Online poker stokes
live games

Mar 14, 2006 3:44 AM

There’s no doubt that Internet poker, even in states like Nevada that have legal poker rooms, has become very popular with players.

But what is surprising is the spillover of interest from the Internet into live casinos.

"Casinos were closing their poker rooms," said Frank Fahrenkopf, president and CEO of the American Gaming Association. "But TV made it exciting and the Internet made it accessible."

Poker — no limit Texas hold’em in particular — has exploded in Nevada casinos, in part because of televised poker tournaments and online poker rooms, where beginners can practice without fear of embarrassment.

"I have been in poker rooms for 31 years, and no limit hold’em had become a dinosaur," said Margie Heintz, poker room manager at the Eldorado Hotel-Casino. "Now people from all walks of life want to try it."

The influx of new players has helped fuel a resurgence in Nevada poker rooms. Two years ago, there were less than 400 poker tables in the state; today there are nearly 800 tables, which raked in $13.2 million in January.

Poker revenue for Nevada casinos is the result of a percentage or "rake" taken from every pot. The percentage varies from casino to casino (3% to 5%), and the poker rooms don’t charge a seat rental, as they do in many California card clubs.

Despite the rocketing growth of bricks-and-mortar poker rooms in Nevada, some players continue to enjoy gambling on the Internet, where a few huge online poker sites control much of the Internet business.

Experts estimate that Internet gambling generated $12 billion to $15 billion in 2005, with about 60 percent of that coming from U.S. players.

Fahrenkopf said that for the past 10 years, federal bills have been introduced that would make it illegal to make any kind of wager on the Internet.

"Nothing has passed," Fahrenkopf said. "But our (casino) companies still don’t want to get involved with it."

Despite the impact of online poker and gambling in general (the majority of entries into last year’s World Series of Poker championship qualified through online satellites), most land-based casinos don’t view online gambling as direct competition.

"Ten years ago, probably 60 percent to 70 percent of (casinos’) profit came from gambling," Fahrenkopf said. "Today, it makes up only about 45 percent of the bottom line. People aren’t coming to gamble, but for the complete package with entertainment and dining."

While interest in playing poker online seems as strong as ever, Nevada casinos are opening new rooms and expanding others to keep up with the demand for a "live" game.

Caesars Palace, for instance, recently opened a magnificent poker room after an absence of about eight years.

The story is repeated throughout the state as casinos scramble to offer games people have seen on TV.

"A lot of people continuously say they have played online but never in person," Heintz said. "We are open 24 hours a day — it’s easy to find a live game."