The following article appears in the March issue of BLUFF available on newsstands and in casinos nationwide today.
For the past six years BLUFF Magazine staff have sought out industry insiders to assist in compiling an annual list of who the most powerful people in the industry are. The BLUFF Power 20 has become a much-discussed, often times much-debated, ranking of poker’s most influential people.
To that end, BLUFF sent ballots out to 101 voters this year, consisting of online operators, land-based operators, agents and media, and asked them to rank poker’s most powerful from 1 to 20. Taking all of those ballots into consideration we ended up with an astounding 195 people receiving votes. After tabulating the results based on where each person was listed, this is the 2011 BLUFF Power 20.
#20 – Eric “sheets” Haber and Cliff “johnnybax” Josephy
Depending on which rumor you want to believe Cliff Josephy and Eric Haber, the two men known to online poker players as “Bax and Sheets“, make up to $1,000,000 each month backing players in online and live tournaments. That number seems a little bit high and the size of their stable is also open to conjecture. Insiders seem to suggest the real number is close 70, maybe 75 players on the “Bax and Sheets” program.
Their single biggest score has to be from 2009 WSOP Main Event winner Joe Cada. They’re known to manage their players like any other CEO manages employees. They hold players accountable and for those playing in live events, have them call in periodically with chip count updates during each break. For two guys who originally made their money from hedge funds and stocks, being known as the “King of the Backers” isn’t too far of a stretch. With so much money at stake, it is no wonder that virtually nothing happens in the online poker world without these two knowing about it.
#19 – Jim Ryan
PartyPoker left the U.S. market in 2006 and lost its spot as the world’s largest online poker room but to say they’ve suffered overall would be misleading. Party currently sits third in terms of real money players and overall traffic thanks largely to the strong European marketing efforts and a July 2010 merger with another non-US brand, bwin.com, both of which were overseen by CEO Jim Ryan. When the merger was announced PartyGaming shares rose 20%, something that would surely get Ryan a stamp of approval from shareholders.
Another key piece of the PartyGaming machine is the World Poker Tour. Acquired by PartyGaming in November 2009, the WPT gives Party ways to promote and distribute their brand worldwide to captive television audiences. Should U.S. legislation ever allow for a return to the U.S. market Party and Ryan are both positioned very well to be a dominating competitor from the word go.
#18 – Steve “Chops” Preiss
Entity, Wicked Chops Poker
2010 was the year to be an Entity. Steve “Chops” Preiss, alongside Brian and Colin Cooley, launched the successful This Week in Poker and Wicked Chops Podcast–and won their second straight BLUFF Readers Choice Award for Favorite Blog (while having a record year for site traffic in the process). Preiss launched the New Media division at Poker Royalty and became its Executive Vice President, while the Cooley brothers expanded their client base with their successful Wicked+ agency.
Through their write-ups on the UltimateBet scandal to commentaries on business and broadcast topics, the Entities have established themselves as the ultimate industry insiders and thought leaders. Preiss has become the central figure in that role, positioning himself as the Worldwide William Wesley of poker–a preeminent information hub and behind-the-scenes deal maker. And somewhere in their spare time, the Entities still find time to snap Girls on the Rail pictures. And for that, we thank them.
#17 – Lance Bradley
Editor in Chief, BLUFF Magazine
Working alongside BLUFF Media co-presidents Eddy Kleid and Eric Morris and BLUFF Magazine Managing Editor Jessica Welman, Editor in Chief Lance Bradley has worked hard to take the product, both online and print, to new heights and the results speak for themselves. With in-depth features on the game’s top players, news from poker tournaments around the world and a solid combination of strategy and industry insight BLUFF Magazine has become, as another Power 20 member put it, “the top poker magazine by far”.
Bradley is also one of the game’s most respected journalists. When Prahlad Friedman signed with UB late in 2010, it was Bradley who snagged the exclusive interview and asked the questions that the poker industry was clamouring to know the answers to. Bradley was also instrumental in revamping the BLUFF Player of the Year formula in order to better reflect what the award is supposed to recognize, something the game’s top players all agreed was a positive step forward and good for the game.
#16 – Phil Hellmuth
Poker’s Most Valuable Free Agent
Just after Christmas the poker world got confirmation on what had become the worst kept secret in the game: Phil Hellmuth and longtime sponsor UB were parting ways. Many wondered where Hellmuth could land next but he and his agent, Brian Balsbaugh, were thrilled with the opportunity to shop one of the, if not THE, most recognizable players on the planet.
You can say this much about Hellmuth, he works hard at promoting himself and that can only be music to potential sponsors’ ears. Whether it’s the self-aggrandizing entrances to the WSOP Main Event, the blowups during televised poker events or his propensity to drop names of every celebrities he’s ever met, Hellmuth knows how to draw a crowd and create a buzz. That leads TV producers to go out of their way to invite Hellmuth to be part of their shows and that again will make whoever his next sponsor is very, very happy.
#15 – Ray Bitar
Director, Pocket Kings LTD
Pocket Kings LTD, the Dublin, Ireland based company that provides marketing and software consulting to Full Tilt Poker, is headed up by Ray Bitar. The former equities trader has been with the company since the beginning and has been largely responsible for seeing Full Tilt Poker become the second largest online poker room in the world behind on PokerStars.
Along with the marketing and software side, Pocket Kings LTD also handles the overall branding of the Full Tilt Poker product through television programs like Poker After Dark, The Poker Lounge and The Doubles Poker Championship and Bitar gives the final stamp of approval on any of those projects. He also helps manage the amazing collection of professional players that make up Team Full Tilt including Phil Ivey, Tom Dwan, Howard Lederer, Erik Seidel as well as the 150+ Full Tilt Pros.
#14 – Matt Savage
Executive Tour Director, World Poker Tour
Maybe the single biggest hire of the last year in the poker world was made in June when the World Poker Tour named Matt Savage as the Executive Tour Director. Having been the Tournament Director for the WPT’s Bay 101 Shooting Stars and LA Poker Classic in years past Savage was no stranger to the WPT. His new role put him in charge of improving things that WPT identified as potential weaknesses: player communication, overall tour cohesiveness and event growth.
Savage first created a player-friendly standardized structure that he’s hoping all WPT events will follow. He’s also taken to Twitter to gauge the temperature of the poker playing community when it comes to new ideas. He’s also an innovator. Savage created the multiple-entry tournament in 2009 and since then other tournaments and series around the world, as well as Full Tilt Poker, have copied the idea.
#13 -Tony G
Tony G, real name Antanas Guoga, is known for his wild and crazy antics at the table but away from the felt he’s the man driving the business decisions at PokerNews.com. The site is available in 30 languages and provides live updates, as well as chip counts and video coverage, for the World Series of Poker, European Poker Tour, North American Poker Tour, Asia Pacific Poker Tour, Aussie Millions and WSOP Circuit. That kind of coverage guarantees G and PokerNews worldwide reach.
Guoga has turned that audience into huge affiliate deals with the biggest online poker rooms. While G pushes the business side of things PokerNews has increased and improved their overall editorial product over the past year under the watchful eye of Matthew Parvis, Editor in Chief. Also included in the PokerNews Empire is PokerWorks.com, NeverWinPoker.com and ChipMeUp.com.
#12 – Tom Dwan
Player, Team Full Tilt
Tom “durrrr” Dwan is easily the youngest person on this list and yet his influence can’t be underscored. Since bursting onto the scene as an online poker prodigy the poker world has been entranced by Dwan and his ability to be one of the best players on the planet at such an early age. Dwan continues to play the nosebleed stakes both online and live and he’s also a regular on the tournament circuit and televised poker shows like Poker After Dark where his mere presence draws strong ratings. He also has the respect of the poker community for his talent and shear gamble. When he finished runner-up in a WSOP event last summer the high stakes poker community breathed a sigh of relief as they all had prop bets for an obscene amount of money with Dwan against him winning a bracelet .
#11 – John Pappas
Executive Director, Poker Players Alliance
The fight to legalize and regulate online poker in the United States has a number of voices but none might be more important than that of John Pappas and the Poker Players Alliance. As the Executive Director of the grassroots organization, a key component of Pappas job is to give voice to thousands of American poker players looking to continue to play the game they love, either online or live.
Since 2005 when the UIGEA became law the PPA has been leading the lobbying effort on behalf of American poker players to get the federal government to legalize, regulate and license online poker. The PPA is also active at the State level as well and has been involved in the movement to have intrastate online poker regulated.
Pappas’ day-to-day duties include overseeing the overall management of the PPA as well as all recruitment efforts and speaking on behalf of the PPA when mainstream media outlets like FOX News, CNN and MSNBC come calling.
#10 – Doyle Brunson
The Godfather of Poker
Doyle Brunson is a legendary poker player, a brand and a businessman all rolled into one. With 10 WSOP bracelets he’s shown to be one of the best of all time and rather than just slap the logo of some random online poker room on his Stetson, Brunson built DoylesRoom and continues to be heavily involved in the day-to-day decision making.
He hasn’t posted the tournament results recently but even he’d probably admit he’s not focused on that as much anymore. He’s a regular on Poker After Dark, High Stakes Poker and The PokerStars.net Big Game because he loves the action and producers are more than happy to have one of the game’s most recognizable and respected players on their shows.
When DoylesRoom switched to the Yatahay Poker Network in early 2011 Brunson wasn’t just some spokesperson attached to the company, he was part of the process. He also continues to be one of the most active poker players on Twitter and over 300,000 followers hang on his every word.
#9 – Mori Eskandani
CEO, Poker PROductions
You might not realize but if you regularly read BLUFF you’re most likely a big fan of the work of Mori Eskandani. As CEO of Poker PROductions, Eskandani, along with consulting partner Eric Drache, is responsible for producing High Stakes Poker, Poker After Dark and the NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship. He’s also one of the few people who’s successfully figured out how to make a business out of producing poker programming.
Along with producing the shows, Eskandani is also a central figure in casting the shows and creating a format that works for television. Which poker pro you see on any given episode just might be up to Eskandani and his keen eye for what makes good poker television. The scuttlebutt in late 2010 had Eskandani’s company being tagged to take over the World Series of Poker on ESPN broadcasts from 441 Productions.
#8 – Mitch Garber
CEO, Caesars Interactive Entertainment
In the U.S. and Canada poker fans see mostly news from the various WSOP events around the world on WSOP.com with a Social Media Gaming component built in that allows people to play online poker on Facebook.
In other markets however the site is being monetized as a real money online poker site and the man behind that is Mitch Garber. The former CEO of PartyGaming, Gerber now oversees all gaming aspects for the WSOP brand including SMG and real money play. In 2010 Gerber worked with Microgame to license the WSOP brand in the Italian market where online poker is heavily regulated and licenses are limited. The deal ensures that only Microgame will be the exclusive provider of WSOP satellites to Italian players.
Combining the strongest poker brand with real money online play has been a dream of Caesars for some time now and Gerber is making it happen. Should the U.S. government ever pass legislation Gerber could be in charge of the world’s busiest online poker site, again.
#7 – Daniel Negreanu
Player, Team PokerStars Pro
As poker’s all-time leading money winner Daniel Negreanu could rest on his laurels and let his past accomplishments speak for him but he doesn’t. As the leading face of PokerStars’ marketing Negreanu could simply let the checks role in but he doesn’t. Negreanu is pushing poker and PokerStars forward by using his status in the game as an ambassador to the benefit of everybody else on this list.
Last year’s surprise hit The PokerStars.net Big Game was largely influenced by Negreanu. He was the one who pushed for Joe Stapleton as co-host and he had a large say in who the other pros at the table were. Negreanu seems to show a flair for understanding the marketing and television side of the game better than almost any other top pro.
His blog on FullContactPoker.com is one of the most widely-read poker blogs around. He does occasionally step out of bounds, like he did last summer when he called Annie Duke an unflattering name, but he owns his missteps along the way and doesn’t try to hide from the criticism. He knows he can’t be openly critical of others unless he does that.
#6 – Phil Ivey
The World’s Best Poker Player
There seems to be little argument about Phil Ivey. He’s simply the best poker player on the planet and has been for some time. There just isn’t a game big enough or tough enough to scare him away. As a Founding Member of Team Full Tilt he’s also one of the most heavily marketed players in the world yet he somehow manages to maintain a level of mystery not afforded to other top players.
That mystery or persona make Ivey a huge ratings boost for any TV program he’s on. When the WSOP Main Event ratings declined in 2010 over 2009 poker insiders debated why it dropped so heavily. Some of the drop in ratings simply had to be tied to the fact that Ivey wasn’t at the final table like he was the year before.
He also shows an almost sick willingness to gamble with the WSOP bracelet prop bets he makes with anybody willing to bet against him. This past summer he captured his eighth WSOP bracelet, and third in two years, and sits second on the all-time money won list.
#5 – Brian Balsbaugh
Founder, Poker Royalty
Since Poker Super Agent Brian Balsbaugh founded the first poker player management company, Poker Royalty, in 2003 he has built it into the pre-eminent leader in the field. The list of players represented by Poker Royalty includes another four members of the Power 20, Daniel Negreanu (#7), Doyle Brunson (#10) Tom Dwan (#12) and Phil Hellmuth (#16). In late 2010 the company launched a media division and named Steve “Chops” Preiss (See #18) as Executive Vice President in charge of it.
Other big names represented by Balsbaugh and Poker Royalty President James Sullivan include Patrik Antonius, Johnny Chan, David Williams, Scotty Nguyen, Erick Lindgren and Gus Hansen. While signing players to sponsorship deals with online poker sites is the most visible part of their business when Corporate America comes looking for poker players to work with, their first call is usually to Poker Royalty.
#4 – Harry Reid
Senator, Nevada (D)
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid spent most of December trying his hardest to get online poker regulated in the last days of the lame duck session of congress. If online poker is going to see regulation from the federal government any time soon it will be because of the Democrat from Nevada and his efforts. His first attempt to get the regulation passed fell flat but Nevada’s land-based operators, who backed his re-election efforts in November, are looking to the Democratic senator to continue to push the matter during his current term.
By attempting to attach his bill to another, larger piece of legislation Reid showed he’s not afraid to work the system – much like Bill Frist did in passing the UIGEA in 2004. Should Reid be successful in his efforts the biggest winners may end up being players themselves. Some estimate that in a federally regulated market the overall number of active online poker players in the United States double to a staggering 20,000,000.
#3 – Ty Stewart
Vice President, Caesars Interactive Entertainment
Executive Director, World Series of Poker
The man in charge of poker’s most prestigious brand and event, the World Series of Poker, Ty Stewart has spent the past year becoming more and more visible. So much so that he’s also added another title to his business card; Executive Director, World Series of Poker.
Since taking over the top WSOP job from former Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack (see sidebar), Stewart has added strong strategic corporate sponsorships and brought the WSOP Circuit back from the dead. The average field size at Circuit events this year is up almost 400% over last year and a new TV deal with VERSUS will continue to push that number higher and higher.
During his six years with the WSOP Stewart’s bread and butter has been working with Madison Avenue. He’s inked deals with Milwaukee’s Best Light, Jack’s Link Beef Jerky, CORUM, Hershey’s and Planters. Most recently though he’s brought Red Bull, AMP Energy Drink and Klipsch Headphones onboard as sponsors and convinced Miller Brewing Company to put a better brand, Miller Lite, as a WSOP sponsor over Milwaukee’s Best Light, another Miller property.
#2 – Isai Scheinberg
In 2000, when Isai Scheinberg founded the software company that would eventually become PokerStars, he likely didn’t see it becoming as big as it is. Now, as the world’s largest online poker room, PokerStars boasts over 50,000 real money players at peak time and has become the force in the online arena and through live events on five continents, the single biggest host of land-based tournaments in the world.
Scheinberg intentionally keeps a low profile instead choosing to let the marketing team at PokerStars use those live events and the 70-plus members of Team PokerStars Pro to promote their product worldwide. That team includes Daniel Negreanu, Chris Moneymaker, reigning World Champion Jonathan Duhamel and former BLUFF Magazine Player of the Year Jason Mercier to name a few.
Combining the arsenal that the marketing team has with a software development team constantly looking to push the end-product forward and you have a recipe for success that has stood at the front of the poker boom since Moneymaker became World Champion in 2003.
#1 – Howard Lederer
Consultant, Pocket Kings Limited
Howard Lederer is known to thepoker viewing public as “The Professor”, the professional poker player who makes appearances on televised poker shows, but in reality he means way more to the industry than just a player with a nickname. Simply put, he’s a very busy man working hard to globalize the game of poker.
Lederer’s a professional player with a resume most would kill for, a Founding Member of Team Full Tilt, a board member of the Poker Players Alliance and probably most importantly, he’s a consultant to Pocket Kings LTD, the company that provides marketing and technology services to Full Tilt Poker. Full Tilt Poker is the second biggest online poker room in the world and when you combine that with the other ways Lederer moves the game forward it’s easy to understand why he received the most total votes out of anybody in this year’s voting.