On the Button: Q&A with Nolan Dalla

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Nolan Dalla is much more than media director of the World Series of Poker. He’s a respected author and leading advocate for poker players. Ante Up’s Scott Long recently chatted with him about the WSOP brand and online poker’s failure to get a federal regulation bill passed.

Talk a little bit about how the World Series has changed since you first got involved with it, to where it is now and where you think it’s going to be going in the future. I go back to the Binion’s Horseshoe days, and of course I remember when it was in one room and the room wasn’t much bigger than a movie theater. It was not a very large room or space for poker. Then, of course, the Moneymaker Effect in 2003 and everything changed. And I was fortunate to be in what we call the center of the hurricane. I saw the changes first-hand. I think Harrah’s has managed the growth very well.

There’s been some bumps in the road, some learning experiences … but I think each year most people that come out to the Series notice things get a little better. It’s not perfect; it’s still got some ways to go, but I do believe people enjoy themselves, otherwise why do they keep coming back?

Everyone looks forward to the World Series of Poker. As far as the future, I think it continues to get bigger, although the growth probably won’t be like we saw three or four years ago. But we have World Series of Poker Europe now, which will have seven bracelets in Cannes, France. … It’s going to be exciting to go to France for the first time. … The reception over there in Europe, you wanna talk about exciting? To have the WSOP in Europe is really exciting. … I think down the road you’ll see WSOP Latin America, maybe WSOP Asia. I think that’s inevitable, I believe.

With so many circuit events do you ever think about diluting the brand? First of all, let me say who wins in this expansion of tournaments, and the proliferation of events around the world. The ones who win are the players because now they have more choices. Back, many years ago, you’d find maybe one or two tournaments a month, and then those casinos at those respective properties that hosted the events had a monopoly and they could charge whatever they wanted for hotels or the rake. … Now casinos and hosts are forced to be very competitive. You have to provide a better service than just “Hey, we have a tournament.” I do believe the players are the ones who win with the expansion of tournaments.

As long as people continue to come in the door in each tournament, for example the WSOP and the circuits seem to doing pretty well. I think most people would look at our numbers and say despite recession and the economic challenges we’ve weathered the storm pretty well.

Other tournament circuits have done pretty well, too. … If it was just one tournament being held we’d have bigger numbers. … But again the best thing is the players have a lot to choose from now. They can always play poker almost 365 days a year, and that’s a good thing.

Should the WSOP Main Event stay at $10,000? I think it should, (but) you never say never. In 100 years $10,000 won’t be worth what it is today. So inevitably there will be some (buy-ins) that will be looked at. I don’t think right now or any time in the next few years or foreseeable future you’ll see it raised.

I personally am in favor of keeping it the same, and here’s why: The WSOP Main Event, I don’t want to say it’s not about the money because that sounds ridiculous, but it’s about something much more than that. In fact, most people who come to the WSOP, if you ask them, “Do you expect to win?” Let’s be frank, most of them don’t expect to win. They expect to play; they wanna cash; they wanna go as deep as they can. It’s about the experience; it’s about going to this thing that takes place once a year. It’s a Christmas, in a sense, for poker players. They look forward to this thing with great anticipation, to come and enjoy the experience.

I think that by raising the price of admission you are denying a certain element of the poker community its opportunity to enjoy that experience. I think as many people can fit in the door and participate; I think that’s great. I think the World Series, and I stress WORLD Series of Poker, is all about allowing as many people to chase their dream as possible. And I hope that’s always the case.

What happened in Congress to derail the federal regulation of online poker? I called this recent article (I wrote for Poker News Daily) The Blame Game, and it was basically a pointing out of all the different institutions, people, forces, if you will, that were against us and essentially derailed the movement to legalize online poker in the United States, and when I say legalize I mean where you can operate a site within the United States. It’s not illegal (to play online poker); I want to make that real clear. My article is geared toward that.
I took a very aggressive approach because I think the one thing we in the poker community are is somewhat docile, we’re afraid to ruffle feathers and maybe call out people for maybe not being with us. Well, I tore off the niceties and said here are the people who stood in our way and derailed the movement.

The laundry list is not pretty; it’s somewhat broad. I didn’t necessarily go in with the attempt to be partisan … but I didn’t want to come out that it was the conservatives or the Republicans, or whatever else. I thought there was enough blame on both parties to go around where, really, both parties in a partisan way shared the blame almost equally. It was certainly the Republicans, Sen. Kyle, Sen. Bill Frist as majority leader, people like Goodlatte, Wolf in the House, Bachus from Alabama. There’s a lot of people currently on the right that are against us and will always be against us. And certainly in 2006 when the UIGEA was passed it was a Republican initiative that forced it through.

However, my point was in 2008 everything changed and essentially the Democrats had complete control over both House and Congress and the White House and we had a poker-playing president supposedly elected. No one disputes this. I think most people felt, even people who are conservative, would say, what is better for online poker’s legalization? I think most people in 2008 would have said, “Well, probably not the Republicans because of what they’ve done, so let’s roll the dice with the Democrats.”

So here it is, the Democrats sweep into office in 2008 and sure enough nothing changed for two years. … Obviously Barney Frank’s bill ran into several obstacles. And in the 11th hour of the last Congress we get into House Majority Leader Harry Reid being lobbied very hard by the casino industry … to try to push this thing through in the 11th hour, essentially doing a reverse Bill Frist of what he did in 2006 (with the UIGEA), which is to latch it on to some resolution that would pass. It failed, and again, this entire convoluted-type thing just shows how disorganized our movement was, maybe from the start. How many miscalculations we made, how few political allies we really had when we thought we had more.

And I wasn’t afraid to call out those political leaders for failing us, and crediting those who did stand with us. It was obviously a great disappointment, because I don’t see things changing much in the next two to four years.

You also called out brick-and-mortar companies and online rooms for the role they played. Let’s talk about land-based casinos, who came rushing in at the end with Harry Reid, but they stood in the way of it for quite a while before. If you’ve been around the gaming industry for a long time like I have, I’ve seen in certain battleground states, where essentially it use to be just Nevada and New Jersey that had legalizing gambling, and I’ve watched legal maneuvering in the states and usually the mantra is the same, from the casino industry which is, let’s give people a choice. Let’s open up a casino, and if they want to come to the casino they can play. It’s the free market, sort of a libertarian philosophy. Provide the service and if people want to come let them come. And if you don’t like casinos then stay away. Do whatever you want to do. That is a free-market approach to this issue.

Sure enough, once they locked up a state or a region or form of gaming, they want to protect it. And all of a sudden they throw those arguments about free market (out the window). They have no interest whatsoever in anything free market once they lock up a monopoly on gaming. And that’s what we’ve been seeing with a lot of California cardrooms coming out against online gaming. I called out Sheldon Adelson, the owner of the Venetian. I think his position is a disgrace. I have heard he called Harry Reid personally and said he wouldn’t contribute to his campaign. I just think that’s remarkable that someone who has a poker room in Las Vegas, a very good poker room, owns a big property in Las Vegas, is sabotaging our freedom.

Steve Wynn has been on the fence for some time; he was actually against the legalization of online gaming for some time. … Steve Wynn, a maverick, a visionary, a man a lot of us admire, how could this man be so behind the times and not see the great potential of online gaming. … It’s been quite an eye-opener to see some betrayal within our industry, people we thought who would stand with us were very much against us.

You also said, essentially, that the online giants are staying too much in the shadows. Is that a fair assessment? I think that’s more than a fair assessment. … In my view the (Poker Players Alliance) has done some very good work, but still, I think the movement and the game plan from 2005 or so on, has been very mismanaged. This isn’t just opinion, this is fact. We’re five years into this thing now and we’ve seen no progress at the federal level. And I think it’s time for some heads to start rolling.

What is your view on intrastate online poker, and if enough of them work will that push it into a federal realm at some point? I think it’s a positive thing for us, and if you can’t win the big battle, let’s win some small ones. Let’s win one battle somewhere, whatever it takes. I don’t care if it’s Rhode Island. Just win somewhere and get some beachhead on this movement and say we have something legally in the U.S. And that probably should’ve been the tactic from Year 1.

I gotta say I’m not involved in any state movement. … I just observe what’s going on. Obviously what the intent is, once one or two or three of the states do legalize poker, it entrusts state poker, and then you’ll see some pacts form. … And then other states would see the financial windfall. …. Fortunately a few states seem to be pulling the movement and we’ll see what happens.