A Sideshow No Longer: Tony Dunst Takes His Seat in WPT's Big Chair
Sometime next spring, loyal World Poker Tour fans will tune into the WPT Choctaw broadcast on Fox Sports and might be a little bit startled, not so much by what they see, but rather what they hear. After serving as the lead commentator and de facto voice of the WPT for 15 seasons, Mike Sexton retired before the start of Season 16.
When it came to filling that void, WPT executives and producers didn't have to look far. Tony Dunst, who had been hosting The Raw Deal segment during WPT broadcasts since 2010, was ready and willing to take on the challenge. So when Season 16 begins airing in 2018, with action from WPT Choctaw as the first televised event, it’ll be Dunst working alongside Sexton’s longtime broadcast partner, Vince van Patten.
WORKING FOR PEANUTS
Choctaw, Oklahoma is approximately 850 miles from Madison, Wisconsin, but the same city that gave the world Phil Hellmuth, is actually where Dunst’s journey to the WPT commentary booth began. It’s where Dunst grew up, and looking back now at his childhood, he knows he was different from the other kids in a lot of ways.
“I was definitely a very weird kid. I would get obsessive about things to a degree that was sort of unnatural for a kid,” said Dunst. “In high school, for example, I got very obsessive about dieting and lifting, and I would eat the same 4-5 meals every day for months on end, to the point that my friends would tease me.”
None of the teasing ever really bothered Dunst. He was hyper-aware that his approach to learning new things or conquering goals was different than most of his peers and he had a gut feeling early on that, even though he didn’t know which direction it would ultimately take, he was going to have a very unique career path.
“Even back then, I had an ability to focus on things in a very singular way, and I also remember thinking pretty early on in life that the usual 9-5 job, with a boss, a sort of ‘more safe’ career, was not for me,” said Dunst. “I can remember thinking that at a very young age.”
Like a lot of kids, he grew up dreaming of being a professional athlete of some sort. And like most kids, he eventually realized he wasn’t a good enough athlete for that to ever become a reality. He worked some part-time jobs through high school and they ended up shaping his thinking towards what he wanted to do with his life - or maybe more importantly, what he didn’t want to do.
“I started working at 13, selling peanuts at the stadium, and then I worked at Subway making sandwiches and then I sold shoes in the mall,” said Dunst. “All these kinds of jobs where you’re getting $5 or $6 an hour, and being told what to do by the people above you, and I was like, ‘Man, there’s gotta be something better than this’.”
Even though he didn’t want to pursue a corporate-type job, early on he toyed with the idea of becoming a stockbroker. Admittedly, Dunst says he was attracted to the risk involved, but also the potential for making enough money to afford a certain type of lifestyle. Nice suits. A nice car. All of that good stuff.
LUNCH MONEY TO BIG MONEY
While the money would certainly have been nice, the Wall Street dream came with too many rules and too many bosses. He never really pursued it after he realized that didn’t fit with his personality. His desire for a high risk-high reward career never wavered though.
“When I was 16, I was reading books about blackjack and card counting and became absorbed in the casino world and stories about gamblers,” said Dunst. “At 17, poker started to become popular, the World Poker Tour came on TV and my friends always wanted to play these home games.”
With buy-ins of just $5 and $10, it’s hard to imagine these high school home games were anything but buddies just trading the same money back and forth, week after week, but Dunst figured out very quickly that he was doing pretty well in these games. Tony Dunst the Home Game Crusher was making way more money than Tony Dunst the Sandwich Artist and having way more fun than Tony Dunst the Shoe Salesman.
It was 2002, and online poker was in its infancy. Chris Moneymaker was still doing the books for some restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee and the world was over a year away from the Boom. Dunst was already playing online poker though. He discovered sites like Paradise Poker and Planet Poker while looking up poker strategy online.
“I had already started to buy strategy books, and was really curious as to how you win at this game. Back then most people were just playing for fun, it was just kind of a ‘mess around’ type thing,” said Dunst, who began winning online almost immediately. “Early online poker was pretty laughable at the low stakes.”
Even though Dunst, by this time a senior in high school, had found an early version of his personal utopia, his parents still had expectations that Dunst would get a college education.
“My parents were, of course, concerned that being a professional gambler was not a realistic career choice,” said Dunst, who attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he majored in theater arts. Dunst eventually dropped out of college to play full time. To say his parents didn’t approve would be an understatement.
“They were terrified, of course, and I think a lot of players in my generation experienced that and it created some riffs in the relationships between players my age and their parents at times,” admitted Dunst.
Getting his parents to change their mind wasn’t easy, but Dunst simply relied on the obsessive nature he first displayed as a teenager. That, combined with a little help from PocketFives, got them to come around.
“I just kept playing for years and they just sort of grew to accept it,” said Dunst. “I eventually had such consistent success online that my mom would see the results on PocketFives and would send me a message, ‘I saw you won that tournament for $20,000. That’s great!’.”
It was around that time that another opportunity, one that looked and felt more like a real job than anything he’d ever really had, came along. Despite Dunst’s previous dislike of a corporate job, he pursued this one with vigor.
“The last nail in the coffin was getting the job with the World Poker Tour, because then it wasn’t just ‘you’re a gambler relying on this very unstable form of income. Now you’ve turned it into a career’,” said Dunst.
Dunst’s Raw Deal hosting job almost didn’t happen though. In 2010, while trying to revamp their weekly shows, the WPT put out an open casting call for a new segment. They were looking for somebody who could dissect hands on camera in an entertaining and edgy way. Dunst was definitely interested, but had a scheduling conflict that meant he couldn’t get to the live audition that the finalists were asked to attend. The WPT was keen on Dunst though, and made arrangements for him to come in a week later and audition on his own. He nailed it.
“It was the first audition I ever went out for. It was the first job interview I ever had pretty much my entire adult life,” said Dunst. Hosting the Raw Deal meant being willing to critique other people’s play, a challenge he was more than willing to accept thanks his extensive playing experience. “I tried out for that job at 25, so I had already been in poker for eight years. I’d played a lot online and live. I hadn’t been that successful live but, especially in my early 20s, I thought I was hot shit. So, I probably walked in there feeling like, ‘of course I belong here’.”
Over the next seven years, Dunst become a valued member of not only the broadcasts, but also of the WPT organization. Through all of it, Dunst learned that while he probably wasn’t cut out to be a stockbroker riding the subway to get to the office for 7 am, he enjoyed working with others and creating something unique.
“I learned how much I enjoy collaborating with other people. I liked the social element of having a job,” said Dunst. “I enjoyed the creative process of watching this footage and saying ‘Okay, how are we going to turn a poker hand into enjoyable or funny commentary?’ How do you highlight something interesting about the decisions these people are making, be they positive or negative, and do it in a way that your casual viewer is going to both enjoy and understand.”
Along with doing the the Raw Deal segments, which he shot in studio in Los Angeles, Dunst also handled commentary on some of the live streams that WPT did at various events. While it gave Dunst exposure to an even bigger audience, it also allowed him even more opportunities to work with the WPT producers and talent.
“You’re working in an environment where you’re all working towards a common goal, a shared goal with your co-workers,” said Dunst. “You’re relationship with those people is going to be as important to your success in that endeavor as the product or commentary that you create.”
None of this meant that Dunst stopped playing poker though. Just the opposite. He continued to travel the world, and even began playing more WPT events. He posted his first WPT cash in the Five Diamond Poker Classic in 2011, finishing 18th in what is one of the toughest fields of the year. Then he final-tabled the Jacksonville bestbet Open, finishing fifth.
He posted another pair of cashes during the next season before pulling off the dream scenario. In November 2013, Dunst, who played online under the name ‘Bond18’ made the final table of the WPT Caribbean event at a hotel named ‘Casino Royale’ - the name of the Bond film where the super spy finds himself playing high stakes poker. He went on to win the event, adding a signature win to his resume and $145,000 to his bankroll.
He continued to add to that resume by making back-to-back final tables of the WPT Championship event in Atlantic City, finishing third in 2014 and sixth in 2015. All told, Dunst has cashed in 11 WPT main tour events, earning $984,779. He's also had success outside of the WPT, including a World Series of Poker win in 2016. That came just over five months after he finished runner-up in the Aussie Millions Main Event. His career earnings now sit at $2.9 million.
A WISE INVESTMENT
While the Raw Deal gig helped him convince his parents that he’d made the right career choice, it also gave him valuable experience that wound up paying off later. While each segment was only a couple of minutes long, the time it took to film each one gave Dunst time to get comfortable working with the lights and cameras bearing down on him.
“Speaking on camera is something that you gradually get better at over time. You learn to not let your eyes move down on a teleprompter. You speak more coherently, more smoothly. You learn the timing,” said Dunst. “It can be tempting when you first start speaking on camera, to talk really fast. You have to calm your nerves. And that dissipated over time.”
Dunst isn’t quite sure how many Raw Deal segments he filmed over the years, but estimates it’s close to 150. That means there were at least that many players whose play Dunst was publicly critical of. Being candid and critical, knowing that he’d be talking to those players at some point on tour is also something he’s taking with him to his new role.
“(The Raw Deal) was great practice, both the collaborative process of working with other people, but also understanding the nuance of interacting with players after you do commentary or criticism of them,” said Dunst. “That’s going to be important, because in these events, I’m in the fields, I’m hanging around at the events, I have to have relationships with these players, and then I’m expected to critique them at a very sensitive time for them.”
The days of micro-analyzing and critiquing just a single hand from every final table are over for Dunst. Working alongside van Patten as commentator means he’s going to be calling the action now and making sure the viewers at home know exactly what’s happening at all times and what it means as the final table plays down to a champion.
“It’s more of a play-by-play (role) now. I think it’s pretty hard to make a deep dive in strategy when we’re trying to keep the action moving on the show, and it’s just not my responsibility the way it was with the Raw Deal,” said Dunst.
Stepping into a role that a Poker Hall of Famer and one of poker’s greatest ambassadors held for a long time isn’t something Dunst did lightly. Having already established himself on the broadcasts made the decision to take the new job even easier - but some kind words from Sexton also put Dunst at ease.
During a WPT dinner honoring Sexton, he went out of his way to make sure the WPT staff in attendance knew that Dunst was ready for the new role.
“He just had some very kind, encouraging words, which he said publicly in front of a lot of people,” remembered Dunst. “He said, ‘WPT has nothing to worry about - they’re in really good hands with Tony’.”
While calling the action of every televised WPT final table is the nitty gritty of the job, Dunst has been around long enough to know that filling Sexton’s shoes involves much more than getting the suits of the cards on the flop, turn and river right every time. He has a legacy to live up to.
“I think it adds some pressure to uphold the image of an ambassador that Mike projected so well in his time with the World Poker Tour,” said Dunst. “I think that if you’re going to have that role with the WPT, I think there is an expectation that you will always portray poker in a positive light.”
With that in mind, Dunst plans on being at as many WPT events as he can - including the non-televised variety. Even making appearances at WPT National or WPTDeepStacks events is something Dunst plans to do, if only to give him an opportunity to mix it up with poker players and fans at all levels.
“I think also being willing to to share your experiences in the poker world is important in this role as part of the standard that Mike set,” said Dunst. “Coming after somebody with the presence of Mike Sexton is a challenge in a way, but on the plus side, Mike himself, the WPT, the players, they’ve all helped make this transition feel pretty natural and welcoming for me.”
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Inside the WPT itself is where Dunst sees his third and final transition that comes with the new job. If the Raw Deal gig cast Dunst as the cool big brother in the WPT family, being the commentator means it’s time to take on something bigger.
“My role in the family is a little more in a position of leadership I guess you would say now,” said Dunst. “I think that just being present for almost everything that we do is really important. Even if I don’t have a very active role in whatever that activity is, or the event is that day, being present when you’re in my position is really important.”
More visibility on the broadcasts, an expectation of ambassadorship in the poker industry, and a position of leadership within the walls of the WPT is a lot for anybody to take on. When Dunst was offered the job, he embraced everything that came with it. All to live out a fantasy he had as a high schooler watching the WPT on TV while beating his friends in those $5 and $10 home games.
“It’s one of, if not the best position in the entire poker industry. I watched this show when I was a kid. Back then I was like, ‘Oh I hope I can be on the WPT one day as a player’. As a host, seemed almost too good to be true,” said Dunst. “I enjoy this kind of work, I enjoy this type of role. I knew what taking it meant. And I felt like, I already live out of a suitcase and just hang out at poker tournaments all the time. So if you want to pay me to do it, no problem, man.”Photos provided by World Poker Tour and Joe Giron/