The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino rose to the top of the hyper-competitive South Florida poker market, grew into a poker power on the East Coast and now is one of the premier brands in poker across the country. At the helm is Tournament Director Tony Burns – one of the most influential men in poker today.

Burns has nearly 15 years of experience and caught the poker bug when he was lucky enough to be at Ground Zero for the poker boom. “My dad took me to Vegas for my 21st birthday in 2003 when the 2003 World Series was going on,” Burns said. “We went down to Binion’s and saw Moneymaker win the World Series. I came back home and was like, ‘Hey, you guys wouldn’t believe this, an accountant, just an everyday guy, won the World Series of Poker.’”

“I started playing the $5 and $10 tournaments around the kitchen table with some friends,” Burns continued. “Then from there, I dealt bar poker in Central Florida on the weekends and realized this was a lot of fun. I bought a franchise with the Bar Poker League on the west coast of Florida from Tampa down to Fort Myers.”

“I started working on the Sun Cruise Casino in the winter of 2006. I did that for about a year and then the Florida laws changed where you could actually play No Limit on land. Which opened up the $100 max buy-in – it was a crazy time; guys were playing $5/$10 No Limit with a $100 max. I ended up applying for a job at the Isle Casino and Mike Smith hired me in July 2007 – who is now running Maryland Live! This July will be 10 years in South Florida.”

Burns was hired by the SHR in August of 2015 after spending eight years at the Isle Casino. While Burns enjoys the success of his multiple series, it wasn’t easy getting the SHR brand to mean something in poker. 

“I was fortunate enough to join the team in 2015 after they had gone through a lot of trial and error at the time,” Burns said. “Bill Mason, the director of poker operations and his team built such a solid foundation. They went through almost five years of trial and error before I joined, so I joke around with some of my friends, I feel like I got handed the keys to a Ferrari and was told ‘Don’t wreck it. Wash it, wax it, gas it and take it for a spin.”

Tony Burns following action with Jason Mercier and Chance Kornuth. (Photo: Eric Harkins, IMPDI)

Seemingly, Burns hasn’t even scratched the metaphorical Ferrari; the multiple poker series SHR run during the year are well-received by players – a notoriously fickle bunch. Which begs the question what does Burns do that other events don’t?

“It goes back to just listening to them, because without them, these events aren’t possible,” said Burns. “You can’t be close-minded on a certain structure or dinner break, it’s the little things. Tim West came up to me the other day and said, ‘The other day you did something that I don’t think anybody realized. It was small, but it goes a long way. When we’re at another venue, we’re like, ‘You know when Tony went out of his way to do this?’ It’s the attention to detail that matters.”

“Like I said, I’ve been playing since 2004 and I love the game so much,” he added. “As a tournament director, I put on a tournament the same way I would want it to be put on for me. I think having that mentality is why we’re as successful as we are.”

Burns had the chance to leave Florida with Smith for Maryland in 2013 but decided to stay. “I had my first child at the time and made some decisions to stay back in South Florida.” Now Burns is a happy father of two and values his time at home with his family.

Tournament directors in poker fall into two categories – those that travel the circuit working year-round and those that work full-time at a brick & mortar casino. “There was a time where I looked at what Matt Savage does with traveling the world and I think everybody would like to travel the world for their career.”

“Yeah, there was a point where I’d like to have traveled, but now that I have a family and my daughters and wife have been a tremendous support,” said Burns. “I have a solid home base here where we have a premier tournament destination. I don’t have to travel, I can go home every night to put my kids to sleep, take them school and have a better relationship with my wife. I never close all my options, because you know, assuming Hard Rock grows, who knows what opportunities might come, so I’ll travel if the job dictates it.”

Tony Burns IMPDI
Tony Burns supervising an all in at the WPT Tournament of Champions. (Photo: Eric Harkins, IMPDI)

The growth of the SHR is marked by the construction project to build a new hotel shaped like a guitar to open in 2019. Burns views the new hotel as necessary for even more growth. 

“The Seminole Hard Rock loves poker from the top down and it’s part of the company culture. I’m interested to see how much more we can grow, I mean, I’m sure they have a game plan in store for us and we’re along for the ride,” Burns said. “The (existing) hotel has been kind of an Achilles heel for us.”

“The demand to come here and play is so high that the hotel rooms book up fast, so everybody coming in August, make sure you book a month out in advance,” he said. “I hate to turn people away but it’s supply and demand with that time of year. Who knows what’s in store? I’m sure the sky’s the limit.”

Burns wears a smile for most of the countless hours he puts in during the Series. “The best part of my job is getting to do something that I love. I started my career out in baseball, I worked for the Marlins as a bat boy. I spent my childhood getting to be around million dollar athletes,” he said. “Poker is the closest to that with the competition level – the million dollar players, the egos, the media coverage, I’m competitive myself and I like being around the players and doing something I love. My job is centered around a game and I couldn’t be happier with that.”