GammonLife.com asked these and other questions to Stephen Pearson, Managing Director of Player International Ltd, the company that is organizing the PartyGammon Million backgammon tournament in The Bahamas this coming January.
GammonLife - Hi Stephen, thank you for accepting to be interviewed by GammonLife, please tell us a little about your background?
Stephen Pearson - I am 40 years old and have worked for 18 years in international media and sports marketing. I grew up in Yorkshire and studied in London and France and hold business degrees in English and French.
My first job was in international media, buying advertising for brands like Nike and Calvin Klein. I then helped set up the European advertising sales division of the Discovery Channel.
I was invited to go and work for UEFA’s sponsorship agency in Lucerne, Switzerland after Nike became one of the first sponsors of the UEFA Champions League football event. For five years I sold global television rights, sponsorships and organised events all around Europe including Russia.
I was appointed the first-ever Commercial Director of the English FA Premier League in 1997 and centrally negotiated sponsorship deals for the top 20 clubs in England.
In 2000, I started my own business which was called Sportacus which focussed on sports marketing deals and consultancy. My sports company is now called Sports Media Gaming Limited and operates out of London.
GammonLife - How did you become interested in backgammon?
Stephen Pearson - I started playing backgammon on holiday when I was younger and then in 1997 started to play quite a lot with a friend of mine who is Danish - he gave me some “costly” lessons in the game. Over the next couple of years I became somewhat addicted to the game, playing many often with friends whenever possible.
I started to play online also but still prefer the face to face challenges!
GammonLife - How have you done at live tournaments?
Stephen Pearson - I have won several events at private clubs in London and the biggest international event I won was the Omar Sharif backgammon tournament in London in April 2005 which is for a major charity called One To One Children’s Fund of which I have also helped organise sponsorship for over the last few years. It was pleasing to win but I am still hoping to enter and do well in a major international tournament.
GammonLife - How did you come up with the idea of a million-dollar event?
Stephen Pearson - I was playing backgammon with a friend at a club in London and we were musing over the lack of commercialisation in the game of backgammon. That got me thinking and with my experiences in sports marketing I envisaged that perhaps I could try to do something to change the situation.
I visited the World Backgammon Championships in Monaco in July 2003 and it struck me that firstly that the prize money was low for a World Champion (approximately $80,000) and second you wouldn’t know there was a world event taking place in the hotel until you were in the actual playing rooms on the lower floor at the back of the hotel.
I decided then and there that we would create a Million-Dollar Backgammon Tournament. Of course the thought was a whole lot easier than I expected, compared to the challenges that would come over the next three years!
GammonLife - How did you manage to realise your dream?
Stephen Pearson - I was like a dog with a bone. All I had was an idea. I had no software and no sponsor and had heard of previous failed attempts to organise a Million-Dollar event.
I met many online gaming companies, backgammon servers and potential sponsors, all of whom at the start believed that backgammon was still in its infancy and many of them were busy focusing on their cash cow Poker.
Anyway, I compiled a business plan that looked at developing many commercial concepts in backgammon and I managed to raise money to create a team of people to help develop the project.
My first job was to seek a venue and I secured the famous Atlantis Resort in The Bahamas. The reason for this was that it was the “home” of backgammon for the World Championships prior to moving to its current home in Monaco. Also the resort would provide a great exotic backdrop for the event. It reminded me about when I first started playing backgammon on the beach when I was younger.
Michael Strato soon came on board and has been with me ever since. What an asset he has been to this business! I also hired an additional team of designers and marketing assistants to help develop the project.
After endless meetings and false promises with other potential sponsors, our company Player International Ltd was delighted when PartyGaming PLC approached us to express interest to be involved and in February 2005 the deal was struck. We had realised our dream and had a sponsor to guarantee the million dollars, help with the marketing and secure a major TV production company to film the event.
GammonLife - Tell us about your company Player International Ltd.
Stephen Pearson - The company is called Player International Ltd, it is based in London and has a team that is full-time in London. We have international consultants such as Michael Strato who is based in Montreal, Canada. Our design team is here in London. I am assisted by Miss Susana Major, a Portuguese national who also speaks three other languages including French and English. Our Chairman is Tor Svensson, also a backgammon enthusiast who is of Danish origin and therefore understands the popularity of the game from his home town of Copenhagen where it enjoys huge popularity.
GammonLife - Tell us more about the million-dollar tournament event?
Stephen Pearson - The event is now called the PartyGammon Million.
Between the 21st January and the 25th January 2007, 128 players will compete for a minimum guaranteed prize pool of one million dollars. The number of players is capped in the first year to 128, and 50% will qualify online and 50% by buying in directly. Most of the details can be seen on our website about the event but if we have a full house of 128 players then the winner will take home over $600,000! But no matter what happens the Million is guaranteed, ensuring $500,000 minimum to the winner.
The tournament also includes a Consolation event with significant prize money available.
Our tournament director is Howard Markowitz from the Nevada Backgammon Association with over 25 years experience in the game.
The event will be filmed for television and is guaranteed to receive global distribution on major TV channels, thus promoting the game of backgammon in a positive fashion.
Amongst the competitors will be world class backgammon players and international celebrities ensuring a fantastic event.
Players should reserve their seats early since 128 participants is the maximum!
GammonLife - What other plans do you have in backgammon?
Stephen Pearson - We are currently working on many exciting plans in backgammon and we will reveal news about them all exclusively on Gammonlife.com!
GammonLife - Which player do you respect most in Backgammon?
Stephen Pearson - I have met many people over the last few years in the game of backgammon. From a playing perspective I have seen many styles and witnessed some great games. The two key players I have had the pleasure of meeting in person are Paul Magriel who gave me a signed copy of his book “Backgammon” recently in Monaco and also Mike Svobodny who seems to have an aura around him when he plays, very calm and collected, even when playing for high stakes!
GammonLife - Do think that backgammon can ever be as big as poker?
Stephen Pearson - I have been asked this question many times. Personally I believe that there are many more backgammon players around the world than poker players. Aside from high stakes players, it seems most people have a board somewhere at home or play for fun when on holiday.
The media has created a social phenomenon with poker – big prize money, celebrity players and consecutive world champions who qualified online have created a massive market for the game.
With backgammon I am sure it will grow tremendously. The PartyGammon Million event is the biggest ever prize money in the history of the game and of course if an online qualifier wins the event, then that will drive people in masses to the backgammon sites as it did with poker.
Let’s wait and see. I am looking forward to handing a cheque to the winner of the PartyGammon Million on the January 25, 2007 and will then reflect on what a mammoth task it has been to stage such an event, but I will be happy for myself but also happy that backgammon is about to be recognised as the great game it is, once more!