Over the past couple of days, the Baha Mar Resort in Nassau, has been braced for an invasion. A happy invasion. Through Saturday and Sunday, more than 400 people will arrive to the Bahamas clutching a Platinum Pass that will allow them to play in the PokerStars Players Championship (PSPC), the biggest poker tournament of its kind ever held.
The trip for these players will be equal parts thrilling and daunting. Thrilling because they will be playing a poker tournament with a buy-in of $25,000, surrounded by poker’s absolute elite. And daunting because they will be playing a poker tournament with a buy-in of $25,000, surrounded by poker’s absolute elite.
For the vast majority of Platinum Pass holders, the PSPC will take them way beyond their normal comfort zone. It will represent a step into a world they might only have dreamed of ever inhabiting, the rarefied environment of top-level poker. The competition is tough, the media attention intense, but the riches on offer are potentially life-changing.
As an organisation, PokerStars prides itself on offering these kinds of incredible opportunities to its players, regardless of their previous experience. But the company also knows how difficult it can be to enter this bizarre and brilliant world.
And that’s where PokerStars’ team of player liaison officers come in.
OVERCOMING A LONG DELAY
Over the past three years, as the second running of the PSPC was announced, delayed, and announced again — and is now finally happening — PokerStars has employed a group of industry professionals with only one aim: to make sure Platinum Pass winners to the PSPC have the best time of their lives.
The player liaisons have worked tirelessly through highs and lows, stresses and uncertainties, all in the service of the 400+ players who have now arrived to the Bahamas with their Platinum Passes and their dreams.
Reporting to Hayley Clarke, PokerStars’ Senior Customer Engagement Manager, and headed by industry veteran Willie Elliot, the eight-person team from across the globe has been answering queries, extending invitations, sharing wisdom and doing everything within their capabilities to ensure the PSPC is sensational.
And over the next week, all their hard work will come to fruition.
“What these guys are doing, it’s incredible,” says Cedric Billot, Head of Live Events at PokerStars. “They never sleep. They’re so committed. They want to make sure that every single PokerStars qualifier has all the information, all the help they need. As a player I would love it, and I am most impressed by what they are achieving.”
“He’s an absolute superstar, he really is,” says Patrick Winterbottom, one of the UK’s large contingent of Platinum Pass winners, of Willie.
Patrick added that he was lying awake on his second night in the Bahamas, the victim of jetlag, and fired off a query to Elliot about the process for late registration. He wasn’t expecting a reply. It was 5.36 am. But he got one.
“It’s above and beyond,” Patrick said. “He’s been brilliant, he really has.”
Players from across the globe all have similar things to say about their liaisons. The team have rapidly become the most popular and most in-demand people in the whole PSPC operation.
THE HISTORY OF THE PLAYER LIAISON TEAM
Platinum Passes first became a thing in the run-up to the first PSPC in January 2019. With PokerStars wanting to give something back to its players after some high profile mis-steps, the company announced an incredible concept. It would host a $25,000 buy-in tournament, in which hundreds of lucky amateurs could play.
Players could win Platinum Passes in numerous contests and tournaments, and would then become VIPs for the event in the Bahamas. It was more successful than anybody could possibly have imagined, and one of the Platinum Pass winners, Spain’s Ramon Colillas, ended up winning the tournament.
Turning those often low-limit players into VIPs became the job of Garry Gates, who had formerly been in charge of player liaison with poker’s super high rollers, and had connections across the industry. Gates recruited as his right-hand-man, Willie Elliot — a hugely popular recreational player based in Glasgow, but for whom poker provided the perfect platform for some elite socialising skills.
“I used to go to poker events, pay my buy-in and play some cards. I’d win or I’d lose, then I’d hang out with my friends and talk about poker,” Willie says. “That was my pastime, what I liked to do. Now, PokerStars pays me to go to these events, hang out with my friends, and talk poker. It’s like they say: If you do something that you enjoy, you’ll never work a day in your life.”
GETTING THE PLAYER LIAISON TEAM BACK TOGETHER
After the first PSPC, Garry moved on (via a stop at the WSOP Main Event final table in 2019, where he finished fourth for $3 million) but Willie was the first choice to return and reprise his role after the PSPC was renewed and originally scheduled for 2020.
Willie was now the point man for a small team, infused with the same knowledge and enthusiasm he continues to exhibit.
“I’m definitely invested in these guys’ journeys,” Willie says of his relationships with the Platinum Pass winners. “We’ve become friends. We’re part of their journey.”
The second PSPC was certain to be bigger than the first. It was certain to have more players from more countries. And PokerStars vowed to award even more Platinum Passes, most likely to players who were even less experienced than the first batch.
So it was that the team assembled, drawing on people with long experience in the poker world and with language skills to cover the globe.
Willie was joined by Sava Krink and Andres Moll mostly looking after players from the Germanic countries, Adrian Delgado (Spain), Maria Billot (France and Russian-speaking countries), Dalila Chaouch (France), Sergio Prado (Brazil and Portugal) and Rob Levine (USA).
Willie took charge of the British and Canadian contingent, but the polyglot liaisons all have the ability to adapt and take on players from outside their strict geographical regions. They have swapped and traded, with each having around 70 players under their wing.
A PASSION FOR POKER
All the player liaison officers were already well-known figures in their various markets, with encyclopaedic knowledge of the country’s poker players. Many also have a history in other arms of PokerStars’ business, including responsible gaming and social media, which has allowed them to answer players’ queries that may at first seem far beyond the call of duty.
“As a team, we’ve got various skills that we’re able to bring to the role,” Willie says. “There’s various strengths and knowledge of the key markets. We can solve the problems without having to go looking for the right department. We just know the solutions.”
Most importantly, they are passionate about poker, the PSPC and the players that they have come to adopt.
“I love this job,” says Sava, who joined the team two-and-a-half years ago, and who has subsequently been across Europe shadowing mainly German players. “If I could ask for a dream job, it’s this. I like to interact with players, I can go everywhere and show them around…I’m getting so excited about the PSPC because I have some friends who have Platinum Passes.”
The player liaisons quickly became central figures in preparation for the PSPC, providing the first point of contact for Platinum Pass winners anticipating the biggest tournament of their lives.
THE PANDEMIC INTERVENES
The circumstances of the past few years have, of course, turned everyone’s lives on their heads. Tournament poker essentially closed down along with countless other business operations as everyone focused on staying healthy and getting through to the other side.
The PSPC, originally planned for Barcelona in August 2020, was cancelled and entered a kind of limbo situation. No one was able to say with any certainty when, or indeed if, the event would be rescheduled. Platinum Pass winners wondered whether they would ever be able to exchange their pass for a stack of chips.
The player liaisons did what they do best. They stayed calm. They stayed in touch with their players. And they provided whatever information they could get, making sure players were kept well informed about any developments.
They also managed to prise some additional money from PokerStars to help look after the Platinum Pass winners. They arranged online Home Games, with generous prizes, and invited winners to other live events as the poker world gradually opened up again.
It all helped consolidate relationships and give the player liaisons an even better chance to get to work their magic.
NOT IN THE ORIGINAL PLAN
“We would never have designed an event like this, where we announce it in 2019 and we don’t play it to 2023,” Willie says. “We’d have never designed a three-and-a-half year lead period. But because of the extended delay, we got some budget to look after these guys. To make sure they felt the love. They were so patient with us. In our Facebook group and our Home Games club, we were able to give them some rewards.
“They got some live experience, that they previously didn’t have. We wanted to prepare them as best they can for playing this event, where they’ll be playing the best in the world.”
Adrian, who has one of the biggest contingents of PSPC winners from Spain, says: “It was not easy, but in some ways it was good that the original PSPC was delayed. I had a lot of time to be in touch with all of them, individually with all of them. If I’d only have one year, it wouldn’t be the same. But with three years, it has been very nice.”
It also meant that many, many more players could actually win Platinum Passes, pushing their number beyond 420. Adrian’s WhatsApp group of Spanish Platinum Pass winners has more than 120 people in it. They are all pinging him questions on all subjects and at all times, as well as encouraging one another and forming a tight-knit group.
Meanwhile, Sergio was able to watch more Brazilians snap up Passes, both online and off, which he says is the most enjoyable aspect of his role. He’s now looking forward to meeting them face-to-face.
“I’m looking forward to them coming here, to the Bahamas, because I’m excited to see them play,” Sergio says. “But I’m most excited just to see them. It will be an amazing experience for all of them. I’m looking forward to see them, to help them. And maybe we get one of them going deep in the PSPC, it will be amazing.”
HOTEL ROOMS, ADAPTERS AND VACCINATIONS
The nature of global travel in the post-pandemic era has meant a barrage of questions concerning country entry requirements and vaccinations, as well as more rudimentary health concerns.
Brazilian travellers need a certificate of inoculation against yellow fever (Prado says he has given information on that subject dozens of times), while another player liaison had to help a Platinum Pass winner with earache. Administering ear drops probably wasn’t in the original job description, but they’re only too happy to oblige.
More recently, liaisons report a lot of questions about the weather, electrical adapters, air conditioning and the size of hotel rooms, and they’ll soon be expecting more poker-focused queries as the tournament begins.
“Of the over 400 Pass winners we have, we have over 300 who have never played a $1K,” Willie says. “One of our Platinum Pass winners has won $20 million, but several have never been in a casino, have never touched cards and chips before.”
He adds: “It really is poker enthusiasts who watch poker, and maybe play a little bit online, and have this opportunity. The first time they’re going to be sitting down and playing poker, they’re going to be playing a $25K in the Bahamas. It blows my mind. And as I talk to other players, it blows their mind too.”
A FIVE-STAR SERVICE
Hayley says that the player liaison team has been able to lift the PokerStars offering to players to a level previously unprecedented in the world of poker — and that it gives something more to players, their friends and families alike.
“It’s a five-star, personalised service to be able to grab somebody from PokerStars and get a question answered,” Hayley says. “Whether it’s something to do with a live event, or something to do with their online account, they’ve always had contact with some internal departments as well.
“Players also pass contacts on to their friends. So it’s not only the people we’ve interacted with. Because they’ve always given them a good service, they’ve passed them on to their friends. That’s when the community starts to build.”
She adds: “We also introduced activities for the plus-ones. Specifically we’ll invite small groups of plus ones that are here, who might not be so into poker, but who might want to do something around the city that we’re in. We’ll organise activities for them as well. There’s really something for everybody.”
TAKING PLAYER LIAISON TO THE EPTS
The experience with the Platinum Pass player liaison team has been so successful that PokerStars intends to roll it out now through all its live offerings, including the European Poker Tour (EPT).
It will mean that players can continue to build relationships and trust with the liaisons, knowing that though they wear the PokerStars company logo, they also willingly blur the line a little between hulking corporate entity and buddy who’s got your back.
“We’re holidays reps, social workers sometimes,” Willie says. “If it’s too cold in the room, the temperature will be raised. If the bathrooms are dirty, they will get cleaned. Even if it’s not a PokerStars issue, we’ll try and get it fixed because we want it to be a positive experience for our players, when they’re with us and at our events.”
Hayley is delighted with what she has seen so far.
“The feedback has been great,” she says. “They’re really helpful. They’re kind. They go the extra mile. And event by event, the role is expanding. At the beginning, we kind of had an idea of what we wanted it to be. But now that we’ve done a few events we’re understanding how wide the things are that they help with. So it’s growing. Their responsibility is growing.”
AND NOW, THE MAIN EVENT
Eyes now turn to the PSPC tournament room, of course, which tomorrow will be filled to the brim with the Platinum Pass winners. It will cap a remarkable journey for many of them.
Last time out, 46 Platinum Pass winners made the money and two made the final table, including Colillas, the champion. Everyone knows that a repeat of that kind of return will be unlikely. But it’s not impossible.
“We know what poker is,” Willie says. “Some of these guys are going to get the coolers in. They’re going to be on the right side of the flips. And they’re going to make it into the top 20 percent. And for some of those guys, they’re going to make life-changing money.”
But whatever happens at the tables, the entire PokerStars staff is focused on the same goal.
In Willie’s words: “What we want to do as much as possible is that anyone who leaves here on February 4th will have a smile on their face, whether they’ve got a suitcase full of cash or not.”