I didn’t start out this blog to be topical, but the gambling industry and its cast of rogues have a habit of generating interesting news. I ignored BetFred losing their jackpot-welching court case and I’m planning to circle back to the collapse of Football Index, but today I want to talk about one of the good guys.
Last week, after years of silence, PocketFives unexpectedly published an interview with my old mega-boss Isai Scheinberg – the founder of PokerStars. He has a well-deserved reputation for being elusive/secretive/private, so the fact that he decided to talk, even just to address lingering misconceptions, genuinely surprised me.
I was incredibly lucky to work closely with Isai over the golden years of online poker (this guy’s words, not mine), so I thought now might be a good time to offer my thoughts on the man.
My first reaction to the interview was delight. Not that he was setting the record straight, but that he looked so happy and well. Although, I honestly find it hard to picture him running around a tennis court with his grandkids. It’s like trying to imagine Steve Jobs frolicking on a bouncy castle.
That’s not to say Isai doesn’t have a fun side. When he was relaxed with time on his hands (perhaps a biannual occurrence from 2008-13), he was open, enormously engaging and even playful. If you were brave enough to get close you could even see a mischievous twinkle in his eye.
His MO though was serious and stern. He worked hard and had huge demands on his time; so when you had an opportunity to discuss something, you came straight to the point and delivered a clear message. If you missed your shot, it was unlikely the subject would be gladly re-visited.
The times when my desk phone (or mobile after hours) lit up with his name caused a crippling mixture of excitement and terror. If he had something to discuss, then it was almost certainly an interesting project, but the stakes and expectations would be high.
At PokerStars during that time, poor performance would usually result in being side-lined out of harm’s way. I can’t claim to have been his first or even second choice point-man during this period, but I remained in active duty throughout – that is the best endorsement I can offer for my work.
My abiding memory of those calls is his voice. It’s tough to describe the real thing, but my impression sounds like a Russian Nelson Mandela. I only need to hear his opening gravelly “Bob…” to become completely alert and sober.
My first proper interaction with Isai is a good example of one of his trademark moves – he seemed to enjoy plucking raw talent out of obscurity and putting it to work in interesting and meaningful roles.
In my case, I was elevated from an entry level security position (reviewing cashouts and deposit limit increases) to the newly created role of Online Promotions Manager. That was on the strength of a year-old idea that eventually became the Battle of the Planets Sit & Go Leaderboard.
Others had a similar experience; either being raised from the ranks, or just as commonly, being contacted via one of the big poker forums after demonstrating exceptional ingenuity or insight. It made for a very eclectic but passionate workplace.
When it came to designing and executing poker promotions, there were two regular pieces of feedback; find a way to give away more money and don’t oversell what we’re doing. Basically, offer better value and make less noise about it. More than once I was chastised for using “the exalted language of casinos” in the proposed email or web copy.
I seriously doubt any other CMO or CEO in the industry would say those things, let alone make a habit of it. The return on investment for promotions was almost always an afterthought, and never a deciding factor. The regular Milestone Hands celebration, for example, never made a profit – it was a reliable net $500K dent in my budget.
He simply wanted to provide an amazing experience that would speak for itself. The meteoric rise of PokerStars during this time suggests it was an effective, winning strategy.
Isai had a great feel for the industry – something that I think was sorely lacking in many of the senior management that eventually surrounded him. That’s one of the few faults that I would pick with his leadership.
When the business grew to a point that he needed to delegate more of the executive decision making, the right people weren’t hired to pick up the slack. Those of us who were desperate to step up to that level were too raw for the leap, so he had to recruit from the shallow pool of industry talent. I believe that led to culture problems which ultimately weighed on company performance.
I also felt that he paid too much attention to the advanced and professional players on the poker forums. It’s admirable that any autocrat takes so much time to listen and respond to customers, but the voices need to be representative of the whole.
In particular, the folks on 2+2 wielded disproportionate influence on the direction of the business, and the overwhelming majority were motivated by their own profitability. It’s like trying to improve the oceans by only paying attention to the sharks. That’s why the PokerStars VIP program became so grossly geared towards high volume players, and consequently why the games were the toughest and the least fun.
But enough negativity! I’ll wrap it up with some heartfelt praise…
I’ve led a charmed life the last fifteen years, and I can attribute most of that to Isai Scheinberg. He gave me an opportunity that I only barely deserved and continued to put faith in me despite my regular missteps. As I became worthy of the responsibility I’d been given, I was suitably rewarded for my efforts. I can’t thank him enough for getting the best out of me and the extraordinary life I’ve enjoyed since leaving.
And I know almost all of his former employees feel the same. The day after Black Friday struck, the small Isle of Man office went on a previously planned double decker bus pub crawl. It was during this event that we heard Isai had landed safely back home. The sense of relief was palpable and the celebrations that followed were raucous.
Poker’s loss is chess’s gain. He might now be 73, but I personally hope Isai is far from done. The world needs more of his integrity.
PS: He deserves to be in the Poker Hall of Fame – vote him in!
It’s been more travel this week, and no sport watching. I’ve played a lot of cards but not for money. I leave Costa Rica tomorrow and fly home next weekend. I expect more opportunities for cheeky dabbles when I’m back in the UK.