Psst: Running a small nonprofit arts organization? Starved for funding? Looking for eight or ten grand to balance the budget or get that next project off the ground? Ken Kaulen, 26, has a sweet deal for you: easy money and fast, barely any effort, and you won’t have to take your clothes off or deliver any mysterious packages. Kaulen, aka ChicagoKenny, owns a new company called Chicago Poker Live. He wants to help you throw a series of four casino events–mostly poker parties, with maybe a blackjack table or two. And if you don’t know hold ’em from stud or a flop from a blind, no problem. All you have to do is get a charitable gaming license from the state–which costs $200. He’ll help you with the paperwork and hook you up with everything else, including the venue, equipment, trained dealers, and the players. And here’s the part charities really like, Kaulen says: you’re in on the action risk free. If your event loses money, he covers all the expenses. His first arts-group client is Chemically Imbalanced Comedy, which will be trekking from its north-side storefront out to Woodridge tomorrow (April 14) for the last of the four events its license allows this year.
Chemically Imbalanced founder Angie McMahon says she was “trying to think outside the box” about fund-raising when she heard about Chicago Poker Live (also known as Chicago Charitable Games) from her sister, a member of a Northern Illinois University business fraternity that had just worked with them. As her sister explained it, McMahon says, “it’s illegal to gamble in Illinois unless you’re a charity, but you hire this company as a consultant and they provide your volunteer dealers, they get the chips, they get the poker tables, they find a venue, they help you with your tax forms, they publicize it, and they get you your poker players. After you pay the taxes and room and equipment rent, you split the rest with them.” McMahon says she checked it out, found that this is indeed the way it works, and signed her group up.
Amazingly, McMahon says, 250 to 300 players showed up for each of her theater’s first three events, all held at a ballroom in Willowbrook. “If I organize a casino night by myself, it’s gonna be me and my theater company and their friends who are coming,” she says. “But these are serious poker players who are looking for tournament action like you might find in Vegas. This is a company that’s providing them a service: they get to play some real heavy-duty poker, and it’s also benefiting charities.” McMahon says she put the previous events on her blog and the theater’s e-mail list, “but honestly I haven’t gotten a single theater person who’s come in the door–it’s been 280 people who are clients of Ken.” Chemically Imbalanced netted $1,500 at its first event, $2,300 at the second, and $2,500 at the third.
Things have changed since Illinois enacted its charitable gaming law in 1986 to regulate church-basement roulette and black-tie galas. Televised tournaments have fueled a craze for poker, and the Internet has spawned an online community of players ready to swarm to live action. As a result the charity casino night has turned into a sort of floating game frequented by dedicated players for whom the charity is a mere means to an end. Illinois places a cap of $10 on any single bet and stipulates that no player can walk away with more than $250 in winnings, but after observing an event organized by another company in an Arlington Heights banquet hall last year, the New York Times reported that gamblers “easily skirted” the rule by buying chips from one another and “sweetened the action by making side bets.” The law prohibits third-party businesses like Chicago Poker Live from running the games but allows charities to hire them as consultants.
“There are so many people who don’t understand this whole new poker boom that’s happening,” Kaulen says. “That’s where I come in.” He and his brother started their business in January, he says, and have an e-mail list of 10,000 players who’ve opted in at their Web site (chicagopokerlive.com). “The charity doesn’t have to solicit their friends and family to show up–I bring a whole other group of people,” he says. “All the charity has to do is work the event the day of and [do] some paperwork before and after.” In addition, he says, “I have a whole network of volunteers that’ll help deal”–usually poker players themselves who are “either looking to get better at the game or looking to play” but are temporarily out of funds. Kaulen says he “kinda” does the “legwork” for the charities but claims not to manage the actual events: people from the sponsoring nonprofit run the bank. “I train them, walk them through everything. [Then] I’m just there, and if they need questions answered, they ask me.”
Kaulen says his events offer a “buffet of poker,” which he explains as more tournament play than what’s usually found on the boats. Players buy in for as little as $10 (in games where you’re likely to find beginners) to as much as $160, as many times as they wish–there’s no limit on losses. The tournaments pay in cash prizes. The sponsoring charity gets a 20 percent rake off the total amount bet in the tournaments and a maximum of $5 per pot for every cash game. According to Kaulen, a total of about $40,000 is wagered at each event, and the sponsor takes home $2,000 to $2,500. He’s been holding events in the western suburbs, where costs are lower than in the city; he says his fee is negotiated with each charity and depends on how successful the event is. The banquet halls sell drinks and food; none of that money goes to the sponsoring organization. But the nonprofits do get one other perk: the chance to turn poker players into arts fans. After the recent games hosted by Chemically Imbalanced, Kaulen says, “I know of two or three guys who are now going to go to their shows just because they heard about them at a poker event.”
A Bigger CAR
The Department of Cultural Affairs is planning to launch a genre-jumping expansion of its Chicago Artists Resource Web site this fall. CAR version 2.0 will serve folks working in theater, music, and dance as well as the visual artists who’ve been the site’s primary target since it first went up in 2005. Project manager Barbara Koenen says the expanded version will offer all the current features, such as job postings and forums, for each artist type as well as a “community-driven” calendar where organizations will do their own posting. The department’s been researching content over the last year with primary funding from a national Leveraging Investments in Creativity, or LINC, grant; a new MacArthur Foundation grant will get the site built.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.