POKER ROAD TRIP: Tunica, Miss.

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By Christopher Cosenza

In school, you have the three R’s: reading, ’riting, ’rithmetic. In Tunica, you have the three C’s: cotton fields, churches and casinos. What else could you possibly need?

Ante Up continues its Road Trip series this month with visits to the five poker rooms in Tunica, and a brief look at three others in the Mississippi Delta region. It’s always interesting to see how poker rooms that are so close together deal with competition and how players benefit from these rivalries. We’re always so impressed with the staffs in these rooms, and Mississippi continues to be the most friendly place to play poker. If you want to experience the casino poker lifestyle without the hustle and bustle of Las Vegas or the chaos of California, be sure to hit Tunica, where frolicking deer eating leaves among miles of green pastures is an everyday occurrence.   

GOLD STRIKE CASINO

When players sit at a poker table they mostly want to just hear the shuffling of chips and the careless banter that fills the time in between hands. Most poker rooms are situated among the slots with all the bells and whistles, which can be distracting when you have a difficult decision to make. The Gold Strike poker room doesn’t have this problem. Located on the second floor of the casino, the poker room generally is removed from the craziness, which is great for a poker player, but a curse to some extent.

“We don’t get a lot of tourists that just pass by,” said floor supervisor Jake “Don’t call me Raymond” Bush. “Tourists just don’t flow up the escalator, so that’s hard to compete with. But as far as the room goes I believe bar none we have a nicer room and it’s more open.”
Indeed, there is a lot of space in the 16-table room, which is adorned with gold décor. One large flatscreen TV hangs on each wall to keep you abreast of the daily sporting events or when the blinds will change in your tournament. Other screens keep you up to date on promotions, of which there are plenty. The brush at the left-hand entrance still keeps an old-school list on a clipboard for games and seats, and the cashier is centrally located along the back wall.

“We give away a lot of money,” said Bush, who’s been in poker since 2004 and has worked at Gold Strike for about three years. “From 3 a.m. till 10 a.m. we have a no-limit hold’em drawing where we draw for $100 for each table at the top of the hour. Also our players are paid to play, $1 an hour. Once they reach 25 hours they’re eligible to cash out for $25 and beyond.”

The room has drawings (Sun.-Fri.) for the $3-$6 ($30) and $4-$8 ($40) games from 9 a.m.-9 p.m. As for tournaments the Gold Strike has a guarantee for every event, including the first Saturday of the month, which is a $15K guarantee ($340 buy-in, 10K chips). That’s immediately followed by Sunday’s $5K guarantee ($230, $8K chips).

The Gold Strike hosts one of the biggest events in Tunica, the World Poker Open, which runs July 22-Aug. 2 this year (See story Page 32). And like its MGM Mirage sister property to the south (Beau Rivage, and both rooms are run by world-renown poker director Ken Lambert), the Gold Strike utilizes its convention area to spread a few dozen tables to accommodate the larger fields. And when this event is running you can find massage therapists to work out those knots in your back. But during regular business hours you’ll have to rely on free coffee, drinks and tableside dining to keep you content on the felt. 

“We have friendly people and a friendly staff with a lot of knowledge and a lot of history,” Bush said.

WEBSITE: www.goldstrikemississippi.com
PHONE: (662) 357-1136
POPULAR GAMES/LIMITS: hold’em ($1-$2 NL with $2-$5 and $5-$10 on the weekends – though a $10-$20 NLHE heads-up match was spread during Ante Up’s visit; $3-$6 and $4-8 limit).
STAFF: 50 (45 dealers)
TABLES: 16

HOLLYWOOD CASINO

Movie themes are a natural for the Hollywood Casino, and that sentiment isn’t lost on its poker room, which resides in the Adventure Slots area. An Indiana Jones theme makes for a darkened room as faux rock walls and hieroglyphics are etched into columns and decorations. For those who’ve been around long enough, they’ll remember the poker tables used to be in a nearby secluded room, which is now for high-limit table games. And the Indiana Jones theme used to allow for a track that emerged from a cave above the slots area as a wooden cart would roll along and drop memorabilia down to the patrons.

“You wouldn’t believe the fights that used to break out for little pieces of aluminum,” poker room manager Dominick Morreale said.

But enough reminiscing; let’s talk poker.

One thing you don’t find much of in Tunica is a $3-$6 limit hold’em cash game, but that’s the staple of Hollywood. Plus the room runs daily tournaments (sans Tuesday), though Morreale promises some revamping is coming to the tournament schedule so more on that in the future.

And something else that keeps the players in the seats is the remarkable $3 an hour they earn on their player cards for food comps. “They can eat at the table,” Morreale said.

Morreale, who’s been in poker for more than 30 years (“I got started in Vegas in ’78 at the Stardust as a shill dealer.”), says he realizes the limitations his room has in competing with rooms that are a stone’s throw from Hollywood. But he has confidence his staff’s service is the reason the players keep coming back. 

“I can’t compete with a lot of things like having big tournaments and guaranteeing big prize money,” said Morreale, who has been with Hollywood since its inception in August 1994. “We survive off how we treat people. We have a good bunch of loyal customers who come in and like how we treat them. We know them all by their first name and we try to get to know their families. I know where they’re from. I’ve stayed, when traveling, at some of their houses. They know all the dealers. … It’s like playing at the kitchen table.”

Hollywood’s busiest nights are Fridays and Saturdays, though promotions keep the cards flying during the week. On Wednesdays is aces cracked while high hands are featured Thursdays. Both promotions let you spin the wheel to win between $25-$500. 

And with someone steeped in the history of Tunica poker you have to ask Morreale how Tunica has changed over the years.

“It used to be a lot busier,” he said. “Now there are a lot of tournaments. I was the first one to start a tournament once a week. Now there are a lot and we lose a lot of customers because if they bust out they just go down the street to another one. It’s a struggle. You gotta work at it and treat people right. That’s the biggest thing.”

WEBSITE: www.hollywoodtunica.com
PHONE: (800) 871-0711
POPULAR GAMES/LIMITS: hold’em ($3-$6 limit; $1-$2 no-limit on weekends)
STAFF: 13 (9 dealers)
TABLES: 6

HORSESHOE CASINO

What’s in a name? Well, if the name is Horsehoe then it can mean quite a lot. Yes, Harrah’s now owns the Horseshoe, but history is hard to ignore. The Binions made the Horseshoe synonymous with poker, and that relationship still reflects in the action in Tunica today.
As Ante Up strolled up to the poker room on a Wednesday afternoon it seemed obvious a tournament was at hand, but lo and behold eight cash games were running strong. The action is here, and so is the only regular stud game ($1-$5 spread) in Mississippi.

“Stud pays the bills,” said Dale Carden, tournament director and Senior Poker Hall of Fame member.

Carden, who began his poker career in Immokalee, Fla., in 1989, said his room gives so much to the player.

“All of our dealers are seasoned,” he said. “They make the biggest difference here. … and the promotions. Guys are going to play where they’re giving money away. … We have more games in this room than all of the games on the river combined.”

It was hard to ignore how busy the room was every day. Some of the promotions include Flush Frenzy, which pays a player $100 if he makes flushes in all four suits during his session. But another key to the Horseshoe’s success is its capped jackpots and the reasons behind it.

“Our jackpot is capped at $100K,” Carden said, “so any overage goes to other promotions to be sure the money gets back to the players. There are so many times when the jackpot would go to $170K and the winners were from Atlanta and Chicago and the money never got back to our players. So we try to give each player $100 every day to keep him playing on the tables. We’d rather do that then see $170K walk out the door and not come back.”

If you’re hungry and you’re playing you’ll get a buffet comp. It’s that simple. Plus, if you’re coming from out of town the Horseshoe has hotel rooms reserved for you ($35 weekdays, $50 weekends at Harrah’s, and $45-$65 on site).

But the Horseshoe isn’t just about cash games. It hosts the Magnolia Classic every October as its signature event, but the everyday tournaments perform well, too. Tuesday’s $65 buy-in (7 p.m.) is the best tournament during the week. It has 20-minute levels, 10K chips and the Horseshoe adds $500 to the prize pool. There’s also a $10K guarantee on Saturdays ($160, 12K chips, 30-minute levels, 4 p.m.) These events generally end by 11 p.m.

“We just make our structures that no matter how many players we get, the guy can still play the tournament, go home, get some sleep and go to work the next day,” said Carden, who is a terrific complement to Lisa Compton, who runs the room.

And one of the amenities that comes from the tournaments is Team Horseshoe. It’s a point-based system that determines who will be a member of Team Horseshoe for the next upcoming big event, whatever it may be. The room deducts $3 per player from the buy-in to fund the team.

“We send players to Vegas (for the WSOP), and to all the circuit events,” Carden said. “They get jackets, shirts, hats and they head to these events and show up in force. So we get all the tournament action, too.”

WEBSITE: www.horseshoetunica.com
PHONE: (662) 357-5608
POPULAR GAMES/LIMITS: hold’em ($1-$3, $2-$5, $5-$10 no-limit; $4-$8 limit – a $20-$40 game goes up every weekend; $4-$8 Omaha/8; $1-$5 stud)
STAFF: 80 (70 dealers)
TABLES: 16

HARRAH’S CASINO

When you have the World Series of Poker associated with your poker room, it gives you a big leg up on the competition. That brand is world famous and attracts players like moths to a flame.

“We try to incorporate the World Series into everything we do,” said Chris Griffin, who co-manages the room with Steve Reed (though everyone just calls him Reed).

And that means the design of the room, from WSOP logos on the felts and chairs to huge framed pictures of past WSOP champions all along the walls. The poker room has 14 tables, but that all changes when the WSOP comes to town with its circuit event.

“We add four tables to the room and seven tables just outside the room for live action,” said Griffin, who started with Harrah’s in 1995 but joined the Tunica poker room almost two years ago. “Then in the event center we set up 61 tables for the circuit tournaments. It’s a phenomenal site once they have it all set up.”

It’s not just about the WSOP. “We’ve got more promotions going than anywhere else in Tunica,” he said. “The players get a lot more for the time spent playing here. … and best service, by far. … This poker room has the highest (ratings) in the company. You gotta do something to stand out. The games are the same everywhere, so we just try to draw people back with service.”

And with promotions. Harrah’s keeps its players at the tables in the wee hours with its Spin the Wheel giveaways. Starting at midnight it gives tickets to all players and draws for a chance to spin the wheel every hour (they can win $25-$500, and payouts double from 6-9 a.m.). Your tickets stay in the drawing through the night for a better chance of getting picked.

There’s also a single-table jackpot in which the qualifying hand goes down in rank every day it’s not hit, and the payout goes up $250 daily (maxing out at $4K). The loser gets 30 percent, the winner’s paid 20 percent and the remaining 50 percent is split among players at the table.

A $150K Fantasy Freeroll promotion is about to be rolled out July 7, including $3K weekly freerolls and seats given away to its WSOP circuit events.

“The Fantasy promotion looks like it will be an annual deal for us,” Griffin said. “It’s been very successful, and it’s a lot of cash.”

This month from 8 a.m. till noon the highest full house gets $100 and entry into an $8K freeroll. And you can’t talk to Chris Griffin without asking if he watches Family Guy. “I hired someone from St. Louis to be a brush here, but she couldn’t start because her husband was in a branch of the military. Her name was Megan Griffin,” he said, laughing. “Can you imagine the both of us working in the same room together at the same time? I finally get someone on TV named after me and look who it is.”

WEBSITE: www.harrahstunica.com
PHONE: (800) 946-4946 x33760
POPULAR GAMES/LIMITS: hold’em ($1-$3, $2-$5 no-limit); $4-$8 limit with $1-$2 blinds)
STAFF: 33 (29 dealers)
TABLES: 14

SAM’S TOWN CASINO

Imagine spending the day playing poker and having a few laughs with some friendly dealers. Not a bad time, huh?

Now imagine leaving the poker room and eating one of the finest meals of your life. Oh, and that meal is free. What would you think of that? Players at Sam’s Town do it all the time. The generous $2.50 per hour comp rate adds up pretty quickly, and the $25 early bird special at Twain’s Steakhouse can’t be beat, for quality and value.

“It’s gotta be probably the best meal on the river in a very nice atmosphere,” table games manager John Mathis said. “With just a little bit of play you can get that.”

But this is a poker room, after all, so what other reasons should you play at Sam’s?

“We’re up front with our rake,” poker room manager Linda Reh said. “For a $60 tournament it’s $40 plus $20; $10 goes to the house, $10 goes to the dealers. You go to the other casinos they don’t read that fine print on the bottom that says 3 percent here, 2 percent there. We’re actually the cheapest with regards to the rake. We’re not killing the players.” 

The poker room, which is on the second floor, has a few other promotions as well, such as hourly $50 high hands (Sun., Wed., Thurs., noon-midnight) and $50 aces cracked (Mondays, midnight-8 a.m.). Plus Tuesday is Bonus Chips Day. If you play three hours between 8 a.m.-1:30 p.m. you’ll get an extra 1K chips in that day’s tournament.

Reh is particularly proud of her monthly $15K guaranteed tournament, which regularly draws more than 100 players. The next one will be July 24 (11 a.m., $150).

“I know I hold the market on the $15K,” said Reh, who has been in poker for 10 years, the past two with Sam’s. “I’ve had many players tell me that’s the best tournament around. I don’t ever foresee that going down and I think that’s my signature.”

The event is so popular Sam’s Town has had to add three tables. Reh is looking into doing a $30K event, likely in August. If that’s successful they may do it quarterly.

And if you play enough you can be outfitted with Sam’s Town garb. “We have an apparel program for your time played in the previous month,” Mathis said. “Hats, shirts, jackets. Our players are very well-dressed.”

And what can a player expect from a session at Sam’s Town? “Friendliness. My dealers are known for being friendly. It’s a fun atmosphere. And I do put out hot dogs for the tournament once a month,” Reh said with a chuckle. “We used to have hot dogs in the room all the time and when we took them out I got so much grief from the players that I brought them back for the big tournament. They’re all happy now.”

WEBSITE: www.samstowntunica.com
PHONE: (800) 456-0711
POPULAR GAMES/LIMITS: hold’em ($1-$3 no-limit; $4-$8 limit)
STAFF: 35 (29 dealers)
TABLES: 16

Delta deals

These three poker rooms are in the Mississippi Delta region as well. Here’s a brief overview, and for more information you can turn to our Where To Play pages in the back of the magazine.

HARLOW’S CASINO
LOCATION: Greenville
WEBSITE: www.harlowscasino.com
PHONE: (662) 335-9797 x144
POPULAR GAMES/LIMITS: hold’em ($1-$3 no-limit; $4-$8 limit) and an Omaha game will break out once in a while.
MANAGER: Richard Woods
STAFF: 10
TABLES: 6
TABLESIDE DINING? Yes
PLAYER COMPS? No
ROOM RATES: $35 weekdays, $55 weekends.
THE SKINNY: Harlow’s holds the occasional event, such as the recent Battle at the Foot of the Bridge (you can find results on Page 32). This summer they’ll have another series similar to the “Battle” called Harlow’s Summer Poker League. Players accumulate points and can qualify through satellites as well.

SILVER STAR CASINO
LOCATION: Choctaw, at the Pearl River Resort
WEBSITE: www.pearlriverresort.com
PHONE: (601) 650-1234
POPULAR GAMES/LIMITS: hold’em ($1-$3 no-limit, $2-$5 is gaining popularity; $4-$8 limit) 
MANAGER: Alan John
STAFF: 20
TABLES: 8
TABLESIDE DINING? Yes
PLAYER COMPS? No players card, but if they think you’ve played long enough they’ll give you a food comp.
THE SKINNY: The poker room has a few tournaments it’s proud of, including a $35 rebuy event on Mondays (7 p.m.) where the room adds $1K to the prize pool. There’s also a $60 buy-in for a $2,500 guarantee event on Saturdays.

AMERISTAR CASINO
LOCATION: Vicksburg
WEBSITE: www.ameristar.com/vicksburg
PHONE: (601) 630-4996
POPULAR GAMES/LIMITS: hold’em ($1-$3 and $2-$5 no-limit; $3-$6 and $4-$8 limit)
SUPERVISOR: Dennis Fountain
TABLES: 9
TABLESIDE DINING? Yes
PLAYER COMPS? $1 an hour on the players card.
THE SKINNY: There’s a new game in town: $5-$10-$20 limit hold’em, with players having the option to bet $20 on the river. It’s usually spread on Mondays but is available upon request. The brush we talked with said the game is having trouble sticking, so if you want to try it you might just save it as well. Also, Omaha/8 is spread regularly on Tuesdays and Fridays at 10 a.m.