Rob Yong Interview

Rob Yong Interview

Friday, 26 April 2013

As the man guaranteeing a €1M first prize for the ISPT, he's asking the UK poker community to get behind this unique poker event. We interview Rob Yong, the most generous man in poker.

Let's talk about the ISPT first. Why did you want to get involved?

I've been keeping an eye on the event for the past two years. I went to meet ISPT when they first thought of the stadium idea and they were looking at Full Tilt as a potential acquisition. I was excited by the idea of getting involved in licensing an event with brands like Full Tilt and Wembley Stadium.

I kept in touch since then. Obviously the FTP deal didn't happen, PokerStars bought them. So I wasn't so keen on getting involved as I didn't think they'd get the players, especially to hit the guarantees they were looking at. They helped me out a little bit with our Caribbean Party in St Kitts. They kind of helped me out for nothing in return which was nice.

So I'd ask how they were getting on each month. I could see they were struggling a bit in terms of PR and player numbers. It looked to me that it may have got to a stage where it was touch and go whether the event could go ahead without a UK partner. I felt at that point I’d like to try and see what was feasible – sometimes if there is nothing to lose, it's a good time to get involved. Also, I felt we would need a 12-week run up as an absolute minimum. It was either now or never really. That's the history between us.


Can you tell us exactly what Dusk Till Dawn will be doing in terms of promotion and guarantees?

DTD will be – OMG – operating, managing and guaranteeing the event – this is what Simon Trumper actually wrote on his Facebook. We received the Temporary Use Notice (TUN) from the UK Gambling Commission so we are completely licensing the event which means that we collect all the money, we make sure it's completely gaming compliant – ie, we have to do the same things that we do at DTD. The same procedures and policies. We have full responsibility and liability for making sure the event is run correctly as per the Gambling Commission law. Our last TUN was for the PokerStars UKIPT Edinburgh in January.

We're operating it on behalf of ISPT. Simon Trumper will be the tournament director. We'll be using DTD's key staff. We have lots of contacts around the UK and Europe for dealers who we know are good. We're recruiting the dealers ourselves so it's our complete operation from the tournament director down to the dealers.

We're also guaranteeing the event. This is not new for us – we guaranteed the PokerStars UKIPT at £1M last year. I would have preferred to guarantee this event at a €5M prize pool rather than €1M for the winner. If I'd had a six-month run up rather than three months, I would have done that. With the three-month run up, I felt that €1M for the winner, an unconditional guarantee, where 20% of the pool is going to the winner and we top it up, was just about as big as we could go with a 12 week run up. Oh my God, operate manage and guarantee! Funny.

How many runners do you envisage?

With a 12-week run up, 500 is an utter disaster, 1,000 is acceptable, 1,500 would be OMG, so I guess I predict 1,000. It's my personal project to help make this event a success. I know ISPT are going to work as hard as they can outside of the UK, but it's in the UK, so the majority of the players are going to come from this country. The WSOP starts the same week, which is not ideal. The event needs to be really, really UK focused as far as I'm concerned. For the next 11 to 12 weeks, this project will be my job, promoting the event and trying to get as many players there as possible. ISPT have invested millions in this project. The event is so good for UK poker and therefore ultimately DTD; it’s so mainstream. ISPT is advertised on the Wembley website next to the Champions League Final and Bruce Springsteen. If we can pull it off there will be more UK players starting to play poker for sure, 100%, and we need this for the ecology of the game.


Is a large part of your role about galvanising the UK poker community to get behind this and believe in it?

Yes, but not just that. The thing is to get more people to know about it. I don't believe that enough people in the UK actually know it’s happening. ISPT have invested significant amounts of money in marketing the event but not so much in the UK. I am sure they had a budget allocated for the UK market, but until they brought a UK partner on, I guess they were not in a position to spend that budget.

The project has been European focused. There's even been more PR in Bulgaria and Romania than the UK. It needs a hard push. By galvanising the UK market we're in a good position to get things moving. We know a lot of people and have a lot of personal contacts, and I would love to help a major event become established in the UK. Let's face it, we have one big prize pool in the UK – a great event, the EPT London. It just attracted 667 players and took a £3m-plus prize pool. Apart from that, there's not a huge amount in the UK when you compare it to, say, France. This year they had WPT Paris, WSOPE, PPT, San Remo just round the corner and EPT Deauville. There are a lot of poker players in the UK and I think we should have a huge event with a massive guarantee that we all look forward to each year. Look at the Irish Open; it's a fantastic event with a lot of support. We haven't got anything to compare with the Irish Open apart from EPT London.

It seems to us that you're a man with some kind of big ideas that aren't necessarily purely commercially driven. When you opened DTD it wasn't necessarily designed to make a profit.What’s the thinking behind that? It was almost like you're giving a little back. You don't mind losing a bit of money here and there.

The plan with DTD was to break the business even after five years. I don't mean get the investment back. I mean to be able to run at break even after five years of establishing ourselves. We've invested a lot of money. Last year we added £700,000 to the players' prize pools through guarantees.

But I think that's why we can ask for support for this project. Legitimately, we can say to the whole UK poker community, give us a hand guys and I think 100% of people will say, “They're a decent bunch that DTD lot, they've not taken money out of the poker community for the past five years, I'll get behind them.” I’m not asking players just to play the ISPT because people might not be able to afford it or have already made other plans, I’m just asking people to help spread the word there is a big-ass poker tournament at Wembley Stadium on May 31st.

What was the ethos when you launched DTD?

Things were very different to now. I would never have launched DTD now as there are now so many good tournaments and guarantees in the UK. Players are treated much better, specifically live poker players, than they were five years ago. They’re now not shoved away in card rooms, dealing to themselves. I’d like to think we have contributed to this improvement. I remember when we used to get stuck in a back room, the casinos used to lay down the law – telling us we had to be there on time and the tournament had to be finished by 2am, so you had to chop up the final table. DTD came in and said let's make poker the main focus. We did that five years ago and now the casinos seem to have caught us up.

Grosvenor have guaranteed GUKPT legs at £200,000. Fantastic. Genting have come up with a great grassroots tour – the Genting Poker Series. Fantastic. PokerStars now guarantee all their UKIPTs. Fantastic. Effectively, in answer to your question, the ethos of DTD was to make changes in UK poker. I believe that we've nudged everyone along. We're all now offering a good product. There would be no demand for a DTD now, unless we were trying to break new ground. In that respect, yes, it's definitely a non-commercial venture. It was done to change the face of UK poker.

It wasn't designed to make a profit, just as well really.


Let's talk a little bit more about your background.

I'm from Nottingham. I was born and bred there. I lived in London and Birmingham for a couple of years and eventually moved back to Nottingham after I'd done some travelling. That's where I live now.

And you were very successful in business at quite an early age…

Hmmm, maybe. I think I used to be a successful businessman before I bought the football club [Eastwood Town] and a bar and built DTD. I think James Dempsey probably has it spot on. He calls me the “formerly successful businessman from Nottingham” (laughter).

I qualified as an accountant with the Mirror Group in London, working at Canary Wharf when I was 20. I didn't go to university – actually I went for one week. Then I moved back to Nottingham and went to work for a recruitment agency. I then left after a year and set up my own recruitment business. We grew that. Then I started to branch out a bit and invest in properties. Around the time when I hit 30 I decided I didn't want to be in the recruitment industry any more. I gave half the company to the management on the basis that I could travel around and play poker for a few years and not have to work. That's the history really.

When I came back from travelling, I wanted to do things that I enjoyed so I bought a bar, football club and DTD. Really, the emphasis has been on doing things not necessarily motivated by money. I bought the football club for £1, spent… erm… a lot on it, got promotion and ending up falling out with the FA and selling it for £1.

You've made enough money that it's not that pressing to earn more?

I guess I’ll survive. But I've never lost the value of money. There's certainly a need to not lose money every year but there's not a pressing need to try and get a better car or house. I don't want for any financial possessions.

If you said to me now, you're not going to earn an income for the next 40 years, I'd happily take that. I'm not looking to be any wealthier or earn more money. That's one of the things that I believe makes DTD special – because players know that we are not in for short term profits. They see us keep the club open 24 hours if there's snow outside. They know that if there's torrential rain, a hurricane or volcano we'll pay the guarantee out. If your cup of tea's cold one of us will fetch you a new one. The staff are so hands-on at DTD – that’s maybe why the players have that affinity with us.

Because I've not made poker my main business, because poker is something I've done after my real career, I think people understand that things aren't done to squeeze the last penny out of their pockets.

Tell us a bit about your background in poker. How long have you been playing the game? Do you consider yourself a serious poker player?

I've been playing poker for 11 years, since I was 30. I used to play blackjack in the casinos before that. One day I went to a Gala Casino and walked through the wrong entrance and ended up in the poker room. What are these people doing here, I thought? I sat down, played a little. I didn’t realise this would change the course of my life at the time. I just thought what a great excuse to travel to cool places and gamble. For three years I went round different countries playing poker tournaments, I made loads of friends. I went with my best friend Nick Whiten, who runs DTD. We actually met Simon Trumper buying a sandwich at the Subway in St Maarten.

I'd put myself as somewhere between recreational and professional. Maybe I've won half a million or something like that.

That's not too shabby…

I've probably spent about two million on buy-ins! (Laughter)

Back to the ISPT. Tell us a bit about the structure.

Simon Trumper and myself work very closely on all structures. The poker is the product that we're selling so I need to be heavily involved in that. I've learned a lot from Simon about that.

At DTD we always use the blind and ante structure of the WSOP Main Event. The levels are very good. The ISPT tournament will be using the WSOP Main Event structure with a progressive clock. It will go 60, 75, 90, so, at the business-end, when someone is playing for a million, they'll have time to make decisions and use as much skill there as possible.

In terms of the event itself, it's a two-stage event. It's very important to be clear about this. The second stage of the event is played at Wembley Stadium. The first stage of the event can be played online or can be played live at DTD. Effectively, if you think of an EPT, imagine if Day 1 of an EPT was played online at PokerStars or in PokerStars’ new live poker room, at The Hippodrome. Then Day 2 starts at The Vic. It's a very simple concept to understand when you look at it that way.

If we'd hired Wembley for two weeks we could do all the Day 1s at Wembley but we have only got it for a week. People can play their Day 1’s for €270+€30 and if they get finish in the top 10% they take their chips through to Day 2 at Wembley – from then on they just continue the tournament. The big difference about this tournament is the option to let the higher bankroll player buy-in directly into Day 2. I like the format. I don't think it's ever been done quite like this before although our Grand Prix is pretty close.


Is it going to be attractive to a lot of people to buy in on Day 2?

It depends on how many players decide to play the ISPT instead of going to the WSOP. The clashing of these dates is not ideal but you have to book Wembley two years in advance. I estimate 300 to 500 people will buy into Day 2a and Day 2b. With a first prize of €1M, it’s the biggest tournament poker prize in the UK. The total prize pool needs to reach €5M to avoid an overlay, so it’s odds-on to be added value. Players can turn up with €3,000 and get an average stack of at least 50,000. That’s over 250 big blinds and any player who busts out of Day 2a can re-enter into Day 2b. So yes, I think its very attractive to buy into Day 2.

Are all the online satellites exclusive to DTD in the UK?

Yes. We've recently done a three-year contract with Genting Alderney to supply us with an iPoker room. Satellites will be running exclusively on our site from 22nd April and the first Day 1 is 11th May at the club. Just touching on Genting, we've agreed a deal with Genting UK to run ISPT satellites around all their card rooms and help us promote the event.

What’s makes the tournament so special?

The most exciting thing about this tournament, apart from the financial guarantee – is that this is a unique situation. ISPT has booked Wembley stadium for a week for a significant amount of money and we have the opportunity to go and use that facility. This chance may never happen again in our lifetimes.

The tournament will be played on the pitch – it’s what every player wants and what ISPT always intended. It will be covered just in case of rain. You're going to walk out, see the beautiful stadium, sit down and play poker in a different environment to one that you've ever played in before or possibly will again. It is going to feel very different. This will be a historic experience. It's a unique opportunity for UK poker as a whole. I could never have imagined that we would ever be playing poker at Wembley Stadium.

So how in earth did the whole thing come about?

The guys at ISPT have had a bit of a bumpy ride. I am sure the intention with Wembley was to have the biggest poker event the world has ever seen with a huge online partner to generate the players and create a massive prize pool. This model made sense to me. It could only be done on this scale with either PokerStars or Full Tilt behind it. That's why I believe the event's not happened the way it was originally planned out, but now there's an event to fill for a reasonable buy-in and that's our job for the next 12 weeks.

It would be hard for anyone but you to put this together. People trust you and are getting behind you.

You look at the partners that DTD have now: the Hendon Mob, Genting, PokerStars, Sky Poker, Blonde Poker, APAT, iPoker, Black Belt – these are all the UK brands. We know everybody, we speak to them, they're friends of ours. I guess we're in a unique position as we're independent. I don't think any of those companies view us as competition. Although we both have an online poker site, Sky Poker has three events at the club. PokerStars is having two UKIPT events at the club. When have you ever known PokerStars visiting the same venue twice? APAT also have their event at the club.

We're not seen as competition. We're seen as somewhere between poker players and them. You've got the industry, you've got poker players and I think our position is in between, so we have a chance to unite everyone together. I would love to have, on an ongoing basis, in some form, the biggest poker event in Europe in the UK, with all the UK poker industry involved.

Is that your main ambition for the future?

It's been my passion for about five years to do something really big in the UK but at a reasonable buy-in. I looked at the NEC Birmingham, Manchester Arena and the ice rink in Nottingham. The EPT's are great but at £5,000, out of most players’ reach. I’ve wanted to do something that the working man can imagine himself playing, but with a massive prize pool. At €300 and €1M guaranteed to the winner – this event is huge in its own right, never mind the location. If we can make this one work, I'd like to do something really big every year in some form in the UK.


Tags: Rob Yong, DTD, ISPT