Harrah's World Series of Poker has grown into a national craze, with PR tactics and an increase in press coverage driving baby boomers and youngsters to take a gamble on the game.
Would you call an all-in check raise on the river holding a medium straight with four clubs on the board?
If so, you'll never make it through the World Series of Poker (WSOP), friend. And if you're a normal, red-blooded American, that would be a devastating prognosis, seeing as you likely dream of Texas Hold 'Em victories as often as you do about your 2.5 children, nifty suburban home, and gleaming SUV.
Over the past few years, poker has become a certified American craze. The game has never been unpopular, of course; this nation's historically freewheeling spirit, entrepreneurial bent, and addiction to fast money make sure of that. But lately it seems that every accountant, homemaker, and slouch-about who has ever tossed a nickel into a backyard weekend pot has been glued to ESPN's poker coverage, dreaming about hitting the jackpot.
WSOP has been considered the game's holy grail since it was founded in Las Vegas in the 1970s. Last January, gaming conglomerate Harrah's purchased the franchise, and business really began booming. Aided by growing television coverage of the game (which has historically been relegated to smoky card rooms) and more than a little savvy media relations, Harrah's now finds itself riding the crest of the poker wave.
The numbers bear out the point. In 2003 - the year before Harrah's took over - the 45 separate poker events that make up WSOP drew 7,572 entries; last year, that number nearly doubled to 14,054; and this year, an early count puts participation at more than 30,000 (players may enter multiple events). Total prize money in 2004 was about $56 million; this year, it hit $103 million. About half of the total prize money is invested in a single event, the Texas Hold 'Em championship, which is the most visible and popular game in all of poker. Australian Joseph Hachem, the winner of this year's championship, walked away with a cool $7.5 million.
That breathtaking doubling in size for two straight years - a growth rate that would be the envy of any company in America - is partially a result of a confluence of cultural trends. But it owes much to the partnership of two decades between Harrah's and its PR firm, Trahan Burden Charles (TBC).
When Harrah's acquired WSOP, it simply added it to the roster of activities that TBC already handles for the company. The combination of the company's in-house expertise and the agency's organizational and media skills have succeeded in energizing the franchise beyond even a gambler's hopeful expectations.
"Our overall goal with the PR behind the World Series of Poker is to drive media exposure," says TBC VP Brent Burkhardt. "We then use that exposure to increase overall interest in poker at a global level, particularly among amateur players who are interested in turning up their game a notch. In addition, we also want to generate new players interested in learning the game."
Burkhardt attributes much of the increase in interest in WSOP to a corresponding rise in coverage. The 2004 event hosted more than 300 registered media, doubling this year to more than 600. "We hit it out of the park," he says.
Almost every observer of the poker world credits the invention of the "hole-card camera," which allows viewers to see a player's personal cards, with boosting TV ratings of poker events over the last few years. That TV coverage, on the Travel Channel and ESPN, has brought both casual players and mildly interested reporters into the fold of true believers in the game.
"What [the hole-card camera] did is really add a level of suspense to the game," Burkhardt says. "In a way, it's its own kind of reality show."
Harrah's bills itself as "The Premier Name in Casino Entertainment." To validate that title around the country, it certainly would have been necessary to move strongly into the popular poker tournament field as the craze was building. But Harrah's sports and entertainment marketing director, Gary Thompson, who is in charge of WSOP communications for the company, admits that the company could not have predicted how well its acquisition has worked out.
"We did expect it to grow, but not to the extent we saw," he admits. "Better than 100% growth in the number of entrants, as well as the prize money, was something that was quite amazing."
Although WSOP poses a set of communications challenges unique for Harrah's at large, Thompson says the company never considered a PR agency other than TBC to handle the event. And the firm has proven its mettle; Burkhardt says there wasn't even a media list in place for the event when the firm began to organize for it in 2004.
TBC essentially built the WSOP's media strategy from the ground up. Although the event enjoyed popularity and prestige within the gambling world before Harrah's acquired it, the agency started promoting last year's event without so much as a media list left over from previous years. The aim was to expand the reach of the event in the minds of reporters and editors, ensuring coverage not only in the sports pages, but on the front pages, as well. It succeeded in 2005, with front-page play in The New York Times and USA Today, among others.
Now the demand is so great that one WSOP per year just isn't enough. The company also runs branded "circuit" tournaments at Harrah's properties around the country throughout the year, meaning that the need for communications never stops.
TBC spends much of its time managing the media before, during, and after the big event. Thompson calls the job "massive" and credits the agency with freeing him up to use his expertise to the company's greatest advantage.
"From a communications standpoint, I deal with the players more than the media," he says. "The players are looking for two things, basically: One is a chance to win a large amount of money. Two is an opportunity to gain exposure. ... They're basically looking for fame and fortune."
And the lure for the huge numbers of ordinary people who don't make a living as card sharks is perhaps even more fundamental. "You and I won't be able to beat Tiger Woods in golf or knock out the world heavyweight champion," says Thompson, "but you can knock out a poker world champion and get on ESPN."
A new kind of glory
One of the most prominent poker chroniclers is James McManus, who earned his stripes by making it to the final table of the 2000 WSOP while working on an article about the event for Harper's Magazine. McManus, who wrote a book about the experience called Positively Fifth Street and now pens a poker column for The New York Times, says that gambling has become a proxy athletic glory in our aging society.
"The baby-boom generation, people of my age, used to compete on the playing fields and basketball courts, and we can't do that as well [any more]," he says. "But we still burn to try to win championships, and in poker you can do that."
As players inch closer to the WSOP finals, the experience becomes ever more surreal. The reporters and cameramen who begin the tournament circulating loosely among hundreds of tables condense themselves into a knotted mass as the number of players shrinks, culminating in a quiet frenzy of media surrounding the final table.
"It's kind of like a baseball game or a physical sport being covered, except it's all within ... a hundred square feet," McManus says. "The camera work and the scribe work is right up next to you, and it's very intense."
Harrah's and TBC will have their work cut out for them in the years to come, as other tournaments nip at the heels of WSOP's prestige. But whether or not the poker boom period continues, there will always be a group of players ready to pony up $10,000 - or better still, less money for online tournaments whose victors' WSOP entry fee is paid for by the websites - for a stack of chips and a dream.
"Poker's been around as long as the country [has]," says McManus. "It's a beautiful game, and it's deeply ingrained in the American cell structure."
Director of sports and entertainment marketing/Harrah's Gary Thompson
Director of brand marketing/Harrah's Dawn Patrick
PR agency Trahan Burden Charles