In December 2011 it was the first time in history that Prague was set to host a World Poker Tour stop. I was hired to do live coverage of the Main Event. It felt like a dream come true.
Back then, everything about the event was magical to me – the press from all over the world, the poker stars I was introduced to, the strangers on the organization board. There were several firsts for me at this event. Not only was it the first time I reported live from an international event, but it was also the first time I met Steve Frezer. Though he operates on the other side of the poker table, as a tournament director and event manager, Steve’s hardly a personality you can hardly overlook on the world poker circuit.
Last year, the grand Prague Poker Festival (PPF) returned to Prague with WPT Main Event, a great schedule of other events, a stellar line-up of poker pros and, once again, Steve Frezer.
Prior to speaking with him for this interview I didn’t know much about Steve, but I was certain about a few things: he always smiles, he makes people laugh and comfortable, and he’s got a big heart and an open mind. I wanted to learn more about him, so I stopped by the King´s Casino (reopened in the Corinthia Towers hotel to host the PPF 2015) to have a talk with him.
Who is Steve Frezer in a few sentences?
I am an earthling. I am a world citizen. I´ve been traveling since I was 18 and I am in my late forties now.
I think I´m just a good guy trying to enjoy life, to see all I can and do everything I can, before it´s time I can´t do it anymore. And I’ve got a wife and a son.
What background do you come from?
My parents were New York Jewish; they moved to South Florida when I was four years old. I grew up in South Florida. When I graduated from high school, I packed my bag and I left. I have been traveling a lot since. I´ve lived in New Orleans for the last 20 years.
How did you get into poker?
I went into the military for a few years. When I got out of the military, I came back to Florida and started working as a bet taker. I worked at horse tracks. Florida, at that time, had 25/50c poker, $10 max and I got a job dealing back then.
From there, I’ve just steadily escalated to where I am at now.
What made you join the military?
As I said before, when I was 18 I moved out. I was just your basic 18-year-old out of the house, having a good time; no direction. I lost a few jobs, no jobs worth keeping, and then – I guess a marine recruiter did his job well. I walked by and started chatting with him. He invited me for some free pizza and before you knew it I signed the contract.
Free pizza will get a lot from me!
Frankly, I did it for the college money. I had no one paying for college for me and I felt like I wasted my high school years partying too much. I wanted to go to college and actually use my brain for once. So, I went to the military to get the money to go to college.
Who has been the major influencer in your life?
Maybe a lot of musical influencers. Stephen King, the author, had a major influence on me. A lot of rock n´ roll musicians, I guess.
My step father. He was a really good man.
What did he teach you?
To be honest, honest to a fault, almost; to be straightforward, no BS.
What do you appreciate the most in people?
A smile, and honesty. Honesty is a big deal for me.
What makes you angry, upset?
Hypocrites – people will say one thing, do another. Drives me nuts. I can´t stand it. I hate people that lie to your face and then say something else behind your back.
And then guns. People that like guns. I don’t like those people.
The Planet Earth Poker Events – is this your company?
Are you behind the organization of the whole Prague Poker Festival? What else do you do?
As you know, I worked as a tournament director for the World Series of Poker, for PokerStars – EPT and WPT – but it is a tough business, to stay in it for as long as I´ve stayed in it. About three years ago I decided to do my own poker events. With all the contacts I´ve got and all the casinos and people I know, I thought I would be my own boss instead of working for somebody else. It is a dream, right, to work for yourself? You can control how things are done and do things the way they should be done, and you have nobody yelling at you.
How do you feel the Prague Poker Festival went? You had a prediction for the World Poker Tour Main Event. Over 500 players. That did not happen. Was it a big disappointment?
No, it wasn’t a big disappointment. If you ask me, at any event I´m at, I will always give you a number a 200-300 higher than I am expecting because I like to be optimistic about it. Sometimes I’m joking a little when I say it.
It was fantastic. It was our fifth year of the festival, fourth time doing it here with King´s, and first time bringing back the WPT Main Event. We kind of got torn down when we went to do Nationals the last two years. We are building it back up. I think we have a great number, 256. 250 last year for the National – which was a €1k. This was a€3k, so we have got more people with triple the buy-in and the side events were bigger than they´ve ever been here. All the €1k-s were huge, the WPT side events were great, as you can see now, the Redbet mini event is not very “mini”. OFC TonyBet was huge – a little bit lower on Main Event, but High Roller was up 50%.
You certainly run some popular events!
Yes, we have a lot of events that are not really competing with EPT. We are in the place (Ed. note: Prague) where, basically, the whole poker world is right now. We can run some different kind of events, smaller events, some bigger, but as long as we schedule it right, we don´t compete with PokerStars and that is good for everybody. I think we are bringing people for them as well, not that they would need it.
How many people work on the event, referring to dealers and floor staff? Do you hire local staff as well?
I bring my own crew of dealers here. We call ourselves the blacklist crew because we are independent and a lot of them don’t get hired by PokerStars for one reason or another. It is quite an international staff. We probably have got seven or more countries represented amongst dealers. As far as how many people work the festival – it is a lot! Casino employees, hotel employees… As far as for our crew – the event crew – we bring around 50 dealers and three of the best floor people in the world – we are about 55 people.
I noticed on social media that you post pics, commenting with day number. You are on a journey. How long you have been travelling?
Because we do events all over world and in the United States, we just happen to have three events in a row – well, not in a row, there are couple of weeks in-between each of them. I didn’t want to leave my family behind for the whole time, and I didn’t want to take three round-trip plane tickets from New Orleans to here, and my son starts school next year, so, this was the great time for us to take really long trip through Europe. We are on a total 94-day road trip. Some of it is working, some of it is not working.
It is not as expensive as people might think. People might think: Oh my god, you are on a 94-day road trip through Europe? We rented out our house, so, we are actually saving money by being out here and not having to spend it on the airfare. We are using the Airbnb as much as we can, and, of course, I get the free hotel room for the events.
How old is your son?
He is four years old.
Right. Tell me, how does it work to travel Europe with a 4-year-old kid?
It is a lot of fun. I don’t think he appreciates it as much as me and my wife – for sure. But I think he´ll appreciate it in a few years, especially when he starts talking to other kids in school and figures out they haven’t done anything that he´s been able to do.
We don’t get as much adult time, it is just the three of us. There is time when we need break from a 4-year-old and we don’t get it. But that is okay, and he is used to it. We brought the PlayStation with us – that helps out a lot.
As you know, I´ve been taking a lot of pictures. He will remember the trip. It´s been pretty special so far.
This is our third event since we´ve started the trip. After Prague, we are going to finish the trip in Salzburg, Austria. We are going to go skiing in Salzburg. Then we finally go home on Christmas.
Christmas at the airport?
Yes. We usually spend Christmas in the airport. I am usually doing the Prague Poker Festival.
We are not religious people. Christmas is not an important holiday for us. Over the last five years, for sure, it has been spent in the airport. You can get cheap flights to the US on Christmas. Real trick! Thanksgiving and Christmas are two easy days to fly.
Which places you have visited that were the most memorable?
I´ve visited 63 countries in last 20 years. You can say a lot about a lot of the cities. Paris was one of my favorites, even though we have not been there in a few years. We just went to Croatia and it became one of my favorites for sure. It is so beautiful. What happens in that part of the world, history didn’t teach us in the US. The Dalmatian coastline from Dubrovnik all the way up to Split. Beautiful. We drove that; it was very, very memorable.
There are weird places, too. For me being in Moscow was like being on Mars. They look like Americans but their alphabet is different. We spent a week in February in Moscow. That was very different.
Of course, if you ask my wife, she would probably mention seven or eight Caribbean stops, that is her favorite.
And Prague. Every time we come to Prague we love it. We have been coming here for 10 years.
You play poker frequently. What do you think poker can teach you?
Something you can use in your life? If you play a lot, for sure it can teach you how to read people. Not in a way that you know exactly what they are thinking, but your instincts and your impressions are usually right on. When you think somebody might not be telling you the truth, they are probably not. I think that by following your instincts in poker you are usually going to go the right way, and if you´re following your instincts in life, you´ll be also heading in the right direction.
What did it teach you, or maybe, what did it give you?
I´ve always had this saying that I never wanted to have a career. Then I got deep into poker and I finally did have a career in poker and I really enjoy it. It has given me a life, the life I can travel the world in; something out of the ordinary. I don´t have to be the nine-to-five person, work every day. I get to meet all kinds of different people.
You know, when you work in a place where people come to have fun, come to have a good time, come to gamble, it is nice. When you go to work, people come to your work to have fun, to enjoy themselves. Instead of when you work on construction dealing with people that are working. For me, it has been the greatest thing. I am not really working, I am hanging out with people who are having a good time.
What are your predictions for 2016 on the live tournament poker circuit?
It´s going to get bigger and bigger. People say there are too many tours, I don’t think so at all. If you look at live tournaments, the numbers go up all over. Smaller tours, local events, bigger tours – the numbers are up. I´m waiting for more US states to come online. I think there is going to be a second boom in the US when some of the bigger states come online. There is room for quite a few new tours in the US as well. There is definitely room for a world tour of somebody that is not WPT, WSOP, or EPT because none of them have a world tour that is a true world tour.
There is a market out there for a mid-range tour, and I think there is market out there for a high-limit tour as well. There are a lot of pieces of the pie, and it is a big poker pie, that are not being eaten. Poker is going to keep growing and I don’t see any reason why not. As more countries come aboard, more states in the US come aboard. I am very optimistic about the poker industry for the future.
There are still countries in Europe where you cannot play live poker, or you can play, but limited. Here in Prague, the new local law has taken effect, the Card Casino Prague poker room was shut down and we could go on listing other obstacles to the poker business. Isn’t this a reason for concern?
These may be changes on a temporary basis. Eventually, they´re going to open up again. More and more countries are opening up; for instance Georgia. There are other markets opening up as well. I remember when we first went to Deauville in France – EPT Season 1. Most of the French players – 80 to 90% of them – were brand new players. I really enjoy going to countries where everybody is sort of new, everybody is learning and you can see it grow, as in France. It is really exciting. Prague will get there. It is part of the EU, it must be open.
Finally, what do you think makes someone a top tournament director?
I think you have to be strong. Of course, you have to know the rules like the back of your hand. You have to be fair, treat each player equally. I don’t think you should play favorites in any way. Poker stars shouldn’t get their way. A lot of pushy players they want to get their way; their business and their hand would depend on how you rule.
You come to the table and you enforce the rules to the letter of the law. Me, personally, I don’t like it when a floor person will rule one way or the other, I like when a floor person comes to the table, makes the decision based on the rule, states the rule, and then walks away. That´s what a good tournament director is: fair, enforces the rules the same way across the board, and is strong about it.