LIVE IN 5, 4, 3, 2 ...
Bob Glouberman is soaked in sweat. The television cameras and spotlights are taking turns pummeling his nervous system, causing the glands on his forehead and neck to dilate, releasing a steady dribble of sweat. Despite all this, he his grinning boyishly. Bob is a slightly overweight, nearsighted fortysomething, but he carries himself with the poise of a much younger, handsomer man.
He is standing on the set of Who's Still Standing, a trivia game show in which one contestant tries to outsmart 10 others in a back and forth of increasingly obscure questions. The name is a play on what happens to the losers: a trapdoor opens beneath their feet, causing them to fall through the floor. This is captured in humiliating slow motion by a series of high-definition cameras, then repeated ad nauseum on the viewer's television set. The goal is to literally be the last man or woman standing.
Bob isn't fazed by the possibility of a painful fall or being made into a cheap punch line on national television. He actually played a similar game in 2002 called Russian Roulette, which he lost. Bob's played many game shows. Nine in total.
Bob plays games professionally. Which is to say, Bob's livelihood depends on them. That is why Bob needs to win. That is why Bob can't stop sweating.
The 40-Year-Old Pro Gamer?
The title "pro gamer" is still in its infancy; bestowed, in the last decade, upon a select gang of teens and twentysomethings. This breed of bigger-than-life-personalities generally prefers single word aliases to birth names. Their offices are the stuffy convention centers and second-rate hotel ballrooms where they play video games competitively against one another.
Most aren't paid well, and those who are get paid in lump sums by the makers of energy drinks and computer peripherals, occasionally in the form of novelty checks. Much like the products they endorse, pro gamers have a short shelf life.
An average adult who makes a considerable living off the playing of games over the span of decades is as an anomaly in pro gaming. Bob may be the only one.
Over the past twenty years, Bob Glouberman has earned roughly one million dollars by playing, designing, and appearing in games. He is possibly the oldest and most experienced gamer on the planet. Certainly the most successful.
Bob, however, doesn't call himself a pro gamer. He doesn't rep brands, or spend months in hotel rooms. He has a wife and a daughter and a house in Los Angeles. Being a pro gamer wasn't his life long dream. In fact, Bob sort of fell into it. According to him, it all goes back to his first BARF.
Bob's first BARF
BARF WAS A MILLION DOLLAR IDEA THAT HAD THE POTENTIAL TO SUSTAIN GLOUBERMAN FOR LIFE
Teenage Bob didn't want to be a gamer when he grew up. He wanted to be a lawyer, a career choice that pleased Mr. and Mrs. Glouberman. Bob breezed through lower education and enrolled at Stanford University for his undergraduate degree, a safe school with a high rate of producing successful young professionals. The unwritten purpose of college is to discover what it is one truly wants to do with one's life, and then, ideally, pursue it. At Stanford, Bob discovered he loved games.
For Bob, games were a hobby, at first, an excuse to get away from the stacks. But soon enough, he fancied himself an amateur game designer; not behind a computer, as one might expect, but outdoors under the California sun. He organized an outdoor scavenger hunt called BARF, short for the "Bay Area Race Fantastique."
"It was a 24-hour experience," explains Bob, "a scavenger hunt with the boundaries of San Jose to the south and Berkeley to the north. It included laser beams and it included swimming across a lake to an island to catch a greased pig. It was on a scale that had never been done before."
The point of the game, as Bob explains it, is that you never know what's coming next.
This was 1988, over a decade before Survivor and the advent of competitive reality television. BARF was a million dollar idea that had the potential to sustain Glouberman for life. He could operate it here. Or anywhere. There could be a television show. A board game. The possibilities were endless.
For Bob, running BARF was also playing BARF. It was all about reacting to the players, and giving the right hints at the right moment. He won when the other players experienced, what he dubbed, the "A-ha Moment."
One sunny day in his senior year, Bob received a pristine, legal-sized letter. UCLA had accepted him into its Law School. This was what Bob had been working for:to become a lawyer and complete the arc of his life's story. Like a man who'd been called to the front, Bob packed up his room and said goodbye to Stanford. BARF and Bob's passion for games would take an indefinite backseat to growing up.
Losing hope, winning game shows
BOB DID WHAT ANY DOWN-ON-HIS-LUCK TWENTYSOMETHING WOULD DO: BOB WENT TO HOLLYWOOD
Bob began three years of studying for his degree. Bob loved L.A. Law, the one-hour legal procedural. At any moment, promiscuous divorce lawyer Arnie Becker (played by Corbin Bernsen) would knock the stacks of books off his desk and announce this week's juicy case. Such passion!
The fantasy was rubbish. Bob never knocked the stacks of books off his desk in a fit of zest for the legal system; no salacious cases came to his door. Actual L.A. law, Bob discovered, was nothing like what he watched on television. It was slow, careful, and required hours upon hours of studying in a soul-sucking mausoleum disguised as a library. The stacks of books on his desk just grew and grew and grew.
Bob fondly remembered Stanford and BARF. To get him through the week, he needed to, somehow, replicate that fun. Nintendo had a videogame console out called the NES. Bob bought one from the local electronics shop. Nights and weekends would be lost in a dark room behind a glowing television screen. Some students took up beer and pot to cope; Bob had Super Mario.
Like almost anyone who has played games as an escape, Bob Glouberman begun to consider what gaming might mean as a profession. Would it be viable, monetarily to love games for a living? Would his parents, who had done such a top-notch job steering him on the road to a white collar, ever forgive him?
Bob did what any down-on-his-luck, swinging-for-the-fences twentysomething would do. Bob went to Hollywood.
In 1990, Hollywood was undergoing another television boom, with sitcoms and game shows having a heyday. One game show particularly interested Bob: Classic Concentration.
The odds of going on the real Classic Concentration and winning a substantial amount of money were diminutive, but Bob was determined. He had heard a video game adaptation of the game was available on the NES. He purchased it as an investment -- a study guide of sorts.
"So for Classic Concentration," Bob says, "I would play the NES version over and over and over and over and over again. Practice makes perfect, all I did was eat and sleep and practice Classic Concentration."
There is no way this technique should work. Playing an actual game show is nothing like playing a video game, especially an 8-bit game from 1990, which is slower, unresponsive and repetitive. Not to mention ugly to look at.
Yet it did work. Bob was accepted on Classic Concentration, and won. He won big time. He won a solid oak wall clock, a set of Jensen his-and-hers sweaters and a gold chain, making him the winningest Classic Concentration player ever. (A title he still holds.)
Bob's win gave him the money, the minor fame, and the sense that he didn't have to do anything but this, because who cares: he's rich! To put it another way: This is the closest Bob ever came to our definition of a "pro gamer."
"[Instead of the prizes], they gave me a certificate to be used at this catalogue place," says Bob. "Like you drive down to this service store and pick out what you wanted. I forget the total amount of money [the prizes were worth] but I used it all to buy a Super Nintendo and tons of games."
Game shows do an incredible job conjuring the illusion that winners receive a windfall of cash and go on to live blissful, platinum lives, but after taxes and the cost of living in a city like Los Angeles, Bob, the winningest player of Classic Concentration, was no richer than your average law firm associate.
Bob realized that being a professional gamer in the 1990s would be difficult if not impossible. Bob had to get a real job.
After graduating from law school in 1993, he took a position at Bet Tzedek Legal Services. No more BARF. No more games shows. The SNES would have to do.
The game of love
Years passed. After Bob's big day on Classic Connection, he had tried rotating through a few law firms, failing to find one that clicked. But this was L.A. - the beacon of hope. To distract him from the monotony of daily life (and perhaps to finally experience the fantasy of living inside an episode of L.A. Law), Bob began auditioning for character roles on TV shows during long lunch breaks and days off.
"I would occasionally book a job," says Bob, "but you can't really be a lawyer and work on a television set at the same time, so I would call in sick for the week. I was like the sickest associate. I came down with all of these stomach problems, I tried diseases that House would treat, diseases that would knock you out for a week but knock you out suddenly and then they would go away just as easily."
Bob lets out a laugh, and continues, "Then I had a bunch of relatives die, and my secretaries would see me on TV and go 'Hey, you were on The Wayans Brothers last night!' and I would go 'Nah, that wasn't me.'"
On September 15th, 1995, what Bob calls "one of the happiest days of his life," he quit a steady job at White and Case. It was a gamble, but he wanted to act, and game, and bring back BARF. That was a top priority. So newly unemployed Bob carved out a chunk of his time to arrange a new BARF. It would be on a shoestring budget, and limited to his friends, but that was good enough for Bob. Actor by day, alternative game designer by night.
With more time to audition, Bob's acting career picked up. On camera, his face and figure reads like the comedia del arte costume for the bumbling fool. He is the archetypal Nerd, Chubby Loser, Stranger #3. Bob's ordinary look, the casting agents noted, wasn't just ordinary. It was extraordinarily ordinary.
"I WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN ATTRACTED TO BOB AS A LAWYER. I LOVE THAT HE CHOSE A DIFFERENT PATH."
His "type" also appealed to other people, for other reasons.
"I met Bob [in 1996] through a friend after I described the guy I was looking for as 'the alpha nerd' or 'the head nerd in a group of nerds' - like the Michael Anthony Hall character in Sixteen Candles," says his wife, Stefanie Klein. "My friend's boyfriend said, 'I totally know that guy.' They invited us both to a party. I told them I would go, but I did not want to know which guy they were trying to set me up with. I wanted it to be natural - not forced. I spent the entire evening talking to Bob who then left without asking for my number. It took a month and several more forced meetings for him to finally call me. He claims he thought I was not interested. Meanwhile I cried because I didn't understand why he did not like me."
Art imitates life. Over the course of their relationship, Bob nabbed five different gigs as the Awkward Blind Date, appearing across the dinner table from Calista Flockhart, Jenny McCarthy and Carmen Electra.
In 1999, Stefanie wed Chubby Loser Nerd #3.
"I would not have been attracted to Bob as a lawyer," she says. "He would have been an unhappy short guy in a suit with nothing interesting to talk about. I love that he chose a different path."
"Gaming is really his primary love if you ask me," says Stefanie. "If this were the movieSliding Doors one of his lives would have been designing video games. Since he did not choose to go down that path - playing, reviewing, discussing games fulfills that part of him."
Who's still standing?
SEVEN CONTESTANTS TO GO BEFORE HE CAN CLAIM THE $1 MILLION
Back in the studio, Bob's grin is even wider than before. A trivia expert has just been sent through the floor for not knowing what yellow spice is a major ingredient in curry powder. The answer: turmeric.
Bob is up to $17,000. He has now dropped three challengers, leaving seven more before he can claim the $1 million grand prize. He looks around the room for his next mark: Contestant #8. Her name is Lauren Maura and she's substitute teacher from San Miguel, California.
Says host Ben Bailey, "Bob, what do you think about that?"
"Uhh," says Bob. "She's a substitute teacher. She's not a teacher teacher. She's a substitute teacher. Therefore, I'm feeling pretty good right now."
The audience lets out a Jerry Springer-sized "Ohhhhh!" Bob doesn't let it show, but he knows he's let his cockiness get the best of him. This isn't the real Bob, this is work Bob. Bigger personality means better TV means more shows means more money.
After a few questions, Lauren Maura, unable to name the statue of a Greek god facing the rink at Rockefeller Center, is dropped through the floor. "Great respect for Lauren," Bob says, wishing he could just take that comment back.
Bob's up to $20,000 with six more contestants to go. He inhales a deep breath. This is business.
Spending time on sets in the early 90s introduced Bob to the Los Angeles acting community. At an actor friend's weekly card game (a game the friend's family created), Bob connected with local actor Larry Toffler, a chisel-chinned man who nearly a decade earlier had been the host of Finders Keepers, a children's game show. The two bonded over their love for games of all varieties. Larry enjoyed hearing about Bob's new BARF, and finagled his way into a couple upcoming events.
"I'm perfectly content to create an amazing game and show it to fifty people," says Bob. But Larry saw the potential. In 1997, they began making it bigger. They started theming them like movies and music. Adding lasers and animals.
Around this time, CBS launched the reality television program Survivor, the game show that drops players in exotic locales halfway across the world. It shattered the traditional game show format, which had players ask questions or solve riddles from behind a podium. Survivor was a phenomenon. On August 23, 2000, 51 million people tuned in for the first season finale.
Living in Hollywood, Bob and Larry believed BARF had the potential to be a similar television show.
"We got together and said, you know, 'what can we do to supplement our acting that isn't waiting tables or tending bar?'" recalls Larry. "Something that's more conventional. And he said, 'why don't we make BARF a business?'"
With the help of their acquaintances in the business, they scored a pitch meeting with CBS.
"We thought hey, this would be a great TV show. We actually went and pitched it over at CBS. This was shortly after Survivor premiered. And we said, we think this would be a great companion show. They looked at us, and they kind of shrugged, and said, well, we'll see. And then, six months later, we saw an ad in the paper, 'Now casting! New reality show! See the world!'"
That ad was for The Amazing Race.
"It really kind of took the wind out of our sails when that happened. We kept saying, 'We should do this, we should do that.' We never really did."
Defeated, BARF took an indefinite hiatus."IT REALLY KIND OF TOOK THE WIND OUT OF OUR SAILS."
Bob BARFs in Mexico
"BOB IS A BIT OF A PANICKER."
On a balmy Los Angeles night, Jerry Bruckheimer took the stage at the Emmy's to accept the award for Outstanding Reality Competition Program on behalf of The Amazing Race. The show was a certified hit.
Five years had passed since Bob and Larry shelved BARF. Bob and Stefanie now had a daughter, Lexey, and Bob had found modest success as an actor. But seeing the marketability of the original idea was too exciting to ignore. Larry convinced Bob it was time for BARF's second chance. Larry recommended they put up an ad on Craigslist. "Love games? Love puzzles? Then you're gonna love this!"
"We got maybe ten paying customers," says Bob. "And then we paid for our friends. We said, look guys, you can play for free, just don't tell anybody. Everyone enjoyed it so much, word spread."
The next game everyone paid. About one hundred players paid for the game after that. And it kept growing.
Larry's brother worked at Carnival Cruises and was happy to set up a pitch meeting. Carnival liked the idea of BARF as a day trip event at a docked location, standard entertainment in a cruise package. In this case, Cozumel, Mexico.
BARF would, as the duo envisioned it, be a perfect daytrip alternative. Bound to appeal to couch-potatoes-cum-tropical-adventurers hoping to experience first-hand a favorite reality show. They spent two weeks in Mexico doing research, then another six weeks setting up the game. This was it. Bob's fantasy from so long ago was about to become a reality.
"Basically, the first year we got killed," says Larry. "Nobody knew what or who we were. And we had all these projections. Ships carry 3,000 people or more. All we have to do is get 1%. There were days nobody played. It just devastated us.
"I don't know if Bob shared this with you," he adds, "but Bob is a bit of a panicker. Literally, within the first month, he's like, 'we need to quit. We need to pull the plug.'"
Bob missed his wife and his two-year-old daughter.
"After the first year," says Larry, "we had a real soul-searching moment there where we were like, 'do we want to keep going with this thing or not?'"
Bob believes it was word of mouth that saved BARF. That it took some time for positive reviews to show up on TripAdvisor and Yelp. "Our product really kicks ass," says Bob. "People say, 'Oh my god, I read how good this was, and it was even better than my expectations.'"
The game of life
AND BEING IN HOLLYWOOD, LARF ATTRACTED MANY STUDIO TYPES
Bob chewing up the scenery in The Artist
"It was just [Mexico] and a special we'd put on Craigslist," says Larry. "Then at a point my wife basically said, 'Get a fucking job.' And I realized we had a daily game going in Mexico. We live a lot closer to Los Angeles. Let's just do it in Los Angeles ... It's so dumb. I don't know why we didn't immediately think to do it in Los Angeles."
They even had a new name, one that wouldn't invoke the image of violent regurgitation. The Los Angeles Race Fantastique, or LARF. It took off almost instantly. "We have three races in Los Angeles," says Bob. "Two in L.A., one in Santa Monica, and we're branching out to the Bahamas, Vegas, Spain and New Orleans."
"It's for tourists, it's for locals who want an adventure, and it blurs reality and fantasy," says Bob. It provides the sort of escape Bob himself dreamt of during those long hours at the law firm twenty years ago.
LARF was a boon for Bob's career as a "renaissance man." First and foremost, it afforded him a flexible schedule allowing him to appear on game shows and sitcoms. He worked alongside everyone from the Jonas Brothers to Larry David to Uggie the Dog. He took voice work in video games. "I find that when I'm playing a video game," Bob says, "to hear my voice coming out of who I'm trying to kill - it's the greatest! It's like melding my two worlds. It's so cool."
And being in Hollywood, LARF attracted many studio types.
"I was trying to cast a guy to be a director who looked like he might have been a director back in the silent era and I knew Bob from LARF," says Heidi Levitt, an L.A. casting agent. "Bob has a great character face and joie de vivre. He knows how to step in and deliver one line with style and panache to create a character without hamming it up."
Levitt helped Bob land the role of Director #2 in the 2011 Academy Award Nominee for Best Picture, The Artist.
"I have two of the three scripted lines of dialogue in the movie," says Bob. "I have 66% of all dialogue in the movie so if I'm not on that podium when it wins Best Picture I'm calling my agent." He lets out a belly laugh.
Bob, the gamer, the game designer, the actor, the entrepreneur, the husband, the father, did it. He found success by loving games.
"For better or for worse, I always think I'm the smartest man in the room," says Bob. "Most of the time, it turns out that's not true."
On the set of Who's Still Standing, Bob has stopped sweating. He's down to three competitors, having dropped seven of them through the floor in excruciatingly embarrassing slow motion.
"It's time to make a decision," says host Ben Bailey, "Are you going to stay and play for [$1 million], or are you going to take the $55,000 and walk away."
If Bob misses a single question, he will lose it all. The audience doesn't seem to care. They egg him on.
"I'm going to make a kick ass arcade for myself," yells Bob, directly into the camera. He tells Bailey he wants to exit.
The arcade is a nice addition to Bob's man cave, built for him by another television show, Garage Mahal. He spends much of his time playing games there with Lexey, who's nine now. According to Bob, she loves her Dad's jobs, and thinks he's the coolest.
"Drop me, baby!" Bob plunges through the floor in slow motion. On his face, the biggest smile. No embarrassment. Just pride. He lives for this.