Charities Bet On Poker

October 30, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — If not for the charity poker circuit, retired pressman Don Prus would likely go to the casino more than he does. He and his ex-wife, Marylyn, used to play regularly in the Monday and Tuesday tournaments at the Little River Casino Resort in Manistee. He took second place once: $850.

“The next week I went in there thinking I was Maverick, and I was out in 20 minutes,” said Prus, referring to the poker-playing character played on television decades ago by James Garner and more recently on the big screen by Mel Gibson. “You can’t get cocky. You need to just play your game.”

The Pruses are watching the Detroit Tigers game from their seats at one of the dozen poker tables set up in the elementary school gym of Saints Peter & Paul Church on Grand RapidsWest Side. Don brags that he has nine kids and 15 grandkids, all of whom play poker.

“I’ve been playing in these tournaments for about a year,” he said. “And the caliber of poker in this place is probably no different than the caliber you see at a casino.”

Across the room, American Expositions Inc. founder Joe Sack is manning the keg with one hand, scooping chili with another. His side business, operating as GRTexasHoldEm.com, has over the past two years become a local charity juggernaut, hosting hundreds of events and raising more than $300,000 for its partner organizations, an estimated 90 percent of that “outside money” from individuals not affiliated with the charities.

“This is where it all started,” said Sack, a parent at the school. “We had no idea what we were doing when we first started out. We just wanted to raise some money for the school.”

Sack, an industrial sales consultant during the week, was the point person for the school’s first poker tournament in early 2004, shortly after the state amended the charitable gaming law to allow Texas Hold-Em. Thirty-three players showed up for that event. When the school staged its second tournament a month later, there were 52 players, then 75 at the third, and 100 a month later.

The school found a model that worked: free food, free beer, and make it fun. Last year, it raised $35,000 through the poker tournaments.

“Now it’s like a family; you see a lot of the same faces,” Sack said. “Where somebody else might golf or bowl, these folks play cards. They’re not card sharks; they’re people who just want to have a card game, some food, and be around friends and have fun. We’re filling the need for a good group of people.”

The need was a lot larger than Sack initially imagined. After a few months of running the school tournament, other charities began asking for assistance. In partnership with A-1 Bingo Supplies & Games LLC in Grand Rapids, Sack was soon serving as host for a tournament every weekend. The group now administers three or four events each weekend.

Following the response to the Chris Moneymaker run in the World Series of Poker on ESPN in 2003, cable television programmers began stoking a budding national interest in the game into a full-fledged craze. Hundreds of thousands flocked to Internet gaming sites, casinos tore out slot machines to make room for poker tables, and a dozen shows like the World Series of Poker and the Travel Channel’s World Poker Tour turned poker players into celebrities.

“There was an explosion of popularity in poker,” said Todd Gardner of the Michigan Lottery’s Charitable Gaming Division. “People were coming to us and asking for it. Bingo and raffles have been on a decline, and we thought these tournaments would be a hip new way to make charitable gaming relevant again.”

In 2004, the state amended its Millionaire Party license, originally intended for “casino nights” of blackjack, roulette and craps, to include poker. That year, the state issued 681 Millionaire Party licenses to approved nonprofit organizations. In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, more than 2,100 licenses were issued.

“I keep thinking it’s peaked, but then it surprises me,” said Kurt Orosz, who purchased the 50-year-old A-1 Bingo in 2002. “As long as poker stays on TV, you’ll continue to see an audience build.”

A pair of legislative changes could have a noticeable impact on charity poker. The first is the federal Unlawful Internet Gambling Act, which prohibits online gamblers from using credit cards, checks and electronic fund transfers to settle bets, theoretically crippling the $6 billion U.S. online gaming market. Attached as a rider to an important port-security measure by conservative Republicans, the new law has already spurred many of televised poker’s largest sponsors to sell off their U.S. operations.

“Prohibition doesn’t work,” said Michael Bolcerek, president of the nonprofit advocacy group Poker Players Alliance. “The largest and most transparent sites have already shut their door to U.S. players. We’ll see new players come on board, and they’ll create an underground economy, with sites in unregulated areas or untraceable forms of payment.”

Bolcerek told the Business Journal he felt the loss of Internet gaming, the most accessible avenue for play, would lead to a reduction in interest in the sport.

Allison Reuter, an attorney with Varnum Riddering Schmidt Howlett in Grand Rapids, has partnered with Sack to organize two events for the Adoptive Family Support Network, of which she is a board member. She is also a registered member of Internet poker site Full Tilt Poker.

“The law doesn’t prohibit you from doing it, but it does substantially limit your ability to do so by prohibiting financial institutions,” she said, noting that the law was somewhat ambiguous as to what constituted illegal gambling. “But it doesn’t affect charitable gaming. If anything, it might get more people to show up.”

Sack and Orosz are unsure whether the law will have a positive or negative effect. They are all but certain, however, that recently passed state legislation will be a boon to their business. Earlier this month, a bill was signed into law removing the $550 cap on charitable gaming payouts.

In the coming months, GRTexasHoldEm.com will introduce $100 buy-in tournaments. For players, that could mean a top prize of up to $2,000, depending on the number of entries. Charities could see double or triple their usual collection in such a tournament. More than ever before, this will allow charity poker to compete with the high payouts of the state’s casinos.

Such a change will make the Grand Rapids circuit much more interesting, but it could have an even greater impact on the lakeshore. In KentCounty, the state currently has 18 events scheduled for the coming month, none at the same site. In MuskegonCounty, there are 14, eight of which will be held at the Great Lakes Downs race track.

Sen. Ken Sikkema, R-Wyoming, attached an amendment to the gaming bill that unanimously passed the Senate concerning poker tournaments at racetracks. The version that left the House allowed for racetracks to serve as host on behalf of a charity, similar to Sack’s service.

Licenses are only awarded to approved nonprofit organizations, on a per-event basis. Supplies for the event must be acquired through a licensed charitable gaming supplier, such as A-1 Bingo, or in Muskegon, All-In Entertainment; these organizations are not permitted to manage the event. Sack provides leadership and logistical support, but can legally supply only a portion of the staff to run an event, and with the exception of an event in which he represents the charity, does not technically run the events.

As a gaming enterprise, Great Lakes Downs is not permitted to take part in a tournament itself, but there are no regulations as to the venues at which Millionaire Parties can be held.

“So what’s in it for us? Well, we get the food and beverage revenue, and we know these people are gamblers,” said Amy MacNeil, the track’s general manager. “We know they like poker; it’s our hope we can interest them in horse racing, as well.”

The track has long served as a host site for meetings and conventions, but few of those brought much gambling interest. It began hosting the poker tournaments in January to a passionate response. Unlike the circuit in Grand Rapids, players in Muskegon know they can find a game at the same location every week. The track has seen such a large response from players and charities that it will regularly host events seven days a week in the coming months.

In Wayland, the state legislation has captured the attention of The Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, which is in the process of developing the embattled Gun Lake Casino. Tribe lobbyist Jim Nye questions how the bill passed by such a resounding margin, and with the support of many outspoken gambling critics.

“I think that is a bit hypocritical,” he said. “Gaming is gaming, whether it’s conducted in a casino, a racetrack or a church. These are all games of chance we’re talking about.”

In the case of Millionaire Parties, where cash games are permitted on side tables, the lines are especially blurred.

Ari Adler, chief of staff for Sikkema, disagrees.

“We do treat it differently,” he said. “Most of the public sees it as two separate animals, too. I don’t think people see the local church bingo night to be anything at all like the casino or horse racetrack.”     

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