Get to Know the Poker Media: Stephen Bartley

Stephen BartleyIf it hasn’t yet become clear in all the interviews during our “Get to Know the Poker Media” series, I have a deep appreciation for the work done by members of the poker media, poker writers in particular. One especially joyful moment in my own career was getting to meet Stephen Bartley, of the PokerStars Blog, at the 2016 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. Having read and been a fan of his work for quite some time, it was a pleasure to shake hands with him.

Yet, despite having read so much of what he’s written, while sitting around having some drinks one evening in the Bahamas I feel like I really got to know Stephen for the first time. Still, our time together was too short, and I knew that I’d want to interview him some day.

I’m grateful that Stephen agreed to answer my questions, and I hope that you, too, will enjoy reading his story. Perhaps through his words, you’ll understand what it is about him and his personality that I find so charming.

How did you first get into the business of poker writing and for how long have you been doing it?

I started writing articles for a London-based poker website about 10 years ago, and, based on nothing more than being prolific, I was offered more work.

Like a lot of people, when I first started I wanted to be a poker player, but I knew early on I had some pretty significant obstacles to overcome, aside from an enormous lack of talent.

Much in the same way that as a boy I wanted to be a fireman, and subsequently realized I was terrified of heights, it turned out as an adult I was terrified of losing money, a description which doesn’t really fit well with the typical high rolling poker player.

But 10 years later, I now work full time for PokerStars. I’m still terrified of heights, and I can’t even watch my son on a climbing frame. But I can watch good poker players play for enormous amounts of money quite easily.

What poker outlets have you written for and which has been your favorite gig over the years?

Stephen Bartley Brad Willis Howard Swains

From left to right: Stephen Bartley, Brad Willis, and Howard Swains | Image credit: Joe Giron

I first worked for a website called Gutshot, writing articles and then live updates. From there I went freelance and worked for the PokerStars Blog, during which time I also worked for the International Federation of Poker (IFP), and wrote articles for Bluff Europe. From all of that, I joined PokerStars full-time about two years ago.

All of them proved great fun to work for, mainly because of the people I got to work alongside, and who are now close friends, particularly on the PokerStars Blog; people like Brad Willis and Howard Swains who have been in the business even longer than I have. You can’t really call writing, and hanging out with your friends at a poker tournament “work”. I’m incredibly lucky.

What is it that you love about poker that keeps you so interested in the game?

Well, to begin with it was that independent streak you see in players – making their living purely on guile and their skill at the card table. I got interested in the game watching Late Night Poker and reading books like Biggest Game in Town by Al Alvarez and Big Deal, by Anthony Holden. They created an image of poker that even now seems appealing.

Of course, I realized fairly quickly that it takes a particular type of person to adopt that lifestyle. But I still found it fascinating to watch in others.

The game has changed a little since then. The grime and the nicotine stains have been washed off, which is probably a good thing, and the average age has plummeted. Yet, while it was great to have started in the business during the poker boom, I think I would have enjoyed being around to see things a few years earlier.

What sort of job(s) did you have before getting into poker writing?

I worked all sorts of jobs. Public sector, private sector, charity sector, and then the gambling sector, which, thinking about it, sounds like the plot of some cautionary tale we tell children to make them work hard at school. Basically, I was always writing, and my interest in poker coincided with the Moneymaker boom. I was in the right place at the right time, worked hard and stuck at it.

Tell us a bit about your personal life; where you live, family, etc.

I moved out of London with my now wife and step daughter the week my son was born nearly nine years ago. We live in Whitstable, which is a small fishing town on the north coast of Kent, famous for its oysters. Small town life contrasts nicely with the types of places I visit on the European Poker Tour.

My wife is a much better poker player than I am. We haven’t taught our son poker yet. His poker face when we play Cheat consists of putting his hand over his mouth to stop himself from laughing.  He’s a pretty mean Pokémon player though.

How often do you play poker? Home games mostly or in poker rooms? Cash or tourneys?

Actually, I don’t play very often. It’s mostly in media events at EPTs, which, given the nature of my game, don’t often last very long. I suppose in part it is not wishing to bring work home. But also having a young family means I don’t have as much time to spare to play tournaments online for example, what with all the Pokémon I have to play.

What’s the biggest misconception people have about poker writers/writing?

It used to be the case that people thought if you know poker you could write about it. The people who staff media rooms now though tend to be extremely good at their jobs, and exceptionally knowledgeable, which might explain why they’re such fun to work alongside.

I suppose people might also think poker writers are just wannabe professional players, and that might be the case for some, but it never really applied to me. I’m more interested in writing well and telling good stories. I’ll leave it to the players to show how it’s done.

Contrary to what some players might believe, poker writing doesn’t pay too much, especially if you’re a freelancer. Do you do any other sort of work, writing or otherwise?

In the days when I was a freelancer I worked for as many outlets as possible, doing live coverage, interviews, articles, copywriting, that sort of thing. These days I’m full time with PokerStars so it’s less of an issue. But the people I work with certainly have other work, whether that’s for other poker companies or in the mainstream media.

You stand out as unique among others in the poker media for wearing a tie while you work at live events. Would you care to elaborate on that?

Stephen BartleyWell, I don’t always wear a tie. Sometimes it’s positively dangerous. I remember one year at the World Series, one of the maids spotted me in the corridor as I left my room on the first day. She wished me a good morning and then, seeing my collar, tie, and ginger hair, looked concerned and warned me to “stay out of the heat”. I ditched the tie in Las Vegas after that.

I suppose I’m a little old fashioned. I like to think back to the world that existed not so long ago when men went to work in a tie and hat, regardless of whether their job involved a pen or operating heavy machinery. There’s a respect to it, not just to yourself but to the people you come across during the day, one that I’m not convinced is communicated as well by a vest and the unsatisfying snap of an elasticated waistband.

But that’s just me. I’m not sure it’s going to catch on.

What other hobbies do you have? Tell us about them.

About a year ago my friend and colleague Brad Willis got me listening to Americana and Bluegrass music. After toying with the idea for several months I decided to buy a mandolin and learn how to play. I’m properly dreadful at it, but enjoy it and am lucky to have a tolerant family who love me and don’t mind the racket I make every day, which is probably the most important thing to have when learning to play an instrument!

Aside from that most of my free time is spent on politics. I was elected to Canterbury City Council in May last year, actually during the EPT Grand Final. I admit I didn’t get a lot of work done that day.

So if I’m not writing about poker, I’m sitting in meetings, talking to constituents, or trying to make something happen (and blogging about it). It’s hugely rewarding, if a lot of hard work. But politics has always been important to me so it doesn’t feel like a chore. It’s more a privilege.

What do you enjoy writing about most in poker – lifestyle/feature pieces, op-eds, promotional stuff, tourney recaps, live/online poker news, or live reporting? (and why)

I can’t write about the nitty-gritty about hands or the way someone played their cards. I’m just not good enough. So I veer towards more irreverent subjects and observations.

But live reporting is a lot of fun, particularly towards the latter stages of a tournament. Also, let’s not forget that the media get great access to poker tournaments, a real up-close experience. That means you often find great stories. [Ed. note: Here’s one of Stephen’s great stories.]

What’s something you still haven’t yet done/accomplished in poker that’s on your bucket list?

I’ve always liked the idea of those smallish American poker tournaments running in places like Iowa, Oklahoma, or some damp place in Pennsylvania. To me they seem like the closest there is left to the old world of poker (although I might be jumping to conclusions here), and I’m kind of fascinated by the United States.

So, I’d have liked to have gone to more tournaments across the United States before Black Friday. Let’s hope that’s still a possibility at some point in the future.

Alright, the stage is yours – go ahead and let loose about something you just HAVE to get off your chest.

Stephen BartleyI don’t have much to get off my chest. I suppose I’d like to encourage more respect for the poker media, organisers, tournament staff, and dealers (especially the dealers). For the most part you can take that for granted, but occasional exceptions make themselves known in ugly ways.

I’m no fan of the long hours, although that is most likely owing to my age. So, the only change I’d insist on is that anything higher than a three be removed from the selection of cards used at the end of a day’s play to determine how many more hands are dealt.

In EPTs this happens with about 15 minutes left on the clock (the intention being to avoid slow playing). Someone, usually a player, selects a card from those offered by floor staff. They then play that number of hands.

When they draw a seven it’s enough to make you question the good sense of the person who compiled the cards in the first place, and it’s usually at something like 1 am. So, nothing higher than a three please.

In fact, I’d also suggest that if a three IS drawn, then the person picking the card should be allowed to pick again, until they get it right.

Other than that, it’s probably the best job in the world.

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