Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Pulver Enterprises Gambles on a Charity Poker Tournament

Photo: Survivior's Star Boston Rob, John Ratzenberger, Phil Hellmuth and Surivior's Star Amber Brkich

No-Limit Texas Hold'em has a vocabulary all its own. It isn't spoken with a thick southern drawl, it sounds like something uttered in a foreign tongue. "I've got 73 diamonds and I'm all in. Flop: Ace - 3 - King offsuit; Turn: 7; River; 7. I double up with 7's full. Next hand - 7-3 diamonds again. I'm all in - again. I get another caller (one with enough chips to take me out). They've got pocket 6's. Flop comes: Ace of Diamonds - 4 of Diamonds - 8 of Diamonds. I hit my flush on the flop. Then: the Turn comes: 5; and a 4 at the River. The nut flush is a winner."

In mid-October, Pulver Enterprises gambled on adding a, "Best Bet for the Cure: Charity Poker No-Limit Texas Hold'em Tournament" to their "Voice on Net" conference in Boston and won big. Not only did their event raise money for the Diabetes Research Institute Foundation and The Barton Center for Diabetes Education, they upped the ante for other nonprofit organizations interested in betting on poker's resurgent popularity.

The VON Conference already had a number of high-profile attendees expected, but adding John Ratzenberger and Phil Hellmuth to the list of poker tournament players was a major coup. Ratzenberger is famous for his role as "Cliff" on the long-running television series "Cheers" and he is the current host of the Travel Channel's "Made in America." He's also a poker aficionado. Hellmuth is a regular at the World Series of Poker and one of the all-time top money makers in professional poker.

Photo: Jonathan Askin - Wartime Consiglieri for Pulver.com

Jeff Pulver, CEO of Pulver Enterprises, realized his company's lead attorney, Jonathan Askin, had an inside edge on dealing a charity poker tournament into the VON Conference's winning hand. In addition to being a member of the Bar, Askin once played on the professional poker circuit.

His official title at Pulver Enterprises is "Wartime Consiglieri." That distinctive moniker hints at his propensity for attack strategies when launching a new venture. "It's important for charities to be savvy when dealing with gambling and charity events," Askin says. "We're working on a template that will help other organizations hold similar events."

Askin had a stroke of genius that allowed Pulver Enterprises to stage the Boston tournament. They tipped the legal scales in their favor by financial contributions going toward raffle tickets. Winners of the tournament received the coveted Pulver Cup and bragging rights, but prizes with monetary value went to holders of raffle tickets. Remember, raffles are legal in Massachusetts (and most other states)...Poker is not!

Photo: Jonathan & Jeff encouraging a novice

Askin explains, "The Boston event represents an incredibly steep learning curve. Once you've pulled it off once, it becomes a lot easier." Pulver recently dealt Danny Askin, Jonathan's brother, into the game. "My brother's come on board to explore the logistics of holding charity poker tournaments on a regular basis," he says.

"I've never looked at poker as a vice. It's more a game of skill than luck," Askin says. He explains that playing poker has more in common with participating in a celebrity golf or tennis tournament than shooting craps or spinning a roulette wheel. "It's interesting that states allow raffles to be held - which involve no skill, only luck - but it's really hard to pull off a charity poker tournament."

There's nothing like a poker tournament to kickoff a conference, according to Askin. "The game lends itself to very dramatic events at very precise, knowable moments that you don't see in golf or tennis tournaments. I don't know if I can capture exactly how sociable our event was. When someone yelled ‘I'm all in,' 100 people would surround the table to see the hand played out."

Photo: Michael Gallagher, NTIA Administrator (Chief Telecom Advisor to President Bush)

"Probably, the greatest thing about kicking off a conference with a charity poker tournament is giving the attendees a chance to get to know each other in an intimate and psychologically revealing way," Askin says. "If a person plays in a charity golf tournament, they may get to know the other three people in their foursome. With poker, everyone's table hopping and you end up meeting about 100 people in your industry - people you may end up dealing with professionally.

He adds, "I particularly loved that we had Michael Gallagher, President Bush's chief advisor on telecom policy and Stan Wise, President of the Association of State Regulators. In the real world, tension heightens the drama at the poker table which, in many ways is a microcosm of the real world. There was one great moment when Mike, the President's telecom advisor, went ‘all-in' against Phil Hellmuth. Mike prevailed. That was a priceless moment."

"You learn things about people while playing poker that you'd never find out otherwise," Askin says. "You see how they react to pressure and whether they play it safe." The 5,000 attendees at Pulver Enterprises' "VON" Conference were given an opportunity to pre-register for the tournament and staggered start times were designed to accommodate varying arrival times.

The credit for being able to focus on charity poker tournaments goes to Jeff Pulver, according to Askin. "Jeff does everything he can for diabetes. He was raised with a very charitable heart." Pulver's generosity is a driving force behind development of a matrix for other organizations to model future charity poker events on.

The complexities of holding such an event can't be fully addressed in the space we have available, but a synopsis of the Boston VON Conference tournament highlights follow:

"Best Bet for the Cure: Charity Poker No-Limit Texas Hold'em Tournament," was underwritten by Pulver.com with proceeds benefiting the Barton Center for Diabetes Education, Inc. and the Diabetes Research Institute Foundation (DRIF).The sole mission of the DRIF is to support the Diabetes Research Institute (DRI) at the University of Miami School of Medicine, a recognized world leader in cure-focused diabetes research.

The event included extensive gambling action in a professional Vegas-like environment with cocktails and appetizers throughout the tournament. Participant entry fees were largely tax deductible by benefiting diabetes charities.

Photo: Christopher Libertelli, Senior Legal Advisor to FCC Chairman Michael Powell

Winners of the Charity Tournament advanced to the Celebrity Tournament later in the evening. The last player sitting at each event took home the coveted Pulver Cup. In addition, players and other participants purchased raffle tickets at $100 per book of five. Players received 5 free tickets.

The top prize in the raffle was a $10,000 buy-in to the World Series of Poker Main Event in Las Vegas with roundtrip airfare on JetBlue included. An astounding $5 million prize went to the 2004 WSOP winner, with second place receiving $3.5 million. Prizes at the 2005 event are expected to increase considerably. Additional prizes included technology equipment and services related to "voice on net.

Photo: (from left to right) Tom Karlya (DRI), Mark Fuller - Chair, Barton Center Trustees, Brian Leske (Charity Tournament Champion), John Maconga (President of the Barton Center), Jeff Pulver, Phil Hellmuth

Ofer Gneezy, President and CEO of iBasis, won the $10,000 WSOP buy-in. Brian Leske, from the Governor of Massachusetts office, took the Charity Tournament Championship. Shannon Pendergrast was a last minute walk-in, signing up for the opportunity to play against Phil Hellmuth. Pendergrast walked away with the Celebrity Tournament Championship. The late afternoon tournament winner was Vladimir Greysukh. The players agreed that it was the best event they'd ever experienced at a conference.

Adding a regulated activity, such as poker, could present challenges that most fundraising campaign managers are unable to contend with. Askin believes partnerships with state-sanctioned poker rooms or Native American Casinos and the charity poker matrix they're developing may help alleviate some legal and logistical headaches. He explains, "Organizations would be able to draw from the pool of dealers at Native American casinos and legally hold poker tournaments on their premises." Since these facilities are already designed for poker games, equipment rental expenses and staffing costs could be reduced by forming partnerships with existing casinos. "Plus, holding an event for charity would be great PR for the casino," he adds.

Individuals and companies might consider hosting a charity poker tournament to benefit a nonprofit organization or as a novel way to kickoff their next conference or event. Because the mingling of poker and philanthropy is relatively new and legal issues are incredibly complex, learning from those who've played'em and laid'em is especially beneficial. Jonathan Askin encourages queries at charitypoker@fundraisers.com.


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