Leader with a strong hand


The gig: Getting poker players to risk hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars to enter Commerce Casino’s tournaments can present a marketing challenge in this economy. But that’s nothing compared with the organizational skill it takes to feed thousands of players, staff their games with competent dealers and keep participants from tearing at one another’s throats.

Savage, 40, does all of that as tournament director at Commerce, the world’s largest poker club. He manages four major tournament series every year, including the popular L.A. Poker Classic, a monthlong series of events that concludes with a $10,000 buy-in, nationally televised event that this year paid a $1.7-million first prize. His next tournament, the L.A. Poker Open, runs Nov. 5 to Nov. 22 and includes buy-ins from $100 to $2,000.

Savage also takes his show on the road. He runs tournaments at San Jose’s Bay 101 casino, as well as the Asian Poker Tour in Macao and the Philippines and, most recently, the Aruba Poker Classic, making him one of the best-known tournament directors in the world.


Background: Raised in San Jose, Savage attended community college briefly before accepting a job selling chips to players at the Garden City Casino in San Jose in 1992. He later worked as a dealer and assistant tournament director at Bay 101, tournament director at Lucky Chances casino in Colma, Calif., and as tournament director for the World Series of Poker from 2002 to 2004. In 2008, Savage was hired as tournament director at Commerce Casino. All told, he has supervised more than 3,000 tournaments around the world.

The big break: In 2002, professional poker player Tom McEvoy recruited Savage to help manage the World Series of Poker, widely recognized as the most prestigious tournament in poker. Savage was still running the show in 2003 when a down-on-his-luck Tennessee accountant named Chris Moneymaker won the main event and a $2.5-million prize. That event was widely credited with triggering the explosion of poker’s popularity around the world.

“I was the one who handed him the money,” said Savage, who admits it’s sometimes better to be lucky than good.

What’s the deal? A tournament director decides what games will be played, how much they will cost and how the prize money will be divided. In most tournaments, players pay an entry fee (of which the casino takes a cut) and play until one player has won all the chips. Typically, players win cash prizes if they finish in the top 10% of the field.

Savage promotes tournaments in trade publications, Internet forums and through myriad contacts in the poker community. He’s also responsible for details such as setting up tables, scheduling dealers and working the tournament floor to arbitrate all-too-common rules disputes among players.

He has the power to discipline players who verbally abuse opponents or use foul language. Common penalties include making players sit out a certain number of hands, although they still must put antes and blind or forced bets in the pot.

The mediator: “I’m a good listener,” Savage said. “I go to the table, make a decision and walk away. I’ve never disqualified a player from a tournament in my career. I’m able to resolve disputes before they get out of hand. That’s a very important part of the job.”

Poker in a recession: In a down economy, players are less likely to pony up entry fees of $1,000 or more. To generate business, Savage has emphasized smaller buy-ins with larger prize guarantees. In the recent Commerce Hold ‘Em Series, Savage took a gamble by guaranteeing that the casino would pay a minimum $500,000 in prize money in the opening $200 event -- no matter how many players entered. If fewer than 2,500 entered, the casino would have to contribute to the prize pool and take a loss. The gamble paid off handsomely. Nearly 4,000 players entered, and the prize pool grew to more than $700,000.

The other side of the felt: Savage is a solid player in his own right; Omaha 8 is his best game. He has also had some recent success playing tournaments. He made a final table during this year’s World Series of Poker, earning a $32,000 prize. He also won a tournament this year at the Venetian in Las Vegas, taking home $10,000.

Outside the casino: Savage is an avid golfer who -- no surprise -- hosts an annual tournament. He says he has a 17 handicap and considers himself a better golfer than poker player. “Don’t tell anybody, or I’ll lose my action,” he said, referring to wagers he occasionally makes on the course. He also enjoys travel and attending San Jose Sharks hockey games.

Where’s home? Good question. For about six months a year, it’s a hotel room. He lives in the Commerce Crowne Plaza Hotel during local tournaments. When he’s not on tour, Savage lives in Las Vegas with his wife, Maryann, daughter Rizaann, 14, and son Marko, 3.