Dara O’Kearney: So You Want to Be a Sponsored Poker Pro….

  • The most common questions Dara gets are about strategy, staking, and sponsorship
  • His sponsorship path over the years has been far from a straight line
  • Creating content, not being shy, and knowing your demographic are keys to getting sponsored
  • People should think about who they are representing before jumping into a deal
Happy man signing a contract as his wife looks on
Looking to learn how to become a sponsored poker pro? Take some lessons from Dara O’Kearney’s experience over the years. [Image: Shutterstock.com]

A common request

I get roughly 50 unsolicited messages a day about poker from people I don’t know, or just barely know through social media. The vast majority of these fall into one of three categories starting with “S.”

The first category is strategy: generally hands where people want an opinion, which I’m always happy to give, sometimes after some solver work. The second category is staking: usually after some polite pleasantries, my correspondent wants to know if I still stake people, and specifically will I stake them. I’m hoping people thinking of doing this will read this blog because I can say here the answer these days is always no. 

most professional and many recreational players crave to be a sponsored player

The final category is sponsorship. Whether they admit it or not, most professional and many recreational players crave to be a sponsored player. Some because they see it as free money, and others because they see it as some sort of validation or recognition from the industry. In reality it’s neither, but that’s a topic for another day. In this article, I want to give whatever practical advice I can to players interested in being sponsored one day.

How do you get a deal?

Unibet is my third deal. I basically won the first one in a special promotion. A now-defunct Irish skin of the also now-defunct Cake poker network was sponsoring the Irish live rankings at the time, and they decided to have a special tournament for the top-ranked players, with the winner getting a six-month sponsorship deal. When we got down to three in what was winner take all, chop talks broke out. We all thought chopping the equity was best, but couldn’t agree on who would officially take the deal. Now you might be thinking yeah that makes sense, everyone wants to be the sponsored pro. In reality, none of us did, for two reasons which probably only make sense to that most rational and least romantic of creatures, the poker pro.

the poker pro mindset reduces everything to pure EV

While recreational players dream of glory and trophies and acclaim, the poker pro mindset reduces everything to pure EV. Therefore, we saw two problems with being the one to officially take the deal. First, it was basically a negative freeroll to pay the other two guys off before a penny was received. Back then, poker sites went out of business even more frequently than they do now. Second, it presumably involved additional effort and duties for no extra compensation. 

I ended up being the one to agree to pay the other two off. I did this partly because a deal was unlikely if I didn’t agree to be that guy, but mostly because I thought the risk and additional effort could be made up for by the possibility, however slim, that at the end of the six months, I’d have persuaded the sponsors it was worth their while to extend the deal.

My line was looking very suboptimal after my first meeting with the sponsors in which they made it clear they had zero intention of extending the deal and they saw it purely as a one-off prize with some one-time PR upside for them over just giving me the cash up front. I’ve never been anything other than stubborn, however, so I did everything I could over the next six months to deliver value and was rewarded by a couple of extensions until they were forced out of business by problems on the Cake network.

they decided I was the man for the job

My next deal was acquired a little more typically: an Irish-facing skin on another network (Entraction) decided they wanted a pro with a high profile in Ireland. By now I had established myself as one of Ireland’s most profitable players both online and live, was contributing strategy to a number of poker magazines, had the most-read Irish blog, and was the first Irish pro on social media, all of which combined to a high national profile, so they decided I was the man for the job.

Once again, I set demonstrating value as one of my main priorities and was rewarded by having my contract renewed a few times until the site was forced out of business when Entraction shut down. 

The wilderness years

Over the next couple of years, my international profile continued to grow slowly. I was touted for a couple of different deals with major sites, but in each case lost out to an Irish rival. My age was generally seen as a major strike against me. I remember being asked at the time by Stars to recommend an Irish pro:

“We need someone who wins online but plays live too. There can’t be any whiff of scandal around them. He has to be able to talk and engage with people. And he has to be under the age of 30, preferably good looking”

This seemed to be the consensus by now among the sites as to what a sponsored pro should look like. They’d moved past hiring someone on the basis of one big bank, having been burned too often hiring someone who turned out to be a surly one-hit wonder with no social skills. 

if I was swimming against the tide of my age, so be it

I remember these years as a time when my hopes of ever being sponsored again not only receded, but also became less important to me. I’m nothing if not a realist, and if I was swimming against the tide of my age, so be it. I’d also reached a point in my career where any supplemental income would necessarily be a smaller percentage of what I earned from poker.

Staking and other interests were flourishing. I also remember this as a period where, rightly or wrongly, I felt some sites were stringing me along to a certain degree, wanting to keep me happy and uncritical. In one episode of “The Chip Race,” Vanessa Kade talked about how leading female players are very incentivized to avoid criticizing anyone in the industry if they hold out any hopes of ever being sponsored. This is undoubtedly true, but also for men, albeit to a much lesser degree and with some qualifications.

It’s much easier for a man to carve out a role and a brand as a squeaky wheel. But that has to be your image from the get-go. David Lappin and I have often remarked that he can get away with saying almost anything about anyone because that’s just Lappin being Lappin, but people seem to get deeply upset if I say anything even mildly critical. There has never been a time when I said something positive about a site or an event that I didn’t believe because I was hoping to curry future favor, but there have certainly been times when I’ve bit my lip and adhered to the maxim that if you have nothing positive to say, say nothing. 

2015 was a pivotal year. My biggest live score moved me to a point financially where chasing sponsorships didn’t seem like a productive use of my time. I maintained a high profile by starting “The Chip Race” with Lappin, and I stayed active on social media, but the goal wasn’t to get another sponsor. The following year’s EPT Barcelona was another turning point. As I wrote at the time, the festival was a new low in recreational player experience, and I despaired for the future of live poker if this was the new normal. A Stars insider told me that it was: owner Amaya was pushing a paradigm that insisted profit in all things, to the detriment of customer experience and acquisition.

I had in any case come to the conclusion that I was being strung along with promises of a deal

At the end of the festival, over late-night tapas and wine with Lappin, I told him I’d decided to go into full attack mode, sacrificing any chance I might have of ever being sponsored by them. I had in any case come to the conclusion that I was being strung along with promises of a deal “next year for sure” to encourage me not to say anything overtly critical of Stars. I therefore told my co-host I’d made the decision to write a full and frank criticism of what I saw as the problems with Stars live events and warned him to be ready for some crossfire. Lappin not only agreed with my vision, but said he was planning to pen his own critical piece, so we were burning bridges together. 

After the blogs went viral, some unexpected things happened, as well as some expected things. People we were genuinely friendly with who worked for Stars felt betrayed. Some industry figures who may or may not have been in the pay of Stars came after us on social media. Recreational players and pros alike were overwhelmingly in agreement with our view. And we attracted the attention of Unibet, who shared our view of how the recreational player experience should be, an alternative vision of the future. To our surprise, a pair of blogs that we anticipated would torch any prospects of future sponsorship ended up leading to a deal with Unibet, which was extended into its sixth year in early 2022.

Shifting paradigms 

When I started in poker, the way you got a deal was you won something big and got a patch and a deal as a bonus. But as I said above, sites quickly found that wasn’t a good approach (strangely this idea that deals should be bonus “rewards” for performances on the felt has lingered among a lot of players: the most common wail I hear from players is “why am I not sponsored already? I won tourney X/win more online than sponsored pro Y”).

New cars lose a lot of their value the moment they’re driven out of the showroom, and new sponsored pros suffer a similar fate the moment the novelty of their signing has passed and all the “Pro X signs for site Y” articles have been published. A Full Tilt employee told me that once the sites realized this, the model switched to one-off deals: sticking a patch on someone who made a big televised final table and giving them a one-time payment. Over time, the sites realized that wasn’t particularly cost-effective either, and in any case after Black Friday, big, televised tables were few and far between. 

I was determined to demonstrate value

The number of sponsored pros dwindled dramatically until the paradigm shifted again with the rise of content. Content creators were suddenly in demand, be they Twitchers, bloggers, vloggers, podcasters, or whatever. Around this time, I was asked by Stars to recommend an Irish Twitcher and I told them they should hop on Fintan Hand, a superstar in the making. When Unibet came knocking, this shift suited us: both David and I had very widely read blogs, produced other written content, and had a podcast we could revive. As in my previous deals, I was determined to demonstrate value, as was David, and we set about being what Pads very kindly described on Twitter once as two of the hardest-working ambassadors in poker. 

But enough about me….how do you get sponsored?

When you ask footballers (soccer players for those of you in the States) what they’ll do after retirement, they nearly all give one of two answers: management or punditry.  The problem is that for every 100 retired footballers, there’s less than one manager and less than one pundit. Poker has a similar dichotomy: almost every successful (and many unsuccessful) player wants to be sponsored, whether they openly admit it or not. 

I’ve written this history of my own sponsorships to give you an idea of what I’ve done to improve my chances in this particular lottery, and also to convey that it’s far from a free lunch these days. So what else can you do to maximize your chances?

1. Create content

We are still in the era of content. A creator that reaches an audience through Twitch, a blog, a vlog, a podcast, social media, or a Facebook group offers far more value to a sponsor than a loud-spoken opinion pro or a genuine crusher. Even if it doesn’t ultimately lead to full sponsorship, sites often offer other rewards and incentives to creators on a more informal basis. 

2. Know your demographic

There are very few genuine superstars in poker who reach and appeal to almost everyone. But that’s ok. Someone who reaches a small but loyal niche audience is more useful from a marketing perspective for a site than someone everyone knows about, but nobody cares much about. Players are generally signed to appeal to a specific demographic. Here, some players have a natural advantage. It’s better to be from Brazil than Latvia. It’s better to be female than male and it’s an advantage to be younger. Tournament players are much more likely to be signed than cash game players. Hold’em players have a wider reach than mixed-game players.

When they ask me for advice, I tell them to work on increasing their profile.

It’s a big advantage to speak English if you come from a non-English speaking country. One thing though: you need to remember recreationals are not only the lifeblood of the game, but also the people sponsors are trying to reach. I know a number of big-name pros who constantly express bewilderment that they haven’t been signed yet. When they ask me for advice, I tell them to work on increasing their profile. They usually counter that “everyone” knows them already. When asked to elaborate on who everyone is, it generally turns out they mean other pros. When suggested they might want to expand the definition to include some recreationals, they look horrified.

If you’re not interested in interacting with recreationals, this is not the gig for you.

3. Don’t be shy

It never ceases to amaze me when players express a desire to be signed or dismay at not having been already, so I ask them for their social media and they reply: “Oh I don’t do that.” That’s their prerogative, but if you want to be sponsored you must do social media. You not only do it, but you do it full-heartedly and you genuinely interact with people. There’s a handful of players who are big enough to not have to talk to people they don’t know, but the rest of us don’t really have that luxury. Here we are back to the small but loyal beats large but fickle idea.

that’s a luxury that largely disappears when you’re sponsored

Players who are seen as relatable and approachable are more valuable. There’s no easy hack for this: it really helps if you enjoy engaging with people, as I do. I get about 50 random messages from people I only know from social media a day and try to answer them all (if I don’t it means I probably missed it so feel free to ping me). I enjoy talking to people at live events and I also enjoy sitting there silently focusing on the game, but that’s a luxury that largely disappears when you’re sponsored. If you don’t think you’d enjoy that sort of attention, or don’t think you can find the time to answer a guy who wants your opinion on a hand he just played, the life of the sponsored pro may not be for you. 

Which brings me to…

Think about who you are representing

I personally would never represent a brand I found reprehensible or a product I felt to be lacking. Not everyone feels the same and think they’d happily shill for anyone if the price was right. But this isn’t a purely ethical question. If you represent a brand that is unpopular or does unpopular things that piss players off, they will tell you.

They will associate you with the actions of your sponsor. They may berate you about them on social media or at the table. Several of my friends signed up to join brands they believed in, but lived to regret it when an unpopular change of direction brought the condemnation of their peers. Others signed up to brands they didn’t really believe in and instantly regretted it. So at the very least ask a few more questions than just “How much?” and “Where do I sign?”

Now, if you will excuse me, I have about 50 messages I have to answer….