Hold 'Em or Fold 'Em

Can you guess what game was developed in China more than 1,000 years ago, came to the U.S. in the early 1800s, and is known for having players rely on bluffing, mathematical probability, and of course luck? Oh, and not to mention—it's the hottest game to play in social gatherings right now.

"Poker," says Phil Gordon, co-host of Celebrity Poker Showdown on the Bravo Channel, who has won four times on the World Poker Tour and serves as emcee and poker coach for "poker night" events for businesses and nonprofits. "You can't turn on the television without seeing poker on it," he says. "It has infiltrated ESPN and the Travel Channel—it's all the rage right now." There is no doubt about that. In 2003, cable television initiated the broadcast of this social and competitive game, thereby attracting viewers to watch high-stakes tournaments in which they could see players' cards and learn new strategies. And thanks to this poker mania, more planners than ever are incorporating the game into their events.

Due to the game's explosion in popularity, one Minnesota legislator is even trying to legalize the game in his home state. State Senator Dave Kleis, who represents St. Cloud, is trying to pass a bill allowing one form of poker, Texas Hold 'Em, to be played legally as long as prizes do not exceed $200.

Because of its television coverage, people want to be a part of the poker craze. According to Gordon, "this is because poker is really the only competitive sport that people can envision themselves doing well in—in that kind of arena. No matter how great of an athlete you are, you are never going to throw a pass like Tom Brady or hit a fastball like Barry Bonds. But you can picture yourself sitting at the table and making betting decisions, and that makes for compelling TV viewing." Gordon reports that 50 million to 80 million Americans now identify themselves as poker players; three years ago, before the World Series of Poker started being broadcast on ESPN, that number was much lower. "Five years ago at the World Series of Poker there were less than 600 entrants," says Gordon. "Last year there were 2,576, and this year we are expecting 5,000. Everyone's playing, and playing at all different levels. And companies have picked up on the fact that people love to play—they love to compete, outsmart, and outlast their opponents, and that is exactly what a poker tournament allows them to do."

Teresa Larson, senior VP of Smith Fairfield, a communication event management firm in Alexandria, VA, couldn't agree more: "Poker is the latest trend right now, just like cigars were a couple of years ago. It has become so pervasive." And because of that, she hired Gordon along with a company that specializes in poker events, called P3 (Poker, Promotions, Productions based in Chicago, IL), for the Latino Coalition fundraiser she planned. It took place during the Republican National Convention in August 2004 at the Rainbow Room in New York City and 150 people attended. "We wanted a poker theme night because, whether individual people play the game or not, collectively they are receptive to it," she adds. The whole idea, adds Larson, was to entertain the client by creating an event that was special enough to stand out from the rest of the events taking place during the convention. "We wanted something that no one else was going to offer, and it was a definite success."

Say Goodbye to Casino Night

To put it bluntly, the concept of casino night has gone stale. Poker theme nights and tournaments have become the new trend among corporate events in this day and age. Even though these group events use fake money, there is still a lot at stake, comments Gordon. "There's pride, there's the competitive nature of outwitting your colleagues, and you definitely don't get that with a regular casino night," says Gordon. Also, it's a social setting, where people interact as well as compete. One rule of thumb that Gordon has made to facilitate interaction when emceeing an event is if a player busts out (i.e., loses all of his or her chips) then that person has to get drinks at the bar for everyone at the table.

P.J. O'Neil, president of P3, who works with Gordon, tends to avoid casinos for poker theme events due to all the various legal issues pertaining to the game. "We'll use a casino if that is where the event is held, but usually we go to conference centers, hotel ballrooms, or even restaurants and bars. In some states there are laws that say you can't have any type of poker tournament, even for a charity, at a casino, so we then have to go off site and choose a non-gaming establishment."

In these types of events, a poker expert like Gordon will emcee the night and open with a 45- to 60-minute tutorial on the game. Then it's shuffle-up-and-deal time; with attendees choosing which table they feel most comfortable at, be it the beginners, the "sharks," or somewhere in between. O'Neil explains that the poker champ hops from table to table offering advice, quick lessons, and tips on strategy. According to O'Neil, at a recent sales conference for 200 attendees to which spouses were invited, he arranged poker lessons for the spouses while their husbands or wives were at the sales meetings. "We found it to be very popular because the spouses felt included," says O'Neil. Prizes were also awarded to attendees who did the best bluffing, had the best hand, and even had the worst hand, he says. Poker nights or tournaments can be held for groups with as few as 10 people and as many as 1,000. However, the ideal amount would be 200 or under, so that everyone gets the instruction and enough playing time.

At one sales conference for 110 executives that O'Neil planned in Phoenix last October, the company wanted its guests to attend as many meetings as they possibly could. O'Neil therefore created a strategy to promote high attendance: For each meeting a salesperson attended, he or she would get one poker chip. In order to play in the poker tournament later on that night, the attendee needed to have earned six chips. In addition, the top salespeople were rewarded an amount of chips that reflected their sales numbers, which gave them an obvious advantage over the others (usually everyone starts out with the same number of chips). O'Neil adds that "some poker tournaments give out prizes at the end to the winner; one company gave an extra two-week vacation. Not only does a poker game provide a fun environment, but it offers great incentives." But Gordon puts it best: "People love the game because it's the new old thing to do."