If you’ve seen the likes of Breaking Bad star Aaron Paul, NBA great Paul Pierce, skateboarding legend Tony Hawk, 90210 star Jennie Garth, former UFC champ Tito Ortiz, or Star Wars star John Boyega at a major poker event over the last few years, you’ve seen the result of the hard work of Traci Szymanski.
Unlike those celebs, Szymanski isn’t a household name but that’s mostly by design. She’s spent the better part of the last decade working behind the scenes, matching up Hollywood heavyweights with poker tournaments and expanding the reach of charity poker tournaments at the same time. She was working in Hollywood managing talent when one day her phone rang.
“By chance ten or eleven years ago, I got called to work on a couple poker events, celebrity charity poker events, and I had absolutely no idea about poker or how the game was played or any connection to poker at that time,” Szymanski remembers. “Now I understand the game and now I know how to play. I think it’s just a perfect match.”
It was 2008, Szymanski was working for a talent agency in Los Angeles and PokerStars was hosting a party at the World Series of Poker and wanted to have some celebrities in attendance. She booked that event and has held on to PokerStars as one of her core clients ever since. She’s become the go-to person that can bridge the gap between the poker world and celebrities for anybody looking to do it. Black Friday created a period of uncertainty with one of her biggest clients, PokerStars, but she saw actually saw it as an opportunity to increase the amount of time she was spending working with poker events.
“There was that lull with the poker companies and I thought, ‘Wait, I like this and I think poker’s a great tool to combine with the different charities I support and helping them to raise money’,” Szymanski says.
Over the next few years, she coordinated numerous charity poker events for some of her clients, including one with Sopranos star James Gandolfini. Now she says she’s busy answering calls instead of making them.
“I’m in a really good place in my career where I’m not really contacting anybody,” Szymanski says. “The majority of the time companies are coming to me looking for partnerships with celebrities or looking to bring attention to something or build their brand or whatever and then I’m pairing the celebrities with it.”
Her time working behind the scenes has also introduced her to some of her closest friends and opened up business opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t have been there. She’s working with Kevin Hart on a TV poker product that she thinks could debut later this year. Being able to consistently deliver a quality product to the companies or charities that hire her, while also keeping celebrities happy, is one reason Szymanski believes she’s been so successful.
“People just like to work with people they can trust, for one, and two, that they enjoy being around, Szymanski says. “It’s about the experience and the people you’re around and being positive and being fun. And there are so many heavy things going on in the world, the last thing you wanna do is bring somebody out to anything that’s not gonna be enjoyable”
That’s not to say there aren’t challenges though. Often times Szymanski will hear from a company or event with unrealistic expectations about what’s possible.
“There are very few, at this point, A-list celebrities that are passionate about poker, that absolutely love the game, that are willing to put their name and face on it and promote the game,” Szymanski says. “So that’s one obstacle when people are coming to me and everybody wants Brad Pitt to play poker and I’m like, ‘Brad Pitt’s not gonna come out, he’s just not, he’s not unless there’s a reason for him to come out’.”
Another issue is budget. Celebrities always come with a cost attached and Szymanski finds people often don’t realize that there’s more to getting talent out to an event that just an appearance fee. Making sure her clients are happy makes it easy for her to book them again and again. Then there’s the issue of making sure the celebrity can actually play poker.
“I have had celebrities that are just worried about making a fool out of themselves because they aren’t that strong of a player and it’s new to them,” Szymanski says. “So I think it’s just confidence level, somebody feeling comfortable to go and sit down, especially if there’s gonna be press covering it, nobody wants to look dumb.”
After working in the industry for over a decade, Szymanski believes she can help the game grow by allowing her celebrities to introduce the game to as wide of an audience as possible.
“I do think poker does have room to grow,” Szymanski says. “I still see the doors opening to a wider demographic and that’s something I think the poker world needs to work on.”