Candid Pollack discusses WSOP past, present and future

10 July 2007

By Ryan McLane and Vin Narayanan

World Series of Poker Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack looks a little more rested and a little more relaxed now that the Main Event is underway. The field is large, the play is solid, and the entire Series is winding down to its signature moment – crowing a champion.

Pollack believes this is the best WSOP in its 38 year history and definitely the best in his two-year run as the commissioner. Accommodating the massive fields, improving the customer experience and expanding the WSOP brand have been his primary goals.

Planning for the future is a big part of Pollack's daily routine. His staff compiles lists of things to improve. His crew is innovative, adding nuggets like live video streams of final tables and special events like the Darfur charity event. And his floor staff is responsive, solving spot issues like long registration lines and disagreements over playing cards.

A candid Pollack addresses the past, present and future of the WSOP in this exclusive Casino City interview. Among the topics discussed: celebrity play, marketing strategies, moving the Series and player endorsements.

Casino City: How do you think the Main Event is going?

Pollack: I am very pleased, I don't know what the final number (of entrants) for the Main Event will be (it ended up being 6,358), but people are here, poker is being played and there is an intensity to the play. The players are concentrating on making it to Day Two.

CC: What do you think about the celebrities playing in the Main Event this year?

Pollack: The celebrities are really focused. They're keeping to themselves in a good way. Montel Williams was the chip leader for a while. I think it's another great example of how the WSOP is about hope - the hope that truly anyone can win a bracelet.

CC: How does this year's Series measure up to WSOP's of the past?

Pollack: This year was definitely better than last year, but there are still some things that we need to work on – like space. The tent (Player's Pavilion) was the right intention, but the result was not ideal. I'm fairly certain that 2008 will be the last year in the Amazon Ballroom.

Does that mean the WSOP will be moving from the Rio?

The Rio has been a terrific home for the WSOP and I hope it stays here for many years to come. It's interesting, in just three years, the Rio has become equated with the WSOP. This Series is a beast. It's a massive undertaking to host the largest gaming event in the world for 45-60 days. It's just a massive undertaking, but we're well on our way to modernizing the WSOP. It's the number one brand in gaming.

Casino City: Five things that you liked about the 2007 WSOP

Pollack: Ok here goes…

1.) The décor: Last year, the Amazon Room was a bit sterile. This year, we've added the massive photos of our past champions and we have a large, impressive footprint for the ESPN featured table. This year, it really feels like a room that's hosting the World Championship of our sport.

2.) The new schedule: We had 55 events this year. Maybe less next year, maybe more, but not too much more. This is the first schedule that attempted to broaden the offering for all players – amateur and professional.

3.) The $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. event: Now that's success. We hosted every pro that matters and plenty of other great players. I love that event. It's definitely our all-star event.

4.) The Dafur tournament: That event was truly special. Annie Duke and Don Cheadle approached me last October with the idea and I said yes immediately. The turnout was tremendous. They raised a ton of money for a great cause. That event will definitely be back next year.

5.) The new Internet site: Events were streamed live with hole cards successfully. It's akin to when the NBA first signed their broadcasting contract deal with the USA network – expanding the distribution channels for the league. We're now offering more of our content on a live basis. It's a great way to grow the WSOP and the game of poker.

Casino City: Five things you didn't like.

Pollack: Oh boy, five things huh…

1.) The tent: I've explained that one already.

2.) The card design: I wish the design had been accepted by the players. But we responded quickly and efficiently to the issue so it's also a point of pride for us.

3.) The media's experience: I would have preferred a smoother experience for the news media. The poker media works tirelessly to cover us. We need to find the right balance of access and player comfort. We're getting closer, but we still have work to do.

4.) The fan experience: I wish we didn't have to limit access for the fans but things like fire safety and player comfort are also concerns.

5.) Registration: I like the process we've created, but we should have opened up registrations lines earlier than one day before the Series began. Some players paid the price for this early on, but there haven't been long lines since. I'd like to see registration open months in advance.

CC: How did ESPN do this year?

Pollack: ESPN is moving from tape to air much faster this year. We're reverting back to summer programming as we should. ESPN has invested a lot of money into their coverage this year and things will be a little different. They're experimenting with a 40-camera shoot, we expanded their final table staging area and the whole thing will be in high definition.

**Note** - ESPN's coverage of Event #1, a $5,000 Mixed Hold'em event begins today.

CC: Will the players where HD friendly make-up?

Pollack: (Laughs) I don't know about that.

CC: How have the new U.S. Internet laws on online gambling affect the WSOP?

Pollack: If there's been an impact, it's been the changes we made to our business operations. We tightened up third-party registrations and we tightened up our standards on who we do business with. If you notice, Party Poker is still on our felt because they stopped taking U.S. bets. If someone wants to draw conclusions for their Main Event story, I would say they need to include the way we changed our business practices. If the so-called bubble has burst, we put the pin in it. Harrah's has a fierce commitment to responsible gaming – the highest possible standards. With any new U.S. gaming legislation, I hope the government does their due diligence and studies the impact of any proposed legislation.

CC: Every sports league has a different marketing strategy. The NBA sells its players, the NFL sells its teams and the MLB sell the game and its history. How does the WSOP market itself?

Pollack: Our sweet spot is the bracelet and hope. All sports marketing sells hope. Every professional league gives the hope of a championship season or wining a game. These leagues have the best possible players. We are similar, except that it's more accessible. You can't buy your way into the NHL or the NBA. Here, anyone can pay the entry fee, take on the best players in the world and have a chance to beat them and win the most coveted prize in poker. That makes us special. And we are a sport. Three things make something a sport - fans who love to watch, thrilling competition, and the hope of winning a championship. We have all three, but in our sport, the fan can also be the player. No other sport does that. It's not an athletic sport, and we won't pretend it is, but it is a chance for people to fulfill a dream. Every other sport is reflected glory. A fan's connectivity to the actions comes from a favorite team or a favorite player. Here the glory isn't reflective - it's direct, immediate and personalized. It's really a sports marketers dream. We can bottle hope and sell it. It's still not an easy sell to Madison Avenue. It's still poker and it's still Las Vegas. But in the last two years we've moved the needle to change misperception.

CC: Are you surprised to see less players wearing endorsement gear?

Pollack: No. It's funny, we liberalized the advertisement policy and few people are taking advantage of it. It takes some time. We'd like to see players be able to market themselves. That's why we changed the policy. Phil (Hellmuth), Annie (Duke) and Robert Williamson have done the best job. I believe Robert has taken the most advantage (of the rules) with his custom made embroidered suit jacket. That's exactly what I wanted to happen.

CC: What's the one question from the press you're sick of answering?

Pollack: There isn't one question I'm sick of answering. There isn't one media outlet I don't appreciate whether it's a magazine, a newspaper, a Web site or a blog. If they write about us, it means they care. If they criticize us, it means they care.

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