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Public sector/Quality of life

An ordinary bar on an ordinary night, but poker supplies the drama

Temporarily minus the long hair and beard that gave him his nickname, Scott “Caveman” Miller is a frequent visitor to “charity” poker rooms in Southeast Michigan. (Bridge photo/Lon Horwedel)

Temporarily minus the long hair and beard that gave him his nickname, Scott “Caveman” Miller is a frequent visitor to “charity” poker rooms in Southeast Michigan. (Bridge photo/Lon Horwedel)

Thursday night at the Electric Slick, and the poker tournament does not really have 100 percent of the Caveman’s interest. The NFL draft is playing on one screen, a Red Wings game on another, and he’s folding a lot of hands after the first two cards are dealt. Ace-four? That’s a weak ace, in Caveman’s opinion, and he’d just as soon keep his powder dry and watch the other players at his table.

Knowing the playing styles of your fellow competitors is a big part of winning at Texas hold’em, and that’s one of the things Caveman likes about it.

“There are so many different levels of thinking,” he said. “It’s one of those ‘minutes to learn, a lifetime to master’ things.”

In the parts of his life that don’t take place around a nine-seat table, Caveman is known as Scott Miller, 40, and he both fits and defies his nickname. Where he once sported an untrimmed beard and mane of hair, he recently shaved his skull for Locks of Love, the wig-making charity for kids with cancer. He runs the band boosters in West Bloomfield, takes care of the four boys living under his blended-family roof, and plays poker. He’s pretty mellow for a caveman.

“I’m going to keep the beard, because I don’t want anyone to see my neck,” and maybe catch a tell from his blood pumping there, he said. Besides, he’s Caveman. It’s his brand, his Twitter handle, his web presence at the site he runs,

And then, all of a sudden, he’s betting. It’s late in the second hour of play, and here comes the flop, the first three cards anyone at the table can use, the four of clubs, seven and five of diamonds. He and another player are quickly alone, raising the pot. The fourth card goes down, the turn – the five of hearts. There’s a pair on the table, Caveman and his opponent each hold two hole cards, and they’re betting big. The pot grows, and here comes the river, the final community card. The four of diamonds.

Bill Sweeney sneaks a peek at his cards while playing in a charity poker tournament at Santino's in Washington Township in Macomb County. The sponsoring charity was raising money for the family of Sandra Lee Loepp, a 37-year-old victim of an unsolved hit-and-run accident last December. (Bridge photo/Lon Horwedel)

Bill Sweeney sneaks a peek at his cards while playing in a charity poker tournament at Santino’s in Washington Township in Macomb County. The sponsoring charity was raising money for the family of Sandra Lee Loepp, a 37-year-old victim of an unsolved hit-and-run accident last December. (Bridge photo/Lon Horwedel)

The other guy turns his hole cards – a pair of fours. The two on the table give him four of a kind, the third-highest hand in poker.

Caveman turns his. The three and six of diamonds. With the cards on the table, he has a straight flush, the second-highest hand. He hauls in his chips. They say he won about $40,000, but that’s not what they’re worth. The Thursday-night tournament starts every player with chips that add up to $30,000, but only cost $50. You can’t buy more. When you’re out, you’re out. An evening of entertainment that might pay off if you finish in the top eight but probably won’t, for the cost of a meal in a mid-range restaurant.

This is charity poker in Michigan. Formally known as millionaire parties, these events, operating out of bars and restaurants, mostly, are authorized by the state’s bingo act, but now governed by Michigan’s Gaming Control Board. Last year it netted $15.8 million in profit for the various charities who split the 10 percent “rake” off the top with the professionals who run the games. (The remainder goes to the players as winnings.)

Most rooms have at least two or three charities working through four-day licenses, for which they pay the state $50 a day. Tonight it’s a veterans’ group, which is typical. The charities who benefit from poker are smaller, local, less likely to have a high profile or colored-ribbon gimmick. (And some days after this game, the venues available to those charities fell by one, when the Electric Slick and several other neighboring businesses were destroyed by fire. A Westland firefighter died in the blaze, which is still being investigated.)

Salad_DaysDonna Gartside, who as a women’s-auxiliary member of the Lions Club of Dewitt oversees about 12-15 days of charity-poker fundraising in a year (the state limits charities to 16 days, in four four-day blocks) says the group would be hard-pressed to get by without the money it brings in – anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 a year.

All those hands of Texas hold ’em translate into maintenance at the Dewitt Memorial Association, a community facility, as well as eye exams and glasses for the needy, housing for temporarily displaced families and other good works there. Miller, the Caveman, uses poker to raise money for his band boosters. The head of the Michigan Charitable Gaming Association, David Brown, runs one of the more unusual benefactors – Midwest Rabbit Rescue and Re-Home. All those chips translate into lots of lettuce for the 90 or so bunnies who live in the group’s Plymouth shelter.

“It’s about a quarter of our income,” Brown said, who sees charity poker as a natural outgrowth of the casino nights charities have long relied upon for financial support. “There are multiple advantages to the existing system. Charities don’t have to do the work, and it’s a better game for players when it’s run by professionals.”

George Bozin is one of those professionals. A former financial analyst, he was able to quintuple his income, he said, when he founded Fire & Ice Gaming Supply, which runs the games at the Big Beaver Tavern in Troy. After four years, he works long and late hours presiding over three daily tournaments plus a couple of cash-game tables, the room in the bar’s basement filled with his branded tables.

He employs 22 dealers and floor managers, while his wife stays home with their children and keeps the schedule; charities are booked a year in advance. Bozin says he likes to run a tight ship, and bustles between his station at a stand-up desk, the three charities that are selling chips tonight, and a chess game he has going with a patron not inclined to cards. One of the several TV screens in the room is a monitor for the laptop that counts down intervals in the tournament, raising “blinds,” the forced bets that keeps the action moving forward.

“It’s a show, it’s entertainment,” said Bozin. “I try to provide a nice atmosphere and follow the rules.”

Over at one of his empty tables – they become vacant as the tournament eliminates players, consolidating the survivors at one – Ross Roncelli shuffles chips with one hand and waits for the next one to start. A 2010 University of Michigan economics graduate, he was pursuing a career in consumer banking before he realized he just didn’t like the work. While he figures out the next step, he’s working part-time as one of Bozin’s dealers, netting about $30 an hour, most of it in tips. Like nearly all dealers, he was once a player himself.

“I enjoy it, and don’t feel like I’m at work,” he said.

James Roberts, another dealer waiting for his next table, is working his way toward an accounting degree at Oakland Community College, but is in no hurry to finish. His parents, retired schoolteachers, didn’t approve until they realized what their son was raking in – “I made $43,000 last year,” he said.

Not every room runs as smoothly as Bozin’s, and charity poker rooms have had their share of problems. In 2009, the Palace Poker Room near Flint was robbed by a shotgun-wielding man who is believed to have come back a second time a month later – and was shot to death by an off-duty police officerAnother robbery occurred last year near Norton Shores.

Charity poker games, such as those held at Santino’s in Macomb County, generated nearly $16 million in revenue for participating nonprofit groups in 2012. (Bridge photo/Lon Horwedel)

Charity poker games, such as those held at Santino’s in Macomb County, generated nearly $16 million in revenue for participating nonprofit groups in 2012. (Bridge photo/Lon Horwedel)

All of which makes James Nye, a consultant to Michigan Indian tribes and Detroit casinos, say the rooms should have more oversight.

“These card rooms woefully lack an adequate regulatory structure to ensure integrity of the games and safety of the patrons,” he said.

Of course, poker rooms compete, at least to some degree, with more traditional casinos. But those who spend time in them say the loss or curtailment of millionaire parties would drive the game to basements and back rooms, not casinos.

“Maybe they like the closeness,” said Gartside. “The people who play, they know everybody there. It’s completely different from a casino.”

“The Legislature allowed it,” said Brown. “And regulators should honor the spirit of the law.”

As for the Thursday night tournament, Caveman Scott Miller’s straight flush was the highlight of the night. He finished 15th, well out of the money and far from the top prize of $836. He’ll be back, of course. He used to have a drinking and drug problem, but he’s been sober for years, and doesn’t consider gambling one of his addictions.

“I told my sponsor, ‘When I start spending my rent, then you can talk to me.’ But let me have this vice,” he said.

“If I don’t have money, I don’t play.”

Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel.

2 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. dada

    Insightful article, really well-written. Thanks!

  2. Jason 'Skinny' Skindell

    Very well written article with very accurate and valid points… I love how you grouped everyone into a community driven industry and included the MiGCA….

    Charities are truly the heart of the business and loyal players to the rooms are the backbone. Electric Stick will also rebuild and pick up where they left off, hopefully as soon as the fall.

    It is important to support all Charity Poker Rooms, as they are all hosted by very deserving charities, all with a great cause, and if you ask, all have very entertaining and heart-warming stories of what they do for philanthropies, services, and the community. The most rewarding aspect of Charity Poker is when you are a part of the success of the fundraiser, a great night of entertainment for a player, and just as much a dedicated employee grateful for an amazing opportunity in a less than stellar economy.

    It is an undeniable emotional feeling when a charity contact drives 60 miles to work a short shift knowing the Charity Booking Mgr was also working, with the only intent to express his gratitude for saving his chapter… That without this opportunity, they would have probably folded within 6 months… Words cannot even express how important every single charity, every player, and every charity poker room is to the state and our local communities!

    With the help of the Michigan Gaming Control Board, and the dedication and drive that I have witnessed personally from their inspectors and management… I am confident that this industry can only be improved from here out, and that Charity Poker has a great potential to be a strong and lasting option for Charities, Players, and Employment!!!


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