What Happens When Big Guarantees Miss?

By Justin Hammer

Have you wondered what happens when a major poker series swings for the fences and misses its guarantees by six figures? For the last six years of my career as a tournament coordinator – more than 30 different series – my task includes setting such guarantees and projecting how many players show up. There’s a lot of glory when I’m accurate and the tournaments succeed. There’s a ton of heartache involved when they are … well, less successful.

The recent Prime Poker Open at Prime Social Club in Houston TX was one of the latter – by some $200,000 – and I’ve decided to share some of my thoughts on what it was like going through that process.

As Series Coordinator, my job is to gamble on how many people are going to show up to play poker at our Social Club. This series involved more guesswork than usual … as Texas is relatively new to organized poker, the pandemic seemed to change everything for everyone the last 18+ months, and more poker rooms began restarting their events. The last year of poker events in Houston – and Texas in general – gave plenty of reasons to believe we could pull off a highly successful series in early November. Well, that’s what I would have told you two months ago. You see, my guess was very wrong on this one.

Part of the math-based guesswork for predicting entries and placing prize pool guarantees is finding a number big enough to entice players, yet small enough to hit without the house having to add money to cover the difference. This involves scoping out the competition, knowing your player base, and using general experience from having done this before. After the schedule is created, the dozens of responsibilities include staffing – from dealers, floors, cooks, security and cage to servers and bartenders – creating structures; marketing; designing/buying trophies; social media; live-stream schedules and set up; cash game promotions, table felts; playing cards, sponsors, and answering dozens (hundreds) of social media-based questions. I get so much help from the great team at Prime Social with many of these tasks, but ultimately it falls on me if something goes wrong. Something like, missing a guarantee.

I knew I was really going for it with this series, more than $2.5 million in guarantees and matching up against the biggest poker series in existence. Swinging for the fences usually means hitting home runs or striking out. It was clear from the start of the series we had few home runs coming. We missed the guarantee on all three major weekend tournaments, from a $35k-miss opening weekend, $12k more the middle weekend, then a whopping $153k-miss on the Main Event. When missing on an event with multiple starting days, the process is so slow and methodical it feels like receiving a punch to the gut that somehow takes four days to fully experience. We took those punches three weekends in a row. There is this dichotomy of informing players we’re going to miss by a bunch AND convincing the owners everything is going to be OK, and well, it all can be mentally draining. I try to be honest and optimistic with both parties, a difficult task as the swing-and-miss reality becomes more imminent. A big part of what I do is being the energy-and-presence during tournaments, often difficult even when things are going well, and damned-near impossible when they aren’t.

There’s lots of reasons why missed guarantees happen. Bad timing, not enough marketing, overconfidence, just bad luck, and so many others. I could conveniently use some of those excuses for the giant misses, but ultimately the responsibility falls on my shoulders. Unfortunately, I’ve had plenty of experience in this department. Once the series ends and we tally up the total figures, the most difficult task happens: talking to the bosses. I’ve been in situations where that time in the room with casino execs as leader of a failed series feels as though I am a teenager out way past curfew, sneaking in and running in to my parents, waiting, ready to rip me a new one.

It isn’t fun.

After three straight losing weekends, I was fully prepared for what I had coming with my meeting at Prime, but it wasn’t anything like I was expecting. This was focused on how we could use this experience to get better, and steps to take as a team for the next series. We shared in the blame and heartache. We talked strategy for upcoming events and how to keep to making Prime Social a nationwide destination for tournament poker. After three straight weeks of struggle, we focused on moving forward as a team. The experience was good enough that I felt the need to share it here, and if you’ve made it this far, I thank you for reading it.

The next series is happening Dec 1-12, a quick turnaround to rinse, repeat and do it all over again, hosting a series to replace a canceled event down the street. We’ll rest once the next event is over, then ramp up planning on big things for 2022! I can’t wait to show what Houston poker is all about, and I hope everyone reading is able to come check it out.

Happy Holidays, and good luck at the tables, y’all.