The selection of Mustapha “lasagnaaammm” Kanit as first pick overall in the Global Poker League (GPL) was no surprise for observers in the media, at least once the results of the draft order lottery were known. His name might not be the first to spring to the casual poker fan’s lips when asked to name a player, but he’s rapidly establishing himself a beast both online and off. Perhaps more importantly – from Rome Emperors manager Max Pescatori’s perspective – he’s Italian, and nearly as popular in his home country as the Italian Pirate himself. Between his skills and his obvious marketing value to that team in particular, he was essentially the only “gimme” for those of us attempting to predict the draft choices.
As if to drive home the reason he was the number one draft pick, Kanit managed one of the most coveted feats in online poker this weekend, taking down the PokerStars Sunday Million for over $177,229 with no deal made. Although the Sunday Million runs on a weekly basis, it’s hard for even the top online pros to win one due to the huge field size: a minimum of 5000 players are needed just to make the guarantee, which I’ve only seen it miss once, and then just barely.
The Sunday Million win is just the latest score of what is already shaping up to be a phenomenal year for Kanit. We’re only about 10 weeks into 2016 at this point, and Kanit already has $1.4 million in combined earnings on the year, which is more than the lifetime earnings of some of the other players drafted for the GPL. It would be hard for Kanit to maintain that pace – though not impossible, with the WSOP still to come – but if he could, it would make for a whopping $7 million, a number usually only achieved by winners of the WSOP Main Event or the Big One for One Drop.
Near misses in the Shooting Star
Meanwhile, in live poker, Maria Ho, who manages the Los Angeles Sunset, narrowly missed out on a chance to score a similarly important early marketing coup. Ho was one of the designated “Shooting Stars” in the eponymous tournament at the Bay 101 Casino, part of the World Poker Tour. The $7500 buy-in tournament is one of the tour’s signature stops, and features special mechanics, such as a Day 1 chip leader bonus, and bounties on certain designated pro professionals.
The World Poker Tour has had an unusually unlucky history for women players. There are plenty of women who’ve won WSOP bracelets, and the European Poker Tour’s first two-time winner was Victoria Coren-Mitchell. Conversely, the honor of being the first female WPT Main Event champion is still up for grabs, and it’s a title that only continues to grow in significance the longer it proves elusive.
Ho was the last Shooting Star bounty professional left alive in the tournament and third in chips overall when she made the official, televised final table of six. Given her role as team manager and her excellent television personality, it would have been the perfect moment for her to win a title and draw attention to her team. Unfortunately, the WPT women’s curse struck again and she ended up being the first out, settling for 6th place and $179,930.
Ho wasn’t the only GPL player with a good shot at turning the Shooting Star into a marketing opportunity. San Francisco Rush player Tony Gregg also made the final table in the tournament, but he fell in 7th, one seat shy of the cameras and spotlights.
High rollers: easy game?
Meanwhile, for those GPL players with the bankroll to play them, high roller and super high-roller tournaments will be a reliable source of attention. The young wizard Fedor Holz’s hot streak has failed to continue since he was drafted by Ho for the Sunset, but it’s probably only a matter of time before the next time we see him trounce an all-star lineup in a six-figure buy-in event.
In the meantime, New York Rounders manager Bryn Kenney won a $25,000 High Roller at the Aria, while Byron Kaverman, who was a surprise pick for the Sao Paulo Mets, came 2nd in the high roller event at the same WPT stop as Ho’s ill-fated final table appearance.
In a sense, these events are the opposite of the Sunday Million; although the caliber of play is obviously very high and turning a profit is difficult, the small fields and unlimited re-entries typical of high buy-in tournaments make wins and top finishes relatively frequent. In fact, for the highest buy-in events, the number of paid spots is often under 10, meaning that any cash is automatically also a final table.
Appealing to an indeterminate audience
The interesting question, to me, is how to compare these various results, given that we still don’t know exactly what the typical GPL fan is going to look like at this juncture. Pretending for the moment that Maria Ho had in fact captured the Shooting Star title, how would that have compared to Mustapha Kanit’s Sunday Million win, or to the high roller performances of Kenney, Kaverman and others?
USA Today is already going all-in on the concept of the GPL, if you’ll pardon the cliché, but aside from them, it’s hard to know how much attention the league will get from mainstream media. On the other hand, the eSports world is another big question mark: the “HoldemX” variant and online components of the GPL season are intended in part to capture this audience, but it remains to be seen whether the strategy works.
I discussed this subject with fellow PartTimePoker contributor Steve Ruddock this morning, and he made a good point, which is that it’s hard to get any attention without an outright win, even from the dedicated poker media, yet other strong performances suddenly become relevant as soon as a high profile win is managed. In other words, Ho’s final table is mostly irrelevant, unless she wins an upcoming WPT event, in which case the additional final table becomes an important part of the narrative.
That still doesn’t answer the question of what types of wins and performances are going to prove most valuable. Super high rollers benefit from the impact of the dollar figures involved; $100,000 buy-ins and seven-figure top prizes tend to wow those who don’t realize that structurally, they’re usually pretty close to 45-man sit-and-go’s, with a fairly fast structure and the ability for well-heeled pros to fire multiple bullets. Online tournaments like the Sunday Million, on the other hand, are most likely to impress the eSports crowd and the more hardcore fanbase who play a lot of poker themselves. Finally, the televised nature of WPT and EPT Main Events is a fabulous opportunity for those who, like Ho, have memorable on-screen personalities and camera presence.
Evolution of the fanbase
I suspect that the answer may change over time. Because high roller results are both common and impressive in numerical terms, they’ll likely be the focus of a lot of attention during the first season, but the appeal may soon wear thin when fans begin to realize how commonplace they are. After all, the overlap between the GPL player list and the field for any given nosebleed tournament is large, so it would actually be more surprising to see a super high-roller final table without a GPL player at it. As fans grow more sophisticated, I imagine that the focus will be less on who won how many dollars in these events, but rather how individual pots played out between opponents who both happen to be GPL rivals as well.
Meanwhile, there’s an added benefit to results in online tournaments and the more affordable WPT/EPT/WSOP events, in that the players in question will likely have sat with many GPL fans along the way, which is not true for the high rollers with their prohibitive buy-ins. That’s a crucial distinction between poker and the sports leagues the GPL is attempting to emulate; imagine the difference it would make to football fandom, for instance, if a certain percentage of the general fanbase had personally played against Tom Brady and perhaps even sacked or intercepted him at one time.
To use my own experience as an example, I’ve played against Justin Bonomo while fairly deep in the Sunday Million (or perhaps a SCOOP event, I can’t remember now), and got the better of him in a few pots. For that reason, I’ll likely be rooting for him whenever I see him play for the London Royals, just to be able to say “hey, I outplayed that guy once.” The personal connection, no matter how insignificant, somehow makes his performance feel more relevant to me. I suspect that kind of dynamic will be common for recreational players who become fans of the GPL – rooting for pros they’ve played with and had a positive experience, or perhaps even watching pros who’ve busted them in order to root against them for “revenge.”
Ultimately, because of the varied careers of the players themselves and the equally complex and likely changing nature of the fans, the real challenge is going to be for each team to find its public face. It’ll be no good to have one player who’s a legend online but unheard of elsewhere while others on the same team are chummy with live recreational players but fail to put up results. Winning at the tables is going to be one thing, but in order to win the marketing battle, managers will need to find the unifying thread that will make their team a hit with a specific subset of fans. The teams with the greatest national focus – that is, the Rome Emperors, Moscow Wolverines and Hong Kong Stars – will have the easiest time in this regard, but they’ve arguably given up something on the skill front in return. Of the remaining managers, the ones whose draft choices show the greatest thought to marketing coherence are, in my opinion, Liv Boeree of the London Royals and Faraz Jaka of the San Francisco Rush; both lineups show an admirable mix of talent and likable personalities, and I expect both those teams to be fan favorites in their respective conferences.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.