Poker rooms play it close to the vest

Mar 6, 2001 7:03 AM

Like a veteran poker player, the Las Vegas poker room scene is hard to read. It must be studied.

It’s virtually impossible to tell whether more properties are folding or holding onto poker rooms, but it’s not hard to see the game is being examined closely.

The Stratosphere’s poker room closed last Friday. The Venetian, Santa Fe, MGM Grand and Harrah’s poker rooms folded in the last year. The Regent Las Vegas unveiled its new room last week. The Las Vegas Club has had a room in operation for five weeks.

There’s also a unique situation at the Four Queens. It doesn’t have a poker room on its property, yet will host the Four Queens Classic, Sept. 5-23.

Poker interest, judging by Las Vegas, is on the decline and expanding at the same time. Officials at some properties believe slot machines can make more money in the space where poker rooms used to be. Others feel poker is good for crossover business.

A GamingToday study found that poker rooms are under the microscope rather than suffering a decline or growing.

The same week that the Stratosphere closed its six-table room to make way for slot machines and other more profitable games, The Regent Las Vegas opened that many tables in its former high-stakes game room. High to medium limit seven-card stud, Texas hold’em and Omaha are available there. Four 27-inch TVs, a bar, sofas and chairs are in the room. Five more poker tables can be added if needed.

"I don’t know why they close them," said Regent Poker Room Day Shift Manager Michael Thomas about the shuttered rooms at other Las Vegas casinos. "They don’t think they make enough money for the casino. The truth is, poker brings people into the casino. When a husband comes here to play poker, his wife could play the slot machines or table games.

"A full-service casino should offer everything to everybody," Thomas added. "That’s what we’re trying to do at The Regent. We’re trying to do what the locals want to do."

Regent Poker Manager Jim Greenwood, who came over with Thomas from the Santa Fe Hotel and Casino, echoes Thomas’ comments.

"Mike and I were managers at the Santa Fe. We had a player base of 400 to 500 people," said Greenwood. "When we couple that Santa Fe base with the people who live here (in Summerlin), we should have a player base of 600 people."

At the Las Vegas Club’s poker room, manager Pete Bianchi’s views are similar to Thomas’.

"Crossover business, that’s what we’re all about," Bianchi said. "Poker is a tool to bring people to the Las Vegas Club that ordinarily don’t come here. If a wife says she wants to play slots, a husband may say, ‘Fine, but let’s go somewhere where there’s a poker room’. If you don’t look at the crossover business, there’s no way for poker to compete with slot machines."

Bianchi said the Las Vegas Club poker room draws in excess of 100 poker players daily. "Texas hold’em has more action (compared to seven-car stud)," said Bianchi.

Texas hold’em, along with seven-card stud and Omaha 8 or better, will be played at the Four Queens Classic. Executive Gaming Director Jake Vanderlei will use the Classic as an indicator for whether or not the property should re-open its poker room.

"We haven’t had a poker room for quite some time," said Vanderlei. "It’s been March of ‘98 since we had a tournament.

"I’m not saying we’ll definitely be opening a poker room, but we’re trying to get back on the poker scene.

During the poker tourney, the entire Kings Pavilion will be committed to live poker. We’ll have an extremely large poker room — 35 tables. We’re really excited. We expect a lot of the good players to be in town"

The Four Queens Classic should bring 500 of the world’s top tournament players to the downtown property, and 250 cash game players. It should also boost the economy, as several competitors are expected to play in other casino card rooms.

"It will be the second-largest poker tournament in Las Vegas," said Vanderlei. The World Series of Poker, hosted annually at Binion’s, is the city’s largest

To enter the Four Queens Classic, buy-ins range from $100 to $5,000.

"You have to have available space to make it work, and yes, we have the space with the pavilion," said Vanderlei "We’d like to see how profitable we can make this, and see if we can bring poker here."

Poker’s popularity "has absolutely declined," he added, "but I wouldn’t say poker is as bad as what a lot of people are saying. I still think it’s very viable. It’s tough to manage. You have to have the space. If you want to put in 20 poker tables instead of slot machines, obviously you’ll make more money with the slots."

The Stratosphere hosted the city’s only regular small stakes no-limit hold’em games before closing its poker room. Keith Williams, vice president of casino operations, was unavailable for comment, but he stated publicly the poker room, which wasn’t making or losing money, was in the way of the property’s expansion.

The city-wide poker room study will continue at the Stratosphere. Williams has indicated there’s a chance he could bring poker back.