Politics & Policy

A Casino Royale for Real

This year I give thanks for Eugene Bunnell, an entrepreneur extraordinaire.

Giving thanks for those who bless our lives is what Thanksgiving’s all about. And sometimes we know people who deserve more thanks than others. For me, Eugene Bunnell is such a person. His entrepreneurial spirit made a difference in the lives of so many people, and I’d like to share with you his story.


#ad#Some years ago, Gene managed a work-training program in which he helped “problem youths” learn construction skills. He took on projects for a number of non-profits in a small town in Northern California, and in the process developed good relationships with these organizations. One of these entities wanted to set up a community radio station, and they needed $20,000 for a broadcasting tower. Gene decided to launch a fundraiser.


At the time, Gene figured that $10 was the top-end of what he could expect people to pay to attend such an event. The fact that the cause was a radio station for local voices had a certain appeal, but raising that $20,000 presented an interesting challenge. So Gene came up with the idea of a Casino Night, a “virtual” casino that back then was a new concept in fundraising.


Gene’s connections helped. He had friends in Nevada, professionals, who would teach volunteers how to deal cards and run craps tables. His team borrowed antique gaming equipment from a Reno casino, and had a local theater company produce costumes for the dealers.


But Gene knew he needed broad community participation for the event to be successful, and he figured the key to success was to get influential locals to support the cause. Rather than asking for donations, however, he offered these movers and shakers free tickets to the event, along with $1,000,000 in script that they could gamble at will. The condition was that these influential few had to hoard their “cash” and gamble fiercely. Gene wanted them to either break the house or go broke trying.


The promotional tactic worked, and 850 tickets were sold to the event. Each ticket holder paid $10 for $10,000 in house script, which was not enough to meet the fundraising goal. But the hope was that people would buy more script when they went bust, while paying for food and drinks.


Gene was focused. He believed the radio station would be a transformational institution for the community, and he wanted to produce an event that itself would be transformational. Gene and his team went to great lengths to create this virtual casino, which included a cabaret show and waitresses in mini-skirts. But Gene overlooked one thing. As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.


Most attendees had little gambling experience, and they were naturally conservative at the outset of the event. Gene had hoped that the heavy betting of his influential guests would encourage others to behave in a similar manner. But that didn’t work, and a crisis of sorts came about.


Rather than big bets, small conservative bets were placed across the house. This resulted in a short supply of low-denomination bills. Suddenly, the organizers couldn’t provide enough liquidity to the gaming tables.


So what did Gene do? He “devalued” the currency.


Gene announced that all one-dollar bills were now worth $5, and the result was electric. Almost instantly, people across the floor were winning “big” bets, and the gambling spirit sprang forth. Additionally, as the size and pace of the betting accelerated, the bettors started buying food and drinks, flush in their newfound “prosperity.”


It was at this point that Gene’s team started to talk up the big midnight auction. The items to be auctioned were all donated, and they would go to the highest bids in house currency. Another transformation: As people realized their paper money had real value, the gambling became furious. People were no longer betting against the house, they were betting against each other. And all for a good cause. 


The event was a great success. Not only did Gene meet his fundraising goal, but a community came back together. People who had been at odds with each other for years let go of old animosities. Many relationships were renewed, and the foundations of new friendships were established.


As for the radio station, it became a social institution. And the fundraiser became an annual event.


Thanks, Gene.


– Thomas E. Nugent is executive vice president and chief investment officer of PlanMember Advisors, Inc., and principal of Victoria Capital Management, Inc.

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