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From Schmo to Pro


If there's anything that the big poker tournaments have taught us over the past two years, it's that there's a wealth of untapped poker potential out there. Budding cardsharps all over the world are incarcerated behind their computer screens, unaware that, if they could only drag themselves away from the gentle ebb and flow of the virtual chips, and hop on the first bus to Vegas, a life of fame and fortune would await.


Or would it? How easy is it to hit the Big Time? Talent is obviously de rigueur, but what next? Well, I figured that, as the poker world is becoming more like Hollywood , you would need an agent; and I had received a tip that, in this respect, the man to see is one Brian Balsbaugh.


Balsbaugh is an ex-attorney who started off managing professional golfers. Acting on a hunch that poker was about to explode into the mainstream, he upped sticks to Vegas and started applying his expertise to looking after poker players. His company, Poker Royalty, now manages the biggest names around: Phil Helmuth, Howard Lederer, Annie Duke, Erick Lindgren et al. The word was that Balsbaugh was the biggest poker agent in town: if anyone knew how to get to the top, then it was this man.


Rather than the fast-talking, cigar chomping type one might (rather, fancifully perhaps) imagine of a professional poker agent, Balsbaugh is thoughtful and polite; and modest about his achievements to date.


"Last summer I realized that there was a potential to represent poker players and I really liked the idea," he says. "I thought I was the first person to have the idea, and I felt that if I got in early to the industry I could lock up some of the top players and build a good business.


"So that's exactly what I did ? I exited my relationship with my former agency and the golfers that I worked with, and started this company called Poker Royalty."


Balsbaugh was able to go out and find twelve of the best players in the world and sign exclusive contracts for sponsorships, endorsements and appearances. And while other agents are now jumping on the unstoppable poker bandwagon, the Poker Royalty stable is by far the most impressive, simply because Balsbaugh got there before anyone else.


"How do I become a famous poker player?" I ask suddenly, hoping to disarm my subject.


"Well," he says thoughtfully, "if you're good, you're good. But television drives exposure. In order to really be marketable, in any way shape or form, you need to be on television, and not only playing, but winning. And if you're on TV and you're winning, then you need to create a difference in yourself by creating a table image. The Unabomber (Phil Laak) is an example of that ? he's only been on TV three times, but everyone knows who he is. He has a tremendous amount of opportunities for appearances and licensing and sponsorships because he's a character."


That makes sense: a gimmick, a clear-cut identity. Think about Greg's fossils, Unabomber's hood, Moneymaker's name ? You need something to help you stand out from the crowd. But nothing too over the top ? this is poker, not wrestling. Arriving at the WSOP clad in silver spandex, a cape and goggles could completely destroy your credibility.


So image is important. But is there a compulsory attitude to go with the image, I wonder? Super cool, certainly, but surly with it? Arrogant even? Warming to my theme, I tell him I imagine poker players are far more temperamental than golfers, his previous protégés. Balsbaugh is quick to correct my misconception.


"No, absolutely not. If you're looking for generalities, poker players are infinitely more intelligent, and as far as money is concerned - they value it differently. Because most of the poker players I represent have so much money now, and there's no real history of poker players earning big money through sponsorships and so on, their level of expectation is lower. They've been great to work with because if I'm able to provide them some good income from appearances or licensing deals, or sponsorships, then they're thrilled. Whereas golfers...the industry's been around for a long time...so they all believe they have an entitlement, whereas poker players don't. I went out on the PGA Tour for six years and had my dinner bought three times; but since hooking up with poker players, I've probably only bought three dinners out of a hundred. It's a different mentality."


This sense of humility amongst poker players is touching. It seems that the fact that they're becoming superstars has yet to sink in. And it's reassuring to know that the poker world is devoid of the prima donna, so often associated with modern celebrity. But like it or not, poker players are celebrities, and this is something Corporate America is beginning to wake up to. It's only recently, explains Balsbaugh, that the big companies - those totally unrelated to poker -which may have previously considered the sport an unwholesome concept with which to ally their brands, are now knocking on the door.


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"Things have changed dramatically in the last six months. When I first started this, it was very difficult for me to get through the door with Corporate America, but right now, a new company that's interested in doing something with poker calls me every day. Everything from LaVitra to Hungry Man Frozen Dinners - all those kind of companies are getting in on the act."


Sponsorship deals abound and corporations are clambering to align themselves with the next big name, and this is good news for the game and for budding players, eager to get themselves noticed on the circuit.


I'm interested to know why there has been this sudden change in perception. Balsbaugh doesn't hesitate: "Television - It's something that's new and there's a demand for it. Anyone can play it and its getting great television ratings. That's why you have to give credit to the World Poker Tour, for coming in and showing the hole cards ? they were really the first ones; they started this whole phenomenon."


So it seems on the road to poker stardom there are two absolute truths: you have to be good and you have to be marketable, "...and In order to be marketable, concludes Balsbaugh, "get television exposure but, most of all, be unique."


(© 2005 BluffMagazine. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed)


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