2015 WSOP Champ Joe McKeehen Demonstrates How Not to Build a Personal Brand

While the poker world is a vast richness of colorful personalities, it’s also true that the game is a landing place of sorts for a certain type of arrogance and self-indulgence.  Is that what’s up with the bizarre outbursts from 2015 WSOP World of Series Poker main event winner Joe McKeehen?

Joe McKeehen during last year's November Nine

Joe McKeehen during last year’s November Nine

Over the past couple of days, McKeehen’s strange attacks on large swaths of the poker world, from the WSOP to the erstwhile “poker media,” have brought him squarely into public view … and not in a positive way.  It started with McKeehen complaining about the WSOP moving up the start time of many of this summer’s events from noon to 11 am.

It all started with this series of Tweets from McKeehen, a/k/a @dude904:

Say what? Well, that triggered a couple of days’ worth of Twitter spats between McKeehen and a whole range of other figures, “poker media” and players alike.  Oddly enough, when ever McKeehen was challenged by several well-known media types, he invariably came back with a response such as (and this is a paraphrase, “Well, you’re not the problem.  It’s the other 90%.”

The thing is, it’s all a shuck being tossed out there by McKeehen, who in the process isn’t exactly endearing himself to possible sponsors as an ongoing ambassador of the game.  Instead, and there’s certainly some reading here between the plenty of lines that McKeehen has offered to date, it’s hard to describe the extended outburst as anything other than a manifestation of youthful arrogance and self-indulgence.

First, let’s deal with the core claim, that “poker media” have something to do with the WSOP moving the start time of many of the day’s early events from noon to 11 am.  Really?  McKeehen offers zero evidence for this claim.  And though I haven’t been at the WSOP itself in a couple of years, it is my deep experience that the typical “poker media” has approximately nil input on when events’ starting times are set.

More specifically, there is exactly one poker-media outlet that would have the say-so and the pull to possibly engineer such a move, and that’s ESPN.  So the possibility could exist.  The problem with that theory, though, is that ESPN airs its coverage on a tape-delay basis.  So there’s no particular need for them to worry about what time an event starts on a given day.  ESPN isn’t even filming most of the series.

The likeliest reason for the earlier start times has is probably a matter of physical space at the Rio.  As big as the place is, special events such as the Colossus strain the joint to its proverbial gills.  Then there are the inevitable congestion points that occur throughout almost every WSOP, often with event registration or collecting payouts.  But those are Caesars/WSOP issues, when and if they occur, and have absolutely nothing to do with “poker media.”

Nope, what all this boils down to is that McKeehen doesn’t seem to like poker-media types.  Who knows where or why or how.  It’s probably because someone wrote something that he didn’t like or got the action wrong in a hand that he played.

But blaming the earlier start times on poker media is just cheap scapegoating, and so McKeehen has been getting his virtual ass handed to him, including from players such as Daniel Negreanu.  One seeming shot at McKeehen taken by another player, Matt Glantz, appeared via Twitter to be a sharp response to McKeehen, but was instead confirmed by Glantz to be a tongue-in-cheek comment.  “Ur the most undeserving champ ever,” wrote Glantz. “Ur pretty much a fake champ.”  In a way, that illustrates one of the problems with Twitter-based vitriol: It can be hard to tell where the real anger ends in the midst of an ongoing war of words.

We’ll leave that digression left for another time..  Instead, I’ll cite another one of McKeehen’s quotes as probably being the real genesis for this vitriol.  Here’s an exchange between McKeehen and Negreanu:

Daniel Negreanu ‏@RealKidPoker Mar 29
@dude904 explain to me how adjusting your sleep schedule one hour over 6 weeks is a MASSIVE change.

Shayne Gostisbehere ‏@dude904
@RealKidPoker it won’t affect me as much as many others but in a city that never sleeps (vegas) it’s going to cause many ppl to skip events

Color me cynical, but I doubt that McKeehen is too worried about the majority of poker players.  I think the “many people” bit might refer to the hard-partying, youthful part of the typical WSOP crowd that wraps up a day at the tables with a night at the Spearmint Rhino or similar, staggering back to their rooms well past sunrise for a few hours of sleep before doing it all over again.  Yes, that’s more reading between the lines, admittedly, but that is also my read.  And hey, it’s his life.

The problem, however, is this: The WSOP generates as much of its overall income — meaning, poker, casino gambling, rooms, food, etc. — from the casual crowd poker as much as from the few hundred dedicated grinders who are there for much of the series.  Somehow, Caesars and the WSOP have to cater to all players and find a happy medium, while still working within the confines of the Rio space.

McKeehen seems to make no allowance for the needs of the collective, rather than the needs of him.  So much for poker ambassadorship, not that he’s exactly been applying for the gig.  Still, reputation has a value, and his has taken a hit.

Attacking poker media?  It makes no sense.  Most well-known poker players have a love/hate relationship with “media.”  If McKeehen is more to the hate side, he’s far from the first.  However, the smarter ones among all players where media is present understand that love or hate aside, there’s a symbiosis at work that makes big-time poker bigger and better for everyone.

Without “media,” there is no Moneymaker Effect.  Without media, there’s a lessened online-poker explosion last decade.

Without media, whether they know it or not, a lot of Joe McKeehen types never would have taken up the game.

I don’t like the vindictive, personal attacks — and by the way, I’ve never had any contact with McKeehen, other than watching his WSOP final table last year.  (I thought he played okay.)

One thing I do know, though: There’s a difference between being a winner and being a champion.  Glantz’s Tweet, irony-intended or not, might have been more true than not.  Based on what I saw over the weekend, I’ll just refer to McKeehen as the 2015 WSOP main event winner, and save that “champion” tag for a better and brighter day.


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