By: Wendeen H. Eolis
Phil Ivey Signs on For the Big One
Phil Ivey the most worshipped poker star will take a seat in the upcoming million dollar buy-in tournament at the 43rd Annual World Series of Poker that is now well underway at the Rio All Suites Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. No longer battling with his Full Tilt alma mater, far from the embrace of Isai Scheinberg and PokerStars when outside the US, and oblivious to the short–lived Epic Poker League, Ivey is back in his element after a two year sabbatical at the richest and most prestigious poker tournament in the world.
Come June 30th, Ivey will be the brightest poker star in a stunning galaxy of millionaires and billionaires that will take their seats in the biggest poker rumble of all time: the WSOP’s Big One for One Drop. The WSOP team is pulling out all the stops to insure that the media, the public and the rarified roster of players coming out to support this charity–minded battle royal will remember it fondly.
Meanwhile the WSOP staff is doing the traditional daily count down to the end of the tournament, and thousands of less flush poker pilgrims are gearing up for the grueling hours it takes for the best tournament players to reach the money in the lowly $10,000 buy-in main event, that used to be “The Big One” until Harrah’s picked up the WSOP and moved the needle to include a regularly scheduled $50,000 “Players Championship.”
High Stakes Poker Player Guy Laliberte Dropped $35 Million to Push One Drop
One Drop is the brainchild of Guy Laliberté, the internationally recognized founder of Cirque du Soleil and high stakes poker player who anted up bigger bucks than our everyday millionaires can afford to spend on a little fun. In 2009 Laliberte got himself a ticket for a ride to the International Space Station and hung out up there in large measure to publicize his One Drop charity. Now, here on earth he is flying high, calling on people of extraordinary means to take a seat in the biggest poker game to hit Las Vegas-ever: The Big One for One Drop at the WSOP. The growing confection is in the management hands of the WSOP team led by Mitch Garber, CEO of Caesars Interactive Entertainment (CIE). Garber became a newly minted member of the One Drop Board of Directors last March.
With a $1 million entry fee, The Big One is predicted to eclipse the largest payout ever previously made for a single poker event anywhere in the world; Jamie Gold’s 2006 1st place ticket in the main event was worth $12 million. A chunky 11.11% of the prize pool for The Big One will go toward aiding an impoverished population of nearly one billion people worldwide who thirst endlessly for clean drinkable water.
WSOP Head Honcho Consummates Big One on PokerStars Turf
The deal for The Big One started, in earnest, in October 2011 during a hockey game attended by Laliberté and Garber, friends and fellow French Canadians. The brainstorming sessions proceeded smoothly during the fall. The most notable complaint was Laliberté’s assertion that the WSOP’s executive director, Ty Stewart was way too conservative. At the end of one of their meetings, the wickedly humorous Laliberté made off with Stewart’s tie, telling him to forget it next time. Stewart obliged. (Recently, Stewart went one better. For the 2012 WSOP employee event, Stewart showed up appropriately scruffy and in typical poker player garb—and cashed).
Shortly after New Year’s Day 2011, the WSOP contingent, led by Garber, teed up the final talking points on his private plane (known affectionately by would be hitchhikers as Air Garber) en route to the Bahamas. They were ready to bring on the full-court press and tie the knot with Laliberté on Paradise Island.
Before swooping in on their target, the WSOP’s Ty Stewart sent a courtesy message to a Poker Stars live event manager, alerting him to their impending arrival in the Bahamas—smack dab during PokerStars’ Caribbean Adventure. The PCA is nothing less than PokerStars’ annual flagship live event in North America. The Garber troops then took off for their appointment at Laliberté’s villa―where all manner of high stakes players in business, politics and poker have been known to congregate.
PokerStars Made No Plans to Entertain WSOP Team
A stone’s throw away from Laliberte’s compound PokerStars founder and patriarch, Isai Scheinberg, was shuttling from meeting to meeting inside the Atlantis Hotel planning deals to burnish the PokerStars brand and expand the Company’s stake in North America.
Fit and trimmer than ever, Scheinberg was strutting his stuff a tad less modestly than was his usual style. He chatted up movers and shakers about the prospects of federal legislation to legalize online poker as just around the corner. He showed no apparent concern for hidden curves on the path, or of a doomsday scenario for online poker in America. And despite the upcoming arrival of the Caesars team, for reasons unknown, Scheinberg’s thoughts about the WSOP seemed to be focused only on how to give that organization a run for its money in America—soon. He declined to post any welcome signs for Garber and his entourage.
It didn’t take long for the two titans to cross paths. Just as Garber and Stewart were preparing to sit down for breakfast at the most lavish breakfast room in the Atlantis, they bumped into Isai Scheinberg with his son Mark Scheinberg, CEO of PokerStars. They all stopped in their tracks agreeing to have coffee, Scheinberg and Garber both told me.
According to Garber, the rendezvous was not only unplanned, it was not anticipated. Garber reported the conversation as cordial, mostly about the lobbying efforts and the lobbyists pushing the one common denominator between them federally-based online poker legislation. Garber notes, "The whole conversation was over in less than a half hour and everyone went on their way." While it is generally believed among knowledgeable lawyers who keep tabs on them that there has been no love lost between the two titans before or since that personal meeting, Garber says, semi-diplomatically, "They have not competed on a level playing field since 2006, but PokerStars clearly understands poker."
AGA Chairman A lot Less Diplomatic than WSOP on PokerStars Operations
Frank Fahrenkopf, Chairman of the American Gaming Association, has been far less diplomatic than Garber when speaking about Isai Scheinberg and Poker Stars. This past spring in an astonishingly candid and scathing audio/video interview with Marco Valerio of QuadJacks Poker Radio, Fahrenkopf called out PokerStars as arrogant about violating US law, dismissive of the potential consequences as strictly a matter of paying some fines and inaccurate in their announcement, just before Black Friday of an “agreement” with Wynn to work together. Fahrenkopf claimed that in a conversation with Steve Wynn, he learned there were discussions, but no agreement had been reached.
Isai Scheinberg Might Prove to be Plenty Shrewd
Recent word in legal circles around the US Attorney’s Office in Manhattan is that Scheinberg’s criminal case is not going to trial, suggesting that a global resolution has in fact been reached. PokerStars’ deal to acquire Full Tilt Poker (FTP) under its umbrella is almost old news, but for confirmation by the parties directly involved. Insiders say, however, that Poker Stars is not quite ready to re-launch, among other reasons there is no useful purpose served in allowing FTP customers to process cash outs for use at the WSOP.
Neither Garber nor any of his Caesars colleagues are prepared to guess as to the prospects of Scheinberg cutting a deal that averts prison time. But since Black Friday, they certainly have distanced themselves from offshore online poker operators who continued to operate in the United States, after the passage of a federal law in 2006, that was designed to ban online poker bets in America.
Garber is a Man in Control
Generally, Garber’s style is open and more forthcoming than many high-level executives who take more pride in being secretive than in being straightforward. Garber wears well, be it jeans with an open collared shirt and a sport jacket or perfectly fitted finely threaded custom suits. His physical build and dress-for-success strategy are reminiscent of Caesars’ former WSOP Commissioner, Jeffrey Pollack, who briefly enjoyed the title of President of CIE when Garber was “sworn in” as the newly formed company’s CEO in 2009. The resemblance between these two men, however, ends right there.
After Leaving the WSOP, Pollack Rises and Then Falls on Hard Times
Under Jeffrey Pollack, the WSOP began its transformation from the single most important poker tournament of the year to an internationally branded series of events worthy of a ten-year long contract with ESPN for televised coverage of its high jinx happenings. Pollack was front and center in this effort, promoting his image and his vaunted role as the WSOP Commissioner as studiously as the WSOP itself. Along with the rise of poker’s popularity, Pollack became the face of the WSOP. Some within the Caesars family insist that Stewart was the more productive marketing man between the two.
In the years leading up to Garber’s reign over the WSOP, there can be no argument; the tournament saw a huge surge in popularity under Pollack’s stewardship. Pollack took the role of Commissioner with him when he left Caesars, bequeathing it to his new business partner Annie Duke for her oversight role of Federated Sports + Gaming’s (FS+G) Epic Poker League.
Caesars-EPIC—Pinnacle: One Degree of Separation Among Them
Since Jeffrey Pollack’s departure from Caesars and his creation of the controversial Epic Poker League which went into bankruptcy there have been no shortage of darts thrown back and forth, behind the scenes. Last week, one of Epics biggest creditors, Pinnacle Entertainment, acquired FS +G’s most valuable asset, the Heartland Poker Tour, along with the far lesser valued remnants of the Epic Poker League and the Global Poker Index. A growing gaming company with visions of expanding into the online poker gaming space, Pinnacle’s CEO is a former Harrah’s executive and its chief marketing officer, Ginny Shanks is another Harrah’s alumnus. While employed at Harrah’s/Caesars, Pollack reported directly to Shanks from his start date until she left to go to Pinnacle in 2008.
Shanks says: “Jeffrey Pollack was one of the best hires I have ever made,” singing his praises for creativity, branding smarts and effective leadership—during the period in which he reported to her directly. She demurs, however, on questions about Pollack’s involvement as Executive Chairman of FS+G and its Epic Poker League. Some of Pollack’s other former colleagues remember him as less than generous in crediting others’ contributions—especially in Pollack’s presentations to higher ups. One high level Caesars employee laments incredulously Shanks’ praise could be a signal suggesting, “He might be drawing live,” at Pinnacle with a newly created management role on the horizon for him there. Garber nixes any discussion of Pollack’s departure beyond acknowledging that the WSOP grew exponentially on his watch. Punto!
While Pollack is engaged in rising from the morass of the bankruptcy proceedings, PokerStars is still enmeshed in legal trouble in the US, and the Epic Poker League remains out of the limelight, Garber and his tripartite CIE team based in Montreal, Las Vegas, and Israel are moving briskly in pursuit of initiatives to broaden the brand of the WSOP, online social gaming, and mobile applications. As such, CIE currently maintains its position with unrivaled stature and growth potential—at least for the moment.
Garber Talks About the Shoulders On Which He Stands
Garber, in the interim, has become a man of very considerable means, unabashedly comfortable in his Prada suits and his jet set lifestyle. He seems equally mindful, however, of the many shoulders on which he stands, offering a special tip of the hat to his good friend Mike Rumbolz, the former Chairman of the Nevada State Gaming Control Board who has worked for Trump, as well as an assortment of big players in e-commerce and online gaming. Garber also ticks off a list of lawyers, entrepreneurs, and casino executives that he credits with helping to build his skills as a lawyer and businessman.
Above all, Garber treats information as power. He works assiduously on collecting useful data and validating it in assessing opportunities—not unlike the best poker players on the planet! In addition to talking to amateurs in the halls, regularly, Garber meets with pros frequently. Last weekend he spent a chunk of time with John Duhamel and he has had dinners with Hellmuth, Antonio Efandieri and Phil Laak, among others.
After checking the latest information this morning, Garber called to assure, “There will definitely be more than 30 players (for The Big One For One Drop) and the capped number of 48 paid entries is within our reach.”
Editor’s Note: Wendeen H. Eolis is CEO of Eolis International Group a legal/government affairs consultancy. She was formerly a senior advisor to Mayor Giuliani and then to Governor Pataki, her government affairs and business portfolio includes extensive gaming matters. She was the first woman to cash in the main event of the WSOP (1986), She has been a pioneer and activist in business, politics, and the poker industry. This article, and related research is property of the author, and may be used in her other writings. She can be reached at email@example.com and at the website www.eolis.com you can also find her on Facebook and LinkedIn.