Like the rest of you, I had never played in a charity poker tournament before. OK, that’s unfair, maybe some of you have played in charity poker tournaments. Some of my readers may indeed be better people than me. But I never had until my summer Vegas trip this year.
I already mentioned this tournament in one of my seemingly infinite posts about MGM parking fees (see here). As I wrote there, I had written about the charity poker tournament MGM was hosting for Ante Up magazine (see here). In essence, I helped promote the tournament, which is always a big fund raising event for the charity.
That charity is the Maximum Hope Foundation, which does some truly great work and you can read about it here. The charity was started by comedian Brad Garrett. Since Garrett is an avid poker player, he’s had a charity poker tournament in Vegas yearly for quite some time now.
It’s been hosted by MGM for as a long as I’ve been aware of it. A few years ago, MGM opened up the Brad Garrett Comedy Club, but I think that MGM has been hosting it long before that. I know from many of my MGM dealer pals that Garrett often played poker in at MGM when he was in Vegas to perform. I think he used to perform regularly at the Tropicana so it was convenient for him to play at MGM. Word always was that he was good poker player and a really nice guy.
Months before the event, my editor suggested I write a few paragraphs about the event and the foundation for the issue of Ante Up coming right before the event. I was happy to do so. Both my editor and I were working with Brad’s assistant, who goes by the name Izzy, to get the details accurately. Izzy very generously offered both of us VIP entry into the tournament. I was in a position to accept the invitation so of course I did.
As I said, I had never played in a charity event before, but I was somewhat familiar with the general format from having entered a ton of them into the PokerAtlas database of the past few years.
In case you didn’t know, charity poker tournaments are quite different from regular poker tournaments. Now, why do you play poker? Why do you play in a poker tournament? Well, you might say to have fun, sure, but basically, you want to win some money.
You don’t play in a charity poker tournament to win money. You play to give money to a good cause. And to have fun of course, and to maybe meet and play with some celebrities. But you don’t play for the money.
Most charity tournaments have one big cash prize. Yes, one. They use that big cash prize to help promote the tournament. The next few places generally get prizes of merchandise donated by companies to support the charity. So whereas the min-cash in a regular tournament might be only 150% of the buy-in, the min-cash in a charity event wouldn’t be any cash at all. It might be a set of ear-buds. Or a really nice travel mug. Or a gift certificate for Starbucks. Or a meal in one of the restaurants at the casino hosting the tournament. Maybe a free night’s stay there. Now second or third place might be a really valuable prize, but it would be a far cry from the first place prize, which would be a large cash amount.
The other thing about charity tourneys is the structures. They are very, very fast and always have multiple re-buys and add-ons during the registration period. The structures are designed so that people will bust out fast, re-buy many times, with all that re-buy and add-on money going to the charity. For a poker player trying to make money, these charity tournaments don’t have the value players look for. That’s not the reason to play. The reason to play is to support a worthy cause.
For this Brad Garrett charity event, the grand prize was $10K in cash. And after that, well some lovely prizes. I actually didn’t even find out what the prizes were, I’m sure there were some good ones. But in a regular tournament with a $10K first place prize, you would expect second place to be at least $5K. I’m going out on a limb and guessing that the prize for second place was not worth anything close to that.
But again, that’s not the point. The point is giving money to a great cause.
When I had the chance to get a VIP invitation to play in this event, I took it immediately. I mean, who wouldn’t want a chance to play in a tournament for free, right? As unlikely as it was, I had at least a greater than zero chance of getting that $10K first place prize, right? Besides, I have to confess that it didn’t hurt my ego any that I had made a big enough splash in the poker world that I was invited to play in the event as a VIP. There was a certain coolness factor to that. And meeting Brad Garrett sounded pretty cool too.
But as the event got closer, I did start developing some reservations. I was concerned that I would be expected to take some (or all) of the add-ons and also re-buy if I busted out before registration closed. I mean, especially since I hadn’t paid anything to enter. I guess I should give some details here. The buy-in for the event was $250. The re-buys and the add-ons were $100 each. Players started with $5K in chips, levels started at 100/200 with 15-minute levels. The re-buys and add-ons were also for $5K chips. The re-buy period lasted five levels.
There was no way I could justify allocating any of my poker bankroll (which had gone in the wrong direction this trip) for add-ons or re-buys for a tournament that had such a low possibility of a return. And honestly, my charity bankroll didn’t have the funds for it either.
I was wondering how guilty I was going to feel if I played in the tournament for free, busted out early (as I was almost assured of doing) and then didn’t re-buy. I was really concerned about that.
Fortunately, I had a chance to discuss my feelings with my pal Prudence. I remembered that she had played in a charity tournament at MGM a few years ago. I believe she even finished “in the money,” which, since it wasn’t first place, meant she won a pair of really high quality sunglasses (if memory serves). When I expressed my concern, she kind of glossed over it because she had something more important to tell me that I hadn’t thought about at all.
She said that the person who wins that big money prize for taking first place in the tournament is more-or-less expected to turn around and donate the winnings back to the charity!
Gulp. So if I I somehow managed to win the entire tournament, I would be expected to just turn around and hand the cash back to them? Then she said that, well, if a poker player won it instead of a celebrity, maybe they wouldn’t expect the poker player to return all the money. But a good chunk of it, yes.
So I had a few things on my mind as I got to the tournament that day. As I mentioned in that parking post, I ended up misremembering the start time and ran late. I knew I wanted to introduce myself to Brad’s assistant, Izzy, before the tournament started. I had to find the location because it wasn’t in the regular poker room. With just a few minutes before the start, there was a long line to register. Fortunately though, there was a VIP line that wasn’t crowded. I had to hope my name was on the VIP list as I had been told; otherwise I’d have to find Izzy first and I had no idea what she looked like.
The people manning registration were all familiar faces to me who knew me, so as soon as I got there and I started to say, “I’m supposed to be on the VIP list….” They all confirmed I was. So I got my seat assignment. For the occasion, the MGM had brought in two “showgirls” all decked out like, well showgirls. White outfits with plenty of feathers. They were over by the side. I asked one of my MGM pals if Izzy was around and was told she was over there, wearing a white dress. “Over there” was right where the two showgirls were. I said, “There’s a bunch of girls wearing white dresses over there.” My female floor person friend said, “She’s the one not wearing feathers.”
I knew that “Izzy” was short for Isabelle (although I think she spells it differently). In my mind, the name “Isabelle” is kind of an old-fashioned name, not a name for a millennial or even a Gen-X’er. . I was expecting a matronly, possibly gray-haired woman. But the only person in a white dress in the vicinity and not in feathers was a girl who looked too young to be in a casino. She was very slim, very blonde and very attractive. Not at all what an “Isabelle” looked like in my mind.
But it seemed like it was her as she was talking to everyone and clearly managing the social aspects of the event. So I asked if she was Izzy and she confirmed she was. I introduced myself and she proceeded to gush about how great it was of me to write the piece for Ante Up. Really, she was extravagant in her praise.
Then she asked me if I’d gotten a picture with Brad yet. I said no and she asked if I’d like one. Of course I said yes. She tried to find him to bring him over but by this time, it was time to start the tournament, and Brad had the microphone in his hand to start the introduction and the welcoming speech. So she said to me, “Come see during the first break and I’ll make sure you meet him.” Ok, that was great. I mean, assuming I lasted to the first break.
I hurried to find my seat assignment. I recognized almost all the dealers, it seemed like they not only had the regular day time dealers in for the Noon start, they had brought in the swing shift dealers in to make sure they were adequately staffed. I saw one of my dealer pals and asked him if he knew where table 24 was. He pointed to two tables over. “I think it’s that one, where Mike is dealing.” Yes, my buddy Mike, who I almost share a birthday with and who was cracking my Kings before it became a thing. So I said to my pal, “Not Mike. Damn, I’ll bust out on the first hand.” He laughed. I found my seat as Brad was starting his schtick.
Man, I wish I had recorded his intro. The man was extremely funny but I couldn’t really recall much of what he said the next day. It was also extremely politically incorrect, which I loved. The one line I remember is that, while he was roaming the room talking, somebody walked right in front of him. Brad said, “What, you busted already? Here’s a suggestion…buy a book.”
Brad discussed the great work his charity does and thanked a bunch of people who support it. And he introduced the celebrities that were there. The most noteworthy professional poker player was Jonathan Little. The most famous Hollywood-type (aside from Brad himself) was Willie Garson (from Sex & The City) who happened to be at my table and who had won the event the year before. Once the tournament started I found him to be a real nice guy.
And then he introduced Kato Kaelin. Yes, the Kato Kaelin from the infamous O.J. Simpson case, then known as the world’s most famous houseguest. After Brad said his name, he added, “And he doesn’t know anything.” I was really surprised to hear the name, and I spotted him as he stood up. He looked just like I remembered and I must say, he barely looked any older than I remembered him. A side note: That evening, when I was playing at MGM, he came in and played cash.
One other major celebrity of note. The “shuffle up and deal” was done by Robin Leach.
Finally the tournament started. Izzy had been so nice and so grateful to me that I was already feeling guilty over the thought of busting early and not doing any re-buys. Plus now I had to hang on through the first break to meet Brad. So I had a very different strategy for this tournament than any other one I’ve ever played in. I was not playing to win. I was playing to survive. At least until the re-buy period was over. That was all I was trying to accomplish. If I made it past the close of registration with even a single chip, I’d be happy, and wouldn’t feel quite so guilty about not taking any re-buys (even though I still could have taken the add-on),
With a $5K starting stack, blinds starting at 100/200 and 15-minute levels, it seemed unlikely I could accomplish my mission. And wouldn’t you know, unlike most tournaments, I started off getting a bunch of playable hands. Nothing great, no big pairs, no Ace-King, but big cards and medium pairs that I would be happy to play in a normal tournament. I folded some, raised with some, but then folded too easily when I met any resistance, trying to preserve my meager stack. My second goal was to, at the very least, avoid being the first person to bust out!
One of the things about charity events I didn’t mention earlier is that you get a lot of players who really aren’t poker players. Some just like the charity and think this is a fun way to contribute to it, or they want to meet some celebrities, or are friends of the sponsor or of some of the other people playing. So they come to have a good time while contributing to a good cause. Maybe one of the positives then is that some of these novices will have a good enough time to cultivate an interest in the game.
The point being that there was a girl at my table who knew about as much about poker as I do about Bulgarian fashion design. So of course, making a terrible call, she accumulated a lot of chips. I didn’t write down the details but I think she hit a two-outer after making a call that no one who’d ever played poker before would have made. Thus, she was the chip leader at our table when a guy went all-in, another guy went all-in behind him, and it folded to her. She had plenty of chips and losing to either one would have hurt her, she should have only called with a really big hand. Well she called and flipped over pocket 5’s. The other two hands were like Ace-Jack and King-10. Of course, she faded all the Broadway cards and felted both of them with a pair of 5’s.
The importance of this is that this was the first time anyone from our table had busted out, and I really had no idea if anyone had busted from the other tables or not. But both of these players just grabbed their things and took off—they made no effort to re-buy. So at the very least, I had achieved one goal—not being the first person to bust out. I wouldn’t even be the first person to bust out at my table.
Which was good, because when the blinds got to 300/600, I was down to $1,500 in chips. Any other tournament I would have found a place to shove before then, but this time, I was just trying to hang on as long as possible. I figured I would have to be all-in when the big blind came to me, but a few hands before that was going to happen, guess what? I found my old friends, the dreaded pocket Kings. Of course, I shoved with them. I got called by a bigger stack with Ace-9. This guy wasn’t a very experienced player either, but with his stack size it was probably a good call. The flop was all bricks but of course he caught his Ace on the turn and I was done.
I left my table and started feeling guilty (again) about not re-buying. I went over to Izzy and she was unbelievably nice and gracious. And then she said she would try to get Brad right then and there, in the middle of the tournament, so I could meet him, and not have to wait for the break. Unlike me, Brad still had chips. So I waited, still feeling guilty.
Brad was actually making the rounds, talking to folks, so it took a while. In the meantime, I noticed a big glass display case which had racks and racks of MGM one dollar chips. I asked the floor person I knew if that was actually the $10K first place prize in dollar chips and she said it was. Wow, were they really going to give the winner 10,000 chips? I said, “You must not have any dollar chips for the 1/2 game!” She said yes, they were joking that they wouldn’t be able to do a fill in the poker room all day.
I saw Izzy get Brad’s attention and they talked a bit before she brought him over to me. What happened next was rather incredible. Brad Garrett is the celebrity, but he treated me like absolute royalty. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Vegaspoker. Thank you so much for the mention in Ante Up. It was wonderful. Thank you so much.” Yes, he called me Mister! He went on and on gushing over me.
I of course repaid the favor, telling him what a great job he was doing for such a worthy cause, and also complimenting him as a comedian. “You’re very funny.” He thanked me for the compliments. I also said the obvious to him, “You’re very tall.” Then I added, “I guess you hear that a lot.” He laughed. I got Brad Garrett to laugh! Check the pic of the two of us below. I’m really not a midget. Brad is just really, really tall.
Izzy got the photographer to take a few pics of Brad and me.. In addition to the professional photographer, there was another guy who volunteered to take a few snaps with my own cell phone. Very cool. By the way, the professional photographer happened to be Asian. So Brad said, “Oh look at that. An Asian with a camera. Imagine that.”
Anyway, Brad and Izzy were both so incredible nice and gracious to me that it only made me feel more guilty for not contributing financially to their very worthy cause. But after I left, I started thinking about it and they both seemed real sincere that I had contributed by putting the notice in my column. I hadn’t taken up any space that otherwise would have gone to a “paying customer”—there were plenty of seats available. And the fact that there was a VIP list means I wasn’t the only person who played the tournament for free.
It was a pretty interesting experience all in all, and I’m sure glad I did meet Mr. Brad Garrett, a true class act. And funny. And tall.
It was a pretty interesting experience all in all, and I’m sure glad I did meet Mr. Brad Garrett, a true class act. And funny. And tall.