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A Poker Life: Nolan Dalla

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Feb 05, 2014


Imagine finishing runner-up in a winner-take-all tournament. That would be brutal, right? Now imagine doing this over and over again, almost every week of the year. That’s life in the world of poker media.

Poker players complain about 12-hour days, rake, blind structures and payouts, but rarely do they endure a tournament from start to finish, and those that do are handsomely rewarded. Poker reporters get there early, stay late, and wrap everything up neatly for the world to see without ever sniffing the prize pool.

As a result, the turnover rate among poker journalists is high. The army of bloggers that descend upon Las Vegas each summer consist of a handful of seasoned veterans, but the vast majority are college interns tackling their first assignment. You could say that poker reporting is a young man’s game.

Just don’t say that to Nolan Dalla, media director for the World Series of Poker. The 51-year-old has been chronicling poker history for the last two decades and working behind the scenes on poker’s biggest stage.

Here’s a look at one of the most battle-tested poker personalities on the felt today.

Life Before Poker

Dalla was born in Dallas, Texas. His father worked as an air traffic controller for the FAA. His mother worked for Bell Telephone.

“I was very lucky because my mother gave me a strong sense of discipline,” he recalled. “I had my daily chores to do and obviously I hated it at the time, but later I realized just how important those things are. My father also gave me a couple of important lessons. The first was a sense of adventure because he loved to travel. The second was an intellectual curiosity and the need to constantly learn and discover more. Even though they got divorced when I was very young, I had a great upbringing from both sides.”

After attending the University of Texas and obtaining a bachelor’s degree in political science, Dalla set out to change the world.

“I was very idealistic about the world,” he admitted. “Maybe that’s naive, but I think it’s important to keep that flame alive and keep pushing for something better. Without a sense of idealism, there’s nothing to strive for.”

Dalla was drawn to Washington D.C., where he worked for the State Department, the Turkish Embassy, and even for the U.S. Senate. Though he briefly considered a career as a politician, Dalla’s outspoken personality kept him out of the running. (He once finished fourth in a four-person race for city council.) However, he strongly believed that he could impact change in other ways.

“Change comes slowly — one voice, one article and or one conversation at a time,” said Dalla. “Change isn’t a macro-movement. They say all politics is local and I believe it. It’s incremental. It’s about standing for something and then fighting for it. As long as you do that, you can always be proud. I’ve held a lot of very interesting jobs. I noticed very early on that it was important, not necessarily to do something you love, but at least to do something that you find interesting. That way, you always stay motivated.”

In 1988, Dalla’s work for the State Department took him to the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest, Romania. It was there that he witnessed the overthrow of Communist ruler Nicolae Ceausescu and the fall of the Iron Curtain. He also met his future wife, Marieta.

“It was one of the most exciting times in my life, by far. You can’t imagine what it’s like to see an entire nation liberated all at once. To put it in poker terms, it’s like watching 23 million people win the World Series of Poker main event.”

Poker Beginnings

Dalla returned with his wife to D.C. in 1992, where an old passion for gambling manifested itself in poker.

“I’m not sure of the psychological reasons behind it, but I’ve gambled for as long as I can remember any conscious thought,” he admitted. “I don’t say that to brag or glorify gambling. It’s just the truth. I just think gambling is essential to life, whether you are doing it by starting your own business, climbing a mountain, or throwing dice. It’s about the challenge of the great unknown and overcoming the odds, because the odds are usually against us.”

In 1993, Atlantic City legalized live poker. Though he’d always played poker recreationally, the games were so soft that Dalla began to make the trip nearly every weekend.

“The players back then were horrible. It wasn’t because I was smarter or more experienced, they were just so bad that I was able to make a significant amount of money on the side. I wasn’t making a lot of money working in government, so the extra income was important in an expensive city like Washington. Obviously, it led me to where I am today.”

Later that year, Dalla’s first poker column appeared in the September edition of Card Player Magazine. It would later prove to be the first of many.

Viva Las Vegas

For years, Dalla frequented the Atlantic City poker games, wrote various columns in numerous poker publications and continued to work in government. Then, the events of Sept. 11, 2001 gave him the nudge he needed to make a daring decision.

“I was living in a condo that overlooked the Pentagon,” Dalla recalled. “That morning, I heard an explosion from the ninth-floor and was able to witness that life-changing experience first-hand. At the time, I was already leaning towards moving to Las Vegas. Maybe it was because I wasn’t having as much of an impact on the political scene as I wanted to or maybe it was just a mid-life crisis, but after that, we decided to take a gamble of our own and make the move.”

Dalla arrived in Las Vegas with no work plans whatsoever. He had done well enough in the cash games that he made the move with the intention of just playing poker and betting sports. He initially put in a ton of hours, playing everyday, but a proposition from Nick Behnen, the colorful co-owner of Binion’s Horseshoe and husband of Becky Behnen Binion, proved to be too good to refuse.

“He said, ‘I’ll tell you what. You can gamble on the job, you can drink on the job and I’ll pay you a base salary of $50,000 a year.’ So, of course, I took it. Who wouldn’t? I’d like to pretend that I saw what the future held for me and made a calculated move, but the truth is that I was just living in the moment. It was just another example of me being in the right place at the right time.”

Dalla was something of a VIP Host and also served as public relations director for the casino and, of course, the World Series of Poker.

Blessed with an eye for history in the making, Dalla oversaw the growth of the WSOP brand to the poker boom and beyond. The series relocated to the Rio All-Suites Hotel and Casino in 2005 and Dalla went with it as media director. His first summer saw a main event field of 631 players. His most recent in 2013 saw a turnout of 6,352.

A Poker Jack Of All Trades

In addition to documenting the summer’s bracelet winners for over a decade, Dalla also traveled the WSOP Circuit for nine seasons, helping to increase the popularity of one of poker’s first dedicated minor league systems. During that span, he covered more than a thousand tournaments. In addition to Card Player, he has written for Gambling Times, Poker Pages, Poker Player Magazine, and Poker Digest. In 2006, he and Peter Alson penned the best-seller One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey “The Kid’ Ungar,” The World’s Greatest Poker Player.

But perhaps Dalla is best known for creating Card Player’s Player of the Year award in 1996, an honor given to the best player on the tournament circuit each year.

“I take great pride in that because I think it gave the game some continuity it was lacking,” he explained. “Before, a tournament would end and you’d forget about the winner a week later. Now, we have a benchmark of excellence which not only gives the players something to strive for, but also serves as a way of legitimizing the game for outsiders, because they are able to see the same names over and over again, proving that it’s a game of skill.”

Though he’s left his mark on many things in the poker world, Dalla doesn’t want to rest on laurels.

“I don’t ever go back and replay the tape,” he explained. “I don’t even go back and reread my old articles. I’m not the kind of person that attends high school reunions. That’s all in the past. I think that your energy needs to be focused on the here and now and the future.”

Most recently, Dalla took a position as the creative director for a new televised poker show that he hopes will take the game to the next level.

“I look forward to every summer like it’s Christmas morning. At the same time, I came upon what I think is a game-changing opportunity to work with a new television venture called Poker Night In America. I think we’ve only just scratched the surface on how we can present the game to the mainstream. Many of the things that make poker appealing to us haven’t been broadcast effectively before. The challenge is to perhaps reinvent the wheel a little bit. We want to show the game, show the drama, talk about the strategy and showcase the personalities that keep the audience coming back for more. We’ve done three events so far, and we have another three or four in the coming months. Later this year, you’ll see Poker Night In America make its televised debut.”

Moving Forward

Dalla’s unbridled confidence in his new project reflects his opinion that the poker industry’s best days could still be ahead, despite what some naysayers assert is a decline in popularity.

“Anybody who says that poker is flat or dying out, I’d invite them to get out more and go to Maryland, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and all the other major casino markets that have sprouted up only recently in the last few years. Poker is alive and well and has an incredibly bright future.”

He continued, making his case that there are at least three poker booms looming in the foreseeable future.

“The first is a game-changing, dynamic new show that audiences find irresistible. The second is a woman winning the WSOP main event. The third is poker expanding into major markets such as India or China. So you can call that optimistic, but I still see a lot of growth opportunities for the industry. Hopefully it happens sooner rather than later.” ♠