There is a concept that exists in many cultures called the “gap year.” The idea is beautiful in its simplicity. Young people take 12 months or so before heading off to university studies and use that time to mature, prepare, and, if truly fortunate, find a truer version of themselves. That version represents who they are at their cores and a prototype for who they hope to be in all the years to come.
In many ways, 2017 was PokerStars’ gap year.
This is not a concept you will see taught in business schools, and as a marketing concept, it’s probably one that wouldn’t make it past the whiteboard stage. In practice, however, it looks very much like something that could revolutionize the world’s biggest online poker company and the game it loves for many years to come.
PokerStars’ 2017 was one of exploration. The company experimented with a lot of new things. Some worked. Some didn’t. The company reshaped itself, and it took a good long look at itself in the mirror. As the months went by, a clarity emerged, one that was impossible to deny, one that made it clear the gap year was over and the future was at hand.
Though it will take some time to know for sure, as 2017 ends, it feels very much like a very important beginning.
Let’s start at the end.
In the waning months of 2017, there was a secret percolating at PokerStars’ headquarters. After a year in which the company’s entire live events profile had been turned on its head, people started to hear whispers outside their offices. Changes were happening, and one in particular was about to explode.
David Carrion had been around PokerStars in several capacities for many years. He successfully ran the Latin America Poker Tour and the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. He did a lot of behind the scenes work, too. In June, however, Carrion took on the role of Director of Marketing. While it seemed like a simple staff change at first, people who knew Carrion were sure it would be much more than that.
Carrion had a bold idea. He had watched the experiments of 2017 and evaluated them for what they were worth. After years of success, the EPT, LAPT, APPT and all the regional tours had been shelved in favor of the PokerStars Championship and PokerStars Festival series. At first it seemed like that the new look would suit a new generation of poker, but over the course of the year, that optimism began to wane. That’s when Carrion’s brainstorm began to take shape.
“One of my dreams has always been to create–if such a thing exists–a perfect poker tournament,” Carrion told us earlier this month.
Carrion’s dream is now realizing itself in the biggest thing PokerStars has done in recent memory. This time next year, we’ll be on our way to the first PokerStars Players No-Limit Hold’em Championship, a $25,000 buy-in marquee event in the Bahamas that will be unrivaled anywhere in the poker world. To ensure its success, PokerStars is literally giving away more than 300 Platinum Pass prize packages to seed the field and prize pool with millions and millions of dollars.
“We want it to become the players’ tournament,” Carrion said. “If people give us an opportunity to do this and build on this, they are going to see we can create excitement in poker that at the very least gives us an opportunity to get together once a year and say, ‘Yeah, this is our thing. This is our tournament. This really is the best.’”
What’s more, while everyone knows the big-time pros will be showing up for the value, the field of the PSPC will be packed with people like you and me: recreational players, dreamers, hopefuls, grinders, and your average folks who have been watching the big tournaments for years and thinking, “I wish I could be there.”
Those people have been around for years. They watched the EPT on TV. They saw amateurs turn into pros. They saw unknowns turn into stars. It was a time when anybody could be the next somebody. Over time, a lot of those people started to watch and not see reflections of themselves anymore. The PSPC could change that. Moreover, the tours that made us all dreamers are coming back.
In 2018, the EPT, LAPT, APPT and more will be returning to the PokerStars schedules as the Championship and Festival series take their spots on the storage room shelves.
As this year ends, this crazy dream of bringing poker back to what it once was doesn’t seem so crazy anymore. It feels very real, and that’s because within just a few days, people are going to start getting their Platinum Passes for the PSPC and planning for 2019.
Taken on its own, all of that could be the PokerStars Year in Review. Full stop. The PSPC and the return of our favorite tours is representative of what PokerStars is. What’s more, it is representative of what PokerStars is all about: the players.
Aditya Kumar may end up being the coolest story of 2017. We don’t know yet, and we won’t for a few weeks. Regardless, he is in the running right now.
Last month, Kumar was messing around and ended up winning a free seat to a PokerStars Caribbean Adventure satellite via the PokerStars Twitter account. Then he ended up winning that satellite. Now, we’ll be seeing him in the Bahamas next week.
“One my friends asked me some time back if I had the choice to attend just one big live event [what would I choose]? I said the PCA any day, if only because of the ultra-sick location,” Kumar told us.
In a way, Kumar is representative of The PokerStars Player, the one who had hope, kept playing and was given a chance.
A quick story:
2018 will mark the the 15th anniversary of Chris Moneymaker’s World Series of Poker win. At the time, I was working in a television newsroom, one with an internal messaging system that seemed very cool then. The producer of the 5pm newscast pinged my screen across the room. The text was an Associated Press article celebrating how Joe Sixpack had won the biggest poker tournament in the world. Before the end of the day, we were rounding up people for a game.
In those days, the general public found inspiration in an Everyman finding success among the pros. Over the time, PokerStars’ began to specialize in helping young hopefuls find a ladder (or sometimes rocket ship) to the top. While some folks began to focus on other kinds of success and huge buy-in tourneys, PokerStars continued to give players their chance to hit the big time.
Aditya Kumar is one of those people, and there’s a chance he becomes the next big star after playing in the PCA in January.
Whether it’s a situation like Kumar’s, the ongoing jackpots in The Deal, or the Spin & Go spin-ups, players are getting chances to turn very little or even nothing into something big.
One of my favorite videos from this year was one you might not have seen. It wasn’t for a huge amount of money and it involved a pretty brutal suckout, but the reaction from the winner was priceless. Player MousePo, looking like he’s wearing fatigues and sitting in a dark underground bunker ended up in a Spin & Go and ended it like this.
Beyond lucky situations like that one, there have been a lot of times where people have seen other players’ success and turned that into a win for themselves. Perhaps the best of those happened after Lex Veldhuis won the Thursday Thrill while streaming on Twitch.
After that happened, we took note of a guy who had not yet landed on our radar. Andy “BowieEffect” Wilson, inspired by Veldhuis’ performance, decided to try the same thing himself, beginning with a $55 satellite.
Was inspired after watching @RaSZi stream his Thrill win last week on stream, so decided to attempt a stream of my journey starting from a $55 satellite….over twelve long hours later pic.twitter.com/dkVGmNN0Qe
— Andy Wilson (@BowieEffect) December 1, 2017
Wilson told us later, “It is surely my most defining moment in my career by several hundred orders of magnitude, due to the difficulty and prestige of the Thursday Thrill, and the sheer ROI I made from a $55 satellite bink.”
It’s no surprise this kind of inspiration came from Twitch. Fifteen years ago, we had to wait until poker came on TV to be inspired by those who had managed to make it to the big time. Now all we have to do is find some WiFi and watch the stars of today (and tomorrow) turn themselves into celebrities from the privacy of their own homes.
I’m comfortable calling Jason Somerville a revolutionary. He may not be clad in fatigues and leading protestors through the streets, but the movement he began in the poker community several years ago has done nothing less than change the game. Over the course of two decades, poker swung back and forth between being about the intricacies of the game and about the people who play it. Somerville and Twitch managed to combine the two into one.
It wasn’t long after that when Jaime Staples showed that Somerville success was replicable. By last year, PokerStars was all-in on the platform. Its members of Team Online started their own streams. PokerStars even signed up a low stakes player, Kevin Martin, to show any level of the game could be interesting to watch.
This year, that platform simply exploded. By way of example, PokerStars and Twitch put together a Charity Cash Game with Veldhuis that had 20,000 viewers watching at the same time. Along the way, most of the PokerStars streamers have been running regular streaming schedules and inspiring new streamers like Andy Wilson to go big.
Of all the streamers, Veldhuis is probably the reigning PokerStars’ king. He’s the company’s top streamer, and there’s no question why. While he’s entertaining in any venue, Veldhuis has proven himself to be the most engaging (and hilarious) while grinding through hours of streams. Back during WCOOP, he had more than 15,000 people watching him make a WCOOP final table.
Again, it goes back to PokerStars’ people. Veldhuis and his fellow streamers are there front and center interacting with people who are inspired by talent, performance, and success. In the end, that’s what PokerStars has always been about.
Which bring us back to…
It’s very easy to get caught up in the bright lights and shining screens of televised and streamed poker. But for most, that’s simply the destination. Since PokerStars began, the journey has always been the thing, and that trip has almost always centered on PokerStars’ greatest creations: the COOPs.
The World Championship of Online Poker was the first, followed by the Spring Championship of Online Poker, and Turbo Championship of Online Poker. This year, those marquee tournaments continued to turn out some of the biggest wins of the year (not to mention the biggest day in online poker history).
Over the years, those tournaments have been the jumping off point for people who would go on to be some of poker’s biggest stars. Sometimes, like this year, those tournaments make existing stars even brighter. In May, the big SCOOP Main Event did not go to a relative unknown. It went to one of poker’s most colorful stars, Charlie Carrel. It happened again in May when pro Steven “SvZff” van Zadelhoff won the WCOOP Main Event.
Those tournaments and several other big events turned the spring seasons into one giant flashing beacon in its own right. In just a cope of months, PokerStars minted eleven new millionaires, bringing its grand total of PokerStars millionaires to more than 200.
Making millionaires is something PokerStars has done for many years. It’s something has happened time and again. There are a lot of reasons behind the phenomenon, not the least of which is PokerStars’ constant focus on innovation and growth.
As poker players, we tend to ask, “What’s in it for me?” quite a bit. If something happens outside our frame of reference, we might not give it the kind of attention it might deserve. What we sometimes fail to see is how the little things can add up to something big for everyone.
It’s the type of thing you might not recognize unless you’re paying close attention. Earlier this year, PokerStars became the first and only poker operator in the Czech Republic. PokerStars celebrated its first year back in the United States.
Again, those might have flown below your radar, but in the meantime, Pennsylvania became the next state to allow online poker in the U.S. For every small step there and around the world, poker and PokerStars are growing around the globe.
That growth is driven by innovations like Power Up, Spin & Go Max, High Roller cash game series, and Usain Bolt Zoom. It’s supported by the Stars Rewards program and other player-focused promotions and instruction.
Perhaps the best of those is the PokerStars School which stepped forward with a new platform this year. The new platform came with a new website and new strategy series on six-max cash games. It also has its own Twitch channel and regular bonuses and jackpots.
Growth means more than what we can all do with our bank accounts. Throughout the year, PokerStars and its Helping Hands programs have continued to do work online and around the world to help people who aren’t as fortunate. That has resulted in huge fundraisers in SCOOP and WCOOP to support the REG charity. What’s more, PokerStars has continued to support CARE International, Autism Speaks, and Right To Play.
Of course, that growth and innovation is just one element in what’s happened over the past 12 months and the many years since we began writing. You readers have continued to be our driving force as we travel the world and keep our eyes stuck to our screens. We’ve written hundreds of thousands of words this year in an effort to take you inside this world. If you want to look back at all of our coverage, we’d invite you inside our Live Poker Coverage, Online Poker Coverage, and PokerStars News coverage.
Why? Because it will give you a good foundation for what we’re about to do in 2018. Expect a new look and coverage here at the PokerStars Blog. Expect us to give you the best live poker coverage on the planet and the easiest place to find it. And expect us to introduce you to the people who stand a good chance at being the next big poker stars.
All of what you read above is a personal take. I asked for input from people I respect, but all in all, it’s what I’ve been thinking over the past few weeks as I’ve seen PokerStars start looking ahead. I’ve been watching this company for a very long time, and I can honestly say I’m excited about 2018. David Carrion’s vision for the PSPC is ambitious and bold. His insistence that we offer everything we can to PokerStars players is real. It’s inspiring and it is genuine. When you put those two things together, you’ve got a recipe for a good future.
So, if this was a gap year for PokerStars, consider this post where the gap ends. In a few hours, it will be 2018, and if everybody behind the scenes at PokerStars has their way, this indeed will be the end of a year and the beginning of a PokerStars that is both what you always loved about it and what you will love for many years to come.
Thanks for sticking with us all these years. Happy New Year, everyone.
Previous Years in Review:
2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005
Brad Willis is the PokerStars Head of Blogging. Follow him on Twitter: @BradWillis.