PART SELF-HELP BOOK FOR THE ASPIRING BILLIONAIRE, PART HIGHSTAKES POKER PAGE-TUNER, I’M ALL IN, BY LYLE BERMAN, IS A POWER-DRIVEN ODYSSEY THROUGH A REMARKABLE AND FASCINATING LIFE. IN THIS EXCLUSIVE AND UNABRIDGED EXTRACT, THE MAN WHO CHANGED POKER FOREVER TELLS US THE STORY OF THE WPT FROM INCEPTION TO EXECUTION.
Some cultural historians refer to poker as “America’s card game.” Bridge or gin rummy players might take exception to that claim, but regardless, I suspect that many of you remember playing poker as a kid at a friend’s house or around the kitchen table. In high school, I remember writing a paper about the popularity of poker, and that was way back in the 1950s. I estimated that between forty and fifty million people played poker on a regular basis, usually at home or the local country club. So from the outset, I recognized the wide appeal of poker. The moment I started playing the game seriously, back in the early eighties, I also recognized that poker would work great on television.
On March 21, 1985, I wrote a two-page business synopsis entitled “Proposed Plans for a Poker Players Tournament Tour.” The idea was to develop twelve separate tournaments – eleven two-day tournaments and one three-day grand finale – to be shown on television. I tested the waters and didn’t make waves. A major obstacle was the subject matter of the show. Gambling was far less acceptable back in the eighties than it is today, and many television producers wouldn’t touch the theme because it was considered taboo. So, I dropped the idea and moved on to other things.
Enter Steve Lipscomb. Bright. Personable. Ivy League graduate. Successful attorney. Well respected filmmaker. And a man with an idea.
I first met Steve in the spring of 2000 when he approached me with his idea while I was playing in the World Series of Poker. I had just lost a lot of chips in a big pot when he walked up and told me that he wanted to bring poker into the mainstream by putting it on television. At the moment, I would have preferred to choke Steve and the guy across the table who had just beaten me out of the pot, but frankly, I was interested in what he had to say. So, I told him to get in touch with me when he put something together. Then I went back to the table and promptly got knocked out of the tournament. Steve went home and worked out a plan.
MAKING THE WPT THE PGA OF POKER
In the fall of 2001, Steve met with me in Las Vegas. He brought along his plan and two associates – Mike Sexton and Linda Johnson, both well known and respected in the poker world. I liked his proposal immediately. I had already wanted to put poker on television, and Steve had further developed that idea into an attractive package, complete with a multistop, worldwide tournament format, a set that looked like something out of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and a reality show format that captured the imagination and involvement of the viewers.
He and I both saw the need for sharing each player’s hole cards, and now, he had the technology to make it happen.
Furthermore, we both shared a vision. We wanted to take poker to the next level, to make it a spectator sport like the PGA, NBA, or NFL. We believed that tournament poker would draw a spectator base, just like the established sports leagues, but with a distinct difference: amateur players could compete against professionals. All they needed was an entry fee! Imagine trying that with the Yankees in the World Series or the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
I was convinced we had a winner. It was my old impulsiveness again; I didn’t do any research, I just went with my gut. I was certain that if we put up a quality production that showed the players’ hole cards (watching a poker tournament without seeing the players’ hole cards is like watching leaves falling off a tree), we could garner a significant viewership from among the millions of poker players around the country. Even though my 1985 attempt at televising poker tournaments had failed, these were different times and different circumstances. Gambling was no longer the taboo topic it had been in the eighties. Everywhere you looked there were shows on Vegas and gambling. Further, legal card rooms and casinos were multiplying and spreading across the country like fast food restaurants. Then there was the reality show craze on television, and we had the ultimate “Survivor,” a guy or gal that could outlast six competitors and take home a million bucks or more – all in two hours!
I told Steve to go home, work out the financials, and come up with a complete business plan. Meanwhile, I went out to see if I could round up some investors and raise the necessary funds to bankroll the idea. I already had some names in mind.
WILL DOYLE “CHIP” IN?
Doyle Brunson and Chip Reese are both poker legends. They are also my friends. Plus, they have some money. That was a trifecta in my mind, so I approached them, saying: “Guys, lets each put a million dollars of our own money into this venture, and we can get it done.”
All three of us agreed to do it. That was on a Monday. On Tuesday, I got a call from my two partners. “Lyle,” they said, “we’d like to include Jack Binion in our arrangement. He’s a good friend and he’s done so much for tournament poker he deserves to be in on the deal.” “Good idea,” I agreed. “I like Jack.”
That night, we all agreed to meet at the Bellagio steakhouse in Las Vegas to present the idea to Jack. I called Steve and told him to fly out from LA to make the sales pitch. He’s the ultimate salesman and he would have come in a heartbeat, but due to a cell phone snafu, he never got the message. I think things would have turned out differently if he had.
It fell on me to make the presentation at dinner that night. I laid out the plan and described our business strategy. Jack thought about it for a while and said, “Man, that’s a lot of money. I don’t know who’s going to buy it, and I’m not sure anybody’s going to watch it on television. Nah, I don’t think I’m in.” I guess that spooked Doyle and Chip because they decided they didn’t want in either.
It is one decision I’m sure they all regret. At the time of this writing, Doyle and Chip’s decisions cost them approximately forty-five million dollars each. In a column posted on his online poker room, Doyle laments:
When Lyle Berman…offered me a chance to buy in [to the WPT], I was so gun shy from failed investments that I turned it down. Life’s strange. Here I am, all my life taking shots at shaky investments having nothing to do with poker. Many of those shots are doomed from the get-go, and here’s one with the right people behind it, with the right vision, at the right time, involving the right game—my game— and I turn it down. Yeah, life’s strange and so are the choices that people make in life.
My next stop for financial backing was the Board of Directors at Lakes. Quite frankly, I was very apprehensive about their reaction. Our board is not as aggressive as I am with start-ups and new ideas, and many times they have said to me, “Lyle, we love you, but we just don’t think this is a good business for us to go into. Let’s stick to our roots.” It turned out that my apprehension was unfounded. They all liked the idea very much but with one caveat: The deal couldn’t go through unless Steve could secure long-term contracts to stage our tournaments in world-class casinos. With financing now assured, it was time to meet with Steve and hammer out the final terms of our deal.
My next stop for financial backing was the Board of Directors at Lakes. Quite frankly, I was very apprehensive about their reaction. Our board is not as aggressive as I am with start-ups and new ideas, and many times they have said to me, “Lyle, we love you, but we just don’t think this is a good business for us to go into. Let’s stick to our roots.” It turned out that my apprehension was unfounded. They all liked the idea very much but with one caveat: The deal couldn’t go through unless Steve could secure long-term contracts to stage our tournaments in world-class casinos. With financing now assured, it was time to meet with Steve and hammer out the final terms of our deal. But then again, so am I. It was a tough meeting. There were times we both thought the deal wasn’t going to fly.
We went back and forth for quite a while, but that’s okay. My attitude is, if you want to finish a deal, you go into a room with the people you are doing the deal with, and you sit there until you do it or you don’t.
Two hours later, we did. Lakes got 80 percent of the company while Steve and his management team got 20 percent. The only deal breaker was if Steve couldn’t line up the casinos to sponsor the tournaments. He achieved that objective, and as he likes to say, the deal “was a wrap.”
The World Poker Tour was in business.
WE STRATEGIZE AND SHOOT
When it came to capturing a meaningful market share for the World Poker Tour programs, I had three major concerns:
1. Dedicated air time
2. Length of our program
3. Number of programs to be aired
I was convinced that, if we wanted to build viewer numbers and loyalty, we needed a designated time slot each week so that people could turn to that channel and know our program would be on the air. The term for this in the industry is “appointment television.” Further, the program needed to be two hours, rather than the one hour originally suggested. I just didn’t think it was possible to capture the drama and continuity of the final table in a sixty minute time slot. From my point of view, two hours was hardly enough time to do the job well. Finally, there had to be a sufficient number of WPT tournaments broadcast so that the television industry, the advertisers, and the viewers would see the events as a series, not a one- or two-part special or documentary. That was the only way the WPT would ever be able to achieve its objective of being viewed as a true spectator sport.
We were so sure our program would be a winner that we decided to go ahead with shooting the first tournament whether we had a firm commitment from a television network or not.
If the worst came to pass and we couldn’t get a sponsor, I told Steve that we’d pay to have the show put on the air, like they do with those infomercials.
In 2002, Steve and his production crew began shooting the first of twelve tournaments at prestigious, upscale casinos and card rooms around the world. Getting poker players to participate in the tournaments didn’t prove to be a problem.
From the outset, hundreds of participants showed up ready to do battle, paying their own way in with entry fees that ranged from five thousand to twenty-five thousand dollars. During the filming of each tournament, seventeen cameras were used to capture the full action of the game, including the special WPT Cams that showed the players’ hole cards to the television audience. Added to the mix were the play-by-play comments of Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten – both well-versed in the finer points of the game – and color commentator Shana Hiatt, who gave a decidedly positive spin to the term “poker face.”
After the first tournament was shot, Steve and his production crew edited the tremendous amount of footage down to a manageable two hours, a process that took eight months to accomplish! Part of the process involved analyzing every hand played at the final table, approximately 150 of them, and selecting the thirty most memorable ones to feature on the program.
Fortunately, we never had to pay for television time to show our tournaments. The Travel Channel decided to pick up our show and agreed to our three major terms. We’d get a two hour slot in primetime every Wednesday night. In addition, the same episode would be aired back-to- back on Wednesday and again on Saturday. And, of critical importance, we’d air enough tournaments to ensure that the WPT would be seen as a television series, just like any regularly slotted program on other channels.
Everything was in place. Our first televised show was only a few days away. That’s when one of my friends, who happens to be extremely conservative when it comes to betting, decided to make me a ten thousand dollar wager that the World Poker Tour would never make a profit. This was the same guy who bet that the Yankees would beat the Red Sox in the 2004 American League Championship Series and was waiting at the betting window to collect his winnings before Game Four was even over. He’s still waiting. And he owes me ten big ones.
Writing an autobiography is a great exercise in self-analysis. What did Lyle Berman learn about himself in writing this book?
I don’t think I learned anything really new. The book is mainly about my business career, so I saw that I’ve accomplished a lot and realized that I’ve been on a kind of racetrack my whole life. But through talking about it in the book, I realized how much I’ve enjoyed that. I like to tell people I never went to work a day in my life.
What’s been the secret of your success?
I guess I’m goal-orientated, and everything I’ve done has been for the sense of accomplishment. Making money is a wonderful thing, but it was always just a by-product of doing what I do.
What’s the greatest bluff you’ve ever made in life?
(Laughs) I’ve always thought of business as a win-win situation. I’ve never seen it as me against them; I’ve always tried to conduct business so that both sides come out well. So I don’t bluff people in that sense…
How did you get involved in poker?
As kids, we played a lot of poker. Then I went to the Warthon School of Business and Finance at the University of Pennsylvania. My two roommates and I were thrown out in our junior year for running a card game. Nowadays there’s a poker club at Warthon. (Laughs) I guess it’s fair to say I was ahead of my time.
But then I went dormant for a while. When Doyle Brunson’s Super System came out in 1978, I bought it, but never read it. Then I remember picking it up in about 1981 and that kind of rekindled the flame. I was out in Las Vegas playing craps and I’d won about $10,000. So I quit and was looking for something to do, when I saw one of these $100 No Limit Hold’em tournaments. I entered and I think I lost $300, because it was a rebuy tournament. But at one point I led the tournament. Strangely enough, Tom McEvoy, who was the current World Champion, was playing in that tournament and I knocked him out. That, to me, was a big moment. I realized I’d enjoyed losing that $300 more than I’d enjoyed winning the $10,000. So I started playing a lot of tournaments. I graduated quite quickly to the high stakes games and I’ve playing them ever since.
You’re known as a great Omaha player, but is there any form of poker you don’t like to play?
I don’t really like Limit Hi/Lo games. I think there boring, and you spend too much time splitting the pot. I just like the No Limit and Pot Limit games better. When Omaha first became popular in the eighties, I was one of the first people to run a computer program to analyze the new game.
What’s the strangest bet you’ve ever made?
A group of us laid Doyle Brunson a million dollars that he couldn’t lose 200lbs in 18 months; and he did.
How did you find time to write the book when you’re so busy?
It was written with a guy called Marvin Karlins. He interviewed me for about two weeks straight. He went and wrote it and I edited it.