The Redemption of Jamie Gold
16 April 2009
August 11th 2006. The Pallazzo Suites, The RIO, Las Vegas. Bluff is attempting to conduct an interview with a newly crowned world champion, who bounds animatedly around the room in an attempt to explain exactly what had happened to him during the previous ten days of poker, his eyes wide with incredulity. His enthusiasm is charming, his laughter infectious. This guy will be good for poker, we think.
We went to print that evening, and a week later the magazine hit the newsstands across Europe and America with our new friend’s face beaming across the cover, a hastily transcribed Q&A within heralding the arrival of Jamie Gold as the biggest thing in poker. In print, however, much of the tone and context of Jamie’s speech was lost. His enthusiasm seemed to be interpreted as arrogance by readers and the controversial aspects of his table talk began to ignite hostility on the forums. We looked on aghast as, within weeks, the rumours and the muckraking began, and soon this endearing eccentric became the most vilified man in poker. Whoops! Sorry Jamie.
Today, thankfully, things are quite different. Appearances on shows like High Stakes Poker have rebuilt his public persona, and his devotion to charity work and desire to “effect positive change” in the world is remarkable. In fact, if Barry Greenstein is the “Robin Hood of Poker”, Jamie is more like the “Bono of Poker”. He’s probably richer than Bono, too, having just signed the biggest sponsorship deal poker has ever seen, understood to be an eight-figure sum. Yes, we declare the redemption of Jamie Gold to be complete. We join him the day after his charity Oscar party to see if he agrees.
How was the party, Jamie?
Great! I was asked to do this for Children Uniting Nations, a foster charity – mainly in America, but they’re starting to go global. In America we have a rate of less than 50% of children that graduate high school, which is astounding, and they’ve created this mentorship programme in which 95% of the children that get mentored graduate high school. This isn’t just for the benefit of education; it’s for the benefit of society and the world if you consider that over 87% of people incarcerated in America come from our welfare system. These are children who had no opportunities; and this could happen to anyone. We all think that we’re above this, because we had parents that cared for us or people that guided us, but there are a lot of kids that grew up homeless that went through this revolving door of a system and had no choice about it. And if you can’t eat, you have no choice but to steal or turn to drugs – whatever you have to do to survive – and so this programme is amazing for these kids. They provide money directly to house and feed and take care of children, but they also provide this incredible training, so when I learnt about this, I thought, “Wow! What an opportunity to really effect change in the world!” If you can help children to not return to a life of crime in some small way, you’re helping the society you live in.
So it was an honour for me to bow out of the LA Poker Classic in order to host this event. And then everybody started coming on board which was great. And yes, we did have this incredible Oscar party at the Beverley Hills Hotel, and we had all the glitz and glamour that goes along with that, but it wasn’t really about the Oscars; it was about raising money – people came along and paid $50,000 for a table and took part in the auction and played in the poker event. Matt Savage decided to shut down the LAPC at 8.30pm so that everyone could come and play. And so, as well as all the celebrities, all the poker players wanted to be part of it. We had Phil Hellmuth, Chris Ferguson, Mike Mizrachi, David Williams, Layne Flack – it was a great response, and the best thing was that nobody felt they had to talk about their sponsors or wear their logos or anything like that; they were just there for the cause. The gentleman who won the tournament – we’re going to pay his buy-in for the WSOP and I’m going to coach him and give him every bit of knowledge I can, so that he actually feels that he has a shot of winning the World Series.
I don’t have the figures, but we raised in the millions of dollars and it was incredible. We’ve already started planning next year’s event and we’re going to be running satellites so that members of the public can have access to it.
Tell us about your own charity, the Jamie Gold Foundation...
The Jamie Gold Foundation is in the process of becoming official. The way I got into all of this was from my father’s suffering. I watched my father suffer for six and a half years with Lou Gherig’s disease, which is a horrible disease, and I felt helpless and lost. My mother could have easily gone broke taking care of him, and it was very fortunate that I had made a good amount of money in my life, and then, obviously, I was lucky enough to win the World Series of Poker to really save my mom and help make my dad as comfortable as possible. My dad had gone to medical school and was into helping people and he wanted to help his fellow sufferers after he had gone. So I felt that, at the very least, I wanted to work for the Muscular Dystrophy Association and help them help other people. We were very focused on my dad until the end, and it was only until the end came when we thought, “Wow, we can really help other people now.”
So I decided to devote my life to the MDA and, as I started doing events for them to help them raise money and awareness, I started getting other calls for different poker charity events, and I couldn’t ever imagine saying no to any of them. But after my father passed, which was probably about six months after I won the Series, my mom developed a tumour on her throat, which had probably been brought on by the stress of taking care of my dad for six years. So then I spent a long time taking care of her and making sure that she was OK. A lot of people say, “Where were you after you won the World Series? You disappeared. You weren’t a good ambassador.” Well, forgive me, but I made the choice to spend the last six months of my dad’s life with him and then the next few months with my mother. I didn’t “disappear”; I did what I had to do for my family. When you win the WSOP you have to make choices about how you’re going to spend your time, and I have no regrets whatsoever about the choices I made then. But after that I realised I had more choices to make: I could either devote myself to playing on the professional poker tour or I could devote myself to helping others.
Well, I didn’t need money. Travelling to all these charity poker events costs a lot of money and, contrary to what a lot of people think, you don’t get paid. I mean, some people have made some pretty unfounded comments –not just in poker forums, in the media, even – saying, “Oh, it’s easy to do that when people are hiring you for lots of money,” but I have never taken one dollar for any of the charity poker events that I have been a part of, and any money I’ve won at these events I’ve donated back. When people make comments like that, it doesn’t hurt me, but it hurts my mom and people around me. It makes me laugh, because I don’t need money, and I get so much out of doing these things for personal reasons. It’s the satisfaction of helping people, rather than just playing poker all the time, which to me is a very self-involved endeavour. And please, if you’re going to print that, I don’t want poker players thinking I’m calling them selfish; I’m not. I think that the poker community as a whole is so incredibly generous.
But I met a guy called Tony Jones, who lives in the UK, and we both felt we had a duty to make the word a better place, so we formed the Jamie Gold Foundation – and this was actually Tony’s idea, not mine. We realised the best way that I could accomplish this would be by using my name, within and outside the poker world, for the promotion of good causes.
Feel free to shoot this theory down, but is there also a sense that public charity is a way of saying, “Hey, I’m a good guy,” after you were so badly misrepresented after the WSOP?
I don’t live my life to get the approval of people I don’t know. I’m concerned with how my friends and family and people I have some connection to view me, but I’m not very keen on living my life for public opinion. And yes, I was misrepresented, and anyone who has ever really known me knows that I was being portrayed as the complete opposite of how I really am. But I had no interest in arguing about it. The time I was being portrayed negatively was the time my father was dying. I could have gone on television and done a whole campaign to discount it, but I had no interest. My interest was with my family. I allowed the public to me perceive me in a negative way because it was just not that important for me. If it’s taken time to have a different opinion about me, that’s because people are finding out the truth and realising that not only did I never lie to anybody but I never screwed anybody. I never misrepresented myself to anybody. I was honouring the deal I had and circumstances led people to believe that I must have done something wrong, which was easier than finding out the truth. It’s also easier to believe something negative about someone than it is to believe something positive. It’s more interesting.
But if anyone knew what was really going on with that lawsuit, not one negative thing would have ever been written. People didn’t understand that it was all about taxes. The gentleman that was suing me [Crispin Leyser] was led to believe that he wasn’t going to get paid because there was a tax issue because of the fact that he was a UK citizen. I had no idea how to handle it but I left the money in the cage for two weeks while it was sorted – that’s 12 million dollars! Why would I have left the money there, including my share, if I was planning on stealing it? I didn’t take any of it because I didn’t know how to split it up properly. I was always going to pay him. And no, he did not buy me in. Someone created this story that he put up my money and that I owed him half – it wasn’t anything like that. I was just being overly generous to somebody for doing me a small favour. I left that message on his answering machine to tell him I was going to pay him some money. And then he sued me because people said, “Screw it! Just make him look bad and he’ll give you more money to make you go away.” And I said, “Absolutely not!” It was the rudest thing anybody could have ever done when I was being so kind. That’s when I got really angry and I decided to defend myself. Of course, I was still going to give him the same amount of money but now I was defending myself in court as well, and then, of course, I wasn’t allowed to talk about it, so people said, “Oh, he must be guilty because he’s not saying anything.”
But I don’t feel bad about the way that I’ve lived my life. I sleep very well at night because all I’ve ever tried to do is take care of everybody that I know in every way that I can.
Tell us about your new sponsorship deal...
For a long time I couldn’t see myself having a sponsor, because they would have to be right for me and would have to see the world the way I see it. They’d have to understand where my head was and that I had no problem travelling the world and playing as many major events as possible, which is obviously where the sponsor gets their value, but they’d also have to support in me in my charity work too. AcedPoker.com came to us and they realised that to make this work they’d have to give us more commitment than any other poker sponsorship deal ever before. Because they were a new, unproven company, you can never know how successful they’re going to be, and so it was a risk for us and that meant it was going to take a lot. And not just a lot of money, they had to prove a lot to us to make us comfortable. But the site speaks for itself. There’s so much stuff I’ve never seen on any other site, like the ability to run it twice; the ability to rabbit hunt; the ability to show one card instead of two – I love all of this stuff. These are all the things I do on TV. That’s why I love High Stakes Poker – they allow us to really have fun with the game, and all these things are incorporated into the Aced software.
Secondly, they were as dedicated as I was to giving a portion of their income to the causes that I believed in and to hosting events in the mainstream, which was really important to me – recognition that I’m not just interested in playing poker; I have other things in life I want to do. I applaud people who can play poker for 24 hours a day, but that’s not what I want to do; I want to continue, as I will continue, in the television and movie business, and to work as much as I can for these great causes, as well as playing poker. I want to find the perfect marriage of all these three things and this is what this deal will allow me to do, and I’m very fortunate to have it. The kind of money they’re offering allows me to play online the way I like to play online. I like to risk $50,000 a day online and I don’t mind losing $50,000 a day if I can afford it. It has to be part of my poker bankroll, of course. I’m not one of those poker players that one day has loads of money and another day has no money. Not that I’m putting those players down; it’s not just not the way I’m wired.
Is this really the biggest sponsorship deal in the history of poker?
Oh, by far. I believe we’ve been privy to what the other deals were, and unless we’ve been completely misled, we’ve never heard of any deal that ever came close. No player has ever been offered this kind of deal without actually owning the site. They’ve been amazingly generous, and this means I’m able to risk $50,000 a day. It’s not about challenging any one player heads up or anything. I don’t believe I’m the best player in the world and that would be a silly challenge for me to make. There are people, all they do is play poker all day, and I’d hope they’re better than me; if not they could probably find a better use of their time. If you want to go and play against the best in the world, there are sites you can go to, and if anyone wants to play poker against me you need to come to AcedPoker.com. I’ll be setting up my own tables so come and get me.
Do you get annoyed when people say you can’t play and you just got lucky at the World Series?
I try to avoid talking about rating myself these days. I fell into that just after I won because that’s all anyone ever wanted to talk about, and then I’d get misquoted or misunderstood and people would have the impression that I was going around saying I was the best player in the world. What I said, or at least what I meant – in those 5,000-odd interviews – was that I feel I have the potential to be one of the best players in the world if I could spend the time and energy that it would take to do that, but I think it would take 10 or 20 years.
What I do believe, strongly, is that during that tournament, not only did I compete with some of the best players in the world, but I beat some of the best players in the world by playing the best poker that I could ever have played at the time. I don’t believe I made many mistakes in that tournament and I don’t believe I got as lucky as people believe. They watched me on TV for an hour when we played for over 150 hours. And it all comes down to this: 99% of the time when I got it in I had the best hand. How often do you see a World Series winner do that? Most of the time to win that event you have to win about 30 coinflips and they have to come from behind many times. I only remember ever being behind twice in the whole tournament. The way that I got lucky is that I did get a good run of cards when I needed them and that I didn’t get particularly unlucky. But I don’t know how I could have played any better.
But most people don’t understand what it takes to become the chip leader, and then what it takes to get people to freeze every time you limp so that you get to see a flop for the minimum when you want to. You can afford to that when you’re chip leader and one in ten of those hands is going to hit and then you look lucky, but there are so many things going on on so many different levels.
And when I was yelling that I trapped somebody it may have sounded arrogant – well, I was also a novice player – I’d only been playing maybe three to four years and I’d never played on television before. I didn’t think about the fact that every single thing I ever said would come back to me. I was on poker’s biggest stage and there was a lot of pressure and I did a few things that I wasn’t supposed to do, like flashing the odd card, but in the poker room I played in you were allowed to do that. I really didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to do that. And my table talk, too – no one gave me a penalty, I just thought it was OK, and I still don’t see anything wrong with it. I see nothing wrong with talking about your hand; it’s part of the game. It’s the psychological game that I believe poker is. Poker players should just learn to deal with it. I didn’t insult anybody to try to put them on tilt, I just tried to confuse them. I feel that I played within the rules, or at least the rules by which poker is played in California, but if I did anything wrong I apologies for that. But I strongly believe that, had I kept my mouth shut for the whole tournament, the outcome would have been the same.