Jack Effel has proudly served as World Series of Poker Tournament Director, since 2006. His management of day-to-day operations has earned the respect of players, colleagues, and poker fans everywhere. With 225 gold bracelet events played under his supervision (and counting), Effel has now overseen more activities and awarded more prize money than any tournament director in the 41-year history of the WSOP [1].

Indeed, Effel can point to many things for which he can take pride. But anyone who is acquainted with the 34-year-old former Texan now residing in Las Vegas understands that his very best years are still to come. Like the tournament he commands which has become the object of his year-around devotion, the only thing more extraordinary than the WSOP’s past is the WSOP’s future.

Effel recently sat down for an interview at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino, where the 2010 WSOP will commence on May 27th. In Effel’s most comprehensive interview on record, he candidly discusses his personal background and how he became the tournament’s top executive. Effel also talks about the many challenges, including triumphs and difficulties he has faced since he began running the tournament. Finally, Effel gives us his forecast as to what’s ahead for the WSOP in 2010, and beyond. This is the first part in a series.

Question
: Tell us Jack, what sparked you interest in a poker career?

Jack Effel: Growing up in Dallas, I was around pool halls and poker games all the time. To me, those were fascinating places to hang out in because they were filled with so many eccentric people. Those early days were a great training ground for me, because I became exposed to so many different situations. As a teenager, I started out working in a pool hall which was called Champ’s Billiards. I can still see it now on East Grand Avenue. It was open 24-hours a day. All the best pool players in the country came through there. Plus, there were the usual hustlers, of course. There were card games going on inside the pool hall all the time – mostly poker and gin. Through some of the contacts I made at the pool hall, I also started dealing occasionally in some small private poker games on the side. There was never a dull day back in Dallas.

Question Did you ever consider playing poker for a living?

Jack Effel: No. I was never really interested in playing poker full-time as a sole source of income. Sure, I loved to play poker and I was passionate about the game, but only in a recreational sense. I always played poker responsibly. For instance, I always held a job. When I sat down at a poker table, it was with the extra income I had earned. I always thought it best to have a guaranteed income first, and then play second. Playing for a living involved far too much risk. I don’t mind taking a risk, so long as it’s a calculated risk with positive expectation. Playing for your food or rent money gives you a totally different perspective on how you look at poker and even changes how you view people and life. If you have a full-time job, even if you go broke at the poker table, a check will be there next week waiting for you.

Question What was the Dallas poker scene like back then?

Jack Effel: Dallas was an incredible place for poker players back in those days. Of course many years earlier before I was part of the local scene, most of the early rounders were connected to Dallas games. That culture is still there. I remember the first time I ever played No-Limit Hold’em. I think it was back in 1992. Remember, there weren’t a lot of no-limit poker games back then. Most of the games were Dealer’s Choice, Limit Hold’em, Omaha High-Low, and Omaha High. I was invited to a no-limit game with $2-5 blinds. The minimum buy-in was $100. The really cool thing about the place was if you could scrape together $50 or $100, the house would go in partners with you. So, you could sit down and play for half of what you won. That’s how they kept some of the games going. I soon discovered that poker games were like the pool halls. There were so many colorful personalities. Back then, poker was really old school, if you know what I mean. Poker wasn’t as popular or mainstream like it is today.

Question Tell us more about what you learned in those games.

Jack Effel: I played quite a bit and did pretty well. It was a case of you had to learn fast and improve your game or you would quickly go broke. Remember that some of the best poker players in world were sitting in those games. Guys like Bill Bond, The Big Texan Charlie Bissel, T.J. Cloutier – they hung out and played in these games all the time. They were very knowledgeable and experienced. Being around that kind of talent, I not only learned how to improve as a poker player, but more important I learned how to handle different situations. Now, I realize what a fabulous training ground those underground poker games were for what I would eventually become and do in poker.

Question Were you concerned about playing and working in underground poker games?

Jack Effel: Keep in mind that it wasn’t against the law to play poker. But it was against the law to run a game where there was a house rake. I was always careful to only play in games that were safe so I would not get into trouble.

Question How did you make the transition from hanging out in pool halls and underground poker games to actually working in a casino?

Jack Effel: When I turned 21, I decided that I wanted to work in a casino. I had dealt in private games and certainly knew a lot of people who were connected to poker. But it wasn’t until I turned 21 that I could actually make a full-fledged commitment to working in poker as a career. At first, I considered moving to California. It was in 1996 and all of the biggest poker rooms were located in California. I flew out to Los Angeles and saw places like the Commerce, the Bicycle Club, and Hollywood Park Casino for the first time. I remember that Crystal Park had just opened. Most of the big poker clubs were hiring. I was offered a job and everything was all set up for me to move to Los Angeles. In January 1997, I returned to Dallas and started packing. But a huge winter storm hit all over the Rockies and blanketed everything between California and Texas. There was no way I could drive through the ice and snow, especially with a U-Haul. I decided to wait it out. Meanwhile I got a call from a friend who was living in Tunica (Mississippi). He told me, ‘Jack, why don’t you come here for a few weeks? When the weather gets better, you can always move out west. In the meantime, you should come to Tunica. The action here is great.’ I agreed to wait a couple of months before moving, so I headed off to Tunica.

Question  Something tells me that you never made it to California.

Jack Effel: You’re right. When I got to Tunica, I met a girl and we started dating. We got involved in a serious relationship and the next thing I knew, I was offered a job at a casino in Tunica. I decided to pass on the California job and moved to Mississippi instead.

Question Isn’t it odd how a winter storm basically changed your entire life?

Jack Effel: Looking back now, that is certainly true. Life is a game of skill, but luck does play a part – just like in poker.

Question So, how did things go in Tunica?

Jack Effel: I remember I was playing in a $15-30 Limit Hold’em game. Somebody told me about a casino nearby that was hiring poker dealers. It was like 2 am and I was told to go to the casino if I was interested. It was crazy. They actually gave me an audition to deal in the middle of the night. They told me, if you pass the audition, we’ll give you a job right now. So, I went over there and dealt out a few hands. They said, you still need a little improvement, but we think we can work with you – so you’re hired! That pretty much started my career, at a poker table at 2 am in Tunica, Mississippi. I went back to Dallas, packed up my things and moved to Tunica.

Question Tunica was one of the hottest poker markets in the world during the 1990s. What was the experience like, being 21-years-old and dealing poker?

Jack Effel: I had a great time during my first year in the business, but also gained incredible knowledge about poker. What’s funny looking back now is that my career almost got derailed from the very start. A few weeks after being hired, I came down with an illness that kept me off work for a few weeks. When I recovered, I was called into the office by the poker room manager. His name was Dennis Jones. He explained to me that he could not keep me on staff because I had missed so many days on sick leave. He didn’t think I was dependable. I pleaded with him to give me a chance. I made a commitment that if he kept me on board I would become one of the best employees he ever had. Dennis thought about it and agreed. I always remember that act of kindness. My career in poker could have ended right then and there. That was a real turning point for me, I think.

Question That’s an incredible story, especially since Dennis Jones now works for you as an Assistant Tournament Director for the World Series of Poker.

Jack Effel: Yeah, life can be stranger than fiction, sometimes. Dennis and I have laughed about that story many times, since then. But I always thought it’s a good philosophy to give someone a chance to prove himself. I fully believe in giving people a shot. When I see talent, that is when I see someone who displays a commitment, I want them on my team. I look for people who are not merely content with meeting expectations, but exceeding them. Loyalty is also very important to me. I think that’s why we have a great core of employees working at the WSOP.

Question Tell us more about your management philosophy.

Jack Effel: Poker is a game, but it’s also a business. That being said, sometimes I have to make some very tough decisions, whether I am working with players or my poker staff. You can be friendly, but you can’t always be everyone’s friend. I always try to be as fair as I can when I am evaluating an employee or deciding that someone must be demoted for a poor performance. I also always try to look for the best person for the job and hire someone who can reach his or her full potential. The bottom line is – I am going to do what is best for the people I work for, whether that’s the poker room, or the WSOP, or whatever.

Question What happened next after Tunica?

Jack Effel: Dennis Jones left and took over the poker room at the Horseshoe Bossier City (Louisiana). He asked me to come along and join his staff. I agreed and soon became a shift manager at the age of 22. That was pretty incredible being so young for a supervisory position. I trained dealers. I supervised games. I did employee evaluations. I ran the sign-up lists, which was a really tough job at times because there were 11 poker tables and there was always a waiting list. Poker became my whole life. I became totally committed to my job. I did that for more than two years, but then one day everything changed. In 2000, the casino manager came in and he announced they were closing down the poker room. It was devastating. I had worked so hard. By this time, I was also married and had a child. Now, all of the sudden I was unemployed. Poker was in decline at the time. Remember, this was before the Moneymaker effect. Poker rooms were closing down everywhere. Fortunately, I was able to land back on my feet. I took a job in Tunica at the Horseshoe. But this time, I did some things differently. I turned down a job as a shift manager. Instead, I took a position dealing and working on the floor occasionally. It was important for me to go to school and earn a college degree. I wanted to improve myself and that took sacrifice. There was no way I could work as a poker supervisor and also attend school full-time. I had to make a choice.

Question So, you worked full-time and also attended college full-time?

Jack Effel: Yes. I moved to Independence, MS. In one direction, it was exactly 60 miles from Oxford, MS (where the University of Mississippi is located). In the opposite direction, it was exactly 40 miles from the Horseshoe in Tunica. I drove 200 miles a day round trip. I did that for nearly three years. I remember sleeping maybe 2 to 3 hours per night, and would sometimes even sleep in my car. Eventually, I graduated from Ole Miss with a degree in Real Estate/Finance in 2004.

Question The constant stress and lack of sleep turned out to foreshadow your later experience as WSOP Tournament Director, wouldn’t you say?

Jack Effel: (Laughing) That’s very true.

Question Tell us about your first exposure to the WSOP?

Jack Effel: I remember my first trip to Las Vegas. It was back in 1994 during the WSOP. I stayed downtown at the Plaza. I went over to the Horseshoe and saw a lot of the Dallas guys playing in the side games. For the first time, I saw big cash games with Puggy (Pearson), Doyle (Brunson), and Bobby (Baldwin). I remember seeing one high-stakes game where a player had so many bundles of $100 bills stacked up on the table that he was resting his chin on the top of his stack. I had just never seen or experienced anything like the World Series. Little did I know, I would end up running not only the WSOP, but an event that is probably 50 to 100 times the size of what I first saw at Binion’s Horseshoe 15 years ago.

Question How did you affiliation with the WSOP come about?

Jack Effel: I was offered a chance to travel on the WSOP Circuit when it first launched back in 2005. Harrah’s had taken over the WSOP and had also purchased the Horseshoe in Tunica, where I worked. They needed an Assistant Tournament Director and I was fortunate enough to be chosen. My first assignment was at Harrah’s Rincon. Before the tournament started, they held an organizational meeting with all the top executives present. They were asking about finance and accounting, including some very complex questions, which were subjects I was familiar with since I had just graduated from college with my Real Estate/Finance degree. I think that set me off on the right foot. Then, I went out on the tournament floor as a WSOP executive for the first time, and for me – that’s when the real magic began. My WSOP career had begun.

Note: Coming in Part 2, Effel discusses the challenges he faced as WSOP Tournament Director from 2006 through 2009. In Part 3, Effel discusses what poker players and fans can expect at the 2010 WSOP, coming in May.

Footnotes:

[1] Effel has supervised 225 gold bracelet events, including those played at the WSOP and WSOP Europe. In that span, he has awarded more than $500 million in total prize money, almost half of all the money won by all players since 1970.