By Dana Smith
Poker Promotions Wizard Robert Turner Makes a Few Predictions about the Future of Gaming in California, and Gives Some Suggestions on Getting Corporate Sponsorship for Poker Tournaments
It’s hard to talk poker these days without discussing the impact of Indian gaming, the meteoric rise of tournaments during the past decade, and the courting of corporate sponsorship, and what these developments portend for the future of gaming. Surely, few people have been privy to more information on poker than Robert Turner and even fewer have been as instrumental in its development and promotion in Southern California.
In 1987 the California state legislature approved Texas hold’em and seven-card stud in public cardrooms, thus allowing more games than just lowball and draw poker to be spread by the state’s casinos. Turner, who currently is an independent gaming consultant and professional poker player, was there when it happened, as he has been ever since.
Robert Turner: When I heard that hold’em and seven-card stud had been legalized in California, I was living in Alabama (I had moved back home after my stint in Las Vegas), and decided to fly to California, thinking that it was a nice state and the action might be good. I had met Marsha Waggoner and Yosh Nokano, who also were planning to go there; in fact, hundreds of poker players decided to move to California when it legalized hold’em.
The owner of the Eldorado Club in Gardena needed someone who knew a lot about the game to help him out, so he asked Marsha and me to become hosts. We put in a pot-limit hold’em game at the Eldorado, the first one that was spread in California. After three days of nonstop 2$/$5 pot-limit action, the owner insisted on increasing the rake to $5. I disagreed with him because I knew that $5 was too high a rake for such a small game, so he and I parted ways after a short time.
About that time, the owners of the Horseshoe Casino in Gardena visited the Eldorado to see all the poker action that Marsha and I had generated and asked if I could send them someone to do the same thing. Since I couldn’t get along with the Eldorado’s owner, I went to the Horseshoe myself and ended up becoming its general manager with a percentage ownership of the revenue.
I stayed there until 1989 when new ownership came in and closed the club for remodeling. However, they never were able to get their license, so they bought out my contract and I accepted a job as poker director at the Regency Casino in Bell, halfway between the Commerce and Bicycle Casinos. Beginning with three poker tables, our business began to build and at one point, we were taking customers away from the Bike.
In 1991 George Hardie sent John Sutton over to talk with me, asking if I would come to work for the Bicycle Casino as an executive host. It was an offer that I couldn’t refuse.
When I was promoted to Director of Marketing at the Bike, I convinced Hardie that the California card clubs needed to get into the entertainment business to expand their venues and bring in new customers, so we started staging concerts, billiard tournaments, and boxing events at the Bike, and they were very successful. Before the U.S. government came into the picture and took it over, the Bike had a tremendous business.
Then the Commerce Casino became very aggressive, building a showroom and banquet room. As the competition for customers grew in the Los Angeles area, these concerts, events and other promotions were the only ways the cardrooms could fight one another. They realized that, just like it is in Las Vegas, you always have to have something new going on, you can’t depend solely on the poker. When a city has only one cardroom, that’s really bad for the player base because there is no competition. Competition is what makes things happen, and it creates a better environment for players.
Dana Smith: With your outgoing personality and friendly attitude, you’ve always been a sort of people magnet, as far as I can see.
RT: Yes, I guess so. I’ve always looked at casinos a little differently. I thought, “Casinos are always being built and growing, and if I can bring them customers, they’ll always need me.” And in order to give poker players a voice in the industry, I formed the World Card Players Association so that we can network together. I am sorry to say that WCPA president Fred Wright, my attorney and best friend, recently passed away so we’re looking for a new president.
DS: The Diamond Jim Brady tournament probably was the Bike’s best-ever poker event. What ever happened to it?
RT: Hardie owned the rights to the Diamond Jim Brady so he took it with him when he left. He was the general manager of the Bicycle Club and when the government took it over, Hardie’s contract was not renewed. The Bike then asked me to come up with something equal to it, so we created the Legends of Poker (scheduled for August 3-28 this year). In our first outing, we had about 25 “legends”—including Tom McEvoy, Mike Sexton, Johnny Chan, Max Stern, and Susie Isaacs—whom we paid $1,000 each to act as hosts for the tournament. But when management changed at the Bicycle, it got away from our original concept, though I still think it was the best one because I always like to involve people in my projects.
Another great promotion that we had at the Bike was the Go for the Gold tournament that Dr. Jerry Buss hosted. Five percent of the proceeds were donated to the United Negro College Fund and Dr. Buss got Lakers’ player James Worthy to present the check for $20,000 to the Fund. The buy-in was $10,000 and instead of playing with tournament chips, we had an armored truck deliver $400,000 in Spanish gold coins, which were valued at a couple of thousand dollars each. And you know what? We didn’t lose a single coin!
DS: Where did you move from the Bicycle Casino?
RT: When Phyllis Caro left the club, I followed her to Hollywood Park in 1996 where I created the largest poker tournament in history, Poker’s Ultimate Challenge. It was a way to get new people involved in poker. You could only enter it by winning a $5 satellite and we guaranteed $100,000. How could anyone turn down such a deal—the possibility of winning $100,000 with only a $5 investment! Envision this: We ran 1,520 satellites and had 1,520 entrants in this tournament. It was so big that we had to run the tournament in shifts. We also gave each player a phone card or a tee shirt. The phone cards had photos of famous players on them and became collectibles.
One of the nicest things that anyone said to me was something that Mark Sterbins, the general manager at that time, told me on the Monday after the tournament had begun: “As the result of Poker’s Ultimate Challenge, Hollywood Park had turned the corner to profitability.” We immediately followed that event with another one, of course. When I left Hollywood Park, I went to work for MGM’s marketing office in Beverly Hills. Then the Bicycle Club asked me to return, so I went back to the Bike, but remained with MGM as an independent agent.
DS: So now you had a day job, a part-time job, and you also played poker. By that time you were a permanent resident of California?
RT: Yes, although my driver’s license still is from Alabama and I consider Alabama to be my home. You see, I never thought I would stay in California for very long, I was just passing through. In 1998 I joined John Sutton and his staff at Crystal Park. They brought me in to build the top section there and we hired some outstanding hosts for our high-limit games. We had Frank Henderson and his R.O.E. game, Tom McEvoy, Randy Watkins (now the personable manager of Lake Elsinore Casino), Randy Holland (the 2000 WSOP seven-card split champion), Kathy Keller Kolberg, Bill Gempel, Kwang Lee, and others—a great cast of hosts who probably did the best job that’s ever been done in California. Most of our hosts were top tournament players with outgoing personalities and that’s a major reason why tournaments became so successful at Crystal Park. In fact, I think the future of poker in California is going to be built around hosts.
DS: That’s when I first met you, and was impressed with your congeniality (plus the comped room, of course). What has been the highlight of your career so far?
RT: While I was at Hollywood Park, I also did some consulting work for Commerce Casino and created a pool tournament for the club called Legends of Pool. One of the things I am most proud of is that, at one time, Card Player was running ads for Legends of Pool at the Commerce Casino, Legends of Poker at the Bicycle Casino, and the National Championship of Poker at Hollywood Park Casino—so the California section of Card Player was filled with promotions that I had designed and marketed for the three major clubs there. That made me feel warm inside and probably was the apex of my career thus far.
Of course, none of these great events could’ve taken place without the help and hard work of other people and the vision of the owners. I am particularly grateful to Phyllis Caro, John Sutton, George Hardie, Jim Barbo, Denny Williams and Marsha Waggoner for their help to me in my career.
DS: You truly have been an innovator in the poker industry. Given your extensive background, what is your read on the future of gaming in California?
RT: The future of California gaming is a little unclear right now because of the passage of the new Indian legislation that allows tribes to offer complete gaming. I think that the major players in the gaming market will be building megaresorts. Lyle Berman (Grand Casinos) and Harrah’s already have signed contracts with tribal nations to build casinos in California and it wouldn’t surprise me if Steve Wynn also expanded to California. Look for the old face of California gaming to change, which can have a major impact on card rooms that offer poker only. I’m hoping that the California legislature will further change state laws to allow more gaming activities in poker rooms, which need it to have a chance to compete. If that doesn’t happen, it’s going to be very tough for card rooms to survive.
DS: Your thought is that when the tribal nations open full casinos, they will negatively impact cardrooms that are not allowed to offer full gaming?
RT: Right. It really puts a burden on even the major card clubs and in the coming years, some of them will not make it. Only the card rooms that are able to keep up the pace and are innovative in their promotions will survive. Gaming will become more and more a “people” business, which means developing player relations.
California clubs will have to hire a lot of casino hosts, and because of this added expense, they will not attain the bottom line they used to enjoy. When a new casino opens in Las Vegas, it doesn’t hire new hosts and then train them, it hires experienced hosts who can bring in customers. In essence, the casinos feed on each others’ clientele. I believe that California casinos are going to have to follow Las Vegas’ lead—they will have to hire veteran hosts who are well liked and can attract new players as well as maintain the loyal customer base.
DS: It seems to me that the changing gaming scene in California also will affect Las Vegas.
RT: Yes, it will have a major impact on Nevada. Right now, the largest resort on the boards in California is a Lyle Berman project near San Diego. Donald Trump’s commitment to gaming in Palm Springs is around $50 million. But these projects are only the tip of the iceberg. The expansion of gaming in California probably will create 50,000 to 100,000 new jobs in the state. Over the next couple of years, you’ll see tremendous strides being taken—gaming will be the biggest thing that’s ever happened on the West coast. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day you picked up a newspaper and read the headline, “Steve Wynn has Just Signed a Contract to Construct the Largest Resort Ever Built,” with 10,000 rooms and three golf courses located between Los Angeles and San Diego—that is, if Lyle Berman doesn’t beat him to the punch. With so many new states coming on board, we’ve already seen tremendous growth in poker over the past 10 years. And in the future, poker is going to explode.
I believe that California is the new frontier. With the opening of the Hawaiian Gardens casino, new ownership at the Bicycle Club, and a hotel opening at the Commerce Casino, the greater Los Angeles area will be “the” place to play, a player’s heaven, with hotels onsite or nearby, free food for top section players, and 100,000 to 200,000 players in action each month, along with 5,000 local tournament players. And gambling in the Gardena area may go full circle with the opening of the Hustler casino on the former Eldorado site and the Normandie Casino still going strong.
Deciding which club to play at today is similar to how shopping for the lowest prices on gasoline was a few years ago. Some clubs are lowering their menu prices to $1 to compete, others are lowering collections, and some are adding money to their tournament prize funds. The bottom line is that players are getting the best of it.
DS: Big-time efforts currently are underway to obtain corporate sponsorship for poker tournaments. What are your thoughts?
RT: First of all, I believe that the WSOP has been making a mistake for the past 31 years in not actively soliciting corporate sponsorship. From the beginning, the marketing department at the Horseshoe should’ve hired an outside marketing firm to solicit corporate backing. If the WSOP could get as little as $100,000 in sponsorship money, it would help the players tremendously. Even beach volleyball gets $50,000 or more per event in corporate money.
DS: You have gotten sponsors for past events in California. How did you do that?
RT: When we held the Diamond Jim Brady at the Bicycle Club, I was able to get Ford-Mercury-Lincoln as a sponsor. I was lucky to find someone in the Ford corporate offices at 7:00 one night and was so happy that I forgot to write down his name. I told this unknown person that we probably would have 5,000 entries and that the event would be widely advertised. About a week later, the Western Region Marketing Director called and told me to shop around to find the best price on a car and then bill Detroit for $15,000 promotional money.
Several beer companies also donated $5,000 in nonalcoholic products and services for our charity event at the Bike, and Robinsons-May has supplied make-overs for our women’s tournaments. In fact, I’ve never been turned down by a vendor. I think that the WSOP and other major tournaments can put some pressure on vendors such as Coca Cola and Kraft Foods to help fund the event as sponsors. At the least, food vendors could throw a pre-tournament party that could contribute as much as $50,000 in food products to the players’ welfare. You see, some vendors will donate products and services rather than money.
DS: Sounds like a tasty idea to me. Thanks, Robert, for your marketing insights and for a personal story that has been like a trip through the looking glass of poker.
Robert Turner is a legendary poker player and billiard marketing expert, best known for inventing and creating the game of Omaha poker and introducing it to Nevada in 1982 and to California in 1986. He also created the Legends of Poker for the Bicycle Casino and the National Championship of Poker for Hollywood Park Casino both in 1995.
In the year 2000, he created World Team Poker, the first professional league for poker. He created Live at the Bike, the first live gaming site broadcast on the internet in 2002. He is currently working with his new companies Crown Digtial Games developing unique mobile apps and Vision Poker, a poker marketing and managing group. He has over 30 years experience in the gaming industry. Robert can be reached at email@example.com.