South Florida poker competition heating up

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It has 29 tables, 31 televisions … and every poker eye in South Florida cast upon it.
Welcome, Studz Poker Club at Calder Casino & Race Course. It’s the new kid on the block in the 94-mile stretch of I-95 clogged with car after car and a dozen other poker rooms.
Choose your favorite poker cliché: “Up the ante.” “The price of poker has gone up.” Whatever you want to say, the South Florida competitive threat level has moved from orange to red.

If you’re a poker room exec, you have to envy Christopher Trabue a little. Calder’s director of poker operations is living the dream of creating a room from the ground up. Calder tried poker in the past, but opening in concert with the Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood proved too high a hurdle to clear. The dormancy afforded the room, and Trabue, formerly of the Isle Casino, the opportunity to monitor what works, and what doesn’t, in the competition.

Trabue assembled his staff with that in mind, bringing in some folks from the uber successful Isle while drawing others from gaming locales around the country who might be able to offer a fresh perspective. And he was particularly deliberate in hiring his dealers. Nearly 400 auditioned; many more applied.

“We wanted to make sure we had the good personality, the good attitude,” Trabue said. “No chips on their shoulder.”

Next step? Listen to those dealers.

“At our auditions, we told them, ‘Come to us with any promotion that you’ve ever seen, no matter what it is and let’s see what we can do,’ ” Trabue said. “They are the front-end, and if we’re not going to listen to them, then we’re just killing ourselves.”

Trabue is coy about what those promotions might be: “We don’t want to let the cat out of the bag …” Smart. No need to tip your hand, not in this pressure-cooker of a climate. But he doesn’t hide the fact he’s bidding to be the house with the biggest tournaments.
“We’re going on the higher end with tournaments,” he said. “A lot of the market is going to the low-end tournaments, so we’re going to go with the high-end.”

Among those is a $550 buy-in at 11 a.m. Saturdays, a $350 buy-in at 8 p.m. Wednesdays and a $100 buy-in at 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. The latter is marketed to the area’s dealers, and takes advantage of the room’s dual permits that allow it to stay open 24 hours on weekends.

Tournaments are the new battleground, particularly in South Florida. Palm Beach Kennel Club has hired Joe Conti of Poker Talk America fame with an eye toward improving its tournament experience. Isle Casino and Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood show success after success with their big events, and both are working on new formats to keep interest high.
Dania Jai-Alai has waded into the high-guarantee arena with mixed results, and Gulfstream Park is working the loyalty route with regular giveaways (Mercedes-Benz, Rolex, Harley-Davidson) to its frequent tournament players.

Mardi Gras, which opened its new first-floor renovated poker room Nov. 13, is eager to get back into the tournament game. Seminole Coconut Creek just did, and don’t be surprised if Seminole Hollywood Classic soon does the same.

But keeping up with Joneses in South Florida is harder than just running a good tournament. The bar has been set so high it costs big bucks just to get into the game.
It starts with the Genesis-Bravo System, a six-figure investment that pays for itself with powerful computer tracking of everything going on in the room, from wait lists, to dealer efficiency to player comps. If you want to beat the big boys, you have to have it, because all of the big boys already do. Trabue is excited for the day soon when the system will morph into his Oasis system, which will speed comp redemption. Hungry? Just flag down a shift boss, who can hand you a comp instantly.

And it includes the little touches, the ones you don’t recognize unless they’re not there. Chairs so comfy that folks joke about taking them home; the famed Twin Spires logo on felts, cards and players club cards; tables positioned so the tightest spaces are 3 feet and most are 6 feet; a waiting lounge with TVs and cocktail service; massages from Casino Massage Services.

Renovations on the adjacent bar and concessions area will be complete soon, and slot machines are due to start clanging in time for the Super Bowl, effectively extending the room’s honeymoon period to four months.

Trabue and his room are off to a good start, with no intention on resting on those laurels. Because the competition would never let one do that.

Just a couple of miles away, director of poker operations Wil Herrera has overseen the moving of his Mardi Gras poker room to a renovated space on the first floor. Poker players now have a dedicated entrance on the north side that feeds into the brush stand and players club booth. Herrera has designated a “no-limit” area in the room, which features plenty of TVs, a bar that stretches the length of the room and, in a first for a Florida parimutuel, non-walled-off access to the slot floor and video poker.

South of Calder, Flagler Dog Track just opened its Magic City Casino slot floor to rave reviews. The well-designed flashy space will be the home of its poker room when it moves on to Phase II of its slots buildout.

And on the horizon look for Hialeah Park to open a poker room, too. The flamingo-famous horse track has been reborn as a home to quarterhorses and its owners have repeatedly said cards are in its future.

So just as poker room execs may envy Trabue for being able to start from scratch, no doubt that envy stops when they consider the immense challenge of walking into such a mature poker market. The eyes focused on it will be interested to see whether Calder merely cannibalizes existing players from nearby properties, or whether its offerings and west-side location succeed in drawing more players into the South Florida poker economy.
Ante Up wishes Calder well, for if it thrives, it means what we think to be true really is: Florida poker overall has plenty of room to grow.
— Email Scott Long at scott@anteupmagazine.com.