Hours before the curtain rose on the 45th annual World Series of Poker, last minute wrangling amongst the collaborators was at a fever pitch. Behind the scenes, the organizers and the operator of the fabled tournament were still debating the planned theatrics to open the festivities. Time was running out to settle the latest tiff among the organizers. Players are rarely aware of the internal machinations, but they are often caught, unwittingly, in the cross hairs of the competing entities. In this case, a bit of free money was in the mix. The players were victorious!
Corporate Structure Creates Madness
Welcome to the world of complex corporate relationships that thrive on poker’s biggest stage. At the WSOP the customer is the buyer and the product. The corporate maze of Caesars Entertainment (Caesars) and its related businesses is even more complicated. Here, you cannot tell the players without a scorecard.
A thumbnail sketch of the inter-connected cast of characters that impact on your experience at the WSOP follows: the WSOP is owned by Caesars Interactive Entertainment ("CIE"), which is a subsidiary of Caesars Growth Partners, LLC, ("Caesars Growth") which is a joint venture between Caesars Acquisition Company (“CAC”) and Caesars Entertainment Corporation (“Caesars”). The Rio All Suites Hotel which operates the WSOP is wholly owned by Caesars.
And—Caesars holds the controlling shares of Caesars Growth; 58%. 42% of the shares is owned by CAC. Mitch Garber is the CEO of Caesars Growth Partners, CAQ and CIE and has a notable equity interest in the businesses he oversees. Garber sums up for me a crucial point in these entangled connections: "The WSOP has no economic interest in the Rio, but the Rio has an economic interest in the WSOP."
For those who crave a more finite understanding of these relationships or further details that make more sense of the fancy structure, you are on your own! For the rest of us, suffice to say that the WSOP branding machine and the Rio operating team have natural reasons to lock horns as each seeks to pursue their own respective interests in the course of their collaborations.
Key Players on the WSOP Team: Stewart, Greenbaum, and Effel
Ty Stewart, the Grand Pooh Bah of the WSOP and Howard Greenbaum, the longtime Caesars (formerly Harrahs) executive who oversees the WSOP tournament operations from on high could not be more different personalities. Each has played a separate critical role in the development of the WSOP. They share a penchant for working their magic largely behind the scenes.
As to which team member has the last word in a WSOP-related matter, it depends. Stewart is the Executive Director of the WSOP and a founding investor and Senior Vice President of CIE—the highest ranking member on the business side. Howard Greenbaum, Regional Vice President Specialty Gaming at Caesars Entertainment and the ranking member of the Rio directly connected to the operation of the WSOP. But as a practical matter, Jack Effel, Director of the WSOP and Vice President of International Poker Operations is the man on the ground who makes the rules for the competitions. Jack is the ultimate "meeter and greeter" in the tournament rooms and the final decision-maker in the day-to day WSOP tournament operations.
One of his friends tells me to think of him as the "Mayor of the WSOP." Jack warms up to this title. Stewart says, "Effel is The Man” in the tournament arena, noting that "Effel is the guy with the gaming license--not me." Greenbaum says he relies on Jack to run the operation of the tournament, while making clear he is always ready to get in the trenches if Jack needs his help or support.
The Opening of the 2014 WSOP
Stewart, as the WSOP’s Grand Pooh Bah, and Greenbaum as the Rio’s top specialty gaming honcho represent two decidedly different styles. One executive on the scene explains in poker terms: “Greenbaum is a nit and Stewart is loose aggressive.”
The 11th hour deliberations before the opening of this year’s WSOP were exemplary of the sparring that is part of the ongoing heads-up battles that take place throughout the planning and execution of each annual WSOP. This time the duel centered on Stewart’s way out "big idea" of showering the Rio tournament arena with dollar bills spurting forth from cannons, allowing revelers to scramble for the free money.
Greenbaum, the Rio’s worrywart-in-chief, was more of a mind to pour water over the proposed 2014 WSOP New Year celebration. He contemplated one potential calamity after another that might come to pass -- with the Rio holding the bag for potential liability. At the end of the day, Stewart and Greenbaum came to terms. The show made a splash with Stewart smiling like the Cheshire cat that swallowed the canary and Greenbaum satisfied that the Rio was prepared for any conceivable eventuality.
Howard Greenbaum—Special Friend to WSOP
While there are plenty of issues that crop up among the WSOP collaborators, there is no dispute as to the significant role Greenbaum has played in creating the backdrop and setting the stage for the WSOP as it has been modernized by CIE. And similarly, everyone who is anyone knows that Ty Stewart is the heart and soul of the WSOP brand as we know it today.
Greenbaum, knows the casino business inside out. He has been a fixture at the Rio during the WSOP ever since Harrahs acquired the brand and mad the Rio its operational home. Garber notes the Rio has been up for sale for an extended period and remains on the block--though not aggressively of late.
Greenbaum is lovingly protective of the Rio. He is also well-schooled in responding to “fix it” messages from the top. Such was the case to the benefit of every player who cherishes the yearly WSOP proceedings.
It was Greenbaum who stepped up to assume the leadership for the WSOP following Harrahs’ acquisition of Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in early 2004. The “Shoe” was in shambles at the time of the acquisition, but the gutsy Greenbaum rolled up his sleeves and became a key player in saving the tournament from disruption or demise.
The 2004 WSOP was the last one played in its entirety at the "Shoe." Greenbaum was one of the chief advocates at Harrahs for taking the WSOP seriously and treating it as a potential gem for Harrahs' crown. He has been intimately involved in the planning and collaborations that bring the WSOP to life at the Rio each year since, and a force to contend with when it comes to arrangements at its facilities.
WSOP Food Prices
As the operator Greenbaum focuses on revenue for the Rio—not only from the “rake” but also from all of the other revenue producing amenities including the poker kitchen and the other food and beverage outlets. Players are heard grumbling about food prices—especially in the poker kitchen. Effel pipes up on this subject that the Rio is only trying to break even on PK's grab and go offerings. And Stewart suddenly comes out swinging on behalf of the Rio, too, explaining that the Rio regime allows players to order meals from outside facilities and trot into the Amazon room with their own food. He also points out that the WSOP made the case for healthier alternatives in the poker kitchen, this year. Stewart quite obviously pursued self-interest in this matter. He has lost 40 pounds, and won a weight loss bet with poker pro Gavin Smith this year. Stewart apparently intends to remain a perfectly fit specimen!
Stewart’s Winding Road to Caesars:
Stewart joined Caesars Entertainment (formerly Harrahs Entertainment) after a seven year stint in the marketing group of the NFL. He says he had the dream job at the NFL but he couldn’t resist the edgier world of poker and the intriguing opportunity to help the game grow globally.
Stewart was born in Eugene Oregon. He grew up in Pennsylvania. In high school he was a stand-out athlete and the lead scorer for his team with more than 1000 points to his credit during his high school basketball career. Stewart was graduated from Penn State University with a BA in 1995. No sooner than he exited his last final exam, he walked down the aisle to take his high school sweetheart as his wife. He then promptly swept her off her feet and carried her straight back to Oregon where he earned an MBA .His graduate degree from the University of Oregon's prestigious sports marketing program was his ticket into the NFL’s marketing group.
Borgata is in Stewart's Picture
A series of career broadening moves and promotions while part of the NFL marketing team put Stewart front and center on recruiter lists--way beyond football. Caesars was actually his second “interview” for a poker marketing job; his first was at the Borgata. Stewart liked what he heard in his all day visit with Borgata’s president and other high level executives. But, twenty four hours later he learned that longtime acquaintance, Jeffrey Pollack had just been appointed as vice president of sports and entertainment by Harrahs, with a top priority to grow the WSOP brand. He called Pollack. In a matter of a week they clinched a deal.
Stewart Connects with Jeffrey Pollack at Harrahs
Stewart joined Pollack at Caesars a month after Pollack's arrival, in September 2005. Pollack also clinched a deal sweetener for himself, the title of Commissioner of the World Series of Poker. While Pollack was front and center in C-Suite meetings, as the creative genius of the WSOP marketing team and the WSOP’s top management honcho, Stewart was known inside the department to carry more than his fair share of the weight.
In the spring of 2008 Stewart was the architect and the principal mover behind the WSOP’s decision to adopt the November 9 final table concept, allowing the WSOP and the elite finalists plenty of time to hype their plans for the televised ultimate hand to hand combat. TV ratings went through the roof. Pollack and Stewart closed an updated WSOP television deal With ESPN through 2017.
Note: in Part 2 of this article: WSOP Branding Machine: Changing of the Guard.
Author’s Note and Disclosure: All of the parties in this article are known to the author, personally and Eolis International Group has had business dealings with
Caesars Entertainment and CIE.