Glenn McCrory was on a skiing vacation in Breckinridge when the idea hit him. And now, less than a decade later, he's taken what was just a night at a bar after a day on the slopes and created a major New England entertainment company.
Always an athlete and a competitor (McCrory played several sports at Bishop Hendricken High and was named the Warwick Beacon Athlete of the Month in 1999), after graduating from St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., he and a buddy took some time off to experience the famed powder of the Colorado Rockies.
The skiing was great, he said, but what really stuck in his mind was the unique competition that went on at one of the bars each night – a Texas Holdem poker tournament.
"This was shortly after Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker in 2003," McCrory said. "So a lot of people were really curious about the game.
"Moneymaker was just an unknown amateur nobody had heard of when he paid $39 to enter a poker tournament in Tennessee. He won, and that earned him a seat at the big game in Las Vegas, where he won $2.5 million. That's the kind of story that gets your attention," he said.
Texas Holdem took off like a rocket in the western United States. Poker News dubbed the phenomenon the "Moneymaker Effect."
The game McCrory discovered in that Colorado bar was open to anybody with $20, so he and his pal decided to sit in. They liked the idea that they weren't playing for money for two really good reasons: A) That would be illegal; and B) They didn't have any.
So they weren't in any danger of losing the little bit of cash they did have and thumbing home to New England. But the tournament play definitely had that feel – that edge – of a high stakes game, McCrory remembers, "And it definitely was fun.”
"After the slopes closed, people would crowd into the bar, and a few card tables would be set up – if you got there early enough, you could compete,” said McCrory. “You'd pay the fee and get a seat. Everybody started at the same time with the same number of poker chips. People won, people lost, and when you lost, you'd get up and watch everybody else play."
When it got down to the last player, the bar handed out prizes to the winner and to the last two or three players to go bust – a ski board, some gloves, a muffler, whatever; all ski-related prizes.
"The point is, everybody had a good time whether you won, lost or just watched. Nobody lost their shirt or their temper. There was never a hassle, and the bar made money,” he said. “All the way home I couldn't stop thinking about it, and saying to myself, 'This thing has all the elements; it was an experience really, with excitement, competition, skill, luck.' Over and over I thought, 'There has to be a way to turn this into a business.'"
There was, but it was far from a cinch finding out how. Putting his newly minted business degree to work, McCrory started developing business models.
"Basically, all I had was an idea. I didn't have development capital but I had credit cards. I didn't have a venue to hold an event – hopefully a restaurant or bar. But there were a lot of them in Rhode Island. In fact, there were too many for me to see all by myself. It was tough. I'd go out to try talking to the owners, but no one seemed too anxious to just turn over part of their business to me once a week to put on, of all things, a poker game!" said McCrory, feigning horror. "My sister said she could take a few hours a week to help me cover more ground. And that's how we found a place for our first pub poker game before I ran out of credit cards. It was a bar down south, named Daniel B's."
It's not there anymore, but in 2005, that's where Eastern Poker Tour (EPT) began. The company is based on Lavin Street in Warwick, not far from Jefferson Boulevard.
Eight years on, and the company is the second largest of its kind in the nation. It's the only one to have its Tournament of Champions televised. Broadcast on Comcast, it’s drawn high Nielson Ratings since it first began in 2008.
Eastern Poker Tour's website keeps track of all its player rankings in each of its seven regions (six in Massachusetts and one in Rhode Island). There are two seasons each year (the current one ends in October, with the $36,000 Tournament of Champions held over Columbus Day Weekend). More than 7,000 players participate each season, and EPT's database of poker players is well over 32,000 men and women.
The website gets well over 1 million hits every month.
"We've had to work things out as we went along," said McCrory. "It was hard to get a restaurant to go with us at first. But soon we had more places asking to host regular poker nights than we could use. We made the decision not to force players to choose between places to play on any given night. We'd rather have 60 people playing at one location than 30 playing at two. It makes for a more exciting game, and it's better for the restaurant."
Two-time Rhode Island Attorney General Jeffrey Pine is the company's legal advisor. He came on board early and searched the state and local statutes in Rhode Island and Massachusetts to make sure EPT was and is in full compliance.
The money games are held at casinos in the two states. The local nightly games are a way to get a seat at one of those tables.
"We have what we call satellite games," said McCrory. "Where a win is a qualifier to get into bigger games. Playing in a nightly tournament also earns each player points, and at the end of a season a percentage of the top point-earners get into a big game."
The next big thing coming is the Great American Poker Challenge in Vegas. It's actually been running since May. Any nightly winner becomes qualified. It's a $50,000 Championship, with $20,000 going to the winner. In November, there's the GAPC Open, and it has $100,000 in guaranteed payouts, according to EPT.
So who plays at these nightly Texas Holdem tournaments?
"We have business people, doctors, lawyers, judges, salesmen, truck drivers, retired people," McCrory explains, "all sitting at the same table having a good time.
"We've run over 15,000 events without a problem, all violence-free. Men and women play. As a matter of fact, we have some data that shows women might be a little better at this than men,” he said. “About 15 to 20 percent of our players are female [compared to just 5 percent for the World Series of Poker], but at the final table, they are usually 30 to 40 percent."
A part of EPT's business is providing events for charities and fundraisers. It seems that the company has scrubbed any stigma that may have ever been associated with poker tournament play.
"People become regular players very easily. They play with many of the same people once or more each week, and relationships are formed," said McCrory. "I remember a couple of years ago one of our regular players passed away, and some 200 of his poker-playing friends came to the funeral."
Glenn McCrory said the business has moved into areas he could never have foreseen, mostly because it had to. For example, it began manufacturing it's own eight-position poker table designed to fit comfortably in the venues found in New England because there weren't any on the market.
"Our design is really solid, and the look is absolutely professional. It accommodates eight players and their drinks, without a spill. They are stackable and easy to transport, set up, tear down and store like none I've ever come across. It's our invention; we make them right here. We're thinking about marketing them nationally."
Internationally? McCrory smiled but wouldn't say.
EPT's Tournament of Champions TV broadcast has moved into what just a few years ago would have been called science fiction. Using RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology, each card in a special deck tells the table what it is (Ace, King, Queen, etc.), and which suit it belongs to after it's dealt. As the game goes on, the table sends that information to a computer in the control room where the producer can show the images on your TV screen, along with the relative chances of each hand winning.
"That really makes for an exciting show," he said.
Each special RFID deck of cards costs $200.
So what's next? Glenn McCrory isn't shy about saying he thinks that the model for Texas Holdem Poker tournaments he developed here in Rhode Island and Massachusetts would work anywhere. And he believes organizing a national governing body could be a natural evolutionary step for EPT.
Certainly, after eight years McCrory's energy and enthusiasm doesn't seem to have diminished. And as for the game itself, it still has all the exciting elements he recognized in that bar back in Colorado.