Ever since Harrah's (since renamed to Caesars Entertainment) took over the World Series of Poker from Binion's in 2004 -- a period that coincided with the poker explosion on TV -- they have made changes to the WSOP every single year.
There were plenty of problems in those early years -- everything from a complete lack of food to bracelet events playing outdoors in the windy Poker Tent to sequestered final tables in a cubicle to a thick cloud of smoke in the hallways during breaks to a WSOP that was 75% hold'em events.
All those things really happened from 2005-2007. This year's big controversy was an offensive retweet on Twitter. #Perspective?
It took a few years, but the WSOP solved those big problems and began focusing on creative changes and experiments to grow and improve the WSOP. Things like an increased number of mixed games, a much-improved livestream, an improved Player of the Year race, and of course the most famous change of all, the November Nine.
For 2012, the WSOP made a small change that I'm certain will have a big, positive impact going forward. They hired Jessica Welman.
The Story of Jessica Welman, Poker Reporter
Just four years ago, Jessica Welman was an intern for PocketFives.com, working for Court Harrington at the 2008 WSOP. It was one of the lowest possible jobs at the WSOP, but Jessica didn't treat it that way. There's a famous saying, "There are no small parts, just small actors." Well, the same principle applies here. Jessica didn't complain about the long hours or the low salary. She just busted her ass day after day, readily agreeing to stay late and even coming back to the WSOP on her days off.
That not only guaranteed that she'd be asked back the next year (she was), but that she put herself first in line for job openings and other opportunities that came up.
The WPT Live Updates (my primary job) needed an extra reporter to help out during the 2008 WPT Bellagio Cup, and Court Harrington quickly recommended Jessica. She showed up on time and worked hard, and while she lacked the polish that she now has, it was clear from the start that she had all the tools to be a top tournament reporter.
It was a one-time assignment, but Jessica made an impression. And that impression would pay off later.
Jessica had one semester left in graduate school, so she spent the rest of 2008 finishing her degree. Decent jobs in the poker media are few and far between, but Jessica managed to pick up some freelance work at PokerNewsDaily.com. Again, Jessica wrote great articles that quickly attracted the notice of others in the industry.
A permanent spot opened up on the WPT Live Updates Team in 2009, and the job was Jessica's if she wanted it. Fortunately for us, she did.
A few months after the 2009 WSOP, Bluff was looking for a lead news writer, and Jessica was the #1 candidate for that job as well. Jessica negotiated a deal that would allow her to continue covering WPT events while writing Bluff articles, a situation that provided mutual benefits to both employers. (Bluff now had somebody on the U.S. poker circuit without paying travel expenses, and the WPT had a reporter who was well-versed on all the latest poker news.)
My role in all of this was minimal. I recommended Jessica to be the newest reporter for the WPT Live Updates team, but our boss Jeff Holsey already knew she was the right fit -- I just provided an extra confirmation. And when Jessica was negotiating with Bluff, I helped her out with some advice, but again, she got that job purely on her own.
The one door I did open for Jessica was inviting her to join the award-winning podcast, The Poker Beat. I pushed hard to get her on that show, because her knowledge of the online world completely eclipsed that of me, Gary Wise, and Dan Michalski, and she brought a different perspective to our debates that really enriched the show.
(At some point, I'll write a blog post about the value of diversity hiring practices, and how having different demographics represented -- like women and minorities -- is valuable for so many reasons that have nothing to do with affirmative action. But for the record, I'd have recommended Jessica for the show even if she were a man.)
So in mid-2008, Jessica Welman got her first job in the poker world as a lowly intern for an unofficial reporting website. A year and a half later (early 2010), she was the lead news writer for a major poker magazine (Bluff), a reporter for one of the biggest tours in the industry (the World Poker Tour), and a regular panelist on a podcast that won the coveted Bluff Reader's Choice Award for Best Podcast (The Poker Beat). And she also finished her graduate work.
A year and a half.
In an industry that is still weighed down with male-centric attitudes, Jessica Welman made her way to the top of the poker media using nothing but hard work, talent, and passion for what she was doing. She wasn't politicking and networking -- she let her work speak for itself. And it spoke volumes.
In my mind, Jessica Welman is one of poker's best success stories. And that's just the first stage of her career.
Permit me to go on a bit of a tangent here, because I feel like this next chapter of Jessica Welman's career will, for good or for bad, keep us linked together in some people's minds for a long time.
In late 2010, Jeff Holsey (our boss on the WPT Live Updates team) had an idea to record the end-of-day arguments between me and Jessica and release it as a podcast. It was the seed of an idea, but it seemed that there was something there. Jeff and Jessica went on to plan a video podcast that was similar in format to ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption," starring me and Jessica and recapping the events of each day on the World Poker Tour.
We had no budget, we received no extra salary for it, and we had to do it on our own time after work. But we all agreed to try it as an experiment, and we recorded our first episode of what became known as "The Jess & BJ Show" at the end of Day 1 of the WPT Festa al Lago at Bellagio (October 15, 2010).
The title for that first show was "BJ and the Redhead," which I thought had a funny ring to it, but it was unfair to Jessica. The next night we tried a different title, and that began our tradition of making up a new title for every episode, and just adding "w/ Jess & BJ" after it.
It was a bit of a rough start, and it took some time to find our way. We eventually drifted away from the PTI format and discovered our own style. My key moment of realization was that a show with two hosts would never be smooth, so I pulled back and let Jessica drive the show forward thru the various topics.
The only segments that survived from Jessica and Jeff's original pitch was the over-under segment where we bet on a line set by "The Bookie," and the final question to close the show, which usually had nothing to do with poker. (Often seemingly random things like "What's your favorite scary movie?" or "What was the best thing to happen in 1988?")
We spent some time working up an outline before each episode, with a couple of planned gags and jokes, but most of it was improvised -- which should be obvious.
We used my iPad for all of the title screens, and for placing our bets with the Bookie for the over-under segment. But instead of doing it with high-tech images and graphics, I simply wrote all the titles in my own somewhat messy handwriting. It gave it a mix of old-school-meets-new-school that worked well for our show.
(Here's a trivial detail that I doubt anyone ever picked up on: Whenever I write Jessica's name, there is no cross at the top of the capital J. The J in my name is the only time I ever cross the top of a capital J, because it balances the initials "BJ" better. Symbolically, it represents the differences between us. Practically, I didn't even realize I was doing it until we had recorded a couple dozen episodes.)
For the first two tournaments, we ended each show with a song under the end credits, and the song was carefully chosen to either emphasize our final topic or to mock it. Unfortunately, popular music requires copyright permission that we didn't have (and could never afford), so we had to pull all of those episodes offline and stop using music. We had grown attached to the format, and didn't want to do the show without a carefully selected song over the end credits.
We got the news of our "cancellation" the morning after recording our magnum opus -- a ten-minute Halloween episode that featured a "Blair Witch Project"-style intro in the woods near Foxwoods (yes, we recorded it outside in freezing weather) before transitioning to a recreation of Michael Jackson's famous zombie dance from the Thriller video.
One of the Royal Flush Girls, Jen Haley, choreographed a simplified version of the dance and taught it to us over the course of an hour or so in the empty part of the Foxwoods poker room on Halloween night.
Yes, that video really exists -- Jessica and I doing Michael Jackson's Thriller dance.
But that video has never been posted online, and it never will be due to copyright concerns. I do keep a copy of it on my iPad, and occasionally show it to friends who were fans of the Jess & BJ Show. And I've included a screen capture here in this post as proof that this Foxwoods Thriller dance exists.
We quickly realized how much we missed doing the show, so we adapted the end credits to avoid any copyright concerns. Instead of playing a song over the end credits, we would just continue arguing about the final question. It was such an obvious solution in retrospect, because after recording the show we usually continued those arguments anyway. ("A big cookie is not a cake!" "All cookies are cakes!")
I won't call them fond, but some of my most interesting memories as a poker reporter come from recording the Jess & BJ Show. We did an homage to "Troy and Abed in the Morning" from the TV show Community, we spoofed Charlie Sheen's mental breakdown in an episode where I went over the edge, and we recreated the final hand of the 1988 WSOP Main Event, with Jessica playing Johnny Chan and me playing Erik Seidel.
We recorded episodes while freezing in the woods, sweating by a pool in Miami, and sitting in the WPT Commentating Booth that belongs to Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten. We ended one show with a "Yo Mama" fight, and in another episode we had #Occupy-style protestors with signs pacing back-and-forth behind us. We spoofed It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and rebooted the show waking up in bed together as if it was all a dream. (No, it's not what you think. But more on that in the Footnotes.)
We recorded one episode on a Hollywood red carpet as actors and other celebrities were doing the old step-and-repeat, and another episode with me running on a treadmill to spoof Ashton Griffin's 70-miles-in-24-hours prop bet. We recorded one episode as a silent black-and-white movie, using the iPad for the title screens.
We recorded a Groundhog Day–like episode that started out as a beat-for-beat recreation of the previous day's episode. We did one episode while sitting in side-by-side phone booths at the Commerce Casino, and for some reason, a clip of that made it onto the actual World Poker Tour TV show.
I'm gonna miss the Jess & BJ Show, which had a small, but loyal audience. Though I'm certain we had more fun making it than anyone else had watching it.
I'll explain why the show had to end a little later, but for now, here are our personal favorite episodes:
Jessica's favorite episode: "True Grits"
BJ's Favorite Episode: "Speechless"
Jessica Welman Takes Center Stage
Aside from the Jess & BJ Show and the Poker Beat podcast, Jessica was pretty much behind the scenes in her reporting. Her news articles for Bluff Magazine were excellent, but with straight reporting, there was little room for Jessica's personality to shine through. The same goes for live tournament updates, because on the WPT we prefer a style where the focus is on the action, and not on the reporters.
But at the 2011 WSOP, Jessica started a series of articles for BluffMagazine.com called "WSOP By the Numbers." She would compile some interesting statistics from each day of the WSOP and present them in a format that highlights the numbers first, and then explains them. It wasn't a new format (Harper's Index has been around since 1984), but Jessica made it her own.
In addition to her other reporting duties, working nearly every hour of every day of the WSOP (I've been there and done that, and it sucks), Jessica would scour for the most interesting numbers that would tell compelling stories about the WSOP. She rarely went for the easy numbers (such as "12: The Number of WSOP bracelets that Phil Hellmuth has won"), and would create poker statistics that other people hadn't even considered, but that still tell a story about the WSOP. (such as "4: Number of times a player who wasn't the chip leader at the time play was paused won an event affected by the hard stop rule.")
Jessica's "WSOP By the Numbers" was one of the greatest series of recaps the WSOP has ever seen. Not because the idea itself was inherently great, but because Jessica worked her ass off to make them great.
After the 2011 WSOP, Jessica's duties at the World Poker Tour expanded as well, and she took over as WPT Live Updates Host, interviewing players on video during the breaks. Jessica has a good rapport with the players and an excellent perspective on poker tournaments, and her interviews received wide praise.
By the end of the season, Jessica was promoted to sideline anchor for the actual World Poker Tour television show. She got to buy a dress and glam it up with a hair-and-makeup person, and then appeared on camera interviewing the players and fans in between the final table action. And to cap it off, she appears in the lineup at the end of the show when Mike Sexton toasts the champion.
Talk about going out on top.
Jessica Welman's Next Chapter: The WSOP
Last month's WPT World Championship at Bellagio was the last event that Jessica Welman worked for the World Poker Tour, which explains why the Jess & BJ Show is no more. She also resigned from Bluff Magazine.
Jessica has been hired by Caesars Entertainment to fill a new position that has been created just for her -- Managing Editor of WSOP.com.
As poker media goes, it's hard to beat that title. On a personal level, she deserves congratulations for taking her career to yet another level.
But the real winner here is the WSOP -- and the WSOP's players and fans.
For the past four years, Jessica has been embedded in the poker world, making friends with the players and industry insiders, playing poker with a reasonable amount of skill (her Hendon Mob page has five entries), and covering the entire industry from pretty much every angle. Even before then, a lot of her friends were poker players.
Jessica lives poker. (And not in the degenerate way.)
When most players look at the executives at the WSOP, they see outsiders. Sure, there's TD Jack Effel and the one-and-only Nolan Dalla, but they are the exceptions, not the rule. Their longevity in the poker industry serves them well, but it'll be nice to have someone like Jessica from the post-Moneymaker generation that the young online players can relate to.
I've met most of the WSOP executives, and I truly believe they really want to do what's "best" for the WSOP, keeping in mind that they have some constraints at the corporate level that have nothing to do with poker. But most of them don't live and die with poker the way the players do. They had jobs in other industries and came to poker from the outside. That's not a bad thing, by the way -- the WSOP needs people with outside experience to keep the lights on and the trains running on time. A WSOP run by poker people would be chaos. (I could make an analogy to a certain online poker site run by poker players, but I won't.)
The WSOP also needs people like Jessica Welman. She can quickly grasp an issue, idea, or controversy, and she understands how the younger players and fans will react. And since most of her friends are already in the poker industry, she's constantly hearing their opinions on whatever the topic of the day happens to be.
Jessica is universally respected by her peers in the poker media, and has the respect of players ranging from Mike Sexton and Linda Johnson to Daniel Negreanu and Jon Aguiar. That's because Jessica is always trying to do what's best for the game, and she'll work as hard as necessary to get it done.
Jessica is fairly low on the WSOP executive totem pole, but she is now a corporate suit. In her first week, she was already promoted (kind of), as the official WSOP Twitter account was placed under her authority. Given the fact that an offensive retweet was the source of great controversy in the WSOP's first week, this is a responsibility that the WSOP doesn't take lightly.
Upon hearing the news, Jon Aguiar, who was the target of the offensive retweet, tweeted "Congrats to @jesswelman on the new job responsibility over @wsop #oneforthegoodgirls"
That's a sign of the respect that Jessica Welman has earned in the industry. The WSOP put out that fire simply by mentioning her name.
Jessica is going to kick ass at this job. She understands poker from a fan's perspective, and has an excellent grasp of what fans want to see, hear, and read. She understands the differences between the audience for an ESPN broadcast, the audience for a final table web stream, and the audience for text-only live updates.
Simply put, Jessica Welman is "Good For Poker."
Keep your eye on WSOP.com, because I fully expect that by next year's Series, Managing Editor Jessica will have transformed it from something good into something great.
But looking at the long term, I think her impact could be even greater than managing a website. I'm gonna go ahead and call my shot, even though that phrase in itself is an inside joke between me and Jessica.
I'd bet even money that someday Jessica Welman becomes WSOP Commissioner, or the closest thing to it.
You'll notice that I always wrote out Jessica's full first name, except when talking about the Jess & BJ Show. While her friends and co-workers call her Jess, she prefers to use Jessica for her byline and anywhere else her name appears. (Except, as mentioned, the title of our show.)
For the record, Jessica and I have never dated, and will never date. We are friends, peers, and coworkers, but nothing more. When people see us arguing, they think back to TV shows like Moonlighting and Cheers and think, "If they're arguing, they must secretly love each other!" No, they mustn't. On TV, conflict between characters is interesting. In real life, it's annoying. The closest you'll ever get to seeing us kiss is the end of this Jess & BJ episode titled "Lonely Hearts."
Having said that, Jessica is obviously one of my best friends, as you can see by the fact that I've written 3,475 words about her.