A Decade of BLUFF
10 years ago this month, the first issue of BLUFF Magazine hit newsstands. What started as a bi-monthly poker publication operated out of a suburban Atlanta basement has become so much more in the decade that followed. BLUFF has been involved in the evolution of live tournament updates, provided coverage from the floor of tournaments all over the world and delved deep into the stories of the most interesting personalities the poker world has to offer.
The lives that poker players lived — their personalities at the table, but mostly what they did away from it — was the basis on which BLUFF Magazine was started.
“The vision for the magazine was to be more of a fun, lifestyle look at poker,” said Eddy Kleid, one of the co-founders of BLUFF and its current president. “With less stories about ‘how to play ace-king offsuit out of position’ and more about the ridiculous things that these young people who suddenly had tons of money were getting up to.”
It all came together from an inauspicious start, to say the least. Kleid was approached by Eric Morris, who was working for a publishing company at the time, and Kleid was simply asked if he wanted to leave his current job and start a poker magazine. Even though it was a full year after Chris Moneymaker had won the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event, and after Greg Raymer had followed in 2004, but the poker boom was really still in its stages of infancy.
“It was a little bit crazy putting the first issue of the magazine together,” recalls Kleid. “We did not know as much about poker as we thought we did. But we knew that poker was growing, and we were interested in poker. There was a void in the market — no one was really covering the players and the lifestyle of the game.”
There was a lot of legwork involved in getting the debut issue of BLUFF together, but it wasn’t hard to get potential contributors excited about working for a new poker publication. After sending out feelers all over the industry, the response was great. Well, sort of.
“We contacted a lot of poker players to write content for us, and we had a ton of content come in,” said Kleid. “But a lot of it we didn’t like.”
With more of an eye toward the strategy of the game — which had become the standard when writing about poker — most of the writers and players didn’t have the vision that the founders of BLUFF were looking for. One player managed to stand out above the rest, and despite it being a little rough around the edges that story became the measuring stick for everyone else who got involved.
“A lot of the writers were used to writing a certain way, but the breakthrough for us — the one that we showed as this kind of template for anyone looking to write for us — was the piece we got from Antonio Esfandiari.”
Esfandiari’s piece lacked a little polish, but it highlighted the over-the-top personality, potential and excitement surrounding a player who was just starting to make his way in the poker world.
“[Antonio] had already won the LA Poker Classic in grand fashion, and he was the young, hip guy who had this voice we were looking for,” said Kleid. “It was ‘poker like a rockstar.’ We would send it off to other people and say we’re looking for something like this.”
Not only did Esfandiari set the standard, but he’s continued to contribute to BLUFF for the last 10 years. Even with a WPT title in his back pocket, though, he wasn’t among those considered as the first cover subject for BLUFF.
“We had the opportunity to put Jimmy Woods on the cover, and we thought that was pretty cool,” said Kleid. “He was a big name, maybe not the biggest in poker, but it was our first issue. After we put out that first issue we actually ran with the idea that we were going to put mainstream celebrities on the cover.”
Morris and Kleid set out to build a small staff to help put together the first issue out of the basement of Morris’ home. Among those tasked to bring their vision of BLUFF into reality was Jeff Markley, one of Kleid’s former co-workers at RealTime gaming. Few could have realized how successful the magazine was going to be, and with a newborn child back home, it took some time before Markley could commit full time.
“For the first few months, I was just freelancing, helping build the website and working on the technology side,” said Markley, whose original title at BLUFF was IT director before he eventually ascended to the role of vice president of online operations — a title he still holds today.
Once they had finally put the finishing touches on the premier issue of BLUFF and sent it out into the world, it simply exploded in popularity. It was the right publication at the right time for a hungry audience, but they’d need some time to build an operation that was up to the standard of the magazine they were producing.
“Right off the bat it was crazy successful,” said Kleid. “In the beginning, we operated it out of Eric’s basement, and at one point we had seven or eight people working out of there. We had so many copies out there, on newsstands and in casinos, and we were doing so well early on that people just assumed that we were bigger than we really were.”
“We were in the black in the first month,” continued Markley. “We were working out of that basement for I want to say somewhere around 90 days. Then we just made the decision that, because we were starting to have some clientele that wanted to come and drop by the office, wanting to see the whole operation, that we didn’t want to just give them Eric’s address and have them come down to his basement.”
Even in the magazine’s earliest days there was a lot of money coming in, so rather than reveal that they were operating like the great and powerful Oz behind a curtain, they decided to avoid the problem for the time being.
“People called us up, wanting to come down and visit,” said Kleid. “When we got them on the phone we’d mentioned that we just so happened to be heading to LA next week anyway, why don’t we just come to your office. Then we’d have to go buy a ticket and fly to LA because we didn’t want anybody to know that we were such a small operation. That didn’t last for too long, obviously, and we moved into offices and started bringing more people on shortly thereafter.”
A tidal wave of momentum helped make BLUFF the industry standard in short order, and they even managed to attract attention and notoriety from forces outside the world of poker.
“At one point early on, we grew so fast that by our fourth issue I think we were printing 250,000 copies a month. We were all over newsstands and it was just selling off the charts,” said Kleid. “People at RR Donnelley were asking who we were, and trying to figure out what was going on. They’d never seen sales numbers like that before.”
BLUFF quickly settled into its new office space in Atlanta, and continued to build on their reputation — one that started with the creation of the magazine itself, but soon became so much more. In creating and constantly improving the BLUFF website, they attracted the attention of the biggest brand in the game. What followed was a mutually beneficial deal that helped grow both parties.
“We grabbed the World Series of Poker digital media rights,” said Markley. “We also brought another technology guy in-house and helped create the backbone of live updates on WSOP.com that they’re still using today. We took the World Series of Poker site from where it was basically a digital brochure for all intents and purposes, and started to build it into this juggernaut.”
Between being one of the first to stream final tables with hole cards, to revolutionizing the way tournaments were covered, BLUFF quickly became entrenched as one of the most well-respected entities in the poker industry. BLUFF continued to evolve in its role within poker, telling the stories of players exploding onto the live scene while keeping an eye on an ever-growing online poker world.
As the game of online poker reached its peak, BLUFF recognized the standout players in that arena and provided some of the first insights into the lives of those who’d someday transition into crushing the live arena too. After seven years of excellence, however, the biggest challenge in BLUFF’s history — and the modern poker world itself — threatened to derail everything.
Black Friday put everyone in the industry on high alert, and like everyone else BLUFF had to adapt or die. With advertising dollars drying up overnight, a small, committed group of people passionate about the game of poker had to dig in their heels and do everything in their power to keep going.
As the proverbial grey clouds showed their first signs of clearing nearly a full year after the events of Black Friday, one of the most prestigious companies ever involved with the world of gaming showed interest in buying BLUFF. Churchill Downs officially purchased the company in early 2012, and helped put BLUFF on that path to success that it’s enjoyed ever since.
“Being acquired by Churchill has been fantastic,” said Kleid. “Having access to the resources of Churchill Downs, and the association with their prestigious brand just adds to our credibility in what we do these days. We are almost certainly doing better today, because of our acquisition, than we were in the days after Black Friday.”
A Lot Can Change in 10 Years …
Reading the first issue of BLUFF Magazine is like looking into a perfectly preserved time capsule into the year 2004. There were already PokerStars ads featuring Chris Moneymaker and Greg Raymer, the last two World Champions of poker, along with an ad featuring one of the first iterations of Team Full Tilt and a PartyPoker promo hyping the WPT PartyPoker Million.
But along with the PokerStars, PartyPokers and Full Tilts of the world was an ocean of brands that flamed out or faded away. Paradise Poker was in its heyday, as were Bodog, Pacific Poker, PokerRoom and even Absolute Poker and Ultimate Bet — then separate entities. They were all in that debut issue, along with also-rans like SunPoker, Platinum Poker, Superior Poker, True Poker and others that would soon fall into anonymity.
Some of the casinos the poker world would come to know and love over the next decade through World Poker Tour or ESPN broadcasts were there, too. Bay 101 featured prominently, as did Foxwoods and the Commerce Casino, who occupied the back cover. There was even an ad for the 2004 U.S. Poker Championship at the Taj Mahal, which would eventually air on ESPN. With the state the Taj Mahal is currently in, on the brink of extinction, it’s easy to forget how big a role it played early on in the poker boom — thanks in no small part to its inclusion in the movie “Rounders.”
Numerous poker luminaries penned articles for the first issue of BLUFF Magazine. Yes, Annie Duke and Howard Lederer each figured prominently with their columns, years before their falls from grace in the poker world would make their names toxic. Antonio Esfandiari’s “Poker Like a Rockstar” column helped set the standard, but Josh Arieh’s recollection of a robbery at the Aviation Club in Paris and Andy Bloch’s Poker by the Numbers column each stand out as high marks in that first issue.
A feature on Poker Royalty also sits prominently near the middle of that first issue, providing the first few signs of the juggernaut poker agent Brian Balsbaugh would eventually come to build. It wasn’t all great, though. A theoretical sit-n-go that instructed readers to fold pocket queens with 8.5 big blinds in the small blind five-handed is certainly not among BLUFF’s proudest moments, but it pales in comparison to the Poker Quiz near the back of that first issue.
Asking 20 questions that are fairly laughable when read a decade later, the amount of questions answered correctly had players ranked as minnows, flounders, bluefish, barracudas or sharks. Yikes.
It’s easy to judge that kind of content as cheesy, and it is. But in laying the foundation for what BLUFF would become in the 10 years that followed, the good far outweighed the bad — and things would get better in a hurry.
- Ichiro Suzuki breaks the all-time record for hits in a season, finishing the 2004 season with 262. The previous mark was set 84 years earlier by George Sisler.
- After two years off the airwaves in any format, Opie and Anthony debut on XM Satellite Radio.
- The Red Sox pull off the first-ever comeback from a 3-0 deficit in the playoffs in Major League history, defeating the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. They’d go on to win the World Series, their first since 1918.
- George W. Bush defeats John Kerry to win re-election to his second term as U.S. president.
- “Halo 2” earns over $125 million on the first day of its release, with 2.4 million copies of the video game sold — shattering previous records.
- U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft resigns.
- Mozilla releases the first official version of its Firefox web browser.
- NBA stars Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson, Jermaine O’Neal and Ben Wallace are among those involved in an incident labeled the “Malice at the Palace” — a brawl that spilled into the crowd and eventually led to players fighting against fans. Artest is suspended for the remainder of the 2004-05 NBA season.
- World of Warcraft is released.
- Ken Jennings ends his 75-episode streak on Jeopardy.