Branding a Winery and Its Wine Is Expensive, Necessary and Benefits the Consumer No Matter the Size

A discussion about branding is generally not a conversation anticipated with excitement. If you’re a marketing type it can be characterized as maybe interesting. But, promising most people an indepth discussion on the subject of wine branding; heck, we might have no one accepting an invitation to our dinner party. In reality, creating a brand image for wineries and wines can help the consumer to be smart buyers.

Because margins can be small for producers and a perponderance of producers are small, small margins impact the small producer profoundly. Branding can be expensive. So what can be done to entice consumers to try a brand they have never heard of before? Now we are talking about branding and it can be risky, even with great planning. Further, it is a lot of compromising.

What impact did branding have on the last bottle of wine you bought? Did you buy that wine because you knew some enticing fact about the winery, winemaker or their wine making processes? Did you buy a wine based upon a friend’s recommendation because they knew your preference for a certain varietal? Have your preferences for a wine changed over the past few years? Do you buy your wine based upon a random trial and found you liked that particular wine? Whatever the process you went through in buying a wine you have been impacted, to some degree, by branding. If you simply selected a wine based upon its price or label design, branding was involved.

Recently, I have had discussions concerning the process of business branding from a corporate perspective and a product perspective. Most of the emphases of these discussions have been specific to the value of branding a winery and their wines; predominately with small producers. Like most everything in business, decisions are generally based upon compromises in budgets, approach, etc. Obviously, the product of a winery is bottles of various varietal wines which are a disposable product that is consumed based upon ever changing sensory perceptions–mostly taste. I submit that the juxtaposition in branding a winery and their products makes this discussion difficult. For example, many wines I like and buy frequently, I don’t even know who produces them. Further, winery brands I recognize, some of their wines I don’t like for various subjective reasons.

Point being, in most branding discussions relating to the wine industry become convoluted. Wineries produce multiple labels and these labels are subjected to consumer reviews that are based on innumerable personal influences. With so many variables, the task of presenting a positive image about a corporate winery brand is difficult.

We all are influenced by branding to some degree, even minimally. For example, a few years ago Tide was going to stop sponsoring NASCAR races. Surprisingly, they found that Tide had a rabid and loyal following with female NASCAR fans and Tide is still a sponsor. The brand had made a commitment and now wanted to change it.

Another example of branding impact is Schlitz beer. In the late 1960’s Schlitz decided to change their formula for brewing their beer. Immediately they went from a premier label, ahead of Budweiser, to being virtually extinct. In 2008, they went back to their original formula of the 1960’s, but the damage to a great brand was permanent.

These examples of powerful brands are obvious. In the case of Schlitz it shows how fragile a brand can be if the consumer is betrayed. However, wine is not a mass market product (like beer) that is as ubiquitous as beer or a laundry detergent. Compared to wine, consumers do not build beer cellars in their home and collect beer. So, wine is a very unique product that is expensive to brand on a per customer basis (this is especially true when consumers understand the discounting needed for distributors to sell and promote a label (discounting is part of the branding strategy).

The demographics for the wine market are broken down into 5 segments with some under 21 years old in the millennial category. This is according to a Wines and Vines Newsletter. The largest segment of wine drinkers are the millennia’s and Generation xers making up 70% of the 5 market segments (Baby Boomers included). Wine Business Monthly estimates 1 of 4 drinking consumers do not drink wine but prefer beer or spirits. Of the 130 million adult populations it is estimated 35% drink some wine, according to Live Science. This illustrates the finite size of the market and the precision required in branding to be effective in developing a consumer’s perception of a corporate winery brand.

For this discussion on winery branding, Wines and Vines tells us that the average price of a bottle of wine keeps inching up and is now approximately $12. The real sweet spot is in the $10-15 per bottle range. When a winery looks at the cost of raw materials, marketing, packaging, sales/discounting and facilities and G/A the margins are restrictive when planning a new or improved branding program. Wineries in this position need volume and a 5,000 case run makes branding challenging, but not impossible.

Using the best information available for this discussion, we assume there are about 44% of the populations who do not drink any alcoholic beverages. Based upon population distribution within the 5 demographic segments there are approximately 65 million people who drink some wine at least monthly. We will assume here that they will buy approximately 3-4 bottles of wine per month (probably a generous assumption). This information could account for the purchase of approximately 220 million bottles of wine in the US. These purchaseswould be for home consumption with an additional amount for restaurant sales and meeting/convention sales.

Here is where the branding issues become real. There are 8,500 wineries in the U.S. 80% of these wineries produce 5,000 cases or less of wine. To add perspective, Gallo produces in excess of 80 million cases of wine in a year for worldwide sales. Keeping with the small producer for the moment, this wine is sold via the winery tasting room, winery wine clubs, on-line (Direct to Consumer), retailers (which includes grocery stores) via Three Tier Distribution that requires discounting to the distributors for retailer discounts, sale commissions, promotions and their advertising.

Remember, there has been no discussion of the wines that are imported from Italy, France, Chile, Argentina, Spain, Portugal, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. This is important because these producers/importers are worried about branding their products also; this causes a lot of clutter in the market.

It is probably apparent there are large producers, from all over the world, selling wine in America. Some wines do enjoy strong brand recognition such as Yellow Tail from Australia or Gallo from Lodi, CA. Beringer, Mondavi, and Coppola in Napa Valley are also high in brand recognition. In Sonoma we have Kendall Jackson and Rodney Strong. Interestingly, it takes strong revenue and profits to build a brand and if you are a small producer the money it takes for consumer branding activities is prohibitive. We need to always remember every brand (corporate or product) must be positioned differently as an image.

We see that sales of 4 or 5 bottles of wine per month to U.S. consumers is a daunting task just to get trials of the product. This is one of several reasons why wineries are spending more on improving direct sales through their tasting rooms, wine clubs, on-line (Direct to Consumer) sales and social media.

Let’s talk about corporate winery branding. The industry needs an honest relationship with consumers. Otherwise the customer belongs to the 3 Tier Distributor or wine store and the sale becomes exponentially expensive going forward. A winery must define their image, product niches, consumer profile and be targeted to the consumer with a message specific to their targeted consumer. Wine Business.com reports that the vast majority of wine consumers buy wine based upon taste. But, taste is only one of the differentiators. Obviously, wineries have to get the taster.

Branding

Effective branding is about bringing a corporate name, the company’s products, or the services to be top of mind awareness for the customer. A product may even have more recognition/branding than the company name. For example, Kleenex is more recognized than Kimberly Clark which manufacturers Kleenex. That is fine.

Wine is mostly sold, not by a winery name or a label but first through price. Of the 10,000 plus varietals in the world, California has mostly focused on maybe 25 varietals for wine and wine blending. This fact makes it even harder to brand a winery when people look for price first and varietal in third place according to Dr. Thach and Dr. Chang. Number two is branding.

Now consider the changes impacting the wine business. The industry is now impacted with labels and brands announcing: organic wines, sustainable wines, and bio-dynamic farming wines.These add a new twist to branding considerations. Over the past few years there are some trying to brand lower alcohol levels, and medals. Talk about branding overload.

Branding Impact

Wineries must recognize, after the decision is made to add focus to the company and/or its products, the company branding effort must be impacted throughout the organization. It will require constant development, refinement, monitoring, and administration. Finally, a corporate identity must become the culture at the winery. In Dr. Thach and Dr. Chang 2015 survey of: American Wine Consumer Preferences, 61% of their respondents had visited multiple wineries in California alone. This means, if a branding message being put out into the marketplace is not part of the winery culture the brand will be diminished. Consumers will see that culture in action at the winery.

Marketing is not all there is to branding, but it is significantly ahead of number two. Marketing is part of branding because it touches and introduces the brand to consumers, retailers, vendors and the community. There are many large companies that spend vast sums of money on building corporate brand without selling specific products. Boeing is such a company; consumer does not buy $300 million airplanes however they do respond to image.

Finally, companies/brands must protect their image at all costs. Once the Branding Plan (akin to a business plan) is developed, with a good foundation of research and winery metrics, that plan will dictate many things. For example: product launches and new product launches, dictate the messages coming from the company, employee hiring, PR, packaging, and the list encompasses every department is a winery.

Elements to Illustrate Branding Tasks

· Bottle labels and winery logo-Label creativity is still at the mercy of the TTB (Alcohol & TobaccoTax and Trade Bureau) relative to label content. Still it is part of the image that appears to the consumer on the shelf; it’s an identifier.

· Marketing/advertising/sales/collateral materials/PR/Sponsorships are front and center. The consumer facing image is throughout–club, on-line and tasting room sales and mailing list. Give consumers value beyond just the product.

· Training plan-Training must be centric to developing and reinforcing a new branding strategy. Employees at all levels must buy into the corporate and product positioning, not just public contact employees.

· Packaging is an element that ties the label and logo message together. In wine branding even the bottle shape and weight, closures (screw caps/cork/synthetic cork), capsules/foils, all go into the branding perceptions.

· Product consistency-Consumers who eventually accept a brand expect consistency. As the saying implies-If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.

· Website, blog and social media are major elements to create, reinforce and maintain branding for products and corporate. Customer feedbacks will give almost immediate indications if the brand strategy is generating desired results and achieving benchmarks.

With wineries producing many varietal and blended wines under their corporate brand it is probably more important that the winery brand be face forward. This is a personal opinion and probably will vary based upon ownerships’ strategies for the business. For example, if a winery wanted to position the property for a sale then branding would have a different approach than a launch of a new label.

If you are a wine consumer the branding activity can be entertaining and enlightening. For example, as a consumer we enjoy winery tastings, but the chances of visiting more than a handful of wineries may be out of the question. But with so many wines and so little time, part of the fun is exploring new wines. For a winery, branding really becomes important and especially if your small but want to create a brand that meets your business expectations for a 5, 10 or 20 year time frame.

There are many occasions when I go into a Total Wines or BevMo or our grocery store, just to do fun research. With a note pad and a magnifying glass (required because of age and fine print) I will read labels for information-winery, blending, and a little of the hype. Coming home I will look up the winery website, read about their wines and form an opinion about the brand simply based on the feel of the site, label designs, the winemaker, and past awards (although that is not all that important). If I am interested I sometimes even call a winery to ask questions about the winery, owners and style of winemaking.

Amazingly, the majority of the time the people answering my questions are ill prepared.

Importance of research is not appreciated by consumers and producers. Research focuses on industry matters, winery/winery products and competition concerning the following: image, price, products, promotions, lace, historical data and competition (brands). This data will eventually direct the Branding Plan efforts.

Knowing the consumer, defining the future plans of the winery and product directions, now is the time to get to work on the business of branding. Half of the effort is about where the winery wants to go and how the winery gets there. Research gives a path. A branding without a written plan bought into by employee implementers is called gambling.

For the purpose of discussion we will assume a winery has not really focused on branding and this would be an early effort at branding. Or, maybe the current branding is not generating the desired results; then a change is in order. Sometimes branding is only to build awareness or it is image branding. If a customer can’t tell a winery’s researcher their perceptions/attributes of a wines brand then branding efforts have weaknesses.

Moving forward with the data points from industry research and the research initiated by the winery, a branding plan must be developed that focuses on the corporate brand image as well as the wines (products).

Mission Statement versus Objectives is always confusing. Some companies want a Mission Statement as a starting point of a branding plan. I am the exception to this rule; most Mission Statements I have been involved with are actually too esoteric and enigmatic to be useful throughout the organization. However, most everyone can relate to an “objective” statement as opposed to a “mission”. Here is the Mission Statement from Constellation Brands who owns Robert Mondavi-“Building brands that people love. “Their Vision statement reads-“To elevate life with every glass raised.” Do these statements resonate with you as a wine drinker? (By the way, this is not meant as a slight to Constellation Brands which is a highly successful company that has an impressive portfolio of brands) Answer this question relative to the Vision and Mission statement of any of their brands or the corporate brand image: What is your top of mind awareness of Constellation Brands after reading these statements?

In developing a branding plan objective and strategy, be focused on what the all encompassing goals are so that along the way most employees and consumers understand the message.

If this is the first time to work on a branding plan it might be best to focus on a Corporate/Winery branding strategy and let that strategy support branding objectives for the wine products. Branding is ultimately building the public’s (wine consumers) impression of the winery and the products.

For example, in the 1980’s whenever someone mentioned Robert Mondavi Wines I thought instantly of a winery with community involvement, arts, food, innovation and quality control. I drank a lot of their wines because of that image. After some turmoil, of which I know little about, I started buying other brands because my perception of the image became tarnished (to me). After Mr. Mondavi became distant for the brand it just lost some appeal. Point is a corporate brand built my perception of the wines.

After a Brand Plan objective is determined, based upon research results and the vision of the owners/managers, the specific strategies and plan-of-action items are developed by all winery departments. Think of the Objective as a military operation. Taking a hill is the objective, no more specific than that. Strategies are the options to achieve that objective.

There is always a cost associated with any launch of a branding program or even maintaining a brand. The impetus of the effort is marketing driven as that is the face of the company. Based upon revenues, cost of distribution (wine club, direct to consumer, distributors, on-line, tasting room), and product associated costs, the branding effort will dictated by a series of complex decisions; not all of which will be revenue or profit motivated.

The branding campaign can simply start off by maximizing existing marketing programs to incorporate new branding ideas. For example, add an updated logo to collateral materials or posters or point-of-sale cards. Improve e-mail communications to mail list, club members, retailers and even editors/bloggers at trade publications.

Not that the importance of branding needs further reinforcement, I digress. There was a research study conducted by Dr. Liz Thach and Dr. Kathryn Chang and published in WineBusiness.com. A question in that study ask respondents: When making a decision on which wine to purchase what were the two most important factors? 72% said price was the most important consideration, followed by brand as the second most important consideration at 67%. Interestingly, varietals were about half as important (36%) as price. The most common price range for wine bought for home consumption (32%) was $10-15 with 19% purchasing wine averaging $15 to 20 a bottle. For branding purposes 51% of the wine consuming market is buying wine in the <$20 per bottle. Point is, price is a driver in any branding.

“Wine is regarded as an “experience good (sic)” in that wine purchase of a specific brand is a personal choice and usually made after tasting. However, many consumers do not have the choice and often rely on experts and friends to help decide which wine to purchase, Nowadays, they are more likely to use social media,” as reported by K. Newman in “How Wine Lovers Use Social Media and K. Breslin in Presentation of Constellation Digital Marketing.

Just remember the old axiom-The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Here is an example of plans that don’t work out. Reported in Wines and Vines on November 11, 2015, Truett-Hurst Winery posted $800,000 in charges related to its Paper Boy brand, which had sought to use a unique bottle composed of cardboard with a plastic liner. This is the primary reason why making sure progress toward benchmarks are monitored and tested with good research.

Dr.’s Thach and Chang summarize branding precisely, relative to wine:

· Focus branding message on relaxation and social benefits of a brand.

· Adopt social media platforms to interact with consumers and get their feedback. There are conflicting views on the value of social media in marketing wines, but it is probably wise to pay attention to trends and how to use the phenomenon.

· Work with distributors to make sure wines are available in outlets. Distributors need care and attention so they understand the branding direction a winery and enforce a branding strategy with retailers.

· Whatever the price point a winery wants their products to be in, the brand must support that message. The sweet spot is $10-15 but if the cost structure in the product does not allow that pricing then there are obvious choices a winery must make.

· Wine tourism is a great way to brand which spills over into the social media, peer reviews and recommendations and word of mouth promotion.

· Through research, keep abreast of competitive tactics.

Here are some thoughts that pertain to social media branding.

“A lot of mediocre wine is being sold on the basis of a ‘story’.” (Transpose “story” with “branding”.) “That’s a quote from a New York somm, Jason Jacobeit, cited in Lettie Teague’s latest column in the Wall Street Journal,” says Heimoff a wine writer.

The following is another perspective on the value of social media in branding from Steve Heimoff. “I don’t think these top 30 wineries consider social media as the most important of their “how to sell” strategies, rather, they focus on such traditional things as a trained sales force, pricing strategies, paying attention to consumer trends, forging good relationships with distributors and key accounts (on-premise and off-premise), courting wine writers (including bloggers) and a host of other proven best practices that social media has barely any impact on.” The 30 top wineries referred to in Mr. Heimoff’s blog come from Wine Business Monthly. The 30 companies represent nearly 90 percent of the domestic wine sold annually in the U.S. by volume.” In fact, “The top companies themselves represent more than half of U.S. case sales,” notes Wine Business Monthly.

“Mass advertising can help build brands, but authenticity is what makes them last. If people believe they share values with a company, they will stay loyal to the brand.” ― Howard Schultz. I would add, brands are built from the ground up by all hands being on deck. Recognize that Howard Schultz’s coffee sells at about 5X the price of a gallon of gas. That is great branding.

At the bottom-line, a wine brand is difficult to achieve because of so many variables: cost of the product, cost of marketing/advertising, government restrictions, distribution, and plethora of producers (domestic and import) and producers putting out competing labels under their corporate brand. But, once a brand is built it must be protected and therein lays the real value to consumers and the company.

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World Series of Poker (WSOP) Top 40 Moments

As the 40th World Series of Poker dawns upon us, we take time to look through forty of the tournaments defining moments.

40. The Curse of the 90 year-old man.

To the untrained eye, Victor Goulding is your regular 90 year-old guy. At the 2005 Main Event, he was actually given a ten-minute penalty for cursing at the table. British sweetheart Vicky Coren was sat next to the gentleman, although we can’t tell for sure if she was the cause of the senior citizen’s aberration.

39. Hellmuth Blow Ups

There’s the one where he calls the guy an idiot, or the time when he accuses a fellow player of being unable to spell ‘poker’, yet alone play it. With simply too many nuggets to choose from, WPT Magazine has opted to bunch them all in one collective group. Good work, Phil.

38. A Tricky Final Table

Last years’s WSOP Player of the Year Erick Lindgren final tabled three events but chose the toughest of them all to pick up his first bracelet. The players he had to dodge around to pick up the $5,000 Mixed Hold’em title included Justin Bonomo, Andrew Robl, Roland de Wolfe, David ‘Chino’ Rheem, Howard Lederer, David Williams, Pat Pezzin and Isaac Haxton. Easy.

37. Ante Depressants

In one of the more heated moments of WSOP history, Jeff Lisandro defending accusations made by Prahlad Friedman over not posting a $5,000 ante. Video cameras showed the Australian to be in the right, also capturing what became a decidedly heated ‘discussion’ between the two players.

36. Iranian Invades America

Mansour Matloubi becomes the first non-American Main Event winner in 1990 before final tabling again in 1993. He was eliminated in fourth place by eventual winner Jim Bechel, denying the poker world another two-time champion.

35. A Glimmer of Hope Against Gold

Coming to the final table of the 2006 World Series, many pinned their hopes on the remaining professional, Allen Cunningham. Contending with the blueberry eating steam train that was Jamie Gold, there was a glimmer of hope when Cunningham picked off a Gold bluff with just Ace-high. It wasn’t to be though, the Full Tilt pro finishing in 4th.

34. The Frankly Bizarre…

There can be no denying that the WSOP Main Event attracts all sorts. If it’s not Hevad Khan wielding his chair and dancing like a Red Bull fuelled Baloo or Joe Sebok turning up dressed as Batman’s sidekick, Robin (then a diaper-wearing bear, then Superman…), there’s always someone dressing up like a goofball. There’s also Phil Laak spending the day as an old man. The mind truly boggles.

33. Lederer Wins Bracelet…Eventually

We can’t figure out what took him so long, but Howard Lederer finally broke his WSOP bracelet voodoo when he won the $5,000 Limit Omaha event in 2000. The number of final tables he’d made before without winning the cheese? Twelve.

32. Las Vegas Pays Its Respects to Chip Reese

Poker lost one of its brightest lights in December 2007 when David ‘Chip’ Reese passed away. With every player queuing to pay homage to the man Doyle Brunson declared ‘the best player I’d ever played with’, the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E tournament was dedicated to the man who won the title in its inaugural year. The move was a class act; much like Chip himself.

31. Poker is So Rigged…

If you’ve ever wanted to throw your laptop into the pool after taking one of those bad beats, spare a thought for Harman and Hudson who had to endure a spanking from the fickle mistress called Fate:

Jennifer Harman vs. Corey Zeidman.

Harman’s raise with QQ is called by the Zeidman’s 9d-8d and one other. The chilly Ts-Jd-Qh flop saw Zeidman flop a straight and Harman top set. The diminutive lady pulled ahead on the Td, but the brutal one outer came when the dealer popped the 7d on the river. Ouch.

Oliver Hudson vs. Sammy Farha.

Stump up $10,000. Sit down, look down at pocket tens. Reraise the open from Sammy Farha, flop a full house. Slowplay, get your money in, realize you’ve been cold decked by A-T on the A-A-T flop, pick up your coat and leave. Thank you and goodnight.

30. 2005 – The Original ‘Year of the Pro’

Before all this hoo-ha about the ‘Year of the Pro’ last year, there was another year when the pro showed what they’re made of. 2005 saw bracelets for Allen Cunningham, Josh Arieh, Erik Seidel, TJ Cloutier, Barry Greenstein, Todd Brunson, Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, Phil Ivey, Mark Seif, Willie Tann…and Jennifer Tilly.

29. “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!”

Joe Hachem: a thoroughly nice guy and a wonderful ambassador for poker, but strewth – does he have some noisy fans! The 2005 Main Event king had a cheering contingent more akin to a soccer game terrace, making the final table at the Rio a true carnival.

28. Cloutier The Bridesmaid Once More

TJ Cloutier is one of the most winningest poker players of all time, but one nut he’s been unable to crack is the $10,000 buy-in Main Event. He’s come second twice; first in 1985 (losing to Bill Smith) and then, more famously, against Chris ‘Jesus’ Ferguson in 2000, when Ferguson’s A-9 hit a miracle nine on the river to outdraw T.J.’s A-Q.

27. Annie Duke Wins 2004 Tournament of Champions

She might have lost to Joan Rivers in Celebrity Apprentice (you can stop booing now), but Annie Duke did have her moment in the limelight when she won the WSOP Tournament of Champions in 2004. Once again, she was at the center of some compelling television, including the moment she knocked out big brother Howard Lederer in third place. Cold hearted or what!?

26. Hollywood Hits Sin City

The stars turn out in earnest for the summer of mayhem in Las Vegas, with Oliver Hudson popping in very briefly (see no. 31), Jennifer Tilly picking up a bracelet, and the likes of Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Tobey Maguire playing the game to a very competitive level. Anything which brings Shannon Elizabeth to the poker tables can’t be bad, right?

25. You Couldn’t Write About It…

Well, you can if you’re James McManus. Heading to the Series in 2000 to write a piece for a magazine, the journalist was soon caught in the trapping of Las Vegas and ended up blowing his advance on qualifying for the Main Event. He got in and ended up final tabling. The whole story has been immortalized in ‘Positively Fifth Street’ and is well worth an afternoon of anyone’s time.

24. Demidov Goes Transatlantic.

After booking his place in the November Nine, Ivan Demidov decided one Main Event final table that year was not enough. Off to London he went, seeking to continue his good form at the World Series of Poker Europe. He eventually finished in third behind fellow Muscovite Stanislav Alekhin and champion John Juanda. The press relations dream began and Demidov came one step closer in Las Vegas before falling to the hands of Peter Eastgate heads-up.

23. Fossilman Fights to Retain the Crown.

With field sizes as huge as they are in the modern game, many believe Johnny Chan’s back-to-back wins in ’87 and ’88 will never be repeated. The sceptics had to hold their breath for five days though as Greg Raymer made it to the final four tables in 2005, ultimately busting in 25th.

22. Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Robert Varkonyi’s 2002 victory was memorable not only for the unlikely victory nature of his $2m inheritance but also the bragging of Phil Hellmuth, which would eventually see him bald-headed. While commentating on the conclusion of the event, Phil Hellmuth claimed that should Varkonyi emerge victorious, he’d let the New Yorker shave his head. All thoughts of money disappeared and Varkonyi got the clippers out to leave The Poker Brat a slaphead.

21. The Tears of a Clown

Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Mike Matusow is one of the most consistent Main Event players of the last 10 years. 2004 saw a fierce rivalry between ‘The Mouth’ and eventual winner Greg Raymer but it was the A-Q of Ed Foster which outdrew Matusow’s A-K to send the pro blubbing to the rail. Bad beats are part of the game, but you almost wish Mike could get lucky one time.

20. Internet Geeks Attack!

The 2006 World Series was the year which announced the arrival of the internet kids on the live scene, with Scott Clements, Brandon Cantu, William Chen and Eric Froehlich all taking the ‘fearsome online player’ moniker and converting it into ‘bracelet-winning pro’.

19. Barbara Enright – Doin’ It For The Ladies

While Dan Harrington was busy winning the Main Event in 1995, many dothed their cap to Barbara Enright who had become the first woman to reach the final table of The Big One. Helping to reinforce a well-known fact (women never, ever get their money in without the best of it), Enright’s run at the bracelet was halted when her pocket eights were outdrawn by 6-3s, eliminating the Hall of Famer in fifth. Men are such fish.

18. Galfond The Wizard

Another internet whizz-kid who has since become a recognized face away from his computer monitor is Phil Galfond. He picked up the first bracelet during the ’08 series at a fearsome $5,000 Pot-Limit Omaha w/ Rebuys final table that had railbirds clamouring. The veritable ‘who’s who’ included Phil Hellmuth, Daniel Negreanu, John Juanda, Kirill Gerasimov, Johnny Chan, David Benyamine as well as online players Brian ‘tsarrast’ Rast and Adam ‘houdini’ Hourani.

17. The Original Poker ‘Young Gun’

Some spotty-faced kid bowls into Las Vegas, glasses perched on the end of his nose, and ends up taking the biggest prize of them all from the backyard of the pros. No, we’re not talking about Phil Hellmuth but rather Bobby Baldwin, who beat Crandell Addington heads-up in a rather chilly set-over-set scenario. Bloody internet kids…

16. A Chip and a Chair

In the most infamous of poker comebacks, Jack Straus won the 1982 Main Event after inadvertently leaving a single $500 chip behind when moving all in. As he got up from the table he noticed the chip under a napkin. Tournament directors let him play on and the comeback saw the oft-heard ‘chip and a chair’ expression launched. Straus collected $520,000 for the win.

15. 2008 – The Year of the Pro (Part Two)

Nemad Medic, David Singer, Erick Lindgren, Mike Matusow, Vanessa Selbst, Daniel Negreanu, Max Pescatori, Kenny Tran, Barry Greenstein, Phil Galfond, John Phan, Rob Hollink, Dario Minieri, Layne Flack, David Benyamine, Scotty Nguyen, JC Tran, and Marty Smyth – all bracelet winners. Enough said.

14. First Ever World Series of Poker

Of course, none of this would have been possible if it wasn’t for the pioneering vision of Benny Binion. Inviting the six best players in the world to sit down and play at the Horseshoe was the birth of what has become the behemoth series that swarms around Vegas every summer. A little trivia for you; the first Series wasn’t decided by freezeout but by ballot, with Johnny Moss winning unanimously.

13. Goodbye to Binions

As the Series evolved, it became more and more apparent that the brainchild of Benny Binion would eventually outgrow its home. After 35 years of holding the event on home soil, July 2005 would the last time the Series would enter Binions, moving to the larger Rio just down the Strip.

12. Gold-en Year

2006 was a mind-blowing year for the Series; record-breaking prizepools, a Main Event champion who walked out with $12m (well, actually half of it) and over $156m handed out over the whole series. It seems only appropriate that the champ was called ‘Gold’, doesn’t it?

11. Doyle Does The Double

“Texas Dolly” may be the most recognisable poker player in the world but none of this would have happened unless Doyle had been the real deal. Brunson proved he was one of the all-time greats in 1976 and 1977 when he became the first player to successfully defend his World Series Main Event crown. As most of us know, the winning hand on both of the final hands was 10-2 offsuit, lending the hand to be named after Doyle himself.

10. “You Call It’s Gonna Be All Over, Baby”

Poker is not a card game with people, it is a people game with cards. So said Tom McEvoy, and while he’s not played a hand since 1994 while waiting for aces, the esteemed book author and WSOP Champion has a point.

One person who understood the psychology of the moment perfectly was beer-swilling Scotty Nguyen, who managed to goad a call from Kevin McBride in what has become an immortalised moment in poker history. As the amateur debated whether to call what seemed like a possible bluff, Scotty stood up, beer in hand, and uttered, “you call, it’s gonna be all over baby”. McBride fell for the bait, calling for the chop that never was. Scotty showed him the Jd-9c for the better full house and hence collected the 1998 title.

9. The November Nine Return

When Harrahs announced there would be a three-month hiatus before the final table of the Main Event regrouped to play out for the $9m first prize, there were furrowed brows in many quarters. It would be a bit like halting the Super Bowl final at half time for a week, argued some. As with any untried format, scepticism sprung forth.

By the time the final nine reconvened at the Rio, the atmosphere was electric. While the same cynics will argue the public relations efforts were saved by the final table appearance of Ivan Demidov at the WSOP Europe Main Event (see 29), the spectacle itself proved to be worth the wait. The hopes of the poker purists laid with Scot Montgomery and Chino Rheem, while the sentimental pined for a Kelly Kim comeback. It was Peter Eastgate who became king though, rounding off what had been an enthralling 2008 Main Event.

8. Harrington Goes Deep Two Years Running

While it’s not sound as impressive as winning two years in a row, there can be no underestimating Dan Harrington’s achievement in final tabling both the 2003 and 2004 Main Event. With fields of 839 and 2,576, ‘Action Dan’ finished third and fourth, collecting $2,150,000 – more than double the amount he netted for winning the whole thing in 1995. How times have changed.

7. Stu Ungar – Back to Back Champion.

They reckon he was the most naturally talent poker player of all time. Certainly without parallel in gin rummy, Ungar was literally forced to turn his hand to poker after the action dried up in his preferred game. The switch proved to be a wise one, and in 1980 the child-like Ungar ended up sitting opposite the Vegas legend that is Doyle Brunson heads-up for the lot – even more impressive when you consider he later claimed it was the first time he’d ever played Texas Hold’em.

While many might have been intimidated playing Brunson, Ungar’s self-belief was second to none. The final hand saw Doyle flop two pair with A-7 on an A-7-2 rainbow flop, and Ungar make a speculative call with his gutshot draw. The 3 on the turn gave Stuey the nuts, his 5-4 only needing to avoid an ace or seven by the time the money went in on fourth street. The river paired the deuce, leaving Ungar as the fresh-faced WSOP champion.

If Ungar’s win in 1980 had any suggestion of beginners luck about it, his repeat in 1981 left no one in doubt, defending his title after beating Perry Green heads-up. ‘The Kid’ had come to town and won – twice.

6. The Bracelet Battle

Some say that the measure of a great poker player is not necessarily the amount of money they’ve won, but the number of bracelets they have. Hellmuth, Brunson and Chan had led the way, with the triumvirate having nine apiece. In 2005 the race picked up pace, with Chan winning his tenth bracelet after beating Phil Laak heads-up in the $2,500 Pot Limit Hold’em bracelet. As if it were a firecracker to the begin the friendly rivalry, Chan’s short reign as the outright leader was negated when Doyle Brunson secured his tenth in the $5,000 Short-handed No Limit Hold’em event under a week later.

In case his hunger ever needed fuelling, Phil Hellmuth saw the two victories for his friends as a spur to hunt down championship gold with a new vigor. 2005 would prove fruitless for Hellmuth, but he didn’t have wait much longer before tieing for ten bracelets, winning the $1,000 No Limit Hold’em with rebuys. His eleventh came in the $1,500 No Limit Hold’em event, breaking all the records once again. Old habits die hard, seemingly.

5. Johnny Two Times

Brunson had been the first to win back-to-back, while Ungar tore up the history books with his feats in the early eighties. The most impressive of all the repeat champions though is Johnny Chan. The first of two victories came in 1987 when he outlasted a final table including Howard Lederer and Dan Harrington. It was the second final table that is best known, with this heads-up win against Erik Seidel later immortalised in ‘Rounders’. With the field sizes as big as they are in the modern game, Chan will quite possibly be the last man to ever defend the title successfully.

There are two ways to explain this hand; we can either talk about the cards, bets and action, or we could all just recount the quote made by Mike in ‘Rounders’.

“Johnny Chan flops the nut straight and has the discipline to wait him out. He knows Seidel’s gonna bluff at it. Johnny fucking Chan. Chan is trying to sucker him in by taking his time. Look at the control. Look at that fuck. He knows his man well enough to check it all the way and risk winning nothing with those cards. He owns him.”

It does help when you flop the nuts against top pair heads-up. Of course, it could have been a hat trick if it weren’t for a young man from Wisconsin who had all the self-belief of Ungar before him…

4. Hellmuth Becomes Youngest Ever Champ

From the moment the final table of the 1989 Main Event had been set, there was a sense that history would be made. Johnny Chan was seeking to become the first man to ever win three in a row, while a confident player by the name of Phil Hellmuth had the opportunity to surpass Stu Ungar’s record as the youngest ever Main Event winner. With the two outlasting a final table including Noel Furlong and Mr WPT himself, Lyle Berman, it came down to a Chan – Hellmuth finale that would see the record books rewritten. Chan had described Hellmuth’s play as aggressive, and when Hellmuth moved all in with pocket nines (yes, we know – very loose for Hellmuth), Chan made the call with As-7s. The nines held up and a new superstar was born. NASA also reported what they thought a new planet had been spotted in a neighbouring galaxy. It was later revealed to be Phil Hellmuth’s ego.

3. Moneymaker Wins

Chris Moneymaker’s win in 2003 literally reshaped poker. Heads-up against high-stakes gambler Sammy Farha, the accountant from Tennessee showed the world that anything is possible by becoming the first online satellite winner to win the Main Event. Having sat down one day to play a satellite on PokerStars, Chris bought into a $39 satellite and qualified for what would be his first live tournament. An unknown quantity, Moneymaker managed to knock out the likes of Johnny Chan and Phil Ivey on his way to collecting the $2.5m first prize.

The win opened the minds of the every day man on the street; when they saw an accountant had beat a pro, everyone thought they too could win $2.5m. The poker bug spread, magazines were printed and their journalists still entertain the idea of being World Champion. One of these days…

2. Chip Reese Wins Inaugural $50,000 H.O.R.S.E.

With so many players flooding the Main Event, many of the pros now consider the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E as the true test of the best all-round poker player. The event was introduced in 2006, and the final table certainly provided us with some of the games best – and most recognisable – players; Doyle Brunson, TJ Cloutier, Patrik Antonius and Phil Ivey to name just four.

One name that might not have been known to the rail was that of David ‘Chip’ Reese. Recognised by his peers as perhaps the best cash game player in the world, Reese had never sought the limelight associated with winning poker tournaments. When the chance to play the best in the world in the biggest buy-in event at the Series came up, the lure was too much for Reese.

While it only took two and a half hours to lose the first seven, the heads-up battle between Reese and Andy Bloch was epic. Seven hours of play between the pair saw the lead change hands about a million times (ok, a slight exaggeration), and the duel was a testament to both players. As one moved to take charge, the other changed gear at just the right time.

It was cruel that someone would lose, but it was Reese’s resolve to win the event that proved stronger. Having suffered several harsh beats, Bloch found himself down to a proverbial bowl of rice and called his remaining chips off with 9-8 against Reese’s A-Q. Typical of Bloch’s luck in the key moments, he didn’t improve. Reese had proved to the world that he was truly one of the greats. As if we didn’t know already.

1. The Comeback Kid

To win the Main Event back to back was a feat that deserves recognition. To come back sixteen years, having been through drug abuse, arrests and debt, was unworldly. That word can summarise Stu Ungar in so many ways; the greatest poker talent to ever take to the felt, the come back in 1997 reminded the world what drugs had – and would forever – deprive the poker world of.

The years between 1981 and 1997 had been a hellacious repetition of drug abuse, gambling and personal torment. Married to a childhood sweetheart, Stuey had seen the birth of daughter Stephanie and the adoption of Madeline’s son from a previous marriage, Richie. Shortly after his high school prom, Richie committed suicide – an event that would drive Ungar to cocaine and an irreparable void in his family life. In 1986, Stu and Madeline divorced and Ungar hit drugs and gambling with a vengeance. The next decade saw ‘The Kid’ become a shadow of his former self, and even when backers stepped in to get Stuey back on the tournament trail, his weakness with cocaine cruelly intervened on any resurgence.

By 1997, Ungar was in huge debt, but old friend and fellow pro Billy Baxter looked to back him one more time. The backing came just moments before tournament entries closed. Ungar, showing the signs of years of drug abuse, sat down once again. Having spent the previous day trying to raise funds, he was exhausted, falling asleep at the table. Lifelong friend Mike Sexton, who was playing at the table, gave Ungar encouragement. Baxter gave him something a little more direct, tongue-lashing Ungar midway through the day. The approach worked, and Ungar returned to the table with a renewed vigor. Coming back on the second day, Ungar was a new man, rested and on top of his game. The rest was inevitable. Taking a huge chip lead into the final table, bookmakers made Ungar the favorite against the rest of the field, a compliment as much as it is a rarity.

The Kid did what everyone expected. With a photo of his daughter Stephanie by his side, he systematically schooled the final table before sending the last man,

Ungar did not disappoint and won the Main Event for the third time. As if the poker gods had some ironic sense of humor, the final hand saw Stuey outdraw Strempz’s A-8 with A-4, a deuce on the river giving Ungar a straight. ‘The Kid’ was the greatest card player of all time, and too good to be lucky.

The win meant Ungar would take half of the $1m he’d just won, the other half going to Baxter. The interview saw Gabe Kaplan ask if he would do things differently from there on. “Well, I hope so Gabe. You know, I’ve neglected my kids, you know, I’ve done a lot of stupid things to myself,” replied the straight-talking Ungar. You hoped the win would be the kick-start of a new life so that poker could enjoy his talents for years to come.

Tragically, Stuey fell into old trappings, and in 1998 when his body succumbed to the results of the sustained drug use. How can you ever summarize Stu Ungar? The man himself did it best in the same interview. “There’s nobody that ever beat me playing cards. The only one that ever beat me was myself and my bad habits.”

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