What a week for Joe Cada
We all know about the money before the tournament starts. We know about the bracelet, the sponsorships, the instantaneous fame that comes with the title of World Series of Poker world champion. It comes regardless of whether the victor elbowed his way through the competition or happened to hit a couple of sets after getting all-in as an underdog preflop. Joe Cada knew all that would be a part of the package before he turned 21.
What Cada may not have quite understood is that life will never be the same. One doesn't wear the championship title for a few months then go back to the way things were. There's a price you pay, giving up your anonymity for life, at least in certain circles. Of course, some make the swap more easily than others.
Cada hasn't come down from the buzz of winning the whole thing yet.
"I still haven't really sat back and realized how much it means," the young world champion said in an ESPN.com interview between many other interviews. "I'm still in shock. I've been staying really busy, so I haven't had too much time to think about it. I still don't know what to think about it. I know life won't ever be the same. Walking around Michigan and signing autographs was definitely different. It's going to take some getting used to." His words aside, Cada seems to be acclimating beautifully. Young, good-looking and personable, the youngest champion of all time has been a blessing to the poker world a little over a week into his reign. Described by one public relations professional as "the most marketable world champion since Moneymaker," Cada is seemingly embracing entirely the ambassadorship that some feel must come as a responsibility of the championship reign. While the poker world is paying attention as it always does, the mainstream media has joined in on the fun.
Cada's media appearances over the past eight days have reached every demographic. As pointed out in his interview with CNBC, Cada is signed with PokerStars for the next year, opening doors he'd never dreamed of when entering his first WSOP. It's more than selfish opportunism, though: He sees a greater responsibility in his role, saying in that same interview, "You're supposed to take on the role as poker ambassador, so I've been doing as many interviews as possible."
He's backed those words up with appearances on CNN, CBS News and the "Late Show With David Letterman" (whose depth of interest reached so far as to ask Cada if there were drinks and snacks at the final table) among others. He even got a mention on "Saturday Night Live's" Weekend Update segment. In the midst of it all, needing a break from the monotony of a repetitive interview process, he enjoyed a nice, relaxing night in the front row of WWE RAW. That's right, to get away from the attention, he went on national television. Of course, this is all in addition to fulfilling the myriad media requests from assorted poker media and his native Michigan-area news outlets.
"I was probably more nervous about Letterman than the final table itself," Cada admitted with an exhausted chuckle. "He was funny and it was great to meet him. It was a great time."
After all that, Cada opted to take a nice, relaxing day in Bristol, Conn., on Thursday. You've probably figured out that ESPN has an affection for the WSOP, so its champion made for great content on "First Take," "The Scott Van Pelt Show," ESPNU, ESPNEWS, ESPN Inside Deal and ESPN.com. He taped for "SportsCenter" too, but that interview didn't make it to air. You have to wonder if the poor kid is feeling a little underexposed as a result.
"I'm trying to do what's best for poker," he continued. "I got really lucky at the final table, so I have no problem doing this media stuff. I mean, I've been playing poker for some time now. I'm going to do my best to see poker grow and I'll do what I can to help it grow in the future. Sometimes, some [of the simpler] questions can be a little frustrating, but you have to remember not everyone plays and you have to be mindful of different perspectives."
Dennis Phillips, no stranger to this kind of attention, joined Cada in New York at the new champion's request in an advisory capacity.
"I'd been through this before," Phillips explained. "Joe hadn't. He asked if I could come along. Truthfully, I don't think he needed me. He's doing really well. That's a compliment to him. He has a good head on his shoulders. At his age shouldn't be acting as maturely as he is. Maybe he's doing it because he knows he got a little lucky, but he wants to find something positive now and is happy to promote poker. He's just doing everything right. Most of the time, he bounces an idea off me and I just tell him he's right. I think he's been a great advocate for poker. A great ambassador. I think he'll do a better job than some past champions have done. I'm tickled to death."
While Phillips is there with the fatherly advice, Cada's father, Jerry, 53, waits at home for his son with guarded optimism. Joe's attitude in all of this has been a credit to the automotive interior designer.
"Now that he's hooked up with Dennis, I feel more comfortable," said the elder Cada. "I feel that he's in good hands. I'm concerned a bit, this is still my son regardless. The most important thing is that he's safe. Things have been real busy. I'm just concerned about him now that he has a little fame on his side."
Lost in the broader story of the younger Cada's triumph is how the youngster from Michigan, who has seen his home state hit so hard by the nation's economic woes, has emerged as a story of hope. Jerry is among the many who have been laid off in recent months.
"I certainly don't want to count on my son's success for my future living, but it certainly works out," Jerry said. "He said he'd be glad to help us if we need it. I'm obviously still looking for a job in the auto industry, or anywhere really, but it certainly is a comfort to know he's there to help now. He's such a great kid."
"I hope it's been uplifting," Joe said. "I hope people will look at me and know I understand, but I don't know how people feel about it. The Detroit media's been calling nonstop."
Said Jerry: "It's uplifting for the community, I just hope that everybody doesn't think that during hard times you should just get into poker and win your way out of it. It's a very good story, but it takes skill and a little luck. It's tough times here in Michigan, for everybody. A lot of my friends are very talented people and are looking for work. All my friends e-mail me, continually congratulating me. It makes me feel good. They tell me I raised a good kid. It's a nice reflection on myself. I never condoned his playing poker, but obviously he's very intelligent and knows what he's doing and obviously he made the right decision. We're really happy for him."
In a couple of days, this whirlwind will play itself out. Joe, who sheepishly describes himself as lazy, looks forward to a few weeks of relaxing, sleeping in and maybe getting back to the gym before getting back out on the poker road with an appearance at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. Like so many other online players, he'll make the trek there for sun, sand, drinks, partying and a little bit of poker. Unlike his experience last year, the 2010 tournament will be very different because all eyes will be on him. It's an inevitable truth that brings with it a target on his back. If what we've seen so far is an indicator, he may not mind. He embraces that part of the game.
Gary Wise is a poker columnist for ESPN.com.