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After more than a decade chasing
tribal gaming deals, Lyle Berman, the founder and CEO of Lakes Entertainment,
says the stakes are too high and he’s moving on to new challenges, whatever
they may be.

In a recent interview, Berman
said he’s decided to reinvent his nine-year-old company, which develops and
manages Indian-owned casinos. But just what the Minnesota-based company will
become, he’s holding close to the vest.

“Indian gaming is a very
good business for us, but it’s not where we intend to invest the revenue in
the future,” Berman, 66, said. “Indian gaming is not a growth

Indeed, Lakes Entertainment hasn’t
signed a new casino management contract in nearly three years, as the pipeline
of large new projects has nearly run its course and fewer Indian tribes seek
outside help running their casinos.

As many people know Lyle Berman
is an avid high-stakes poker player, the the World Poker Tour is a wholly owned
subsidiary of Lakes Entertainment.

Now, as the company casts about
for a new strategy, Berman’s poker-playing style as a chief executive may be
coming back to haunt him.

In its nine years as a public
company, Lakes has bounced from $2 a share to as high as $18 a share, before
retreating again. Twice in three years, the company revised its financial
statements because of accounting mistakes. And last week, the company announced
it had fired its senior vice president of operations, Robert Wyre, the company’s
third-highest-paid executive, but declined to give a reason.

Even so, optimism is one of
Berman’s strongest traits, say analysts. It’s helped him rebound from past
mistakes and consistently find new opportunities to make money.

In 1997, for instance, Berman
resigned as chairman of Stratosphere Corp., the owner of an ill-conceived casino
in Las Vegas that went bankrupt quickly after it opened, but only after
investors poured $550 million into the project.

Berman was also criticized for
conflict of interest when, in 1999, he tried to arrange the merger of Rainforest
Cafe to Lakes Gaming Inc., now Lakes Entertainment. Berman was chairman of both
companies. Rainforest Cafe ultimately was sold to another company, Landry’s
Seafood Restaurants Inc., for $125 million.

Yet Berman proved adept at
gaining management contracts with Indian tribes. In 1999, within a year after
Lakes was spun off from Grand Casinos, the company obtained contracts to manage
large Indian casinos in California, Michigan and Massachusetts.

Then, in 2003, Berman launched
the World Poker Tour on the Travel Channel. The tournaments revolutionized
televised poker by allowing viewers to see the players’ “hole
cards,” or down cards.

At the peak of the poker craze
shares in WPT Enterprises hit $25. They now trade at about $2.50.

Nonetheless, Lakes Entertainment
is highly profitable — it made $20.2 million last year on revenues of $29.9
million — yet the bulk of its revenue comes from WPT Enterprises instead of
its core, casino development business.

On the professional poker
circuit, Berman is known as someone who excels at virtually any game, from
no-limit Texas Hold ”˜Em to pot-limit Seven Card Stud.

He is a regular at a high-stakes
poker event known as “The Big Game” that draws some of the world’s
most elite players. Games switch every eight or 10 hands, “so you really
have to be versatile at all aspects of poker,” said Berman, who in 2002 was
inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame.

That versatility may be needed as
Lakes seeks to invest newly flowing cash from casino operations. Berman said if
he sticks to gaming, he’d prefer to use the money to start his own casino, but
he’s not ruling out the possibility of acquiring a business in a different

“Give me a company with a
lot of money and we’ll find something to do,” he said.

Poker was always an important
part of Lyle’s life, as he learned the game early and moved up to hosting
poker games in college, even coming under scrutiny from the university for such
participation. Amidst his many business endeavors as an adult, he decided to
read Doyle Brunson’s Super System in the 1980’s, and he took what he
learned to the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. He cashed in a number of
events dating back to 1984, and he won his first WSOP bracelet in 1989 in the
$1500 Omaha limit event.

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