I’ve been into poker ever since my Dad first taught me the game at the kitchen table as a kid. Like many poker aficionados out there, however, I really started getting into the game in 2003, at the outset of the poker boom. I might be a card-carrying member of the poker media corps these days, but back then I was just a fan, eager to lap up whatever poker content that the internet (version 1.0) could serve up. Prior to 2011, it was certainly a different era as far as the poker world was concerned, not just within the realm of online play, but also as far as poker media was concerned. These days, the scene is dominated by larger outlets and brands that have become household names, each with great teams of hardworking people, many of whom I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing as part of my ongoing Get to Know the Poker Media series.
Back in the day, however, before social media exploded – when the term “Black Friday” still only perhaps conjured up images of post-Thanksgiving Day sales in the minds of poker players – the poker media scene also seemed to have more of a Wild West feel to it, with lone gunslingers ruling the day and poker bloggers moving en huddled masse around the world following players along the global poker circuit. One of those lone gunslingers was Dan Michalski, better known to the fans out there as the founder of Pokerati.com. I’ve probably visited that poker site thousands of times over the years, always happy to have gotten a closer look at the poker world from my distant perch in Israel through the lens the site provided.
As the years have passed, Dan made a somewhat surreptitious exit from the poker scene, not going out with a grandiose bang, but rather fading away gracefully, as old soldiers do. While the Pokerati site is still technically active, it’s now a shell of its former self. Dan has moved on to other ventures, and is still active in a more behind-the-scenes role within the gambling media industry. I’ve long been a fan of his work, and he and I have been in touch sporadically over the years, but we had never had the chance to meet. That all FINALLY changed a couple weeks ago here in Las Vegas, when we went out to a splendid dinner together. Over the course of three sublime hours, we had a grand time. I treasured every moment, as I felt a very strong connection to a kindred spirit for, in essence, Dan already did what I’m trying to do in the poker media world before I even had a thought of dipping my toes into the water. Quite frankly, there really aren’t too many of us lone gunslingers out there anymore, so it was a special privilege to sit at the proverbial feet of a legend, learning of and gaining from his years and years of experiences.
If you’ve been playing poker, doing poker media work, dealing, or have just been a fan of the game since the boom years, the story of how Dan Michalski grew Pokerati into a much beloved brand is something you’re likely to absolutely treasure as a nostalgic look back into poker’s recent past. If you’re newer on the poker scene and unfamiliar with the poker environment circa 2004-2012, all I can do is encourage you to take the time to enjoy the discussion Dan and I had below, and learn more about our game’s great history from someone who was fortunate enough to have had a front-row seat at an exciting time.
So, how did you first get into the poker industry?
The earliest incarnation of my involvement in poker probably started in ‘03, but I guess as part of the industry, where people started responding to my emails and stuff, it started in ‘04. I was a freelance journalist who suddenly became interested in poker. This was in the earliest days of the poker boom, a little before Moneymaker, and then obviously right after Moneymaker. I launched my own blog, Pokerati, with the idea that it might help me land more writing gigs. I wrote the cover story for the first issue of All In magazine in 2004, and by the second issue I was the editor.
In 2005, I became the first official blogger for the World Series of Poker (along with Nolan Dalla). It definitely wasn’t a full-time gig, but it introduced me to how things worked at the WSOP behind the scenes. Things really took off in ’06, when I got hired by partypoker to launch PokerBlog.com.
So, what made you decide to found your own independent blog as Pokerati first, and then go into the industry and become an employee for an established poker media outlet?
The whole time I was doing something on Pokerati. People weren’t really sure what to make of blogging yet, and I was still figuring it out. It started as a hobby. I was playing a regular home game with friends — a bunch of journalists and lawyers, mostly — and every day after the game we would have this group email thread where we all were going back and forth making fun of each other for how people played different hands, and maybe talking about what poker we were watching on TV. At one point I said to the group, “You know, these email threads are kinda smart and funny; we should probably put them up on the internet.” And one of my friends responded, “That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard.” And from there, you know, I was all in.
Wow. So, describe the beginning of that journey. Was it a one-man show from the get-go? Did you have a business plan? Did you have any particular goals, anything you wanted to achieve? Or you just sat down at your computer one day and said, “OK, now what?”
I sort of had a business plan. I mean, I had an idea that we could sell ads and maybe products — chips and tables and things – and just write about things that were going on in the poker world. But it wasn’t a formal business plan of “Here’s my idea for making a lot of money.” I was a journalist, and my conception of journalism in the blog world was that it was like journaling, and as long as you’re doing interesting stuff, what you write about is going to be interesting to other people. So I took that same concept to a poker blog and just said “I’m going to make sure I put myself in places where interesting things are happening related to poker, and I’m going to write about what I learn.”
Around that same time, poker was so popular, I was running an amateur tournament at a prominent strip club. That’s where the business concept really began to emerge. Writing about poker on a website helped draw people to a live tournament action, which in turn helped bring people to the website. I posted point standings and it really kept the cycle going.
So, you were based here in Las Vegas at the time, right in the beginning?
No, I was based in Dallas for those first few years. I cut my teeth in the Dallas underground rooms, and running my weekly tournament series at The Lodge in Dallas. Lodge Amateur Poker, we called it.
Ah, so did you just travel the poker circuit on your own dime? Were you in Las Vegas a lot? Did you immediately start staying the entire summer for the World Series? Were you just specifically doing event coverage to begin with? How did you decide what to write?
Pretty much on my own dime. There were paid writing gigs here and there, and I started getting freerolled into tournaments sometimes. I was driving to Las Vegas for several of those early summers, where I was able to stay with my grandmother.
The coverage I produced varied. It was a little bit of everything, I guess, whatever floated my boat. What did I think that people would find interesting? If I was interested in it, other people were interested, too. Pokerati was initially written to entertain my home game friends, and when I was starting to go to Las Vegas, I would think, basically, what do I want to tell them? What would I be emailing my friends about what I was seeing and experiencing at the WSOP or some other poker event? And that means, in some ways, the readers kind of became my friends, and I was treating them that way. At least that was the approach. At the World Series, I found a lot of good stories talking to people in the hallways.
And when did you move to Las Vegas?
I moved to Las Vegas full-time in December 2007. I remember I was here for ‘08 New Year’s. I remember being like “Oh, I’ve gotta get to Las Vegas in time for New Year’s.” It’s kind of laughable now, living here.
How did you settle on the name Pokerati? Why that name?
So, I was thinking, I wanted something with poker. I hadn’t settled on the spelling of it yet, but I was thinking like “literati,” but about poker, and it had sort of a little bit of the Illuminati, sort of a little bit of a mysterious feel. So it was just a handful of things, and I typed it in to see if this domain was available. The first one I bought was “Pokeratti” with two T’s. Then I said, “no, no, no, I think I want it with one T,” and it was still available, so we got it. It was only 2004, so there were still lots of valuable domains available.
Obviously you did something before you did poker, so what job did you leave? What industry?
I’d been a freelance journalist, and before that I was a magazine writer and editor, and a high school journalism teacher. I wrote a lot about the law, and a little about politics, but really I’d been doing just a bunch of weird things trying to be something of an adventure journalist with dreams of someday becoming like a Sebastian Junger or Tony Horwitz. I was making it work somehow, and when poker started to become so hot, that became my adventure.
In terms of the poker, when you do play, do you have any particular games that are your favorite? What stakes do you play for? Cash, tournaments?
I’m a low-stakes player who never quite graduated past $2-$5 play. As for type of game? I loved the “Pokerati Game.” It was a $1-$2 no-limit Hold’em/PLO mixed game. We had some other special rules about straddling on the button and things like that, and the big deal was being able to “run it twice.” Low-stakes games didn’t do that at the time.
At some point, you started as a one-man show, but eventually you had other contributors; other writers writing for you. What was the tipping point for that, how did that expansion begin, and when?
Pokerati was always conceived as a team blog. Since the beginning, there’s always been other people involved. I couldn’t have done it by myself; there always was somebody there. It started out with the guys in my home game. We were called the Batfaces. Corny, I know, but it made for good characters on the blog. We even had hats!
It wasn’t until 2008, when I moved to Las Vegas, when I took on an investor and tried to turn it into a real business. But there was a point where, slowly, as Pokerati started making money, that people expected you to pay them. I think we may have been a case of being undercapitalized. I wasn’t ever able to hire a full-time staff, but I was able to hire some freelancers here and there. And I have to say, one of the things I’m most proud of with Pokerati is the caliber of alumni who passed through our doors before moving on to bigger and better things.
When I think back, I don’t want to leave anyone out, but so many good people and great writers helped along the way. Jen Newell, and Al Rash, they are people who are still doing great things in the industry. And Tim Fiorvanti, he was fresh out of journalism school when he started writing for Pokerati, and now he writes for ESPN.
Jennifer is one of our contributors here at Cardplayer Lifestyle.
She definitely was a valuable Pokerati contributor for a long while. That was pretty much my pitch to people I thought were good writers who had an interesting take on poker and might benefit from having a platform. Like “Hey, I don’t have a lot of money to offer, but I can teach you a few things about journalism and help you get other gigs.”
And ohmygosh, Kevmath, I can’t forget about him! I read his postings on 2+2 and thought was doing some impressive stuff, and I’m like “This guy’s got potential.” He started blogging for Pokerati, and it didn’t take long before he became a big important person in poker. I don’t take credit for that.
But you’re the Branch Rickey. You’re the scout; you found him!
I was happy to know that I had identified some talent, yeah.
Oh, and Tom Schneider, too. He blogged at Pokerati for a while and became something of a centerpiece for Team Pokerati. He became one of my closest friends in poker. We met kind of by happenstance. He happened to be in Dallas when I was throwing the Pokerati Invitational, an annual rake-free tourney I hosted. He won it in ’06.
How many people attended?
I think probably about 80. I don’t remember exactly, but I think it was like a $100 buy-in with a single rebuy. He was in town promoting his book at the time, so I just met him and he shows up at my tournament and he wins it, and we become buddies. So, he’s doing some blogging for us, and then in ‘07 he goes on and wins WSOP Player of the Year. When he won the first bracelet, I can’t believe it, like, “Holy cow, he’s winning a bracelet! Oh my gosh, he’s winning another bracelet!”
And funky jackets, also, wasn’t he into those?
He wasn’t into the funky Loudmouth jackets yet; that would be a few years later. When he stopped winning bracelets, you know, you’ve got to put some jackets on, lol.
Well, one past contributor who obviously merits mention, still very active, pretty much a superstar — he won two GPI awards as vlogger of the year, as personality of the year — is Andrew Neeme. I remember when I was reading Pokerati back in my early days of my poker fandom, I enjoyed his articles. How did he become a part of your team?
Oh, right, of course, Andrew Neeme. He was a player in the Pokerati game at the Palms.
Our game ran on Thursdays, $1-$2 No-limit Hold’em/PLO, half and half, with run it twice. Andrew was one of the better players, and he was a nice guy, and we were just talking about stuff, so I gave him a place to write. I was happy to have him share his adventures, his thoughts on poker and everything.
Eventually, Andrew and Dave Ferrara, another great Pokerati alum, ended up doing a podcast, Vegas Grinders, where we talked about the poker scene in Las Vegas.
Dave is now the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s courts reporter, but his first bylines in Las Vegas were with Pokerati. He’s the real deal. Dave just showed up in the Tropicana poker room one day, and he just came up and said “I want to meet you,” and we started talking journalism and poker and hit it off. It was great.
I don’t know if you remember; I was actually one of the interviewees on that podcast, way, way back. I was trying to get a little exposure for my Poker Notes Live app.
Oh, yeah! I remember the Poker Notes Live app! Oh my God. I forgot that was you, though; no offense. I remember the app.
No offense taken! My app is still around. Premium version still costs just $4.99! 😀
So yea, we all still stay in touch, but now it’s been exciting to watch Andrew’s stuff really take off. It’s been great to watch his success in such a relatively short time. I see his numbers and I remember when I thought I had big numbers, and they were nothing like his numbers.
G-d bless YouTube algorithms, right?
Absolutely. And I can tell you one other thing, and I’m sure he remembers. When Vegas Grinders was fizzling out, not quite growing into what we wanted it to be, Andrew was looking for something else to do. He told Dave and me he was wanting to do a video thing. And I basically told Andrew: “Whatever you do, don’t do video! Video is so much harder than audio, you’re going to regret it so much. It’s a whole different ball game; like an order of magnitude more complicated. It’s more competitive, and there’s less money to be made.” Anyway, I basically said stay off the YouTube…
Obviously, he did not take your advice.
Yes, and very smart of him not to.
What would you say were some of your biggest highlights during the glory days of your poker media career ?
Yikes, is this an obituary?
No, I get it. Hmm, there just were so many good times. Especially at the Lodge Amateur Poker tournaments in Dallas – any time a celebrity player was in town they came and played – and at the Pokerati games in Las Vegas.
Other than that, hmm, I got to play limit hold’em four-handed against Andy Beal and Jim McManus. That was kinda of crazy.
And one thing that was special was covering the efforts to pass a bill in Texas legalizing poker. Pokeratizens had a real impact on helping push that bill over the course of several sessions, and we came closer to getting a floor vote than any other.
That was a fascinating place to be and still is an issue in media these days, finding that line between being a journalist and being an activist. It’s still not a settled matter.
Another highlight, and I’m hesitant to use the term “highlight” for this, but what I was proud of journalistically—and this didn’t make me any friends—we predicted Black Friday at Pokerati. Though we couldn’t pinpoint a date, we were hardly surprised because we had been following all these different arrests and reading the legal documents for over a year and you could tell the Feds were coming, and they had Full Tilt and PokerStars in their sights.
I guess overall, I’m most proud of how Pokerati tried to bring real journalism to the niche coverage of poker, getting up close and personal while covering the real news that was otherwise going unquestioned.
Alright, so switching gears, then, Pokerati has basically been inactive for a couple of years. At what point did you start to feel like it was time to move on from poker media into something different?
It was a combination of things. Around 2012-2013 or so, the industry was changing, and I knew Pokerati had to either grow or die. It became clear that it was going to be tougher for the little guy to make a living, and the big corporations were coming in there and we were just getting squeezed out. Around that same time, I got diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, which quite literally put a crimp in my blogging game. That coincided with Scott Chaffin, an old school blogger known as “The Fat Guy” who was the tech wizard keeping Pokerati afloat all these years, getting lung cancer. (He eventually died in February 2014.)
So all these things just came together, and I had to reevaluate what I was doing with my life. For one thing, Scott’s death got me to quit smoking. So, in a strange way, I’ll be forever thankful to him for that, but it was just time to go down a different path.
So, I decided to go to graduate school. Some might call it a mid-life crisis but I liked to think of it as a career halftime break – time to think about what I had learned so far and make a plan for the future. I went to UNLV and earned a Master’s degree in Journalism and Media Studies. My main area of focus was media technology and data journalism. I also got to do some research with professors at UNLV’s International Gaming Institute. That was a real privilege as these folks, you can see, are really helping shape the future of gaming.
And at some point you thought “OK, this is my last day working on Pokerati,” or what exactly was the transition process like?
Well, I’m not sure that day has really come yet. There wasn’t like any official transition or farewell post. It just kind of naturally fizzled as I considered different options.
Do you have any regrets? You were doing this I guess for a little over 10 years. Is there anything that you wish you would have been able to accomplish, or places or events you wish you could have traveled to or covered?
Not really. Lots of little things I might’ve done differently, and a few mistakes here and there, but they were all learning experiences. I suppose if I could do it all over again, I wish I would’ve had a better grasp on business concepts a little sooner. But you know, we were having fun.
I also wish I had learned to play poker better.
Don’t we all?
Actually, part of the initial vision was “I’m going to use this blog to learn how to get better at poker, and maybe I’ll be so lucky to make $10,000 and someday buy myself into the Main Event.” That was the plan at least. I still haven’t played in the Main Event yet.
What are you up to now? What have you been doing for last few years? What’s your current job?
A few things. I do some consulting for financial firms, providing gaming industry analysis, and also keep my finger on the pulse by working as a managing editor for CardsChat. Most recently I’ve been helping the sports betting site OnlineGambling.com expand its news operations.
So, to an extent, you’re still involved a little bit in poker, then?
Oh yes, very involved, every day in some capacity with poker and gaming. Media and gaming are the two areas I know best after starting out more than a decade ago as just a mere poker blogger.
From your seat now in 2018, since poker is on the upswing again, do you ever have a thought of “Hey, I’ll just give it one more go as a poker blogger?”
Well, some of what I loved doing the most I don’t think we could do again. I don’t think the poker world is the same place anymore. There were a handful of us bloggers running around the World Series and really driving so much of the news, agenda setters if you will. We were telling the other publications what to be covering, essentially, and we wanted to believe we were setting certain standards for those who followed us. I don’t think what we bloggers did then is quite possible anymore, but I’m always going to be at least somewhat connected to the poker world for life.
Getting to the last question, so, you have a unique perspective. You’ve been there, you’ve done that, you were an established name very much at the peak of the poker media side of things. There are people who still want to get into it today, or they may be reading this someday and looking to you as someone who has trailblazed. Do you have any advice for people like that, of the path that they maybe should take or any sort of tips or strategies they should use as they embark on their careers?
Well, I would advise to think about the business early on. Because there’s a difference between somebody who is building a business and somebody who is being a lone wolf, and they’re two different paths to success. You can be successful both ways. But I should say, you ought to commit to one of those because that’s going to make a difference.
Other than that, I’d say, do what you love and see if you can identify what’s missing right now. If you look at Andrew Neeme’s stuff, one of the reasons I thought he was crazy and going to fail miserably was because the conventional wisdom was “who’s going to watch a 30-minute video? You’ve got to be three minutes or seven minutes or something like that.” But you know what, he had a vision for sharing his grind with some sort of funkiness to it, with some technical artistry, and that’s what made it enjoyable for him to do and it’s what made it enjoyable for people to watch. You could tell that that passion, that care was put into it.
That’s what I tried to bring to Pokerati. I wanted our readers to know that we cared about them, we cared about their poker.
Dan, it was an absolute pleasure meeting you. Thank you very much for your time. This has been truly awesome.