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Reading the Tea Leaves

December 31, 2010

What better way to start a new year than with an online poker-related guessing game? And no, I’m not talking about the chances of the #ReidBill being resurrected in the new session of Congress which, for the record, Reid promises it will.

No, the question on my mind, and that of most other poker pundits, is where will Phil Hellmuth and Annie Duke land in 2011?

In case you missed the big news, both Phil and Annie announced their departures from UB on December 30th, ending years of what we all assume was profitable shilling for the often beleaguered site. As the faces of UB since its inception, Phil and Annie loyally promoted the site even as its relevance in the online poker community diminished thanks in no small part to the massive power wielded by PokerStars and FTP and, of course, the whole Russ Hamilton/Super User cheating scandal that rocked the company to its core.

Like good soldiers, Phil and Annie toughed it out, pimping the UB army at every turn and in front of every TV camera they could find. And, like most good soldiers, we have to assume they were well rewarded for their efforts. There’s no question that both Phil and Annie had an equity stake in UB at one point in the company’s checkered past and that they were both drawing a nice paycheck as sponsored pros for the site. While these deals may not have been making them as much money as their peers who represent Stars and Tilt, it’s also safe to say that they probably earned more per year than most average Americans.

So, why walk away from a cash cow – even if it is a small one? Maybe because the grass is greener in another pasture.

There’s no question that both Annie and Phil are polarizing personalities in the poker community. You either love them or you hate them. But, whatever you may think of their respective personalities, you have to admit that neither player is stupid and that neither of them is going to walk away from a guaranteed salary without having a strong idea of where their next paycheck is coming from.

So, who’s going to step to the plate?

When the departures were announced, many in the poker community quickly speculated that we would see Annie and Phil pop up at either Stars or Tilt. Like my buddy F-Train, I strongly disagree with these scenarios and I’ll tell you why: because these are bad marriages for all involved.

First, let’s look at Annie and Phil. For years, both players have been the big fish in what is arguably a smallish pond. They were the faces of UB. The elder statesmen. At Stars or Tilt, they’ll just be faces in the crowd fighting for a small portion of the spotlight that they used to have all to themselves. Do you really think either player is willing to settle for that? I certainly don’t.

Now, let’s look at these potential deals from the perspective of Stars and Tilt. If you’re in management at either of these companies, the first question you have to ask is “What do either Annie or Phil bring to the table that we don’t have already?” And, the answer to that, dear reader, is absolutely nothing. Sure, both players are known quantities who generate a decent amount of TV coverage, but neither Stars nor Tilt need any more players – names or not – wearing their patches at the WPT or the WSOP.

On top of that, neither Phil nor Annie is going to come cheap. Why pay out a large salary for a product that you already have? It makes no sense. But, I can hear you saying, Hellmuth and Annie draw lots of attention from the press. Surely, that’s worth something, right?

It is, but not for Stars and Tilt. The fact is, neither site needs more attention from either the poker media or the mainstream press and, in terms of Hellmuth, the type of attention he often draws is antithetical to the “corporate” images that Stars and Tilt have developed over the past few years. Can you honestly see either site condoning one of Hellmuth’s patented WSOP entrances while wearing their logos?

So, if not at one of the two big sites, where do Phil and Annie land in 2011? My guess – at least for Phil – is at Caesar’s/WSOP. As F-Train pointed out in his post, Caesar’s has been a driving force behind the recent #Reid Bill and has actively been promoting it’s WSOP.com site in preparation for legal online poker in the States. They have money to spend and a long-standing relationship with Hellmuth who has been an integral part of their WSOP Academy for a number of years. Who better to hire as your primary spokesman than the man with the most WSOP bracelets?

It seems like a no-brainer. Caesar’s has cash and a good product, but no “face”. Hellmuth needs a gig, and going to Caesar’s would allow the man who is, arguably, the world’s best NLH tournament player to represent the most respected tournament series in the world. Synergy at its best.

As for Annie — well that’s a little more complicated. I personally wouldn’t be surprised to see Annie end up joining the Caesar’s team alongside Phil as she too has a long-standing relationship with them as their lead WSOP Academy instructor. The thing is, I don’t know that Annie needs the spotlight as much as Phil does. In recent tournaments, she’s looked a little burned out while sitting at the table and, honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if she just takes a year off from the game to regroup and to work on one of her pet non-poker related projects.

No matter what happens, one thing is for sure. 2011 hasn’t arrived in Vegas yet and it’s already shaping up to be an interesting year.

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