CC: Your photos of Stu Ungar and Doyle Brunson are particularly memorable. Tell us about the first time you met and photographed Doyle.
Ulvis: Jack "Treetop" Straus won the poker series in 1982, heads up against Dewey Tomko. Doyle Brunson was third. I photographed the action intensely and consider some of these frames to be my best. It also turned out to be my last year at the poker series. In November 1983, I got a once in a lifetime chance to return to my birthplace, Riga, Latvia and exhibit my photography. It was, of course, part of the U.S.S.R. at the time and little did I know what I was getting into. But that's another story, for another time.
I never really made a point of "meeting" the great poker players at the Horseshoe. I was a photographer covering the series and didn't play poker. I liked my "fly on the wall" (with camera) status. But, of course, it was clear what I was doing. Many of the top players bought my photographs. I even set up a little studio in my room at the Golden Nugget across the street from the Horseshoe for some portraits against a neutral white wall. I photographed Bobby Baldwin, Jack Binion, Jack "Treetop" Straus and others, but I wasn't able to lure enough players away from the poker tables to make it a complete series.
I like the photograph I took of Doyle Brunson in 1980 holding a gym bag full of money standing in the middle of Freemont Street. The amount of money Doyle was holding back then is "parking meter change" compared to the millions in prize money today. Freemont Street has a psychedelic roof to entertain the tourists, and the original neon sign reading "Binion's Horseshoe" I found abandoned at the "Neon Boneyard" in the desert with other outdated Las Vegas memorabilia.
CC: Tell us about Stu Ungar.
Ulvis: My introduction to Stu Ungar was behind my Nikon camera and a 28mm wide angle lens just inches away. I call it "the angelic Stu" shot. A stack of chips is there and he's wired for TV sound with a pin-mike in his sweater, an almost zen-like look on his face. He should be in church or a Buddhist monastery, but it's a poker table at the WSOP in 1980. And he's heads-up with Doyle Brunson at the other end of the table. There's a follow up horizontal shot, also wide, of the two champions and the entire table with a cameraman and the Binion's logo on the wall.
A late discovery of a photograph I had passed over before, but found in time to include in my book "Poker Face 2" shows Jack Binion smiling and holding his arm around Stu with eyes closed. There was a lot of people clutter to the left and right of this frame. But once the shot is cropped down, it has an eerie reminiscence for me. I was traveling to Riga in the 1990's and did not see or photograph the decline of Stu or his 3rd. WSOP win.
CC: Tell us about Poker Face 2, the sequel to your 1981 book. It covers two periods of poker that you've been involved in.
Ulvis: "Poker Face 2" (2006) evolved largely from people who were trying to locate me. Many had seen my early poker photographs in books, magazines and "Poker Face" (1981). Who is this Ulvis Alberts with these early black and white WSOP photographs? Is he still alive? I was finally "found" in 2001 by Paul Zibits from Long Beach, CA. Paul and his wife, Kimiyo play poker and are both musicians with the Orange County Symphony. Paul's also the manager of the symphony. He urged me to return to the poker scene at the Horseshoe for another look in 2002.
And I started to photograph again. I remember walking into the poker room with cameras in hand and spotting Doyle Brunson off in the corner. I walked over to his table, squeezed off a frame as he looked up and said, "where have you been?" "Riga, Latvia," I said. "Oh," he said, "Welcome back!" Nothing had changed. He looked the same as I had remembered him on film and in person. Only 20 years had passed!
I stayed in touch with Paul and he bought a dozen of my poker and Hollywood photographs for the walls of his house. I was living outside of Seattle at the time. But every year around June-July, the poker series was an event I found the time to cover.
It was also clear the series was so huge now with the television exposure, that things were rapidly changing. The "down-home atmosphere" was over. Benny was dead, "Treetop" and "Sailor" Roberts had died. Becky Binion hung in there trying to run the show, but Jack Binion was gone and it felt like no one really knew what to do. Sure, the games and pots were bigger, but let me say, it didn't feel right.
CC: How different was it for you?
Ulvis: I looked for the "moments" I had photographed before. They were still there but now multiplied by a thousand players I didn't know. ESPN dominated the scene. God forbid, if someone on the other side of the Boeing airplane hanger at the Rio, yelled "all-in!" And the charging elephants, dressed as film crews, found a kneeling photographer in the way of their destination. Or a press writer who was in the way of a large video camera panning or shotgun microphones extended to seven feet from three different locations around a poker table.
By the end of the series in 2005, I found different photographs in places that often had little to do with star poker players. I still photographed the stars, of course. But "final tables" including the "final table" at the "big one" - the 10K event held little interest for me. Why should it? Everyone with a camera would be there crowded and sweating out the hours of elimination. I had nothing to contribute with a battered film camera in an age of digital and instant photography.
And in 2005, the idea of "Poker Face 2" was born. The ultimate limited edition book boxed in leather, 25th Anniversary fine art hardcover book, signed and numbered, only 2,000 copies. No bookstores. No paperbacks. It would cover my photography from 1977-1982 ("The Historic Years") and 2002-2005 ("The Explosive Years"). I figured I needed somewhere 70-100K in private investment. As they say, it's only money. So I started to talk to some of the people that I had met and knew me and my photography. My vision for "Poker Face 2" was still largely in my head and difficult to explain to potential investors.
I knew I wanted to produce and print the book in Latvia. I had previously met Dagnija Vanaga in Riga. She knew nothing about Las Vegas poker players but understood I was passionate about producing a beautiful book. She knew designers, computer people, and a printer who I knew had done a previous fine art photography book. Dagnija became the center and catalyst for the project.
Eric Harkins of Image Masters, whose crew photographs the WSOP, would be scanning my photographs from his data base in St.Louis, MO. and sending them electronically to Riga. I would edit the photographs and find placements on a page. I contacted A. Alvaraz, in London and got him out of retirement to write the introduction to the "Historic Years." My friend Paul Zibits found most of the investors I needed and wrote the introduction to the "Explosive Years." He also became my executive editor, flew to Riga for a week and we edited many of the photographs on the floor of my apartment.
After printing the book, it was put on a container ship in Riga bound for Long Beach harbor. I was already at the series with a rented and very expensive sales table. The books arrived late at the Rio casino and I missed numerous direct sales. But as the governor of California would say, "I'll be back!" And I'll be selling "Poker Face 2" at the 2007 WSOP in June and July. I remember last year, people with a permanent ink "Sharpie" in hand were getting autographs from the top players. Many of these editions have doubled and tripled in value already. Since "PF2" is a signed and numbered book to 2,000 only, some favorite numbers may still be available to buyers.
CC: Poker Face 2 can be purchased at http://pokerface2.com/, as well as from Ulvis who will be at the WSOP this summer.