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Online Poker News Archives - November 8, 2004

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Copyright 2004 Guardian Newspapers Limited
The Guardian (London) - Final Edition

November 8, 2004

HEADLINE: Media: Playing for high stakes: Online poker is a booming business with £40m being gambled every day. But how do punters decide which site to visit? Victoria Coren, who promotes one website, explains how it's done

BYLINE: Victoria Coren

    Toby Young has just exploded. A tiny cloud of smoke hangs over his empty chair. He's gone. There is an awkward silence. Matthew Norman, Jon Ronson and Caitlin Moran are all delighted to see him go, but the method was a little shocking. Eventually, Ronson says: "That's a brutal way to die."

    Poker is a cruel game, but computer graphics are crueller. This is the first Paradise Poker Newspaper Challenge, an online tournament taking place at, in which national newspaper columnists do battle over a virtual card table for the glory of their respective publications. Nobody wanted to be the first player knocked out, hence their relief at the unfortunate exit of Young (playing for the Mail On Sunday), but nobody expected to see the man immolated in his very seat. This is not to say that there is any pity on this table. In the days preceding the tournament, bristling emails have flown back and forth between the players. Ronson (playing for the Guardian) and Carol Sarler (Daily Express) stated their certainty that Matthew Norman (Sunday
Telegraph) was the man to beat. Moran (The Times) warned: "I don't want to scare or unsettle any of you unnecessarily, but you should know that I'm sitting astride a chair in a Stetson, I've just knocked back two whiskies, and I have a gun."

    Meanwhile, Phil Hogan (the Observer), true to the rather hapless persona of his brilliant weekly column, failed to grasp the principle of one-upmanship. His pre-match email read simply: "I not only don't have the slightest clue what I'm doing, but am also the least technically equipped, until about five seconds before we start when a man is coming round with a computer that can get the right channel (sic). I confidently predict I'll be back at my day job, if I still have one, within ten minutes."

    Once the tournament began, the verbal sparring continued in the on-screen chat box, accompanied by regular drinks from the Paradise Poker cocktail menu.
Journalists can never say no to a free martini, even if it's only in cartoon form. When Moran was knocked out in ninth place, she claimed it was only the drinks she'd miss.

    "It was like a virtual hacks' pub," she explained. "Like Popbitch used to be, when everyone on it was a journalist using a pseudonym - back when Julie Burchill thought I wouldn't know it was her saying terrible things about me as long as she wrote in an odd Cockney accent to disguise her 'inimitable style'. I used to love it, and this was similar - all of us chatting and drinking. The kind of place you want to pop into every day to visit your fellow cyber-pissed hacks, and say 'Quick, I'm writing a piece and I need the names of three blonde coke addicts . . .'."

    But how did we get there in the first place? It began as a profile-raising exercise for Paradise Poker, who hired me a few months ago to be "creative consultant"; a sort of variation on corporate sponsorship.

    As the various poker websites fight it out to be top dog in a booming market, sponsorship of players is a key method of promoting themselves to the target audience. With live poker tournaments getting bigger all the time, and dozens of poker-themed TV shows being made here and in America (some of which allow the wearing of logos), sponsorship is a vital part of any site's advertising budget.

    Some websites sponsor famous US players, assuming they will spread the word across the poker-playing world. Some websites sponsor smaller-time local players to boost sign-ups in immediate poker communities. signed top UK foursome The Hendon Mob in a sponsorship deal so big (worth around £1m) that the package itself became a story, like those novels which are famous for the advance money.

    What the websites get for their investment varies from deal to deal: some are purely concerned with the public wearing of the logo, others with "poker diaries" written for the site. Mine is a fiddly proposition, being part-sponsorship (a non-exclusive deal where Paradise pays my entry fee or travel expenses for a few major poker tournaments, and I wear their logo), part-content (where I write poker tips and stories on the site) and part-consultancy, where I advise on brand awareness as a simple waged position.

    Cannily, Paradise Poker has also hired Freud Communications to raise the brand profile, and the model Caprice for promotional work. She knows how to play cards and looks fantastic in their "tropical theme" posters; I don't think anybody wants to see me or Matthew Freud in a bikini. Other websites are sponsoring whole TV programmes. put its name on a recent tournament for Five, is making a series for Challenge TV, and has got one on Sky. Not to be outdone, the giant has sponsored the entire European Poker Tour, which involves several tournaments played all over Europe and broadcast on Eurosport along with a terrestrial channel yet to be confirmed.

    All of this involves enormous outlay, of course. (Except Paradise's deal with me - I come cheap). But this is big business - £40m is gambled every day on poker websites, backed up by constant TV exposure. In a couple of years we will have reached saturation point; television will have moved on, and no new online cardrooms will be launched. So now is the time when all the sites are jostling for position, aiming to be the one which gets on top and stays there.

    It's like the period just before Directory Inquiries lost its monopoly, when all the 118 numbers were fighting to be the one which stuck in people's heads.
(118118 won that battle, those moustachioed twin joggers increasing the company revenue by £44m). If you get it right, you hit the jackpot. Paradise Poker, started in 1999 by a trio of impoverished American students who had an idea for a computer program and gradually cornered the new market with pleasing graphics, simple download and good value poker games, was taken over by Sporting Bet last week for $ 297.5 m (£162.5m).

    Where to go from there? Paradise is the third biggest online poker brand (which means there are two horses still to beat, PartyPoker and PokerStars), and 79% of its business is done in the US (which means that Europe is still to be

    The hard core of regular daily internet poker players will always go with the brand which offers the best value - the biggest tournaments, the smallest hosting charge, the highest security, the easiest opponents. These punters can be spoken to via the subscription poker magazines and online poker forums, but they'll do most of the research themselves. The ripest market for the expanding sites is the one which includes TV viewers, social gamblers, and people who have never played but caught wind of the poker trend.

    They will be drawn to the easiest sites to understand, the nicest-looking graphics, the sexiest ads, and (as with any product) the brand image which speaks to them most directly. PR will reach those people, and I'm there as something of a go-between with a foot in each camp. The idea of the columnists'
tournament was to introduce the site to a few key "opinion-formers" in the press. Besides, I thought it would be fun. And it was: I was delighted when the tournament and £1,000 charity prize was won by Sarler - one of only two women among the nine invited players - who had learned the rules of poker only five days before. Second prize went to Hogan, playing poker for the very first time.
I genuinely revelled in their triumph, although I suspect Hogan still doesn't know what the hell he did to manage it. Will my contribution make any difference to the Paradise brand? I have no idea. Does it help when I wear their logo, or advise on a press release? Who knows, but (at risk of jeopardising my contract renewal), here is a salutary tale for all the cor porations out there. I recently wrote an article about the European Poker Tour, where I was "wearing a sponsor's logo for like David Beckham wears Nike". I thought the piece was fine. The commissioning editor was happy, the subs had no problems, I received no complaining readers' letters. Great. But there is one unhappy company out there which has spent tens of millions of pounds to give the world one simple message: Beckham wears Adidas.

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