Local poker company sends season winners to compete in World Series of Poker


The annual Las Vegas World Series of Poker represents the pinnacle of professional poker competition. Set within the gaudy confines of the Rio All Suites Las Vegas Hotel and Casino, players gather together under one roof and engage in a mental battle of bluffs, odds and luck. Attending this nationally renowned event is considered very prestigious, and players from all corners of the globe flock to attend. For the past six years, a local company has been sending individuals to compete at this legendary competition. It is Free World Series Seat (FWSS), a poker company that hosts nightly gaming events through Flagstaff and rewards their season winners with a trip to compete in Sin City.

FWSS is owned and operated by Flagstaff local Damon Burke, who also works within the Cline Library’s Course Resources unit. Burke originally served as one of the primary event coordinators for the Bad Ass Poker Tour, a company dedicated toward providing a fun and competitive poker atmosphere to northern Arizona cities. He conceived the idea of starting his own company when Bad Ass Poker’s influence within the Flagstaff community began to slowly disintegrate.

“They were running in five or six different towns in northern Arizona,” Burke said.  “The guy who ran those tournaments was great; it was awesome working for him. He had a great system and set-up but he was spreading himself a little thin and wasn’t able to put the focus that it would really take in each location. I have to keep up a regular relationship with all the business owners to make sure they’re happy and that the players are happy, and if you’re 150 miles from Flagstaff, you just can’t do that.”

Burke decided to create FWSS to place the emphasis back on local community poker events.

“I was running the tournaments for Bad Ass at the time, but when all the bars started pulling out I decided I needed to do something to get them back involved and all the players really wanted this to continue even though it looked like it was fading away,” Burk said. “So I created my own business six years ago called Free World Series Seat just to keep poker going at the bar scene.”

Currently, FWSS poker events occur five days a week at three local Flagstaff venues. Monday events are hosted at the Courtyard Marriot, Wednesday games at Porky’s Pub, and Tuesday, Thursday and Friday meetings take place at Cinnabar.  All nightly events begin at 7 p.m., with all the poker tables and chips provided by FWSS.

Burke makes a point of encouraging participants to support the bars that host the events.

“The bars are the ones who really support this and make it possible for me to send players to Vegas,” Burke said. “They’re the ones buying the players in every night so that the players can participate without an entry fee.”

There is no participation fee for entrants; the only requirement is to sign up for that evening’s event. By the end of the night, the top ten players will receive points which will be added up and contribute to their weekly standings and ultimately overall ranking.

“We have six-month-long season, [and] at the end of every six months we have one final tournament, and the top fifty from the six-month season play one final tournament and the one winner out of that final fifty wins the World Series seat,” Burke said. “Other players win smaller prizes like a buy-in to a Cliff Castle tournament.”

Burke does not possess an official partnership with the World Series of Poker, but provides the winner with the financial backing to enter.

“Anyone can buy into the World Series,” Burke said. “All I do is write a cashier’s check from my company directly to the World Series of Poker. [The FWSS] winner takes that cashier’s check to Vegas with them [and] when they go to check in at the tournament, they hand over the check as their entry fee.”

Burke enjoys the experience of being able to help send the winner of the final tournament to the World Series of Poker.

“There are a lot of players. I’ve sent 10 now, and I’m about to send my 11th and 12th players this coming June,” Burke said. “Every one of them is a good poker player. A serious poker player really thinks they can make it and got a chance to go out to Vegas, and it is pretty exciting.”

One of those fortunate individuals includes two-time FWSS winner Bob Belton, a Flagstaff resident of 20 years and heavy participant in the nightly local poker scene. In 2010, he attended the World Series of Poker Senior Event and took 49th place out of 2,700 players, and cashed in for $7,600. The 80-year-old said trying to make it to the final table was a truly grueling ordeal.

“To make it to the last day, to make it to the final twenty, you play from two in the afternoon to one or two at night for two days in a row,” Belton said. “It was real fun; it was challenging. There are a lot of nice people that you meet there; you see a lot of celebrities; it was really an exciting venture.”

Belton said the FWSS poker events provide a friendly atmosphere where players can hone their skills and establish new friendships in the process.

“[It is perfect] if they like to play cards and like to meet new people, and it’s a social event as well as just playing for just points; you’re not playing for money,” Belton said. “It’s a cheap way to learn how to play poker, if you’re interested in learning and there is an ultimate award if you do. Even if you go to the casino occasionally, it’s a good practice format to learn to play and understand the game.”

Naomi Brandis, a second-year speech pathology graduate student, has been playing poker for five years and began frequenting the FWSS events upon moving to Flagstaff from her native home of Tucson. Brandis said she really enjoys both the social and mental aspects of the game.

“I like it because it’s a hobby and it’s really fun and it can be really interactive,” Brandis said. “You can sit there and have a drink and talk to people at the table or you can sit there and listen to music and just be completely into the game. Both are considered appropriate, and it’s a fun game. It’s really complicated, and the more you learn about it the more you know you don’t know about the game.”

As the popularity of the FWSS poker events continues to grow, Burke said he is completely open to expanding the “lucrativeness” of the season ending prizes.

“If I had enough players . . . I’d probably just do more tournaments or higher payouts from those tournaments,” Burke said. “Or I’d go deeper with second, third, fourth, fifth, buying some type of other tournament buy-in. There’s a couple of pretty famous ones in Vegas, like the Bellagio has a $540 deep stack tournament and I’d love to buy 2nd place into that. The more people I get, I definitely give back to the poker players.”

For more information regarding Free World Series Seat poker events or standings, visit www.freeworldseriesseat.com.


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