Thoughts on Poker: How to Grow Poker’s Popularity and Global Appeal Part 5: The Main Event Champion

Keith Woernle : September 12th, 2016

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To be called ‘World Champion’ and to be world champion for the rest of your life … to have that privilege, and then to carry that around and try to spread the word and the reputation of the game that you love – I’m still honored. And I’ll do it ’til the day I die. I love the game so much.

-Joe Hachem, 2005 WSOP Main Event Champion

Did you know at one point in poker’s heyday, there were poker trading cards? You could go into a comic book store or sports memorabilia outlet and buy packets of poker cards just like baseball cards. Open them up and you might be lucky enough to find Erick Lindgren, Scotty Nguyen, or Phil Hellmuth.

As poker grew in popularity, the dominant players in the game or the people that happened to find success during the Golden Years were pushed to the forefront of celebrity. Icons of the game were created practically overnight as America (and the world) suddenly had a new game to cheer for and new players to cheer on.

Many, many people think that the World Series of Poker is one single tournament that takes place in Las Vegas every year. They have no concept of bracelets or preliminary events. They think there is the World Series and each year a World Champion is crowned, and for a year he (or she) is the best poker player in the world. They are wrong of course, but this is their thinking regardless.

Without a real understanding of the way poker works, many believed Greg Raymer to be the best player in the world when he won the Main Event in 2004 (and he is, of course, a very good player). But they feel the same way about him as they do towards Michael Phelps when he wins Olympic medals or when Lance Armstrong was winning the Tour de France.

They think, “This is the sport’s biggest event. This person won the event. This person is the best in the world.” And as the victor and perceived best player in the world, the general public holds the WSOP champion high in their minds for at least a year (and probably somewhat forever thereafter). He or she is an instant celebrity and can promote the game almost as well as any other poker player for that year, with the exception of maybe someone like Hellmuth, Negreanu, or Ivey. And so, for that year, the World Champion is the embodiment and representation of the game of poker on a national and global scale.

Americans as a whole view poker as an unfamiliar, specialty competition similar to the Kentucky Derby, Olympic figure skating, or the National Spelling Bee. Here is this competition that comes around once every year or so, and generally speaking, it is the only time of year that many care about that sport. With that in mind, the winner of this tournament has to be a figurehead for the game he or she represents. The Main Event champion has to be the mouthpiece for poker. Not only are they a role model to a minor number of new fans, but they are the ones asked to come on talk shows, do radio interviews, and explain poker to a massively ignorant American public. Because of all of this, the World Series of Poker Main Event champion needs to be just that: a champion.

But lately, the WSOP hasn’t had many great champions.

Americans still want to think of poker players a little bit as the last cowboys – livin’ off their wits and guile in the Wild Wild West. I wrote earlier that the general public wants to see poker players in two capacities: as either a projection of themselves like the everyman, guy-next-door types of Chris Moneymaker or Steve Dannenman. Or as rockstar high rollers like Stu Ungar or Phil Ivey. Conversely, the numbers-crunching math savants don’t hold as much mysticism for the dreamers watching at home. While the young, methodical GTO approach to poker is certainly an optimal +EV strategy, it doesn’t appear to be one to ignite a passion in new fans or generate sponsorship dollars from household brands.

Over the last several years a series of young men have won the WSOP Main Event. All of them were professionals. All of them were highly-skilled, very young, and for the most part already successful. But these champions haven’t been especially media-friendly or very charismatic as a whole. This is due in large part to the language barrier, their general self-effacing personalities, and simply a lack of experience being in the public eye.

The frustrating irony of this is that the champions themselves seem to actually be better players than their predecessors. Martin Jacobson, Greg Merson, Joe McKeehen – they all seem world class. Skill-wise, they may be in the top five Main Event champions of all time. But I am not sure how much, if at all, any of these skilled champions has grown the game. Regrettably, I think poker viewership, unlike almost any other competition, doesn’t improve upon seeing a better performance.

And this isn’t to say that they’re not all good people. I’ve met Greg Merson – very friendly and approachable. Martin Jacobson seems just as amiable as Greg Raymer. All the recent champions in fact seem like decent guys.

I just don’t know if they seem like celebrities that viewers want to emulate.

And while they’re all good guys, sometimes I can’t help but thinking maybe poker needs a few more bad guys. At least for the ratings.

So what is to be done? How can the WSOP winner get back on ‘The Tonight Show’ and on ‘SportsCenter?’ Unfortunately, in contrast to the other articles, I can’t provide a good solution with this one. As I mentioned in the television article, the producers of the WSOP don’t get to choose their champion. They have to frame the coverage around them, but nothing can be done about who actually wins the tournament.

Mike Sexton wrote an article a few years back about who he would like to see win the WSOP. He thought the game could use an ambassador that was well-spoken and likable and relatable. And if the champion can’t be a “rockstar” like Johnny Chan or Phil Ivey, then someone likable and relatable is exactly who the champion should be. Poker boomed after Moneymaker simply because he seemed so inconceivably normal. He was an accountant. He lived in Tennessee. He was pushing 30 and had a wife and a small child and a small house. He was everyone. And now he was the world champion of poker.

This is what the DraftKings and FanDuel commercials are exactly attempting to do. They show regular Joes just like you winning hundreds of thousands of dollars. They can do it and so can you.

And that’s what the Moneymaker Effect was. A regular Joe, an underdog, winning the WSOP and igniting a dream in all the other underdogs out there.

Therefore would poker experience another boom if another likable amateur won? Yes, I believe it would. Would poker experience a boom if a woman won? Of course. If Johnny Chan won again? Absolutely.

But again, poker isn’t as popular as it once was. The champion isn’t going to get as much initial press as he once did no matter who wins (unless the winner is Kim Kardashian or President Obama or whatever).

But all of this begs the question: does the onus of the ambassadorship responsibility fall on the shoulders of the eventual winner? The winners didn’t ask for fame. For every Joe Hachem, there seem to be twice as many Pius Heinzes. Plenty of people just want to put their heads down and keep grinding. I’m well aware that many players don’t want their newfound ambassador roles at all. But personally, I feel it’s their responsibility to promote the game at least a little, even if it goes against their natural undemonstrative personalities.

Poker doesn’t seem to create the superstars it used to. Why is that? Are the players different? Is the perception different? Or has the game changed? The short answer to all three is yes, at least partially.

But it doesn’t have to stay that way. An enigmatic presence can still emerge. Someone like Amarillo Slim can still champion the game. Poker really gets one opportunity each year to thrust someone into the spotlight as the game’s spokesperson. Is there any way to make the next champion the best that poker has to offer? I mean, what can we do?

And… I’m not sure. Keep loving the game, I guess. Loving it, educating people about what a great game it is, and hoping – hoping that the next winner of the Main Event, if it isn’t you, at least loves the game just as much as you do.

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Thanks for reading, guys. As always let me know any thoughts or feelings you have on the matter. I always appreciate the feedback and discussion. And of course – good luck out there.

Keith Woernle is a writer, comedian, and semi-pro poker player based out of New Jersey. He was a producer for season 10 of the World Poker Tour. He won a WSOP circuit ring in 2011. He likes poker a lot. Follow or contact him on twitter @WoernlePoker.

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