Tony Dunst has recently replaced Mike Sexton as the voice of the WPT. For him, moving into Mike Sexton’s departed seat is the culmination of years of work.
Interview by Gaelle Jaudon
Somuchpoker: You’ve been doing the commentary and also hosting the WPT event since 2010, but you were also blogging before that and posting a lot on 2+2. What drove you to be on both sides of the poker industry?
Tony Dunst: I got my start being active online, doing blogging, being a participant on 2+2, etc. That helped me connect with the poker industry and the people. A lot of us are coming from backgrounds where we’re the only serious players in our locality, and we made our friends online and then met them in person when we travelled to tournaments. Getting started with the WPT was almost by chance to be honest. I heard about an audition through my agents in 2010, and I went for it. I found I really enjoyed having a job, and it was obviously a great position to have found myself in. I embraced that and continued working in the industry. But I’d been playing for a living for like 5 or 6 years before entering the WPT. I’ve been playing since 2002, so before Moneymaker won the WSOP.
SMP: I heard that it was a really huge national audition to get that job?
TD: Yeah, especially among American poker players. They know the WPT brand very well. It’s something that my generation grew up with; they introduced the game to so many of us, to our friends and our families, etc., so to get the position to eventually become what Mike Sexton did within the American poker community was seen as a major stepping stone.
SMP: You quickly became a recognized face in the poker community. Did you ever feel that being on TV sometimes kept you from being considered fully as a professional player because you were also seen as a media personality?
TD: Yeah, it’s interesting. I will put it like this: I think that a lot of players are really invested in being thought of as excellent poker players. In terms of their identity, it’s very important to them. For me, I always saw poker more like a game I enjoy and can make money at. It’s a cool way to make a living, and I don’t believe that I’ll ever be among the best players. I met those guys, and I saw how they play poker and the way they think, and I thought I was not that good. So it didn’t really bother me if people were saying I wasn’t a real player and just a commentator. I always thought, ok cool, being a commentator is cool, and that works for me!
SMP: How did you deal with the fame that comes with being in the spotlight? As with every community, I guess it’s not always an easy thing?
TD: Well, I think that when you’re playing and you’re around casinos and other players, it’s important to keep a cool head. It’s important to be polite and welcoming to other players, especially the new ones. I have a kind of ambassador position, so it’s really important to keep a positive mindset about poker, the industry, the game, the way you treat other players or the staff, etc. You have to make everyone feel welcome, but it can also be a little claustrophobic at times. You’re obviously very well known within a room of poker players, and if you’re all staying in a casino together, you bump into people all day long, and you have to talk to people all day long. So there is a sort of lack of privacy because of the immediacy with all the people you work with. But also I knew how that would go, and for the most part people are very nice and just want to chitchat about poker, and it’s not a problem anyway. I usually enjoy table talk, and I always try to be positive; most people are really friendly.
SMP: There are some funny facts about you. You wore a suit at the final table of the WPT Saint-Marteen, and your online nickname is Bond18. Was it one of your wishes to be seen as the classy, outspoken, James Bond-style player?
TD: Yeah, I used to watch those movies in high school, and when you’re 18 and you have to make your online poker name and the only place you’ve ever seen poker played a lot was in James Bond movies…so I was just like, ok sweet! And wearing suits was sort of both a fashion choice and an understanding that if I wanted to have a job and be respected by my peers, I had to recognize that people make a lot of assumptions based on what you wear and how you look. So, from a perception standpoint, it makes a lot of sense to dress well if you think that you want to be a professional some day.
SMP: What’s the accomplishment you’re the most proud of?
TD: I guess I’m most proud that after Black Friday I almost lost all the money that I had. I was pretty close to broke. I had just like $5k left, and I was pretty locked up there. But I very slowly rebuilt my bankroll until I was able to take shots and able to save money from my jobs. I had larger pieces on my tournaments and started to buy some cryptocurrencies and things like that. So I guess in a way I’m the most proud about rebuilding my bankroll without doing something incredibly reckless. I think it’s really tempting after you lose a ton of money to either get out of the game or to try to get back in all at once, and I made a point of getting it back gradually instead of forcing it.
SMP: You recently replaced Mike Sexton as the voice of the WPT. How do you feel about now being in the position of someone who has been doing it for so long and who’s such a big personality for the poker community?
TD: I grew up watching Mike at the WPT. It was really important for my introduction to the poker world. I worked with him for about 8 years there, and I can tell you that he’s a great guy to work with, and he’s unanimously respected by his peers and by the staff. He’s just somebody that, like I talked before about, always tries to maintain a nice atmosphere at the table and has always been welcoming toward the players. I think that was something that Mike embodied very well, that was always his mentality. He was professional in a way that very few poker players ever are and can never become. He just set an awesome standard, and as I told people at work when they offered me the position, I don’t believe in trying to reinvent the wheel. I have my own voice and my own style, but as far as the way you treat people and the way you act around work, I’ll just try to continue what Mike started.
SMP: I interviewed him this summer in Vegas, and he had a ton of awesome poker and gambling stories about back in the days in the 80s and 90s. He had an incredible life, and he really helped create the modern poker world as we know it today. Do you have any cool stories with him that you can share?
TD: Oh, yes, I have a good one! When I was in college, I won my first package to go play the Aussie Millions in 2005. I got this package, and it was my first poker trip. I was way more a poker fan boy than a professional player at that time, and I went to the players’ party after I busted at the tournament. I found Mike, and I was pretty drunk and told him about my bad beat story and asked what he thought about this hand. He really thought it over until he gave me his opinion about the hand, and as a fan of poker having that experience was probably more memorable than everything that happened during the tournament! I can’t even remember anything about the hands, but I very much remember meeting Mike and speaking to him at that party and the way he made me feel, even as just a casual player. I remember thinking that if I was ever in a position like Mike’s I would want to offer the same kind of kindness and attention to the casual players. Your role as an ambassador is to engage people at something they’re very passionate about.
SMP: Would you like to have the same career path? Hosting the WPT for a long time and making your whole career in the poker industry?
TD: I don’t really know. It’s hard to predict the future; it’s almost impossible to guess where you’ll be in 5 years. But I can say that I really enjoy being around the poker and the gambling community. I still enjoy playing tournaments. I think it’s hard to replicate the thrill and the feeling you get deep in a poker tournament anywhere else in your life. It’s a very unique experience to be deep in a tournament. I like working in television and collaborating with other creative types. I would like to keep doing poker stuff and working for the WPT for a long time!
SMP: Do you have new projects with the WPT? What are you working on?
TD: Right now I don’t have any particular new project with the WPT. This is the first year of my taking over Mike’s role, and I think it’s important to get the details right. That means making sure I have good chemistry with Vince, making sure I can make a “suffle up and deal” announcement smoothly, always be on time for everything that we have, etc. All those kinds of things that happen behind the scene are what make you a good professional. Regarding my personal projects, I’m kind of on the hunt for one. I’ve been talking to a lot of people lately about maybe trying to write something or film something, but to be honest I don’t have anything in particular. I do have some free time of my own, and I’m looking into things.
SMP: What’s the most difficult thing about commentating?
TD: I would say it’s making sure you keep the energy up during a full broadcast. If you’re commentating a final table, you might start the stream by 1pm with great energy but by 6 or 8pm, after hours of watching poker with (for the most part) not very much happen (just very brief episodes of action), it can be tempting to let the energy sag in your broadcasting. I think it takes a while before your realize that you need to keep a certain awareness, a certain presence going during the duration of the broadcast. That can be tough.
SMP: The public who listens to your broadcasting includes both professional players and amateurs or poker fans. You have to talk to both of them. So how do you find a balance and the right tone to keep both interested?
TD: I think with an online stream you attract a crowd that is more poker serious and poker enthusiast, and there you also have more time and space to fill, so if you want to go deep down the rabbit hole of some strategic question and concept, you just go for it. I think that’s what your audience wants to hear. Meanwhile, in television broadcasting, you’re typically doing things for time. You have a one-hour broadcast and a whole bunch of parts filled up with other segments or other personalities and action from the table. What you say needs to be said in a certain amount of time, and it needs to be said thoughtfully in a way that is consumable for your audience. I think you have to tone down the language and, specifically, the sophistication in which you speak about poker strategy. You have to try to make something that is enjoyable for your audience.
SMP: What would be the weirdest hand you ever commentated?
TD: It happened at the Borgata event in 2016, with the Colombian pro Farid Jattin. He was at the final table with Jessie Sylvia. He started the Final Table with half of the chips in play. He was kind of battling people, and Jessie was second in chips when they played that crazy hand. It went like raise, call and Farid 3bet squezzes with 54 offsuit in the small blind, and then Jessie cold 4bet AK in BB for the third of his stack. When it fell back to Farid, he just ripped in the 5bet with his 54 offsuit; then, Jessie called and won the hand. It was just the biggest blow up that I ever saw in a poker tournament.
TD: As a player yourself, does commentating also help you to improve your game?
SMP: I think that doing the online stream was really helpful for improving my game because I saw every hand played at a final table. Sometimes we would have excellent players, so you’re thinking through the situations with them; you’re getting a glimpse into the way they play in the most important scenarios that they find themselves in. Meanwhile, for television, you can’t even see all the cards, and you can’t really get the context of why the players are making the decisions that they are, so I don’t think that’s helpful in a meaningful way.
SMP: You also have very nice poker results yourself, like a WPT title and a WSOP bracelet. How do you still find time to work on your game in addition to all your other activities?
TD: Honestly, there are periods where I don’t work on my game at all. Occasionally, I send hands to somebody like Mike McDonald or Dan Smith to get their opinions or ask them to break down some concepts for me. I go through long stretches when it’s not something I necessarily work on, and then, every now and then, I worry that I’ll be left behind by the current players, so I hire somebody as a coach for a refresher, or I spend a whole bunch of time playing and send hands to my friends every single day. I’m kind of on and off with it; it’s hard to feel passionate about poker 100% of the time after playing for 15 years.
SMP: What’s the best advice you could give to people who want to follow your example and have a similar career?
TD: I would say be very careful about bankroll management and where you keep your money. Some black swan type event like the Black Friday could wipe out your money if you leave it in the wrong place.
SMP: Since you’re in both sides of the industry, what do you think poker players don’t see or don’t realize about the industry and should be more aware of?
TD: That’s interesting. I would say when it comes to the industry stuff, some poker players can be apt to call out any mistake that they see and be very quick to condemn things, and I would just say there are always people generally working hard behind the scene trying to get things right. Sometimes a person getting blamed isn’t necessarily the one making the decision on that occasion, so I would just say that poker players should be more patient with people in the industry. Generally, they are people who care a lot about poker and about running tournaments well; they want to get things right, and things can go wrong every now and then, but be patient and understanding.
SMP: What’s the thing that still bothers you the most in the poker world?
TD: Of course scummy behavior, people scamming each other, people borrowing money that they have no chance of repaying, people doing things that make poker players look bad in a very public light. Anytime a major poker company does something that’s very player unfriendly, it casts the industry in a very negative light, or when a really high-profile case of a poker player systematically scamming over backers or his friends hits the press, it makes the whole industry look bad. Those kinds of things are always very frustrating.
SMP: Among all the people you’ve gotten to meet through the years, who are the biggest characters you’ve ever met?
TD: A lot of the old school guys were incredible characters. Guys like Gavin Smith and Daniel Negreanu also come to mind, of course. Mark Vos is long forgotten, but he was an outrageous character. Guys like that, who are known for their personality as much as their poker playing. They are always interesting and fun to have at a table.
SMP: And, on a more personal aspect, who are your best poker friends?
TD: The guys like Mike McDonald, Dan Smith, Mike Watson, Scott Seiver, etc.—the high rollers sort of crew. I don’t play the same tournaments that they do, but we all came up together. Steve Silvermen and Erin Jones also; they moved on from poker, but they were serious players for a while.
SMP: What are your goals as a player?
TD: At this point? I don’t have a lot of goals left; I always wanted to win the Aussie Millions. I came pretty close! It’s like 800 people in a tournament, so you can’t just really pick one and be like “oh I want to win that one!” Really good luck for that there is 800 people in it. Winning another WPT would be great also, especially now that I’m in the main role there. I feel like that would like cement my place in the position, plus it would also be for a bunch of money. But I just want to play well and try to keep playing well as I get older and get more removed from playing full time. I would like to continue to play well, so I don’t just become a commentator.
SMP: What are your biggest events to come this year, as a broadcaster and as a player?
TD: I would say the biggest one is the LAPC at the Commerce Casino. We also have one in Florida at the Seminole Hard Rock. It will be a massive field, 4500 people, that will be televised. Then, we’re doing the Bobby Baldwin Classic in Vegas in May, which will be also be televised. I’m very excited about it!
SMP: You’ve traveled so much, and you’ve lived in many different places, like China and Australia. What did those experiences bring you or how did they change you?
TD: A lot of the initiative to start travelling was curiosity about the world. I grew up in a very small town, and everything was pretty safe there, and I was curious about what things were like around the world. I was always attracted to the travel element of playing poker for a living—that idea that you can pretty much start a life anywhere in the world when you play online, and if you have online poker or access to a casino that offers a decent size poker game, you can go ahead and do that. What I learned along the way is that despite there being a great amount of cultural differences across the world, people are just people at the end of the day. I know that sounds like a cliché, but we have so much more in common than we have apart; for the most part, people want the same things all across the world. Sometimes I see a lot of anti-other sentiment going on in the media, and my time travelling has made me feel that everyone’s pretty much the same damn thing.
Interview by Gaelle Jaudon