Dec. 9, 2011, Posted by Jeff.Kimber
Sponsorship used to be the Holy Grail for poker players, the pat on the back to say you’d made it and the passport to earn a lifetime of riches without ever having to pull up any of your hard earned cash to enter a tournament again.
As online poker expanded exponentially, sites were falling over themselves to hand out hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions in buy-ins, just to be associated with a player and have them wear their badge while gambling their money for them. Most of the global superstars went to either Full Tilt or PokerStars, but every site wanted its pound of flesh, and soon it became the norm for half of your table in any given tournament to be sporting the name of a site.
Back in 2007 I’d already had a couple of years winning more through poker than I could ever hope to earn in my day job as a sports journalist, but after a couple of big results live following my initial success online, I decided to try and clinch a sponsor before giving up my job. An offer from one of the smaller sites was the spark I needed. I then went to Ladbrokes, the site I’d played all my poker with up to then, and said I’d rather be with them if anything was on the cards. A few weeks later I’d signed with them. At the time, Ladbrokes was the European leader in poker and was throwing money at its poker room, and I, along with the other team pro at the time, Roy the Boy Brindley, benefited greatly.
As the poker boom peaked, it became obvious that even if you won a tournament in your sponsor’s colours, and I did, the World Heads-Up and GUKPT Walsall, the extra publicity you gained didn’t really warrant the investment made. It became clear that to be paid to play poker by a site, you had to offer far more than just turning up with a badge on and playing. As the competition intensified, each site pulled their purse strings tighter. You needed to blog from wherever you were in the world, bring customers to the site, represent them away from the tables, write articles and befriend the poker Press, and generally become an ambassador and PR person as well as a player. Add to that providing feedback from customers, suggesting how the site can improve and attract more players, helping with structures and schedules and turning up to play wherever and whatever your sponsor wants, and the days of free dinners seem long gone.
Of course the top one or two superstars can probably still call the shots and play what they want, but below that, sponsored pros have had to adapt to the new rules or be cut, while at the same time, sites have decided the days of the megabucks deals are long gone. I feel very lucky, and am very happy with my deal with Grosvenor Casinos and Blue Square, the sponsors of the GUKPT, the UK’s original and best tour, and am thankful for the budget they give me to play. My job is to keep them happy, do everything that is expected of me and more, and hope to renew the deal every year.
Since Full Tilt disappeared, a raft of top players have come back ‘on the market’ looking for a sponsor having lost theirs, while there is always a new bright young thing on the verge of a break through.
To put it in perspective, look at the top UK tournament players and their current deals.
Jake Cody is the highest profile at the moment, having completed the triple crown with his WSOP bracelet win in the summer to add to his WPT and EPT titles, yet until recently, he was still looking. Full Tilt had offered him one-off deals to wear their badge on occasion, most notably at the final of WPT London that he went on to win. With his head turned by the possibility of a PokerStars deal, Jake decided against wearing a Tilt badge, something he probably doesn’t regret even though Stars never came through with a deal to satisfy him. While Jake has done everything on the felt that could be expected and more, including winning over $200k landing one of PokerStars’ own online titles as well as the live triple crown, Stars decided to stick with sponsoring Liv Boeree and the benefits that being associated with her brings.
Pokerstars’ UK team also had the likes of Julian Thew (EPT and three times GUKPT champ) and JP Kelly (one of only two Brits with two WSOP bracelets) but not only have they passed up the opportunity to take Jake, they decided not to continue their association with Julian or JP either. For someone as good as Jake, there were always other options, but you suspect it was somewhat reluctantly he recently signed up with PKR as a team pro there. Julian found another deal with Sky Poker, and JP is on the lookout for another sponsor, but the harsh reality that being ‘just’ a poker champion is not enough.
While Liv’s record is above average, she’s certainly not in the highest echelons of UK poker players. What she is though, is marketable. How many other players have been on breakfast TV, make national newspapers as well as the cover of every poker mag, have shoots in lad’s mags, as well as provide commentary to televised events?
I get asked the question every time I wear the Grosvenor Casinos badge while playing poker: “How do you get a sponsor, and how can I get one?” While the misty-eyed ambition of youth is hoping they haven’t missed the gravy train, the reality is they were probably studying for GCSEs when player sponsorship was in its pomp. Now, when looking to gain sponsorship in this saturated stage of poker’s life cycle, winning tournaments is the least of your worries. It’s the value you can add and the other strings to your bow.
With the likes of JP Kelly and Praz Bansi without a long-term sponsor, young guys who have broken through into the big time such as Matt Perrins and John Eames on the market, and the as yet unknown next big things about to emerge from their bedrooms, the competition has never been so fierce.
So unless you can play as well as those guys, can write articles and blogs and appeal to poker magazines, can get poker into the mainstream Press and add value in lots of other ways, the competition is probably too tough.
It used to be said of poker it was a hard way to earn an easy living; these days playing poker is a hard way to earn a hard living.
Jeff Kimber is a 36-year-old Grosvenor Casino sponsored professional poker player who has amassed well over $1.5million in career earnings, having given up a successful career as a sports journalist to forge a career at the poker tables. He has won the World Heads-up championship and a UK Poker Tour main event, as well as major final tables in $5,000-plus buy-in events at WPT and Asian Poker Tour events, the Ladbrokes Poker Cruise and the Johnny Chan Invitational in the Caribbean. Jeff has made three WSOP final tables, all in PLO events, including a second place to JC Tran in 2009. While his live exploits have continued, Jeff is still a very successful online player under the nickname JaffaCake, uncluding winning iPoker’s ECOOP $1k PLO rebuy in December 2008 for close to $50k.
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