker quickly evolved into obsession. I read every book I could get my hands on. I became a regular in my father’s Thursday night home game, held in a back room of our local Elks Lodge, and started four-tabling $200 Sit & Go’s on PokerStars with some guy called ‘ElkY’.
I breezed through the rest of college on cruise control, shelving Shakespeare for Super System. In December 2003, I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. Six months later I packed my life into a 1999 Honda Accord and drove cross-country to Vegas; no cellphone, no money and no idea what I was getting myself into.
I spent the next three years grinding part-time jobs and low-limit NLH cash games around Las Vegas, buried in bills, often struggling to pay the rent. Playing poker for a living was hard.
Things took an unexpected turn during the summer of 2006. I met a guy named Gary Wise playing a $2-5 NLH cash game at the Rio during the World Series of Poker. Gary was ESPN’s feature poker writer and had just launched his own affiliate site, “Wise Hand Poker.” Gary needed writers who knew poker. How perfect.
I started cranking out basic strategy articles for a whopping $25 a pop (many of which you can still find in the catacombs of the Internet if you dig deep enough). A handful of three-figure paychecks later, I finally got my big break: I was to interview Daniel Negreanu in Bobby’s Room at the Bellagio about Harrah’s’ newly formed WSOP “Player’s Advisory Council.” I was over the moon.
Meeting Daniel for the first time was surreal. I extended a hand when he walked into Bobby’s Room. He countered with a closed fist.
“Nah, son – we pound it here,” he said with a smile. “You ever use the men’s room in a casino? None of these fools wash their hands. Gotta play defense.” Advice I still cling to.
I was a nervous wreck. I fumbled my way through the interview, which couldn’t have lasted longer than ten minutes, but felt like ten hours.
The article was accepted for publication and featured in the 2007 Official Program of the World Series of Poker, spawning what I consider to be the start of my career in the poker industry.
(And yes, that’s Robert Williamson’s autograph. I was a legit super fan.)
A decade later, I find myself in one of those fateful, full-circle moments life has a funny way of doling out.
For the large majority of you seeing my name for the first time, I’ve spent the better part of the past ten years working as a consultant for the PokerStars Live Events team. I’ve worn many hats, from Media Coordinator to VIP Player Liaison to Business Development Manager. Before that, I helped lead PokerNews’ Live Reporting Team through its first few summers as the exclusive live-update provider of the WSOP.
I write to you now, donning a new hat: Senior Consultant of Player Affairs for PokerStars Live.
In my new post, I plan to serve as your voice from within; a dedicated channel to ensure your feedback, ideas, complaints and criticisms are transmitted throughout PokerStars and delivered loud and clear. I’ll work hand-in-hand with you, the players, and in turn with departments across the company to explore opportunities to leverage improved communication and a stronger relationship with players to sharpen our vision for the future as we turn this corner together.
I work alongside an incredible team of people at PokerStars; most of whom, like me, have their own poker stories to tell. These are people who take immense pride in their work; people who proudly contributed to dealing more than 100,000,000,000 hands online, while helping deliver thousands of winning moments at live events around the world. As a team, we’ve proudly carried the torch as a standard bearer for the industry; a charge that no doubt effectuates as many highs as it does trials and travails.
The poker world is constantly evolving, and therefore so too must the operators within the space. As evidenced by the crescendo of impassioned players speaking out on social media, in forums, in surveys and in emails, we’d be remiss not to acknowledge the fractured relationship endured by some of our players. I view this new role as an opportunity to help bridge that gap. As a company, we can and should be putting more effort into ensuring the experience we provide is in harmony with players’ expectations. I hope that’s something we can all agree on.
On May 1st, during PokerStars Championship Monte Carlo, operating in my new capacity for the first time, I organized an open-forum, round-table discussion session, offering a group of players (pros and amateurs alike) an audience with senior executives from the business – a Player’s Advisory Council if you will. There’s your full-circle moment. Daniel Negreanu was there too.
During our session in Monaco, no topic was off limits. Our conversations were both passionate and constructive. The players who volunteered their time and energy to participate are undeniably invested in the best interest of the game and served as tremendous representatives of the poker community. I believe it was a productive step in the right direction.
Before accepting this new role and responsibility, I sought assurances from the executive team that I would be provided with the necessary resources and support to carry out these duties authentically. I promise you, I wouldn’t be writing this now if I didn’t feel confident in their commitment. Will we be able to action every new idea, every complaint, or every request? Of course not. But getting better aligned with our customers can only lead to a better situation for everyone. Here’s a prime example:
Last August, prior to EPT Barcelona, PokerStars Live announced its tours would be moving to a 20% prizepool and payout model, effective immediately. We believed this change would be good for the game, providing more winning moments to a greater number of people. The decision was met with significant fervor, proving unpopular with many.
In Monaco, we dissected this topic with Player’s Council participants rather extensively. The result: Unanimous support for a 15% model. As well, returns from a major survey issued to anyone who played a PokerStars Live event in 2016 reaffirmed the council’s position, revealing widespread support for a return to the 15% model. More than 80% of survey respondents indicated a preference for top-heavy payouts.
No question about it, the players have spoken. As a result, effective immediately, all PokerStars Live events will utilize a 15% distribution model, starting with PokerStars Festival Chile and PokerStars Championship Sochi later this month.
I am beyond optimistic that this will be the first of many victories resulting from a closer working relationship with you, our players. We are also working on some exciting new qualifying options for future live events, creating more opportunities for our online player base to access the live event realm and experience the brand in 3d.
So what’s next? Our team left Monaco very encouraged by the outcome of our first Player’s Advisory Council. As a result, we plan to host as many as four sessions annually at future Championship stops; the next being PSC Barcelona in August. If you’d like to participate, please drop me a note at the email address below.
While our first Player’s Advisory Council session debuted with the intention of servicing PokerStars Live events, we acknowledge the fact that live events and online poker are not mutually exclusive. With that in mind, we’ve offered Severin Rasset, the group’s Director of Poker Innovation and Operations, a permanent seat at the table at all future Player’s Advisory Council meetings. Recognizing the importance of improving the quality of our dialogue with players, Severin has also committed to hosting additional sessions at future live events, dedicated solely to all things online.
In this new role, my travel schedule just got a whole lot busier, so if you see me out on tour, please introduce yourself! I pledge to keep a clear and open line of communication with all of you, as we begin to write the next chapter of PokerStars Live events together. In the meantime, please keep an eye on this space. I plan to use this platform to continue our dialogue as we work towards bridging the gap.
My father and I often reminisce about our old Thursday night home games, the early days of online poker, and what I’d be doing with my life today, had he not been glued to a computer screen one unsuspecting summer day, 15 years ago.
Friends say I might’ve made a decent lawyer. Me? I’m just glad my old man discovered Texas.
Garry Gates is Senior Consultant of Player Affairs for PokerStars Live and can be contacted on Twitter @GarryGates, or by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org