He’s won WPT and WSOP titles and millions of dollars, so why is Howard Lederer fighting for his poker rights?
Howard Lederer remembers his first time. It was back in the 1990s, during a rehearsal dinner prior to the wedding of his sister and fellow poker pro Annie Duke. Lederer had just won a tournament, which led to a small write-up in a poker magazine. ‘One of the guests approached me with a copy of the magazine,’ recounts Lederer, ‘and asked me to sign it. I gave him the autograph but thought it was strange.’
It may have been strange back then, but no more. These days hulking Lederer – a man with a patient disposition and kind eyes that turn unnervingly piercing when he decides to stare down an opponent – cannot pass through a casino without drawing attention. Slack-jawed fans approach the famous ‘Professor of Poker’, and they exude the kind of deference usually reserved for pop stars. During the couple of hours I spend with Lederer at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, he is a non-stop magnet of attention. One guy hands him a business card (something about a would-be TV show), a giggly girl adds his signature to her collection, and somebody else approaches with a poker problem, wanting to know how to play a particular hand under a specific condition. He gives a moment to all of them, never once seeming bothered.
This is the kind of acclaim that blows the mind of many a poker pro – especially those who were enmeshed in the game prior to its boom. Doyle Brunson once complained to me that he couldn’t make it through an airport without getting stopped endlessly. Cash game players of my acquaintance love the anonymity that comes with avoiding televised tournaments. Not Lederer. He claims to have seen this coming – and he’s been enjoying every minute of it.
At the turn of this century, Howard Lederer was primarily a cash game player, earning good money in the $400/$800 game at the Bellagio Casino, Las Vegas. Like every other serious pro, he competed in the occasional tournament, but that was it. Then, during the initial season of the World Poker Tour, which aired in 2003, he won two WPT titles and suddenly blossomed into a highly recognised personality. Following the final hand of his first win, money was pushed across the table with over-the-top fanfare, Mike Sexton popped a champagne cork, cameras zoomed in on Lederer, and he expressed his vision: ‘I saw the poker boom coming, and I thought it would be great.’
One year earlier, he had attended the Poker Million, on the Isle of Man, which served as the first televised tournament to employ a hole-card camera. Unlike his friend Erik Seidel (who initially hated the idea of anyone having the potential to deconstruct his strategy), Lederer embraced the new technology. He immediately recognised it could transform the game and turn it into truly compelling television.
Then, upon noticing the buzz created by the World Poker Tour, he began to focus increasingly on tournaments – winning more than $2m between 2002 and 2004, while enduring a fraction of the volatility that comes with playing high stakes cash games. But, beyond the prize money, Lederer recognised the potential riches that could come from notoriety.
‘I saw, for the first time in my life, opportunities that would be there beyond the money I won playing poker,’ says Lederer, who was first dubbed the ‘Professor of Poker’ by Jesse May (at the Poker Million), though the title got drilled into the public consciousness thanks to Mike Sexton during WPT’s first season.
‘I figured I could get involved with books, DVDs and promotional opportunities because of all the people who’d see me playing on TV. I don’t think the Chips and Doyles of the poker world saw it. But I did.’ He hesitates for a beat, smiles tightly, and adds, ‘The only thing is that I imagined it being 10 times smaller than it turned out to be.’
Things got so big and so good – Lederer lent his name and image to a bourbon, has worked to promote Full Tilt, helped create the site’s software, put on poker camps and released instructional DVDs – that, over the last few years, he’s devoted increasingly limited amounts of his time to actually playing poker. To Lederer’s way of thinking the business of poker has become juicier than a good game in Bobby’s Room. It has longerlasting implications than any poker showdown and is too good not to capitalise on. Plus he’s actually enjoying life as a celebrity/businessman. ‘My personality is to always look for new challenges,’ says Lederer. ‘I’ve been playing poker since I was 18, the boom hit when I was 39, and it’s allowed me to expand my horizons as a human being.’
The ever growing popularity of Texas Hold’em has turned him into the kind of person whose name and image have value in the poker marketplace, which he describes as a three-part ecosystem: online, television and live games/tournaments. Lederer explains that one can’t exist as robustly as it currently does without a boost from the other two. Television has brought numerous players to the game. Online poker has created financial opportunities for pros who are aligned with sites. And the live games and tournaments – well, that’s where the money is and what the other two components feed into. ‘Poker’s a great game and won’t get old,’ predicts Lederer. ‘But TV reminds people of how great it is. If poker went off TV, there would be less play.’
Lederer happily acknowledges that the World Poker Tour has contributed heavily to making him the star that he is today. However, Lederer also maintains that he and the other high-profile pros have done a lot for the World Poker Tour. And therein lies an issue that is at the crux of a battle between a group of players (Lederer, Annie Duke, Chris Ferguson, Greg Raymer, Phil Gordon, Andy Bloch and Joe Hachem – none of whom, not coincidentally, are financially reliant on tournament earnings) and the WPT.
The way things currently stand, according to Lederer, the WPT has exclusive deals to tape and telecast most of the major tournaments with buy-ins of $10,000 or more. And because the WPT reaches a large audience of poker-crazed viewers and allows players to wear logos, those events are the most alluring non-WSOP events to play in. They have the largest buy-ins, provide life-changing money for the winners, and therefore have mega appeal for the pros.
The problems for Lederer and his gang of six, begin with the contract that the WPT asks players to sign before they can sit down to play. The contract stipulates, according to Lederer, ‘that our images are tied up for life. Actually it’s beyond life. It is in perpetuity, everywhere in the universe, in all media, including media yet to be invented. They can use my image and performance and sell it without compensating me. And they can use my image to compete against me. WPT has a poker school, so they can show clips of me playing and use that to promote their school, which competes against my poker camp’.
Lederer points out that he and the other players happily put up their own money, which, essentially, helps WPT to create a television show. And they’re willing to have their images used in order to help promote the show. ‘We just want to limit their usage of our images,’ he explains. ‘That said, though, they have a right to ask for that usage. But what they have done that breaches the antitrust laws [and is at the crux of a lawsuit being mounted by the group of players against the WPT] is this: they’ve gone to the big land-based casinos around the country and locked them up. They’ve told the casinos that to be part of the World Poker Tour, they have to enforce the release.’ So, as a result, he and the other poker players, who will not give away all the required rights, cannot play in tournaments being put on by casinos that are separate and distinct from the World Poker Tour.
The situation is complicated and the laws are subtle. But the contract creates an undeniably difficult situation for players who rely on tournaments in order to earn a living. They must sign away their rights to WPT or else not play in most of a given year’s major events.
‘One of the most poignant conversations I’ve had about this was with Gavin Smith,’ continues Lederer. ‘He’s already won a WPT tournament and made a final table. Gavin is a successful poker player and he feels as if he’s letting me down. I don’t hold it against him for playing, but he was practically apologising to me for it. He told me that he can’t afford not to play. So for 10 months a year [when the World Series of Poker is not taking place] he has no choice and is being forced to sign a non industrystandard contract. That is the definition of antitrust.’
As of now, the WPT has not exercised the rights the players have signed over. In fact, in one instance, when an online banner ad depicted Doyle Brunson, Gus Hansen and Daniel Negreanu, the WPT were asked to take the banner down and they did. ‘But,’ adds Lederer, ‘at the same time they made it clear that they didn’t think they had to take the ad down. They took it down because they’re good guys. That scared the hell out of me. Steve Lipscomb and Lyle Berman [co-founders of World Poker Tour] are good guys, but you shouldn’t have to rely on the kindness of strangers. And, 20 years from now, who will own the WPT? Probably not Lyle or Steve. I don’t want to have to trust those new owners.’
Playing devil’s advocate, I point out to Lederer that the WPT already made one concession (allowing players to wear logos) and that the release issue is nothing new. Back when the World Poker Tour first began, the rights contract was in force and players happily signed because they were thrilled to be on television and felt that they had nothing to lose.
‘You get away with what you can get away with,’ Lederer acknowledges. ‘But this is a new market and I don’t hold anything against [the WPT]. But at a certain point you need to recognise that enough is enough. It began as a mutually beneficial relationship. During the first season Chris [Ferguson] watched tapes ahead of time and helped them find continuity errors. Chris, Annie and I did a lot of radio interviews that helped us but also helped WPT to become what it is. Then they had a multi-$100m IPO and Steve Lipscomb cashed in for $10m-$20m. That’s fine. I don’t begrudge him any of that. We’re just asking for fair treatment and at this point we feel that the law would demand it. What the law would ask for is a marketplace. But a true marketplace will not spring up [with the WPT controlling 75-80 percent of the big $10,000 buy-in tournaments].’
So, unless an agreement is reached, Lederer and company will let the courts decide.
Long before he was tied up in business and litigation, Howard Lederer was a struggling poker player. After graduating from high school in 1982, he put his freshman year at Columbia University on hold and moved to New York with the ambition to become a world chess champion. He began frequenting the Bar Point, a shabby chess club in downtown Manhattan. Almost immediately he discovered a poker game that took place in the Bar Point’s backroom. He promptly forgot about chess.
‘For two straight years,’ remembers Lederer, ‘I lost at poker. I probably went broke 300 times and I slept at the chess club. In exchange, I kept the poker room clean. I made money by running errands for guys in the game. By two in the morning, I’d have $15 in tips, which was enough for me to buy in. Then, by the time the game broke up, I’d be completely busted. At that point I borrowed $2 from one of the winners and that enabled me to buy a pack of cigarettes and a souvlaki sandwich across the street. That was my life. I was broker than broke, but I didn’t need money as long as I could get to the next game.’
After two years, though, Lederer became good enough to beat the Bar Point game. He put together a modest bankroll, crashed on a guy’s couch for $250 a month and came up with a failsafe way to play at an advantage. ‘The game would start on Friday and not end till Sunday,’ Lederer remembers. ‘I’d play on Friday night till three or four in the morning and leave. Then I’d come back, after sleeping, and the same people would still be there. I repeated the routine on Saturday. And then, when I returned on Sunday, the game got really good.’ Lederer graduated to a $5/$10 Hold’em game. His income increased to the point where he was making a couple thousand dollars each month and he began to feel like a professional gambler. ‘Then I heard about an amazing game at the Mayfair,’ says Lederer. ‘That was life-changing.’
The Mayfair was a legendary gambling club situated on a low floor of Manhattan’s tatty Gramercy Park Hotel. It started as a bridge club, evolved into a haunt for backgammon and gin, and, by the time Lederer walked in, poker was the hot game. It was a $5/$10/$25 no-limit game with a formidable line-up: Steve Zolotow, Jay Heimowitz, Dan Harrington, Erik Seidel, Jason Lester and Mickey Appleman among them. ‘None of us were good yet,’ acknowledges Lederer, ‘but we formed a collective mind of smart people committed to getting good. We played all day and went to a bar after the game broke up. We’d spend two hours a night talking poker and it turned us into better players. Eventually the game got very tough’ – and the stakes rose considerably.
Trips to Las Vegas – where, according to Lederer, ‘we got our heads caved in’ – helped to sharpen their skills and a New York style of play emerged: tight, smart and aggressive, with high degrees of control and a minimal steam factor. There was a brief, but highly profitable stint of sports betting for Lederer and his partner Zolotow, but that ended with a pair of raids.
‘The police couldn’t understand how we could be involved in so much action without being bookmakers’ [which is illegal outside Las Vegas in America], states Lederer. ‘We settled the case when they saw that our calls were going out rather than coming in, which makes it hard to be a bookmaker. There was no real legal trouble, but we got the message that we’d never know when there would be another knock on the door. It’s scary to get hassled by the police and that made us stop doing it.’
But that was okay for Lederer, who refocused on poker and played in some of the richest cash games of the late 1990s. Following his tournament hot streak between 2002 and 2004, Lederer continued to buy in but rarely played his best. ‘It’s not about lost skill,’ he maintains. ‘It’s purely focus. If you have non-poker things running through your head when you sit down at the table, then you’re not doing what you need to do. When I get deep into a tournament I’m fully focused. It’s exciting and I’m playing for real money. Last time I felt fully engaged was during the 2005 Main Event when I made it to Day 4. I blocked out all distractions.’
Lederer goes on to say that he’s hoping to wind down his business commitments in the near future and I sense that he’s about to reveal a return to the game. I smirk and pop the question. ‘You ask that with a smile,’ he shoots back. ‘But I do believe that there are some players out there who have either forgotten about me or never knew me when I was fully focused. I love poker and my plan is to phase out the other stuff and devote more time to playing – cash games and tournaments. People are going to be surprised. They may not get how hard I can play and I’m excited about getting back to that level.’
Name: Howard Lederer
Resides: Las Vegas
Nickname: The Professor
Style of play: Calculating
Tournament winnings: $3,274,375
Biggest win: 2004 Bellagio Five-Star World Poker Classic – $2,500 No-limit Hold’em; 1st, $339,842
Howard is just one of the poker legends that we regularly interview in PokerPlayer magazine HERE