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PokerStars 10th Anniversary: How the PokerStars Blog got its start

10th-ann-thumb.JPGAs part of the PokerStars 10th Anniversary celebration, PokerStars' Head of Blogging, Simon Young, asked me to take a look back at how the PokerStars Blog came to be and how it's grown in the years since we first posted in April 2005. He probably knew I couldn't do it in fewer than 500 words.


AN EXPERIMENT

Lee Jones was looking at me funny. It was across a hotel conference room full of people I'd met only a few days earlier. I knew Lee only by reputation and by the fact that he'd hired me to travel to the Bahamas to report on the 2005 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. I knew the other people even less, but I knew every one of them was looking at me in a way that made me feel uncomfortable. They were PokerStars people. Important people. People who had helped change the shape of the poker world.

No one likes to talk about it much, but I wasn't the first choice for the job. Initially, PokerStars had its eye on Wil Wheaton, an actor, writer, celebrity geek, and representative of all things new and important. He was also a poker enthusiast who had made a recent splash in Los Angeles. He was the man they wanted reporting on the PCA. Alas, Wheaton had to beg off. He was too busy. It was then he did a thing that, to this day, I have a hard time understanding. He recommended me for the job. Some guy he'd never met. Some guy who lived across the country and wrote on a personal poker blog. I learned all of this during a phone call with Lee Jones that I took from the lobby of the Excalibur hotel in early December 2004.

It was a one-off gig. I was to take a week of vacation from my job as a television news reporter. I was to board a plane, fly to Nassau, and check into a hotel room. Other than that, the plan was to offer live updates on a poker tournament. I knew poker. I had a journalism degree and nearly a decade of experience in the news business. Nonetheless, I was working without a map. Though author John Vorhaus had done something like it in the past for another poker event in Aruba, there was an implication that PokerStars wanted more than that. It wanted hand updates, color commentary, interviews, professional photographs, and just about everything you've come to expect from the 2011 poker media. The only difference was PokerStars wanted it in January of 2005. It was on me to do it. It was a very good kind of scary.

There was a lot of freedom in the fear. As I had no real roadmap, I did what I do best. I put together a quick and basic website. I talked to people, watched a lot of poker, and told the best stories I could. And then what? Well, Lee Jones started looking at me funny.

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The PCA's first blog, 2005

It became clear a few days later that the funny looks had meaning. Lee pulled me to the side of the conference room and, in a way only he could, asked, "So, how would you like to do this all the time?"

A lot transpired in the next fourteen days, but it broke down to this: I left a successful career as a television journalist and signed up for what has become a seven-year ride around the world.

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Brad Willis blogging outdoors on the Dragon Deck at the PCA

A BLOG?

"We need a newsletter," said one of PokerStars' top brass.

We were in Deauville, France in a hallway outside the Season 1 EPT Deauville main event. I'd already been to Copenhagen and watched Noah Boeken win his EPT title. We'd built another website to chronicle the EPT action, and I'd made my way to France for my third trip in two months. It was not like today. Internet connections were hard to come by. Pro poker bloggers barely existed. I covered some EPT main events as the only member of the media. I had a faint Wi-Fi connection, a laptop, an 18-inch table, and a camera. For a period of time, I was the only member of what would eventually be dubbed "the poker media. "

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The EPT Season 1 blog, 2005

Now, in this hallway in Deauville, PokerStars was looking for a good way to reach out to its players.

"How about an official PokerStars blog?" I asked.

Anyone who has ever been associated with PokerStars knows this much: the company loves to try new things. Innovation is a way of life, and the people in the company are given the freedom to experiment. It's what's made the company the success it is today.

Within a week the die was cast. There would be a newsletter and a blog. I would be responsible for both. Two months later, in April 2005, we published the first entry of this site. In it I wrote this:

"The players who compete at PokerStars know each other. They have their own heroes and villains. It is a worldwide community that comes together in the best virtual cardroom around.

Only one thing was missing: the paperboy.

Sure, we at PokerStars have ways of talking to our players. We post the news in the virtual card room lobby. We send out occasional e-mails. The thing is, the PokerStars world is so dynamic, so constantly changing, so full of fantastic stories, there remained the necessity for a sort of PokerStars newspaper.

And so this little space on the 'Net was born. And me? I'm your paperboy."



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What the PokerStars Blog looked like in 2005


Nearly, seven years later, I'm still here, but it's not been without a lot of help, guidance, and innovation inspired by countless other people. They are the dozens of people around the world who make up the network of PokerStars Blogs now led by my friend and boss, PokerStars' Head of Blogging Simon Young. More on that guy in a bit.

LIVE FROM LAS VEGAS

I won't paint this picture too vividly, but I was in bed with my wife when Dan Goldman called. It was my fifth wedding anniversary, and I was on a romantic tour of the Pacific Coast to celebrate. From a hotel room in Cannon Beach, I heard Goldman's voice. He was my boss in 2005, the head of marketing, the man I knew had been among the first people to hug Chris Moneymaker after his 2003 WSOP victory.

"We've got to get you to Vegas," Goldman said through the phone.

I looked at my wife and then out the door at the Oregon beach. "When?" I asked.

"As soon as possible," he said. "There's just too much going on here."

That phone call set the stage for how the PokerStars Blog would operate for the next seven years. The PokerStars Blog wasn't just a newsletter. It wasn't just an online poker blog. It was a go-to source for news from the biggest and most important poker events in the world.

I flew to Vegas for the World Series of Poker and spent the next five weeks embedded with a very small group of poker reporters. By the time the Main Event rolled around, people who would soon become famous in the PokerStars world had joined me. Howard Swains, a journalist from the UK, flew in to cover the European players. Mad Harper, now a fixture at PokerStars live events, came in as a roving reporter. James Hartigan, now the main man on EPT Live and other major poker broadcasts, joined us as the voice of the PokerStars Blog. In short order, we'd become what we dubbed "Team Blog," a full-service multimedia live reporting crew.

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The first WSOP Team Blog: Howard Swains, Mad Harper, Brad Willis, and James Hartigan

That year at the WSOP as we watched future Team PokerStars Pro Joe Hachem win the world championship, we saw the beginnings of how the PokerStars Blog would approach live poker reporting. It wasn't just a matter of writing that ace-king beat pocket queens or explaining how a semi-bluff got there. The PokerStars Blog and its writers looked for stories, people, and events that illustrated how great a game poker actually was. Sure, we had to report on the action, but that was something a computer could do if we programmed it right. We wanted something more.

The next year at the World Series, the PokerStars Blog had a dozen people on the ground. The 2005 team returned and joined the likes of such luminaries as Wil Wheaton and Paul "Dr. Pauly" McGuire for a marathon of reporting the Main Event. PokerStars spared no expense, and the coverage was something in which we still take pride. In 2007, Simon Young joined the WSOP reporting team and displayed a tireless work ethic that would eventually lead to his rise to Head of Blogging.

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Paul McGuire interviews Wil Wheaton

From the very beginning, working for the PokerStars Blog offered us all the opportunity to meet the people who made PokerStars so special. It almost always happened casually. I met Jason "strassa2" Strasser when he couldn't get into The Vic because he was wearing sandals. ElkY was introduced to me as a "very famous Starcraft player who is trying his hand at poker." Bernard Lee was just a guy who had gotten into the WSOP on his FPP points. And though they went on to promote other sites, I can't fail to mention I met Tom Dwan when his parents still traveled to tournaments with him, and I first encountered Patrik Antonius when he had hair at EPT Baden in 2005. As these players came up, we chronicled their exploits, successes, and failures along the way.

Of all the discussions we've had over the years about how the PokerStars Blog operated, the summer of 2008 stands out. Though both men would probably smack me for revealing their role, the conversation started when Howard Swains and Stephen Bartley got off the plane from England to join me at the WSOP. They'd been involved in a long discussion about poker reporting and its essential elements.

"Accurate. Comprehensive. Entertaining," said Swains.

It was a bit of an inside joke at first. None of us was particularly driven by corporate cheerleading or new age acronyms, but Swains and Bartley had reduced our mission to three words. We strove to avoid mistakes at all costs. We wanted to cover as much of the action as we possibly could. We did everything in our power to make the copy actually readable and fun. Accurate. Comprehensive. Entertaining.

ACE.

Yes, it was laughable. Yes, it was downright silly. But the more we joked about it, the more it drove us to take pride in what we did. In the ever-expanding world of the poker media, we wanted to make the PokerStars Blog as good as it could possibly be. It wasn't just a paycheck to us. It was our name on the byline, and we wanted to be proud of it. It all came together that year. It was the year Simon Young came on to head up the blog. It was also when we began working a great deal with Joe Giron, a photographer who cares as much about journalism as any writer or reporter I've ever met. And that was what it was all about to us. Yes, we were there to promote PokerStars, but in our minds, that job came second to actually engaging in real journalism, a trade for which we had all been trained and a profession we respected. Get the story. Get the story right. Tell the story. That was how we operated, and we did it with pride.

There are many examples over the years to which I could point, but a moment during the final stages of the 2010 WSOP exemplifies why we continue to work as hard as we have. The day and night had grown tiring and we were operating on fumes. In a moment, the biggest hand of the day emerged as the eventual champion, Jonathan Duhamel, laid an historic beat on Matt Affleck. As everyone pieced together what happened, my partner Howard Swains disappeared and stayed gone for a long time. When he returned, he had an uncharacteristic awe on his face. With very few words as a preamble, he sat down at his computer, and in an hour wrote what I consider to be the best piece ever posted on the PokerStars Blog: The Long, Lonely Walk of Matt Affleck. Along with Giron's exemplary photography, the story was representative of everything for which I'd worked since the beginning. It told one of the greatest stories of the 2010 WSOP and made sure it wouldn't be forgotten. I wish I'd written it.

IMPROVING THE INNOVATION

So, if you've read this far and put up with my waxing on how this whole thing came to be, you've read the name Simon Young more than a few times. I first crossed paths with the man in Baden, Austria when he was playing on the EPT in 2005. Before long, he'd been asked to help out with blog coverage. In 2007, he was my chief partner for the WSOP. By 2008, he was running the whole network of blogs as the newly-dubbed Head of Blogging. It's been under his direction that the PokerStars Blog has become what you see today.

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Simon Young surrounded by members of his blog team at a PCA party

In the past three years under Young's leadership, readers of the PokerStars Blog have been greeted with a lot of changes. Though they don't have a byline on them, most of the improvements you see on the blog today bear Young's fingerprints. He's helped orchestrate the massive explosion in live coverage, the expansion of the PokerStars Blog into a multitude of languages, and the multimedia experience that the blog now is. I chat with him nearly every day, and each time he's got something new up his sleeve. I know for a fact he's got plans for more cool changes in the coming months. I asked him to comment for this retrospective, but he demurred, probably knowing that a few words from him would make my eventual post even longer.

Sorry, Simon. I'm almost finished.

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One of the PokerStars Blog designs, circa 2008

A LOOK AHEAD

While PokerStars celebrates its 10th anniversary, the PokerStars Blog prepares to enter its eighth year. Looking back on what it's become, I can't help but be proud. In 2005, the whole operation was just me and some free blogging software. It's since grown into this. I like to think I played a pretty big role in making it happen, but it never would have come so far without the efforts of all the people around the world who can proudly call themselves part of Team Blog. There are far too many to mention, but if you look around the archives of this blog and its network around the world, you'll see the work of the some of the best the business has to offer. Every year we provide daily coverage of the biggest PokerStars news. You can read dispatches from Team PokerStars Pro, Team Online, and PokerStars Women. We have live event coverage all around the globe. When SCOOP and WCOOP come around, we have the first and best recaps of every event written by the best poker writers you'll read. I know I'm biased, but I find it all pretty amazing when I look at it.

It all goes back to the 2005 PCA and Lee Jones looking at me funny. These days, Lee heads up the Home Games section of PokerStars and occasionally pokes his head in to the PCA. As for Team Blog, it's a lot more than just one dude and his camera these days. When we hit the PCA, the PokerStars Blogger table is one of the biggest in the room. If you come up to us, you'll find people speaking a bunch of different languages and pounding on laptops. Our longtime friends and photographers Joe Giron and Neil Stoddart will be taking enough pictures to make a film. There will even be a short little guy named Alex who will get you a Jamba Juice if you yell at him long enough. Keep looking and Marc Convey will say something snide, and Rick Dacey will school you in the best medicated powders to cure your ails from that humid Bahamian air.

Look just a little closer and you'll find Young and me looking at a graph showing how many people are reading our coverage from day to day. Our mouths will probably be hanging open, because it's people like you who have kept us in business for so long. Over the past seven years, the readership of the PokerStars Blog has grown so much that it shocks most people. On the surface, this site is just the marketing arm of the world's biggest poker site. However, if you read for more than a minute you'll realize it's much more than that. The PokerStars Blog is the source for news from nearly every major tour around the world. It's been loyally staffed over these many years by the people I've already mentioned, as well as longtime bloggers David Aydt, Dave Behr, Kristin Bihr, Martin Harris, Kevin Mathers, and Jen Newell, all of whom still do work for us today. You simply will not find more...and bear with me here...accurate, comprehensive, and entertaining reporting anywhere else. I know I'm biased. I know I'm talking about my baby. But I also believe it to be true.

So, thank you. Thank you to the millions of you who have read here over the past seven years. It's because of you that we can continue this grand experiment we started in 2005. It's because of you that writers like me can continue to meet the amazing PokerStars players who have helped change the face of poker. It's because of you that the PokerStars Blog will help PokerStars celebrate its 10th anniversary. It's because of you that we'll be back at the PCA for the eighth time this January.

And finally, thanks to Wil Wheaton, Lee Jones, Dan Goldman, and everyone at PokerStars for having the faith in me to make this blog worthy of the PokerStars name.

***

A few photos from over the years

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LAPT Bloggers, Kristin Bihr, Reinaldo Venegas, Brad Willis, Sergio Prado, and Dave Behr


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Kristin Bihr taking time away from writing to win the PCA Women Live event at the 2011 PCA


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Simon Young leading the team at the PCA


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Bloggers in Lima, Peru: Reinaldo Venegas, Sergio Prado, Brad Willis, and Martin Harris


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The blog team at the EPT Grand Final

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