Gonzo poker bloggers bring World Series to life in real time

12:56am… Jesus has been lurking around press row. He’s doing play by play with Hellmuth now. — Dr. Pauly, Tao of Poker blog update on World Series of Poker

Strange things are happening again in Las Vegas, and “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” That Hunter S. Thompson quote couldn’t be more apt in the world of professional poker, a backwater outlaw pursuit that’s risen to the level of hipster cool thanks to TV shows, glossy magazines and the glitzy World Series of Poker that has crowned two unknown online-qualifier champions in the past three years.

Stranger still is the rise of live Internet coverage and blogs on poker, started only as game logs for hobbyist players that turned into gonzo commentary on the surreal scenes where guards with shotguns stood beside obscene stacks of cash.

In some ways, the geeky world of blogs and the math geeks of poker were fated to collide, and you just can’t sit through hundreds of hours of unedited live TV coverage of tournament poker and stay awake. Blogs offer the chance for people to check in throughout the tournament, keep up on chip counts and see who’s dropped out and moved on up.

But still, one pioneering poker blogger who goes by the nom de blog Iggy, could barely believe that I was interviewing him for a story about poker blogs. “The fact that someone would want to interview me is really insane,” Iggy told me. “I’m shocked about the popularity of the whole thing. The whole scene came together in such a way that was so organic you couldn’t recreate it if you tried.”

Iggy is an old master, having written rambling posts at Guinness and Poker blog, for almost two years. He has been known as the Blogfather of the scene, a la InstaPundit, for helping mentor other poker bloggers and spending a lot of time linking to new blogs and other online content. But rather than the pithy one-liner posts Glenn Reynolds often employs, Iggy rolls his rants and links into what he calls uber-posts.

“Both poker and blogging are solitary pursuits, but they both have communities, message boards, newsgroups,” Iggy said. “The poker community leans on each other for different things. It’s kind of a blending of those two solitary pursuits. They work together very well. I would guesstimate there are 300 to 400 poker blogs and probably more. Two years ago, there were only a handful.”

Though the poker bloggers are a diverse group, their No. 1 profession is computer programming. Just as the early bloggers were focused on technology, the early poker blogs came from the world of information technology. And poker requires a lot of skill with statistics and math to keep up with the odds of each situation in a rapidly moving environment. Not surprisingly, one of the big crossovers in poker is Wil Wheaton, an actor who had been on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and a prolific blogger.

Perhaps the biggest driver for poker blogs was the advice given in many poker books for players to keep a journal of their play. Weblogs were the perfect way to share stories of conquest and defeat, while allowing budding players to pool their knowledge. Now, the growing poker blogging community has met for two private tournaments dubbed the World Blogger Poker Tour, and even did an online memorial tournament for player Charlie Tuttle, who died of cancer in June.

Dr. Pauly and the Poker Prof

Meanwhile, at the 2005 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, which wrapped up last week, the blogging star was Paul “Dr. Pauly” McGuire, a struggling screenwriter and novelist who became a poker fanatic. He started writing about his poker proclivities on his regular blog, The Tao of Pauly, until it angered his friends who were tired of reading about poker. Thus, the Tao of Poker blog was born, where McGuire gained enough fame to start freelancing for FoxSports.com and Poker Player Newspaper. He’s also done commentary for the Lord Admiral Card Club weekly podcast.

The Tao of Poker is now McGuire’s perfect writing notebook, written as a stream of consciousness about everything he experiences — from Subway workers he hits on to poker stars he urinates next to.

“The best part of the World Series of Poker was that I was doing a lot of live blogging,” McGuire told me. “It was a notebook for all my other articles I wrote. The blog entries were an invaluable source of notes for me. So whatever I wrote in my blog, I could fix it up for short stories, for novel ideas. It’s been a good tool, and it gets me out there every day. [Editors] can stop by my blog and see writing samples.”

While the ESPN commentators and other journalists on the scene stuck with the tried-and-true interviews with players as they exited the final table of play, McGuire was using johnny-on-the-spot tactics to get relaxed banter from the stars. Part of his epic post from the final day (and night and day) of coverage from the World Series, included this nugget:

Last 3 Pros I Took a Piss Next to:
1. Greg Raymer
2. Phil Hellmuth
3. Mike Matusow

Hellmuth: Hang in there Mike. You have chips. Plenty of chips. You got over $2M. Just play smart.

Mike: I told myself I wasn’t going to play any big pots today early. And I played three. Fuck.

Hellmuth: Tough spot in there. It’s hard to lay down Kings preflop like that.

Mike: The guy next to me said he folded two hearts too. Can’t believe it. I flopped a set too. Fuck.

And yes, Mike didn’t wash his hands as he left.

McGuire’s partner in crime is Joseph “Poker Prof” Smith, who birthed the LasVegasVegas.com site with his retired father, a 40-year poker veteran who snapped photos at the event and blogs under the name flipchipro.

As the No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em Championship, a.k.a. the Main Event, was winding down on Thursday and Friday at Binion’s Horseshoe, McGuire was pounding out minute-by-minute accounts in a dark corner of the room, while Smith was in his techno-bunker in an undisclosed location in the Nevada desert making sure the operation was running smoothly. Smith is a former programmer who traded in Linux security work to try to become an online poker magnate.

“I’m the server administrator [of LasVegasVegas.com], I’m the programmer, I’m the editor,” Smith said. “And when you suddenly have 100,000-plus page views coming in, in 24 hours or less, that shared account you got for 9 bucks a month isn’t looking so good.”

McGuire estimates his blog got over 1 million hits in the last two weeks of the tournament, largely driven by people refreshing their browsers to see if there were updates. Smith says his site and McGuire’s each averaged about 100,000 hits per day or about 40,000 unique visitors per day during the peak of the tourney.

Selling out or buying in?

While McGuire and Smith have been able to support themselves with their various sites and blogs, they’re not sure how sustainable it will be in the long run. Online poker rooms are illegal to run in the U.S. and questionably legal to play from the U.S. Those services such as Party Poker and Noble Poker will pay bloggers in an affiliate deal; if the blogger signs up one of their readers for the service, they get a cut of the action. Poker blogger Bill Rini used his math skill to figure out that these deals wouldn’t bring much money to bloggers.

Iggy has played both sides of the affiliate program, making a big joke of his affiliate tag, “Code Word: IGGY,” while also running a slew of affiliate banner ads and even changing his blog title to “Party Poker Blog.”

“I think it’s part of the game,” Iggy told me. “I personally would never recommend a poker site that I don’t play at personally. I make it clear on my site that I love Party Poker, because there’s no other site that has a table selection, there’s no other site with 70,000 players. My shilling is just white hot noise behind the content. That’s where the uber-posts came from, from guilt for the shilling — I felt like I had to overcompensate for shilling with more content.”

Despite the paltry payday from affiliate deals, there have been other opportunities to cash out, so to speak. Brad “Otis” Willis got a full-time gig as the official blogger for PokerStars, one of the online poker services. Willis is a former TV news reporter for the NBC affiliate in Greenville, S.C., and started blogging with a friend a couple years ago at Up For Poker.

“When I joined PokerStars … I quickly discovered that people like to read about big-time poker tournaments as they happen,” Willis told me via e-mail. “They don’t want to wait until they can see them on TV. When I live-blogged a WPT [World Poker Tour] event earlier this year, thousands of people logged on every day, every hour, and sometimes refreshed every minute to check in on the action. This year at the WSOP, people were coming to the PokerStars blog up to 100,000 times a day.”

Smith, a.k.a. Poker Prof, says he doesn’t take affiliate deals and knocks the corporate blogs at sites such as CardPlayer.com (an adjunct to the granddaddy of poker mags) for not having any outbound links.

“The only traffic that those pseudo-blogs enjoy is from their parent site,” Smith said. “I believe that’s a tell-tale sign when you’re depending on your parent site to succeed.”

Willis has mixed feelings about doing a more corporate blog alongside his personal poker blog. He declined to get into a public scrape with Smith, a friend of his, but took a more balanced view of more commercial blogging efforts.

“Corporate blogging is like commercial radio to traditional blogging’s pirate radio philosophy,” Willis told me via e-mail. “I appreciate and participate in both. I can understand why old school bloggers would feel like their medium is being co-opted by corporate bloggers. To them (and me to some degree), it must be like being the first guy to have a barbed wire bicep tattoo, only to see it marketed to the masses.”

[Post Script: Chris “Jesus” Ferguson was the person Dr. Pauly referred to in the opening quote. Jesus won the main event in the World Series of Poker in 2000. Hallelujah.]

* * * * *
Poker Blogger Profiles

A deeper look at the characters who inhabit the poker blogosphere:

Paul “Dr. Pauly” McGuire

Age: 32

Locale: Lives in New York City; now stationed in Las Vegas for various tournaments.

In a Previous Life: Was a stock broker on Wall Street, screenwriter in Hollywood and fine-arts painter in New York.

Dreams: To live-blog the Oscars and the Cannes Film Festival, and to write novels and screenplays full time.

Strangely Enough: He writes books under the pen name Tenzin McGrupp, and runs a blogzine called Truckin’.

On the rise of poker: “When I told a girlfriend that I was making more money with poker than freelance writing, she wasn’t too thrilled with it. But she ended up realizing that everyone in her acting class was psyched to watch ‘Celebrity Poker Showdown,’ it became this cool, kitchy thing. Once the hipsters got ahold of it, it became something big. That’s where it is right now, everyone wants to learn how to play. I just happened to be writing about a very popular subject.”

On the fall of poker: “On several levels, the legality issue is still up in the air. We have no idea what will happen with legislation for online gambling. And the second thing is that people are going to go broke. There’s new fish coming in every day, but someone is losing in this deal. … At some point, people are going to get sick about poker. Every time I turn on TV, there’s another poker show. … I’m just going to ride the wave until it crashes and then get out, hopefully.”


Age: 39

Locale: Cincinnati; formerly lived in Las Vegas.

In a Previous Life: Programmer and direct marketer for advertising agencies.

Dreams: To get a full-time gig as a blogger.

Strangely Enough: Some of his blog readers believe he’s really a housewife, while others think he’s a dwarf.

On the smarts of poker players: “I think poker is a deep subject to mine for the intellectually curious. It’s a subject you can’t master, it’s a game of incomplete information unlike chess. There’s so many different styles and ways to be successful. It attracts bright, curious, intellectual people. But there are a lot of people out there doing it [blogging] for themselves, to document their own play, their bankroll. That’s why I started mine.”

Poker advice from his blog: “Long ago, a poker coach once told me to take a week and never call a raise if I could help it. Talk about stretching your game — playing ‘raise or fold’ is now a game I am damn comfortable with. It’s a concept that doesn’t work as well in family pots, but is still an exercise you may want to explore for a session or two. Remember the basics: you need a better hand to call a raise with than to raise with yourself. Don’t worry if you lose — embrace the concept.”

Brad “Otis” Willis

Age: 31

Locale: South Carolina

In a Previous Life: News reporter for NBC TV affiliate in Greenville, S.C.

Dreams: Living it.

Strangely Enough: Started a non-poker blog, Rapid Eye Reality, before Sept. 11, 2001.

On whether he’s a player: “In the taxi, the cabbie had asked, ‘Are you a card player?’ At the time, I barely thought before responding, ‘Yeah, I’m a card player.’ It was an easy response to an easy question. But sometimes, responses aren’t answers. And frankly, I’m not sure I know the answer to that question. What’s more, I’m not sure I want to know.”

On making money from blogging: “There are some blog purists who believe that blogging is for starving artist types. In reality, blogging is just another form of freelance writing. If someone wants to get paid and can find people to pay them, more power to them. I, personally, have no ads or affiliate links on any of my blogs, but I don’t avoid blogs that do. It’s all about content. If a blog offers good content and also has ads or afffiliate links, I’ll still read it for the same reason that I’ll watch a good TV show or read a good magazine that has advertisements.”

Joseph “Poker Prof” Smith

Age: 27

Locale: Las Vegas.

In a Previous Life: Programmer doing Linux security firewalls.

Dreams: Turning his site into the online poker gateway for Las Vegas.

Strangely Enough: His dad, known as flipchipro, once sold an old 25-cent poker chip from the Dunes hotel on eBay for $190.

On scammer sites: “Sometimes there’s a content-scraper site that aggregates feeds or cuts and pastes [other people’s] posts on a blog. In between the posts are the ads for poker room X. And the blogger community will very quickly turn against a site like that. They have no interest in poker. They’re doing it in the hopes of turning it into a profit center and are basing it on the hard work of a lot of dedicated and passionate people.”

On affiliate programs: “Like so many questions in poker, it just depends. … People who are really blogging are doing it out of their passion and interest in poker. Once you start a poker blog and get any traffic you can’t help but be approached by poker rooms who pay you for getting them business. It’s a great opportunity for bloggers to get value for the time they put into their projects. I’ve never taken one affiliate offer. I’ve personally always been against it, not for any ethical reason, but I don’t think the online poker rooms are offering up [a fair deal] for having links on a successful poker blog.”

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.