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Calvin Ayre - Poker's Lifestyle Architect

by Scott Huff |  Published: Jan 24, 2006


Looking to place a wager on your favorite sports team? Want to roll some dice but can't make it to your local casino? Or, maybe you feel like testing your poker skills against thousands of players, including pros Josh Arieh and David Williams. Whatever your pleasure, Bodog will book the action.

One of the fastest growing sites in the world, processes approximately $6 billion in wagers per year. The company itself has been valued at more than $1 billion, and continues to grow every day with its cool mix of industry innovations, like its brand-new Poker 2.0 rollout and some hip, aggressive marketing.

Type into the address bar in your web browser. Go ahead. Type it. This can wait.

You see the guy on the motorcycle: goatee, distressed leather and denim, no helmet, black shades as a windshield? His look conjures up memories of Rebel Without a Cause; his screen name, according to the homepage, is eazi rida: the spelling is more hip-hop, but still references the '60s biker film that starred two of the kings of movie cool – Dennis Hopper, and, of course, Jack Nicholson.

Eazi rida is just one representation of the Bodog lifestyle. And like all of the characters inhabiting the adrenaline-charged world of the Bodog Entertainment Group, he was created in the image of the company's owner and CEO, billionaire eGaming pioneer Calvin Ayre.

"Bodog is 100 percent me – and my personality," Ayre said. "There is absolutely no differentiation between Bodog and me. We're the same thing."

So, who is Calvin Ayre, other than a billionaire who enjoys the occasional spin on a souped-up bike? (Ayre actually owns and rides a 2003 anniversary-edition Harley-Davidson Soft Tail.) He is an entrepreneur, a philanthropist, a jet-setter, a gambler, a party animal, a sportsman, and an entertainer. It is possible that even a list this long still fails to do justice to Ayre's far-reaching interests. A true renaissance man, you might find him thousands of feet in the air piloting a plane, or hundreds of feet underwater exploring the depths with an oxygen tank strapped to his back. "I'll think nothing of hopping on a plane and flying down to Rio, and staying there for a week and setting up my road office, and working for four or five hours every day, and the rest of the time just be out hitting the nightclubs, or beaches, or whatever," he said.

Perhaps that is why tracking him down on the day of our interview required more than a couple of aluminum cans and some string. My phone call had to do some jet-setting of its own when it was bounced via the Internet from a land line in Vancouver to Ayre's home in Costa Rica.

The first words out of his mouth were an apology. He said he might be a little out of it during our interview. "Last night we had our annual Christmas party down here," he told me, "and a Christmas party in Costa Rica is quite a party." Quite a party, indeed. It kept him out until 4 a.m. – further proof that his proclamation that he and Bodog are one in the same is more than just a regurgitation of the company line.

(1) Team Bodog member and pro poker player David Williams at the Video Music Awards (2) Bodog Girls were invited inside the garage at the 89th Indianapolis 500 to get a closer look at Dan Wheldon's winning car. (3) was the major sponsor of the L.A. Lakers Youth Foundation Second-Annual Casino Night.

Daydream Believer

Ayre has been living the Bodog lifestyle for 10 years now, but he has been dreaming about it his entire life. "When I was a kid, I used to sit in rooms by myself daydreaming, for hours and hours and hours, instead of playing like other kids did," he said. "And the daydreams I'd be having would be fantasies about building businesses."

Ayre was born in Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, Canada, but a childhood move to the old orchard region of southern British Columbia was the impetus behind his first business. During the summer of his freshman year at the University of Waterloo, while other students were likely heading to the local eateries to claim their aprons and name tags, Ayre loaded up a 5-ton truck with fruit and traveled from southern Ontario back to the prairies where he grew up. The area was devoid of good fruit, and Ayre would bring in his fresh stock and sell it on the side of the road.

His 20-hour cross-province fruit hauls seem the antithesis of the Bodog lifestyle, but Ayre was quick to point out that experiences like this were the foundation for his successful business career. "I consider everything I did before starting this project to be me putting together the necessary network of contacts and building my skill set to the point where I could actually do what I do now," he stated. "I consider myself to be a 20-year overnight success."

Bodog Girl Milena took the top prize at the Indy 500's VIP pre-race celebrity party and 2005 Miss 500 Hawaiian Tropic Bikini Pageant.

Bodog Justs Want To Have Fun

It's been 10 years since Calvin Ayre started the Bodog Entertainment Group with $10,000 in seed money. He originally envisioned a software company, but quickly shifted his business eye to the international sports-betting industry.

However, simply being a bookie was not Ayre's ultimate goal. He wanted to be in the entertainment business. And in order to do that, he was going to need to create a brand that was capable of crossing into other markets.

Down to the name itself, the Bodog brand has been designed using a specific formula. And whether they are coming up with a simple slogan, "Work hard, play harder," or throwing a gala event, of which Bodog puts on many, their key ingredient in the formula is fun.

This formula has worked to grow the brand to be one of the most, if not the most, recognizable in the industry. They have already successfully crossed over into the music business, signing artists like Biff Naked to the company's music label – Bodog Music. The first-ever Bodog television production, a special covering their benefit poker tournament in Hawaii, aired on Spike TV on Dec. 18. And their agenda is to keep on growing.

Bodog's newest ad campaign includes a street team, complete with Bodog Hummers, and commercials that will air in movie theatres featuring none other than Ayre himself.

However, Ayre and Bodog's fun-loving attitude have not always been well-received within the industry. For one of Bodog's early marketing campaigns, Ayre created an alter ego named Cole Turner, who would jet-set around the world engaging in activities that Ayre decribes as "dorky."

Cole Turner's antics included a trip to Cambodia, where he went to search out and eliminate a group of terrorists. Of course, the entire expedition was a ruse; Ayre storyboarded the entire fictional adventure on his flight from Bangkok, Thailand, to Cambodia, where he was vacationing. He then used locals, including some massage parlor girls, as stand-ins for the characters in a photo shoot.

"People actually really hated some of the stuff I did, and thought I was disrespecting the whole industry. But, you know, I didn't see it that way. I always said to everybody who would listen, 'We're in the business of entertaining people, and that includes doing stuff that's just a little off the wall."'

Some of his other off-the-wall antics included creating a fictional rival for Turner named Dave Sanchez, owner of Hail Mary Sportsbook, who was jealous, among other things, of Turner's martial arts abilities. Sanchez's obsession with Turner was so great that he even challenged him to duels.

They say any press is good press, and Calvin Ayre's Cole Turner character helped create buzz around Bodog on the cheap.

However, with the Bodog brand firmly established, and mainstream media coverage focused on his company, Ayre decided it was time to say goodbye to Cole Turner. So, he killed him off. But, his spirit lives on. "I haven't stopped all the fun stuff that made the Cole Turner character a fun thing," Ayre said, "which was actually the real part of my personality. I haven't stopped any of that. What I have done is start showcasing my executive side, as well, more so. And my philanthropic side, as well."

The Bodog girls have no trouble turning heads wherever they are.

The Fun Lives

Ayre did not stop creating buzz with his antics. He just owns up to them now. He recently offered to match any fines incurred by Allen Iverson under the National Basketball Association's new dress-code policy, and give the proceeds to charity.

Bodog has also found a way to mix its entertainment interests with its gaming platform. Go to Bodog's sportsbook and you can place a bet on anything from the winner of the TV series Survivor to where Angelina's next adopted baby will be from.

It is all meant to entertain and be fun, but Ayre makes a careful distinction between Bodog's fun approach to gaming and its approach to business: "We take the execution of our services and the delivery of them to our customers extremely seriously. We don't take ourselves seriously at all."

But it sounds all serious when Ayre mentions Poker 2.0, Bodog's most recent innovation that he says is going to "change the industry."

Bodog hosted a celebrity poker night that raised $5,000 to benefit Animal Avengers, the "pet" charity of Team Bodog's leading lady, Shannon Elizabeth.

Poker 2.0
Calvin Ayre understands the gambler's mindset. At times the terminology he uses evokes Doyle Brunson more so than Steve Forbes. His business literature describes his decision to refocus his attention from software to eGaming as "changing gears," and he said that the idea with Bodog's newest gaming platform, the forthcoming Poker 2.0 rollout, is "to force our competitors to adjust to us."

It seems natural after he informed me that he gambles every day – although it may not be in the way you think. While he describes himself as a successful middle-limit poker player, noting that he often cashes in the private tournaments in which he takes part, his business ventures have provided the majority of his gambling experience. "There's no difference between business and gambling. It's all gambling," Ayre said. "There's no time that you ever make a decision in business that you make it with pure information. You have only pieces of the information. The rest of it, you have to guess at. You have to guess accurately, on average, millions and millions of times over the course of the growth of a business in order for the business to be successful."

Poker 2.0, however, doesn't seem to be a big gamble. The brand-new interface from Bodog, set to drop in 2006, is all about action, a commodity that cannot be overvalued in the Internet poker landscape. The software is built for speed, with a one-window application eliminating the need to navigate a number of different windows at the same time. The quick-seat feature enables a player to find a game without the lobby by simply choosing which limit, game type, and stakes he would like to play.

Certain to be one of the most popular improvements is the Bodog picture-in-picture display. This new feature enables users to play up to three games simultaneously, with their holecards, previous action, and betting options for every game available within the same window. Unlike some other sites, where playing in multiple games requires the Internet poker pro setup of multiple monitors, Bodog's Poker 2.0 provides you the action of multiple rooms without the confusion.

Poker 2.0 also has a slick new feel, including rooms meant to look like the swanky red-felt poker tables that you will find if you are lucky enough to win your way to a live Bodog event.

Bodog's ultimate goal is to be the number one Internet poker room in the world, but just how essential a poker network is in the world of eGaming becomes clear when talking to an executive like Ayre. "Poker's a necessary product channel for us to have to retain our players, who are recreational players and like to play in a number of different gaming types. So, they will go from one channel to another. It's actually necessary for us to have from an operational perspective, and from a customer-retention perspective," he said. But like Andre Agassi in the early days, Ayre is well aware that image is everything. "It's also a great addition to our image, because poker is cool. Bodog didn't make it cool, but we're in the poker business, and certainly Bodog's helping to make it cooler."

Work Hard

Although not as sexy or Hollywood, the truth of the matter is that Calvin Ayre's executive side, the one he's been honing since childhood, is the one that he likes best.

"I actually still like (the business side) better: being the CEO of an online gaming company, actually running the business, designing the websites. I'm involved in every aspect of my business. I'm hands on. I'm involved in everything."

Calvin Ayre the philanthropist works hard to give back, something that he believes goes hand in hand with success. He recently started the Calvin Ayre Foundation, which supports causes in a number of different countries, including the United States and Costa Rica.

(1) Bodog did its part to help Hurricane Katrina victims by hosting a Silver Spoon Hollywood Buffet benefiting the American Red Cross. (2) Venus and Serena Williams at the Bodog-sponsored premiere of "Two for the Money," a drama focused on the sports gaming industry (3) Snoop headlined the Bodog Salutes the Troops: A Tribute to American Heroes at Hickam Air Force Base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. (4) Brittany Murphy and Mickey Rourke at the celebrity party

Play Harder

Not surprisingly, the executive and philanthropist in Ayre still know how to have a good time.

The 2005 Poker & Sports Marketing Conference was all business for two days, featuring speakers like Mike Ditka and Daniel Negreanu. Of course, in keeping with the Bodog ethic of "Work hard, play harder," the event was capped off with a Carnivale Ball at Rain, a nightclub at the Palms in Las Vegas, that included everything from body painting to rock performances. Ayre was on hand, as he is at all Bodog events, rocking in a shirt with a skull and crossbones on the front.

Even Bodog's philanthropy includes Snoop Dogg, poker, and girls in tank tops. In July 2005, set up shop in Honolulu, Hawaii, to put on "Bodog Salutes Our Troops." The two-day event to benefit the Fisher House Foundation and the men and women of the United States military featured a celebrity and interservice poker tournament, as well as a concert featuring legendary hip-hop artist Snoop Dogg.

"These events help add sizzle to our brand," Ayre said. Some sizzle to go with the cool swagger of a brand that seems targeted at a young, hip audience. Ayre was quick to dismiss that notion, however. "Do only people who are similar to James Bond watch James Bond movies?" he asked me when I made the suggestion. "People want a little bit of escapism, and we provide that."

Apparently, some people who have been lucky enough to escape into the world of Bodog are willing to do whatever it takes to make it a more consistent reality. "We've had people who have won stuff and gone to our events and are now buying tickets to our conference, which is a marketing conference that they have almost no interest in attending. They're paying the money to go to the conference just so that they can also get a ticket included to go to our big industry party that we throw in Vegas every year. There's people spending hundreds of dollars just to come to one of our parties."

With more parties, special events, and the launch of Poker 2.0 on the horizon, 2006 is shaping up to be an exciting year for Bodog, and it's sure to be cool as long as Calvin Ayre is at the helm. And it looks like he, and the brand he created, will be here for a long time, from what he says: "This is my life's work."