Pius Heinz

Sponsored Poker Players: Why Sign the WSOP Champ?

pius_heinz_wsop_champion_sizeThe signing of the World Series of Poker Champion to a sponsorship deal has been a given for longer than most of us in the media can remember. This industry practice has given us great ambassadors for the game we love, such as Chris Moneymaker, Greg Raymer, and Jonathan Duhamel. It has also given us players that have been less than effective at representing the game we love. So, Why Sign the WSOP Champ?
Last week, an interview with 2011 WSOP Main event Champion, Pius Heinz, was published. In this interview, Heinz explained his thoughts on his life as a professional poker player:

“I can just speak for myself, I just don’t like the spotlight, I don’t like being asked for an interview at every single break, getting my photo taken all the time, or whatever. I mean whenever someone has asked me for a photo or an autograph, I’ve never turned them down or anything like that, but at the same time I just don’t really enjoy it. I’d rather just be with my friends or something.

“Poker has basically turned back to a hobby for me I guess. I was kind of a professional before I won the Main, and I was a professional for a year and a half after I won the Main,” says Heinz. “Now I just play whenever I feel like it and when I enjoy it, when I don’t, I just don’t play. That’s perfect for me. I feel happy again, don’t feel any pressure, and just play it when I enjoy it. That’s basically how I want to continue doing it. For me, I just try to do what makes me the most comfortable and happy. I know I’m not the best friend of the media, but I’m alright with that.”

Heinz was in part responding to a video interview at the Aussie Millions with 2005 WSOP Champ, Joe Hachem. In this interview, Hachem commented that the recent WSOP Champions have destroyed the legacy of the World Champion as an ambassador for the game. While he did single out Jonathan Duhamel as being the highlight from the list, he specifically singled out Jaime God and Jerry Yang for criticism, and many of us agreed with the Aussie Champion purely as fans of the game.

Joe Hachem wins the 2005 WSOP Main Event

Joe Hachem wins the 2005 WSOP Main Event

Heinz didn’t really dwell on his response to Hachem’s comments, but he did say that his views had been expressed “quite perfectly” by a Blog post by fellow “New School” player, Phil Galfond. In this blog post, Galfond agrees that many of his fellow poker players don’t act in a way that is conducive to promote the game to new players.

The “Old School” have a feeling that the “New” players have a lack of respect for the hardships suffered by many poker players before the advent of online games, video coaching sites, and tracking software. The “New School” on the other hand feels that their achievements are belittled by the “Old School,” and feel that the newer players have evolved their games to a place where most of the “Old School” are unable to win against them.

The battle between Old and New players seems, in Galfond’s mind anyway, to come down to a lack of mutual respect.

The point I really want to look at from Galfond’s blog is where he describes the typical “New School” player. He describes them as “90% of us are brainy introverts.  Or if you prefer, I’ll let you say it: Nerds.”
He goes on to say that a lot of players are socially awkward, and only talk deep strategy at the table because they have found a kindred spirit. In most other cases they put on a pair of headphones, and just play as best they can.
What he did say is that even though these players may not be able to express it in the same way as the “Old School” players, they do have great respect and love for the game of poker.

So that leaves the poker industry in a difficult spot. The players type most likely to win the Main Event is going to be the “new School” player. Poor in interviews, unable to banter at the table, and ultimately a poor ambassador for the game of poker.

So why does the WSOP Main Event Champion still get offered a range of sponsorship deals from pretty much every poker based company in existence?

I wrote another article on the future of sponsored pros following Vicky Coren-Mitchell’s historic second EPT win last month, and in that article I said there were two types of sponsored player. The ones that brought new players to the game, and the ones that keep people playing the game.
It seems that 888 are looking at the sponsored player issue as they have just signed Liverpool Soccer player, Luis Suarez as an Ambassador. Given Suarez’s less than spotless history, they may not have picked the best player in this circumstance, but I think they are on the right path.

What I didn’t say was that the WSOP Champion has the opportunity to be both, and not just for a single site, but the industry as a whole.
Following winning the WSOP Main Event, every Poker Media outlet, and a fair amount of mainstream media want an interview with the new Champion. The thing is, most of the “New School” players are out of their depth, and feel cornered and pressured by this interest.

So, what help does the WSOP, or the sites sponsoring these players offer? In truth, very little. I’m not aware of any WSOP sponsored/arranged media training or interview preparation for the November Nine, who are the players most in need of it. Why doesn’t the worlds biggest live Poker Series provide media training to the players who are going to represent it for the next 12 months? I’ve no idea either.

Phil Galfond

Phil Galfond

With the way the market is moving, ambassadors who aren’t media savvy are pretty much a waste of time and money. Sponsored players are asked to provide guest commentary on live streams and TV shows, take part in marketing promotions that involve interacting with players, and many other things that just don’t fall into a lot of “new School” players comfort zones.

The thing is, the skills required to do this part of the sponsored player job are fairly easily required. If you doubt me, just look at professional sports. I have seen interviews from High School sports stars that make the interviews given by some poker players look amateur. Some of the blame does have to be laid at the feet of the interviewer. I have actually interviewed several poker players over the years, some on camera, and some off camera. Unless you are prepared, and able to guide the conversation an interview with a poker player can be less than exciting. The best ones are where you are able to get a poker player to give you something new or open up about their lives. I, along with a lot of players, have had my fill of poorly interviewed players who have just bust out of a major event. I see a need for them, but there are ways to improve them, and make them seem a lot less like they’ve come off a production line.

It feels to me that a step change is needed in the industry when it comes to how sponsored pros are used. I’ve already said I think more players should be recruited from outside the poker industry, but I really think players in high profile situations should be offered top quality media training courses. This isn’t going to turn an introverted “nerd” into a confident, natural interviewee. However, there are techniques where the player can gain the skills to produce a good product that provides their sponsor with a good marketing opportunity.

Which poker fan wouldn’t want to hear an interesting interview with the new WSOP Champion about how he has grown as a poker player through the tournament, and how his skills worked, or didn’t, at the final table. I know I, for one, would watch that interview.

I have been unable to find any media courses that offer this service to poker players, and based on the massive amount of poker videos I watch on a weekly basis, I don’t seem to be the only one.
As a former entrepreneur I see a niche market that is in dire need of filling. Maybe one of the current media training companies will be approached to fill this, all I know is human beings love a story, and currently, poker isn’t giving them that many. The industry needs to both find players who can already handle the media, and provide those without those skills the training and support to handle the media in a way that puts the game of poker in the best possible light.


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