Paying players helps fill the poker room

August 30, 2016 3:00 AM
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My first casino job was as a poker host and house player for the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas back in 1976. It’s hard to believe that was 40 years ago.

Since then, I’ve turned many poker rooms from money losers into profitable enterprises by paying players to play for the casino.

A poker host is essentially a hands-on manager of the game or casino they’re promoting. In addition to playing at the tables, hosts usually have a base of friends to draw to a certain game. Through the development of personal relationships along with leveraging customer service, they increase their database and promote player loyalty, ensuring patrons have no reason to play anywhere other than the host’s casino.

Regular house players, also called proposition players or props, are moved by management in and out of games to keep the action going and the house rake flowing. Unlike hosts, they are told when to help start and leave games. Some house players are “silent props” who play in any game they please. Most silent props are special players who can start or keep a game going all on their own. These valuable house players are extremely social, and while often perceived as “fish” by other customers, most are quite skillful and solid players.

My boss at the Golden Nugget was the legendary poker player and Hall Of Famer Bill Boyd, who understood you had to “grease the wheel” to produce action. I believe that’s still a winning philosophy today. Bill would go to the casino’s cash drawer, hand me $500 in chips, and tell me to go start a poker game with house money. It was a great job, considering I got half the money I won.

Las Vegas has a long history of hiring casino props, or “shields” as they were called in the old days. Some shields were hired to play slots with house money to make a casino look enticing to visitors. They were there to yell and laugh and create excitement to make players want to play in that fun-filled casino. It’s the same principle in poker, but without the yelling or fake acting. Most of the time, anyway.

Players don’t expect to be handed chips from the cage anymore or share their winnings with the casino; they’re willing to risk their own money and get paid by the hour. Well-managed house players are a tremendous asset and great ambassadors. I’ve managed up to 60 props at once, and seen cardrooms overtake their competition with the right house players and hosts.

Poker players crave action and come because games start easily and don’t break. That’s priceless marketing. Casinos benefit by opening more tables and offering a steady flow of action for players, which increases revenue. If a prop is paid $18 per hour, and pays $20 per hour in collections, it’s a win-win for the player and the cardroom.

I’ve hired hundreds of props and poker hosts to help market California cardrooms, and I know it works. I think Nevada poker room managers should consider hiring more players to promote their properties. More games and more action make a room look more attractive to customers. That results in increased revenue not only at the poker tables, but in other areas of the casino such as slots, race and sportsbooks, restaurants, bars, retail, and (for the increasing number of California casinos that have them) on-site hotels.

A poker room manager should look to hire highly-social action players with solid bankrolls. It’s important not to overlook their bankroll, as it’s quite difficult to manage money and create action simultaneously. That said, many Nevada retirees would jump at the opportunity to work part time starting and maintaining poker games.

It’s time for Vegas to return to the old days of creating action in this modern poker era. Online poker’s rakeback programs essentially make anyone a prop. Players are paid – via rakeback – which is the same principle as a prop in brick-and-mortar cardrooms.

Casinos must look at poker as a marketing platform as well as entertainment for customers; it’s all about getting players to the table. When management understands this, they become winners. While it may seem like a Catch-22 to pay players to play in your cardroom, it works.

Casino owners find it difficult to understand they need to pay players to play in a building they spent millions to construct and operate, but I can tell you from over 40 years of experience marketing and managing poker rooms that the most cost-effective marketing program a poker room can implement is to hire the right proposition players and hosts.

In the end, it makes everyone happy – the players win, the dealers win, management looks great – and, the bean-counters are thrilled.