Strong Words From WSOP Executive Director Ty Stewart

Ty Stewart is one of the most influential people in the poker industry, but most of the work he does is behind the scenes. And he likes it that way. This week Stewart granted some of his time to discuss the year that was, and the upcoming WSOP season. In this interview Stewart voices his strong opinion on how he thinks Ryan Riess is very good for poker, the terminology “poker world” is not and how the $10,000 Championship events are going to be back on the calendar.

Stewart has worked for the World Series of Poker since 2005, after departing from his position as Director of Integrated Marketing for the National Football League, to help and build a brand unlike any other in the world of poker. Earlier this year, at the end of May, Stewart joined Twitter under the handle @wsopSUITd and opened himself up to suggestions, criticism, praise and banter. Looking back Stewart thinks it was a good move to join Twitter and he will continue to be active.

“It’s been a lot of fun for me, first of all,” Stewart starts out, “The reason I got involved was truly to have a better finger on the pulse of what players are thinking. I’ve been very critical of other poker organizers obsessed with self-promotion, so I felt a bit like a fraud firing up the profile, but it’s been invaluable. I’m following around 500 players right now and I’ve said I’ll follow anyone I know to be a player at any of our events. My nature is to be a little bit playful, have fun on the job and give the needle when I can. I think some people are a little surprised by that tone from a corporate “suit”. I think it has been overwhelmingly positive to gain more information and identify problems in real time and I think it’s important for players to know we’re not ducking their criticisms in some ivory tower,” Stewart said, as he has been a part of many discussions throughout the year on Twitter.

Ty Stewart’s first Tweet last May.

Looking back on 2013 there were once again plenty of big storylines to cover and Stewart shares with us his views on the year that was.

“If we’re grading the WSOP “Year in Review” this had to be one of, if not the very best year ever. We broke all-time participation records in Vegas and on the Circuit. We had some events, like the Millionaire Maker and the One Drop High Roller, which just blew away expectations. The expanded coverage of the Final Table on ESPN had a lot of buzz; creating a night we were a top trending topic. We launched a game with Microsoft. Bought a studio from Electronic Arts and saw the WSOP social game soar to top 10 in the App Store ahead of YouTube and Instagram. Had millions of bags of Ruffles promoting poker in nearly every supermarket in the country. And all of that pales in comparison to the history made seeing the WSOP brand launch online in Nevada and New Jersey. It was a big and exciting year.”

Asked for specific storylines Stewart found most memorable, he noted:  

“It was definitely “the year of the Negreanu” from a dominant win in the APAC Main Event to his last shot victory to secure the POY, it was incredible to witness. Even Daniels hair had run-good this year,” Stewart said. “It was very gratifying to see Doyle make a deep run into the money at the Main, after most of us thought he was skipping it. Being able to stand on the same stage as Dolly and hand him a seat card, and then watch him chip up into contention, that’s something I’ll never forget.

When looking back on events like WSOPE and APAC it reminds us of the fact that from 2014 there will be some big changes. We asked Stewart if it was a hard decision to discontinue hosting two international events every calendar year.

“No, that was a very easy decision. It was common sense. You can’t take lightly that players have been giving much of their lives, much less their wallets, to chasing a place in WSOP history. So it’s our responsibility to make sure anything we do is something they will get excited about. It’s pretty fundamental to listen to your customers, and the theme I hear constantly is it’s hard to be a poker player nowadays, particularly a traveling professional on the tournament Circuit.

“It’s borderline unreasonable to ask players to outlay travel costs for a one-off with a 10% chance of return. I think it has gotten way out of hand, too many organizers are watching Field of Dreams. If I were a player, I’d only be able to justify a handful of trips per year. There’s just not enough value. This is why we shifted the international model to be closer to Vegas, a super event with more action, more tournaments, in tighter windows, with significant media coverage and fan interest. Where you can post up in one location, amortize your travel investment and absorb the variance of tournament poker. I looked at the spring calendar and it was just a light bulb moment that now was the time to evolve. April was so cluttered it’s almost comical. We don’t want to be part of the problem. We want to transcend the norm. So we’d rather be the one to circle the wagons versus standing pat out of ego. There are many things we can’t control. We can’t control the pace of online regulation. We can’t control the economy. But we can control our value proposition.”

The deal between the WSOP and Barrière Casino in France ended after this year’s WSOPE. This however was not part of the decision to not organize a European event.

“Not at all, I think Barrière is very interested in having us back and Cannes is once again a solid option for the future. If we look at things objectively, every year’s turnout in France was significantly better than each year in London. It’s just that 2011 was such a juggernaut. We are continuing to discuss options with Barrière, who’s a great partner in every sense of the word. They care deeply for customer service; they’ve really staged WSOPE with class, and helped populate the fields in a very tough French marketplace. They will have a real shot at keeping the event going forward, but we’re continuing to evaluate all options. The next host is a hugely important decision. But it’s somewhat secondary. It was time to address making the overall event stronger going forward, wherever we go.”

At the WSOPE in Enghien-les-Bains Stewart, interview by Bluff, called the event a “marketing exercise,” and he does not think shifting to one international event per year will change that.

“We’re not planning to make any profit from the international events any time soon. I know that’s something that’s surprising to many. We spend every dime on television coverage, on marketing, on epic firework displays. I’ve always felt it’s our responsibility to grow the game globally, which sounds like a bad line but it’s a true sentiment. We are the World Series of Poker and if we’re not going to do it, then who is? I think many of the tournament organizers have thinly veiled commercial objectives; they run their events as infomercials and everyone’s a part of the machine. We don’t have those business models. Online poker is illegal in Australia and Asia; we have few interests in Europe. We do this primarily because we believe in poker for the long haul. We believe in giving poker a stage where poker can celebrate 45 years of history, and come off a little more credible and a little closer to sports. We’re a long way from Fremont Street. This is now a global game. We’re the World Series of Poker, and so it makes sense to have some of our championships contested around the world to fuel growth,” Stewart said.

 Ty Stewart introducing Greg Merson for the 2013 Main Event shuffle up and deal

Staging WSOP APAC in Melbourne opens a window of opportunity for catering to select Macau players famous for nosebleed stakes. Stewart however, emphasized that high rollers will not be the exclusive target of the October series when the schedule is announced.

“With more bracelets on the line, each international event will become closer to what we do in Vegas. That means we’re going to have something for everyone. Will we have a high buy-in event? Sure we will. Will we have lower buy-in events and mixed games, even if that looks like a bad idea on paper? Yes we will. We want the international events to have the same general DNA as Vegas,” Stewart said about the upcoming changes for the international series scheduling.

The biggest event of all was hosted in the summer of 2012 when the Big One for One Drop event was organized for the first time and sold out completely at 48. This upcoming year the event will be back with a 56-player cap and Stewart think it will sell out again even though it’s no longer a novelty.

“I’m keenly aware of just how arrogant it may sound to predict a sellout. But I do fully expect we will reach that 56-player cap. A million-dollar event is something players were talking about for decades and thought it was a pipe dream. Now they see it’s very real. And businessmen like Guy and David Einhorn, Richard Yong and Bill Perkins; they’re proving that they can swim with these sharks, which I think will inspire more recreational players to come forward. I have already been approached by over a dozen potential new players who either have intents to play, or are putting together the required backing to be able to play,” Stewart said about this enormous event.

“We believe there’s going to be more coverage this time than in 2011, because those who heard about the legend of this tournament, some of the bigger main stream media, only learned about it after the fact. They won’t miss covering a $20 million first place-prize. We are also in the final planning stages of some significantly enhanced television coverage, which we think that event deserves and requires. I think it will once again provide a very unique platform for poker that is fascinating and something we are very proud to organize with Guy. And let’s not forget that we may raise in the ballpark of $7 million for One Drop this summer through poker events, which is just staggering when you think about it,” Stewart said.

People love using terms like “good for poker” and “bad for poker” but not everyone seems to think that these things still exist in the current climate. Does the WSOP Main Event champion still have a large affect on the media interest? Stewart believes that good and bad poker still exists, and that Ryan Riess belongs in the former category.

“Yes, I always believe in remembering what’s “good for poker” and trying to avoid doing what’s “bad for poker”. We were all spoiled by the sonic boom when everything came easy, but fear that this would all just crater and go away, was just as real not long ago. I certainly appreciate every win more, every baby step and celebrate things “Good for Poker”. Like Ryan Riess’ decision to wear his hometown Detroit Lions jersey, that was so “good for poker” if look at everything that came from that. The Detroit Lions, part of an uber-conservative organization, plugging tune-in from their official account, the amazing Bill Simmons Tweets and the best receiver in football talking up the new poker champ in news conferences. Ryan could have worn a hoodie with somebody’s patch, and whether he knew it or not, he did something so cool for poker. Not to mention going on Gameday and almost exactly predicting the winner and total. Strong. All of that and everything about Ryan should be celebrated as “Good for Poker”.

Ryan Riess on College Gameday

“In the lead up to an event like the November Nine you always get to know some of the guys a little better than others. You start to build that bridge for when the champ is your new ambassador and I completely whiffed on it this year. JC Tran would have been considered the captain coming into the Final Table, as there was a lot of buzz around him. We hung out some with Jay, spent time in Europe with Benefield, but Ryan was a bit quieter and maybe the player I spoke to the least. In the midst of the celebration on the stage I whispered to him “we should’ve known it was you, because you never had a doubt” He had so much quiet confidence and bordering on swag and that’s so good for poker. I think he’s too nice a kid to change who he is, but selfishly I’d love to see him turn to the Dark Side. Outside of Phil Hellmuth there aren’t many players people love to hate and I think he [Riess] is going to be a fixture in poker for years to come. I was super excited how it all played out, this November Nine group was great, and both Jay and Ryan really embraced the stage.

The discussion about re-entry events recently sparked, flared up again and Stewart gives his take on the matter.

“We are selective when it comes to re-entry events to begin with. I think we always could have decided to have more of them, but we haven’t strategically. I’m guided by the notion that in a large festival we are there to celebrate all forms of the game. Re-entry events have a place, as it’s a derivative that’s played differently. Some players like it and therefor, while I don’t think we should have too many, there should at least be one or a handful. My opinion is the same about Turbo events, short handed and so on, we’re talking about a seven-week schedule and every kind of poker that you can conceive,” Stewart said.

“Everything should be in balance, but I acknowledge that it is right to be concerned about player bankrolls and player fatigue. One thing I will say is that the Main Event will never be a re-entry under my watch. As crazy as it sounds, I hear that from dozens of people a year and I see plenty of other organizers making their “Main Event” tournaments a re-entry. Short-term gains in prize pools and juice numbers might motivate some organizers, but not us. We have a long-term view of the world and we try to do right by the vision of the championship. If Jack Binion didn’t make it a re-entry, who am I to change history?” Stewart said.

Every year at the WSOP there are a series of Championship events with a $10,000 buy in. For some forms of poker this was lowered to $5,000 in recent years, but Stewart says that there will be some changes regarding these Championship tournaments.

“I think that the traditional core disciplines of the game deserve a championship event. I’m a student of the history of the WSOP and it was always that way and I agree we should put those back to 10k buy-in level. I’ve had a few years of data to look at and it’s my belief that moving back to $10,000 events will generate the biggest overall prize pools. We brought them down to $5,000 because we were concerned for player bankrolls across a long series in this era. We thought it would benefit the ecosystem, conserving ability to play more events and allowing new players to enter. But it turned out we did not double the entries in those events,” Stewart said.

“Smart people have, over the last few years, convinced we shouldn’t just obsess over participant numbers and always put those under the microscope in isolation. It’s tough because the media is always looking for that story and holding each event up as a barometer of the health of poker. But we’re going to tally it all up at the end. And if the championship events have very small fields, so be it. I see it’s true to the heritage of the old days of the WSOP. Traditionally most events at the WSOP drew a small group of excellent players who have, earned the bankroll, won entry through a satellite, or won the respect of the community to get backing to enter those events. Just like there’s a place for huge-field no limit events, there’s a place for championships of each discipline. And we plan to re-commit to having lower buy-ins for each core game as well. We’re proud to burn the torch for all the different derivatives of poker. Players have asked us to have a low buy-in event of all the core disciplines so people can enjoy them or try something new. We like that direction for 2014,” Stewart said.

 Ty Stewart awarding Vanessa Selbst with the $2,500 10-Game bracelet in 2012

Forms of poker that have not yet been introduced might also get a place on the WSOP this upcoming year.

“Jack [Effel] is cooking up a few new wrinkles, a schedule that is exciting and has some surprises. We’ll look at anything that is popular, but it’s only going to make the schedule if we think it’s a true and differentiated form of poker. Open Face Chinese is something actively discussed because it’s easy to see the great amount of skill involved. We know people are interested in even 12 game mixed. We want to challenge ourselves to cook up something new each and every year” Stewart said about possibly having some new types of poker in the Rio.

On Thursday September 19th launched their online poker website and during this spring, for the first time ever, Nevada residents will have a legal way to qualify online for the biggest tournament of the year. Stewart cannot giveaway too many details just yet about the array of qualifier tournaments, but his tease is already very promising.

It’s a little too early to give specifics, but we’re expecting to have some comprehensive qualification series. Essentially stunts of guaranteed seats and potentially some freerolls, and focusing on a step model. Bill Rini is our new Head of Online Poker, he’s been with us for a couple of months now, and he’s building it out. We were very focused on getting New Jersey up and running, and now we’re focused on putting together the calendar with regards to tent pole promotions and WSOP qualification,” Stewart said.

It was an exciting year, but what was the most gratifying to us is that it seems like the tide is turning and there’s a very unified enthusiastic community bullish on the future of poker. And while it’s going to take time with online poker, the worst days are behind us,” Stewart said.

“We are very inspired to use our resources and our brand to be a big part of moving poker forward. We hope we did just that during the tough times of the last few years and we’re very motivated to building on this momentum.

Stewart closed out with some strong words about the poker world acting like it’s a niche. Stewart strongly believes that “we” are much bigger than that.

“I always cringe a little when people use the term “Poker World” – I understand the desire to feel unified, but I hate the idea we’re putting walls up that we think we’re small and that we celebrate it. It’s more important than ever to let everyone know they’re invited to the party. Generally, I think poker still sees itself as underground and niche. We are decisively not. More people are playing poker today than golf and tennis combined. We are one of the top-rated programs on ESPN that regularly brings more viewers to the set than baseball and basketball,” Stewart said.

“Poker is still everywhere, whether it’s John McCain on his phone or Justin Timberlake in a movie. We’ve got Kobe Bryant doing shuffle up and deal, and Georges St-Pierre playing in the Main Event. Poker is relevant and poised for growth. I’ll be happy to never see the term “Poker World” again and just see a world that loves poker,” Stewart closed out with.

The 45th WSOP runs from Tuesday May 27th until July 14th. For the tenth consecutive year the event is held at the Rio Convention Center in Las Vegas. The $10,000 Main Event starts on July 5th and has three-starting flights. The opening Saturday event will be the $1,500 No Limit Hold’em Millionaire Maker event.

Last year there were 6,343 entries into this event creating a $1,198,780 first-place prize. On Sunday June 29th the Big One For ONE DROP, with a million dollar buy in, will be back. The Little One for ONE DROP is back on July 3rd and 4th with two starting days and unlimited re-entries for the first four levels on each day.

The full WSOP 2014 schedule, with 60+ gold bracelet events, will be published sometime in January.

All images courtesy of

Remko Rinkema

Remko Rinkema has covered the biggest poker tournaments in the world since 2008, including many WSOP, EPT, Aussie Millions, APPT, MCOP and Unibet Open events. As an in-depth interview and story enthusiast he tries to do things a little differently. Besides the usual writings Rinkema grabs every chance to appear on podcasts, live streams and in the occasional video.

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