On episode 269 of the Top Pair Home Game Poker Podcast, together with my co-host Bruce Briggs, I had the opportunity to interview George Chao, the owner of BBO Poker Tables.
In the past, I’ve published a couple of write ups mentioning his company’s products, including a great piece on getting the right poker table for your home game.
In fact, one piece of poker equipment I enjoy most is the portable table mat, which I take to all games I play here in Israel… all my buddies love it , too!
I thought it would be nice to take the opportunity to learn more about George, how he first got into poker in the first place, and hear the story of how be built up the BBO Poker Tables company. While the interview itself took place back in August 2016, let’s just say that you won’t be disappointed when you take the time to listen 🙂 .
Below, you’ll find the entirety of Episode 269 of the podcast, which includes the interview starting at the 7:58-minute mark. You can also read the transcript below.
BRUCE: Welcome back everybody, we’re excited to have today’s guest with us, George Chao. He’s the owner of BBO Poker Tables. George’s tables have found their way into movies, televised poker, game shows, and, of course, many, many home games. George, welcome to the Top Pair Home Game Poker Podcast!
GEORGE: Thanks, guys, thanks for having me. Glad to be here.
ROBBIE: Nice to see you—nice to speak with you, George.
GEORGE: Haha, absolutely, Robbie.
BRUCE: Well, let’s start out kind of at the very beginning. Obviously, poker’s the name of the game and home game poker, we always like to kind of quiz our guests on how they first hooked up with poker. Is that something you played when you were growing up, or family games or in college, or what is your background actually in the game itself?
GEORGE: I got into poker when I was in college. I went to school down in UC Irvine, and that was about the time the poker boom was just happening, and I definitely got caught up in it. We had home games with buddies, and also that’s when if you guys remember PartyPoker was the big thing, and that’s basically how I got drawn into the poker life.
ROBBIE: Well, if you started with home games, we already love you. So perfect answer, that’s how it goes.
BRUCE: Do you still get time to play today? I know you’re busy—you’ve got a growing company and lots of balls in the air and things like that.
GEORGE: I wish I had a little bit more time to play now. Free time’s a little bit harder to find these days, but every once in a while I do get to sit down at a game or two, which is very very nice.
BRUCE: And you’re located up in the Silicon Valley, San Francisco area of California?
GEORGE: Yeah. We’re located in the East Bay, we’re about 30 minutes from San Francisco, so we’re right here in the, like you said, Silicon Valley/San Francisco Bay Area.
BRUCE: And what’s your favorite place to play up there? Do you get to any of the card rooms or anything like that, or is it still home games?
GEORGE: Well, you know, once in a while I’ll drop by Thunder Valley. They have, I know the card room manager there and he’s a great guy, and it’s a great room that they run up there, so every once in a while I’ll stop by there.
ROBBIE: Very cool. We need to bridge this gap. So we know you started out in home games, and now you’re the chairperson/founder of this amazing BBO Poker Company. So how did that happen? What are the little footnotes that we missed there?
GEORGE: Oh, boy. How much time do you have? (laughter) So I guess I’m—let’s—I think the story of BBO is half poker and half actually internet e-commerce. So, when I was fresh out of college—right after the college home game days—it was the boom of the internet. It was, if you guys think back, 2005, 2006. That was when people started buying things on eBay, and Amazon was just coming up, and people started to not really know what the internet e-commerce was, but they knew that people started trusting it more, and coming out of college I was looking for my thing. Where am I going to spend most of my time and focus? And e-commerce made a lot of sense to me, and at the same time, we were playing a good amount of poker and it was very, very hot. So it sort of, naturally I wanted to explore how to develop e-commerce and poker became the vehicle to do so.
In 2006 I started selling poker chips and accessories of all things, and I started at the flea market, and I started on Craigslist—pretty much as guerilla of an operation. It was just myself, I had a car, went to the flea market, that sort of thing. And that was 2006… In 2008, I realized that there was sort of a niche, a soft niche in tables, because what we were finding on the market was you had a lot of really cheap, low-end stuff and a lot of really, really expensive things—custom tables, really nice tables—but there was really no quality table at an affordable price. Tthat made a little bit of sense to me, and we started exploring that avenue, so we started niching in the tables as well as building out e-commerce. And poker tables, if you think about it, it’s actually a very odd product—it’s big, it’s heavy, logistically you need warehouse space, everything needs to go freight—there’s a lot of problems with doing tables, and I think that’s why there were not that many people doing it at that time.
In 2008 we started really focusing on tables, dropped the chips and accessories. By 2010, we were focusing on higher-end tables with the pedestal legs and all the different options available. Up to 2012, we started bringing on poker tables with dining tops, and we found that that resonated very well with female customers, actually. Before we were 90% male customer base, but when we started adding in the dining tables and the matching chairs, now we were getting maybe 30% females that were purchasing custom poker tables.
GEORGE: So that was interesting. From there we added a lot of design options. All our tables are upholstered in California, so we’re able to customize it millions of different ways. So that really sort of resonated, and all the while we were building our online presence, and that’s essentially how we bridged the gap from a home game college kid to where we are essentially right now.
ROBBIE: Wow. That’s pretty good in a nutshell, there.
BRUCE: I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve had a few forays out into swap meets and the flea markets too, and in fact I actually kind of enjoy that kind of environment. And you’re never going to build a huge company out of it, and you’re never going to get rich, but it certainly is a chance to one-on-one with customers as they come through, and you certainly learn a lot from their feedback, and things that, and do you ever get the itch to go back to your roots and say, “Well, shoot, this was kind of fun, maybe I’ll go down to the swap meet this weekend, and I’ve got a few things here that I don’t use or that aren’t moving that I want to liquidate” or go back to your roots there?
GEORGE: You know, that’s very interesting—I haven’t quite thought about that in a couple years. But I do in fact really enjoy the one-on-one interaction, like you said, you can’t find that really in many other situations in commerce, where you’ve got a little stand and you’ve got everybody there, and you’re just conversing and just chatting it up with everyone.
ROBBIE: Hopefully, you’re car’s nicer now, a little over a decade down the line, right?
BRUCE: You’ve got to go in a beat-up car; you can’t go in a nice car. You go in a nice car—
BRUCE: People think they’re going to get jabbed. You’ve got to go in an old beat-up car; that way the people think they’re getting a good deal.
BRUCE: Well, that’s interesting. And now you’ve actually branched internationally too, right? I know you’re in four different countries; has that helped? ‘Cause I often feel we get a lot of feedback from our listeners and a lot of them are international, but I feel bad sometimes because, well, of course Robbie’s international, but I’ve been so focused here on the U.S. that I just assume everybody’s sitting in the 48 states here, so tell us—
ROBBIE: Oh well, there are 50 states, I know that. Hold on.
BRUCE: Well, yeah, but 48 you can get to easily.
GEORGE: Right. Yeah, so we’ve been lucky enough that, you know, poker’s a global game and it’s enjoyed everywhere in the world. And we’ve been lucky enough to be able to figure out how to distribute our products to several different areas of the world. Right now we are in, obviously, the U.S., Canada, Australia; we’re in Norway, and we’re in the majority of parts of Asia. And they’re all independent distributors, selling BBO products and they set up their own distribution within the country, but if you’ve got listeners in any of those countries we can absolutely get a table out to them.
BRUCE: Now are you just limited to those countries, or does the one in Norway handle the rest of Europe, or how does that work?
ROBBIE: In terms of shipping, right?
BRUCE: In terms of shipping and fulfilling.
GEORGE: Yes, it is logistically, for Norway. If they have the scope to distribute there, then absolutely, it would be their territory. But a lot of it, especially in Europe, you have a lot of different regional issues in terms of transit, so it is sort of in each distributor’s reason.
BRUCE: Is shipping pretty expensive, then? Say if Robbie wanted to get one for his home game and that type of thing? I just don’t have any feeling at all—I know that here in the U.S., shipping is extremely competitive and people like to offer free shipping and that, but I would assume that something as big as a table like that, and to get it thousands of miles away in a different country would be a challenge.
GEORGE: So actually, the shipping in the U.S. is actually all free, from us to any end user in the 48.
ROBBIE: One second. Hold on one second to our listeners: You heard the word, we’ve got to say it one more time nice and big: SHIPPING IS FREE! Everyone loves free. That’s awesome.
GEORGE: And internationally, how logistically we do it is we’ll actually ship a bulk order in containers directly to our distributor and they will take care of the local logistics there. So sometimes they do offer free shipping, sometimes they don’t; it’s kind of based on the geographic issues that they have there in terms of shipping.
BRUCE: Well, I think it’s great that you’ve at least made some inroads into becoming a little more global that way, I think you’ve got a nose up on a lot of competition, that if you order a table from a lot of domestic sources here and if you ask for an international, they’ll probably just shake their head and go “Umm… why don’t you call back some other time?”
GEORGE: (laughs) Right, I think at first we tried to explore that, but if you’re going to air freight something as big as a table internationally, it becomes quite a logistical headache. So the workaround for that is, well, why don’t we find the existing poker shops and the existing websites in other countries and basically have them do the exclusive distribution into that county, so you’re only figuring out one shipping as opposed to shipping each individual order that comes through?
ROBBIE: Right. Or you don’t need to do the whole big table, you can do like a tabletop or even that mat that you’ve got, which are considerably lighter, I imagine.
GEORGE: Oh correct, yeah. We were in the full table business for so long, but we were missing a good chunk of the demographic, which is, well, what if I don’t want a big table? Or what if I want something that’s easily portable and then I can tuck it away real quick? So over the last couple of years we’ve developed a couple products that will help increase the feel and the enjoyment of the home game without having to commit to a giant table.
BRUCE: Do you ever keep, well I’m sure you keep a lot of records and stats and specifics and that, but I know we’ve had episodes earlier on, with my former cohost Eric and we almost had debates whether, OK, on a table, racetrack or no racetrack? Built-in cup holders, or no built-in cup holders? 8-person or 6-person? Do you have any breakdowns on that, of your most popular layouts or construction or size?
GEORGE: Oh, absolutely, but you’re pulling me into a debate that’s never-ending. You know, I think a lot of it is personal preference, obviously. For people that are on both sides of the fence whether a racetrack or no racetrack. We actually have tables that have the traditional larger racetrack, and then we have some that are a little bit more slimmer for a trim, so you get that look without actually having the track. And we have obviously all, complete felt tables, and it really is based on the customer preference that we find. Personally, one thing that I do like is the cup holders in the rail for the functional reason that you don’t have the potential for cards being pitched into the cup holder, so that is more of a strategic position that I think makes a lot of sense. But the racetrack, it would be about 50/50 and it depends on what the customer likes. There’s no right answer for that.
ROBBIE: Right And you mention customer a lot, and you know of course the home game players and hosts all love it. But you have some pretty famous customers, like the World Poker Tour, is that right?
GEORGE: Yeah, yeah, we were lucky enough that they got in touch with us and wanted to do a couple of events, and we ended up being the official poker table of the World Poker Tour, which I’m very very humbled and happy to say.
BRUCE: Now that doesn’t mean you provide tables for their tournaments, right? Because their tournaments are hosted by the individual card rooms and that, but I noticed the last one, I’m watching the Tournament of Champions that they’re having, and your tables are listed as part of the grand prize package.
GEORGE: Correct. So, the World Poker Tour, when they broadcast TV, their tables need to do a couple different things. Number one, they need it to present a certain way on TV and they also need the hole card cameras and things like that. Those are not necessarily what the consumer market needs. So they will build their own set, and the card rooms will provide the tables that they have there. What we do is, if they want to give a custom home table to any of their champions, or they want to do any sort of event with us that’s where we come in and we’re able to help them with nice high-end residential tables for basically whatever it is that they’re interested in doing.
BRUCE: I guess you also had a presence on The Price Is Right, too, as having one of your tables in one of their showcases or their contests that they had earlier this year, I guess.
GEORGE: That is actually one of the more random but awesome things that’s happened in the last couple years. And I think one of my staff came up to me last November and was like, “Hey, The Price Is Right is interested,” and of course I said “Yeah, definitely let’s do that.” And I forgot all about it, until maybe June or July when it aired, and then all of a sudden I’m getting all these messages from people like, “Hey, you’re stuff’s on the Showcase Showdown,” and I’m like “What are you talking about?” and I’m thinking back like “Oh, man, yeah, I authorized that in November,” so it was actually kind of incredible.
ROBBIE: That’s amazing!
GEORGE: It was pretty funny, actually.
ROBBIE: Was it the kind of thing that everybody bid over, and the guy who bid one dollar won it, was it like that?
GEORGE: You know, I love our products, but I hate to say this: The other showcase was so much better. It had a car; it had like some sort of vacation. But actually they did win and they did win our showcase, and that’s awesome, but the other showcase was so much awesomer.
BRUCE: Well, again, as a marketer, I certainly admire the fact that you’ve been able to go out there and beat the bushes and contact the right people and get the right people to call you back or talk to you and have some of that product placement.
ROBBIE: It’s certainly thinking outside the box.
GEORGE: Yeah, I think a lot of it is that poker tables are inherently a very social product, and if you have a nice one you’re not going to be afraid to tell your friends, and obviously the different people that are sitting at the tables. And also we have a fairly decent social media presence, which then content’s passed around a lot. A lot of these contacts, they approach us ‘cause they see something that we’re putting out, and that’s how these connections are made. I would have no idea how to contact The Price Is Right.
ROBBIE: Well, I have to say to our listeners here at Top Pair, George is very humble, very modest, ‘cause he says he’s got a “decent” social media presence: His Facebook page for BBO Poker Tables has over 20,000 fans. So that is much more than decent, and kudos to you, sir, for building up that type of a following.
GEORGE: I appreciate it, Robbie, thank you.
BRUCE: Let’s talk a minute about the customization, ‘cause I think that’s a big part of what you do, and I think that might be a big part of what listeners or home game hosts, I know here in Salt Lake we’re on the Meetup platform. So we’ve got fifteen different hosts that in any given month or quarter or something host games, either weekly or monthly or every other month. And they, you know, they’re pretty serious about hosting, I can think of five of them that have actually gone out and had custom chips designed, with a logo that they’ve come up with, to kind of give them an identity there—a family crest, or a part of the valley they’re in, or something like that. We have had, and I know we’ve talked about here it on the show, Eric, the guy that kind of started the local platform, to pay him back we all chipped in and had a local gentleman that built tables actually build him a custom table with a custom top on it that had his logo, kind of an Irish logo that he uses and that’s on his chips and things like that. But I don’t think any of our other hosts have ever gone to that trouble to have a table, but they’ve had the chips. But it seems like customization is probably the up-and-coming thing—like you say, it’s a social game, and it’s an ego-driven game. Those two things, you know, people want to shout out that they’re proud and they have their own particular style.
GEORGE: Absolutely. I think if you get down to the essential core of what people want, is they want something that they’re proud to sit their friends around and to show off their showcase table. So how we address this from a product standpoint is, well, how do we provide the highest level of customization, but still able to turn products over at a reasonable turnaround time, where you’re not waiting six months, nine months, whatever for delivery? So how we address that is we have right now thirteen different models for how the table base models are made. Then we actually have graphic designers in-house—I’m not sure if there’s any other table brands out there that carry graphic designers in-house—so we can quickly do full custom mockups of when a customer goes—we have an option where it’s full custom design, if a customer orders that, we actually assign them a graphic designer.
GEORGE: You can do anything. You can tell us to do anything, and we can pretty much knock it out of the park every single time. So that is a cool design component that we offer, and on top of that, all the tables are hand-upholstered here in California, which means we have hundreds and hundreds of different variations of exotic vinyls, different colors, things like that. So we’re actually able to go ahead and deliver a full custom experience, and we’re able to drive that lead time down to probably a little less than two weeks for a complete custom table upholstered from scratch.
BRUCE: And you’re able to keep the pricing pretty competitive, too. Obviously it wouldn’t be the same as off the rack, but it sounds like you’ve been able to put the right elements and things in place where you can be pretty competitive that way.
GEORGE: Yeah, I think one of the big things, especially with e-commerce, is you want to find the sweet spot of pricing. You don’t want to be priced out too high, where people really want it but they can’t afford it, so that all goes into the scale of volume that you’re moving, and also these different things on how you can bring value and bring it at an affordable, reasonable price.
ROBBIE: And the free shipping that you gave I’m sure helps as well.
GEORGE: Haha, it doesn’t hurt.
ROBBIE: Yeah. (laughter) One thing I want to mention also, and I’m sure there will be plenty of listeners out there who will are salivating, just like me, but I’m sure there are also some college kids out there who just love playing poker and home games and stuff, and maybe you’re in dorms and maybe you’re living by your parents or whatever it may be, that you don’t have your own place and you’re just renting with someone else, and you don’t have room to store a big table. And I have to say, and I really, truly mean this, I just identified very much with that portable tabletop, and it was what, I think like $54.99 or something. What I love about it is it’s just really, literally just a mat, right? You roll it out, it’s a beautiful-looking mat, and you basically can take it with you wherever you go. You can take it to your friend’s dorm, and if there’s just a group of eight, ten guys who want something but can’t do a tabletop or can’t do a table, you can each chip in five bucks or whatever it is and you’ve got a tabletop that everyone can use and rotate the hosting. I’d just really, personally love something like that.
GEORGE: I think you hit it right on the head. If you’re looking for something that’s absolutely versatile, the roll-up mat is exactly meant for that purpose. And the difference of play—I mean, poker’s fun regardless, but the fact that you’re playing on just a bare table versus actually having a mat, it actually does make a pretty big difference in the experience of the game. So the roll-up mat is a nice, very very economical way of having that feel without having to commit to the full table.
BRUCE: Now are your products like the roll-up mat and like the tabletop that sits over the top of a regular table and that, are all of those customizable as far as the design and things like that too, or do you just mainly stick to the more permanent tables as far as the customization goes?
GEORGE: So, for the roll-out mat, that one is not customizable, ‘cause we print on it beforehand, so it’s actually just a mat with, it’s actually printed with our most popular design. So, basically it’s a one-size-fits-all solution. The pro tabletop that we have, which is, it’s got no legs, a padded underside so you put it on the table, we made that to be very, very high-end. That one I believe it’s 299, and the entire—the playing surface comes out, you can reupholster it yourself if you wanted to, you can upgrade the armrest. It’s like a Transformer. So we put a lot of time into designing that one; that one you can go full custom with. The roll-up mat would be something that’s a one-size-fits-all option.
ROBBIE: Well, I’m sure everything that we’ve talked about up until now has whet everybody’s appetite, and we’ve got some really good news here for Top Pair listeners, that George was kind enough to offer a special discount offer and code, isn’t that right?
GEORGE: We do what we can, exactly. We have set aside a code for Top Pair listeners, and it’s just going to be “Top Pair,” and that will get you 5% off any table at BBO Poker Tables.
BRUCE: Well that’s great, and I think that’s a super thing for our listeners. I know it’s kind of hard visualizing sometimes in an audio format, such as a podcast and things we’ve got here, so we’re definitely going to put links in the show notes to this episode to your website. You’ve got a beautiful website; everything is pretty much in detail—colors, graphics, you can get a real feel for everything you’ve got. Like you say, that special discount for our listeners. George is going to be on board with us to do some sponsorship here, and we might come up with some more giveaways, so I think that this just hits the home game market. People that play poker obviously need a place to play, and I look back at my experience, and my first home game was on one of those neoprene—or not neoprene, but one of those impact plastic banquet types of tables. And we used to put a sheet on it, because obviously the cards just slide like crazy on that thing. And it slowly evolved into a better top, a blanket top or a felt top to a standing table, so it’s… you know, the elements of playing poker—chips, cards, and table—table’s one of the three, so you’ve got to have one, and if you’ve got a group that, again, it’s an ego-driven thing, so a lot of our listeners I know have called and said, well, we’re part of the XYZ Poker Club, or we’re part of Joe and Harry’s Wildcat Poker Players, and things like that. So a lot of them have already established an identity anyway, or even a college identity and things like that, so I think with the ego thing. And another thing that I think needs to be brought up is a lot of charity. Poker is born, more poker tournaments are being played as a fundraising vehicle for raising money for charity, and if it’s a big enough thing or an often enough thing, if it’s an annual or biannual type of thing, I think that having a custom top to some extent would really enhance that experience.
GEORGE: You’re absolutely right, Bruce. We have a lot of customers that do that, and you just, there’s a, the transition of the home game usually you can get started with something very basic, and after a while you want to upgrade to something more, and we have a lot of customers after several years, then finally stepping up to something custom. And it’s all part of the experience, I think, where I’m very happy to be working with Top Pair and have you guys welcome us, so we’ll definitely be here for all the Top Pair listeners. I’m very happy to do that.
ROBBIE: And again, it literally pays to listen to Top Pair. So you get 5% off using the discount code “Top Pair” when you visit BBOPokerTables.com.
BRUCE: Well, George, we really appreciate you taking the time, because I know you’re busy. I know you just got back from an international trip to Asia, and I know you’ve got other companies besides BBO that you do a lot of internet and e-commerce marketing and that for, so we appreciate you carving some time out and talking with us and becoming part of the podcast. Before we let you go, is there anything else you’d like to talk to our listeners about?
GEORGE: Well, I think we’ve thoroughly covered a lot of ground here, so I have nothing off the top of my head, but if they want to reach out they can shoot me a quick email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I would love to answer any questions that they have.
BRUCE: OK. Well, we’ll strive to get all this out there and put the links up and maybe as we get some feedback from some of our listeners and things like that, more questions and that, we might have you back sometime.
GEORGE: I’d love that, guys.
ROBBIE: Well, thank you.
GEORGE: We’ll talk soon.