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Poker Run 1By John Morris

Heading to the starting line, the fleet is idling out and already we can't keep up!

Knowing nothing about the art of the Poker Run in no way impeded my enjoyment or appreciation of my inaugural experienceat this summer’s Erie,Pennsylvania, event. But I do have the prerequisites to take the course, so I was an eager student heading to Lake Erie’s south shore to watch and learn.

Here are my credentials: I have a lot of experience spending fabulous time on the water while accomplishing very little. That prescription is the essence of sailboat racing; you start at Mark 1, spend a lot of energy and the best part of a fine summer day going around Mark 2, then Mark 3, then back to Mark 2, then Mark 3 again,etc. Eventually you get back to exactly where you started along with the rest of the fleet,then everyone goes to a celebratory party. I love it!

Poker Run 2Waterfront view of the convention center facade.

The moment I got to the inner harbour (make that ‘harbor’) in Erie, I was blown away. Parked right outside the sensational hotel where we were staying was the most alluring collection of muscular looking boats this reporter has ever seen. We’re already batting 1,000 and the event hasn’t even begun. The boat graphics, the sly names, and the bedecked crews are pure Hollywood. The support vehicles would win most custom truck shows and the mood is pure excitement. The number one ingredient in the whole affair is sizzle, plus the over-the-top adrenaline that comes fromcarefully blending remarkably polished chrome air cleaners and glistening fiberglass topsideswithvisceral passion and the delicious scent of money. The collection of Cigarettes, Fountains, Apaches, and Outerlimits’ sweethearts is intoxicating.

Perhaps the big myth of the Poker Run is that there is a competition. It’s easy to get confused, I suppose. There arevery eager drivers, the boats attain spectacular speeds, and there is a lot of wake and foam. But in the end, everyone wins.

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The colors and the paint jobs were simply amazing. Just the look of the boats themselves, really amps up the excitement!

The premise is that the Poker Run fleet starts at Mark 1 and heads to Mark 2, Mark 3 (you can see the pattern emerging here) and so on. At each mark, the participants get a poker card; by the end of the run you have a full hand and someone wins. While that is true, it really has precious little to do with anyone’s enjoyment of the day.

In this (perhaps all) poker run, if you don’t like your hand you can buy new cards for a contribution to the charity involved. In the case of the Erie event it was The Children’s Advocacy Center. At the end of the event, Anthony Scioli of Elite Poker Runs, the company that organizes the Erie event, a very popular Buffalo Run, one in Mentor OH and others including, possibly in the future, a couple in Canada, presented a nice cheque to the group.

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How about prizes? It’s a question of honour and bragging rights, of course, but there is a small cash prize for the ‘winner.’

“If it covered my bar tab, that would be a miracle,” confessed Vinnie Diorio of Richfield, Wisconsin, who tows his Outerlimits 43 here, there, and everywhere to participate. Vinnie wasn’t bragging about his investment in chasing this tiny prize, but judging from his glamorous truck and cosmic outfits, it would take something more meaningful, like a really big 649 win, to even come close. He was matched by many including Andrew Muscat and Jorden Peters of Fort Erie, Ontario, whose triple 700-Merc Stress Relief is capable of 130 mph.

Great names inspired by incredible performance.

There were many other awards given out as well, all of which were met with thunderous applause at the wrap-up party. ‘Best Dressed Crew’is hotly contested, as is ‘Best Paint,’ and not surprisingly, ‘Best Sound System.’ I was only moderately surprised when the winners of the ‘Best Underwater Lights’ category were announced – sure, why not?

Anthony is optimistic that the number of Canadian participants will continue to grow as the reputation of Elite events spreads north of the border. The fine folks at VisitErie.com are certainly all for it. Like other northeastern cities, Erie, Pennsylvania, is among those emerging from rustbelt status and has poured substantial resources into the arts, a nascent craft brewery scene, and particularly a celebration of its magnificent waterfront, including all sorts of maritime history displays and a splendidly restored resident tall ship, the Brig Niagara. Erie’s Lake Erie location is a jewelwith impressive marine facilities far disproportionate to its 100,000 population and two newly-constructed hotel complexes right in the centre of what was once a bustling, gritty, industrial waterfront. (Reporter’s note: I recently visited Hamilton, Ontario, a burgenergetically pursuing this same course of economic rebirth through waterfront development – perhaps Anthony should bring a Poker Run to the Hammer.)

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Crews getting ready to run, taking pictures and enjoying the fabulous weather!

The Friday before the poker run was sadly typical of last summer’s grotesque weather in the region. Mind boggling torrents fell out of the sky and the winds howled. Saturday, however, dawned a stunner with bright sun and blue skies, although out on the lake the waves were pounding, whipped up by 20-30 knot winds. After a brief meeting, the fleet fired up its super-throaty power plants and headed out of the inner harbour into the expansive (3 x 5 nm) Presque Isle. Even within the bay, the pounding was ferocious, but no one seemed daunted and some of the bigger boats were reportedly topping out close to 100 mph. The sensational speedsters were packed with equally sensational,happy, spruced up crew and the excitement was building. On shore, the front was lined with spectators – this is quite the show.

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Suddenly it was full throttle time and everyone was cranking it up, throwing foam and bouncing across the waves at high speed. Airborne boats and pounding landings bring out the enthusiasts and they got their quota in a big way. Did any of them get to the first stop in nearby Barcelona? I’m not sure because our spectator boat, along with most of the competitors, pounded along until we’d happily had enough then headed back to the corral. I’m not sure the destination was the point; getting there is all the fun and when it’s done, you want to be sure that the boats and crew return intact

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The helicopter is along for the photo chase.necessary!

So what have we learned about poker runs, class? First of all, it’s a spectacular blast for the drivers, passengers, and fans of boating madness. It generates high levels of camaraderie as owners and crews renew friendships, check out each other’srigs, and share the experience. We also saw the Run generate some dollars for a worthwhile charity; all concerned enjoyed a great party; and Nicole and Dave Weschler (whose company, Empire Snow Removal and Construction, is a big sponsor of the event) took both first and third place. It’s not totally clear to me how they won those accolades, but I do know they donated their prize money back to the charity.

Poker Run 11Group shot for The Sandman, winner of this year's event.

This poker run, and presumably others like it, proved conclusively that boats are fun. The whole event is geared towards showing off, sharing a great time, and enjoying life in a big way. Hard to beat that with any poker hand!