Commentary

Is Jeff Shulman really the villain?

Updated: October 2, 2009, 2:35 PM ET
By Gary Wise | ESPN.com

Watch Jeff Shulman make his run to the final table every Tuesday night from 9-11 p.m.

It would be so easy for Jeff Shulman to be the villain of this year's November Nine. Well off, successful, the son of one of poker's first families … and then there were those comments …

You remember those comments. With more than a day's play remaining in the summer installment of the 2009 World Series of Poker main event, with the final table barely a glimmer in his eye, Shulman said a few things. He said that, should he win the bracelet, he'd throw it in the garbage. He said that he'd never play poker again. He said a lot of things, and to this day, he says, he stands by most of them.

"Do I regret making [those statements]?" Shulman asked himself, repeating the question he'd been asked so many times since. "No. There certainly won't be an apology. I'm not going to throw the bracelet into the garbage. I've had time to think about things and it not the right thing to do. I've learned that for a lot of people, the bracelets equate with the tournament itself more than they do for me."

"I'm pleased he decided not to throw it out," close friend Diego Cordovez said. "All the talk about his comments lead people to misunderstand the point he was trying to make, what he was trying to say. Jeff cares a lot about winning the tournament. He understands it's the biggest tournament in poker. To him, the bracelet is just a piece of jewelry. The win is what's important. I think he's realized that a lot of people equate the tournament and the bracelet and what it would therefore mean if he threw it away."

[+] EnlargeJeff Shulman
AP Photo/Laura RauchJeff Shulman finished seventh in the WSOP main event in 2000.

"I won't wear it," said Shulman, whose seventh-place finish in the 2000 main event makes him the first player to make the November Nine with main-event final-table experience. "I'll probably give it away. My remarks were about Harrah's. I don't keep trophies. It is one thing to say 'when I win' when you don't see a chance to win. Now, I have a chance to win, so it's like I was rambling after how many days of sleeping without my family. That turned me into a villain. So be it."

The irony of what may have seemed like poker's most blatant WWE heel turn since Scotty had a few too many at the 2008 HORSE event, is that this is a son of the poker community, a widely liked businessman within the game's borders, and he had no desire for the attention such a turn would bring.

"Obviously, if I was thinking about the publicity, I wouldn't have said it at all. It's not the best thing for business," said Shulman, the editor of Card Player magazine. "Not once was I ever thinking about trying to get extra publicity. I'm actually the kind of person who doesn't want publicity. None of this had to do with Card Player. My anger towards Harrah's had to do with seeing them lie many times and not honor commitments, but that was 3 or 4 years ago. As a business owner, I'm shocked to see the people who are running this tournament still have jobs. Unfortunately, because of my role at CP, I'm the person everyone wants to make complaints to. I'm tattooed with them. The fact Harrah's didn't seem to care made it a venting process. It had nothing to do with Card Player."

Shulman, 34, says most of his complaints with the new WSOP have to do with an unfair playing field that's seen plenty of abuse over the last few years: "If you're a celeb player, [the] Rio treats you better and they have different rules for you. Celebrity players have earned that measure of respect, but they shouldn't have it easier than you or me. No one should. At my first table in the main event, an amateur bet out of turn and exposed her hand. The floor person said, 'If you weren't so cute, you'd get a penalty.' The guy next to her had gotten that same penalty the day before. They're incredibly inconsistent with their rulings.

"Last year they threatened to kick me out for debating a ruling with a floor man," he continued. "I bet that wouldn't have happened were I one of their boys. The floor should never change with how the game is playing. Obviously, when Pollack let Hellmuth off without the penalty last year, that was wrong. Think that you or I would have gotten away with that?"

After Hellmuth berated Romanian player Christian Dragomir for 10 minutes, he was handed a one-round sit-out penalty at the start of the next day of play. The penalty disappeared overnight.

"If you make the rule or decision, then stick to it. I understand that Harrah's uses the celebrity pros for marketing, but there should never be any advantage given to any player because the casino profits more from that player. Nor do I think the other players want it."

This leads us to one of two great ironies with the Shulman profile: Shulman once appeared to be on the fast track to that kind of preferential treatment. His maturation process as a poker player came with an inside view. His father, Barry, owns Card Player, and as a result, Jeff got hands-on experience with some of the best teachers in the world.

"I think Card Player was a big advantage," Shulman said. "My pokering started with my talking to my dad a lot while he was in Vegas and I was in Seattle. From the get-go, he really helped. Once I moved down here and started playing, I became friends with all these people, and it was huge. All I knew about poker is I liked it. People like Layne Flack and Mike Matusow, Diego Cordovez, Adam Schoenfeld, they told me the little things that helped me. David Chiu took me under his wing. Maybe it's because I'm a nice guy, maybe its because of CP. Regardless it all helped. They all let me sweat them in live games. Of course, we knew them all before they were famous. I guess we were all helping each other. There's nothing better than talking to people who you respect. It gets you better. Of course, you can also read articles. When you read them, you form opinions then discuss them. Getting to thinking that way makes you play a good game. A lot of my success comes from that. A lot of my success was playing and making mistakes."

The second of those ironies is his choice of coach. Jeff recently announced that none other than Phil Hellmuth would be assisting him in his preparation for the November Nine.

"This was a monthlong debate I had with myself," he said. "If you hire Phil, there's a lot that goes with him. I can deal with Phil better than most people. For this to work, I need more focus than I'd have doing it myself. I think he still adds to my probability of winning though. I'm convinced.

"Just because he's coaching me, doesn't mean I'll play like him. I'll just use him as a sounding board. His final-table results are incredible. One thing I know about Phil: With the exception of this year, he's always had a very smart game at the end, so I wanted to draw on his opinion. There won't be any grand entrances. He'll take some of the spotlight. It's a bonus that he might take the spotlight, though. I'm serious about not loving it. I won't draw the spotlight while playing." Shulman's tableside demeanor can be described as mostly invisible.

"One more thing about Phil," Shulman adds, "he has such a winner's mentality and positive outlook on things, he's started to convince me I can actually win this thing. He's really pumping this winner's mentality into me. That's crucial because confidence is so important in poker."

True to his word, Shulman doesn't want the spotlight. His friendship inspires loyalty from the community. His complaints, while ill-timed and inappropriately voiced, spoke to real concerns that affected friends far more than himself. One of the people who helped poker grow, he wants to see it pure now that the game has moved beyond its long adolescence.

"I don't see my relationship with the poker world changing if I won," Shulman said. "If I win, my dad will want me to do more as a face person for Card Player, but I'm not much of a face person. I don't know what it would do for me. I think when I started in poker, it would have meant the world to me. Now I feel like I'm doing it more for my family and friends than for me. They were all going nuts in July. It's like a bigger deal for everyone than me. The money is obviously big, and I have some trade with people, so being able to give them huge cuts feels great. There's nothing more I'd like to do than hand some people tons of money. Some people regret that, but I'm the opposite. A guy I traded 1 percent with can make $80,000. That's incredible."

Doesn't sound like the villain to me.

Gary Wise is a poker columnist for ESPN.com.

Gary Wise has contributed to ESPN.com since 2007. He is well-studied in the history of poker and presents a unique tableside view of the goings-on in the poker community. Google author profile

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