While I was recently doing media coverage at the World Poker Tour Tournament of Champions in Florida, I got to meet a man named Tony Burns, Tournament Director at the Seminole Hard Rock poker room in Hollywood, Florida. Everyone—players, fellow poker media members—they only had kind words to say about him. He was always walking around with a smile on his face, he was really friendly, and at the time I said to him, “Hey, maybe we can collaborate together in the future?” and he was like, “Sure!” Together with my Top Pair Home Game Poker Podcast co-host Bruce Briggs, I recently had the opportunity to interview him.
Below, you’ll find the entirety of Episode 285 of the podcast, which includes the interview starting at the 10:48-minute mark. You can also read the transcript below.
Also, you’re welcome to check out my review of the Seminole Hard Rock – Hollywood, Florida poker room.
ROBBIE: Tony, welcome to the show.
TONY: Thank you for having me on, Robbie.
BRUCE: Hey, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Tony. I’m excited; I think you’ll have a lot of interesting things for our listeners.
TONY: I appreciate that, Bruce, I look forward to talking poker with you guys today.
ROBBIE: It’s certainly good to speak with you again. Alright, so, before we jump into the poker stuff, why don’t you just tell our listeners a little about yourself—where are you from, are you a family man, how did you end up in Florida?
TONY: I was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana; I lived there till the age of six and moved to Central Florida with my father, in 1988, so I’m showing my age a little bit, I just turned 35 last month.
ROBBIE: Thirty-five is a great age; I’m 35 as well.
BRUCE: Ah, you’re just a youngster.
TONY: It’s nice, you know, just halfway up the hill, right?
TONY: I went to the University of Central Florida, graduated with my business degree in 2004, and my dad ran a Ramada Inn in Titusville, right outside the Kennedy Space Center. And through my dad’s hotel I met some, a lot of interesting people through the years. And I actually worked in the wood molding—after college I worked for the Florida Marlins, as well as before that, from 1997 to 2002 as a bat boy and clubhouse guy. And then I learned that you couldn’t put bat boy-ing in your gas tank, so I had to get a real job. And I was working in the import-export of wood molding and building products from South America, Chile and China. And so that was my 9 to 5, and, um…
TONY: I was dealing poker, the bar poker leagues came around and I was dealing bar poker on the weekends and I was like, “You know what, I really enjoy this.” I was dealing a couple of nights a week, and the guy that ran the league wanted to expand in the state of Florida and offered me a franchise opportunity on the West Coast of Florida, from Tampa down to Fort Myers. So I took that in 2005.
ROBBIE: Interesting. OK.
BRUCE: It looks like, doing some research and some other articles on you, it looks like you really did catch the bug in a very historic and up-close way, that you and your dad traveled to Vegas for the WSOP back in 2003, and you actually were there when Chris Moneymaker created his stupendous win and kind of changed the history of poker and initiated what we all refer to as the Moneymaker Effect. So you say you’ve dealt some poker and that, was it the Moneymaker, was it the 2003 experience that kind of cemented that in your mind?
TONY: Yeah, when I went to Vegas my dad took me out for my 21st birthday. And we actually stayed at the Lady Luck Casino, and I don’t know if my dad was more proud about the $1.95 steak and eggs or paying $12.25 for the room.
TONY: We’re walking down Fremont Street and just checking out all the different spots, and walked inside Binion’s. And all I remember is just the flood of people around the final table, and tried to get up as close as I could and look over and asked them what was going on, and they were talking about the final table going on. And then to hear that an everyday, you know, your average Joe, had just won, I believe he won $2.5 million that year, if my memory serves me correct?
TONY: And to hear that, you know, that did it, set off the Moneymaker boom, and coming back to Central Florida and telling my friends about the experience. And we started playing five and ten-dollar tournaments around the kitchen table, and then the bar poker came along, and then getting into that. But it was what an amazing—Chris’s impact on the game, and what it is today. But that was the seed that got me going.
BRUCE: Did you play poker around the house or with your buddies, like in college or growing up? You said that was when you were 21. Was that your really first exposure to poker, or have you always been kind of a home game or playing with guys or playing with college roommates type of thing?
TONY: I remember being in my high school days playing penny, nickel, dime poker, like five-card stud or midnight baseball or stuff like that with my, you know, but nothing with big stakes. Actually my first multi-table tournament was in 2004. I finally built up enough courage to go on the Sun Cruise Casino and played a satellite to go the 2004 World Series of Poker Main. And I got third place, and I believe that paid me, I want to say it paid me like $3,500 for third?
ROBBIE: This was your first event? Your first multi-table?
TONY: Yeah, it was my first live multi.
TONY: And I remember playing really, really bad, I think I was playing 9-2 suited, if it was suited I was playing it. I think I got hit with the deck. I’m pretty sure I had to have got hit by the deck to make it as far as I did. And yeah, it was an awesome experience. It was definitely a—it got the hook lodged in, if you will, first multi-table tournament for three hundred, I think it was a $350 qualifier, and then I cashed for $3,500, so the hook was embedded.
ROBBIE: Did you start thinking at that point, maybe get a little bit of, like, “Oh, well, I’m the best, it’s amazing, and I’m going to do this as a professional,” or not exactly?
TONY: Well, I quickly became popular amongst my friends, they were like “Don’t beat us.” I started to get feared at the home games, or the $20 tournaments. ‘Cause we upgraded from 5 to $10 tournaments around the kitchen table, to go into a buddy’s house, and we’d have two or three tables, play $20 buy-in tournaments. And I got a lot more respect after that finish, so. But actually I didn’t play a whole lot, I was actually really focused on my college degree, and getting the business started in 2005 over on the West Coast. I went to the Hard Rock when it was still $2 poker. In the state of Florida, for the longest time, there was quarter poker, where there couldn’t be more than $10 in the pot, and they upgraded to two straight poker, and then they had the single-table tournaments. I’d play a single-table tournament every now and then. But the Sun Cruise was really where the action was, if you wanted to play, you know, $1/2, $2/5 no-limit, and bigger tournaments. So every time I’d go back home to the East Coast I’d hop into one of those, before I—I actually got the offer to come back and deal on the Sun Cruise in late 2006. Pete Fisher’s actually the tournament director over at Coconut Creek, for the Seminole Hard Rock, got me my first audition. And they hired me in November 2006, I came back home to the East Coast, and dealt on the Sun Cruise until July 2007 when the laws changed, that they could play no-limit poker on land. And I got the job at the Isle Casino, with Mike Smith, who’s now the director of poker operations at Maryland Live.
BRUCE: So that was a product of the law there, I know you’ve said Sun Cruise, it was if you were actually on a cruise, did you have to actually leave port and be out in the ocean in order to play at those higher stakes and that type of thing, or could you just be at the dock as long as you were actually floating? I know they had some weird laws back in those days.
TONY: Yeah, I think those were more like for your riverboats and whatnot. But this was a situation where we had to actually go out into international waters, it took us about 45 minutes to travel into international waters and then the gaming would open up. So it was a very unique experience, I had to get over a couple seasickness battles but, you know, keeping an eye on the tropics, and alright, guys, the waves are only 6-to-8-foot today, they’re not 10 or 12 so we can deal.
BRUCE: That was really interesting.
TONY: I think I have one of the best break-in stories of all time. Dealing $3/6, $4/8 limit poker in 6-to-8-foot waves.
BRUCE: It would seem that that particular environment or protocol wouldn’t really lend itself well to deep stack or multi-table tournaments, because you’re out on the water, and what if it goes to be a long tournament? Did they have them pretty well figured out on how long it was going to be, so you didn’t run out of gas or food, or if the hurricane was coming or something?
TONY: Well, obviously, they did take care of people’s safety, so if there was anything going on with, if the weather was too bad we’d stay in land and then there would be no gaming for the night. But the cruise left at 7, we’d start gaming around 7:45 and then about 11:15 we’d head back into port. So they were structured to finish in that allotted time, so it was definitely an interesting time, because that was it, though. And now, since then, those boats, they’ve gone—I think Sun Cruise went Chapter 11, since then, because with the laws changing on land, people had the choice to stay on land rather than go out to sea, that’s what they’d chosen to do.
ROBBIE: Of course.
BRUCE: I guess that probably gave you your first glimpse of what an essential person the tournament director was, particularly in that environment, ‘cause man, he was the one making sure things move along, making sure the structure was such. That’s interesting, that seems like it would be good training for the position you eventually ended up into.
TONY: Yeah, it was definitely—looking back all the way into 2006, and ten years later, looking at structures now I think back then it was you start out with a thousand chips and that was it, and nowadays players are all about chips and instead of starting out at 5/10, now you’re starting out at 50/100, so it’s just a matter of throwing a zero on the end.
ROBBIE: Do you miss dealing at all?
TONY: Every now and then. It’s nice to interact with the players on a more personal level, sitting with them for a full half an hour. Now I can have conversations with players, but they don’t last that long, as they used to. I miss that every now and then. There’s the responsibility levels, which I do enjoy, but you miss some of those days where you come in, you deal, and you go home and don’t have to worry about anything. But I thrive on new opportunities, and the responsibility, I enjoy it. So it’s missed every now and then, but I like where I’m at now, because of the responsibility levels, and getting to create tournaments with Bill Mason, who’s the director of poker operations for the Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood. He’s been an amazing boss, and we’ve both been mentored by Mike Smith, once again from Maryland Live. And getting to work with Matt Savage, and all the different partnerships now that we have with the World Poker Tour and Poker Night in America, and getting to meet those people. It’s not that you forget about dealing, but one of the things I’ve always done is I don’t forget where I came from, I have an empathy for dealers when a dealer comes up and talks about a situation, I can empathize with them and understand where they’re coming from. I’ve done pretty much every job inside of a poker room, from brushing and running chips and getting people drinks, so I understand where everybody’s coming from. So at times it’s missed, but I use it more for my future and making the guest experience a good time.
BRUCE: How about getting to play? Do you ever now, with everything else that’s going on, carve out some time to play? I know a lot of casinos and card rooms I’ve been to kind of have a policy that if you’re an employee, they don’t let you take off your badge and actually play at the regular tables. Do you still get a chance to play, once in a while, at different places? Or do you still do a home game type of thing?
TONY: Well, being here working at the Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood, I do not play on property, and I actually choose not to play at the other properties. And it’s also because I have two little ones as well, and I’m married with my beautiful wife Rafaela which I’d probably get yelled at if I didn’t mention her in this at all, all the support that she gives, and spending time with them is not as often as it used to be. This job takes up quite a bit of time, and they do preach “Family first” here, so if anything comes up they are very family-friendly here. But in terms of playing, I just don’t get to play as much as I used to when I was single and younger, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing because I enjoy the game a lot more when I get the opportunity to do it. I think one of the things now is that everybody, if you play on a daily grind, and I don’t take anything away from the people that do it, and sometimes I don’t know how they do it. I find that when I play every month or every few months, hop into a tournament, that I enjoy it a lot more.
ROBBIE: It’s like having steak every day, you know? Same thing.
TONY: Yeah, it’s like going to your favorite restaurant every day. But, you know, and the guys that do it, some guys are showing that it is a viable profession. I do compare it to, mentally, baseball, that there’s all sorts of different levels of baseball. There’s the pros, there’s the minor leagues, you’ve got your juco, and you’ve got little league, and all sorts of different levels of baseball. And there’s all sorts of different levels of poker, and anybody can play. Anybody can go up and register and play little league. And it’s not saying that little league’s bad, because those were some of the best days that I remember, playing little league poker—or little league baseball. It was a blast. You were a kid, you laughed, and you were more social with people. And that’s, I gotta give hats off to Matt Savage and Justin Hammer at Commerce, for trying to make poker more social. Again, because that’s what’s poker’s about—it’s about meeting new people, having fun. Some guys will argue that we’re here to play poker to make a living, and I get that part too, but you have to have the recreational players that are there to have a good time. And that’s what I think that we’ve lost in poker as the past 10 years has gone on, that we’ve got so embedded in technology and being pulled away from other people, that this tournament was such a great concept and idea.
BRUCE: Well, we’ve actually explored that with the last couple of people that we’ve interviewed, so it seems that it’s a prevalent topic, and about needing poker personalities or needing poker ambassadors, like the good old days of the Eli Elezras and Doyle Brunsons and Chip Reese and things like that, when people could actually identify with these guys and they would talk and they’d be sociable and that, and now it’s all hoodies and sunglasses and that, so I really think that the tide is turning. It certainly is, influencers in the industry recognize that, and they’re lobbying for that and trying to find a way to get the social back in, the personalities back in, and the poker ambassadors back online.
TONY: Yeah, I think that’s very important.
ROBBIE: Do you think that you’re going to do something similar, like a Florida poker experiment at the Seminole Hard Rock?
TONY: You know, I haven’t heard how everything went with those guys just quite yet. I’d just get their feedback and what kind of challenges they might have faced during the event. That’s something I would like to see happen here, but obviously it’s a team effort here, we talk about all the different products that we put on. But I would like to see how it would be received here; I think they had over 500 entries there. I think if you give the proper product, with what players are looking for—I think it’d be funny to see how many people would play poker blindfolded, and then the dealer has to help them; they could have a spotter tell them what their hole cards are, and the dealer counts the board, and see how people would react just by their hands or position; I think that would be a fun one too.
ROBBIE: Very interesting.
TONY: I heard stories about playing Texas Hold’em online poker on sites like 888, people would cover their hole cards and just play pure position and see the betting patterns of their opponents, so. I think there’s a lot of different ways that it could be taken. There’s nothing on the plate yet here at the Seminole Hard Rock, but I think mixing up poker and getting people out of their comfort zone, I think is something that could be done on occasion.
ROBBIE: You’ve been at the Seminole Hard Rock since August 2015, and a lot of people, including myself, originally became familiar with the property because you have a lot of big buy-in tournament series. You of course have tons of cooperation with the WPT folks, with their Tournament of Champions event, this is the second year that you guys have done it with them. I feel like you guys have like 17 different Twitter accounts that are always pushing it, so it’s certainly very very active, and of course your colleagues as well. But what I experienced as a player, actually, the regular day to day, there’s a lot of low buy-in tournaments for locals, for regulars; it’s not just Hold’em either. There’s a lot of stuff that goes on in between all these huge events that you guys run, so why don’t you tell us a little bit about what’s on offer from day to day, week to week?
TONY: I’ve been here, like you said, at the Seminole Hard Rock since August 2015, and being down here in the market I was in awe of the four major series they had. But when they brought me aboard, they talked about, hey, Tony, we have eight other months out of the year that we need to have something else for the local players to sink their teeth into. And what we’ve made sure we’ve done is have a variety of tournaments, because like you said, it’s not just about no-limit Hold’em. There’s a lot of other fun games out there that I think a lot of people are, maybe they’re just not comfortable, they probably know about them, but we offer the buy-in at a point where they can go in and can try it out, like limit Omaha 8, or an OE tournament, or a HORSE tournament. Personally, I love HORSE; it’s one of my favorite games. And so we offer those at a $100 buy-in price point, on Tuesdays. And on top of our other tournaments, obviously, no-limit’s still the most popular game, but we’re able to offer a low buy-in with a nice-sized guarantee. And one of the other things I’ve never seen another room do is we add seats to our upcoming series, like we have the May Deep Stack Series coming up, at the end of the month. For our tournament players, like last night, we had a $1650 Main Event seat added, it wasn’t taken out of the prize pool, so they see that as added value, and that chair brought in 250 players last night when that tournament sometimes may not even see a hundred players. So we add value to our tournaments, and it’s well received.
BRUCE: Do you—again, going back to our core audience, and it’s the Home Game Poker Podcast, but we know most home game poker players, and Robbie and myself definitely do this—when we travel, or sometimes we travel with that as the objective, of going to a town and playing in a card room. I mean, here in Salt Lake, we’re only a few hours’ drive away from Mesquite or even down to Las Vegas and that. Is that part of what you keep in mind as far as your duties, is what you could do to entice the home game player, or what you could offer or what kind of environment you could set up to make the home game player feel welcome, and come in and try out your facility?
TONY: Yeah, part of the empathy thing is I can see where people are coming from—they see poker on television for the first time and say, “Man, that would be really cool to try out.” And they just don’t have the courage yet to come out and try it at the table, for intimidation, or whatever the fact, or maybe it’s financial. But there’s so many still .nets out there that they can practice on. But the guys that are comfortable enough? They come out and ask questions, and they’ll find that the environment is friendly, that the staff here is friendly, and the majority of the players are friendly, too. And it’s just a matter of coming out, just jump in the pool, as I like to say. The water might be cold at first, but in the end you’re going to have a good time. And we have a great product here, and for anybody that hasn’t been to South Florida, it’s very convenient to fly into Ft. Lauderdale and just make a poker vacation out of it, or come to our room for the first time not during a major series and hop into a daytime multi-table tournament. And the games have more regulars in the daytime, so you’re going to find more of those people to be pleasant and willing to help out. So the guys that play around the home games, they can know that they can still come in to a casino level, they can play at that same level of comfort, and I’m a disciple of it, that all it took was me to finally get that courage to go out that one time and play, and I don’t regret it.
ROBBIE: Right, and certainly you said that the law’s changed in Florida, and you’re not the only ones there—there’s a lot of competition, and certainly it’s very easy to fly in there and go ahead and make a poker vacation out of it. When I was there, it was 10 am on a Tuesday morning and you had 10 cash game tables going. That’s pretty impressive where I come from! That’s really, really good. I don’t know if it’s like that every Tuesday, but I was pretty floored to see that. With all that competition going, what is it that sets you guys apart as such an attractive destination? ‘Cause I’m pretty sure that you won’t find that at 10 am on Tuesday in most places in South Florida.
TONY: No, you won’t. The Seminole Hard Rock is just such a terrific global brand, and there’s an expectation when people hear the name Hard Rock. So when they come here, we make sure that we deliver a first-class product. And all the work that the Hard Rock’s put in, and the Seminole Tribe, from top to bottom, has made this product one that people can count on and enjoy. So it is a very competitive market, there’s a lot of rooms within a 50-mile radius, but it just goes to show the popularity of poker in South Florida and the population of South Florida. It’s a great market, like I said, it is competitive; it can be tricky at times, as a director, when putting a schedule together and battling against some of the rooms, but we’re very blessed that we have the market to pull from that we do. Like you said, not everywhere in the country, and I think a lot of players in this market forget that, that we’re one of the few places where you can walk into a poker room at 10, 11 o’clock in the morning and have a variety of games and a collection to choose from.
BRUCE: Well, I think, going back to a point you made earlier, having the personalities and having sort of the ambassadors of poker, and the sociability added to the game—the other theme that also seems to be popping up in a lot with people we talk to is, is it necessary for the survival of poker, to go to non-Hold’em types of games? That Hold’em is this wonderful game and it does take you a lifetime to figure it out, and I don’t know if you ever master it, but it certainly adds to the appeal of poker—and both Robbie and I have discussed this quite often—that we can go play still good, solid poker, but something other than just Hold’em. And the HORSE tournament, like you say, I love HORSE tournaments. So I think that’s an important element too, to keep the enthusiasm and the ball rolling for poker, is to work in those non-Hold’em type of games, especially at the lower level, like you’ve said.
ROBBIE: Yeah, lock us up a couple seats, Tony.
TONY: You guys are in. You guys are always in, just let me know. They’re ready to go for you guys, with the nice “reserved” signs, too.
ROBBIE: Cool. One sort of non-poker question we kind of have that I couldn’t help but ask. So, South Florida, for three months out of the year, it gets a little hot and humid, to be a little nice about the weather and stuff. It’s fantastic weather, but it gets warm. You’re not a dealer anymore, and every time I saw you there, you had a jacket, a suit on. The thing is, when the weather gets a little icky, how exactly does that work, with the whole suit thing?
TONY: Well, I guess I’m pretty blessed with, I don’t sweat too much—I mean I do a little, but anyway. But yeah, it can get hot, coming in the other day my boss and I were talking like “Man, it sure was warm today.” And we feel it sliding into those summer months. But the biggest thing is just, I don’t know how to describe it. You get used to it, you start to get used to your environment and you appreciate where you are because then you think of those people in January up in the North, especially my family back in Indiana, shoveling snow and pouring out salt. So I guess I’ll take a little bit of sweat and a little bit of heat over that experience.
ROBBIE: And it certainly adds a professional feel, yeah?
BRUCE: I think if it was me I would leave the suit and the tie and the long-sleeved shirt and that on a hanger in my office, and I’d drive to work in shorts and a tank top and sneak in the back door and I’d just change there.
TONY: Yeah, like I said it’s not too bad here. I’ve got a short hike into the office, but it’s not too bothersome. You seem to forget it during the rest of the year. The rest of the year is so nice here; it’s definitely the nicest place I’ve ever lived. Even being in Central Florida, it’d get cool during the winter; you’d get quote-unquote “winter” in Florida, but we don’t experience that down here. I think there was only one or two days I think I’ve ever turned on the heater in the 10 years I’ve lived down here.
BRUCE: Well, Tony, we certainly appreciate you taking the time today; we know you’re awfully busy down there and you’ve got a lot of responsibilities and that. I think it’s been enjoyable—well, I know it’s been enjoyable talking to you, and I think our listeners are going to get some additional insight. So before we let you go, two things: Anything else you’d like to tell your listeners about yourself or things coming up? And secondly, if somebody wants to follow you or be in the know on what’s going on, what are your contact points? Do you do Facebook, do you do Twitter? What do you recommend people get in touch with you or get lined up so they can see what’s going on?
TONY: Well, once again, I appreciate you guys having me on; I always look forward to the opportunity to talk about poker because it’s a game that I love, and I hope to be in it for the rest of my life. Like I said, my roots were in baseball, and I loved that competition level and I’ve finally found something I enjoy as much as that love that I had for the game of baseball. I envision myself—I look up to Matt Savage quite a bit, and what he’s done in his career for the sport of poker, and creating an environment where people can reach out to him, no question too small. And I hope that players, as they get to know me—like I said, I’ve only been here at the Hard Rock for a year and a half, but I’ve been in the market for about 10 years, and I’ve got some good relationships going with the players in this market, and getting to know the other guys that come in for our big series. But they can get me on Facebook; it’s Tony J. Burns on Facebook. You’ll probably find either a picture of myself in a suit or a picture with my wife or a picture with my kids as the profile picture. And I’m on Twitter as well @TDTonyB. So, but I love talking poker, so if anybody ever needs a floor ruling or talk about what we have coming on, they can always get a hold of me. But we have the May Deep Stack Series coming up at the end of the month, I’ll actually be in Vegas from June 17 to July 2, we’re going to have a booth out at the World Series, promoting our August series.
TONY: That flows into the TDA, the bi-yearly Tournament Directors Association at the Aria, and I’m looking forward to being there for that with Matt, and before you know that we’ll be here in August with the SHRPO, a $3 million Championship, that’ll be a $5K buy-in. This year, players can buy in—in the prior years, it was a $5 million, this year it’ll be $3 million. And it was a freezeout format, but this year we’re going to go to two max bullets. It’ll be two starting days, and those players can use those two bullets however they’d like to. So they can come in on Friday and put two on Friday, they can come in on Saturday and put two on Saturday, or do one Friday and one Saturday. So we’re excited about the Big Four coming back up with Poker Night in America—
TONY: —And that’s where we’re at right now, all the way through August. But the vision that—there’s a lot of visions here for the years to come, and we’re already planning into 2018 and beyond. So we’re excited for that as well.
BRUCE: Well, wonderful. We’ll definitely put those links in the notes for this episode so our listeners can click on that and add you to the people they follow so they can keep up-to-date on all the latest developments and things like that. And I guess all I can say is thanks again for taking the time, and keep up the good work. Sounds like you’re doing well down there as far as the sport of poker, and your visions and philosophy and that, and that’s encouraging. Thanks a lot.
TONY: I appreciate that very much, guys. I’ve been blessed.
ROBBIE: And I’m happy to talk to you again, as well.
TONY: Robbie, you too. And Bruce, have a great day, and I hope to see you guys again soon.