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Top-10 things I learned as a charity poker tournament director

23 March 2015

Last Saturday, I had the honor of serving as tournament director for a charity poker event to benefit a local non-profit organization that my wife is involved in. Everyone involved left feeling like the event was a success; players and event staff went home smiling and we raised a little money for the charity.

I was surprised just how exhausted I was at the end, however. I never thought running a four-hour, 31-player poker tournament would take so much work.

Here are 10 things I learned as a charity poker tournament director.

10. Consider the charity's goals
This was easy for me, because my wife has been on the board of this charity for three years, serving as the president for the past two. The charity — a local parenting non-profit — has two huge used clothing sales each year which provide most of the revenue for the organization for the year. There are dozens of events that local families can take advantage of throughout the year, but most are focused on mothers. This poker tournament was aimed at being an event that dads would enjoy. So long as the event broke even in its first year, she said she would be happy.

She also wanted this to be a real community event, where most of the players knew each other and would look forward to seeing each other. For those reasons, we opted to run the tournament ourselves rather than turn to one of several local companies that run charity poker events. Those companies do a great job running tournaments, and they will market the event for you. But as a result, they also bring in lots of experienced players that our core target audience wouldn't know. My wife felt that it would be better to have a community atmosphere and run the tournament ourselves, and she also didn't feel comfortable giving a cut of the profits to an outside group and instead wanted to return more of the entry fees to players.

9. Startup costs are significant
Since we opted not to bring in an outside group, we had to buy a lot of things to be able to run the tournament. We purchased poker table toppers, six setups of Copag cards and six dealer buttons. I would have loved to get poker tables with felt and a rail, but the cost of renting that equipment was far too high to make it worth it, and I was lucky enough to have a large enough poker chip set to be able to support the tournament.

All in all, we spent more than $400 on supplies, but those supplies will already be in stock if the organization decides to run another poker tournament. Now $400 may not sound like much, but considering the buy-ins totaled just over $2,000, that ate up 20 percent of the revenue provided by buy-ins.

8. It helps to have connections
The person who did all the behind-the-scenes work did an amazing job finding sponsors. He got a jeweler to provide a watch valued at $750 to supplement the first-place prize. He got a restaurant to donate a $100 gift card and a set of knives worth $85 for second, and he also got a brewery to donate three cases of beer. We got many other prizes donated by sponsors, including $50 in DK bucks from DraftKings.com.

In addition to having connections for prizes, we were lucky enough to get Bernard Lee to come and give a 30-minute poker seminar to those attending prior to the start of the event, and he signed copies of his books, The Final Table Vol. I and The Final Table Vol. II, with proceeds benefiting the charity, and the RunGoodGear pro also donated some poker apparel.

Several players told me they really appreciated Bernard's presentation and used some of what he taught them in the tournament, and for many, the presentation itself may have been worth the $65 entry fee.

7. Provide entertainment
We planned this tournament for last Saturday intentionally. With the NCAA men's basketball tournament in full swing, we were able to put the games up on some big TVs, so as people busted out, they were able to stick around, buy a beer and watch the games. I was surprised by how many people stayed after they busted to watch the games and talk with their friends and see who ended up winning the event. It was a real community event, and I'm glad it worked out that way.

6. Get knowledgeable dealers
It helps to have great friends. I got three regular players from my home game to come and spend almost six hours on a Saturday night setting up for a poker tournament, deal almost non-stop for four hours, and break down after it ended. Their compensation? Forty bucks. And they tried to turn it down.

The vast majority of players in the tournament had very little experience playing poker at all, let alone in tournaments. As a result, the dealers had to walk the players through what they had to do and helped them learn the rules behind the game and what the proper procedures were. They did it all without intimidating players, making them feel very comfortable at the table. All three dealt an excellent game, and I am forever in their debt. I guess I'm going to have to dump a few pots their way the next time I host a game.

5. Players will wait until the last minute to register
I already knew this was the case for casino tournaments, but thought that players in a charity event would take advantage of the $10 discount to register early.

Granted, most people did so, but they waited until the last minute to do so. We had just 15 players registered four days before the tournament, and were up to 25 the night before, when pre-registration ended. We ended up with six players who paid an extra $10 at the door to play, which resulted in 31 players, which meant we needed four, not three tables in play. We were ready for as many as 40 players, but needing four tables to start meant I needed to deal until we lost our first four players because I'd only asked three friends to come and deal, which leads me to this lesson …

4. Don't act as TD and deal at the same time
I dealt for about the first hour of the tournament, which was fun, but wasn't conducive to running the tournament as well. It was hard to keep track of how many players had busted, and I actually announced that we'd be breaking down to three tables before we should have done it. Thankfully, at that exact moment, another player busted from the tournament, leaving us with three nine-handed tables.

I also made what I believe was the only major dealing blunder of the entire tournament. I was shuffling one deck while dealing with the other, and I dealt a flop with the hand I was shuffling. One of the players pointed it out immediately, saying, "I think we have a problem; one of my cards is there on the flop."

Another player exposed his hand to show that he'd flopped a flush (albeit with the wrong deck), and the player who said he had one of the cards on the flop also showed a flush (with two kings of hearts). Thankfully the players were understanding and we were able to return all the chips from the pot to the correct people and redeal.

3. There's lots of waiting around, but you need to be ready to act quickly
While things don't change all that often in a poker tournament, there are moments when you need to balance tables, break one down, or color up chips, and those actions need to be taken quickly and decisively. It's even more complicated in a charity event when the blinds are escalating every 15 minutes, which results in hands with multiple eliminations and shorthanded tables. You might find that you move one player to a table to balance things out, just three minutes before you're going to break that table down. You need to stay on top of all of that, and it's easy to get sidetracked talking to a player or a friend.

2. This means a lot to some of the players
Some of the players at our event were playing a poker tournament for the first time, and this was a very big deal. Others were there simply to support the charity. Others had played a few dozen tournaments before and knew what to expect.

No matter what, it was very important to all of us working at the event to provide a great experience to the players. The players that made the final table seemed very excited about it, and the final two players were locked in a very serious heads-up battle for about 20 minutes before a winner was finally determined.

When they walked away with their prizes, they seemed very happy with what they had won, but also how the tournament had been run. It was gratifying to be partly responsible for providing people with a fun night out for a great cause.

1. It's a lot of work
I've watched the pros run tournaments at the World Series of Poker for years, but I've got to be honest, I don't know how they do it day in and day out. Jack Effel and the rest of the staff at the WSOP (and tournament directors at other venues around the world) work very long days during big festivals, and they have to keep their energy levels high and provide players with a great experience.

It's one thing to do it for a 31-person tournament that lasts four hours. It's another thing entirely to do that for weeks on end. I had a great time, but don't worry, Jack, I'm not coming after your job.
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Aaron Todd

Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd was an editor/writer at Casino City for nearly eight years, and is currently the Assistant Director of Athletics for Communications and Marketing at St. Lawrence University, his alma mater. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and Badugi.

Aaron Todd

Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd was an editor/writer at Casino City for nearly eight years, and is currently the Assistant Director of Athletics for Communications and Marketing at St. Lawrence University, his alma mater. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and Badugi.