One of the things I love most about attending the World Series of Poker each year is the opportunity that the festival gives poker lovers to connect and spend time together. Whether at the felt or away from the tables, it’s incredible fun to forge bonds with people over poker and get to know them better, especially if you’re already virtually connected through social media. One such person who I got to spend a good deal of time with this summer is Yori Epskamp.
Best known for his work as the Head of Live Reporting for PokerNews, Yori’s been in the poker industry for a number of years, now. Prior to one of our many talks this summer, however, I had no idea he used to be a professional poker player! When he let that fact drop, I knew right away I had to interview him for this Get to Know the Poker Media series. What resulted was an incredibly enjoyable conversation, and a greatly enhanced friendship.
For how many years have you been coming out to the World Series of Poker?
This was my fourth World Series working, and I think my 12th time in Vegas. I actually was here when I was 19, with my dad. We did a tour around the West Coast. That was pretty cool, but I was 19 so I couldn’t do anything. As a poker player, I’ve been coming here since 2008, so 11 years ago was my first time.
So, at 19, were you already into poker?
I kind of was. Maybe not into gambling per se, but I’ll tell you what: I’d just turned 18, and my parents took me to the Holland Casino for the first time ever, and my mother was on a slot machine. So this is my first time in a casino, right? I’m 18. And I tell my mother, I’ll show you how it’s done. So I took a guilder from her, and I put it in the slot machine, and on my first spin I got 360 guilder, right off the bat; that’s about 150 euros.
That was my first casino experience, so I’m not sure if that was great in the long run, but I was always interested in playing cards. I used to play with my family, with my grandmother a Dutch game called “31”. There’s also a bluff element in it. I remember as a six-year-old kid, my dad told me about bluffing, and I said, stone-faced, “I bluff!” I didn’t know what I was doing. So, long story short, it had been a part of my life, card games, always.
So when did poker become part of your life?
That was later on. When I was in high school, I learned a card game called Magic: The Gathering. There are a lot of poker players who used to play Magic: The Gathering. When I was 19, in the small village where I grew up in Holland, called Blaricum, they had Magic tournaments, and I started playing in them. It turned out I was pretty apt at it, so I started playing more. I started playing tournaments in Europe; I qualified for a tournament in the U.S. There are a lot of similarities between Magic: The Gathering and poker. So, people like Isaac Haxton, Justin Bonomo, Eric Froehlich, Noah Boeken, David Williams, they all have a background in Magic.
In 2004, Greg Raymer won the Main Event and runner up was David Williams. That same year the EPT began; and who won in Copenhagen? Noah Boeken. So we got those two, we’ve got David Williams coming in second, Noah Boeken finishing first, and then everybody in the Magic community was like chattering, they’re like, “you know, David Williams just made $2.5 million playing this two-card game while we’re playing the kiddie game down the street.” So that’s how it started rolling.
I was 21, in college, and that’s when I really discovered poker. I started playing with my friends. We started out playing five-card draw, and at some point we moved to Texas Hold’em because that’s what the cool guys were playing on TV. We started playing more and more, and I would say about 2005-2006 it became more serious. In 2007 I had a huge online run in cash games. I was playing on Everest Poker back in the day, and I ran it up pretty good.
Because of poker I spent three years finishing up my final year of college, but I did end up finally earning my Marketing degree. I’m still pretty proud that I did that, given how crazy those times were, fully in the poker boom. From 2008 onwards, I supplemented my income through poker.
I said to myself, “I’m not going to look for a job just yet. I’m making a lot of money with this poker thing.” I kind of wanted to see where it would take me.
So getting this marketing degree, you had no plans of doing any sort of other jobs?
Nope, absolutely not. I always had it as a backup. You always know you’ve got something to fall back on, but at that time I chose to grind poker online.
Cash games, tournaments?
I was a cash gamer at first. I gradually transitioned into tournaments, but I would still consider myself a cash gamer, first and foremost, almost absolutely. Also, you know that I love the mixed games, but at the end of the day, Hold’em is my bread and butter game.
So at what point did you get into mixed games?
I think pretty early, actually. Because I was just interested in poker in general, and the history of poker and all the different games that are in it. So I definitely was reading about mixed games and playing them from an early age, but there’s nobody in Holland spreading it. Even online, it’s hard to find good games. Except for when I’m in Vegas, there are not that many opportunities to play good mixed games, especially at lower stakes. When you’re playing professionally, you have to think about your bottom line as well. You just go where the money is, right? Unfortunately, that was not in mixed games at that time.
What did your family think of your choice to get into poker when you were a professional player?
I think they’ve been very supportive overall. I don’t think they “get it” because they’re not from the Internet generation, but my parents have always been extremely supportive of the things that I did. So, back when I played Magic: The Gathering, I was traveling through Europe and I was going to America for tournaments that I qualified for as well. They were supportive of that; they helped me in case I needed a ride sometimes or whatnot. And I would say with poker, even when they didn’t get it, they were supportive as well. I don’t recall them ever being negative about it. Even when they didn’t understand, even when they could see that the swings sometimes were hard. Even then, they saw that I was making money; I could fund the lifestyle that I chose. As a guy in his mid-20s, it was not the lifestyle that I have now, it was different back then, but they were very supportive.
And when you transitioned into doing this as more of a conventional type of job, did they sort of breathe a sigh of relief? Like “OK, he’s not just going to risk his fortunes on the turn of a card”?
No because, like I said, I don’t think they fully grasped what I did. And I don’t mean that in a negative way, you just know how this is. But I would say that now that I have a daughter — which was my main reason to transition fully into this — I think the fact that I have more stable income and more stable hours, I do think that they feel like I chose well. But if it would still be my dream to be a professional poker player, to still chase that, I do think that they would still be supportive of that as well.
At what point did you transition from primarily being a poker player to being a member of the poker media?
That’s a good story. It was late 2010 when I won my first big live tournament in Holland. It’s still the biggest score on my Hendon Mob profile. We have the Master Classics of Poker, where, we get what is called a bordje, a plate. That’s basically the Dutch equivalent of a WSOP bracelet. In Holland, that holds a lot of value. Players speak about each other like “Are you a bordje winner?”
Before you continue, what does it feel like to win that kind of money; over 35,000 euros?
It was crazy. People talk about live poker, all these times when you’re feeling down, or when you just miss out on something. You feel down so often in a tournament. You only feel good when you win. But that one time, when you do win? It’s amazing.
I remember it was heads-up against a famous Dutch male supermodel, as well. So this guy has houses in Ibiza, New York, and Amsterdam, he’s got a supermodel girlfriend, he’s a multimillionaire, and he comes up to me, and he says, “hey, you want to chop the money?” And I was like, “Nah, I’m good,” and then I wiped the floor with him. This heads-up was later referred to in Dutch circles as “The Bald versus The Beautiful,” hah.
There were 30 people on the rail, chanting my nickname and stuff like that. We went out after and celebrated. That was one of the best experiences ever that I had in poker. I can see why people chase that high, chasing that feeling and that moment, because it’s worth it.
OK, so continue with your story about getting into the industry.
When I was in college, I did a lot of writing, but I never envisioned myself doing it as a career. Then I won this bordje, and in early 2011 I got the opportunity to write about my lifestyle for a Dutch site called PokerCity. I started writing about traveling and whatnot, and I was doing a team event with a friend of mine. My friend busted us literally in the first level, so after 30 minutes I had nothing to do. That’s when I noticed a couple of guys doing live reporting. It seemed interesting and I wanted to try it for a day, so I did.
I loved it. I spoke with the guys later and said that I’d like to do it more often. That’s how I gradually rolled into it, doing more and more live reporting with PokerCity over the next couple years.
In 2016, Frank Op de Woerd, who I knew from the Dutch poker community, approached Rob Kirschen of the WSOP. Frank mentioned to me that Rob was looking for people at the WSOP. So Rob hired me on Frank’s recommendation in the summer of 2016. It was a great experience. After the summer, Frank offered me the opportunity to start working as a freelancer at PokerNews, and here I am.
EPT Barcelona was the first event I covered for PokerNews. I did a little over a year of freelance work for them. In October 2017, Frank asked me to assist him in running the live reporting team. When he became Head of Content at PokerNews, I took over the reins as Head of Live Reporting.
OK, so for PokerCity; that was in Dutch. All of a sudden you get called up to the big leagues, to PokerNews. That’s not in Dutch anymore. What was that transition like, going from live reporting in your native language to your non-native language?
So that was eye-opening, but I must say that I had a great mentor in Rob Kirschen from the WSOP. He ran the team together with Jess Welman back in 2016. I still consider Rob as my mentor in some way; the things he taught me in the summer of 2016 resonated strongly with me. Also, I was always pretty decent at English and with writing. As you know, most Dutch people are English speakers; most of the population speaks English fluently. Anyhow, I would say that that month that I spent in 2016 really helped me get a grasp of, “OK, this is how it works in English.”
Why did you get into live reporting specifically? Do you ever want to do more feature writing?
I do sometimes write features, but I don’t consider it my forte per se. Because I also do feel like we have such amazing writers at PokerNews, like Mo Nuwwarah, Valerie Cross, like Chad Holloway. I cannot hold a candle to what these guys are writing.
I also like being on the floor. I like watching the action, and I do feel that my background as a poker pro gives me the edge to understand what’s going on at the table and makes me a more qualified live reporter. When you have so many tables to walk through, you kind of get a read on certain players and situations. I’ve had hands where I just walked away from the table and the hand wasn’t over. And you see people like, “why is the live reporter walking away?” and the guy check-folds and I was like “Yeah, I saw he was going to check-fold.” On this texture, what else is he going to do? So those are the little things that I took from my poker career and implement in my live reporting.
Is there a difference as far as the procedure or how difficult, challenging, or enjoyable it is to do live reporting on a Hold’em tournament versus a PLO or a 2-7 triple draw or other mixed games tournament?
You would think that that’s more difficult; there are so many more cards, sometimes certain games aren’t spread a lot. I don’t find that the case at all. It’s just another poker game. I can live report whatever game people are spreading, and I’m happy to do so. Every game has its intricacies. I would say Stud 8 is the most difficult game in the world to live report because there are just so many cards out there, they’re split into all these quarters, but other than that I don’t really mind.
When it comes to live reporting, there are various audiences. Sometimes it’s just fans who are trying to keep up and there’s no live stream. Other times it’s players themselves who want to learn about their opponents. Who do you write for when you stand there and do the live reporting?
I try to write for the person who is playing, so I really write from the perspective of the player. I want to put them at the forefront, so to speak. The players pay large sums of money to play poker, and I feel like it’s my obligation to correctly report what they’re doing. Also, I don’t want to discriminate between a very well-known pro and a random Joe playing in his first tournament.
When you’re not live reporting, what do you do for fun?
I love to run; I’m a big runner. I got into that a couple years ago. There was a run in my hometown, and every year I was like “I’m going to run it next year,” and then the next year came and went…
I used to play soccer a lot, but I couldn’t handle the team aspect of it anymore, namely because I was traveling a lot. So I kind of got into running, and I just loved doing it. I run a lot to keep my mind fresh, and when I’m traveling a lot, which I have to do for my work. Basically, everywhere I go I can just put on my running shoes and discover the surroundings. There are a couple people in media who run, like Rene Velli, the photographer. I was in Estonia a couple months ago, where he lives, and I call him up, and I discover Estonia, with him, on foot! I love doing that.
Apart from that, I have a four-year-old daughter who I love to spend time with. So basically, I would say my free time is divided between those two. I have some time for my friends, but not much.
To an outsider, perhaps, the life of a live reporter seems pretty glamorous. You get to go and be on the road a lot and visit these magnificent places and see the world, but when you’ve got a family at home, it isn’t necessarily so easy, right?
No, it’s tough at times, for sure. Especially doing the entire seven-week-long summer grind in Las Vegas. It can be pretty hard to be away from your family that long. Schedules can really make it tough to balance between home and work. So, if you’re reading this, no; it’s not as glamorous as you think.
OK, but surely there are some glamorous parts that you really love?
Absolutely; free mileage for one. I get into all these amazing places where things are paid for me. I was in Monaco two months ago; every year I’m in Monaco for a week. Sometimes I do take a step back. I went to the Bahamas earlier this year. I went to the Aussie Millions last year in Melbourne.
I realize I’m pretty fortunate to do this job and see all these amazing places and have the opportunity to, besides my work, explore the surroundings. I definitely feel that enriches me as a person, I get to learn about all these other things. Plus being flown to a country, everything is being paid for by the company! It’s really nice!
It seems that professional poker players have certain expectations of live reporters. Do you believe that those expectations are realistic?
No. I think that the vast majority of the poker players in our audience do not realize how hard our job is, and people unjustly feel that “hey, why did you get one card wrong, or why did you not describe the action perfectly?” You have to remember that we are just walking through these tables all the time. We just catch a hand where we maybe arrive on the turn, and we have to figure out what’s happening. And stack sizes are hard to read sometimes, the action is hard to read sometimes; it goes very fast. Sometimes somebody flashes their cards and mucks. All that stuff happens, plus we are on the floor usually 12–14 hours a day as well, so we can get extremely fatigued.
Do the opposite ever happen, when players come up to you and say “hey, great job!”?
It does happen, and we really appreciate it. So if you do like our work, please, make sure to let us know!
Do you have any particular other aspirations or things you hope to achieve as far as a poker media professional?
I must say, I’m very happy currently in my current job. There’s always more things I want to explore, like I always want to grow as an individual, as a human being, as a professional as well. So I try to tackle certain aspects of this.
We talked about features earlier. So when I write a recap, I’ll ask Mo, “hey, could you take a moment and look at my recap and give me some pointers?” I always try to think about my writing and what I feel I can improve on. As far as media jobs go, I have a pretty awesome job. I don’t really have any direct ambitions at the moment. Ultimately, I want to be able to cut back on the traveling because of my family and because of my daughter. So I do feel that, in a couple of years, I won’t be traveling as much as I’m doing now. Where that will lead to, I don’t know, but we’ll see.
Beyond just doing the live reporting yourself, you also manage the PokerNews live reporting team. How many people are on the team, give or take?
For the WSOP, we’ve hired 21 live reporters this summer, and then about 10 people in editorial, video, etc. So I would say I manage about 30 people in Las Vegas, together with Chad.
What’s your approach to managing a team that large at an event this big?
Morale is the biggest thing you have to be wary about. You need to set the guidelines, so you need to be communicating clearly. I always try to communicate clearly. They should know when they have to work, when they’re off, they know what their expectations are. I try to prepare them for the long grind, but a juggernaut like this, seven weeks, it’s so different than any other job out there that morale is actually one of the things I am thinking about a lot here and thinking of things we can do to improve.
One of the things we did was the PokerNews Heads-up Challenge freeroll, where we hand nice goodies and a bit of money as prizes. There’s also a pizza party. We do all these little things to try and get the team a little happier and feel a little less weary as the summer drags on.
Tomorrow the @PokerNews team will start bringing you live updates from the #WSOP50. We have a great crew assemble for this summer. Here’s the before picture. We’ll see how things compare in seven weeks! pic.twitter.com/7lLUTuygB6
— Chad Holloway (@ChadAHolloway) May 29, 2019
How about you? After a seven-week grind, how do you decompress when the WSOP ends?
I turn off my computer. I always take a holiday after the WSOP, so I’m going to take about a two-week holiday after, and usually I go to the South of France or in Spain and we rent a house, and I just decompress and spend time with my daughter and try not to think too much about work.
Last question. Let’s pretend for a moment that you have the attention of the entire poker industry. Is there a message you perhaps have for them that you would like to share?
Be nicer to each other. Just be less negative overall. I do feel that in the poker community there tends to be a negative vibe all around. I feel that if we’re a bit more appreciative of each other, and especially the poker media, who are working really long hours.
We always kind of joke about Phil Hellmuth and his #positivity, right? But I do genuinely believe in positivity and I do believe in a positive mindset, and taking the steps toward having a positive mindset. Let’s all try to work towards having that. Figure out for yourself what you have to do to have a positive mindset, and you will enjoy life a lot better.