Hedging his bets with fun and professionalism: Ben Erwin at Thunder Valley

Paul Oresteen
Posted on: March 24, 2024 07:44 PDT

In the past few years, the Thunder Valley Resort and Casino joined the conversation as one of the top tier, poker-forward destination casinos in the country. Driving that charge is director of poker operations Ben Erwin and he’s done it with hard work, aggressive goals and a touch of humor.

On the ten-year anniversary of the World Poker Tour coming to Thunder Valley, Erwin celebrates his 14th year of running Northern California’s premiere poker room. But he got his start in the game at the ground level – pitching cards at 18 years-old.

Paying his dues

“The poker boom hit and that opened up a lot of opportunities while I was going to college,” Erwin said. “I played quite a bit as well and with those opportunities I found myself getting deeper in the business. Next thing I know, I’m 29 and running my first room.”

Erwin jumps in the box to deal when needed. Enrique Ivan Malfavon

Erwin spent five years running a smaller room before joining Thunder Valley and it’s been a marriage that’s worked well. “There’s a huge property commitment (to poker) here,” he said. “When you have a resort setting, poker can be an amenity, but it’s an amenity that people can enjoy along with everything else.”

Erwin strives for an environment that relaxes players. “They have so many different options of things to do here, and that draws players from all around the country,” Erwin said.

Finding time for fun

“We’ve always prided ourselves on being more than just poker,” he added. “I hope that when people come here that enjoy themselves and they feel welcome – whether it’s a conversation, a glass of wine or something outside the game – we pride ourselves on off the felt activities.”

Erwin isn’t afraid to look a little foolish in front of the camera. “We were serving pizzas in Gondola outfits – something light-hearted and fun – but it puts a smile on peoples’ faces,” he said. “The game can be difficult at times and if there’s something that gives a little smile or excitement, it adds to the want and desire to be included with what’s going on here.”

While Erwin might appear to run a loose ship on social media, he runs the room based on a simple rule: never offer an event that he wouldn’t play himself. “When you factor in structure, buy-in, fees, etc., we make sure there’s a sense of quality,” Erwin said. “We prefer a friendly atmosphere, professional but friendly. Overall, a place where you can enjoy your time.”

Recruiting industry leaders

Erwin maintains the professional atmosphere by bringing in some of most reputable tournament directors in the industry to help run the events – Jordan Cutter and Justin Hammer. Erwin got to know those two through WPT executive tour director Matt Savage.

Erwin toasting players at the WPT Champions dinner. DREW AMATO

“Jordan and Justin are so well-recognized and seen at so many other spots, it brings a level of confidence knowing that you’re going to have a very alert, attentive and knowledgeable staff,” said Erwin. He also attributed them to helping meet expectations of players in the current environment of the game.

The Vegas of Norcal

While there are other card rooms and casinos in Northern California, none have the reach or the scope of events that Erwin hosts. “We’re the only resort setting around that has the game of this size,” he said. “If you’re from this area, you’d have to go to LA or Las Vegas to get anything near the size and scale of the events we put on here.”

For the whole festival – it’s the most aggressive schedule the property’s hosted. They had 11 days in a row with a buy-in of $1,000 or higher, which the area hadn’t been able to support in previous years.

“For example, week two of this series we had an $1,100 event with a $1 million guarantee – years ago I wasn’t sure it was something we could do,” Erwin added. “But now we’re able to thrive at these events and we’re the only room California with a World Poker Tour stop.”

All photos courtesy of WPT.