Just a month ago, I couldn’t have picked Rory McIlroy or Novak Djokovic out of a lineup. Like many Americans, I take my sports the way I take the rest of my entertainment news, only paying careful attention beyond my hometown teams when something real is at stake, when someone’s consistent excellence commands awe or when a story line enchants me. Once I’m aware, I’m eager to see what they do next.
Professional poker has never pulled this off. The game’s greatest asset—the fact that anyone can play and win—is also responsible for limiting its appeal. It’s nice that even a schlub like me can buy or win my way into the big tournament, knock off the game’s finest and most famous and become a millionaire. And if I have an interesting back story—Political refugee? Luddite mountaineer? Former Lehman Brothers exec?—I might get some national ink before I’m anonymous once more.
But I’ll never do it twice, so having the world take more than a passing interest in me is unlikely. And so, since the Internet and TV age arrived to make poker cool, we have seen a parade of instantly forgettable “world champions” whose greatest accomplishment was riding a lucky wave to mountains of cash. Jerry Yang, anyone?
For years, then-World Series of Poker commissioner Jeffrey Pollack insisted this isn’t a real problem, that poker’s democratic, haphazard nature is precisely why it succeeds. I’d insist the only way for poker to cross over from a niche interest would be to somehow cultivate a venue to allow its prodigies to first prove their supreme skills and then transcend the game. Heck, competitive eating has its Joey Chestnut.
As WSOP chief, Pollack never conceded this point. As former WSOP chief, though, he may have divined a solution.
Pollack and Annie Duke, probably the only modern poker pro with significant name recognition outside the game, have created a league with real standings that reflect the actual skill levels of those who have a legitimate claim on being among the best. They’ve set forth clear criteria to qualify for a series of championship tournaments, giving weight only to recent performance in live tournaments and none to popularity or fame. “It is about the names you do know, but it’s almost more about the names you should know,” Pollack said.
That is, in recent years it has been very tough for new players who are consistent winners to get on the poker TV shows because they lack the notoriety necessary to draw audiences. Instead, TV producers keep inviting back the same old players who may or may not be any good but are well known because, uh, they’re always on TV. It’s a circular loop that Pollack and Duke hope to crack open by helping the public focus on consistently successful but anonymous players.
Duke, the first commissioner of the Epic Poker League, hopes it will someday be akin to the organizations that presently tell us who’s the best in golf and tennis.
“Golf is the perfect analogy,” Duke said. “It’s a game anybody can play, and most people I know do play, but when you tell someone, I’m going to watch golf on TV this weekend, they have a very specific idea of what you mean by that. They assume you’re going to watch the top 125 players in the world as defined by some objective criteria compete on television for some sort of title. That hasn’t been the case in poker.”
It will be now. It’ll likely take a few years for a poker version of Michael Jordan to emerge—or, better yet, a Nadal-Federer rivalry—but it’ll dramatically change the public’s view of the game when it does. Most Americans believe all it takes to win the WSOP is luck, and certainly luck alone can propel a dramatic one-time victory. But players who qualify for league events will have proven they have a playing style and ability that reflects true skill.
Sure, it can be fun in small doses to watch someone get lucky. But it’s far more interesting to watch someone display talent.