The Travel Channel's World Poker Tour is to card-game enthusiasts what Fox's American Idol is to wannabe pop music stars: The stakes are large, and the competition can be intoxicating. Even celebrities such as Ben Affleck have been bluffing on Bravo's Celebrity Poker Showdown. "The word is out — poker is fun," says Barry Shulman, champion player and publisher of Card Player magazine, grinning as if he's holding a royal flush.
Shulman began playing poker while in college in the 1960s, but he didn't have much time to hone his skills while working for the next 25 years as a real estate developer in the Seattle area. It wasn't until the mid-1990s, when he retired to Las Vegas and started playing more that he caught the "poker bug."
Shulman decided to go back to work, and he used his retirement nest egg to purchase Card Player, which he calls "the bible in the poker industry" and which he read religiously to learn the game, in 1999. Published 26 times a year, Card Player has expanded from being just a free handout in casino poker rooms to a subscription publication that hit newstands at the end of 2003.
The colorful 128 pages are still filled with casino ads, with a cover story about a top player and additional columns by the best practitioners of the game. "Here I am now, working harder than I've ever worked," Shulman says. "Don't have time to play poker anymore, but I'm having a great time building the magazine and our Internet site."
BusinessWeek Online's Karyn McCormack recently spoke with Shulman about the hot trend. Edited excerpts from their conversation follow:
Q: Why has poker become so popular?
A: Poker has always been fun, but it has always been in the background. It's becoming popular because people are starting to see that it's fun, it's safe, you can win money.
The single most important reason for what has happened to poker has been the World Poker Tour on the Travel Channel. They've done a fine job. They have good, professional TV people. They have good, professional poker players. They have a good budget. They built a beautiful set. They have great commentary. They tell people how to play. And they've made it very interesting on TV.
Now, you couple that with the Internet, where hundreds of thousands of people are playing every week, and they can play for very small stakes or they can even play for free. We have a site — www.cardplayerpoker.com. You can play for free, and yet you can win for real. And people are doing that, and then they're getting comfortable in order to go into the casinos and play.
And a third thing that happened last year, which I think is very important, is Jim McManus wrote a mainstream book — it was a New York Times Best Seller for many months — called Positively Fifth Street. He went and played in the World Series of Poker and explained how fun it is and how anybody can win — you don't just have to be a pro.
Poker is different than other sports. The amateurs can play with the pros. Anybody can play, all they have to do is come with their entry fee. Furthermore, the amateurs can beat the pros.
Q: Is it really a matter of luck?
A: There's enough luck involved that anybody can play. And that has added a lot to the fun of poker, because we see it on TV, we see regular people winning $1 million. And it's not like the lottery, where maybe it's 1 chance in 40 million — it might be 1 chance in 1,000. But it's really happening.
Q: Why did the World Poker Tour choose Texas Hold 'Em as its favored game?
A: Texas Hold 'Em is fun because it's easy to learn, it's easy to play, it's very difficult to master. It's easy to talk about on television. But there's a lot of action. It's what we've been playing in the casinos for several years.
And that's good for the amateurs, because they have a better chance of winning because of the luck factor. And it's good for the pros who play day in and day out because, over time, luck levels out. And then the best player wins, and so the pros have a lot of people they can play with.
Q: What's the economic model for this? Where are all the revenues coming from?
A: Everything is driven at this point by the players. Meaning, we all put up our own money. There's virtually no sponsor money yet in poker, no matter what kind of poker we're playing. And there's all kinds of stakes, as you know: very high limit and very low limit.
Like our Web site, it doesn't cost anything to play. But because there's so many new people playing, the money is coming in from the new people who have jobs. By far, most people who play poker are recreational players, and it's entertainment. Like they might have money to go to a ballgame or a movie, they have money to go play poker. And that's where the money is coming from. It's the entertainment dollar.
Q: What kind of revenue growth do you see?
A: I can tell you that the Internet numbers are doubling every three or four months, and have been for several years now. There are a couple of hundred thousand people playing every single day on the Internet.
In the main casinos around the country, the poker rooms are up anywhere from 30 percent to 200 percent this year over last year. The World Poker Tour itself, the events this year, are three times bigger than the same events were last year. And it seems like every month when we go to a new event, it sets a record.
Q: What's fueling the growth in online games?
A: It's really quite intimidating to walk into a casino if you're a rookie, and nobody wants to be embarrassed by asking the wrong question or doing the wrong thing. So online allows people to play for free. It allows them to play for very low limits. And for people who want to play higher limits, they can.
And a lot of the people who play poker are younger people. The younger people are technologically driven, and they're more used to using the Internet. It's just [running] along with the whole high-tech engine that's driving the way we live these days.
Q: How can someone like me learn how to play?
A: Poker is easy to learn, and probably you mean how can you become better from a strategy standpoint. The obvious way, to me, is to come to cardplayer.com daily. Most of our people are just like you. We have newsletters, we have articles, we have tips on how to play, we have odds calculators, and you can calculate how this hand works against that hand.
Q: Are you still playing every day?
A: No. I start to say "unfortunately," but actually, I've never had so much fun. I've always loved business. I love deals. I thought I wanted to retire. I was able to retire in the mid-'90s for a year or two. But then the poker bug bit me, and I got back into it. I'm now spending every day just trying to make this [magazine and Web site] a monster.
Q: How much have you won?
A: Maybe a million dollars. For me, a very big win is $100,000 or $200,000. I've been able to do that once or twice every year for the last several years. And it doesn't take too many of those kind of wins to pay for all the entry fees.
Q: What's your secret?
A: I try to play my best game once in a while. I should play it more than once in a while, but I try to calm down. I'm a type A personality. And one of the reasons I bought Card Player was I read it cover to cover when the poker bug bit me. And I work real hard at it.
My secret is to try to play my best game instead of going crazy, like other people do sometimes. In order to win at poker, you need to be selectively aggressive.