LA's Commerce Casino and its new tournament director Matt Savage might not have connected if Savage's Plan A had worked.
His thinking fizzled, so he looked around for a Plan B and what do you know, there it was. It's a long story but the 40-year-old Savage cuts to the chase with this explanation: He was 14 when he started working as a porter in a 60-lane Southern California bowling alley. His goal then was to become a professional bowler. It would have been fun. Years later he still carries a 210 average.
"There was not a lot of money in bowling."
When Savage turned 21, he walked into a poker room and discovered the opportunity to make good money doing something it turned out he was good at. He's now 40 and it does not sound like there have been any regrets. He's climbed steadily through the business, at one time or another running the biggest tournaments found anywhere. Yes, Savage plays the game but it is his skills as a manager of people and a supervisor of circumstances that brought him success as an executive.
Savage's goals at the Commerce, the world's largest card club with 240 tables in one of the world's largest poker markets are clear-cut enough-to build up its four major tournaments, the LA Poker Classic early in the year being the biggest, as he also schedules a series of smaller buy-in tournaments that promise big guarantees.
"It amounts to changing up the schedule to make it a little more fun, a little more exciting for the players," he explains.
Commerce customers are never more than a few hours away from a tournament of some size. On Fridays there is a $100 buy-in tournament with a $50,000 guarantee. There are also big guarantees for tournaments every Saturday and Sunday. No limit hold 'em continues to be the most popular game but every variation and limit is available.
A varied menu, Savage says, is the way to capture the attention of the poker-playing public. Now is not the time, he continues, to do anything other than keep the spot light on the promise of big payoffs.
There is a series of Hold 'em tournaments in September that will include a $200 buy-in event with a $500,000 guarantee. "Nothing like that has been done with such a small buy-in."
The September schedule also includes what Savage calls an "Iron Man Tournament," with no scheduled breaks and a $10,000 pay-off. Savage grins, "It will be interesting to see how people are playing after 24 hours or so."
Savage has handled most poker room jobs from selling chips to dealing. He's been a floorman, and lead floorman, but it was not until 1998 that he became aware of his passion for orchestrating tournaments. Savage stepped in as a substitute tournament director and a short time later was asked to take the lead tournament position when a nearby casino opened its doors. It was a couple of years later that Savage became aware of the fact "there was a serious problem plaguing poker tournaments everywhere."
Savage saw a jungle of conflicting rules and decided something needed to be done... creating some order amid the chaos, was the way he saw it.
Players did not know what to expect when they put down their money to enter an event. Creating some order would be good for everyone, he reasoned. In 2001, Matt traveled to the world's biggest poker stage, the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas hoping to get poker directors to work together to form standardized rules. Out of that meeting the Tournament Directors Association was formed. The TDA has since become the worldwide standard for tournament rules and is now used in most major tournaments including the WSOP.
A year later in 2003 he was back at the World Series, this time as its director. Over the next several World Series-he left after the 2004 event, the year when the World Series was bought by Harrah's Entertainment-Savage watched the cash prizes in the main event grow from $6 million to more than $25 million in 2004. During his tenure at the WSOP, the transformation of both televised poker and the Internet boom was taking place.
Call it being at the right place at the right time, or persistence and hard work, but Savage ascended to become the world's top poker tournament director. In 2003, he was awarded the inaugural Benny Binion Award for outstanding service in the poker industry. Matt has currently appeared on more than 300 televised poker shows on ESPN, GSN, Fox Sports, Travel Channel, and numerous others. He was also the host of a nationally televised show called "Inside Poker," and is an actor in the Warner Brothers movie "Lucky You," in which he worked with actors Drew Barrymore, Robert Duvall, and Eric Bana.
He continues to play as much poker as circumstances allow... "I played in six events at this year's World Series, cashed in two of them and made one final table." But over-seeing some of the biggest tournaments in the world at far-flung locations around the globe is, well... it's time consuming and it is his executive talents that have taken Savage to the highest levels of the poker world. Over the next few months he will be in Macau for the Asian Poker Tour, Aruba and Marrakech as he also maintains a sharp focus on the interests of the Commerce.
What does he think of the people who play poker at the highest levels? Who are the best? Having had a chance to watch the best players in the world over a number of years he takes the politically correct view of an administrator who works with everyone.
"I have the greatest respect for all the people who stay busy with the biggest tournaments on a regular basis."
He is willing to offer his view of the traits that all the best players exhibit: "Patience and certainly stamina and endurance are important. And there is no question that you have to be able to read your opponent."
Savage is intrigued by the successful players who scarcely need to look at their cards. "They're just playing their opponents."
Like a good tournament director, taking in the big picture and doing what's necessary.
(Poker Player is pleased to welcome Phil Hevener back to its pages. Hevener was the Managing Editor of Poker Player from July 1983 to December 1985. Phil wanted to produce his own publication, which he did with Larry Hall. They called it, "Las Vegas Style." A popular journalist who writes for many major publications, Phil was replaced in 1985 by Gary Thompson, who is now the spokesman for Harrahs Entertainment.)