Friday, June 19, 2009

Fringe: Jeffrey Pollack and the Fine Line

By Brad 'Otis' Willis
G-Vegas, SC

Editor's Note: I'd like to introduce my good friend and highly respected colleague to the mix. You might know him as Otis. And he has a little story to share with y'all.

The Hooker Bar has six semi-private seats. They sit at the open ends of the dubious horseshoe and give drinkers the best possible chance of not getting molested by the most honest whores in the Rio. It was nearly 5am and the woman next to me was waiting on a call from Johnny Chan.

She was blonde, voluptuous, and had hands strong enough to kill my fellow blogger Dan Michalski. There was the slightest chance I could see it happen. Michalski was several Tuacas deep and his journalist mind was as turned on as his libido. He was asking as many questions as the blonde could give answers. It was another interview that would never see the light of day.

Someone how Dan and I had saddled ourselves next to the private massage therapist to poker's stars. Name a big poker pro, any card-slinging hero, and this woman likely had a story about him. It was cocaine this, girlfriends that, and secrets even the great Andy Glazer could not have pulled from the world's biggest poker celebrities—and if he had, he would've had the gentleman's discretion to keep them out of print.

The woman had another drink and punched randomly at the video poker machines. She told a story of fending off a poker player's wife at Binion's because the player's girlfriend was still in the room.

"I don't judge people," the woman told us. "They trust me."

At 4:55am, the woman's phone rang. It was the Orient Express and he was ready for his rubdown.

We sat there, our addled minds simply ready to be finished with another World Series. We tried to resolve in our heads how the woman—this woman with so many sick and wonderful stories—could both be the confidante and rubdown artist for so many famous people and simultaneously be telling the lurid tales to two drunk former journos. Freud told us that no one can keep a secret, that, even if they can keep their mouth shut, "betrayal oozes out of... every pore."

The only excuse—no matter whether her stories were fact or fiction—was that Dan and I were part of poker community, too. She could have rightly assumed that we had as much at stake in preserving poker's reputation as she did. To spread the stories she told would be tantamount to killing the golden goose. If poker were as important as Hollywood, or baseball, or Paris Hilton's current screw toy, we could've made a mint just telling these stories in gossip rags. Instead, we raised our eyebrows, raised our glasses, and called it another night at the Hooker Bar.

It may not have been betrayal on the ooze that night. It may have just been the ramblings of a drunk and lonely woman. But, when she left, I believed she was going to massage Johnny Fuckin' Chan.

This was, for better or worse, the World Series of Poker.

Dan, for his part, got the woman's phone number


Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack and his people have nearly completed the Herculean task of moving the World Series of Poker into the mainstream. It's something that few people could've conceived, and even fewer people could've done without turning the Series into something as base and redundant as reality television.

Just a few days ago, Pollack used his Twitter account to reveal he's not ready to quit.

“Just finished my strategy memo on how 2 better inject the WSOP brand in2 mainstream pop culture. Now headed back 2 the floor for some poker!” he wrote.

Benny Binion didn't live to see Twitter, but don't think he wouldn't have used it for all it was worth. Remember, the WSOP wasn't just an excuse for the world's biggest gamblers to get together. Binion saw a promotional opportunity in the WSOP and he pounced on it in an effort to make Binion's famous. He moved the poker tables out where everybody could see them and catered to the crowds. Before long, Amarillo Slim started showing up on the Tonight Show. The one-time champion did the show eleven times before the child molestation charges ruined his life.

And that is where we reach the ah-ha moment—Jeffrey Pollack's biggest challenge. It's not finding the next big corporate sponsor, creating the perfect made-for-TV tournament, or making sure there is decent Chinese food in the Poker Kitchen.

Pollack has a big league "My Fair Lady" job to do on the World Series and he has to make sure it sticks. He's working with a world that polite society doesn't want to admit exists and he has to put enough makeup on it to make sure it can handle the occasional smeared mascara. And he has to do all of it without painting the WSOP into a whore.


"I was his poker wife," the dealer told me.

She didn't mean she was the big name pro's bored poker widow, sitting at home minding the kids while the man went on the road to gamble and cavort with loose women. No, she was one of the loose women. She was the other woman, his travel wife, the marital equivalent of a collapsible toothbrush—essential, portable, and easy to set aside when it's time to go home.

I was 31 years old before I heard the term "poker wife" and the ease with which the phrase was delivered was my first indication I was about to live in a world that would never appear on ESPN. Norm Chad would not be making no jokes like, "I feel sorry for this guy. He's going to have to get divorced twice." The Nuts segment would not feature the chip leader hoovering blow out of a hooker's navel. This world played—and without shame—by its own set of rules.

Nearly five years later, I go to the World Series every year thinking I've seen it all, that my new normal can't be altered.

I am always wrong, and that's why the able Commissioner has to tread so lightly.

What I believe Pollack understands is how careful he has to be about bringing the two worlds together. Poker and its people have lived for a very long time and happily on society's fringe. They have created their own heroes in this insular world, but they haven't had to answer to the masses.

Games like baseball and football have a long and proud tradition. Poker—especially as it exists today—is still in relative infancy. Big sport's longstanding reputation can help it absorb a sex or drug scandal. Poker doesn't have a good reputation on which to trade…yet. That's Pollack's job. He has to understand the mainstream believes its traditional athletes are heroes as much as it believes the poker world is made up of a bunch of sharps and con men.

He also has to understand there exists a subset of people who wish the mainstream courting never had to happen. Those who wallow in the romance of good times gone by will say Pollack et al are homogenizing the World Series, that they are selling it out in favor of a buck. Those people should remember, if there hadn't been a buck in it for Benny Binion, there probably wouldn't be a World Series today.

That's the line Pollack has to walk. He has to push his brand as far as he can into the mainstream without setting fire to either apple cart. He has to cast a fine a light on poker as he can, but avoid shining one so bright the cockroaches don't have anywhere to scatter.


If poker people lived among the washed, there wouldn't be room in the bath for the creative banking and walking tax shelters. There would be active discussion on SportsCenter about testing for Adderal and other performance enhancing drugs. The suicide of a young burnout would be all over the tabloids.

As it is right now, the poker world—the real part that doesn't get reported by the exclusive media outlets or on the corporate sponsored blogs—is populated with people for whom you would be afraid to open your door in the middle of a sunny day.

Like Fuck Man.

Fuck Man was always saying, "fuck." He said it at the tables, he said it beside the table while he was sitting out for penalties, he said it when he was discussing how he planned to spend his night.

"Has anybody ever spent the night in the fucking Clark County Jail?" he asked a table full of people one night. "Is it nice?" He was drunk and thinking about driving home from the Rio, or whatever was qualifying as home that year.

Forty-something and swarthy, he was an olive-skinned fireplug and a frequent face around the Amazon Room. He looked like he would stab you as sure as he would throw up on you. One night, he busted off a cash game table, stumbled into the hallway, and stole a couple of things from under the curtain of an empty vendor booth—just a petty thief in a world full of people who hustle for a living. Fuck Man is the most common, but most insignificant of the dirt in the room. He and his kind were everywhere, like dust that never settles long enough to wipe it up. Thieves, con men, small time hustlers looking to get a little piece.

There is bigger dirt, to be sure, bigger hustlers, professional parasites that live for these seven summer week. They feed on the misery that bubbles up underneath the bracelet-winning celebrations and million-dollar wins. They are sports-bettors, tax-shelters, underground businessmen who know how much money is in the room and know they can get a piece if they hustle just right.

Pollack has to decide how much of that world he wants to keep on the periphery. Mainstream life means mainstream attention. He actually has to ask himself, what would a big sports commissioner do? How would Roger Goodell handle one of his players trading in sex for entry into the big leagues, or a young player spinning up and burning out all over the tabloids, or one of his stars—one of his champions—getting busted for cheating the league on one of the biggest and most damaging ways possible?

Pandora has always been a bitch, but when she brings her box to Vegas, it's sometimes best just to leave her alone.

Pollack does not have that luxury.


There is a guy with a big afro who has hung around the World Series for years. He shoves online poker giveaway caps down over his hair and drinks liquor from a snifter. He rarely if ever plays, but he is always there.

One night outside the Poker Kitchen, he turned to me and said, apropos of nothing, "If you don't like a song, don't listen to it." For some reason, that's always stuck with me.

He's right, after all.

We take our kids to the carnival and let them see what happens on the midway, but we hold their hands tight and don't let them walk behind the rides. We know what's happening back there. We know it is dangerous and dirty. We know the song and we choose to ignore it. The carnies it takes to make a carnival happen are not the song we want our child to remember.

The World Series is the same way. It is greater and better than the sum of its parts. It's ugly and sometimes downright scary on its fringe, but when put together as a whole, it's one of America's greatest events.

Jeffrey Pollack has one of America's toughest jobs. He must take that carnival, make sure the carnies stay far enough from the midway, and give the mainstream a song to which it can dance. It's not impossible, but it's a dog, and if Pollack can make it happen, his name will be mentioned alongside Binion and Moneymaker as one of the people who saved the World Series of Poker.

Brad 'Otis' Willis is a writer from G-Vegas, SC.

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