On my first trip to the World Series of Poker in 2016, I entered the media room at the Rio all doe-eyed, barely knowing my right from my left. A man I didn’t recognize was sitting there and working at his laptop. He looked up and asked if I needed any help. Upon hearing I was a total noob, he got up and welcomed me to the WSOP with open arms, then took a few minutes to explain some basics and answer all of my questions. I didn’t know him, but I had heard of his outlet, Hold’em Radio. That man was Dan Ross. When I returned to the World Series of Poker the following year, Dan was once again the first person I encountered in the media room. A now-familiar face, and as we had become more acquainted with one another during the interim year, I promptly took a selfie with him. Already then, I was thinking “man, I really have to get to know Dan better… maybe I’ll interview him someday.”
Well, that long overdue day has finally come. Thanks so much to Dan for agreeing to be interviewed in this latest installment of our ongoing Get to Know the Poker Media series. While he himself might not be as high-profile or well-known as others in the industry, it seems to me that the reason for that is because he lets his work do the talking. In the business for over a decade, Dan is as well-respected as they come, and while many are familiar with his indomitable work ethic and stellar reputation, I’ll bet that few are intimately familiar with the story of his career in poker. It’s time to rectify that.
Below is an edited transcript of the great, in-depth conversation Dan and I recently had over Skype.
How did you first get into poker on the industry side of things, and for how long have you been involved?
So, from the industry side, I’ve been involved since about 2009. I grew up with the game, however, and I’ve been around the World Series of Poker since the mid-eighties, so I go back quite a ways.
Even to the point that I think the first time I can recall being in a poker room, I was only five years old, but I was in the old Horseshoe in Las Vegas before the World Series even existed.
There’s a photo of me in front of the MGM with Mom, Dad and my oldest sister, taken after she came out from a concert in ’69
before this thing they call the @WSOP existed
I had no idea they made red leisure suits in such a small size
— Dan Ross (@HoldemMedia_Dan) June 16, 2019
My dad was a stud player in Vegas. So, from that, I’ve been around the game for quite some time.
How long have I been coming to Vegas?
— Dan Ross (@HoldemMedia_Dan) June 16, 2019
I’ve been in the industry for about 10 years, when I started doing some local reporting on events at what was then known as RenoTahoePoker.com, just doing promotions for events in the Reno and Lake Tahoe area. And we started because I was playing in the area with a group of friends. We’d all travel up from the San Francisco Bay Area to play large events up in Reno, but we could never get results unless we traveled back. Nobody was publishing the results. If you busted late in a tournament and you went home that day, you never found out who won.
I’ve been in media all my life, and a group of my buddies approached me and said, “Could you put something together, get something started and get the cooperation of the poker rooms in Reno and Tahoe, for you to publish the results?” And from that, we started building a few different things. I became the owner of Hold’em Radio in 2012, and we’ve expanded from doing that and doing small live broadcasts, where Hold’em Radio now has about 20 different podcasts, and we do live tournament reporting all over the U.S.
That is unbelievable. So, right from the outset, you were sort of entrepreneurial. It never occurred to you to go and work for a different outlet or anything like that?
No, it really started with a group saying “Hey, what can you do?” and using my background, and it started small. It then became what appeared to be a great opportunity, and I kind of had to make a few adjustments along the way.
What are some of the other media jobs that you had had beforehand? Were you a radio talk show host?
Actually, my dad worked for the Los Angeles Times for 30 years, and my family owned newspapers in Southern California going back to the 1920s. So I’m a career newspaper reporter and editor, all up and down the West Coast from southern California all the way up to Canada.
Right around 2000 the Internet was fairly young, and I began transitioning to online media and would work with newspapers on transitioning their reporters and their teams into publishing online first. And from that, I did a few different things with online media, and eventually took a buyout from one of the companies I was with, and started doing poker, decided I could pull it off and do it full-time within the poker community and it’s been a great experience.
So you were introduced to poker as a kid. At what point did you say to yourself: “OK, this is the dream, let’s see if we can figure it out?” What is it that you love about poker?
I’ve had three careers now in my life, and they’ve all been my hobby. My first one is – despite the fact that I am short, fat, and happy today – I ran professionally; 5,000 meters to the marathon, during almost the entire decade of the eighties. It was incredibly similar to being a sponsored professional poker player. I had a company that provided me all of my gear, paid my entry fees. I got to keep the prize money, but if I didn’t cash, I didn’t get paid. In the road races, roughly 10% of the field would get paid.
— Dan Ross (@HoldemMedia_Dan) January 5, 2018
Then I went back to newspapers, and again, writing, a hobby of mine, was able to make a career out of it. And when I left newspapers and started my own company, I decided to do it within the poker community where I’d played for decades, and got to combine everything, from my love of the game, my incredibly competitive nature, and my hobby being writing.
So, you’ve mentioned writing and your career in print media, then online media. But your tagline is Hold’em Radio, and your site acts to syndicate lots of podcasts. How did the audio media begin for you? What made you feel that, hey, this is what I should be getting into?
It started as a great idea, almost immediately could have been a very troublesome one, and turned out great. We were doing reporting for the Atlantis Casino Poker Room in Reno (not the one in the Bahamas). And the poker room manager there said that he wanted to introduce me to some people who he thought we could potentially either partner with or do something with, and it turned out to be the people who at the time owned Hold’em Radio. It had started back in 2005, and through conversations with them, I ended up finding out they wanted to sell the radio station. I was like, “I’m doing my written reporting right now; this would be a great way to expand and take this national.” So we completed the negotiations, and almost every single penny of the revenue that came from the radio station at that time was from online poker affiliates. Well, I made the purchase in February. In April was Black Friday.
Forty-five days after buying the radio station and becoming owner, all the revenue disappeared.
So I was like, OK, what are we going to do here? And podcasts really hadn’t started taking off yet; there were a few around, but it was nothing like it is today, where, you know, everybody on every TV show in the country has their own individual podcast. Compared to what it was seven years ago, the podcast industry is incredibly large right now. So looked at it, used the radio station as the base to extend our live reporting, and we started doing live radio reports and podcasts from different poker rooms around the country when they had tournament series.
And did you find success right away, or was it really tough to get gigs?
You know, it did take a little bit of time, but from knowing a lot of people in the industry from having played for quite a while, it slowly began to take off. And it really took hold by being able to do something that ended up being combined with Thunder Valley’s poker room in Northern California and the Heartland Poker Tour. We ended up with just a chance event that has expanded now into – between the two of them – almost 200 days of live reporting.
That’s incredible. Now, you’ve said “we” quite a few times. I know of you, obviously, being associated with Hold’em Media. Did you start off with any sort of team, or did this sort of grow organically into a team? How many members are on this team?
Well, there had been individuals involved initially. I was previously married, and my wife at the time was involved with it to a small degree. And also a handful of people who were listeners to the radio station became involved from doing podcasts, from managing the advertising, from doing live reporting on the radio, doing written live blogs. There was a handful there that participated early on, we had a great deal of fun.
Having been involved in the poker media side of things for quite a while, what would you say is the biggest misconception that people have about what you do?
The amount of money we make!
When you’re on the radio, you’re doing reporting, and one of the first things they’ll think is “Gosh, you must make a tremendous amount of money.” So, we joke about that. But that’s been for all my time in the media, in the industry. I was a sportswriter for most of my career, and people see that and say “oh, if you’re going to be on TV or if you’re going to be on the radio or you’re writing about this, you must make the same as all of the big announcers and everybody on TV.”
We do this for the love of the game. We do it because we enjoy everything. That’s one that we’ll always joke about, is the assumption that we do well, but I always play it off a little bit. For example, if I’m going to a lower buy-in main event, and they say oh, are you going to play? I’ll say, “No, I’ve already guaranteed a min-cash because my pay’s already locked in.”
You’ve said you’ve had a lifelong love for poker. With all that you do workwise, do you have time to play? Maybe in a home game or when you go to each stop do you take a little time and have at least one cash game session or play in a tournament or something?
I’ll try to play, but to be honest, most of the time, I don’t play where I’m working. And that’s just my thought of, if I were to put a terrible bad beat on somebody in a tournament or a cash game, and the next day they looked up and I’m standing behind them or I’m taking a picture of them, I’m probably the last person they want to see
So, I love playing.
Tournament-wise, I don’t play very much at all anymore, just simply because of the time that you have to put into it. But if I’m in Chicago or LA or if I’m in St. Louis, Daytona Beach, wherever I happen to be traveling to play and there’s a good no-limit deuce game somewhere, you know I’m one of the first people trying to push my way in line to get there.
So… deuce-seven, is that your favorite variant of the game, or your luckiest game?
I’m a mixed games guy; that’s my favorite. I wanted to be a stud player because my dad was a stud player; when I grew up, that’s what I knew. I’ll share a story with you about that.
As a little kid, being in Vegas, seeing him playing, seeing him come back after playing all night, I knew that the home games that had been in my house from before I was even born, were stud games. But early on in my career my dad always told me, “Don’t ever play with me.”
Well, tell somebody who finally has a bankroll, you can’t play? Uh-uh.
So, if you’re familiar with Los Angeles, the main rooms there now are the Bike and the Commerce. Well, it used to be one city with basically card rooms up and down the street. And my dad has his favorite room, and I wandered in one day, and I bought into the game that he was playing in.
Well, after he proceeded to take absolutely every penny that I brought with me, he—and if you can think, if you’ve ever seen a poker player who does a push up from the table, you know, to push up like they’re going away, you know? –– he did the push up and then proceeded to lean over the table, look me in the eye and said, “I told you, don’t ever sit down at a table and play with me, and don’t come back to me at the end of the month saying that you don’t have money for rent. I warned you, now go home, boy.”
Wow. That’s an incredible story.
With my tail between my legs, I became a lowball player that day. And I only play stud in H.O.R.S.E. tournaments. Even today, no matter how many years ago that was, my dad’s gone; I can’t sit down at a table and just play stud, because I think of my dad and go “Oh, I don’t belong here.”
That is unbelievable. OK, so you mentioned you travel a lot, 200 days a year of live reporting. I always see you on social media having breakfast in one city, lunch in another, and dinner in a third city; that happens quite often. Where do you actually live, and how much time do you get to spend at home? Is it tough to be on the road so much?
It had been, and I had been based in Reno for a number of years. I had a place in Las Vegas, I had a place in Reno, and I gave them up in 2015 and I classified myself as homeless for three years. I traveled from poker room to poker room for three full years.
Just staying in hotels?
It was work-related. I was doing so many live events that I rarely had more than a single week of downtime all year round. So I traveled from the far West Coast to the far East Coast and back all throughout the year by doing live tournament reporting. Whether it was the tour that was hiring or whether it was the poker room that was hiring, it came with a travel stipend, it came with a hotel room and meals while working. So basically, what I had done by taking everything I had, putting it in storage, and just traveling, was I wiped out all my bills for three years, except for what I wanted to do on my free time.
Amazing. And you’re all set.
It was great. It was a tremendous amount of fun. While doing so, I met an individual while at a tournament in Thunder Valley, almost five years ago now, and last May, we married.
Thunder Valley, which is one of the largest poker rooms in California, one of the biggest in the country, actually, has been a client for almost that exact same amount of time. And I don’t just do a main event if a tournament takes place there. I come in and I provide live tournament reporting for an entire series.
— Dan Ross (@HoldemMedia_Dan) March 7, 2019
So what’s coming up now is the Ante Up series, their world championships, in July, and it’s a month long. So I will be at Thunder Valley for 24 days reporting on 27 events. I’ll even, I cover their hundred-dollar Omaha the same way as I cover their $5,000 buy-in WPT Main Event. And it kind of is what the concept has become, with Hold’em Media now, is to give everybody in the poker room the same experience that a Main Event player gets.
And with that, it puts me at Thunder Valley now more than 100 days a year. So, we live now only 15 minutes away.
One travel day
One rest day
— Dan Ross (@HoldemMedia_Dan) July 18, 2017
That sounds like a great arrangement.
And now, a third of the year when I’m working, I’m home at night; I wake up in the morning, have breakfast with my wife, take the dogs for a walk and go to work. And it’s as close to being a normal human being as I’ve been in decades.
How does the audio media fit into that live reporting? Is it connected, or is it two separate things?
Right now, they’re operating primarily separate. It’s keeping the podcast network active, giving all of the members in the poker community who have podcasts the ability to have additional outlets to pick up more and more listeners, and the podcast network runs with somebody operating it on a 24-7 basis and keeping all of the podcasts not only in rotation, but giving everybody on-demand access via Hold’em radio as well, to binge-listen when they’re sitting at the tables.
Well, it’s always very good to have any, not all your eggs in one basket, a diversified ways of reaching the people and doing the media work. Well, one time you told me that you’re heavily involved in volunteer work in Northern California. I remember last year when the fires were raging there in California. Maybe tell us a little about that.
Well, and that is, my wife is a career Salvation Army employee. And for the last few years, she has been Head of Emergency Disaster Services as well for much of Northern California and Nevada for the Salvation Army. So, like you were talking about, last year, a wildfire broke out that essentially evaporated a city of 26,000 people.
Well, Salvation Army through my wife had a presence in that city to begin with to help with social services when people were down on their luck or had lost their job or needed help on their electric bill, needed help with rent. They’d come in and they’d financially qualify and that’s where the help would come from.
In times of disaster the Salvation Army, when people are having to go off to an emergency shelter, you’ll hear that the Red Cross has opened a shelter somewhere. The Salvation Army, as volunteers, their responsibility is to feed everyone. So she coordinates getting the Salvation Army’s food trucks and volunteers together, to go and provide the volunteers and feed the thousands of people who are forced out of their homes at a moment’s notice.
My December 2018
— > 2,000 miles
— 7 different cities
— > 150 hours
— Dan Ross (@HoldemMedia_Dan) December 24, 2018
And what is your role, specifically?
So, I volunteer my time as a public information officer to help them coordinate where the help could be needed, working with various agencies to talk to them about how all of the volunteer, nonprofit and first responder entities can work together to get to the public to make sure they get the help they need and know where to turn for it. But it’ll be everything from that to getting into a food truck and helping cook to putting together Christmas baskets for families and kids.
The one that we talked about, the city was called Paradise, of all things. And Paradise burned to the ground. The whole city, basically, is gone. Well, some of my friends from Thunder Valley came and joined, and for an afternoon, we, with the Salvation Army’s help, we put together and provided Christmas food baskets and toys for the kids for almost 500 families. In a single day.
— Dan Ross (@HoldemMedia_Dan) December 12, 2018
That’s beautiful. And it’s just also very objectively impressive because I know how busy your work life is on a day-to-day basis, to also be so dedicated and make sure you always carve out the time to do this volunteering is a very beautiful thing.
Well, essentially, we shut down for the month of December, got in the car with my wife, and said OK, where are we going? And 2,000 miles and about 200 hours later, the month of December was done. And we just went all over California and Nevada for the entire month of December, just… I was the volunteer that she just plugged in and said “This is what I need today.” I said, OK, I’m off. I’ll see you at the end of the day, or we’d travel together.
OK, so to wind down, after being involved in poker media for close to a decade at this point, what is something you still haven’t yet done or accomplished that is on your bucket list?
From the players’ perspective, we’re always going to say win a bracelet. Also, I will turn 57 on Day 1C of the Main Event. So, I think playing the Main Event, first day of the Main Event on my birthday would be a tremendous amount of fun.
I’d like to get myself back to a comfortable enough routine where I can choose to play some more. To participate in some of the tournaments, jump into some of the events that I’ve worked for for a number of years, and have a great deal of fun being back on that side again. From the travels, from the participation, both from the media side and the player side, I’ve made so many good friends from this that it’s the opportunity to be around them that kind of drives that competitive nature a little bit and says, I’d like to get back to that.
From the reporting side, maybe an opportunity to hit a few international locations. I’ve done very little traveling outside the States for poker, unless I was playing. So, it’d be that opportunity to, over the next couple years, hit a few of those, and the opportunity to travel to them, to see how the game is from the media side in different locations. I think that would be a great deal of fun.
Any particular destinations, cities or countries, which you have your eye on?
Being a good old Irish boy from, you know, Miss O’Hanlahan’s boy, the Irish Open’s always got my attention, anything being able to go to Ireland. There are some specific events that would be fun to go to, the cities; every opportunity that I have to travel. Whether I’m in Chicago or this week where I’m in a small town in central California, there’s always great places to explore. So the location doesn’t matter as much to me. The opportunity to have that time to experience it and find the little hole in the wall that turns out to be this great little local place. That drives me.
OK, so the last thing we’re going to do is, let’s pretend you have everyone’s attention in the poker world, both players and media in the industry. The stage is yours. If there’s something that you’d like to get off your chest or a message that you’d like to send everyone, what would it be?
I think one of the biggest things there is, whether professional or recreational, when you talk about what you’re doing, you’re going to play the game of poker. You’re going to play in a tournament, you’re going to play this. Everything in there has a single word: You’re going to play. And it doesn’t get much better, especially from a professional side, when you get to play for a living. And if we’re playing, we’re playing to have fun.
So no matter how stressful the situation gets, no matter how much you want to believe it’s a bad beat, no matter how frustrated you are because the dealer accidentally flipped up a card, or somebody bet out of turn, have fun. If you’re not having fun, you’re in the wrong place. I think that would be it for me.