World Series of Poker Tournament Director and Caesars’ Vice President of International Poker Operations Jack Effel was kind enough to join me for an in-depth interview wherein we discussed his lengthy and exceptional career as well as his personal life. It was a real treat to sit with him and get to know him better.
Enjoy the video, below, with a transcript included as well.
ROBBIE: Hey everybody, Robbie Strazynski here for cardplayerlifestyle.com. We are at the World Series of Poker 2017, and the man next to me, you all know him, the Tournament Director of the World Series, longtime now, Jack Effel. Nice to see you again, Jack, how’re you doing?
JACK: Nice to see you.
ROBBIE: Likewise. Thank you so much. Thank you for agreeing to this interview. I’m sure everyone here is going to enjoy it, and I personally am really going to enjoy this opportunity. So thank you. OK, so. You’ve been working with Caesars Entertainment in your current capacity for over ten years, but your association with the company goes back a full decade beyond that. You were the poker room manager in the Horseshoe in Tunica, if I understand correctly, and before that you were the swing shift manager in Bossier City, Louisiana. So that’s a long time, so why don’t you tell us a little bit about your career path, your current position, and working your way up the corporate ladder until you got here to Las Vegas.
JACK: So it was kind of an interesting journey for me. I got into poker in my teens…
ROBBIE: Cool. Underage?
JACK: No. I mean, everybody has to be exposed to poker somewhere in their life. A lot of people playing with their family members, with their friends. I got to go to the pool hall and I found the poker games, and from the poker games I said, “You know what, this is something I might like to do later on in life,” right.
ROBBIE: Nice! Cool.
JACK: So when I turned 21, I went to the Memphis area, Tunica, I got my first job working for the Boyd Corporation. I dealt and started supervising a few months later, and then less than a year into that, they opened up the poker room in Bossier City, Louisiana, at the Horseshoe, and I got offered a supervisory position there where I worked the entire time that the room was open. It was about two years, from—we started training people in late ’97, we opened up early ’98, we were there about two years and then they closed the room in 2000.
JACK: At the time, they were closing poker rooms all over the country, because at that point they had not realized that poker brought other business to the casino.
ROBBIE: Of course. Butts in the seats, of course.
JACK: Exactly. They were like, “Oh, there’s some areas over there, let’s put slot machines. That would be great.”
JACK: They thought it made more money. They didn’t realize that if they lose the poker game, they lose the wife who plays the slot machine.
ROBBIE: That’s right. Or the husband.
JACK: Or the husband. That’s exactly right, of course. And so that was a big thing back then.
JACK: When the room closed, I kind of reevaluated my profession and my career path in terms of poker. I said, well, I’m not sure if there’s any future in this. And so I decided to go back to school and get a few degrees. While I was doing that, the poker boom happened, and when the poker boom happened, there opened up some opportunities. And so the World Series of Poker Circuit was created in 2005, and they looked within the company to find people who knew about poker, and it just so happened that I was lucky enough to be chosen along with a couple of other guys at the time to go out and oversee the Circuit events.
ROBBIE: Like a right place, right time kind of thing?
JACK: Right place, right time, Ken Lambert and Johnny Grooms, and we kind of went out and started running the Circuit events and found our way to the World Series of Poker just a few months later. That was 2005, the first year the World Series moved to the Rio. And then from there, we continued on the trail, they eventually kind of went their own way and it was just kind of me that was left here. And I assumed a position at Harrah’s corporate, at the time, as Director of Poker Operations, and I held that position for a while.
ROBBIE: That’s an awesome title. I love it.
JACK: It’s a cool title.
ROBBIE: Wouldn’t you want to be the Director of Poker Operations of anything? It sounds awesome.
JACK: Well, it was interesting because we were doing a lot of cool things within the company, standardizing procedures and all that stuff. But it was short-lived, and we realized that my time spent on the World Series of Poker was more valuable, and then I started working on WSOP full-time, you know, 2006, 2007, and then pretty much ever since this is kind of what I’ve done.
JACK: But through the years, of course, we’ve expanded, with our international events.
ROBBIE: Sure! I saw you in Georgia, right?
JACK: Yeah, I’ve been in a lot of places.
ROBBIE: Not the state of Georgia, the country.
JACK: No, in Tbilisi, right.
JACK: Yeah, so we’ve opened up our licensing to casinos outside of not only Las Vegas but the U.S., so expanding into Europe, and—
ROBBIE: The world is your oyster.
JACK: Exactly. So there is a lot of cool stuff that the World Series of Poker is doing these days.
JACK: There’s plenty of stuff to keep me busy. And in addition to this amazing event that we get to put on here at the Rio every year for seven weeks, we get to do a lot of cool stuff with the brand.
ROBBIE: That’s very cool.
JACK: And so, that’s how we’ve kind of ended up in this place. We could go on and talk about this for a long time.
ROBBIE: I’m sure. Well, I mean, you mentioned obviously you’re incredibly busy, you’re putting in 20-hour days and it’s like six, seven weeks long. How do you prepare for this every single year? It’s not a typical sort of thing.
JACK: So I’m going to kind of cover this one a couple of different ways. So first of all, the WSOP’s only been open for two weeks, so we’re—
ROBBIE: Right, it’s still early.
JACK: This is day 30 in a row for me, right now.
JACK: This is 30 in a row for me. My average day is about 12 hours, but I’ve had one as short as nine or ten—
ROBBIE: It’s more like 20.
JACK: But I’ve had several that are 15, and if you count the time that I spend at home, it probably is 20. But here’s the truth of the matter. The truth of the matter is that I’m available every second that this tournament’s going on, even if I am sleeping, trying to rest enough so that I can come back and do it again.
ROBBIE: For sure.
JACK: It’s a massive operation, but it’s not just me. I mean, there’s an amazing, amazing amount of talent that is here assisting, over about 2,000 temporary folks, all of the ancillary areas, the cage, accounting…
ROBBIE: And you sit atop that pyramid?
JACK: With respect to the operations, but I can’t—like I said, I don’t like to take credit myself for anything. You know, myself, Ty Stewart, we have Seth and Gregory, we have my right-hand, Tyler Pipal, operations manager—a great group of people. I might sit and run meetings and talk about what everybody’s going to do, but it’s really the team that goes out there and makes all this happen.
ROBBIE: And he’s humble, too.
JACK: And I do like to, not really assert myself, but kind of place myself in everyone else’s shoes so I can understand how their areas work so that I can help them help me, right?
ROBBIE: I completely get that. It makes sense.
JACK: When you have a massive cage operation with over 200 employees, and $250 million going through it over the course of the summer, you want to make sure that that’s on point. We have a fantastic cage director, Kimberly Koss, who is the Director of Cage at Caesars Palace as well as Harrah’s and now the Rio. She does an amazing job. Our accounting team—these are some of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my entire life.
ROBBIE: I love it. And this may seem like boring details to some of you, but it’s so important, like if you think at the end of a movie when you roll the credits, there are people who are working night and day to pull this operation off and I’m really happy you’re mentioning them, Jack.
JACK: There are. We have a hundred different floor managers, assistants, so on and so forth that are working in the areas. You see them pushing carts and breaking tables and doing color-ups and making decisions.
ROBBIE: You don’t just push a button. It doesn’t just happen.
JACK: It doesn’t happen on its own. So I’ve got all my head guys, like Dennis Jones and Kim Smith and Sean Baldwin and all the guys that are out working in their areas. And you see Charlie and Allen Ray and Jessica Hudson and all the faces that you just always see at the World Series of Poker. They’re out there working long days.
ROBBIE: Big thumbs up to all of you. Great job.
JACK: They’re working hard, doing a great job, and so really this is an amazing team.
ROBBIE: Would you say that there are more and less stressful times during the summer?
JACK: You know, stress isn’t interesting to me, right? And how you deal with stress is really your own personal thing. For me, I try not to let the stress stress me out. I kind of let the stress drive me. It’s kind of like running, so when you start to run—and you know this, right—you run a little bit and start to push yourself a little bit more the more you run. So the more stress the more you have to focus, the harder you have to work and all of that. But going back to managing the World Series of Poker. Here’s what everyone should realize about this particular event. First of all, it’s a very special event, right.
ROBBIE: Of course.
JACK: It’s been around since 1970.
ROBBIE: It’s the most special event in poker.
JACK: It’s very, very very very special. And we not only believe that, but we treat it that way. We believe that our time here, first of all, it’s an honor to be able to be part of it, but second of all, that we’re just shepherds. We’re shepherds. We are a group of people that were able to come along at a point in time, get a hold of an event that is extremely successful, the No. 1 biggest brand in poker, where everyone is winning the WSOP bracelets—the gold medals, the Olympic medals of poker—and we get to be part of this. So we are just carrying it past where we found it and getting it prepared for the next group that will come along.
ROBBIE: And taking it to the next level and expanding it. Sure.
JACK: Taking it to the next level. There’s nearly 50 years of tradition here at the World Series of Poker, so it’s an honor for us to be part of it. And I say that for myself and for Ty Stewart and the rest of the group.
ROBBIE: Well, you talk about being shepherds, so let’s talk about the flock for a second.
JACK: We can talk about the flock.
ROBBIE: In numerous interviews—I’ve done my research here—that you’ve done over the years, you say, we’ve talked to players, we’ve listened to players. And I really think that’s wonderful. That’s what any tournament director, any someone who’s running poker operations, needs to do. So I’m questioning, though, so: How do you do that? Do you just sort of take, like “Oh, you look like a recreational player I’ve never seen before,” take them aside in the hallway and say “Are you happy?” Like Ed Koch, the mayor of New York, used to say “How’m I doin’? How’m I doin’?” Do you sort of do that thing, or do you have like focus groups or send out surveys? How do you do it? How do you talk to players and listen to them?
JACK: I don’t have to ask them, they tell me! So that’s the short answer.
ROBBIE: That means he’s accessible! OK.
JACK: That’s the short answer, but it’s the true answer. And you know, so the big ideas guy, Ty Stewart, he’s the big ideas guy behind World Series of Poker. And it’s lovely that I get to work with him, and he has created so many big things for World Series of Poker and from a branding and marketing perspective. He’s absolutely brilliant. And us working together on trying to give players what they actually want, it’s tough, right? Because you have a large group, and you have a small group of constituents that are like the hardcore mixed game players, PLO, high stakes, all of that.
ROBBIE: Of course. It’s not easy to please everybody, of course.
JACK: And then you have the general population that represents probably 85 to 90% of everyone else.
ROBBIE: Of course.
JACK: And believe it or not, the core group of guys, they want a lot different experience than what everyone else wants.
ROBBIE: That makes sense.
JACK: So the guys that are playing 30 or 40 events, their expecting different things than the guys who come with their bucket list to play Colossus or Millionaire Maker—
ROBBIE: Or the Giant!
JACK: Don’t forget the Giant. Or the Main Event, right? Or their chance to get to be on ESPN Live. I mean, there’s some cool stuff that happens here at the World Series.
JACK: So, I think trying to understand what works, what doesn’t work, we try a lot of things. We definitely throw a lot of things at the wall to see what sticks.
JACK: You can’t take every suggestion, and you’re not going to always pick all the right suggestions either.
ROBBIE: And it is different from year to year. Changes are indeed made, for sure.
JACK: It is. But I keep folders, I write notes down, I take suggestions when people stop and say “Hey, everything’s going right, but you know what? I’ve got a complaint.” That happens a lot.
ROBBIE: For sure. A constructive criticism, not a complaint.
JACK: No, they like to say “complaint.”
ROBBIE: We’re trying to put things positively, here.
JACK: And I am definitely one that believes that you can’t be perfect, but if you don’t strive for perfection you’ll never get close.
JACK: OK, so we’re all on the same page. World Series of Poker aims to continue its improvement project, it’s an event for the people, and we’re going to do everything we can to continue to make it better for the people.
ROBBIE: I love it.
JACK: And so that’s our motto and how we treat our business and no voices really, I’m not going to say that it goes unheard, because it’s hard to be accessible to everyone.
ROBBIE: Of course. But you’re clearly doing the best you can.
JACK: We definitely listen when we can listen, when people are presenting their suggestions.
ROBBIE: I understand. Very good. Well, one of your industry colleagues, a friend of mine as well, Matt Savage, he introduced this—
JACK: Wait a minute; this interview’s over.
ROBBIE: He’s a good guy, is Matt as well. He ran this social experiment, I’m sure you’re aware of that, in Southern California. It was thought to be quite successful. You know, no hoodies, no sunglasses, no headphones, no mobile devices. Do you foresee maybe in the coming years at the World Series maybe some sort of a social experiment? I want the social experiment bracelet.
JACK: I’m glad that he did it, and I’m glad that others are trying some cool stuff that I may not be as daring to try. I kind of treat the World Series of Poker as not necessarily an experiment, but that this is the place that you play the games that are proven or the games that are tested and kind of proved to be successful. Like our risk or gamble might be 365 buy-ins—
ROBBIE: The Giant, right.
JACK: The Giant, that could be our experiment. But we have enough market data and analysis and history and empirical data to support an event like that at the World Series of Poker. So it’s very calculated.
ROBBIE: I understand.
JACK: It’s not something where I’m going to take all of the players’ creature comforts away or something like that. Unless I feel that it’s something that I need to implement to change a particular behavior, kind of like we did with the clock rule. Something like that, that’s where everything else that we have tried hasn’t worked to fix the problem, then you kind of have to step in and do stuff.
JACK: And I applaud Matt for taking the approach to do that. But it’s like anything else—at this moment, I don’t have any desire to do that. If he’s already done that experiment, there’s no reason for me to do it.
ROBBIE: I understand that.
JACK: And I also think that we are in 2017, right? Everybody has a cell phone! People are on computers. They like to play online and live at the same time while they’re playing WSOP.com.
ROBBIE: To take notes on Poker Notes Live.
JACK: They do notes, they analyze their own play. They’re smart. Everybody that is born today should be smarter than everybody that was born yesterday. This is the theory of evolution, right?
ROBBIE: Sure. So I guess you’re saying, if you want to see a tournament at the World Series without headphones and hoodies and stuff, just look at the Super Seniors, right?
JACK: By the way, that’s a very special tournament to me.
ROBBIE: It is, it is. I can’t wait till I’m 65 years old so I can play. But those guys’ll be wearing hoodies by then when I’m 65. What about playing poker? Do you ever get the chance? Do you have a home game or something like that?
JACK: You know, I don’t get to play poker much at all anymore.
ROBBIE: You’re kidding.
JACK: No, I don’t, I don’t.
JACK: Matt plays a lot of poker, but he has more time than I do. He must have more time. I’m just kidding, actually. But my golf game’s terrible, my poker game’s probably terrible. That’s because I probably don’t have time to play anymore. But anyway, I love the game. I’ve loved it ever since the first time I was ever around it at 15, 16 years old. It’s an interesting thing, because my father passed away when I was fourteen, and I didn’t know that he loved cards. He loved cards so much that he actually ran poker games in the military during World War II.
ROBBIE: That’s cool. That sounds like a whole other story.
JACK: It’s a whole other story. He actually ran poker games during World War II over in Japan. And so I guess it’s kind of in my blood. My mother’s father also ran a Friday night poker game.
ROBBIE: So you’re following in the family tradition.
JACK: There is! But I didn’t learn about that stuff until a little bit later in life, because obviously I was still pretty young when they passed. But anyway, but from my standpoint I love the game, I’ve loved the game ever since I was first exposed to it. I love action, right? But like everyone else, they start out in this game like “Hey, I’m going to be a poker player!”
ROBBIE: So you did too, originally?
JACK: You know what, I think everybody starts out and says, “Hey, I want to be a poker player.” But—
ROBBIE: Even Jack Effel.
JACK: But, you know what, I’m going to tell you, I’m also a good Jewish boy. I worked. My father told me, “You’ve got to work, you’ve got to work, you’ve got to work.” So while I was trying to play poker, learn all about playing poker, I had a job.
ROBBIE: Yeah, there you go! I’m a Jewish guy as well; that’s what you gotta do.
JACK: So if I lost all my money, then in two weeks I got my paycheck.
ROBBIE: Right. There you go. That’s the way to do it.
JACK: So I could go back and play again. That was it. So I always had the job. Then, you know, as you play poker and as you think about this, you say “You know what? Maybe I’ll work in poker. Ooh, let’s deal cards!”
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ROBBIE: That’s what I did. I just play recreationally, that’s it. Well, I did a little bit more digging. I looked at your LinkedIn profile, and correct me if I’m wrong on the exactitude here—you’re enrolled or were enrolled at Oregon State University and are taking French? Is that real?
JACK: It’s interesting. So I couldn’t learn Hebrew. I tried; that didn’t work out for me. I did well in my English classes, obviously, but…
ROBBIE: Certainly. Got that down South accent a little bit, from Louisiana.
JACK: From Texas, Texas.
ROBBIE: Texas, sorry.
JACK: That’s OK; that’s alright. I lived in some of those places. It’s OK. You get a pass for that.
ROBBIE: I was close.
JACK: But—no no no no no. I always wanted to learn French. Or at least in the past six or seven years, I’ve wanted to learn French. I’ve spent a lot of time in France; it’s my favorite European country. Love the French people, love the culture, love the food.
ROBBIE: Oui, oui.
JACK: Love everything about France. If I ever get rich one day, maybe I’ll have a place in the south of France as my, I’ll spend two or three months a year there like the upper class of Frenchmen or something.
ROBBIE: You can turn thy nose up.
JACK: That’s right. I can sip my little espresso.
ROBBIE: There you go.
JACK: I do love French culture. I took a French class or a French course at Oregon State University in hopes of being able to establish some language skills in French, and I can tell you I’m not there yet.
ROBBIE: OK, we’ll keep working on the savoir-faire, I believe is the right term. OK, so the question does have to be asked, and I think this is our last question here. At some point each year, the six weeks are up. Alright, the seven weeks are up. Especially now that the Main Event will actually conclude this summer, it’s not the November Nine or anything. What does Jack Effel do come July 23rd? When all of the action is over, do you just sleep for a week or something?
JACK: Well, it’s interesting that you said July 23rd, because my wife and I are going to Thessaloniki in Greece.
ROBBIE: Oh, in Greece, very cool! That’s close to my neck of the woods in Israel, actually.
JACK: We’re going to Greece on vacation, so yeah, and that’s on my bucket list too, which I’m bad for not doing that. I need to go.
ROBBIE: Come on, I’ll show you around! I’ll show you all of the underground poker scenes.
JACK: Oh, there you go. I heard it’s good.
ROBBIE: It’s good. Thessaloniki, wow. Very cool.
JACK: So we’re going to go to Greece, and we’re going to spend a few days there, and then we’re going to France, of course, for three days in France. Maybe go to Bordeaux and drink some wine on the—
ROBBIE: On the Champs-Elysées.
JACK: On the Champs-Elysées, in Paris.
ROBBIE: That sound wonderful. It’s good to just decompress after all the stuff.
JACK: And it’s interesting because usually when the tournament’s over, I usually go straight back into planning for the next one. And I am taking a vacation this year, which I am looking forward to, but for right now I’m here working and every day I’m going to be present for the WSOP.
ROBBIE: For many, many days in a row. But it’s good to have those vacations, because when you get that you recharge and you come back with renewed energies for next year.
JACK: I’m excited about it, I really am.
ROBBIE: That’s awesome.
JACK: So hey, while we have everyone, let’s not forget. It’s the Word Series of Poker, it’s not just here in Las Vegas. We have World Series of Poker Europe coming up in October-November.
ROBBIE: In November, yes.
JACK: Rozvadov, Czech Republic, King’s Casino. Eleven bracelet events.
ROBBIE: Of course the Circuit is running all year round.
JACK: And the Circuit’s running year-round, that stuff. So go to WSOP.com, make sure to check out all the cool stuff we have. We might be close to your area at some point in time.
ROBBIE: Ooh, fun. That could be fun. Well, I can never get enough WSOP, and I can never get enough Jack Effel, but he’s got other responsibilities. So I want to thank you very much again, Jack Effel, the Tournament Director of the World Series of Poker and the Vice President of International Poker Operations at Caesars Entertainment, for joining me. You can follow Jack on Twitter @WSOPTD and you can follow me on Twitter @cardplayerlife. I’m Robbie Strazynski for Cardplayer Lifestyle, from the World Series of Poker 2017. Thanks for joining us.
JACK: Au revoir!