There is a big benefit to playing at a famous poker site – generally speaking, the more attention a site attracts, the more secure and forthright the service they provide. Poker sites generally become famous by advertising in major markets like the UK, but to do so requires approval by the strict UK Gaming Commission. For a poker brand to get famous in the UK, it has to undergo some pretty rigorous examination.
But what do I mean by the phrase “famous poker brands?” I suppose famous can mean a few different things – one way to define a poker room on the Web as “famous” would be to consider whether or not it is a household name. Advertising (everything from pop-up ads online to sponsorship of professional athletes and teams) is a surefire way to create that kind of famous.
Another way to define poker site fame is to consider how many celebrity endorsement deals a poker site has. I’d also include a look at the high-profile poker pros who play at a particular room – do they sponsor a team of big names? Do they have a short list of relative newcomers? These factors can’t be overlooked.
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Why Fame is Important
In the online poker industry, the mere suggestion of controversy is enough for some players to avoid a site altogether. Poker rooms on the Internet are in some ways held to a higher standard than other online businesses. For example, if a clothing store’s website forgets an item in a shipment, most customers will simply contact the business and try to resolve the problem one-on-one, no need for alarm. In online gaming, a customer who feels they’ve been jilted is likely to take to the forums and message boards and try to get the site blacklisted.
Having an educated customer base is by no means a bad thing for the gaming industry. Online poker and casino and sports betting customers depend really heavily on things like fair play, safety, and security, mostly because of the financial details involved in online gaming transactions. This same customer base is a good thing for sites with good reputations – trusted casino and poker sites are seen as all the more trustworthy because players know how easy it is for these rooms to develop a bad reputation.
The Dark Side of Fame
There’s another side of the fame coin – some poker services have earned the absolute scorn of poker players for their bad behavior in the past.
A bad reputation puts Web-based poker rooms in a tough Catch-22. It is just as hard to gain back a good reputation after a security breach or wave of slow pay complaints as it is easy for a site with a good reputation to maintain it. Fame (through advertising, celebrity endorsements, and other gimmicks) is one way that Web-based poker rooms can ensure they maintain some semblance of a positive reputation.
Consider the downfall of the Cereus poker network and the Absolute Poker/Ultimate Bet controversies. In those cases, the network (and the two sites named) would never recover. The same thing nearly happened with Full Tilt Poker, but that site’s case is a good example of how a bad reputation can be whittled away.
Once PokerStars weathered the collapse of the US market, it wanted to settle with the US Department of Justice, and was required to purchase Full Tilt Poker outright as part of that deal. Full Tilt was relaunched a few years ago – under new management and slowly regaining a reputation among players. Still, it’s hard to imagine a player trusting Full Tilt Poker with a large deposit, considering their history of trouble with player payments. Such is the power of a bad reputation in online poker.
Today’s Famous Poker Brands
PokerStars is still the industry leader in terms of both fame and player traffic. They were industry leaders before the collapse of US poker, too, in part because of the popularity of their tournaments, the popularity of the World Series of Online Poker, and (in a big way) their fame in general. Stories of Americans moving abroad just to remain customers with PokerStars are true, to some extent. Here’s one of dozens of advice articles aimed at US poker players doing just that.
How did PokerStars become the household name that they (mostly) still are? How did they maintain their brand through the UIGEA bill, the cheating scandals, the collapse of the US market, and all the other Internet poker game controversies?
For starters, by gathering the endorsements of famous people. PokerStars has a long roster of celebrity endorsements, including a pro poker team that’s stuffed with big names. Team PokerStars current pro roster includes Chris Moneymaker, Daniel Negreanu, and Liv Boeree. The site also plays host to a Celebrity poker team and an all-athlete poker team. Those rosters include tennis mega-star Rafael Nadal, famous footballer Ronaldo, and a number of bigwigs from the sport of auto racing.
Another way poker sites maintain fame within the industry (and not just through advertising to the general public) is to sponsor poker tournaments. PokerStars does more of that than any other name in the business, acting as current sponsors of tours all over the world, such as the European Poker Tour and the Russian Poker Series.
PartyPoker took a big hit after the American online gambling market collapsed in the mid-2000s. At the time of the passing of the UIGEA bill (which was American poker’s undoing), PartyPoker was one of the top two names in Web-based poker. Though the site is still a big player in the industry – ranked as high as fourth in overall traffic at PokerScout.com – it has never fully recovered from the loss of their US-based players.
How did PartyPoker become a household name? Through the magic of television. To this day, PartyPoker advertises on the international stage. PartyPoker once ran a ton of popular TV spots in the US market, and it still does that outside America. The site also sponsors a bunch of televised tournaments and poker-based TV programming. PartyPoker still televises two poker tournaments a year, The Big Game and Premier League, though TV-based poker is nowhere near as popular as it was, say, fifteen years ago.
What about big-name poker games that aren’t available online? The most exclusive (and best known) live poker game in the world is held at the Bellagio in Las Vegas – specifically the high stakes room. That’s where a lot of big-name professionals play regularly. According to the Bellagio’s website, there are technically two such rooms. Bobby’s Room, named after former WSOP champ Bobby Baldwin, is where some of the world’s highest stakes poker games are played, with guys like Ivey, Brunson, and Farha as regulars.
How did the Bellagio’s poker room become the biggest live game in the world? When the casino opened in 1998, who was at the helm but Bobby Baldwin himself. Formerly the head of the Mirage (where lots of pros played before the Bellagio’s opening), Baldwin is a legend in the poker world, and he brought his hard-earned clout with him to his new property.
Bobby’s Room (and its $100,000 buy-in Big Game) earned attention and respect by virtue of the guy who oversaw its operation. That’s something that online poker rooms have yet to accomplish, and it may be impossible. PokerStars has a long list of famous players who are active at the site, but I don’t think playing in the same virtual room as a big-name pro is all that appealing. It’s certainly not as big a draw as playing elbow-to-elbow at Bobby’s Room in Las Vegas.
As the poet Lord Byron said: “Fame is the thirst of youth.” There’s always something new in the world of online gaming. Fame can be fleeting; many once-popular poker rooms and game networks are now completely out of business, while other newer services are being touted as the next big thing. Whether or not mobile, subscription-based, and social media poker games will catch on is not my area of expertise.
I will say this – fame is an important metric to use when selecting a poker room to make a deposit with, but it’s not the most important one. Some name-brand rooms aren’t a good fit for certain customers, others aren’t worth their amount of fame they’ve manufactured for themselves. The opposite is true, too – some lesser-known networks and sites have perfectly-good products but don’t do much advertising.