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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."
is a cruel game, but computer graphics are crueller. This is the
first Paradise Poker Newspaper Challenge, an online tournament
taking place at www.paradisepoker.com, 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
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
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. PrimaPoker.com
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
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. PartyPoker.com put its name on
a recent tournament for Five, PacificPoker.com is making a series
for Challenge TV, and LadbrokesPoker.com has got one on Sky. Not
to be outdone, the giant PokerStars.com 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 www.paradisepoker.com
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
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