ROAD TRIP: Southern Mississippi

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BY CHRISTOPHER COSENZA

Beautiful magnolia trees bloom majestically as they dot the flanking property along Interstate 10 and sandy beaches hug the twisting curves of Highway 90 like a long lost friend. Must be a Mississippi Gulf Coast Road Trip!

Perhaps the only thing more attractive than these natural beauties is the expectation of playing poker in some of the finest establishments The South has to offer. Ante Up recently visited the seven poker rooms that stretch the southern edge of Mississippi, meeting some terrific managers, staff and characters along the way.

And despite the not-yet-forgotten devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the impending misfortunes headed their way from an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the dealers, floors and managers still have the friendliest dispositions in the country.

Whether it’s the quiet local flavor of Boomtown, Hollywood and the Silver Slipper, the exciting nightlife vibe of the Isle, IP and Hard Rock casinos or the stunning beauty and big-action games of Beau Rivage, Ante Up indeed has found something on this Southern Mississippi trip for everyone.

BEAU RIVAGE

Beau Rivage literally means “beautiful shore,” and you’d have a hard time arguing with that as you walk over the marble and mosaic floors toward the breathtaking views of gardens, pools and the gulf. But what also might make you breathe a little heavier is the action you’ll find in the poker room.

The crown jewel of the Mississippi Gulf Coast spreads the biggest games in the state, and when the property hosts one of its three signature events (WPT Southern Poker Championship, Gulf Coast Championships and Spring Break Poker Classic), there’s no limit to how high games can get as pros from around the world descend upon what some players call Bellagio South.

The upstairs Magnolia Ballroom will add anywhere from 23 to 65 tables for these huge events, but the Beau isn’t just about big tournaments and big action. It’s about the player.
“Our No. 1 rule is: Whatever the players want,” poker room manager Johnny Grooms said. “We want to set up an experience where the only thing the player has to worry about is playing poker. … Their goal is to be entertained and to get a first-rate product. And our focus is making sure that’s what they get.”

Players also can count on plenty of bonuses.

“We probably give away more money in this poker room than anywhere I’ve seen,” said Grooms, who has been with the Beau since 2007 but started in poker in 1999.

Tournament satellites for their signature events, royal flushes ($500 in spades, $200 in other suits), round-the-clock aces cracked (Tuesday-Thursday) and lucky-seat drawings give you a lot of chances to win free cash. And this summer they’ll be giving away $100K in cash promotions, including four $5K seats into their WPT main event.

The room’s amenities include tableside dining and massage, liberal comps and the Bravo Tracking System, which Grooms says is handy for his staff and players.

“It allows players to see where they are on the list,” he said. “It allows us to keep track of time for players for awarding their comps. … Four hours of play and you’ll get a ticket to the buffet.”   

Shift managers, floors, brushes and dealers were friendly, fun to be around, sharp and efficient.

“We feel like our service is better than most,” Grooms said.

WEB SITE: www.beaurivage.com
PHONE: (228) 386-7092
POPULAR GAMES/LIMITS: hold’em ($4-$8 limit; $1-$2 NL — with a $6 timed rake every 30 mins. — $2-$5 NL, and $5-$10 NL and $10-$25 NL on weekends) and PLO ($2-$5, $5-10, $10-$25).
STAFF: 75-80 (55 dealers) • TABLES: 16 (five for high limits)

BOOMTOWN CASINO

When you’re in a competitive market you have to be creative to survive. You have to have something you’re known for, something no one else has. For the poker room at Boomtown Casino that something would be the ashtray. Boomtown is the only poker room in the area that allows players to smoke at the table. So if you like to light up as you’re check-raising that kid who has his cap screwed on sideways, Boomtown is for you.

But it’s not all about the smoke. The poker room may be small, tucked away in the corner of the second floor, but it has character. On the wall is a collage of autographed old-time playing cards from the cast of Maverick, including Jodie Foster’s Queen of Hearts.
Next to the display is a self-serve counter with hot dogs and popcorn.

“We used to have nachos,” said a smiling Debbie Luzius, who’s been with Boomtown for 18 months. “You can eat at the table but they do not bring the food to you. You gotta go get it. The grill is like a 100 yards away.”

Luzius swears by the grill’s hot ham-and-cheese sandwich that’s served on a pretzel roll. It’s $6.99 and you get tater tots and a soda. And the casino’s bakery gets raves as well.
But enough about food and smoke; let’s talk poker.

Remember how we said the room had character? There are Omaha and stud bad-beat jackpots that likely will never be hit because they never get those games going. And there are no tournaments. Luzius said the tournament market, which mostly consisted of monthly $100 events in the past, shriveled up after last summer.

The most popular game by far is the $1-$4-$8-$8 spread-limit, which seems to be the case in most of the rooms on the coast. There are bad beats in hold’em (mini jackpots pay 10 percent of the overall jackpot) and there’s an aces-cracked promotion where your name goes into a box and if you get picked you could win $25, $50 or $100.

The busiest nights are Friday and Saturday for a poker room that had three tables before Katrina and now has five.

“We get four games on Friday nights,” Luzius said. “We’re like one big happy family in this room. We give them whatever they need to have and we have open arms to everybody.”  

WEB SITE: www.boomtownbiloxi.com
PHONE: (228) 436-8999
POPULAR GAMES/LIMITS: hold’em ($1-$4-$8-$8 spread-limit; $1-$2 no-limit, mostly on weekends)
STAFF: 10 • TABLES: 5

HARD ROCK BILOXI

If you’re looking for an aesthetically pleasing poker experience be sure to hit the Hard Rock: cool rock ‘n’ roll art on the walls, sharply designed felts and Renee Lawrence, an equally cool poker room manager who treats her players the way she expects to be treated when she plays.

“I play poker, when I get a chance,” Lawrence said, laughing. “So when I opened the room I kinda designed it after what I would look for in a room. And No. 1 was no timed drop. The other thing was no rebuy tournaments.”

The Hard Rock has a solid Saturday tournament ($55 for 4K units, one $20 add-on with 15-minute levels until the break, then 20 minutes) that starts at 3 p.m.

“Straight across the board, 3 p.m. for all tournaments,” said Lawrence, who might be better known as Renee Weaver (she recently got hitched). “I like to make it easy and not have you worry about what time the tournament starts. It’s always 3 p.m.”  

You can tell the room’s clientele isn’t of the “local” variety by the fact $1-$2 NLHE is the game of choice, unlike the spread- and structured limit that’s so popular elsewhere.
“We play very little limit here,” she said. “We don’t take a timed drop on our $1-$2 no-limit. We do $2 for the jackpot, but it’s $1 at $15 and $1 at $30, as opposed to some others who take ($2) at $15. That’s kinda hard to fade.”

The bad-beat jackpot is looser than most (aces full of queens beaten by quads or better and you don’t need an ace in your hand) and that’s by design. Plus there are high hands with corresponding payouts.

“We try to give the money back (to the players) that we get in the jackpot as fast as we can,” said Lawrence, who’s been in poker since 1993, opening this room in 2007. “I’d rather have them come in and not have to shoot for the stars.”

The staff “really pushes” tableside dining, according to Lawrence because they want the players to be comfortable. And this isn’t a case of servers coming in to take your order. Lawrence’s staff is multifunctional, taking player orders and getting their food for them.

“If you’re hungry, we’ll feed you. We cater to a laid-back type of person and we try to give them kick-ass service. That’s what we’re all about.”

WEB SITE: www.hardrockbiloxi.com
PHONE: (228) 374-7625
POPULAR GAMES/LIMITS: hold’em (mostly $1-$2 no-limit and occasionally $1-$4-$8-$8 limit)
STAFF: 19 • TABLES: 6

HOLLYWOOD BAY ST. LOUIS

Poker players at Hollywood Casino Bay St. Louis should be grateful the property has a golf course. That’s the only way poker room manager Daryll Hodgson could be lured out of retirement, and the poker room is much better off having him on its side. Hodgson, who has been in the business for 34 years with about seven years in poker, took over the poker room three years ago and has turned it into a family environment.

“All casinos offer the same thing,” he said. “They all offer $1-$4-$8-$8; they all offer no-limit. What they don’t offer is when you come in I say, ‘Hi, Chris.’ I know what you do for a living; I know what my customers do for a living, what their health concerns are … they walk in, they give you a kiss, they give you a hug, they give you a handshake, and that’s what we want. I want you to come back over and over.”

Hollywood also offers a crazy pineapple tournament on Thursdays, which you can’t find in too many rooms. It’s $45 (6:30, 2,500 chips) and a lot of fun. And you’ll always find lower-limit NLHE tournaments (Monday and Wednesday, 6:30 p.m., $30 with unlimited rebuys; Sat. ($40) and Sun. ($55) with no rebuys at 12:30).

There’s no tableside dining, but they do have hot dogs and a handful of flatscreen TVs in the room. As far as promotions, there is aces cracked on Mondays ($50) and progressive Tuesdays ($100 first time, $150 second and up to $200 third) from 10 a.m. till 10 p.m. High hands also get paid $50 every hour Wednesday-Thursday (10-6 p.m.) and Friday (10-2 p.m.). And as you saw in the April issue of Ante Up the casino brought Poker Hall of Famer T.J. Cloutier to town to teach a hold’em seminar.

“We’re thinking of doing another one,” Hodgson said. “It’s just figuring out the cost.”

Again, it’s about treating the players right, something Hodgson instills in his staff.

“We know most of our customers by their first name, which we kind of insist on. We have a nice friendly room.”

WEB SITE: www.hollywoodcasinobsl.com
PHONE: (866) 758-2591 x4026
POPULAR GAMES/LIMITS: hold’em ($1-$4-$8-$8 limit; $1-$2, $2-$5 no-limit (on weekends usually)
STAFF: 17 (14 dealers) • TABLES: 6

IP BILOXI

If it weren’t for Hurricane Katrina the IP Casino might never have ventured back into poker. The property once had a poker room in the late ’90s for a few months, but that was a debacle.

When Katrina devastated the area gambling barges, the IP took that opportunity to renovate its property and add the swankiest poker room in southern Mississippi.

“When I came here (in Oct. ’05) this place was literally a shell,” said poker room manager Jim Sterling. “They gutted it and redid the whole property. We’ve built this from concrete floor and steel rails on the ceiling. That’s all we had, no walls, no nothing. Within two months the contractors they hired put this place together. We were the first ones open, right around Christmas week of ’05. That was pretty amazing. It’s really been a whirlwind for this property.”

Two things come to mind when you sit at the IP tables: food and comfort. The menu for the tableside dining was designed with the poker player in mind, and the food comes from the casinos restaurants.

“We were the first ones to implement that on the coast back in early 2006,” Sterling said. “Our biggest seller is the IP burger. We even do soups in a cup for our players. That’s growing more popular.”

The room is spacious and the seats are sweet, which was important to Sterling.
“I wanted a chair people could sit in for hours and be comfortable. We probably spent more money on chairs than most people spend on their entire rooms.”

As for poker, there are plenty of promotions to keep you seated as well. Aces cracked wins $100 Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; poker squares ($200 hourly Sun.-Mon.) and Play Your Way is a great way to enter tournaments on the cheap. If you play four hours between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. (Mon., Tue., Sat.) the house will pay $50 of your $60 buy-in to the next day’s daily tournament.

Speaking of tournaments, the IP, which is an official WSOP satellite location, hosts two signature events, one in the fall and one in the spring. This fall it will host a WSOP circuit event (the tentative schedule is Oct. 28-Nov. 10), which Sterling says has everyone excited.

The IP poker room is a very relaxed place and a complete experience for the discerning player.

“We’re not high-pressured,” Sterling said. “And we have something for everyone.”

WEB SITE: www.ipbiloxi.com
PHONE: (888) 946-2847 x8554
POPULAR GAMES/LIMITS: hold’em ($1-$2 no-limit; $4-$8 limit)
STAFF: 50 • TABLES: 14

ISLE OF CAPRI – BILOXI

Finding a stud game in southern Mississippi is like trying to find a watermelon in a sweet potato pie … you just won’t find one. Don’t blame Isle manager Steve Galle, though, because he’s been pushing to spread stud in his poker room for ages. He even offers cash for stud-specific high hands and still nothing. But to his credit Galle gets a $4-$8 H.O.S.E. game on Tuesdays and Thursdays. That mixed game is pretty much the only chance a player will have to play stud or stud/8 along the coast, so if antes are your thing head to the Isle.

Galle makes sure promotions are offered every day and tableside dining is always an option as the staff with give you an order form, then call down and get it for you. The room is quiet with no slots ringing in the background as you’re trying to make a big decision. It’s also across from the buffet and 20 feet from the restrooms. Tournaments are NLHE and six days a week, mostly freezeouts, but sometimes there’s a bounty event ($60, Saturdays, 3 p.m.)

And there may be a new room on the horizon, but “it’s in corporate’s hands.” Galle says it’s been in the works since after Katrina hit and he feels once the economy steadies it may happen. If the Isle at Pompano Park in Florida is any indication of what’s to come then the Biloxi room certainly will be the place to be.

Galle is mostly proud of two things: charity and rake.

First, charity: His room collected more than 2,500 toys for the Toys for Tots drive two years ago by giving more chips to players who brought in a unopened $10 toy. Last year they collected 900 toys. The room also partners with Paralyzed Vets and recently with St. Baldrick’s Hospital to raise money for their needs.

Now, the rake: When the area rooms all reopened after Katrina, Galle said rooms were taking $6 from each pot.

“Well, to drum up business I went, for eight months, back to the old $3 rake with a $2 jackpot. I was taking $2 less than the rest of the places and keeping $3 less for the house. … Then I brought it up to $4 and $2. … Next thing you know they’re dropping their rakes. So now, if you go to just about any place here along the coast you’re looking at a $4 and $2 rake. Every one of them oughta come thank me.”

WEB SITE: biloxi.isleofcapricasinos.com
PHONE: (228) 436-7967
POPULAR GAMES/LIMITS: hold’em ($4-$8 limit with $1-$2 blinds; $1-2 NL; H.O.S.E. on Tue. & Thurs.)
STAFF: 29 • TABLES: 9

SILVER SLIPPER CASINO

Isn’t it great when someone appreciates you?

Sunday is Player Appreciation Day at the Slipper’s poker room. Every hour you play and every full house or better you make you get a ticket for drawings for cash ($100 every hour). Drawings start at 11 a.m. and players line up at 9:30 to get in. You must be playing in a cash game to win; otherwise the money rolls over. And payouts double the last Sunday of the month. 

Shift manager Cheyene Coates, who’s been in poker for 40 years and with the Slipper since 2006, runs the room and makes sure her players are happy.

“We give comps,” she said. “We have food always brought in; we give away jackets for royals, hats for straight flushes.”

And in the corner of the room is a display that depicts the “History of Poker.” Old-time playing cards, trinkets, games, etc. decorate the case and add a little extra something to the five-table room. When asked what makes her poker room different Coates said, “Me,” and then she chuckled. But she says the players are all friends and they tell her they like to play there because it’s a well-run room and it’s clean.

Another big reason to play there regularly is their signature event: The Silver Slipper Invitational, Aug. 18-21. The top 70 players with 220-plus hours of play, plus every SNG winner, get a seat to play for free in this invitation-only event. If they win the invitational they’ll earn a tournament seat and room in Beau Rivage’s Gulf Coast Championship main event in September.

Aside from the invitational, the tournament business is almost non-existent.

“We used to have two or three sit-and-go tournaments every Saturday,” Coates said. “But then we had the hurricanes and that was it.”

But if you’re looking for what’s really unique you have to look at the cash games and something called “overs.” Since it’s a small room they can’t always get a $1-$2 NLHE game going. So to encourage these players to stick around they’re invited to play in the popular $4-$8 limit game, but with a twist. They’re given “over buttons” to indicate they’re allowed to play no-limit if they’re the only players remaining in a hand. So, for instance, if two “over” players and a strictly limit player are in a hand and the limit player folds on the turn, then the “over” players will be playing no-limit for the remainder of the hand.

Just another way Coates and her staff go the extra mile to please their patrons.  

WEB SITE: www.silverslipper-ms.com
PHONE: (866) 775-4773 x3766
POPULAR GAMES/LIMITS: hold’em ($1-$4-$8-$8 limit; $1-$2 no-limit)
STAFF: 14 (10 dealers) • TABLES: 5