Matt Stout is a well-known member of the pro poker community for a number of reasons. Of course, he has been a professional player for more than a decade with millions of dollars in live and online poker results to his credit. And as part of his $3.4 million in live earnings, he has wins from the US and California Poker Championships and WSOP Circuit, not to mention numerous World Poker Tour and World Series of Poker final tables.
Stats aside, though, Stout is known as a friendly and welcoming poker player, one who has a deep passion and respect for the game and its players. And in addition to his own participation in charity poker tournaments over the years, he is also the founder and head honcho of the Charity Series of Poker, better known as the CSOP.
Launching and growing the CSOP was a way for Stout to combine his love of philanthropy and poker on a regular basis, building something that made charitable giving more of a constant part of the poker year for many players.
The very first CSOP event was held at Planet Hollywood Casino in Las Vegas in July of 2014, and the festivities raised $14,605 for Three Square, a local food bank that could offer nearly 44,000 meals with that donation. Now in its third year, the CSOP returned to Planet Hollywood last month and raised nearly $20K for Three Square. Other participating casinos include Borgata in Atlantic City and the Seminole Hard Rock in Florida. And charities that have benefited to date include Habitat for Humanity and Community Food Bank of New Jersey.
The next event is set for this week – Friday, August 12 – at the Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood, Florida. Amidst the excitement of the SHRPO (Seminole Hard Rock Poker Open) happening this month, the CSOP will host a complimentary player party at the L Bar in the hotel at 5pm with cocktails, music, and food, before launching into the tournament action at 7pm.
Emmy-winning actor and comedian Brad Garrett will be in the house to co-host the festivities, as the tournament will benefit his Maximum Hope Foundation, an organization he founded in 2007 to help families caring for children with terminal illnesses. With Stout and Garrett together on Friday night, along with live emcees Ali Nejad and Maria Ho, the possibilities for entertainment are endless.
Players can compete for a $300 buy-in (half to the prize pool, half to the charity) and unlimited rebuys. There are also more than $30K in cash and prizes up for grabs in the drawing and tournament.
We talked to Stout prior to the event about the CSOP, his own personal involvement, and his favorite moment from the past three years.
Poker Update: What prompted you to officially launch the CSOP as a series instead of hosting singular events?
Matt Stout: While each event has its own flavor and flair based on how the venue runs it and who shows up on that specific day, I wanted to build a brand behind the events as well, one that people grew to recognize. I want someone who has played our Vegas or Borgata events in the past to see a CSOP event on the schedule for SHRPO and say to himself or herself, “Not only is that event going to be a blast to play in, but the money is going to go where it’s supposed to go and help a great cause.” Sadly, the same could not be said for many charity poker tournaments that came before my time, but hopefully we can help restore some of the poker community’s faith in good, honest charity poker tournaments that are helping people who truly need it. The CSOP simply does its part to help organize and promote the event and then has the casino cut a check directly to the beneficiary charity.
Poker Update: How do you choose the charities?
Matt: I try to choose charities that are not only near and dear to my heart, but ones that I’ve seen in action and know how effectively they’re using the money raised. Habitat for Humanity was one of the main charities CSOP raised for in the past since it was the first charity I ever got involved with and holds a special place in my heart, but the international branch of the organization is becoming less and less effective — spending more and more money on marketing and administration rather than on building homes for the needy. They also take a strong anti-gambling stance, so I decided to begin supporting other charities instead.
I’ve always been a big supporter of food banks because I not only love what they do to help people in need, but because food waste is such a huge issue in this country, which in turn makes it easy for food banks to use funds effectively. They don’t have to pay for food in most cases, since there’s so much wasted food being donated. In most cases, they just need to pick up donations, bring them back to the food bank, inspect, re-package, and distribute the food. Not only does that get the cost down to the point that Three Square Food Bank can provide three meals per dollar raised, but this food is not just going to the homeless like so many people think. Many families that are struggling to make ends meet receive entire boxes of nutritious food that would otherwise go to waste. That’s a win/win situation, and food banks make it possible.
Even though I’ve typically chosen big name, recognizable charities to support thus far for Charity Series of Poker events, I’ve decided to give the Maximum Hope Foundation a shot at our Seminole Hard Rock Poker Open event this year. I’d never met Brad Garrett, the charity’s co-founder, until he eagerly accepted my invitation to attend our CSOP event in Las Vegas last month and did his best to help us promote it. In turn, I decided to attend his annual tournament in Las Vegas benefiting Maximum Hope Foundation, where I not only saw what a great job they did running their event but got to know a little more about the people behind MHF and what they do. In short, Brad once had a friend who had a terminally ill child. The copays alone forced the parent to choose between living expenses and caring for their child, which is decision no human being should be forced to make. Brad helped his friend through this tough time, and that became the impetus for the creation of the Maximum Hope Foundation. After hearing this story and learning that they have minimal overhead and just one employee, MHF’s co-founder Kimberley Evans, to ensure that as much money as possible goes to helping these families, I talked it over with the Seminole Hard Rock, and we made a mutual decision that it was a cause we wanted to support together.
Poker Update: What role do you play in the day-to-day organizing of the events?
Matt: More of one than I’d like to at times! I’ve received a ton of help from Al “AlCantHang” Rash, who has generously volunteered to help with email, website, and social media stuff in his off time, but we’re finally getting to the point where I’m probably going to hire somebody soon, at least part time, especially if we’re going to expand. In the first two years of operation, I felt like I needed to be extremely hands-on with everything, not only because of my controlling nature but because I needed to learn all of the ins and outs of what needed to be done before I could teach somebody else how to do it properly. I personally contact the host venue, the beneficiary charity, the celebrities, the pros, the poker media and our sponsors to help plan everything. I make a lot of the CSOP’s posts on social media myself and have begun exploring the most effective means of paid advertising, something I look forward to finding an employee who excels at. I’m there early the day of and often the day before the event speaking with tournament directors about the specifics of what tables we’ll have, where the open bar pre-party is, where the step and repeat will be, making sure we have a photographer and giving him directions, placing giveaway items and mailing list information cards at each seat, etc. I’ve done everything you can imagine on behalf of CSOP and even some things you (and I) never imagined would be necessary.
Poker Update: The CSOP events have been coordinated with the WSOP, SHRPO, and Borgata Poker Open. Do you have any plans to expand?
Matt: I do, but I’ve been very careful about growing slowly for good reason. First, I don’t want to lose the feel of our events by trying to expand too quickly. The particular group of core supporters that CSOP has developed make for some of the best times I’ve ever had playing poker, and I know many who feel the same. I’ve had opportunities to run CSOP events at other venues or even as a more “normal” tournament with a much smaller per-person donation ($20 on a $300-400 buy-in, etc.), but I’d rather keep doing what I’m doing for now and make sure we’re doing it right. The second reason I haven’t tried to expand is because organizing and promoting these events has added a certain extra level of stress in my life, and while I wouldn’t change anything if I could go back, I would rather hire and train somebody who can handle the day-to-day operation so that I can then work on dreaming bigger and continuing to expand.
Poker Update: What is the toughest part of organizing a CSOP event? And what is the best part?
Matt: The toughest part is just not forgetting any element of the preparation, many of which I listed in the second-to-last answer. No one task tends to be too difficult because I get great support from my host venues and beneficiary charities, but there are so many little things that need to be in place for an event to run smoothly, and in my first year of running these events, there were almost always one or two little issues that came up at the last minute. Either some minor detail would be forgotten or go awry at the last minute. I’ve lived and learned while making a huge list of tasks that need to be checked off for each event, and hopefully, we’ll have fewer of these minor issues going forward, especially once I find the right employee.
The best part is playing the event! There’s a specific moment a couple hours before an event where I feel a weight lift off my shoulders. I get to a point where I feel like I’ve done everything I can do, and it’s time to just let the event happen and hope for the best. Regardless of how many people show up or how much money we raise, I can always count on everybody who plays the event having a good time. That in and of itself takes a lot of pressure off me.
Poker Update: Do you have a favorite moment from an event? A most memorable moment with a celebrity?
Matt: My favorite moment from an event has to be the infamous motorboating incident from CSOP Event #4, our 2015 Las Vegas event at Planet Hollywood. Everybody got quite merry at the pre-party and things got a little out-of-hand once Esther Taylor-Brady took hold of the microphone. She started auctioning off motorboating experiences…including the opportunity to motorboat the voluptuous bosoms of poker pro Gavin Smith. Anthony Zinno, being the generous fellow he is, decided that such an opportunity would be worth a $600 donation to Three Square Food Bank. Everybody who was unable to avert their eyes was at least mildly traumatized by the experience, but since that money will provide 1,800 meals to people in need, it was WELL worth it.
It has been a blast meeting and getting to know some of the celebrities who’ve come out to play in our CSOP events, but my most memorable moment with a celebrity came when I was deciding who our SHRPO event should benefit now that we’ve stopped raising money for Habitat for Humanity. I spoke with Brad Garrett about why he started the Maximum Hope Foundation, and I could tell how genuine and heartfelt his reason for starting the charity was. I always knew he was hilarious and had a good reputation as being down-to-earth despite his status (not to mention his three Emmys), but in that moment, I could see that he wasn’t just a celebrity championing a cause for the sake of having a cause. I could see how close this foundation and cause was to his heart and decided that I wanted CSOP to be a part of what they’re doing.
Poker Update: Your bio says you have been doing charity work since your teenage years. Was this something your parents taught you? What made it such an important part of your life – before your poker career and during it?
Matt: While I definitely learned a lot about generosity and helping people around you when you have the means to from my parents, it was my older brother David who really sent me down the path of giving back. He’s two years older than me, and when I was finishing up my sophomore year in high school, David was accepted to Johns Hopkins University. I had been a pretty rebellious teen and was just barely passing my classes, but the idea of going to a community college while my brother was at Hopkins lit the proverbial fire under my bum to help me turn my life around. David went on to become the president of Hopkins’ campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity. I was a 16-year-old senior in high school and went down to visit him, saw the downtrodden community of Sandtown, Baltimore that they were working to rebuild, and learned a lot about the organization from him. I was immediately hooked and became the Vice President of The College of New Jersey’s chapter of Habitat for Humanity just two years later. I also ran a $10 rebuy fundraiser tournament for our campus chapter of Habitat during my term when I was just 19 years old. I got a flat screen TV and a couple other prizes donated, we raised over $900, and the ideas that eventually led to the creation of the Charity Series of Poker were born.