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Raising the Stakes

Hollywood's interest in poker has helped drive the upsurge in lavish high-stakes poker rooms
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Vegas, Mar/Apr 2006

(continued from page 1)

But she is far from alone in having this thought. The MGM Grand has opened a cozy, coolly designed poker room, emphasizing lower-stakes action. The Mandalay Bay, where poker had long been a backwater activity, has plans to expand its poker presence by enlarging the room and hosting a World Poker Tour event in June that will be taped for TV, thus providing the casino with a Texas Hold'em seal of approval. Harrah's has hired marketing gurus away from NASCAR and the NFL in a bid to take the World Series global and make it bigger than ever in the States. New York-New York is thinking about putting in a card room, and Wynn Las Vegas, which opened last April, has made its poker facility state-of-the-art: you can sit in your room and watch the waiting list on a flat-screen TV to see how far you are from getting a seat in your game of choice-and, hopefully, your take of other people's money.

Despite the potential it holds for players-"Anyone who's good at games looks at poker and sees that it gives you the best shot at making millions of dollars," says Greenstein-poker is anything but a hard-and-fast moneymaker for the casinos. They do way better by putting in slot machines or blackjack tables, which makes the Bellagio's expansion all the more stunning. "We spent $5 million to add 10 tables," says Doug Dalton (yes, Edna's husband), who runs the Bellagio's poker room. "They moved out 21 tables and slots for poker. Have you ever heard of that in your life? But we are the largest poker room in Nevada, and we need to accommodate the demand."

As it turns out, though, replacing those tried-and-true moneymakers with poker tables may not be so counterintuitive. "A few years ago these casino executives didn't realize that poker players bring their friends and girlfriends and wives, who do all the other sorts of gambling," says 1994 World Series champ Russ Hamilton. "Plus, look at the poker players themselves. They blow lots of money in the pit. Look at Phil Ivey and Chau Giang. Those guys go into the pit and blow hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars."

Seidel-who enjoyed a windfall several years ago thanks to the wild style of a wealthy, losing European player called George The Greek-remembers, "It frustrated casino executives when they saw George dropping so much to us and they weren't getting any of it. But they eventually realized that he wouldn't be in the casino if there was no poker, and he played baccarat as well."

More importantly, if casinos can't accommodate the high-rolling, cash-bleeding pit-game players by providing them with high-stakes poker games, there is the very real risk that the whales will swim out and spout off their money elsewhere. "I can't tell you how many customers we've gained from other properties," brags the Bellagio's Dalton. "I can tell you about one guy who came over here from Caesars [before poker was up and running there] and wound up losing $20 or $30 million to us at baccarat. But if Caesars had a poker room, he never would have left. It used to be that the number one question asked at any casino was, 'Where's the buffet?' Now everybody wants to know where the poker room is." In other words, casinos now have no choice but to offer poker, lest they want to lose their customers.

With the breakneck popularity, however, comes more poker rooms and more competition. While there clearly are waiting lists for games all over town, it can't possibly be that way forever. At the rate in which poker facilities are growing, the very real possibility exists that tables will ultimately exceed demand, at least in some casinos.

The challenge of succeeding is on display in the Wynn poker room, which looks great, feels great, employs great dealers, and has nice art on the walls. But that is not enough. The initial plan, when Wynn opened, was to hire Daniel Negreanu to be the room's poker ambassador. The idea was that he would play there, attract some big-money studs, and bring in the crowds. But the anticipated high-stakes ring-game action never materialized, and Negreanu, who's played in the Big Game, felt frustrated. He tried to compensate by issuing a challenge in which he would compete in $500,000 freeze-outs against anyone, at any form of poker.

That was interesting enough-pros such as Barry Greenstein, Mimi Tran, and David Oppenheim all took him on-but it couldn't compare to a big-money ring game. As he puts it, "There was no action for me at Wynn." After six months, when Negreanu was contractually allowed to bail, he asked if it would be okay for him to resume playing cash games at the Bellagio while maintaining his position with Wynn. "They came to me and said, 'Picture this: Ask your wife if it's okay to bang another broad a couple nights a week,'" remembers Negreanu, understanding their need for his exclusivity, but pointing out that the gig with Wynn infringed on his livelihood. Negreanu left, but Wynn management isn't exactly sweating his departure. As this issue goes to press, the biggest poker game in the world has settled in there: billionaire banker Andy Beal vs. a consortium of poker pros, playing heads-up Texas hold'em for the monstrous stakes of $50,000/$100,000, in the high-limit area of the Wynn.

Rich as that showdown is, however, when an ambitious poker pro leaves a cushy day job because he can't afford not to play cards for the highest stakes, well, you know that lots of games have got to be good; it's not just at the Beal level. Online poker has become a cash cow for the pros, many of whom play under names that you'd never be able to trace back to them. Plus the tournaments, in and out of Vegas, have gotten huge and alluring for those who excel in that arena.

Nevertheless, Erik Seidel is half-serious when he complains about all the opportunities. "Poker's left me with very little time for myself; I'd like to read and spend time with my family and get things done," he says. "But there are so many tournaments outside of Vegas-in January alone, I was scheduled to play in Australia, the Bahamas, Atlantic City and Tunica-that I feel compelled to travel and play [because the action is so juicy]. We have people buying into $10,000 events who've never played a tournament before; the $25,000 buy-in at the Bellagio was up by one-third over 2004. That's great. Two-thousand-five stands as my best poker year yet, but I'll be happy if the bottom drops out of this. I want my life back."


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