Poker, by its very nature, is a very selfish game. It’s all about what’s best for you, either winning from others in cash games or doing what it takes to be the last man standing in a tournament. A lot of the time, players turn up to a European Poker Tour stop solely focused on what they need to achieve to make money. They’re blinkered to an extent and pay attention to what goes on around them, but not much beyond that. If they were to look around more they might notice more than 100 staff members, in various roles, working around the clock to make sure that poker players (the customer) can carry on being that way and worry about little else.
Garry Gates used to work in poker media, but transitioned into a PokerStars role and now finds himself specifically as the Global VIP Player Host at live events. High-roller events have become extremely popular tournaments for fans to follow in recent years, either on a live stream or on the various blogs available to read. They don’t just happen magically, though. A huge amount of preparation goes into making these events a success and the players who take part are the tour’s VIPs, and we all know VIPs require special treatment!
That’s where Gates comes in, and by all accounts, he does an excellent job.
PokerNews wanted to shine a light on him and find out more about his role and his life in this crazy world we live in.
PokerNews: Can you briefly explain how you got into the industry and your time at PokerNews?
Gates: Growing up, my extended family took annual trips to Las Vegas and my dad played in a weekly game at the local Elks Club. Gaming (specifically poker) fascinated me, so by the time I turned 21 I'd read every notable poker book and was four-tabling $200 sit-and-gos with "ElkY" on PokerStars. As my pipe dreams matured, I decided to take the plunge and moved out to Vegas immediately after graduating from college. I was substitute teaching and also enrolled at UNLV’s graduate school as a back-up plan, in case poker didn’t pan out.
Fortunately, I met the right people at the right time and landed a blogging gig at PokerNews during the ’07 WSOP; the first year PokerNews had exclusive rights to WSOP live reporting. I was promoted that summer and ultimately became PN’s live reporting manager from August 2007 to January 2010.
The North American Poker Tour (NAPT) was formed and a was a huge success in it's brief existence. Can you tell us about the tour and what role you filled?.
Working on the NAPT, however short-lived, was exciting. Big fields, big names, and big parties (I still remember T-Pain performing "I’m on a Boat" at Tao!). I served as the NAPT’s media coordinator (essentially Mad Harper west), liaising with attending media on the ground, writing press releases, managing the tour’s social media pages, and producing overnight chip count and table draw data.
You transitioned from the NAPT into the role you have now, as Global VIP Player Host. I'm assuming it's closely linked to what John Caldwell and his department at the time (Pro & Celebrity) were doing. A lot of us have mentors who support us when we're trying to develop out careers; Can you explain how important John has been to you?
During my transition from Media Coordinator to Player Liaison I worked with John Caldwell on various PokerStars-sponsored TV shows and events. John and I also worked closely together during our shared time at PokerNews, and if I were to single out one person who’s filled that mentor role in my poker development, it would no doubt be him.
Quite honestly, John is a big reason why PokerNews became the industry giant it is. His contributions both there and at PokerStars helped shape industry standards, and he’s been an indispensable resource for me throughout my career. I could say a lot more on this topic, but I know John will eventually read this and I don’t want the man’s head to explode of ego boost.
What's your day-to-day at events like, and how do you prepare when away from events?
At events, I serve as our VIP players’ primary point of contact on the ground. You can usually find me floating around the super-high-roller or high-roller areas or buried in my phone. I’m tasked with making sure our players have a seamless and enjoyable experience while at our events. My day-to-day includes a lot of the same things you would expect from a traditional Vegas casino host. I help with travel and accommodation, wire transfers, general event inquiries, special requests, etc.
Occasionally I also plan events outside the poker room, giving players a chance to experience an EPT stop beyond the walls of the casino. Forging new relationships and strengthening existing ones is also a key element of the job. I manage much of the communication with players on behalf of the company, so building trust is important and that comes with repetitive interaction; a lot of which takes place at events.
The job changes a bit when I’m not on the road. PokerStars is a big company with almost 2,000 employees worldwide in many different departments. My role has synergy with a multitude of other areas, including marketing, business development, security, registrations, TV, pro and celebrity marketing, communications, PR, and treasury, to name a few. On any given day I’ll find myself working with a number of different departments on various projects or player-related affairs. I also must remain accessible to our customers 24/7 throughout the year. As you know, poker players keep zany hours and so I usually find myself doing the same.
What are the things you enjoy most about your role and the biggest challenges it throws up?
I get to travel the world and work with incredibly talented people every day, all thanks to a card game that I happen to love. What’s not to enjoy about that?
I got my start in this business as a player myself, so the fact that I have a front row seat to watch the world’s best do what they do is a pretty awesome perk. I also get to interact with people who, maybe in another life, I might have never crossed paths with… Brilliant businessmen like Bill Perkins, Paul Newey, and Dan Shak, athletes like Barry Sanders, Paul Pierce, and Michael Phelps, or even a guy like Daniel Negreanu, who I admired from afar while I was learning the game and now play on a soccer team with in Vegas.
And by the way, I realize going back through that list of names, it sounds more like a shameless mini name-drop sesh than an answer to your question, but I genuinely love the fact that my life has come full circle through poker. Ten, even 15 years ago, I was watching Daniel play poker on TV, and now I’m fielding passes from him on the soccer pitch every Wednesday. Life’s crazy that way, I guess.
As for challenges, I would say one of the biggest is constantly having to elevate my level of thinking to match that of a high-stakes poker player. Not in terms of playing of course, but being good at my job requires being able to think like a poker player thinks with regard to anticipating needs, wants, questions, comments, feedback, etc. You’ve always got to be on your toes and occasionally think outside the box.
It’s a challenge, but one that I welcome.
Lastly, if you're comfortable talking about it, what about the future and your aspirations? Are you hoping to be involved with PokerStars as they try and get back into the US?
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited about the prospect of being able to work on home soil again. I would love to be a part of that team, if and when the time comes. In the meantime, PokerStars has been a great company to work for over the past few years and I’m trying to make the most of this opportunity. With regard to my future aspirations, I could definitely see myself transitioning into a business development role somewhere down the line. These are no doubt exciting times to be a part of the PokerStars team and I’m looking forward to finding out what the future holds.