It's time to take poker to new level

Aug 25, 2009 5:07 PM
The Inside Straight by Joe Awada |

Poker is underrated. Not merely as a money-making entity in Nevada casinos, but as a potential driving force for casinos in the future.

Last year, Nevada’s 106 poker rooms generated $155.7 million in revenues, surpassing the amount won by the state’s 185 sports books ($136 million), and nearly doubling the $80 million won by Nevada’s 96 race books.

Yet, poker accounted for just 1.3 percent of the total amount won by Nevada casinos ($11.6 billion) in 2008.

By contrast, California’s 91 poker rooms generated nearly $800 million last year, five times the amount spent by players in Nevada poker rooms.

Clearly, there’s opportunity for improvement, if casino operators here will look carefully at poker’s potential.

They can start by looking at the American Gaming Association’s latest State of the States survey of commercial gaming entertainment.

"Poker is still a popular game, as 11 percent of Americans report playing poker either in person or over the Internet in 2008," the survey said.

The number of people who play poker is nearly evenly divided between the Internet and live games. An estimated 15- to 20-million Americans play online, according to the Poker Players Alliance, while about 10-15 million play in live games.

In last year’s State of the States report, the survey identified "younger adults" as an expanding constituency of poker players.

"Younger adults continue to play poker more than any other age group, with more than one-third (ages 21-39) reporting they played in the past year," the survey said. "Poker participation has increased each of the last three years in every age group except among the oldest Americans (65 and older)."

Moreover, consumer spending on poker in Nevada and New Jersey casinos has more than doubled since 2003, when the modern "poker boom" began, according to the AGA, while poker revenues in the five states that allow poker increased 7.3 percent the last two years.

And, while the recession has taken its toll on all gaming revenues in Nevada, poker has been least affected by the economic downturn.

"Poker revenues declined at a more gradual rate than overall gaming revenues in those same states (Nevada and New Jersey)," the AGA reported.

According to state regulators, poker revenue in the first half of 2009 slipped only 4.6 percent in Nevada while overall revenues declined 9.7 percent; and in New Jersey spending on poker decreased only 2.1 percent last year compared to an 8.5 percent drop in gaming revenues overall.

In addition to poker’s popularity and resiliency, the heightened interest in poker by younger players is vital to growing the industry. Just like with any other form of entertainment – television, movies, music, etc. – younger customers are the key to an industry’s growth.

And, with the advent of Internet poker, there’s a legion of younger, potential casino poker players ready to jump into live games.

And it’s the casinos’ role to position their offerings and prepare themselves to tap into the vast potential of poker players.

A few casinos here in Las Vegas have taken steps in that direction. The Palms and Harrah’s, for instance, have begun inviting their best players to high-stakes poker tournaments, very similar to the popular slot tournaments offered by many casinos.

These tournaments usually offer nice incentives – big prizes, high-line receptions, free gifts, playable casino chips and the like.

But perhaps the best example of a casino pushing the poker envelope is The Venetian, where Kathy Raymond has transformed a 40-table card room into a Mecca for live poker in Las Vegas.

And she did it through innovation, not by trying to draw high-stakes players from other rooms, but by creating her own promotions and activities which appealed to a lot of players, younger players.

These include deep-stack tournaments, a fair rake, an expansive schedule of games and, of course, solid customer service – friendly dealers and floor personnel, talking to customers, and getting their feedback.

In addition to enhancing their poker offerings, Nevada casinos need to position themselves for the possibility of legal online poker in the U.S.

Senator Menendez’s bill, which was introduced earlier this month, would legalize Internet poker and authorize the federal government to tax and regulate it.

Although there are no accurate statistics available, online poker rooms such as PokerStars and Full-Tilt Poker are part of an off-shore industry estimated to be worth up to $16 billion a year. U.S. players represent at least 75 percent of all Internet poker players.

There’s virtually no limit on what a Nevada version of PokerStars could generate in revenue.

That possibility hasn’t been lost on California’s tribal casinos and card clubs, which have lobbied the state to enact legislation that would legalize "Intra-net" poker within the state of California.

"This would be a game for Californians, run by Californians," said Patrick Dorinson, a spokesman for the Morongo tribal casino in Southern California. He added that the tribe has collaborated with some card clubs to create a "tribal intrastate Internet poker consortium," whose goal is to make California the first state with online poker that complies with federal law.

Another new concept that will soon find its way into poker rooms, as well as stimulate interest in the game, is World Team Poker, a new league consisting of international teams.

The brainchild of long-time poker pro Robert Turner, World Team Poker is a new concept that will take the game to a new level.

Just like any other league – the NFL, NBA or the Soccer Federation – World Team Poker will pit five-member teams from around the world against each other, in an Olympics-style competition.

So far, some of poker’s top players – Phil Hellmuth, Johnny Chan, Freedie Deeb, Jeff Lisandro, Eric Seidel and Sammy Farha – have signed on to the new league. And players from as far away as Greece and Brazil have requested entry with their own teams.

Finally, casinos have to realize that poker is a unique game; it’s an interactive game in which players actually participate. More so than any other casino game, a player must use his skills – reasoning, math, strategy and the like – in order to compete successfully.

And that competition is at once challenging and exciting. Plus, there’s a social element to poker play that isn’t found in front of a video poker or slot machine.

If poker is to grow and prosper in Nevada, casinos need to develop programs and concepts designed for "live" players. There’s still no substitute for live customers in the casino.

Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Joe Awada