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Copyright 2005 Toronto Star Newspapers,
The Record (Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario)
March 30, 2005 Wednesday Final Edition
HEADLINE: Staring at a full house; Neil McVicar
thought poker's sudden popularity was the best thing that could
have happened to his business. Then, some big players wanted in
on the action
Neil McVicar's timing couldn't have been better, or so it seemed.
The aspiring entrepreneur set up Canada's first online
poker supplies store in 2002, about a full year before poker
emerged from smoke-filled basements to become a mainstream sport
with a huge following on TV.
Orders for poker chips
started rolling in, turning a fun sideline into a fast-growing
business. McVicar figured he hit the jackpot.
"It did kind of go to my head for awhile," he says.
"There was some daydreaming about giving up my day job."
McVicar, a 28-year-old Kitchener resident who started playing
poker in 2001, became a bit of a celebrity in poker circles.
His picture appeared on the cover of Canadian Poker
Player in March 2004. The magazine christened him "Canada's
But, alas, his reign was short-lived.
The unbelievable popularity of poker proved to be a curse as
well as a blessing. Big retailers, including Wal-Mart and Costco,
joined the game and offered prices McVicar couldn't match.
"When I look back, I have to laugh because the industry
went exactly where I wanted it to go," he says. "It
was exactly the best-case scenario. But I was just one person.
I didn't have the capacity to take it to its full potential before
other fish jumped into the sea."
McVicar's story says a lot about the popularity of poker. It
also says a lot about the nature of business.
Business is about identifying an opportunity, filling a need.
But, as McVicar discovered, it's also about resources and strategy.
"Welcome to the story of business," says Dave Scharf,
founding editor of the magazine that put McVicar on its cover.
"No matter what the industry is, as soon as there is a huge
opportunity, the guys who have much deeper pockets than the little
guy arrive and it becomes a real struggle for the little guy to
McVicar still runs the business, PokerSupplies.com, but his dreams
of untold riches have folded.
McVicar, who continually flips chips between his fingers during
an interview at a poker table in the basement of his semi-detached
house in Kitchener, is philosophical about the experience.
"I can say I got in while the getting was good. I enjoyed
a great ride for quite a long period, being the only poker guy
in the country."
PokerSupplies.com was created because of the Friday night poker
games McVicar played with five buddies.
The rule was you needed chips to host the game at your house.
McVicar went online to buy a set, but he could only find American
A light went off.
"I only knew six poker players counting myself and half
of them bought chips from the States," he says. "I thought
if half the poker players in the country couldn't buy chips here,
and half were like me and would rather buy from a Canadian source,
there would be a market there."
McVicar had no business experience or training, other than an
entrepreneurial studies course in Grade 10, but he liked the idea
of doing his own thing and being self-reliant.
"I saw a hole and wanted to fill it," he says. "If
it made money in addition to that, that would be great. "
The business started slowly.
McVicar wasn't too web savvy, so his website didn't appear anywhere
near the top of the list in Google searches.
Mainly selling to family and friends, it took him four months
to sell the first 3,000 chips he bought from a wholesaler in Florida.
After accounting for shipping costs, duties and other expenses,
he didn't make any money.
McVicar faced a dilemma common to fledgling entrepreneurs.
He wanted to accelerate his sales, but he was paying for new
inventory out of his cash flow so he couldn't afford to grow too
"At any given point I only had 3,000 chips. If I advertised
and put myself out there, I wouldn't be able to handle the influx
McVicar's slow turnover also hurt his margins. Without bigger
volumes, he couldn't buy directly from low-cost manufactures in
Everything changed when he got a call from someone who said he
needed 40,000 chips for a chain of casino training schools he
McVicar had only 2,000 chips in his basement at the time, but
he said he could fill the order. He quickly found a supplier in
China, got a business loan and ordered 100,000 chips.
But the buyer disappeared, without paying the 20-per-cent non-refundable
deposit he had agreed to. It turned out to be a stroke of good
"It put me in a position where I could really put myself
out there and fill the orders," says McVicar.
The arrival of his stacks of chips coincided with the spike in
poker's popularity, a turn of events McVicar attributes to Chris
Moneymaker, a recreational poker player who parlayed a $40 US
entry fee for an online tournament into a $2.5-million US win
in the 2003 World Series of Poker
"He wasn't a professional player, but he beat a field of
800 people," says McVicar.
"Everybody's eyes opened to the fact anyone could go into
it and buy a few books and learn the game. And with some luck
you could be on TV within a few months."
Instead of selling 1,000 chips a month, McVicar was selling 1,000
to 2,000 a day. He added other products, including tables and
The rapid growth was exhilarating, but also exhausting. After
coming home from his job at a local high-tech firm, McVicar would
spend two hours answering e-mails and another two hours packing
"I was looking at 12- and 13-hour days every day. It was
McVicar considered quitting his job so he could devote more time
to the business. But his wife, Anne-Marie, who married him in
January, convinced him it was too big a gamble.
It's a good thing he listened. McVicar's reign as chip king lasted
only 10 months. Major retailers cashed in, flooding the market
"It is impossible to compete with the likes of Costco and
Wal-Mart on price," he says.
"The only way to keep ahead of them is to offer chips they
don't have and poker tables and what not."
McVicar now sells top-of-the line chips -- a set of 500 goes
for $275 -- that poker players won't find in stores. He also caters
to customers who can't or won't buy from big chain stores.
"There are plenty of cities in Canada that don't have Wal-Marts
or Costcos, and there are people in places with those stores who
just prefer the convenience of ordering from their homes, so the
market is still there."
McVicar, who has become quite a serious poker player, winning
or losing up to $1,000 at his Friday night games, keeps his hand
in with a couple other poker-related
He runs PokerForum.ca, an online poker chat room that has more
than 1,000 registered members. He does it for fun, but points
out there will be opportunities to earn advertising revenue as
the number of members grows.
He also hopes to make some money by selling the rights to more
than 20 poker-related Internet domain names he had the foresight
McVicar is content with the way things evolved, but he can't
help but wonder what would have happened if he had gone all-in.
"If I didn't have my fiancee reasoning with me to keep my
day job as security, I probably would have ended up quitting my
job," he says.
"I'm not sure if that would have been the worst thing in
the world. I guess I'll never know. But I do know that I could
have done more with it if I had given more time to it."
Q & A
We asked PokerSupplies.com's Neil McVicar:
Q. Will poker continue to grow in popularity?
A. "What is really hard to forecast is whether poker's popularity
is going to be its own worst enemy. Either it will become so popular,
it won't be exciting anymore, or it will continue to climb for
who knows how long."
GRAPHIC: Photo: PHILIP WALKER, RECORD STAFF; Neil McVicar runs
PokerSupplies.com out of his Kitchener home. Instead of competing
directly against the likes of Wal-Mart and Costco, McVicar finds
niche markets like top-of-the-line chips.
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