Ben Erwin, Director of Poker Operations at the Thunder Valley Casino Resort in Lincoln, CA was
interviewed recently by Nolan Dalla about the local scene and “Poker Night in America” coming
to Northern California for the first time, January 29th through February 1st.
Question: Ben, for those who don’t know you yet, can you give us a brief introduction as to your
career background and how you came to run the poker room at Thunder Valley?
Erwin: Sure. I just turned 40, last week. So, I’m trying to get my hands around that (laughing). But seriously, I’ve worked in poker since I was 18. I started down in San Diego. I’ve always had a passion for the game, even way prior to the poker boom. I spent my first seven years in poker working as a dealer. Then, I was promoted to work as a floorman at age 24. After that, I became a shift manager. When I was 29, I decided to move out to Las Vegas where I ran my first poker room. In each of my previous positions, I learned quite a lot – and I continue to learn new things to this day. I came to Thunder Valley six years ago, and I’m proud to have been here ever since where I’ve seen this poker market continue to grow.
Question: For those who haven’t been there before, where’s Thunder Valley located?
Erwin: We’re located in Lincoln, California — which is a small town about 25 miles north of the Sacramento Airport. But we really consider ourselves part of Sacramento.
Question: What’s the size of the poker room at Thunder Valley?
Erwin: Including tournament tables and cash games combined, we are a 34-table poker room, the biggest in the area.
Question: Thunder Valley isn’t new to the televised poker scene is it? What major events have
you hosted in the past?
Erwin: Back when we first opened in 2010, we honestly didn’t have big aspirations, nor did we foresee some of the things that we’re doing today. At first, we just wanted to open up the room have as a nice amenity to this beautiful property. But just as soon as we opened up, we saw enormous interest and our poker room instantly became a tremendous draw. I approached a very supportive management team here and said we have some real possibilities to make this much bigger and better for our players. So, they gave me the great green light and I began trying out some things. In 2011, we started running our own tournaments and saw unbelievable success. Our first tour event was with Ante Up magazine in 2012. Our first $1,000 buy-in event drew 342 entries, and we thought that was amazing. Then, in 2014 we added the World Poker Tour. Ever since we started hosting the big-time events, it’s been an awesome ride.
Question: That’s quite an interesting development — that Thunder Valley initially didn’t plan to
become a poker destination, but has since become a major tour stop which attracts players from
all over, especially to the tournaments. Can you explain the reason for this and speculate on
what makes the Sacramento area unique in this regard?
Erwin: Oddly enough, when the property went through an expansion back in 2010, opening the Poker Room was a part of the guest feedback we received. They said, it would be great if you could open a live poker room. So, like any good business committed to their guests, Thunder Valley decided to offer it. At first, we planned to just have a nice comfortable room as part of the property. But then when we opened with 16 tables, they just all filled up and pretty much stayed full. We said to ourselves, ‘what’s happening here?’ We hadn’t even started out promotions yet and the room was full. Another factor was that we were the only place in the area to offer tournaments and major events some time later. The Bay Area had some events as did Reno. But here we were in the middle. So, we decided to get into that arena with televised events. We initially just wanted to draw even with the other places, and we managed to do that in 2012. Then, we gradually grew from there. Now, we want to be a national draw for players from everywhere. One thing we really are proud of — poker players are now hopping on planes to fly to Sacramento. That might not be a big thing for cardrooms in Los Angeles or Las Vegas or wherever, but for us to be able to say that is a source of real pride and quite an accomplishment. We always seek to exceed the expectations of player when they come, and I think we continue to do that.
Question: What can visitors expect when they come to Thunder Valley while “Poker Night in
America” is being filmed during the last weekend in January?
Erwin: One thing that’s really unique about “Poker Night” from the other attractions we’ve had is the high-limit cash game. Most other events are built around the tournament experience and pretty much follow a similar route in the way they are run and the general atmosphere. But the high-stakes cash game element is a really different addition to the mix. We’re seeing a whole new level of excitement which reminds me of when we first opened and started doing televised events. We’ll be welcoming two of poker’s greatest ambassadors — Phil Hellmuth and Maria Ho. They’ve both been here before and have been wonderful to work with. All the other pros and amateurs who are coming in will also make things really exciting.
Question: What else was attractive about hosting your first visit by “Poker Night in America?”
Erwin: No doubt, the “Poker Night in America” name has grown. It’s on CBS Sports, which is a huge national draw. To know we are going to be on that channel and be exposed to such a huge audience is really a great opportunity.
Question: Tell us about the tournament that’s going on, as well as the Main Event.
Erwin: Our tournament runs a couple of weeks, over two straight weekends. We have a variety of poker events on the schedule, not just No-Limit Hold’em, but also Pot-Limit Omaha, HORSE, Omaha High-Low, a bounty event, and so on. We like to offer a little bit of everything. On the second weekend, which begins the 29th, we have the high-stakes cash game which is being filmed. The Main Event also starts that day, which will have two flights. The buy-in is $1,650. That will run over the weekend with a conclusion on Monday, February 1st when the final table will be filmed and live streamed here at Thunder Valley. There are also satellites running all week long. Players can win their way into the Main Event for as little as $85.
Question: Is there a way for someone to satellite his or her way into the high-stakes cash games
Erwin: Yes. There are multiple ways for players to win their way into the high-stakes cash game on “Poker Night” and play with the pros, including some poker legends. We expect to fill five seats this way. We will run $1,050 satellites. One in ten of those players will get a seat and get $10,000 to buy into the game and be featured on television.
Question: Do the satellite winners have to play? Or, can they take the money instead?
Erwin: They are obligated to play one session, unless they bust out, of course. Each cash game session will last four hours and then that seat will be filled by another satellite winner.
Question: Will filming be open to the public and can fans come and watch?
Erwin: Absolutely. The cash game and tournament final table where “Poker Night in America” will be filming will be free and open to the public. We should get lots of walk in traffic, because the hotel lobby will be right there. As people walk in, the “wow” factor will definitely happen when they see the whole setup. The feature table and filming area is also adjacent to where the tournament will be going on. So, when people are playing in our tournament events or cash games, they can come over during breaks or whenever and check out the action.
Question: Are there special perks for those players who are still undecided and thinking about
coming out this coming weekend?
Erwin: We have special room rates going for players during the entire series. Either call (916) 408-7777 or go online at THUNDERVALLEYRESORT.COM and book hotel rooms. It’s $99 weekdays and $179 on weekends. Of course, we also have great restaurants, other forms of gaming, and provide a full resort experience. As I said, our goal is to exceed everyone’s expectations.