Each year the poker world crowns a new world champion at the conclusion of the World Series of Poker Main Event. Not only does that player earn a nice payday and go down in poker history, the player also becomes the new face of the game. Since the poker boom of 2003, eight men have donned a world championship bracelet and in the process have become poker’s most visible ambassadors, whether they liked it or not. Many of these former champions have made headlines of late for various reasons, such as Peter Eastgate's decision to come out of retirement and Greg Raymer's surprising split from long-time sponsor Pokerstars. As such, I thought it might be fun to take a look at the post-boom champs and determine which one relished the role of poker ambassador while meeting the challenge head-on, and which ultimately dropped the ball.
What makes a former world champion a good poker ambassador? That is a pretty big question and likely subjective for each individual. In my personal opinion, there are five criteria that make for a good poker ambassador.
1. He should cater to the numerous media requests and conducted himself properly while presenting the game in a positive manner.
2. He travels the poker circuit and attempts to prove to the poker community that he is more than just a one-time luck box.
3. He puts his winnings to good use, whether that be charity, bankroll management, or securing a future for himself and his family.
4. He remains relevant in the game after his reign as champion comes to an end.
5. He is friendly, accessible, and positive when interacting with fans.
I am sure a few more criteria could be added to my list, but for the sake of this article we’ll keep it at five. Having established a set of criteria, I decided it might be fun to rank the post-boom champions in terms of their poker ambassadorships. In my opinion, here are how they stack up from worst to first.
8th - Jamie Gold (2006)
I would love to say that Gold is the worst Main Event winner ever, but I hesitate for one reason and one reason only: he held the chip lead from Day 4 all the way to the end of the tournament. That is simply amazing, and I must give him credit for it. Nonetheless, I am not a Gold fan. I’ve never met the guy, but every time I see him on TV I am instantly annoyed and want to dropkick him in the face.
Shortly after his win, Gold allegedly reneged on a deal with Crispin Leyser to split the $12 million prize, which sullied his reputation in the media and within the poker community. The resulting lawsuit, which was eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, cast a negative light on the game, locked up half the prize money, and inspired Gold to stay out of the spotlight. He opted not to pursue poker full time and instead played tournaments sparingly.
Granted, many of those tournaments were charity tournaments, and that contribution cannot be overlooked. Gold has either played in or hosted charity tournaments benefitting the following charities: Michael J. Fox Foundation, Montel Williams MS Foundation, Global Creative Forum, Wilhelm and Karl Maybach Foundation, Sunflower Children Foundation, and Children Uniting Nations, just to name a few. While many of these tournaments occurred well after Gold’s reigning year as champ, the hundreds of thousands raised are nothing short of amazing.
Since his win, Gold has had a few cashes totaling $231,105, which is decent but nothing special. When I apply my criteria to Gold, the only criteria I feel he adequately satisfies is that involving charity. Unfortunately, charity work alone does now make a good poker ambassador. The fact that Gold shied away from the media, became entangled in a post-win lawsuit, and inspired mixed feelings in fans, makes him a less than an ideal candidate for this list. It is a shame that the winner of the biggest Main Event of all time failed to fully embrace his ambassadorship.
7th - Jerry Yang (2007)
While many attribute Yang’s victory in 2007 to luck, I believe he won because of a solid game plan. He entered the final table with a strategy to play aggressively and executed it thoroughly. Granted, he picked up cards and lady luck was certainly on his side, but Yang deserves more credit for his win than he tends to get. I actually had the chance to play with Yang a couple of weeks ago at Ho-Chunk Casino, a card room in my native Wisconsin. Yang took a seat in our $1-$2 NLHE game, which was quite a treat for the local players, and played for a couple of hours. He was polite, humble, and more than willing to speak with his fans.
Yang clearly meets criterion five, and I believe he meets three, as well, considering that he donated a good portion of his $8.25 million win to charity and used the rest to ensure that his six children had a bright future. While that is all well and good, it is not enough to make him a good poker ambassador. Yang failed to land a lucrative sponsorship deal and didn’t travel the circuit, instead opting to play a select few events. He wasn’t the most media savvy winner, and his only notable cash outside his big win was a fifth-place finish in the 2010 NBC National Heads-up Championship for $75,000. In addition, while Yang's prayers during the final table were endearing to some, they were also a turnoff to others. Absent from cash games, online play, and the tournament circuit, Yang has failed to remain relevant. Nice guys usually finish last, but in Yang’s case it is second to last on this list.
6th - Joe Cada (2009)
After Cada won the Main Event in 2009, he accepted his role as poker ambassador with open arms. He signed a deal with PokerStars and immediately hit the media circuit, doing an interview with TIME Magazine and even appearing on Late Night with David Letterman. Cada’s open and friendly attitude made him a likeable winner, but he had two things going against him.
First, Cada was a young online player who’s win came on the heels of Peter Eastgate's. Unfortunately for Cada, the poker world had just seen a young male winner the year prior, so it wasn’t all that exciting to see it again. Second, people see Cada’s win as one of the luckiest in recent memory. They view him as a total luckbox after sucking out more than once at the final table, which tends to overshadow his online success. Unfortunately for Cada, his live results do not help his case. He has had just one notable cash since his big win, an 11th-place finish at the 2010 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure $25,000 High Roller Event for $51,450. Cada is still traveling the circuit and could still prove the naysayers wrong, but the clock is ticking.
How would you rank these past champs as poker amabassadors? Who would be in your top five? Use the comments section below to let me know, and don’t forget to check back next week for Part II and to learn who I rank as the best poker ambassador.