Poker events aren't what they used to be

Poker events aren't what they used to be

August 02, 2016 3:00 AM


Throughout my long poker and marketing career, I’ve been lucky enough to create several poker events that have stood the test of time.

Among these long-running series are Hustler Casino’s Grand Slam of Poker, which made its debut on the felt in 2000, and two others I started back in 1995 – Hollywood Park Casino’s National Championship of Poker, and one of my personal favorites, The Bicycle Casino’s Legends of Poker, now entering its third decade as one of the most anticipated events in any southern California cardroom.

While these tournaments still bear their original names, both poker and tournaments have changed a lot since I introduced these events. Today, there’s little to distinguish one tournament series from another, other than the venue and slight variations in structures and entry fees.

They’re no longer poker “events,” but clones of no-limit tournaments. They’re geared to make a lot of quick money for the casino by bringing in large numbers of players, with little, if any, attention paid to moving tournament players into live play or creating player loyalty. Because of this, players in southern California tend to hop from casino to casino, flocking to tournaments offering multiple starting days and ever-increasing guarantees.

These are successful for casinos in the short term, but they’re missing the special touches that make them “events” rather than just another tournament series.

George Hardie, who was managing partner of the Bicycle Casino, had the second largest tournament in the world. It was called the Diamond Jim Brady, and George wanted it to be his key marketing event every year. He understood that successfully marketing Diamond Jim would bring players into the Bike for the tournament and encourage them to stay afterward. George wanted a lasting, memorable event for players; he wasn’t concerned about creating a financial windfall for the casino.

When federal government regulators took control of the Bicycle in 1990, a board of executives was created to manage operations on behalf of the United States. I was part of that committee.

As part of the takeover, Hardie’s contract wasn’t renewed, but he still owned the rights to Diamond Jim Brady. George pulled the Diamond Jim Brady out of the Bike after the 1994 event, so we needed something new to replace our traditional August event.

That’s when I came up with the Legends of Poker. More than just a tournament, it would be a completely new major event that changed the southern California poker landscape forever.

My plan was to hire 23 players – a “Who’s Who” of poker – to promote the Bicycle Casino all year long leading up to the Legends. In a first for poker, this group would be sponsored by a corporate casino, opening up a whole new world of possibilities.

I knew the players I wanted as my ambassadors all wanted to help change the image of poker and take it to a higher level, which made me even more determined to pull it off.

We offered our “Legends” around one or two thousand dollars per player, and asked each of them to choose a day to greet the players and host their own tournament – and this was the toughest selling point – in formal wear. We also had a buffet, player gifts and even a roast featuring some of poker’s most-loved “celebrities.”

The best part was that it worked; it was a huge success. Looking back, those of us who were involved in that first “Legends of Poker” all agree the money the players were paid wasn’t important; it was the opportunity to help poker grow and flourish that brought everyone together and made it something special.

The list of players joining us for the inaugural event is as impressive today as it was then. It included (in no particular order) Johnny Chan, Phil Hellmuth, Ron McMillan, Yosh Nakano, Nelly Premraje, Barbara Enright, Ted Forrest, Men “The Master” Nguyen, Hugo Mieth, Susie Isaacs, Herb Bronstein, Mike Sexton, Max Shapiro, Mansour Matloubi, Kenny “Skyhawk” Flaton, Brian Nadell, Frank Henderson, Cyndy Violette, Howard “Tahoe” Andrew, Vince Burgio, “Miami” John Cernuto, Tom McEvoy, John Bonetti and Harry Thomas. These players are all “Legends of Poker” in their own right.

I long for the good times we used to have at these events; from the dinners recognizing important industry leaders to the special events inside the tournament, poker was always fun, and you knew every player by their first name.

Although it’s changed considerably since its inception, the Legends of Poker is still a southern California midsummer classic, and this year will be no different.

For 2016, the entire month of August is in play; cards are currently in the air and you’ll have dozens of tournaments to choose from before the series ends on Sept. 1.

We’ve sure come a long way.

Twitter: @thechipburner