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Can charity poker make a comeback?


When the Horseshoe Casino opened its doors on May 14, it unwittingly siphoned millions of dollars that had previously flowed into the pockets of local non-profits the previous seven years.

Since 2005, the Nautica Charity Poker operation had stood as a one-stop fund-raising shop for charities. It was quick and painless, reliable and lucrative. About 80 groups cycled through the complex each year — from athletic boosters to Rainbow Babies and Children Hospital to folks helping out the poor and helpless — and took home, on average, between $30,000 and $40,000 from running a single weekend tournament.

It was a cash cow in the land of nickel-and-dime nonprofits and a necessary safety line as the recession hit.

But there was an expiration date to the gravy train: the arrival of Dan Gilbert's casino, which would offer a "World Series of Poker," with 30 tables and all the amenities, and 24-hour access, that poker players craved. It would be a far cry from the backroom feel of Nautica, which looked more like your uncle's basement than a legitimate gambling operation.

The charities expected a hit, the players knew everyone would leave.

"Three months until this place is a ghost town," one Nautica regular wrote on a poker forum in February. Nautica's addition of new TVs and fresh carpet did little to change anyone's minds on where to place their money.

When a small private poker room in Berea opened up two years ago, about half of Nautica's customers switched venues, according to its own estimate. But Berea shut down the private club over concerns that it violated city legislation. So the players returned to Nautica — once again the only game in town — as a refuge of last resort.

That was, until the casino opened, which had a draw all its own: fat pockets of amateur players who frequent the casino but never would have ventured down to the forlorn poker room in The Flats.

"A lot of the online pros from this town — people that you don't know or hear about, people that earned a living online before the sites went down last April — they are going to come to the Horseshoe," said Scott, a regular who had been playing at Nautica twice a week for the last three years, when interviewed by Scene in February 2012. "They didn't come out to Nautica because it's such a craphole."

Despite having charities booked through the end of 2012, Nautica shut its doors the first week of June. No one was coming anymore. They were all at the Horseshoe. And charity poker was dead.

The irony in that fact: charity poker was brought to Nautica by Jacobs Investments because CEO Jeff Jacobs thought it would be an effective soft-launch for Ohio to eventually approve real casinos.

"The Poker Festivals will demonstrate the phenomenal demand for gaming in Ohio and show people that gaming is a viable source of revenue," a Jacobs VP said at the time.

He was right.


Buckeye Charity Poker opened its doors in early September. The room, located off Chardon Rd. in Willoughby Hills, is bright and clean, open 2 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. daily. It offers blackjack in addition to poker, and the tables are electronically manned — no dealers needed — which solved some of the problems players had with Nautica. Namely: the volunteers were new to the game, unable to keep the pace of play, constantly making mistakes.

One problem has not been solved: not many folks are filling the seats.

According to Gina Garofoli, Buckeye charity coordinator, the operation has about 100 regulars. A trip on a recent Friday evening saw more like 50.

And according to Garofoli, the money coming through the doors is not even enough to cover operating costs. Instead of walking away with tens of thousands of dollars, charities are walking away with closer to $1,000, and that is out of Buckeye's generosity.

Charities are scheduled through the end of the year, and Garofoli is now booking for 2013, with all expectations that the parlor will remain open.

Reviews thus far have been mixed, and there is a learning curve with any undertaking, especially one as daunting as trying to steal players away from an immaculate poker room in an immaculate palace where their every need can and will be met.

And charities, though signed on out of necessity, aren't seeing the returns they need.

"I understand you have to have the place at least half full before you make any money," says Carol Briney, founder and executive director of Reentry Bridge Network, a Canton non-profit that aims to stop recidivism. "I think [Buckeye] gave us $1,200 when we had a tournament there when it opened. We thought we'd make ten grand. The place was empty. I brought a whole staff and paid for food and motel for three days for the tournament. I lost money on it."

Kevin Hartman is the Athletic Director at Garfield Heights High School. The school's athletic boosters had held tournaments at Nautica each of the seven years it was open, sometimes twice a year. The $40,000 to $80,000 haul helped Hartman navigate budget shortfalls, helping to pay for busing, uniforms, and more.

While many charities that used Nautica's cash faucet have come calling to Buckeye Charity Poker, Garfield Heights hasn't. Yet. But the boosters held an event with Ohio Charity Poker, which has opened and closed off and on for a year. It only managed to raise a quarter of what they were used to seeing.

And now, Hartman is scrambling.

"We're trying to find ways to make up the difference," says Hartman. "We're doing bingo 52 weeks a year, and selling lottery tickets, and nights at the races, and reverse raffles, and anything else we can think of. It put a big dent in our budget."

And after four months, it doesn't look like charity poker will ever make up that difference again.

Meanwhile, the Horseshoe casino reported $20.5 million in adjusted gross revenue for the month of November.


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