Along with my Top Pair Home Game Poker Podcast co-host Bruce Briggs, I recently interviewed Lee Jones, Director of Poker Communications Lee Jones. I got to meet Lee in person about six months ago, while I was covering the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. That’s where he first told me about his “other” title: Poker Evangelist. I was immediately enchanted. I got to spend some extra time with him over a group dinner and was fascinated by his poker tales as well a seemingly endless string of pearls of wisdom he kept spouting.
I’m so thrilled that he agreed to be interviewed for our podcast, which focuses on recreational, home game players. Below, you’ll find the entirety of Episode 267 of the podcast, which includes the interview with Lee starting at the 18-minute mark. You can also read the summarized transcript below.
Interview Transcript (Summarized)
Boy do we have a special guest for you today – one of the most unique, special, and truly awesome people who I’ve ever met. He’s got the coolest job title ever. The man’s name is Lee Jones. He is the Director of Poker communication and chief poker evangelist for PokerStars. Welcome to the show Lee.
Thanks Robbie, it’s good to be here
It’s very good to have you on, and thanks for coming on the show. With a title like that we have to ask with the obvious question – how does someone get a title like that in the first place and what exactly does that mean?
Well I have had a bunch of different titles with PokerStars going back to 2003 when I was the poker room manager, and I’ve bounced all over various aspects of the business. I got there via working my way along and ended up working for Eric Hollreiser in Communications, and we were looking for at title and we ultimately ended up with this. My job is to talk about poker, to teach poker, to write about poker, to essentially bring the poker message to the masses. Masses are current players, or absolute new players; it’s media people, it’s legislators, it’s staffers and lobbyists who are working on regulation.
That’s an amazing position.
It really is a great gig. When I first joined PokerStars I called a friend of mine who was already working for them and asked “What’s it like working for PokerStars?” and he said “Lee, we get paid to think and talk about poker.” I’m like “OK then, sign me up!”
I did find a quote which I really like from a piece about you. It talks about you working with PokerStars and it says: “…his outreach program has helped both PokerStars and Full Tilt regain the ground each site lost after pulling out of the US market. One of his primary goals at PokerStars is to make poker more appealing to a wider audience. He doesn’t just want to cater to professional grinders, he wants to reach out to soccer moms, retirees, and all the other millions of casual players around the world.” I read that and I thought that’s really what we’re after with our home game poker podcast, and I thought that was a great quote.
Well thank you. To many people’s surprise I was never a professional player, but for me the game has always been about fun and I understood that we created this world in which people could make a living. It was cool! It was amazing to see that suddenly people were actually becoming professionals on the back of PokerStars. I never felt like that was really where our biggest audience or where our true path forward lay. If those people were able to be professional players in our environment, that was fine, but I always felt that our main role was to make the tent bigger, and then bring people into the tent.
What would you say is your best poker-related memory?
Oh my goodness! I wasn’t at PokerStars when Moneymaker won in 2003. Chris won in May 2003, and I joined PokerStars shortly thereafter, and that was not a coincidence. Then the next year when they got down to the final ten players in the Main Event, four of them had qualified via PokerStars. We thought “Wow, we’ve got a pretty good shot here!” Ultimately it came down to Greg Raymer and David Williams, both qualifiers. And we were like “We’re free-rolling!” When we were running satellites to the World Series we were running SNGs which were giving $10,000 seats. The tournament manager was firing these things off one at a time, and it was coming to the point where we were going to have to cut them off because we needed to get the money over to Harrah’s, and basically we needed to close the get at some point. And the players were emailing us furiously saying “Run more! Run more!” At some point, he was on instant message with me, saying that we had to stop them, and I was like “I know, but we have the support people telling me that there are emails just pouring in begging us to keep running them.” It was late at night at that time, and at some point he said “OK look, the boss is asleep. Let’s run a few more and then shut them down.” And I agreed. Greg Raymer won the very last one we ran. He won his seat on the last SNG satellite we ran for the 2004 World Series and the rest, as they say, is history!
In our communication back and forth, you said you have a live stream on Twitch later on this afternoon, can you tell us a bit more about what that entails?
Well Twitch required me to do some resetting of my understanding of the world. What a lot of people don’t realize is that Twitch is the fourth largest user of internet bandwidth in the United States after YouTube, Facebook and Netflix or something like that. Basically Twitch is a platform which people play video games and other people watch them play video games. It makes the most sense in the world! Let’s say you’re a World of Warcraft or Call of Duty fan, and you want to get better at the game. Well, reading a book about Call of Duty is not going to work very well. So people watch the Phil Ivey’s and such of Call of Duty playing the game, and they pick up cool tips and tricks by watching it. Or they just watch it because it’s fun and interesting. So two or three years ago Jason Somerville was getting big on YouTube of playing poker online, and Twitch reached out to him and they said they were thinking of expanding into poker, and Jason said sure! He started streaming on Twitch. He became super popular on Twitch where he would just play poker, and people would watch him. And if you’ve never seen Jason Somerville stream poker on Twitch, you owe it to yourself to see it. It’s a fascinating wonderful entertaining experience. The thing that blows my mind is if you watch the chat, you see people asking: “What’s a blind?” “What’s an ante?” And there are people who have no clue what’s going on, and yet are still watching this. Isn’t that amazing? Talk about bringing someone into the tent! This is genius!
So that’s why you decided to do it?
No, well there’s people that are way better than I am. I of course can’t play on PokerStars for real money, because I’m an employee of PokerStars. The Poker School Online came to me and said we would love to have you stream on our channel on Twitch and do hand reviews, where you talk about hands that people send in. People send in hands and we discuss how they might have played them. We put them up on a replayer and we go through them. People in the chat ask “Why did you do this?” or people ask “What’s a check-raise?” and I think that’s the person we want watching! The people on Twitch who are playing poker can only do so much teaching because it’s live. The next hand comes up and there’s no way to stop and apply context. But the hand review shows really give us a chance to take it through step by step. It may be a little less entertaining, but it’s educational.
Let’s move from the high-tech to the low-tech. You’ve authored a poker book entitled: “Winning low-limit Hold’em” and it takes a lot of time and effort to write a good poker strategy book. What made you decide to write a book?
I first started writing it because when Hold’em first came to California in the late 80s, there was only one or two books available about Hold’em at the time, and the books were written about a Vegas game which was very different to the one I was seeing in California. The strategies which were applicable in those books, and in those games, made no sense in the context of the low stakes games I was playing in California. I was talking to some friends about hands, and why certain things in the book didn’t work, and I started making notes. For no reason I decided to try and bring those notes together into a book, and ultimately I published the book in 1994. It sat on the shelves and I would get royalty payments of $200 every quarter for about nine years. The Moneymaker boom hit and suddenly everyone wanted a book on poker! So my book was on the shelves and suddenly it became a best seller. There was a very brief moment, which lasted around a day, that I was in the Top 100 books in Amazon!
Tell us a little bit about your home game experience.
I just love a good home game! It’s something that years and years ago, back in the 90s, I just became obsessed with a good home game. I had a custom Tiffany lamp made, and got my hands on an octagonal poker table, with felt and everything, and actually bought custom chips! What’s fun about it is, it’s kind of like baseball in the States, because when you get a bunch of people around a poker table, and you say “OK it’s 1-2 Hold’em”, or something like that, that’s all you need to say. You know what to do. That’s what makes a home game great. Everyone comes in and grabs a snack or beverage, and then sit down and you’re off to the races. The other thing is that the nature of the game means you’re sitting around a table across from one another with nothing to do besides talk. You have the opportunity to visit your friends and catch up. It’s not like people get together to watch a movie, or a party where people are broken into their own little groups. It’s a very integrated social experience.
That’s exactly what we preach on this podcast. Do you still play a home game today, or do you not have time for that?
I play them when I can. I occasionally host home games here, and I have a real poker table that I had made that is slightly smaller than the full-size, but it seats eight comfortably. The lamp is still hanging up over it! I play when I can, and there are a few games here in Nashville. The people here are mostly into tournaments, so they want to get together and play tournaments. Then cash games break out after people start to bust out. But I prefer cash, and I just have to find the right sort of people to play cash with.
Is it a Hold’em only thing, or do you throw in some other random games?
Very few people, unfortunately, because of the nature of the poker boom as it happened, are comfortable with other variants. There were eight of us around the table a while back, and someone said “Let’s play a round of PLO,” and six people said yes, and two people said they didn’t play Omaha. It’s not fair to them to change the rules really, so we couldn’t play PLO. I hope that one of these days I’ll have the right crowd to do something like that.
I’m sure all of our listeners to hear that someone who loves the home games, but as a PokerStars representative, we have to ask the elephant-in-the-room type of question. PokerStars is back in the United States, and of course you’re undertaking tremendous efforts to lobby and get yourself licensed in other states. For home players in all of those other states, we miss playing online poker, what can they do to help bring that back to other states?
I’m so glad you asked that! If you didn’t tee that up for me, I was going to bring it up anyway. What Americans can do is go to theppa.org which is the Poker Player’s Alliance, who make it super easy to tweet or email your representatives, and obviously there are certain states where things are really hot right now. Pennsylvania is just literally on the cusp. We could have online poker in Pennsylvania by Christmas! California and Michigan and New York are also on the table, and I encourage people to get involved. Often you say, “Well I’m just one person, what can I do?” But I will tell you that congressman and senators care about what their constituents care about, because that’s how they get re-elected. So when people send in emails saying they should pass Assembly Bill X, if enough people do that it doesn’t actually take that many people for that Bill to get on their radar.
The message we want to send is that regulation is about consumer protection. It means that you know that the games are square, you know that you’re going to get your money when you cash out, you know that they’re keeping problem gamblers out, you know that they’re keeping under-age players out. People are playing online in the US right now. It’s not a question of whether they do or they don’t. They are playing online, they are going to play online, and right now they are playing online with the exception of three states, on unregulated, off-shore sites and nobody has any idea of how square the games are or whether their money is protected. Get involved and make a difference, and get online poker to your state! I will tell you that if you can’t get it to your state, if you can get it to the state next to yours, or get it to California, New York or Pennsylvania, there will be a domino effect. Just like we saw Powerball start out in a few states, and then expanded across the entire United States. We expect to see the exact same effect. Eventually states will have no choice but to jump on board.