Station Casinos-owned Ultimate Poker, which has yet to launch its pay-to-play website in Nevada, has a brand ambassador.
The company, which has been licensed by state gaming regulators but is waiting for approval of its technology by testing laboratories, announced Tuesday that it has signed poker champion Antonio Esfandiari to promote the website.
Esfandiari has made a name for himself behind the microphone as a commentator for ESPN’s coverage of the World Series of Poker and at the tables for his victories on the World Poker Tour.
He made his biggest splash last summer when he won a record poker jackpot of $18.3 million in capturing the World Series of Poker’s $1 million buy-in “Big One for One Drop” at the Rio.
In a statement, Ultimate Poker Chairman Tom Breitling said Esfandiari is the first professional poker player to represent a U.S.-licensed online poker company.
“Antonio is the ultimate champion and modern poker player,” Breitling said. “He brings the gaming lifestyle to the online arena with his work-hard, play-hard attitude.”
In an interview, Breitling said the company is working closely with Nevada gaming regulators with a goal of becoming one of the first poker websites to go live in the state.
“This process is being taken very seriously and we’re working as hard as we can to be ready,” Breitling said.
Having Esfandiari on board gives Ultimate Poker a well-recognized professional player endorsement, Breitling said.
Brian Balsbaugh, the CEO of Poker Royalty, a Las Vegas-based firm that manages the careers of poker players, said the Esfandiari deal with Ultimate Poker would be the first of many similar marketing agreements that U.S. websites could sign with professional players.
Balsbaugh, who helped put together the deal, said Ultimate Poker’s marketing strategy mirrors the former marketing strategies of PokerStars and Full Tilt. The companies, combined, held 75 percent of the online poker market before access to Americans was cut off in a federal government crackdown on Internet poker almost two years ago.
“History has proven the one clear way to attract new poker players is through professional endorsement,” Balsbaugh said. “I think we will see that strategy used with success again in the U.S. online poker market.”
Esfandiari is ranked No. 1 for all-time tournament poker winnings in the world thanks to his victory in the “Big One for One Drop.” His career earnings total $23 million.
Esfandiari has won two World Poker Tour titles and three World Series of Poker individual event championship bracelets.
Ultimate Poker is a brand created by Ultimate Gaming. The company is majority owned by Station Casinos. Ultimate Poker also is the online poker brand for Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Contact reporter Howard Stutz at hstutz@reviewjournal. com or 702-477-3871. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.