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Liz Benston

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Private Poker Parties a Trend for LV Resorts

21 Jun 2005

By Liz Benston, Las Vegas Sun

A couple of weeks ago, Connecticut businessman Michael Vlock sat at a poker table at Wynn Las Vegas with actor Matt Damon, sports legends Pete Sampras and Wayne Gretzky and investment maven Warren Buffet. Around him, other wealthy individuals were deep into their games of no-limit Texas hold 'em.

There was no media frenzy or cable television crew on hand. The poker tables were set up in a ballroom far from the incessant ring of slot machines and the steady buzz of the main casino floor.

For these affluent businesspeople, the prizes at stake -- which included a ride in a Boeing business jet, a Maserati sports car and Dom Perignon champagne -- were besides the point.

"I'm really not a gambler but I'm competitive," said Vlock, who doesn't frequent casinos and has only been to Las Vegas twice in the past two decades. "There wasn't a person in the room who wasn't out to beat the other folks there."

Vlock and about 200 other businesspeople got a chance to play high-stakes poker, TV-style, at a private poker tournament organized by NetJets Inc., a Buffett-owned jet ownership company.

NetJets invited some of their best customers to participate in the tournament, which was hosted by Wynn Las Vegas using free "chips" and luxury prizes donated from NetJets clients.

State law allows private poker games that do not involve a "rake," which is a percentage of bets taken by the house, the way most Las Vegas poker rooms make money.

Private poker tournaments are becoming more of a trend at a time when companies are looking for new ways of jazzing up corporate meetings, rewarding customers or recognizing valued employees, observers say.

On any given week a Las Vegas casino is hosting a private poker tournament, said Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor newsletter for gamblers.

"Companies looking to set up an event are looking for something other than getting a talking head or a private rock concert," said Curtis, whose company is expected to begin organizing such tournaments to meet demand.

"Poker is the new cigar, the new martini," he said. "It fills all these needs and it's got the flavor of Vegas. People who've never tried it get off on it. They're like giddy little kids."

Harrah's Entertainment Inc., which is now hosting its World Series of Poker tournament at the Rio, has been approached by several business groups that want to offer private poker events.

"A number of corporations, sales forces, investment banking firms and auto dealer associations ... are trying to catch the wave and do these things," Harrah's poker tournament Director Gary Thompson said.

Harrah's has postponed such discussions until after the World Series of Poker, which has consumed a lot of the company's time, he said.

NetJets founder and chairman Richard Santulli said the poker event went so well that he expects it to become an annual event at Wynn Las Vegas.

"We host a lot of really nice events like private concerts, golf events, previews of movies," Santulli said. "This was the best event we've ever had."

Santulli said he came up with the idea during a plane ride with Steve Wynn, a NetJets customer.

"We thought it would be an interesting way to get people to see Steve's spectacular hotel and have fun the way we see poker on TV," Santulli said.

Players who were knocked out of the running waited around to watch those remaining until some 200 people were left watching the final table. NetJets set up stands so guests could watch and broadcast the action on a television monitor in the style of a major televised tournament.

Vlock hadn't played poker since college but brushed up on his skills at the Foxwoods tribal casino the week before the Las Vegas event.

"This was a group of well-known, very successful people with egos the size of Japan," he said. "In hindsight I wish I'd had the ability to play a few hands better but I was happy with my play."

Private poker events typically involve players who are relatively new to poker or gambling, Curtis said.

"They usually have a quickie demonstration or play a couple of sample rounds," he said. "I'd say well over half have never played in a tournament before."

The winner of the NetJets tournament learned how to play Texas hold 'em a few weeks prior to the event by reading a book and then playing online, Santulli said. Most of the participants were new to Texas hold 'em but several dozen were familiar with the game or played frequently, he said.

Vlock placed about 40th, good enough to impress several friends brought along for the trip.

"On a scale from 1 to 10 I'd say it was a 9.5," he said of the event. "And these folks throw some pretty good parties."

NetJets organized a previous client event at the Pinehurst golf resort in North Carolina.

Vlock said the poker weekend, which included a round of golf on the Wynn Las Vegas course, was an eye-opening experience.

"This event made Las Vegas a much more interesting place to me," he said. "There's so much to do there."

Copyright © Las Vegas Sun. Inc. Republished with permission.

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