Heading into the 2014 Buffalo Poker Run in Western New York, I had no idea what to expect. But I have to confess that my expectations weren’t high. Lake Erie doesn’t exactly leap to mind when you think of high-performance boating hotbeds. And having experienced more than a few locales that answer to that description, I had my doubts.
Damn, was I wrong. Everything about the event blew me away. The weather and water were perfect, the host venue and its amenities were first-rate, the go-fast boat hardware was dazzling and the participants were as friendly and inclusive as they come.
Photographer Tim Sharkey, who convinced me to cover the event and introduced me Anthony Scioli, its primary organizer, told me I’d be pleasantly surprised. That was a major understatement.
As impressed I was with the overall event, then run under the Western New York Offshore Powerboat Association umbrella, I was even more so with its main organizer. Perhaps it was our shared restaurant industry backgrounds—I worked behind the apron from junior high school through college and Scioli has been in the business his entire life—but we clicked. Within a year, we became friends.
So when my friend told me he was going into poker-run organizing as a side business and starting Elite Poker Runs, LLC, I took a deep breath and wished him well. On the plus side, Scioli has a hospitality background and a service ethic that won’t quit. If anyone could pull it off, he could.
On the not-so-plus side, organizing poker runs is not the easy pot of gold so many people imagine it to be—not that Scioli had any such illusions. As get-rich-quick schemes go, poker-run organizing is right down there with, as the AM radio commercials go, “flipping houses in your spare time with other people’s money.”
Elite Poker Runs will head into its fifth season in 2019, and despite mixed success with his Erie, Pa., Mentor, Ohio, and Buffalo events, Scioli is still in the game. But there will be changes. The Mentor event, which he planned to run concurrently with the now-defunct Super Boat International offshore powerboat race there, likely is off the roster. That leaves Scioli with the Erie Poker Run, which finally saw decent running conditions in this its fourth year, and the Ray Nuchereno Memorial Poker in Buffalo, which formerly existed as the Buffalo Poker Run.
The biggest challenge in producing poker runs, Scioli explained, is getting people to register early. That way, he can pre-order the correct amounts of everything from food to event T-shirts. To that end, he offered significant early registration discounts—$250 to $300 per event for those who signed up for all three Elite Poker Runs events in early 2018—for participants this year. Those fees rose gradually through the year in advance of those events before reaching their final price of roughly $500 per run.
“Even with that, probably 90 percent of the entries happened the week before each run,” said Scioli. “Quite frankly, not as many people took advantage of the discounts as I had thought would.
“And then it worked against me, like at the Buffalo run,” he continued. “People were like, ‘It was $250 in January but its $500 now?’” I understood where people were coming from, I guess, but it was a little frustrating. Because we couldn’t plan properly for Buffalo with early registrations, we ran out of T-shirts, for example. So one of my goals is to get more the local guys involved earlier this year.”
Scioli conceded that renaming the event in honor of Nuchereno, a popular member of the Buffalo go-fast boating community who died in mid-2017, might have created a stumbling block in attracting out-of-town participants who didn’t know him. But he’s sticking with the name.
“Really, Ray is a big part of the reason I’m still involved with the Buffalo event and a big part of why I started organizing poker runs in the first place,” he said. “Now, I feel an obligation to keep it going.”
Thanks mostly to the local sponsors of his Erie Poker Run, most notably David and Nicole Weschler of Empire Landscaping, Snow and Construction Services, Scioli is sticking with the event for 2019.
“I see so much potential in Erie and we saw some of it—we finally got to run the full course, which was what the event needed—this year,” he said. “The place has crazy potential. The city is into it, and Dave and Nicole have become my really good friends. I really think this could be the year for Erie.”
For both of his 2019 events, Scioli is considering an invitational format. That way, he can individually promote and—even better—plan each poker-run weekend based on early registration.
“At the end of the day, my sponsors like Empire and American Custom Marine make it happen so I have to make sure they’re going to be OK if I decide to go that way,” he said. “But that really is a direction I’d like to go.”
Scioli isn’t hoping for miracles next year. He wants to continue to improve his events and attract more participants. He’d like to make a profit, but if he breaks even he’s fine. He’s in it because he loves it.
“If I were doing this for the money, I probably wouldn’t be doing it anymore,” he said, then, laughed. “I want to keep putting out great events.
“But I would love to have sold-out events and go over the top,” he added.
Matt Trulio is an award-winning journalist who has covered the high-performance powerboat world since 1995. He wrote for Powerboat magazine for 17 years and was the magazine’s editor at large until it ceased publication in 2011. Trulio is the founder, editor-in-chief and publisher of speedonthewater.com, a daily news site that covers the high-performance powerboat realm. He’s also the former editor of Sportboat magazine.