The poker world continues to evolve and develop as regulation becomes the norm not just here in the United States but around the world as well. Even with that constant change, it seems that the most powerful people in the industry haven’t changed much in the past 12 months.
As we do every year, BLUFF polled a total of 60 industry insiders from around the world to gauge who’s really controlling the direction of poker. Included in that group were journalists, online and land-based operators, players as well as members of previous Power 20s. Now in its ninth year, the BLUFF Power 20 has become one of the most anticipated stories of the year.
The top five names include only one new name and the list includes 12 returnees from last year. A total of seven people are making their inaugural appearance on the Power 20 with one returning after a two-year absence.
NOTE: Voters were given the following instructions “Vote on who you believe has the most positive impact on poker and rank them from 1 – 20.” The ballots were then compiled by BLUFF staff and run through a scoring system that takes into account total number of votes, average placement and frequency of votes.
Not on Twitter
2013 Rank: 1
Last year Mark Scheinberg shared the top spot with his father, and PokerStars founder, Isai Scheinberg. Part of the settlement between PokerStars and the U.S. Department of Justice meant the patriarch had to step aside from day-to-day operations and if the votes of Power 20 voters are any indication, Mark has indeed taken over control of the world’s largest poker company. The older Scheinberg did receive some votes of his own, but for the first time since the voting system was created, he did not receive enough votes to qualify for inclusion.
As a sign of Mark’s increased importance, in June, Mark Scheinberg reached a settlement of his own with the DOJ. He shelled out $50 million for a “full and final resolution of any claims by the United States against PokerStars.” It’s hoped that this settlement is the first of a couple that could eventually pave the way for PokerStars to re-enter the United States in regulated markets.
CEO, Caesars Interactive Entertainment
2013 Rank: 2
After years of waiting, Mitch Garber finally got to hit the launch button on his online poker operations under the WSOP brand. In September 2013, WSOP.com went live for real money in Nevada. Two months later WSOP.com was part of the group of sites that went live in New Jersey. Since the launches, WSOP.com has become the busiest site in Nevada and the second busiest in New Jersey, behind partypoker.
Garber has been with Caesars Interactive Entertainment since 2009 as the company chased real money gaming opportunities both internationally and in the United States. With the site now live in the two states, Garber’s focus has shifted slightly to getting other states to get on the regulation bandwagon, most likely by keeping “bad actors” — companies who continued to do business in the United States after UIGEA — out of the picture.
2013 Rank: 3
It had been seven years since American players had been able to play on partypoker.com. That all changed in November when the company launched in New Jersey alongside a handful of other operators. It took only hours for nj.partypoker.com to take top spot among online poker rooms in the Garden State. At the helm of that historic event was bwin.party CEO Norbert Teufelberger.
Within weeks of the relaunch, Teufelberger was front and center for the first mainstream media moment of the regulated world. Joined by Mike Sexton, Teufelberger was stateside as the company announced a partnership with the New Jersey Devils of the National Hockey League and the Philadelphia 76ers of the National Basketball Association. The marketing partnership was the first of its kind in the U.S. and sent a clear signal to the rest of the market that party wasn’t playing for small stakes.
Director of the Division of Gaming Enforcement, New Jersey
Not on Twitter
2013 Rank: NR
The highest ranking Power 20 debut this year, David Rebuck has quickly became one of the most important people in poker now that New Jersey has regulated online gaming. As the director of the Division of Gaming Enforcement in New Jersey, Rebuck is the gatekeeper and rule-maker for any licensees looking to get themselves online and available to the nearly 9,000,000 in that state.
While Nevada seems content to offer poker only inside its own borders, gaming interests in New Jersey are far more obvious in their desire to begin working with other states on compacts. Rebuck will find himself with even more stroke should that come to pass.
Last year, the Garden State was represented most notably on the Power 20 by Gov. Chris Christie. Now that the law has been passed with the stroke of Christie’s pen, he’s off the list entirely.
Executive Director, World Series of Poker
2013 Rank: 5
When you look at the 2014 World Series of Poker schedule the one thing you should see but might not is the fingerprints of Ty Stewart. As the executive director of the WSOP, Stewart is tasked with finding ways to make it bigger and better every year.
Last year, the “Millionaire Maker” tournament, a $1,500 buy-in event with $1 million guaranteed to the winner, was his idea. He went even bigger for 2014. That $10 million guarantee for first place in the Main Event? The one that poker media debated the merit of while mainstream media talked about it for days? That’s Stewart’s baby.
Players may not realize how much of the “show” comes from Stewart. Always looking for a way to increase the WSOP profile, Stewart is the guy behind the Buffer introductions, the Kobe Bryant/Jerry Buss promo spot last summer, the Eiffel Tower party and tournament last WSOPE. He’s also the one pushing ESPN for increased coverage.
2013 Rank: 6
Any young poker players that are hoping to attract a sponsor one day should probably follow the example set by Daniel Negreanu. After 10 years in the spotlight, he’s easily the most marketable poker player in the world and takes full advantage as the face of PokerStars, the world’s largest online poker site. He’s very active on Twitter, posts written and video blogs on FullContactPoker.com (his own site) and handles mainstream and poker media interviews with ease and makes himself available for nearly everybody.
Don’t assume though that Negreanu is just about commercials and photoshoots. In 2013, he won BLUFF Player of the Year and WSOP Player of the Year in what he has said was his best year ever. As media savvy as he is, Negreanu, one of only two people to have made the Power 20 each year since its inception, knows that without results on the felt his earning potential just isn’t the same.
Group Director of Poker, bwin.party
2013 Rank: NR
When Bill Frist blindsided the poker world with the UIGEA in 2006 it seemed to be a near knockout blow for PartyPoker.com, at the time the world’s largest online poker operator. It left the U.S. market pretty quickly but this November the company made its way back into the market via the regulated environment in New Jersey. While CEO Norbert Teufelberger is ultimately responsible for the profits and losses, the “poker guy” at the company now is Jeffrey Haas.
Haas joined bwin.party in September, coming over from PokerStars where he had been a high-ranking executive since late 2006. Haas, working as the right hand man of Teufelberger, is now directly responsible for growing the poker business, particularly in New Jersey where just three months in party is far and away the leader.
New Jersey Senator
2013 Rank: 11
One day down the road, poker historians will look back at the work of Raymond Lesniak, a New Jersey state senator, and credit him with helping bring online poker back to the United States. Last year, he was No. 11 on the Power 20, thanks largely to the state bill he sponsored, A-2578, which gave Atlantic City casinos the right to run online poker and casino games on an intrastate setup. That bill eventually became law but Lesniak hasn’t stopped there.
In late 2013, Lesniak began making a push to have New Jersey become a regulatory hub for markets not just in the United States, but around the world. In January, he introduced a bill that, if passed into law, would create a new license category: “Restricted Foreign Internet Wagering.” These new licenses would allow companies to offer regulated online gaming to other countries. As currently written, the bill does not allow for shared liquidity between these markets and the United States but this is seen as a first step in that process and could make New Jersey a major player internationally.
Not on Twitter
2013 Rank: NR
Look closely at the three states that offer regulated online poker and you’ll see that there’s only one brand that has made its way into all three: 888.com. They have a statewide exclusive in Delaware, partnerships with WSOP.com in both Nevada and New Jersey as well as an 888-branded product in both states. The man at the top of 888 is Brian Mattingley, CEO.
During a recent 888 earnings call, Mattingley hinted at yet another state that 888 could find its way into: California. On a state-by-state basis there might not be a more desired state than California but the complexity of tribal gaming there makes it a difficult one to conquer as any legislation is going to need to include enough of a share for all parties. Not surprisingly, Mattingley has hinted that 888 is already lined up with one or two partners in that state that should give them ample opportunity to continue expanding their American footprint.
Chairman, Nevada State Gaming Control Board
Not on Twitter
2013 Rank: 10
Any movement on the online gaming front in Nevada is going to have to go through the desk of A.G. Burnett. As the chairman of the Nevada State Gaming Control Board, Burnett oversees the regulations and licensing process for land-based and online operators in the state. When he was appointed to the role in late 2012, Gov. Brian Sandoval went out of his way to mention Burnett’s experience working with other regulated jurisdictions (most notably in Asia) as the GCB moved “into the next generation of gaming.”
The first few months of online poker in Nevada haven’t been a huge revenue generator for anybody involved and most know that it will take compacts with other states and countries to make it really work as a business. Nevada’s history as a gaming regulator should be a huge advantage as they go looking for partners to work with and Burnett will be at least partially responsible for convincing other states of the abilities of the GCB.
Chairman, Ultimate Gaming
2013 Rank: NR
The last two years have seen Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta on the Power 20, representing Station Casinos and Ultimate Gaming as that company prepared to get into online gaming. Now live in two states, voters shifted their attention to Ultimate Gaming’s Chairman Tom Breitling. When the company announced its real money launch in Nevada, it was Breitling who was front and center for the media blitz that followed and was a champion not only for his fledgling company but for regulated online poker in the United States.
Breitling has great experience in the online business world, having created and sold Travelscape to Expedia for $100 million, and the gaming industry as a one-time owner of the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas. He’s smart enough to surround himself with talented, experienced people at Ultimate Gaming. He has Tobin Prior, who previously oversaw international gaming for Kerzner International, as CEO, Chris DeRossi, former CEO of CyberArts, as CTO and Joe Versaci, a former PokerStars marketing executive, as CMO.
2013 Rank: 14
Joining Daniel Negreanu as the only other person to have appeared on every Power 20 since its inception, Brian Balsbaugh continues to be a force to be reckoned with. As the founding father of the “poker agent” business, Balsbaugh has seen it all since he founded PokerRoyalty just more than 10 years ago. He still represents some of the biggest names in poker: Doyle Brunson, Antonio Esfandiari and, of course, Negreanu.
While player sponsorship dollars aren’t as lucrative as they once were, Balsbaugh continues to find ways for poker players to use their public profile to earn income. Some of his clients are hotly sought after as speakers and guest at conventions and conferences and can earn a pretty penny simply for showing up. He is also greatly positioned to take full advantage of the “new age” of online poker in the United States as more and more sites begin to look for ways to promote their product.
Executive Director, Poker Players Alliance
Not on Twitter
2013 Rank: NR
Back on the Power 20 for the first time since 2011, Poker Players Alliance Executive Director John Pappas has had himself a busy year. While the Garden City Group, the company hired to handle Full Tilt Poker remissions payments for U.S. players, has been tight-lipped about a lot of the process, it has been Pappas who has been able to get information out to players while campaigning on behalf of players who may have been initially left out of the process (affiliates, red Full Tilt pros, etc.).
As Sheldon Adelson continues his fight to ban online gaming in the United States, Pappas finds himself afforded a bigger stage and another opportunity to use the PPA pulpit to be one of the voices of reason. Adelson may not realize it but his campaign could actually be helping the PPA cause by rallying the troops a little bit and putting Pappas at the top of the discussion again.
President, World Poker Tour
2013 Rank: NR
Taking over the top spot at World Poker Tour from CEO Steve Heller (2013 Power 20 No. 18), Adam Pliska manages one of the longest standing brands in poker. That’s somewhat fitting since Pliska has been with WPT for 12 years, and has managed to survive multiple ownership changes as well as a public offering. Before Heller was shown the door last year Pliska had been serving as his right-hand man.
Not long after taking the reins, Pliska oversaw the creation and launch of Alpha8, the WPT’s new high roller tournament series. That, along with the accompanying broadcast partnership with Fox Sports 1, puts the WPT in millions and millions of American homes each week. That type of exposure has already helped attract headphone maker Monster as an official, non-endemic sponsor in what could be the first of many for WPT under Pliska.
Chief Executive Officer and President, Caesars Entertainment
Not on Twitter
2013 Rank: 7
A big drop from his 2013 Power 20 ranking (No. 7) for Caesars CEO and President Gary Loveman, but, as with the shifting of votes for other U.S-facing online operators, it seems voters gave more credence to those directly involved with day-to-day operations. Yes, Loveman is still the top man at the company that owns the most important American brand in poker, the WSOP, and the online poker site attached to it, WSOP.com but in terms of direct influence on poker itself, Ty Stewart and Mitch Garber are more focused on poker and may have more of an immediate impact.
Still, Loveman carries clout outside of Las Vegas, and as a longstanding executive of one of the world’s most reputable gaming companies, acts as a voice of reason in regulation discussions as Sheldon Adelson plays the role of crazy old neighbor who hates technology. With Caesars properties scattered across the United States, Loveman could be an important cog in the state-by-state regulation process.
President and CEO, American Gaming Association
Not on Twitter
2013 Rank: NR
While the PPA lays claim to the voice of the players in the fight for regulation, the American Gaming Association is the top advocate for commercial gaming interests and Geoff Freeman is their leader. As president and CEO of the AGA Freeman is another one of the top voices fighting for regulation of online poker in the United States and one of the more well-spoken opponents of Sheldon Adelson and his anti-online lobby.
The AGA’s interests are largely with U.S.-based operators (including BLUFF parent Churchill Downs Inc.) and thus it has worked against the inclusion of PokerStars in New Jersey and will most likely do so in California and other battleground states moving forward. Freeman is new to gaming but not to the lobbying movement. Prior to AGA, he worked with American travel and pharmaceutical companies in a lobbying role.
President, European Poker Tour
Not on Twitter
2013 Rank: 16
Undoubtedly the World Series of Poker is the most respected tournament series in the world but the battle for No. 2 on that list comes down to the World Poker Tour and the European Poker Tour, of which Edgar Stuchly is president. Now in its 10th season, the EPT is a major part of PokerStars’ distribution strategy and players continue to turn to the online poker giant to qualify in hopes of turning a satellite buy-in into millions of dollars and poker fame.
Stuchly joined EPT in 2011 and quickly made a name for himself by working with smaller, regional tours to make EPT stops more than a one or two tournament event. The Season 10 schedule includes eight stops, the same as Season 9, with one event shifting from Berlin to Vienna. The Season 10 schedule, which Stuchly is ultimately responsible for, also includes the controversial San Remo-Monte Carlo double leg which essentially conflicts with the World Poker Tour Championship.
Director of Pro and Celebrity Marketing, PokerStars
2013 Rank: NR
If it seems like PokerStars Team Pros are literally everywhere in poker, you can thank John Caldwell for that. As the director of Pro and Celebrity Marketing for the online poker behemoth, Caldwell oversees a stable of players that includes Negreanu, Chris Moneymaker, Jason Mercier, Jonathan Duhamel and Vanessa Selbst. Picking the right type of player to represent the company — media savvy, presentable and capable of actually playing poker — is part of Caldwell’s job.
Team Pros are just part of his job though. He also oversees the celebrities and athletes the company works with including soccer star Ronaldo and tennis superstars Rafael Nadal. While some observers might think those two athletes represent nothing but a money-losing publicity stunt, the reality is that they’re great at capturing the attention of new poker players, something online operators struggle to perfect.
2013 Rank: 13
As the owner of PokerNews.com, Tony Guoga — you know him better as Tony G. — is responsible for backing the world’s most trafficked poker portal. However, in the last year Guoga has shifted his focus to running for office in his native Lithuania and has let Robbie Davies and Jon Squires, the managing director and CEO at iBus Media, PokerNews’ parent company, handle more of the day-to-day operations.
The last two years in particular have seen the poker media landscape shift dramatically but strong relationships with the WSOP, PokerStars-backed live events and online poker sites around the world have kept PokerNews strong. Guoga’s fall from No. 13 is probably representative of shifts amongst the voters as to how much involvement he has with PokerNews given his other pursuits.
Executive Tour Director, World Poker Tour
2013 Rank: 19
Matt Savage is easily the most visible tournament director in the world. While his colleagues Jack Effel and Neil Johnson are heading up the WSOP and EPT respectively, Savage is the executive tour director of the World Poker Tour, but that’s just a fraction of Savage’s reach. He also serves as the tournament director at Bay 101 in San Jose, California, the Commerce Casino in Los Angeles, California, and Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood, Florida. Those events are some of the longest running and most well-attended events outside of the World Series of Poker.
Savage also co-founded the Poker Tournament Directors Association in 2001. In the last year, he found himself navigating some controversy after the first card off the deck rule was implemented by the TDA. In the weeks and months that followed, Savage made himself readily available to players and media to defend the somewhat controversial rule and the TDA itself.
Poker Information Manager, BLUFF
BLUFF may try and lay claim to Kevin Mathers, but really he belongs to the poker community. Poker players needing info — any type of info — often turn to @Kevmath for the answer and usually get it pretty easily. He narrowly missed out on making the Power 20 this year but if his year-over-year trend continues he could crack the list in 2015.
Tennis Superstar, Team PokerStars
Even during the Moneymaker Boom period it seemed like the chances of a mainstream sports superstar signing with an online poker company were slim at best. The Spanish tennis pro signed with Team PokerStars in 2012 and has been featured prominently in marketing campaigns across all mediums. His ability to put the PokerStars brand in front of so many potential new poker players makes the deal a grand slam for the online poker company.
The poker media often takes a great deal of criticism from within the poker community but as the market has changed since Black Friday it seems voters have wanted to shine the light on three individuals.
Editor in Chief, BLUFF
The world’s leading lifestyle poker magazine, BLUFF has focused the last two years on moving to a digital-first product and at the helm of all that content is Editor in Chief Lance Bradley. BLUFF Mobile, BLUFF.com and the print version itself give poker fans three distinct ways to find BLUFF and in 2013, BLUFF signed a content partnership with ESPN.
Three years ago nobody would have been able to pick Michael Gentile out of a lineup. Now, as the editor of PokerFuse.com, Gentile is widely respected by his peers and the poker community for his vision in creating PokerFuse.com, and its offshoot F5Poker.com, and bringing them to life in a post-Black Friday world. The content covers everything from tournament recaps to legal matters and Gentile is tapped into the burgeoning U.S. online poker market.
Accurately following and understanding the rapidly changing online poker regulation battle in each of the 50 states is nearly impossible yet Chris Grove manages to find a way to do so at OnlinePokerReport.com. As more and more states appear ready to jump on the regulation train, readers looking for accurate, detailed information can quickly find it there thanks to the blood, sweat and tears of Chris Grove and his staff.
Director of Operations, Heartland Poker Tour
The Heartland Poker Tour has emerged from the failed Epic Poker League acquisition as the shining example of hard work paying off. Leading that charge has been Jennifer Mastrud, director of operations for HPT and her efforts seem to have resonated with Power 20 voters. Once focused solely on the Midwest, the HPT now has events in nine states, including California where the HPT beat out its competitors, like WSOP Circuit and DeepStacks Poker Tour, to hold an event inside the Commerce Casino. HPT programming now airs 52 weeks per year.
Business Director, Poker King Club Macau
Not on Twitter
The biggest games in the world used to run in Las Vegas and businessmen would travel from far and wide to sit down in Bobby’s Room at Bellagio for a chance to play with the likes of Phil Ivey, Doyle Brunson and Patrik Antonius. That script has been flipped now as Macau has become the high stakes poker hotbed that has pros traveling there to play big time stakes with Chinese businessmen with unlimited bankroll and a love of the gamble. The man behind the biggest games there is Winfred Yu of the Poker King Club. The businessmen want to play the pros, the pros want to play the businessmen and the Yu is the one who puts it all together.
The Disappearing Act
With eight new faces in the 2014 Power 20 that means that eight had to be pushed aside. Here’s a breakdown of the names missing from last year:
Harry Reid — Ranked No. 4 in 2013, the U.S. Senate Majority Leader received only four votes in 2014.
Mark Pincus — The luster on Zynga seems to have disappeared along with the real money gaming aspirations of the company. Pincus was No. 8 in 2013.
Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta — Station Casinos and Ultimate Gaming, companies owned by the Fertitta’s, are still represented on the Power 20 but voters shifted their attention to the people working day to day on the online product.
Chris Christie — Once Chris Christie signed the bill making online gambling legal in his state, his influence greatly diminished.
Dominik Kofert — Once the CEO of PokerStrategy.com, Dominik Kofert has left the company and moved on to non-poker pursuits.
Guy Laliberte — Still proudly pushing his OneDrop charity and the $1 million buy-in Big One for One Drop at WSOP, voters decided his philanthropy didn’t warrant a Power 20 vote.
Steve Heller — Removed as CEO of the World Poker Tour in early 2013. He was replaced by Adam Pliska who debuted at No. 14 this year.
Antonio Esfandiari — Still one of the most marketable players in poker, Antonio Esfandiari was No. 20 last year but didn’t garner enough votes to stick around for 2014.