Thursday, July 17, 2008

Mo' Money, Mo' Problems: The Tiffany Michelle Story


Tiffany Michelle, playing on Day 7 of the 2008 WSOP Main Event


What was supposed to be the best day of Tiffany Michelle's life turned out to be one of the worst.

Returning to the Rio for Day 7 of the WSOP Main Event, all eyes were on Tiffany-- not just because she had gone to bed the night before third in chips in poker's premiere event, not because she was the only woman (and a young, attractive, and articulate one at that) remaining among the final 27 players, and not because she was poised to break a slew of records that day for women in poker.

No, everyone in the media was lurking around her table at the start of play on Day 7, myself included, to see what logo or logos she'd be wearing. As everyone's favorite internet doctor wrote the night before on the Tao of Poker while I slept off that day's 14-hour shift at the Rio, "Tiffany Michelle's breasts had become a battleground."

Would it be UB or Stars? Stars or UB? Who would cough up the most dough? Who would promise her the world in terms of sponsorship, tournament buy-ins, publicity, and free international travel? Or would Full Tilt or Bodog come up the middle with a last-minute offer that just blew everyone else's out of the water?

As we all know by now, Tiffany took her seat only minutes before the start of play wearing one Ultimate Bet logo on her right shoulder, another on the front of her hat, and a PokerNews patch on her left shoulder. And on any other day over the course of the last five years, this probably wouldn't have mattered at all.

The night before, as I sat freezing underneath an air conditioning vent in the Amazon Room, my hoodie zipped up to my neck and my teeth chattering, I read Nat Arem's explosive post, revealing that one of Ultimate Bet's confirmed superuser accounts was registered to a Las Vegas address belonging to Russ Hamilton-- the 1994 WSOP Main Event champion and a principal at UB. I had just heard Annie Duke's interview on Poker Road Radio the day before, where she basically ran over everyone's questions and played the apologist for UB... albeit in a very convincing manner. Annie is an intelligent woman and has a serious investment to protect in terms of the UB brand, along with her own reputation within the industry.

At this point, Tiffany had been wearing a UB logo for about two days along with the PokerNews logo she had worn since Day 1, which she was contracted to wear per her backing agreement.

Jeffrey Lisandro, one of Tiffany's backers, had been hovering around the Amazon Room all day on Day 6. The other, PokerNews owner Tony G., had already left Las Vegas several days prior. The UB scandal was blowing up, and so was Tiffany's chip count. Personally, I was concentrated on the task at hand-- reporting the tournament-- but couldn't help but notice all the little side conversations that were taking place in the empty back quadrant of the room, which, until only 48 hours prior, had been a sea of poker tables. PokerNews people and Tiffany's agent, Katie Lindsay. PokerNews people and other agents. And Lisandro himself, putting his arm around Lindsay and walking off with her to have a private discussion. The war over Tiffany Michelle was in full swing as she sat 100 yards away, propped up on her knees, playing in the biggest game of her life.

I spent 8 years in the Hollywood machine and dealt with a lot of agents in my time. They are some of the most ruthless, yet sickeningly hardworking people you will ever meet. The client's interest is your interest, and it is the only interest. Everyone else can go fuck themselves. Agents can piss people off and get away with it because they hold the keys to the castle by controlling the talent. Talent is the only real currency in Hollywood. Producers, financiers, studio executives, marketing divisions, publicists? Without the talent what do they have?

The genesis of Tiffany Michelle's poor handling of her sponsorship deals came with her choice of agent. Tiffany's agent is a young woman named Katie Lindsay, who recently set up a shop called Suited Connections. She is the "President and Director of Player Relations" as well as the agency's solo practitioner. According to the website, her clients include Bryan Devonshire, Alec "traheho" Torelli, Peter "number1pen" Neff and Adam "Roothlus" Levy. Katie has been around the poker world for a few years, primarily writing quote-laden player interviews for magazines like Poker Pro and websites like (the Tony G-owned) PokerWorks. Like Tiffany, she lives in Los Angeles and the two run in the same circle of friends. I do not know Katie personally, nor do I know exactly when exactly she began representing Tiffany.

The deeper Tiffany Michelle got in the Main Event, the more Katie Lindsay got in over her head. The more Katie Lindsay got in over her head, the more people tried to encroach on that agent-client relationship. To put it in Hollywood terms, let's say Tiff had just booked a series regular role on an NBC sitcom but was still represented by a one-man firm in the Valley. The minute that news gets out, bigger and better agents are going to target her. And then her decision becomes-- do I be loyal and stay with my friends/the people that supported me since day one? Or do I ditch them in favor of someone who really knows how to advance my career?

This was Tiffany Michelle's one shot. But it was also Katie Lindsay's shot. And a shot for "Hollywood" Dave Stann, her boyfriend of several years, who represents the UB brand on its "Ultimate Blackjack Tour"(founded and run by Russ Hamilton) Stann also recently appeared on the Fox Sports Net program "The Best Damn Poker Show" starring UB spokespeople Phil Hellmuth and Annie Duke.

It's no secret that Stann is close friends with Duke. Duke herself has written on her personal blog numerous times about socializing working out with, and doing master cleanses with Stann in Los Angeles.

Ultimate Bet. Annie Duke. Dave Stann. For the two of them, there is a brand, personal reputations, and untold sums of money to protect here. Tiffany Michelle allowed herself and her impending public visibility to be used by two people close to her to protect their business interests.

Which leads me to ask this question-- how major of a role did Annie Duke play in this whole saga? She was in communication with representatives from PokerNews according to The G himself on his personal blog (bold emphasis mine):
"I keep wondering how Katie, Tiff’s agent, would even consider doing this deal with Tiff and how Tiff would not think that her first responsibility for advice and planning should come from PokerNews. I had been working on putting a deal together for Tiff with PokerStars and they had just emailed me. I knew Tiff could become a huge star and I was going to allow her to do a deal that would protect PokerNews also for the main event. We had it all set with PokerStars and she was going to get millions out of it with at least $1M in buy-ins no matter where she finished in the main event. I know that with UB she did not even get a signed contract and I believe Tiff’s agent does not have any direct contacts with big sites and UB was her agent’s only choice. We asked Annie Duke to get Tiff to pull the gear and Annie agreed. And then Tiff came out with the UB logos all over her for the final devastating day of her main event. UB said that Tiff chose to wear it."
What on God's green Earth makes anyone turn down that kind of deal with PokerStars, a site that boasts a spotless reputation, in favor with any deal with Ultimate Bet on the very day one of its officers has been implicated in the largest cheating scandal ever to hit online poker AND after one of the primary parties facilitating that deal gives her permission to walk away from it? It absolutely boggles my mind.

But when friends, and even lovers are involved, this suddenly starts sounding like the plot of a bad chick lit. Should I be loyal to my friends (even if they're on a sinking ship)? Or sell out to the highest bidder?

No one has, or ever will get rich from poker tournament reporting. Tiffany Michelle and I could both tell you that. And if you're from somewhere like Los Angeles, where the cost of living is through the roof, at times it's barely enough to get by. Us media types work gig-to-gig and with all the exclusive media contract shenanigans that have happened over the last year, we've all lost work. I'm really lucky to be one of the few U.S.-based reporters out there that has been able to keep getting steady work, not to mention amazing travel opportunities. But we're all far from wealthy.

I've been mentally putting myself in Tiffany's shoes for the last 48 hours. I've tried to imagine it. Getting backed into the Main Event by my employer. Surprising everyone by making it to Day 2. And Day 3. And making the money. And amassing a huge stack on Days 4 and 5. People in the media hypothesizing about how making the final table would not only be great for women, but for the poker world as a whole. Reading about all of this, or if not reading it, being told. Hearing whispers. It was impossible not to sense it if you were in the Amazon Room that day.

And then, getting money thrown at you. The kind of money you've really never seen before.

I heard figures starting at anywhere from $10,000-$15,000 for Tiffany to wear the UB logos on Day 5. That's in line with a typical sponsorship deal with an online poker site. These deals also include escalating bonuses if one makes the ESPN featured table, the final table, or if they win. Bonuses for winning are $1 million or more. When you're in the money for about $50,000 or so, but are only getting a third of it due to your backing arrangement, there's not a ton left over. So the hat and shirt money really does matter. At that stage, it's going to double or even triple your take after taxes.

But, as fate would have it, the biggest bombshells about the Ultimate Bet cheating scandal dropped right as Tiffany Michelle was being miked up for the cameras on the featured table on Day 6 of the WSOP Main Event...all while wearing two Ultimate Bet logos. For anyone else, it might not have been as big of a deal. If an unknown player with her stack size wanted to dump UB and slap on Stars, it could be as simple as giving UB back their money and getting a new check from their new sponsor. But Tiffany was not an unknown player. After Mike Matusow busted in 30th place, Tiffany was arguably the player of most interest remaining in the field. She was a young, attractive, articulate, and camera-savvy woman among a field of relatively anonymous, 20 and 30-something men. Everyone was watching her now. The pressure was on.

Tiffany chose to stick with her friends. And by friends, I mean "Hollywood" Dave Stann, Katie Lindsay, and Annie Duke. This decision could literally cost her millions.

Only hours after she busted out in 17th place, PokerNews issued an official statement regarding Tiffany's appearance at the Main Event. I was at the ESPN Featured Table, covering the final 10 players when the statement hit the front page of PokerNews. It rattled me, but I had to forget about it and push through to finish the task at hand. Getting to the final table. The "November Nine" or whatever the hell you want to call it. I felt like the strong wording was a bit of a knee-jerk reaction on the part of the author or authors, and I couldn't believe it came out then, during the bell lap of the WSOP.

Tiffany went on PokerRoad Radio on July 15 to explain why she elected to stay with UB.
"Early on as I kind of started doing well, they were the first and only site that was interested in throwing something on me and I think a lot of people don't know the inner workings, all of the things that went on. It's easy to have sites jump out of the woodwork when cash symbols start popping up above my head, when I start making it deep... and I just have to say early on, way before patches were even issued they said 'You know what, yeah, we want to throw a patch on you and we want to start talking.' So I had to respect and honor that out of everybody else, they were the first ones that were there and they were so supportive all along. As you guys know, when things started getting deep... the business, weird pressure, just everything started coming out of the woodwork, they personally stepped up and were so behind me and handled so much drama for me and they were, I felt, like the only ones saying 'You know what, guys? Tiffany is in the middle of the World Series of Poker Main Event-- back off! She has really important stuff to do.' When all these other people are trying to get in for their own personal gain, they were ones that just said 'We'll take care of everything, play your game and do well, this is awesome for you and enjoy it.' And that meant the world to me. I know so much stuff has gone down. Let the past be the past. I understand people are going to be upset about stuff but on a personal level, I was humbled and could not believe what respect they showed me as a person and as a player to just say "We want to handle everything else for you so you personally can do your best in this event and that was huge for me."
When asked by Court Harrington if the current UB scandals influenced her decision to remain with the brand, Tiffany replied:
"Ultimately, what's happened has happened. The people that I have dealt with and how they have dealt with me-- I have so much respect. It's hard, because obviously everyone hears in the media what's going on, but you don't hear some of the shady stuff that goes on with the other poker sites. When players start doing well, and the bidding wars and how people treat you-- that's not in the media. I got to see that on a first-hand experience what went down behind the scenes and I had respect for how they treated me, so I can only go with my convictions with early on what happened. It would have been easy to jump ship, it would have been easy to get outbid, and go with a higher dollar figure, it would have been so easy. I honored my commitments and I felt like you know, regardless of what anyone else says, stuff happens, that's really in the past and I can only go for how I was treated and it meant the world to me."
Tiffany Michelle had the heartbreaking misfortune of getting- and taking- bad advice from people she cared about personally while she was playing on the biggest stage in poker. I say heartbreaking because I know Tiffany. She's a sweet girl, a really lovely person who has always been a bright spot in the poker media and I'd have loved to see nothing more than her becoming a huge star from this. However, the best path to her doing that would be to have dumped Katie Lindsay, called up Tony G, and taken that PokerStars deal. She could be playing the circuit for the next few months, seeing Europe for free via the EPT, and increasing her visibility right before the Main Event airs on ESPN.

Instead, who knows what will happen with regard to Ultimate Bet in the interim. And there she'll be, wearing their logo just as the cheating scandal hits 60 Minutes.

Disclaimer/Stipulation: I am not an officer of PokerNews.com, but have worked for them as a freelance writer and tournament reporter for nearly two years. These opinions are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of PokerNews.com.

21 comments:

Fraser said...

Utterly brilliant reading Change100. Top Stuff !!

AgSweep said...

Excellant analysis. Places responsibility where it belongs.

Drizztdj said...

Bravo.

Hope someone sees the issue for what it is a there's a second chance out there for her.

Irongirl01 said...

Great article Change. I was hoping you would lend your insider Hollywood perspective to all this and you did.

I too have put myself in Tiffany's shoes. It comes down to the people she surrounded herself with and literally the poker version of the casting couch. I dont think the people around her had her best interests at hand cuz if they did they would have let her go.

Katie Lindsay, (another pretty face) and fluff pieces for poker-pro mag which I dont buy anymore since its poker light and not on par with Bluff or Cardplayer. A journalism degree does not make you an agent goes she just hung a shingle.

Philip Dean Brown said...

I saw a bit of "Hollywood" Dave on that horrible show with Annie and Phil. There's a threesome for you. Just don't understand how Phil and Annie can stick by UB with all the shit that's coming down. Gotta think some of it will stick.

Great writing, Change

Special K said...

Awesome article. This is the best explaination of what went down along with some great background on the poker world. Absolutely excellent.

Luckbox said...

From the best thing in poker to a pariah.

Buffalo66 said...

I smell a "Lifetime Original Movie" out of all this.

Melissa Gilbert as the agent, definitely. They must have her locked down to a 25 year contract.

Whichever Baldwin brother is in most need of work plays Tony G.

But who plays Tiffany?

KenP said...

Excellent piece/work.

You did great during the reporting. This goes nicely beyond that and jumps it up several levels.

Tully Moxness said...

Wow,

Pauly and you are the Will & Ariel Durant of Poker writing. That was an extremely articulate post, and between the two of you, you've written a cautionary tale for anyone who wishes to get caught up in the bright lights of fame and fortune in any industry. It seems to me that Tiffany is a good person surrounded by mercenaries, not friends; at 24, it's very hard to tell the difference.

Great stuff, and I look forward to your further adventures!

Ignatious said...

kudos. best piece out there.

PokerRoad said...

I have a pokerazzi boner right now.

-shronk

Bayne_S said...

Nice post.

It is sad that Tiffany got caught up in this shit storm when she would want to have focus solely on cards.

I am sure Tony G being your boss would be tough to criticize but if he did work out a great deal with PokerStars for Tiffany and her agent/boyfriend/Annie convinced her to go to the far less reputable UB than at least Tony did look out for Tiffany's best interests no matter how much he stood to profit as well.

CrocsAlive said...

Everyone is forgetting that TONY G and Jeff Lissandro fronted the money for young Tiffany and HAD HER SIGN a contract before she entered the main event.

Tony G is a smart operator and whilst not generally respected because of his on the felt antics he is someone substantial and someone who was placing Ms Michelles best interests at heart (whilst also promoting his own).

How on earth could the so called friends of Ms Michelle and herself NOT KNOW what was surrounding UB when every dillweed in the poker world who could read had heard about superuser (read THIEVES) accounts on UB and AP.

I hope Tiffany is able to recognize this major "professional blunder" and replace her 4th rate management with someone who will get her deals that are worthy of someone with her spunk, personality and looks.

SpeakEasy said...

Good article.

However, despite how bad you make her sound and how bad you think she makes decisions, I'll bet she does just fine and makes plenty of money.

Just my take on the situation.

ricky f davis IV said...

Tony G is an ugly, sloppy piece of crap. He's a self-important twat. I can't even think of him without thinking of an anus. Tony G is constantly on the shitter in my mind, taking a shit. Annie Duke shits LOTS too and has a huge anus. I HATE these people.

Philip Dean Brown said...

wow, you have a shitter in your mind? talk about unfortunate plumbing!

Ukgatsby said...

Fantastic Article

Garry said...

Excellent read, Change.

StB said...

That is why I would hire Derek to be my agent.

Brian Uyeda said...

Holy Shit! I was already a fan but now I am a huge fan of Change100. Keep it up!

PS: How can I "invest" in you Change 100? Haha.