“The people, the stories, and the poker — that’s what the Bar Poker Open is all about.” — Glenn McCrory (Founder of the Eastern Poker Tour and co-founder of Bar Poker Open)
It’s time to spread the word, change some old attitudes, and reset the bar of success to brand new heights.
Perhaps you’ve never heard of “bar poker leagues”. You might even be unaware that poker is played in bars spread out all over the country, particularly if you play in one of the biggest poker markets, such as Las Vegas or Los Angeles. It’s easy to feel isolated. Fact is, there are just as many games including many thousands of players attracted to poker who have been introduced to the game through a unique partnership that was introduced only five years ago. This bold new idea, has exploded in big time success, and is known as Bar Poker Open.
If you play just about anywhere and you really love the game, everyone connected to the modern-day poker scene owes a giant debt of gratitude to this remarkably successful concept developed by a small group of organizers who managed to overcome numerous obstacles and accomplish what had been thought to be nearly impossible.
The Bar Poker Open was first created in 2014 by bar poker industry veterans Their goal was to inject immediate and tangible prizing into the bar poker games. They believed prizes would attract more players. The lure of a reward would be a more palatable option for poker enthusiasts looking for immediate satisfaction. After all, everyone likes to win something of value when they play poker. Prior to the inception of the Bar Poker Open, there were very few incentives or rewards for participating in a bar poker event. But the awarding of prizes was just the beginning of a new poker deck stacked with seemingly unlimited possibilities and potential.
In years past (and currently true for non Bar Poker Open events), poker players who competed in bars were required to put in multiple days (sometimes 3 to 5 nights weekly) in order to earn enough qualifying points to then advance to a local playoff series with a rather modest prize pool of perhaps just a hundred dollars. It seemed like a lot of work for small stakes. Sometimes, the main prize included a low-buy-in entry into a small tournament held at a local casino. Much larger national poker leagues would then invite players to a regional qualifying event with pretty much nothing to win other than an invitation into a national event, to be played later on.
This comfy but complacent arrangement had very little upside for players — since they were required to pay their own expenses and were lured by relatively small prize pool totaling only between $5,000 and $10,000. From an outsider’s perspective, there were few rewards to participating in bar poker leagues except purely as entertainment. Not that this was necessarily a bad thing. For many participants, the true value was simply in getting together with their friends and enjoying a fun social night at the bar playing poker.
In an effort to make the game more rewarding and bring in more people to bar league games, the Bar Poker Open injected more than $700,000 of prizing annually. Moreover, in an effort to make participation much easier, a simple and immediate “two-step qualification” was established to allow players to join major championship events.
This new formula dramatically reduced the number of occasions players were required to play in order to qualify. Hence, a prospective player can now play in just two preliminary events to realistically qualify for a seat in the $200,000 Guaranteed National Championship.
Here’s how the two-step qualification works:
Step 1: Finish in the Top Three in a local league event to gain access to a weekly free championship qualifier. These games are held all across the country. They are listed on the website, which is updated regularly.
Step 2: Finish in (approximately) the Top 4 Percent of the Field in the weekly qualifier to win a seat into one of the upcoming National Championships. Note that the first-place winner of this “Step 2: National Championship Qualifier” automatically wins a fully-paid Las Vegas vacation paid for by Bar Poker Open!
In 2018 alone, more than $700,000 in Championship seats and Las Vegas Vacations were awarded to players who qualified by playing in just two events. This was an enormous leap forward from norms in poker leagues before 2014.
This was just the start of something much bigger as the Bar Poker Open continues to grow. This is largely because more players and increasing numbers of bar owners have seen the immense value of bringing people together to play poker inside their establishments. It’s a win-win for everyone. The series has become so big and successful that Championship finales are regularly live-streamed on the Internet, with spectators. In short, the Bar Poker Open is fun to play, fun to watch, and fun to follow.
The Bar Poker Open’s unbridled success can largely be attributed to giving new players a chance to participate for virtually no monetary investment, other than perhaps buying a dinner and/or a drink or two to keep the bar owners happy. Indeed, most of the poker venues are local bars, taverns, or restaurants in suburban towns. The games are often far away from the bright lights and big money of mega-casinos. Bar Poker Open’s loyalists are real people with regular jobs and lives, not poker pros. The leagues also attract the largest percentage of female participants of any open poker competition in the world. Female participation is roughly six- to seven-times the percentages of the World Series of Poker and most other major poker events. So, these leagues are clearly doing something right that the more famous venues seem to be missing.
Here’s our chance to learn more about the concept of what a bar poker tournament means and how it’s integrated into the Bar Poker Open, which, chances are, is being played at a local spot near you. We will also learn a bit more about one of its founders and managing partner, Glenn McCrory, quite possibly the youngest industry veteran I have ever come across, with a very bright future in the game, as well.
An Interview with Glenn McCrory — Founder and Managing Partner of the Bar Poker Open
Glenn McCrory can perhaps best be described as the Benny Binion of the now-booming bar poker scene. Much like poker’s grand patriarch many decades earlier, McCrory first had a grand vision, then turned it into an exciting reality. During that process, he’s become an important behind-the-scenes maverick figure who has been one of those who can rightfully claim to have transformed the game.
In 2005, McCrory founded Ocean State Poker, which quickly transformed into the Eastern Poker Tour. McCrory, and hundreds of others at the time, saw the enormous potential to create a huge business hosting poker tournaments inside taverns and lounges all across America. It would catch on like wildfire. This concept eventually came to be known as the Bar Poker Open, an important launching pad for many novices which along the way introduced tens of thousands of new players to the game and provided lots of thrills and entertainment for players, their family, and friends.
Held on what are usually slower nights during mid-week, the Bar Poker Open and its poker leagues may have even saved a few struggling establishments from going out of business. Bar Poker Open now encompasses more than 900 bars total, and culminates in a televised national championship. Indeed, McCrory may be the most important person in the game that many who play it and follow it have never heard of. Well… at least until now.
Accordingly, the following in-person interview was set up to change all that. We not only wanted to learn more about McCrory, but to also find out how he took a simple idea and created an explosive new business concept with a massive number of devotees — from bar owners and their thousands of employees to new players sitting down to play in a live poker tournament for the first time. That’s not all. McCrory is doing many other exciting things too, as he describes in this special feature. He was kind enough to share more about the past, present, and future of what he’s done and where he’s headed, with Card Player’s Rich Korbin firing the questions.
Rich Korbin: Glenn, tell us how the idea for a bar poker league came about.
Glenn McCrory: The best explanation for how the Bar Poker Open all started can be expressed in two words — beer and snowboarding. Years ago, I moved out to Colorado to pursue my dream at the time, which was to spend an entire winter just snowboarding. I was working seasonally as a snowboard instructor at a ski resort in Breckenridge, Colorado with my best friend from childhood, Bradford Smith.
We found out there was a free poker tournament held every Wednesday night and a couple hundred people would show up. That’s really where the idea for poker tournaments and bar leagues all started, which was in Colorado. A prize package was offered at the bar which was basically a paid trip and entry into a World Series of Poker Satellite in Las Vegas.
It was kind of run like a super satellite. Well, wouldn’t you know it — I ended up winning the package, even though I’d only played poker twice before in my life! Our winter of fun and debauchery unfortunately had come to an end, and we decided to move back home and pursue a poker league, as a business. We thought this concept would be a great thing to bring back home to New England, which is now my permanent home, that is, when I’m not traveling, which seems to be much more often than not these days!
RK: But you took the Bar Poker Open a huge step further. You didn’t just run satellites to other poker events. You went after something much bigger, including the formation of a whole new world class championship. Tell us about that.
GM: I’ve always been highly competitive. I get all wrapped up in sports, and statistics, and rankings — things like that. I wanted to embellish what just a single bar might do and connect it to a much bigger network, that would attract far more players and even create a structure similar to the GPI’s ranking, before there even was a GPI ranking. Because of legal restrictions, leagues can’t necessarily give added incentives to participants with the same cash or prizes expected at a casino. So instead, we had to make the players feel special in other ways, and that might just be something as simple as a winning photograph on Facebook, getting mentioned on a poker website, or seeing your name above others on our leader boards. It was all about the camaraderie and the bragging rights, at least at first.
RK: What were the earliest events like when you started them in New England?
GM: The very first one was pretty much just me and my circle of friends, but that quickly changed. In 2004–2005 everyone wanted to get a taste of “live poker” and replicate Chris Moneymaker’s success. Within weeks, our weekly game of friends became “Ocean State Poker,” a full 7-days-a-week schedule with some days eclipsing 200 players. At one point, every bar wanted to be a part of it. We would charge the bars a small amount of money to host the games, and of course they were glad to pay because all the players would eat and drink which was great for business. So, nights that were usually dead, like Tuesdays and Wednesdays, would be packed with more than 100 people inside. At that point we realized, our little state of Rhode Island was not large enough for our ambitions, and created a new organization — the “Eastern Poker Tour.”
RK: It’s surprising that bars didn’t figure this out for themselves. They obviously needed you to introduce the concept.
GM: Well, we took what might sound like a simple idea and capitalized on it. Even “if” bar owners could find someone to host a game, they’d need proper equipment, someone to run it properly and fairly, a way to track results, and of course a means to actually market the event so people find the game and keep showing up. Our organization was very similar to what you would expect from a Trivia company, a local DJ with a big following, or a Karaoke company, we just used “poker” as our marketing too, instead. Other leagues started elsewhere and did this too, even in foreign countries. At one point there were probably 200-300 poker leagues in the United States alone. We had a different way of looking at things than your typical card room. Poker is so much more than a game of monetary reward. We wanted to keep things fun.
Our mission has always been to build our games around the social element where players have a fun and safe place to interact, laugh, and socialize together, in person, which is really what attracts most people to poker.
RK: I know you’re not just in this for the money. You really do love the game and want to promote poker.
GM: Absolutely! Once you strip away the negative connotations that come with gambling, poker is truly an incredible game. It’s a game where all walks of life can unwind, socialize, and compete on a level playing field and simply have a blast doing it. Then, you have a brand new social circle that becomes some of your closest friends. Where else can you have a game with so many different kinds of people?
I remember being in a game recently where there was a lawyer, next to a doctor, next to a car salesman, next to a guy who had just gotten out of jail a week earlier. My mom was even in that game. Every single person at that table had a blast. Everyone was laughing and buying each other drinks. Nobody cared about what went on outside, the game was the great equalizer and we each had a chance to give it a shot and win. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it. But it goes even deeper than that.
As much as I do love the game, it’s often not what it seems from the outside. It’s a tough game. It creates lots of disappointment. Dreams do get crushed. Even some of the people at the top of the poker pyramid, who have won millions, often do not seem particularly happy. We’re all about fun. We’re about bringing old friends together and making new friends and competing in a game that nearly everyone has a chance to win. That’s what poker should really be all about.
RK: One element that might surprise a lot of people is how many female players play in Bar Poker Open events.
GM: This is true. What’s the average participation of women in poker tournaments? Maybe 5 percent? Get ready for this statistic: On average, we draw 35 for 40 percent female players. Let me repeat that. 35 to 40 percent! Even our national championship was 35 percent female. We’ve had nine championship events and some incredible female players outright won two of them. We think it’s fundamental to keep it fun, first and foremost. We also see a lot of couples come in and play in the bars, where it becomes a date night.
Going into a poker room can be intimidating. The stakes are higher. People aren’t always friendly. We keep things enjoyable. We have even taught lots of new players how to play. Up to 30 percent of new players who sit down in any Bar Poker Open local tournament every year, have played in a poker tournament for the very first time. Bar Poker is bringing players into the game at a pace unmatched by anyone, and I am thrilled to be a part of something that is such a positive impact to the poker world.
RK: In most venues, you can’t charge the players a buy-in. They’re not really allowed to gamble (by law). So, how do you still make it competitive?
GM: That’s the beauty of it. You can actually win something, even something big but risk nothing to compete for it. What does the average American make? Maybe $35,000 to $40,000 a year? That’s about $650 a week, after taxes. So, it’s not easy for the average person to put any serious cash into a poker buy-in, where they might get eaten alive in a No-Limit game and lose it all in one hand, in addition to the epidemic within the poker community of getting berated or feeling embarrassed. And so, for this huge group of “would-be” players, the Bar Poker Open becomes that perfect attraction and launching point for people who want to give poker a try, want to play for some kind of prize, and also have fun.
Some players are perfectly fine with all that Bar Poker has to offer and continue to play solely bar poker events, then there is a strong percentage of those players that take the newfound skills and confidence and now don’t mind participating in a local casino event now and then. Our league has even produced some players who have gone on to win huge prizes in other events, and they got started playing small events in bars. This year’s “The Big 50” at the WSOP drew more than 28,000 players, which was the largest tournament in history. I was told by a few people that the winner came from a bar league poker background. He pocketed more than $1.1 million for his win! There are countless stories of poker professionals or poker championship that got started in a bar poker tournament! We’re very proud of that and the next million dollar winner could be you!
RK: What’s the total number of places that have signed up for the Bar Poker Open?And, what is the typical turnout like at a bar poker event?
GM: Right now, it’s about 900 locations that are hosting events across 25 states with Bar Poker Open and our participating leagues. We have places in the mountains in out-of-the-way places. We also have games in Philadelphia and other big cities.
Our games can range from 20 – 200+ players at any given night. Our average players across all of Bar Poker Open is about 30 players per night. There’s no rhyme or reason to the turnout. Sometimes, the small taverns produce the biggest turnouts. I don’t want to say anything negative, but in some spots there might not be a huge population but there is just not all that much to do, so the Bar Poker Open becomes a big hit. We are also always looking for new poker leagues to join our network of leagues in areas we do not already have representation!
RK: What’s a typical Bar Poker Open night like and how does that tie into the bigger picture?
GM: A tournament might last 3-4 hours, with a few breaks and sometimes even a 30-minute dinner break in between. The top three finishers from each nightly event advance to a weekly championship. That completes Step 1.
Step 2 is played strictly online to allow for players from all over the country to participate on one platform. We use our own proprietary system and software that is able to track and invite all the weekly winners from the previous “Step 1” from all the bars compete among themselves. We never accept a dime from players to participate online, so the online software is perfectly legal in all states we operate. We award the weekly winner of Step 2 a full Las Vegas Poker Vacation Package. This includes hotel, airfare, and entry into the National Championship. Meanwhile, the remaining (approximately) top 4 (percent) win seats to one of the upcoming National Championships at two world-class destinations. In our 2018-2019 Season, our Championships alone awarded nearly $400,000 in total prize payouts to nearly 300 players and we gave out nearly 100 Full Poker Vacation Packages in addition to that prize!
RK: Give us more specifics about the National Championships.
GM: Our national championships series are held every six months at some world-class poker destinations. On Oct. 25-28, we host the “East Coast National Championship” at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, easily one of the best poker destinations in North America. The East Coast Poker Championship a $100,000 guaranteed prize pool that we regularly beat when our attendance breaks the minimum. In June, we have our “Las Vegas National Championship” at another fantastic poker destination, The Golden Nugget. The Golden Nugget converts their “Grand Ballroom” into an enormous poker room and give us some of the best tournament staff in the country. We guarantee $200,000 guaranteed prize pool which is held in Las Vegas in the summer at the Golden Nugget. But this year we actually got all the way up to a $288,000 prize pool because of the popularity overall and all the players who qualified, which boosted the prize money far past what we guaranteed.
There are other bar poker leagues around the world which have been very successful, but that number made our event the Largest Bar Poker Championship in the World and largest Invitational Poker Championship in the World, by quite a large margin. We thought we were chasing a number of $1M+, but found out later that event is not just bar poker players but an event that is open to anyone willing to part with $1,500, making it really no different than any other poker tournament. I think the major accomplishment, is that our Championship Event is made up of 100 percent bar poker players who all had to earn their entry through either our 2 step process or through our points leader board in the local bars hosting “BPO Events.” Earlier this summer, Texas Poker Tour’s Rafael Jimenez was the winner. He made two amazing comebacks. He came into Day Two as the shortest stack with less than one big blind. Then, Rafael also came into the final table as the shortest stack. But he ended up winning $50,000 , the beautiful Bar Poker Open trophy, and the entire thing was captured and Broadcast in Full HD by Gorilla Gaming. That’s a great story!
RK: Can anyone play and win their way into the championship series?
GM: Pretty much anyone of legal age to be in a bar can participate in the local bar poker events. To participate in the Bar Poker Open National Championship, the only way to do that is to physically play, win, and qualify from our local bars. We could add significantly to the total prize pool and make it a million dollars or more if we wanted, simply by opening it up to the public. But that would come at the risk of bringing in lots of pros and others who didn’t earn it in the way our players came up through the ranks. We wanted to give our loyal players, virtually all of them amateurs, a shot and let bar league players have a chance to experience the thrill of winning a big-time championship.
RK: As if you aren’t busy enough, you also custom-make poker tables and televise poker events through another one of your own company’s, Gorilla Gaming, that’s doing quite well.
GM: That all came from Bar Poker, funny enough. In 2006, we decided that we could design and build a better poker table that what was out there for our own league, Eastern Poker Tour. At the time, it was out of necessity because we couldn’t afford a quality table for our league. Our tables ended up being stronger, lighter, and better for our league and we could also do it more affordably. So, we started building them in my basement. People saw those tables at our local games and some players who had their own games suddenly wanted one. So, we began building extra tables upon request.
Then, approximately 6 years later we launched our turned side hustle into a real brand, website, and business called “Gorilla Gaming.” I truly think that our tables cannot be matched in terms of quality and price and all our tables are built, from scratch right here in the U.S. One thing that sets us apart, aside from the actual tables, is the ordering process online. People can visualize, customize, and order their own poker table right from an easy to use web interface. I compare the experience to purchasing your own custom car model.
Aside from anyone looking to step up their home game, our customer list includes major casinos, card clubs, televised final tables, and we have been fortunate to work with some of the largest brands in poker like Pokerstars and World Series of Poker. The design we created for Pokerstars and WSOP is one that I am very proud of. We designed, built, and patented a way of placing USB phone chargers at all the player spots without an ugly mess of wires stapled to the underside of the table. The design of the table became lighter weight, making it easier to transport and set up, but it also packed full of features that includes an LED Rail and USB Phone charging. We also specialize in building production ready final tables that can include RFID technology, accommodating live-streaming capability.
In addition to building poker tables, we also print high quality custom gaming felts and billiards cloths for casinos and individuals around the country. We invested in a state of the art print production process to create custom gaming cloths in a beautiful spectrum of colors. We can print colors most cannot that include fluorescent colors, pastels, PMS matching, and perfect pantone matches for those that are very brand conscientious. We also provide design services for anyone who is looking for the highest quality custom poker table felt and designs.
RK: You had mentioned you also do broadcasting with Gorilla Gaming? And you’ve even managed to get the Bar Poker Open championships live-streamed which drew big numbers.
GM: Yes, (laughing) that too! As I mentioned earlier, in 2007 Eastern Poker Tour was the first and still the only bar poker organization that I am aware of to televise our championships on television. We televised this event on what is now NBC Sports Boston. A friend of mine owns an incredible production company with amazing talent, and I pitched him on the idea of working with me to televise our championship in 2007. The show was picked up and was actually quite successful scoring very good ratings locally. We worked together for 5 years to produce quite a few poker productions for television until the dreaded “Black Friday” took away our budget as well as the majority of other poker productions off the air.
Since those days, quite a few amazing technological advancements have happened to make poker broadcasting much more affordable and distribution itself incredibly easy. For a fraction of what it would cost for a local casino to run local advertising spots, they can produce an entire 4-6 hour show on social media outlets like Twitch, YouTube, and Facebook.
Now we can create an entire experience that entertains gaming fans from around the world, and have the creative control to keep their brand front and center the entire time to a new and many times younger audience. Some of the shows we do for Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, Bar Poker Open, and Eastern Poker Tour have reached hundreds of thousands of views with re-airs still working for them 24/7!
You wouldn’t reach this level of distribution on a national TV channel, and we can do it for pennies on the typical advertising dollar spent on commercials and advertisements. Think about this for a second. We can give them several hours of branding with the casino logo shown constantly, with the ability to add a full inventory of commercials, and even special segments of the casino/brand experience to an audience watched by sometimes 200,000 – 1,000,000+ people – in comparison to a 30-second ad almost no one is actually watching on the nightly news?
RK: What’s the satisfaction you get from being involved with the Bar Poker Open?
GM: That’s the easiest question I’ve been asked. It’s the people. It’s seeing people come together and hang out and have a good time. I’ve literally seen people in tears after cashing in our tournament because many of them a cashing for the first time in a major tournament.
I’ve witnessed people who had various physical or mental challenges get so much out of the experience. I’ve had mothers of grown children with autism come up and thank us for letting them play, and watching them sometimes even win. How many casinos can say that poker has literally saved lives? I’ve had conversations with players, so thankful that they got involved with Bar Poker, because it literally saved their live. They might have been lonely, depressed, or in just a dark place mentally due to tragedy, divorce, or hard times. Bar Poker gave them somewhere to leave their problems at the door, play in a game that’s challenging and a ton of fun, share in some laughs, and then meet some great friends along the way that will become their social circuit for the rest of their lives. The people. The stories. The poker. That’s what it’s all about.
RK: Any final thoughts to summarize for our readers?
GM: Well, first, we always welcome feedback from players and are looking for new partners. Whether you are a bar or a league interested in joining with the Bar Poker Open, or a player looking to learn more about poker tournaments in your area, we would love to hear from you!
Head to our website or email us directly at email@example.com. Our hope and vision for the Bar Poker Open is for it to bring “Bar Poker” into the spotlight for the poker world. I truly feel bar poker leagues, like Bar Poker Open and all our affiliate leagues, have done a tremendous amount for the poker ecosystem and it’s time to recognize that. If someone wants to gain some live poker experience without risking a paycheck, this is one of the best options out there and it has been for 15+ Years Now.
Bar Poker Open is now injecting nearly $1 Million in Annual Prizes into an industry that once had very little reward to playing, so you should also look to the Bar Poker Open as a viable option even for the regular casino player looking for a more social and fun option once a week with still a ton to play for and nothing to risk!
RK: You’re absolutely right, Glenn! You and the Bar Poker Open have earned our respect, and then some. Hopefully this feature and some other good press will help spread the word and encourage more players to give the Bar Poker Open a try. Good luck.
GM: Thanks, Rich.