The Man in the Middle

Poker tournaments can be a tricky undertaking. Thank goodness for Matt Savage

Matt SavageIf you’ve played in a poker tournament over the last 15 years, you have quite a bit to thank Matt Savage for. From the standardization of rules to the most player-friendly structures, Savage has had a role in many of the aspects of the poker industry that have shaped the game into what it is today.

He’s a man who wears many hats in this industry, serving as the executive tour director for the World Poker Tour and the tournament director at the Commerce Casino and Bay 101, his hometown casino, among many other duties. Savage is also well-known for being tireless, a useful attribute for someone who spends upward of three months on the road at a time.

“I’ve never had a month off since I was 14 years old,” Savage said. “I cleaned ashtrays and I was setting up pins at the age of 14. I did that and in high school I was a competitive bowler until I was 18 or 19. Then I went to work for an alarm company and a baseball card shop at the same time.”

Savage found his way into gambling, like many others, after spending much of his youth in bowling alleys.

“Around the age of 12 years old, I discovered the bowling alley,” Savage said, “[which was] a lot different than the Family Fun centers that they have today. I spent a lot of time there, from the age of 12 until I was 18 years old, and I ended up working there.”

When he turned 21, Savage found his way into the local cardrooms in San Jose as a player first. After playing for some time at a local casino called Garden City, he made a decision that would change the course of his life.

“At one point, I realized I wasn’t making enough money playing poker,” Savage said, “And I wasn’t making enough money working for the alarm company. It was that moment I decided to go into the casino industry.”

Savage broke in by running chips at Garden City, and after several years transitioned into dealing. He was hired to work at Bay 101, but the room didn’t open for another year. Savage would eventually go on to deal there for three years, until circumstances beyond his control brought that career to a swift end.

“I really loved dealing and I was making good money doing it,” Savage said. “I didn’t really want to do anything else, I was happy with it and I could get off when I wanted to. Well, I was dealing a lot and worked a lot of overtime, and eventually I developed carpal tunnel syndrome.”

The pain in his hands rendered him unable to deal, forcing a move to the floor. While it was not the easiest of transitions, Savage enjoyed interacting with the customers. It was also at this time that he started his own golf tournament, which led a friend at Bay 101 to suggest that Savage should run poker tournaments.

When the regular tournament director went on vacation, he stepped in to run the tournaments at Bay 101 and found his true calling. Savage would eventually go on to a similar position at Lucky Chances when it opened up in 1998. He was still working there when he took his first trip to the mecca of poker.

“It was 2001 when I first set foot in Binion’s Horseshoe in Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker,” Savage said. “I went up to the tournament director there and said, ‘I run tournaments at Lucky Chances in the Bay area, and I’m really interested in standardizing the rules.’”

Savage’s inspiration largely came from his experiences as a player, as he spent much of his time off playing in some of the other California card rooms. He began to notice that each room had its own set of rules, which inspired him to pursue an industry standard. Linda Johnson suggested that they piggyback on the upcoming World Poker Industry Conference, which led to a meeting that would ultimately change tournament poker for the better.

“Bob Thompson basically told me that it had been tried before and that it wasn’t going to work. Luckily I was friends with Linda, who had made it up to Lucky Chances a few times. She knew I was serious. That first year, we had about 25 tournament directors and poker room managers from around the country come in. Out of that we started the Tournament Directors Association.”

Savage made his first major contribution to the industry by co-founding the TDA, but it would be far from his last. The World Series of Poker would become the stage where Savage would first make a name for himself. In 2002, he was asked by Tom McEvoy, who was working for the WSOP as a consultant, if he would run the WSOP.

While his friends advised him not to do it, pointing to the fact that the staff wasn’t paid the previous year among other factors, Savage simply could not turn down the opportunity.

“At that point I knew I had to do it,” Savage said, “Whether I got paid zero dollars or made a lot of money. I had to do it because I thought it was going to be a defining moment in my career and in my life and, as it turns out, it was.”

Savage started out as co-director with Steve Morrow, who was also working for PokerStars at the time. It was still a very new site at the time, and that endeavor took up the majority of Morrows time. That left Savage to run the show largely on his own. It was a very different tournament that time, and not just because it was taking place at Binion’s.

All of the events at that time were using chips with denominations as small as five in every tournament, the structures were inconsistent and there was constant turmoil at every step. One of the biggest problems, however, would be Savage’s first target for change at the WSOP.

“When I started at the World Series, one of the things I wanted to stop was the abuse of the dealers and other players that was rampant in Las Vegas and had been going on for years,” Savage said. “My opening comment before the first event at the WSOP went something like, ‘This is going to stop. There will be no dealer abuse allowed at the World Series, it’s going to stop now and it’s not going to happen going forward,’ and the crowd gave me a round of applause. I kind of feel like it was the defining moment of my career.”

Despite the prestige surrounding the event the primary focus, then as it is today, is on the Main Event. Savage and his team did not know what to expect that first year, but 631 players would turn out in 2002 as Robert Varkonyi walked away with the title and $2 million. That success led to Savage being invited back to the WSOP in 2003.

Matt Savage“That was really the year that changed everything,” Savage said.

They trudged through the preliminary events with their eyes once again fixed on the Main Event. The conditions were ripe for poker to explode, but nobody really saw it coming. PokerStars sent a contingent of online qualifiers for the first time, one of whom was an accountant from Tennessee with the all-too-perfect name of Chris Moneymaker.

“I do consider that the highlight of my career,” Savage said. “It’s one of the biggest moments in the history of poker and really one of the big things that got things started. It was the perfect storm with the online site, the young kid, the name and the fact he got in for $40. When you put it all together it helped to create the boom that we’re enjoying the effects of today. I was happy to be a part of it in my small way.”

A third year at the WSOP was in the cards for Savage, though things were quickly changing behind the scenes. Just before the start of the 2004 WSOP, Harrahs acquired Binions and the rights to the series, forever changing the course of poker history. Savage sensed that things were going to be very different moving forward with the World Series.

“I met with a gentleman I really like named Howard Greenbaum, who was in charge of the WSOP as well as the Keno department, the golf courses and the sportsbooks for Harrahs properties. He had a pretty busy job. He really listened to what I had to tell him and I liked the way he handled the management of the whole situation, but by the end of that World Series we kind of knew that they wanted to take it in-house and have their own people run the event.”

“I think it was a big stepping stone for my career and I was happy with the decision I made, though I still miss working at the World Series of Poker.”

In between his stints as the tournament director of the WSOP, Savage continued to work in California and around the world. While Lucky Chances owner Rene Medina allowed him to work at the WSOP in 2002, he wasn’t as eager to do so when Savage requested to return there in 2003. This led to a move back to Bay 101 as its tournament director in 2003 and he continues to be a full-time employee there in that position to this day.

It was also around this time that the World Poker Tour was created. Savage was still at Lucky Chances when it ran a WPT event there in Season 1, and in Season 2 he was at Bay 101 when it hosted its first event on the tour. It was unlike any other tournament on the WPT, with an origin that far predated the tour.

“It was the brainchild of Marko Trapani,” Savage said. “He was a friend of mine who recently passed away, and he was very inspirational in my career. He had the idea of doing something like the AT&T Golf Classic, where everybody came in and they had a Pro-Am event, and he did that with all of his friends. Once the WPT got involved, it really morphed into something even more.”

The Bay 101 Shooting Star uses a bounty format, where one player at each table has a price on their head that can be claimed by whichever player eliminates them. Bay 101 is a unique setting for the tournament as, unlike other casinos, they don’t have slot machines or other games. When they shut the poker room down for the tournament, it takes over the whole casino.

Savage continued to work on camera and behind the scenes on hundreds of televised poker shows on Fox Sports, ESPN and elsewhere. He was eventually offered an opportunity in Southern California that he couldn’t pass up. A contingent from the Commerce Casino that included Casino Manager Jeff Harris offered Savage a position as its tournament director.

“I came to the Commerce in 2009,” Savage said, “And it was something that Tim Gustin, another one of the guys who helped to hire me, had talked to me about years before. He always thought I’d be a good fit, with it being the world’s largest poker casino. In their opinion, I was the best at my job at that time, and they reached out to me and told me they’d really like to have me.”

Savage and his team have helped to turn the Commerce into a haven for tournament poker, a destination that few pros can afford to miss. He’s used the LA Poker Classic as a testing ground for innovative ideas that tend to spread like wildfire more often than not. While other series have changed over to Hold’em-heavy schedules, the LA Poker Classic suits the needs of every player.

“We’ve built it up to a point where we’re really happy with it,” Savage said. “The first year we were here, we had 35 events, and in 2013, we had 68. I think we really cater to people who play other games, and I’m really happy about that. We’re the biggest series outside of the WSOP.”

Savage has helped to make the LA Poker Classic and the three other annual series that take place at the Commerce Casino as player-friendly as possible. He has a lot of tools at his disposal at Commerce, as players also have the added bonus of cash games and satellites for every level of player.

His most valuable resource, however, might be the staff working with him to execute his vision. Assets like John Griffo, the director of casino development at the Commerce, and Sam Quinto, the tournament coordinator at Commerce and a frequent compatriot of Savage’s when he’s on the road, allow Savage to do what he’s best at.

“I think we’ve developed a relationship where we understand each other,” Quinto said. “Matt can do the job that I do and I can do Matt’s job, but we understand what we enjoy doing, and we let each other do what we’re good at. Matt’s a great person for external communication, he’s the best players tournament director you’re ever going to find. On the other hand, I’m more internal, I deal with the casino and make sure that you have a great product when you arrive.”

“Whether it’s the staffing, the products, the visual aspects, making sure that the chips are good, it’s about making sure everything works. I handle that part. We work so well together, we don’t invade each other’s space and it’s amazing how much we think alike. We know just where we need to be and what we need to be doing at each step of the tournament, and I think that’s why it works so well.”

One of the innovations that spring from the mind of Savage and his staff was an idea to have multiple starting days with the ability to re-enter on subsequent days if eliminated. It has evolved to the point that many stops on the tournament circuit feature at least some events with unlimited re-entries.

Savage doesn’t necessarily consider that a good thing.

“With re-entries I just feel like people are taking advantage of it,” Savage said, “And, even with the economy the way it is they’ve been successful. But I’m really concerned with how long it can keep going on. If you have a $5,000 or $10,000 event and you have re-entry, if players are going to keep buying into that tournament will they be able to play the next event on tour?”

If the trend continues, there’s a fairly simple solution that Savage would employ.

“The pros all seem to want top-heavy payouts,” Savage said, “But they have to realize that they have to keep replenishing everybody else if they want the game to thrive and be successful. In reality, I think you just need to pay more places. It gives people an opportunity to play the next day, or to get that cash that they’ve been looking for. It means a lot to players, and you’ll see all of the amateur players around the world, if they cash, they’re happy.”

Savage’s opinion comes from countless encounters with players from every level of the game. He’s employed Twitter to reach out to those people, and in turn they consult him whenever there’s even the slightest point of contention in a ruling.

“I’ve been pretty successful working through Twitter, my account has pretty much been an answer center for anyone who has questions. I always want to be that person; the guy who can help, and I want to leave a solid legacy as someone who did a lot of things for the game. I think that a lot of the new things that I’ve come up with have helped to make that happen.”

His reputation as a player’s TD led him to yet another life-altering opportunity with the WPT. CEO Steve Heller approached Savage in 2010 with an offer to become the executive tour director, a position he had considered previously but was unable to accept at the time.

“Steve Lipscomb and I had talked about it years before, but he always wanted me to be exclusive. Steve [Heller] thought that I didn’t. He thought that I could help them out and still do the other things that I do. People still come to me asking about rules, structure and procedure questions, and I feel like I’m still able to do all that while being the executive tour director of the WPT.”

Savage has also expanded his role with the WPT, as he now does the bustout interviews at its televised final tables as well. It’s hard to say what else the future will hold for him, but Savage has high hopes for himself and the poker industry as a whole. His travels have taken him to all of the corners of the world, but one in particular sticks out in his mind.

“There’s room for the game to grow, and I think expanding globally is the way it’s going to happen,” Savage said. “I’m doing some things in China now that I think are going to be very important for the game. There are 1.4 billion people, many of whom love to gamble, and with the opportunity to play the game that we all love, it’s going to be good. There are poker clubs opening up there every day that some people don’t even know about now, and they’re not even playing for money, it’s just prizes.”

While he’s already had a tremendous impact on the game of poker, Savage also sees the bigger picture. By finding balance between his work and the other things he holds most dear in life, he hopes to be a big part of what’s to come as poker continues to evolve.

“I am very comfortable with where I am in the industry,” Savage said, “and while my schedule is pretty hectic right now, I’m enjoying every minute of it. I hope going forward that, while I won’t be walking away from the game any time soon, I can spend a little more time with the family.”

Taking Notice

After running two of the biggest events on the World Poker Tour back to back, many of the players who went out to California expressed their satisfaction with the way things were handled by Matt Savage and his crew at the LA Poker Classic and Bay 101 Shooting Star. BLUFF thought it would be appropriate, then, to use Savage’s favorite form of communication to show just how many players went out of their way to thank him.

Here are just a few of the Tweets sent to Matt Savage following the latest West Coast swing by the WPT.

Shannon Shorr (@ShannonShorr)

Big shout out to @SavagePoker @JeanineDeeb @RoyalFlushGirls @WhoJedi @BJNemeth and everyone else at @WorldPokerTour for all your hard work.

Darryll Fish (@The_DFish)

There are some really good tournament directors out there but only one @SavagePoker . Thanks for caring about the players and the game.

Chris DeMaci (@DeMaci_poker)

@SavagePoker ran a great tournament. The employees at Bay 101 emulate the same happy attitude as the players. Great place to play.

Greg Sessler (@gses75)

Whether it be $100 or $10,000 DOES ANYBODY run a better and smoother tournament than @SavagePoker @SkinnyTD @BGudim? No??? I Didn’t think so.

Andy Frankenberger (@AMFrankenberger)

Thanks to Bay101 @WPT @SavagePoker for running a great tournament. This is definitely one of the best stops on the tour!

Alex (AP) Phahurat (@LegitAP47)

Really love LAPC & Bay 101 will be back next year @SavagePoker

JC TRAN (@jctran23)

Out of @bay101 @WorldPokerTourshooting stars. AhKh ran into Ocrowe’s KK. Amazing tourney. Well done @SavagePoker!

Erik Seidel (@Erik_Seidel)

Busted 4th for 295k, hate to be on sidelines. Love the people at #Bay101, the place was rocking. Thanks to Matt Savage best TD.

Doc Sands (@Doc_Sands)

Fun times at Bay101. This is my favorite #WPT stop. Feels like summer camp – everything within walking distance. Tahoe tomorrow.

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April 2013