The twentysomething guy wearing blue Nike basketball shorts and Apple earbuds and fiddling with a stack of poker chips on a recent Monday night is one of Liberation United Church of Christ's most valued donors. But they don't know his name, and he probably doesn't know theirs either.
The Lakewood church is running a three-day tournament at the Nautica Charity Poker complex in the Flats, taking a tithe from each hand as action progresses in what will probably be its largest fund-raiser of the year. By the end of the night, it will have pocketed thousands of dollars — an incredible and efficient score in the nickel-and-dime land of small nonprofits.
The guy in the Nike shorts and other players like him unwittingly make up one of Cleveland's largest sectors of charitable giving, both in numbers and in sheer financial volume. Over the last seven years, millions of dollars have been raised for non-profit groups by thousands of poker players, benefiting everyone from hospice organizations to local high schools to Ronald McDonald House.
But he and his fellow players descend upon the hardscrabble West Bank of the Flats because Nautica, whatever its faults — and there are many — offers the only legal poker game in town.
At least for the moment.
The doomsday clock has been ticking at Nautica ever since voters gave Dan Gilbert the go-ahead to erect a casino downtown. Now the countdown is nearing its end: The grand new poker room at the Horseshoe Casino, better than Charity Poker in every quantifiable way, is slated to open on May 14. It's a date Nautica players have been eying gleefully.
"Three months until this place is a ghost town," one Nautica regular wrote on a poker forum in February.
And three months until dozens of local charities get royally flushed.
Kevin Hartman is pretty much like every other high school athletic director, watching helplessly as his budget gets pared by the state scalpel year after year. Necessities become luxuries, and luxuries become fantasies.
As each dollar is lopped off, alternative avenues of revenue become increasingly essential. There's bingo and booster clubs, but that trickle of nickels is fruitless strategy when you're tens of thousands of dollars away from putting your teams on the field.
Seven years ago, however, the AD at Garfield Heights High School found a reliable source of dough to shovel cash — tens of thousands of dollars at a time — into his department's hungry maw: When the Nautica charity tournaments launched in 2005, the Garfield Heights Athletic Boosters were the first group to sign on.
Since then, every year, and sometimes twice a year, volunteers run games during two- and four-day tournaments taking place every night of the week. The charity rakes in a portion of all the money flowing across the tables. A typical take for a four-day stint: More than $30,000.
Hartman says they averaged even more than that annually — closer to $40,000 — and sometimes as much as $80,000 when they've been able to land multiple tournaments in a single year.
Before four o'clock each afternoon, the crowds begin to converge on the corner of Elm and Main.
There, bombed-out buildings share the block with ritzy glass condos, and shards of broken glass line the packed curb that's filled end-to-end with cars till midnight.
Before the Greater Cleveland Aquarium arrived in January, there was little reason to venture down to this corner of the Flats unless you were taking in a summer concert at the pavilion or a comic at the Improv, a lap dance or a cheap drink, or you were simply lost. Gigantic parking lots sit forlornly vacant, daily reminders of more prosperous, boisterous times.
Today, the occasional police siren and the consistent clatter of cars passing overhead on the Shoreway bridge are the only sounds you'll hear outside at any installment of Nautica Charity Poker. Inside, however, the air buzzes with the hum of TVs, chatter, and the constant nervous tapping of chips.
Twenty-five tables that look as if they were dragged in from a Vegas casino circa 1975 fill the cramped room, which despite the exposed brick walls and paint job, feels more like a banquet hall than a gambling parlor. Volunteers in brightly colored shirts work the front desk, assigning players to seats and organizing tournaments. A cashier's window in the back, cordoned off by a sad-looking velvet rope, is guarded by a camera in the ceiling and bars on the window.
It's a far cry from where the tournaments started, across the street in the Nautica parking lot seven years ago.