Covering about 600 miles along the bouncing two-lane highways and byways of Southern Louisiana can make the events of a two-and-a-half-day road trip blur together. But when you have such a rich variety of poker rooms and friendly staff to greet you at every stop, the visits can never be forgotten. If you’ve never been to Louisiana to play poker you need to get there. Until then, here’s what you’re missing:
BY CHRISTOPHER COSENZA
A good poker player knows appearances aren’t always as they seem. Just because your opponent shows signs of weakness doesn’t mean he can’t have a monster. Keep that in mind as you drive toward Cypress Bayou Casino and notice the round Pantheon-like building that you’d swear is just a nightclub.
Shorty’s, Cypress Bayou’s complementary casino built in 2006, oozes hipness, from its avant-guard design (look for the massive glass-wall waterfall) to Rox, the jumping, jamming nightclub that covers the entire second floor (15,000 square feet). Shorty’s, open 24 hours, is where you’ll find the poker room and manager Deon Brent, who always has a smile on his face. … and with good reason.
“It’s a great establishment to work for,” said Brent, who has been with the Cypress Bayou family for 16 years. “This is the best. It starts from the top. We have one of the best table games managers (Tony Rohrer) around.”
Brent always greets his patrons with a smile and a handshake (or even a kiss on the cheek). It’s this attitude that rubs off on his staff, and makes playing in his poker room that much more enjoyable.
“You’re going to be treated like royalty,” said Brent, who has been running the poker room for two years. “It’s all about the customer. We have a program called ‘It’s all about you,’ and that’s what we strive for, to take care of the customers.”
And one way they prove it is with rake-free tournaments … let’s be clear here: All tournaments are rake-free.
“It’s our way of rewarding the players,” Brent said of the rake-free events. “And we have a lot of freeroll tournaments. Right now we’re doing our Tournament of Tournaments in December. You have to be in the top 30 points to play in the tournament (points are accrued by final-table appearances). Our Tournament of Champions is our signature event held in July because we send you to the World Series. … It’s a one-day freeroll and we take our top 90 players in poker hours (over six months). We give everybody 10K chips, plus they can also get a dealer special for 5K chips for $25.”
Wednesday is the room’s busiest night because of the $40 tournament with two rebuys and two add-ons, and that’s when you can find a $5-$5 NL game that runs pretty much all night.
Like single-table tournaments? There are $22 satellites on Saturdays, and if you win your table you qualify for the $200 big-stack event at the end of the month.
But what about promotions?
“We have aces cracked on the first and third Thursday of the month and the second and fourth Mondays,” he said. “The pot starts at $300 for the first one. It brings in a lot of revenue for us. Plus high hands win hats and jackets.”
They also have a player card, but it’s mostly used to keep track of your hours for freerolls and other specials. The top five players with the most hours in the month earn $100 in chips and a comp to one of the casino’s fine restaurants.
“Mr. Lester’s is our best restaurant; it’s the best steakhouse in the area,” Brent said. “If you come here you will really enjoy Mr. Lester’s.”
Since Brent hands out $5 comps at his discretion, you can also hit up Rikrak (Asian and sushi) and the Bocats Lounge (in the main Cypress Bayou Casino), though $5 probably goes a lot further at Fresh, their sandwich shop. And what if you want to eat your sushi or po-boy at one of the room’s nine poker tables? That’s fine, but you’ll have to order it and pick it up yourself. Hey, Shorty’s can’t do everything for you, right?
MANAGER: Deon Brent; STAFF: 30 (25 dealers); TABLES: nine
POPULAR GAMES/LIMITS: $3-$6-$12 limit hold’em and $5-$5 NLHE. A $3-$6-$12 Omaha game gets going three times a week.
OF NOTE: All tournaments are rake-free.
The Who’s Roger Daltrey screams, “Meet the new boss! Same as the old boss!” This sums up the situation at Paragon Casino’s poker room, only with a slight revision. The old boss is in charge again, and he promises change is coming, something that should sit well with the locals.
Table games manager Gaston Bordelon has been with Paragon before Paragon was Paragon, if that makes sense. In April 1994 he joined the company as it prepared to open the casino in June, and he’s been there since.
After a recent failed experiment with a dedicated poker room manager, Bordelon has grabbed the reigns again and is looking to improve the state of the eight-table poker room.
“I’ve been back in charge for about two months,” he said, “And we want to make some changes.”
But he admits the new features may take a little while because he really wants to do right by his players, and he wants to improve business. Sometimes those two aspects don’t dovetail, so he’s being patient. In the meantime here’s what you can expect if you sit at their purple felts:
Their nightly tournaments begin at 7 (Mondays, $20, three optional rebuys; Thursdays, $20, unlimited $15 rebuys and a $50 add-on; Fridays, $60 with $50 rebuys). Also, there’s a one-hour tournament on Tuesday mornings (10:30, $18).
If you play enough in the nightly events and make a few final tables you might qualify for the Player of the Year prizes.
“We take 1 percent of the buy-ins (of the nightly tournaments) and put it toward Player of the Year,” he said. “Top five players earn points from each tournament and whoever has the most points at the end of the year wins the pool. We pay the top three spots.”
From Oct. 1-Nov. 13 the Paragon is bringing back its $20K freeroll event. The first 80 players with 50 hours of live play will qualify to play in the freeroll that pays 11 spots, including $4,500 for first. It’s the second time Paragon is hosting this tournament, and if it’s successful you’ll be sure to see it again. And here’s a helpful hint: If you play Tuesday or Thursday you’ll earn double hours.
Just how do they keep track of those hours? Paragon kicks it old school with a hand-written index card, sort of like the Chesterfield in Rounders.
“You sign in when you get here,” Bordelon said.
Literally. You’ll keep the card while you play, but be sure to give the index card back to the brush before you leave.
One of the changes Bordelon has managed to make without hesitation is the bad-beat jackpot. The Paragon used to have the loosest bad beat in the state with aces full of eights; it was a slogan the room embraced. But the jackpot was getting hit so often there was little reason to have it.
“We couldn’t build a pot,” Bordelon said. “So now we went to quads. If any quads get beat holding a pair in your hand you’ll win the bad-beat.”
A promotion Ante Up found twice in Louisiana (Paragon and Isle) is the “Hand of the Day.” The staff picks a random five-card hand and if you hit it exactly at Paragon you’ll win 10 percent of the bad-beat jackpot. On Wednesdays look for the high-hand promotion that pays $50 every half-hour from noon-3 p.m. and 9-midnight.
If you’re hungry, waitresses will take your food order and pick up your meal so you never have to leave the table. Try the catfish dinner from Roxy’s Diner, and while you’re enjoying that entrée Bordelon says you might just be able to get a massage soon.
“I’m trying to push to get our massage therapists in here on Friday and Saturday nights,” he said. “We have a spa here (on site) so we’re trying to get that going.”
With an eye toward the future, you can be sure the improvements Bordelon will make to an already fine poker room will be player-friendly.
“We know our players better than anyone,” he said. “They come here every day. We know their names, their wives’ names, where they live and where they’re from. It’s more family than it is players, the way we talk to them. We spend more time with them than with our families. These guys have been playing here since Day 1. That’s 16 years.”
MANAGER: Gaston Bordelon; STAFF: 14 (10 dealers); TABLES: 8
POPULAR GAMES/LIMITS: $4-$8 limit; $2-$5 NLHE; $5-$10 NLHE.
OF NOTE: Every other Friday is a $5-$10 half-half game (half NLHE, half Omaha) and the first five players for the game will have rooms at the hotel set aside for them.
MANAGER: Randy Refeld
STAFF: nine (six dealers)
POPULAR GAMES/LIMITS: $3-$6-$12 limit; $2-$5 NLHE
JACKPOT: Bad beat is aces full of 10s, beaten by quads.
OF NOTE: This poker room is not open 24 hours. It will start spreading games at 5 p.m. and will close when the last game breaks up. The casino opens at 8 a.m. and closes at 3 a.m.
Isle Casino Lake Charles
The poker room at the Isle Casino Lake Charles is the largest in the Mid-South … and for the past 16 months it’s been striving to become the best poker room, too.
It all started with the hiring of Matthew Dodd as manager in June 2009. Dodd brought a California cardroom background with him and immediately started making changes for the better.
“The first thing I did when I got here was change all of the tables from 10-handed to nine-handed,” said Dodd, who started in the business by dealing in a tiny Santa Clara (Calif.) cardroom in 1991. “That was a rough patch to get through. But my feeling about it, not just from a business perspective in getting more hands out, but from a player’s perspective, is it’s a more comfortable table. You’re going to get more decisions and see more hands in an hour than you would at a 10-handed table. Plus I tried to explain to them that in any poker book the starting-hand odds are all based on a nine-handed table. Though they argued with me about that.”
He moved the brush podium from the center of the room to the entrance so his staff can greet players as they come in, and he increased the number of tables from 23 to 28. But his biggest contribution has to be the Louisiana State Poker Championships, which he introduced this year in April. It was a modest start, running five events over the course of one week. But the success of the series has inspired Dodd.
“Next year the plan is to move that out to a full three-week series,” he said. “This year was sort of a test run. … I wanted to give the staff an opportunity to see what that was like for a week. See how hectic it can be. … It went very smoothly and we were very happy with it. The overall response was great. We had almost ($250K) in prize money and 129 people for the final event, a $1K buy-in. … It’s looking to run late spring each year, sort of right before the World Series.”
Even more impressive might be the turnout for the PLO championship, which drew 103 players for the $335 event.
“We were excited about that,” said Dodd, who admits PLO is his favorite game. “They were all Omaha players, too. It wasn’t like there were guys taking a shot. They all knew what they were doing.”
And so does the staff at the Isle.
“We don’t have any break-in dealers,” said Dodd, who once was a union butcher with Safeway. “All of our dealers are experienced and we continue to hire that way. With all of the dealers in this industry I never saw a reason to run a dealing school unless you’re opening a new property where there aren’t a lot of dealers around. … I think our staff was pretty good when I got here, but I think we continue to increase the level of customer service and speed and efficiency in dealing a game. I’d rather see a dealer that gets out 15 hands in a half-hour and never make a mistake than get 19 out and there’s a card flipped over and this pot got pushed to the wrong person or the side pot’s wrong.”
So what about amenities? The property has two hotels in case you want to stay there for any of the numerous tournament series the Isle hosts. The poker room is self-contained in that it has a dedicated bar and cashier, restrooms and no smoking. Coming this fall the room will have NFL Sunday Ticket so all of the games will be on the 10 flat-screen TVs (there were six TVs when Ante Up was there, but Dodd assures us there will be at least 10 TVs and maybe 12 by the start of football).
As far as promotions there are quite a few:
• Since football has started they have Monday Night Blitz, which pays $600 throughout the game.
• Exact match involves the staff picking a random hand and posting it on either side of the poker room. If you hit it you’ll win the jackpot, which was about $3K at the writing of this article. It hadn’t hit in three weeks and will run for two months. If it never gets hit the money will go back into the promotional fund and get paid out with another special.
• There’s always something to be won, as the minor jackpots run 24/7 (quads: $25; straight flush: $50, royal: $125). The bad beat is quad fives and recently was hit twice within a week’s span.
• High hand of the hour, a.k.a. Mid-Week Win a Spin, starts this month. High hand each hour gets a chance to spin the wheel to win between $25-$100 or other prizes.
Full table service isn’t an option for eating, but you can bring the food in from the casino restaurants. There’s a vending machine with snacks and aspirin and on any weekday if you’re playing in a live game you can get free hot dog, chips and soda. The waitress cooks them up and brings them right to you at the table.
“We offer a lot more tournaments; we offer promotions the players want,” he said. “In various spots I see promotions at certain times of the day and wonder, ‘Who is going to take advantage of that?’ We try to hear what the players are saying. If they don’t like them we don’t run them again. There’s a fine line between doing what the players say and doing what the players want. I can’t let the players run the poker room, but I have to understand what their button is in terms of what gets them in the door.”
If you’re looking for a lot of action you can find about 25-26 tables running of Friday and Saturday nights at the height of the season. And you’ll always find a clean game with no profanity.
“We keep a very strong hold in here on language,” he said. “The average person doesn’t come in here to hear a bunch of foul language. So we put a quick stop to foul language. The dealer warns and then the floor warns. We’ve put many people out for 24 hours just to say ‘You’re having trouble controlling your mouth right now so we’ll see you tomorrow.’ It’s been a very effective tool because lately we haven’t had to put anyone out.”
Dodd admits he met some resistance when he arrived, but things are running much more smoothly these days, and the players are happier for it.
“I bring a different perspective than what has been seen in the region. Some of that has been met with excitement and some has been met with disgust. I try to bring what I saw and learned when I was out in some of the bigger California casinos (Hollywood Park and Commerce) and try to emulate that here.”
LOCATION: Lake Charles
WEBSITE: lake-charles.isleofcapricasino s.com
MANAGER: Matthew Dodd; STAFF: 80 (65 dealers); TABLES: 28
POPULAR GAMES/LIMITS: $4-$8 limit and $2-$5 no-limit, but $2-$5 and $5-$10 PLO will spread on weekends.
OF NOTE: The $2-$5 NLHE game has a $200-$500 buy-in, but if there’s a stack bigger than $1K you can sit with half that amount (e.g. If someone has $3K on the table, you can buy-in for $1,500). “In an established game I always want a guy to be able to sit down and be competitive,” Dodd said.
The cold neon signs that hang over the entrances of the Coushatta poker room belie the hearty décor and warm staff residing inside. The rich autumn colors that paint this room’s presence proudly come from the seal of the Coushatta Tribe. They’re also proud of their Seven Clans Poker Cup, as evidenced by the framed photos of famous pros who attended the series in the past and signed a wall-hung felt to commemorate the occasion.
The most recent Seven Clans ended in September, but the next one should be in late winter or early spring, and will continue to be a semi-annual event.
“Originally we started it in just the poker room, but it got so big that it took two days to run because they didn’t have enough tables,” manager Randall Litteral said. “Eventually we purchased portable folding poker tables and we have an entertainment room that can hold up to about 40 tables. The first time we held it in there we had more than 430 players. It’s a three-day event now and everyone starts on the first day. It’s player-friendly.”
Tournament coordinator Tom Helo, who runs the room with Litteral, says the event gets a lot of compliments.
“We’ve had some pros play in it and they’ve said it was one of the best structures they’ve ever seen,” said Helo, who’s been with the poker room since it opened 15 years ago. “(Hall-of-Famer) Barbara Enright played once and was saddened she couldn’t make it back.”
The room has a bad beat and has used high hands and aces cracked in the past. Right now they’re running what’s called Big Bonus Hands.
“Each week money is put into each hand from quads to a royal,” said Litteral, who’s been in charge of the room for two years. “The jackpots progress weekly and roll over if they don’t get hit. (At the time of the article the royal was worth $1K and usually $200 gets added to each hand per week). It gives people who play here regularly a chance to get the money back more often.”
According to Helo, one of the more popular amenities is the freeroll tournament schedule. Look for one coming up soon that will reward the most hours played, and those hours are accrued on the Coushatta Advantage players card.
“The players card gets them about $1.20 per hour,” Litteral said, “with hidden cash rewards given through a random generator.”
Every minute you play you earn an entry into the random generator. It accumulates and can be used for any convenience on the property (gift shop, restaurants, gas station, etc.)
The property also has given out motorcycles, trucks and even a boat.
You can eat in the poker room, but if the waitresses are too busy you’ll have to get the food. But all of this pales in comparison to how the staff treats you, says Litteral.
“We’re real friendly and try to be guest-oriented. We try to give you the Southern treatment. You’d have to be from The South to understand I guess, but we try to make you feel at home and make you feel comfortable and make you feel welcome. That’s a lot of what I hear from our guests is that’s the reason they come here. We go all out for all our guests. We try to do whatever is possible within our means to help them.”
MANAGER: Randall Litteral; STAFF: 34; TABLES: 22
POPULAR GAMES/LIMITS: $4-$8 limit, $2-$5 NLHE
OF NOTE: The Coushatta Advantage players card allows you to use your points toward any amenity on property, including the gift shop, food and even gas.
Boomtown New Orleans
Competition is good; it keeps you on your toes. And when the competition is a Harrah’s property just a few miles across town, you practically need to be a prima ballerina.
The best way for Boomtown New Orleans to compete is to give its patrons plenty of promotions and free food. Robert Horvath is following that axiom to the letter in his first few weeks as Boomtown’s latest poker room manager.
“Our room has free hot dogs and chips, and on tournament days we have mini po-boys,” said Horvath, who’s been in the casino business since 1980 when he worked in Atlantic City. “And if you play three hours before any tournament you will receive an extra 1,000 in chips.”
On the gulf side of the massive levees that protect the city, Boomtown is a locals joint that really does have a ton of promotions for its seven-table poker room on the third floor:
• Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday the first 10 people who play for an hour get $30 plus a $10 deli comp.
• High hands (Monday, noon-10; Wednesday noon-6) win $50.
• A Tuesday loyalty tournament ($10 add-on, 11 a.m.)
• Splash the Pot (Tuesday, 2-10 p.m.; Thursday noon-6) wins $50.
• Mini bad-beat jackpot (aces full of 10s) wins 10 percent of full bad-beat jackpot.
• The Friday and Saturday Hot Seat (noon-6) pays $50.
• Aces Cracked (Sunday, 3-11 p.m.) wins $50.
• Sunday and Monday Football Mania drawings pay $100.
• Player with the most hours over a four-month period gets a $50 comp to any food outlet.
But Horvath, named manager on Aug. 1, says Boomtown is more than just promotions.
“We have a friendly staff,” said Horvath, who went to Tulane for casino management. “We offer no timed rake on no-limit games, comps for food and we have a family atmosphere. Our players can expect great customer service, different promotions every day and weekly tournaments.”
So if you’re looking for a lot of ways to win money at the table, other than just beating your opponent, and you’re hungry and in the Nawlins area, look up Boomtown.
MANAGER: Robert Horvath; STAFF: 18; TABLES: 7
POPULAR GAMES/LIMITS: $3-$6 limit and $4-$8 half-and-half (hold’em-Omaha)
OF NOTE: Horvath says Boomtown spreads the best half-and-half game in the city.
Belle of Baton Rouge
The Belle of Baton Rouge is a fun place to play poker. It doesn’t have a poker room as much as it has a poker area, but that’s true for most gambling ships, and it doesn’t stop the staff and players from having a great time.
On the third floor among rows and rows of slots, the six poker tables that make up the poker area were teeming with action on the Wednesday night Ante Up visited. Perhaps it was the morning tournament that got the players all abuzz ($50, 10 a.m., 1K chips, 15-minute blinds — this tournament is held on Sundays, too). Or maybe it was the $2-$5 no-limit hold’em game that had the same 10 players for hours and hours as thousands of dollars in chips were stacked in front of most of them. Whatever it was, everyone was having a blast.
Certainly having automatic shufflers in the tables contributes to the efficient games being spread, which in turn keeps the patrons satisfied. The dealers were very friendly, more than competent, and the floors were very attentive, watching for empty seats with an eagle’s eye, putting new players in as soon as possible and selling chips right from other stacks so you wouldn’t miss a hand.
One oddity was the cashier situation. You could buy chips from a cashier’s cart, but when you cashed out the cashier colored you up and you had to take the bigger chips downstairs to the casino cashier.
“We’re going to look into that,” table games manager Marty Brown said. “It’s not player-friendly and we’re going to work on that.”
Brown has been with BOBR for 16 years and says his staff is what makes the poker room click.
“Everything I’ve learned about poker is from the people here,” he said. “And my casino shift managers have done the same thing. We have some really strong dual-rates and floor supervisors with a very strong poker background.”
Promotions include the bad-beat jackpot (any quads), which was at $32K when we visited, and on Mondays they have Aces Cracked (9 a.m.-3 p.m., $100).
Brown said they have a vending machine if you want to snack at the table, but tableside dining isn’t allowed at this time.
“We have muffalettas from our deli that are very delicious, but they are very messy, so we don’t allow it at the table,” he said.
As for other amenities, the BOBR, which floats adjacent to the U.S.S. Kidd, has a fine hotel next door (we stayed on the 10th floor and enjoyed the complimentary Club Lounge finger foods and breakfast). The casino’s signature restaurant, Shucks On the Levee, is so good that even poker room managers from other local casinos suggested we eat there.
So what can you expect if you play here?
“This is a local poker room,” said Brown, who came in to chat with us on his first day of vacation. “We mostly have locals. I would say 90 percent of our players are from the Baton Rouge area. What you can expect is for us to be really friendly. If you’ve played here a couple of times we’re going to call you by your first name, pat you on your back, ask you how you’re doing. … I’m on a first-name basis with over half the people in the room. I’m in the room quite a bit myself even though I’m the director. I have a personal relationship with a lot of those people, and you’re going to get that with the employees as well. You’re going to have a good time playing poker here and our people are going to have a good time with you.”
LOCATION: Baton Rouge
MANAGER: Marty Brown
STAFF: 50 (cross-trained in table games)
POPULAR GAMES/LIMITS: $4-$8 limit and $2-$5 NLHE. On Sundays look for the $4-$4-$8-$12 half hold’em-half Omaha game).
OF NOTE: You can smoke just past the partitions of the room (if that’s your bag) and watch the action so you can scoot back in and play your hand.
Harrah’s New Orleans
If you were asked to dream up the perfect scenario for a poker room you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a better situation than Harrah’s New Orleans. For starters it’s in New Orleans, mere steps from Bourbon Street, so drunken tourists with money to lose are as common as crawfish in a French Quarter meal.
It’s the only land-based Louisiana casino that isn’t owned by an Indian tribe, so it isn’t constrained by arcane rules and a three-storied ship’s construction. Finally, it’s Harrah’s, so the World Series of Poker branding makes it the most recognizable cardroom in the Bayou. When people think of poker they think of the World Series, and when they think of the WSOP in The South, they immediately think of Harrah’s New Orleans. Is it any wonder the room is always packed?
“We have a very diverse group of people, both the local market and the convention market that comes in here,” poker room manager Larry Barrett said. “From a local perspective they love the challenge of facing someone they’ve never met before. … So that keeps it a fresh, new game for them. I think every poker room, like a lot of sports, requires a hub. And a hub is that player base that’s gonna come here, fresh and new. And that’s what keeps our locals coming back. … We’re very lucky that we have a tourist trade that supports this room.”
Indeed, and when your poker room is packed with tourists and locals, there’s really no need to have a lot of promotions.
“We have Aces Cracked pretty much every day,” he said. And if you want to get that $100 for getting your rockets beaten you better have a Total Rewards card. You won’t get any comps with it, but you can’t win jackpots without it either. And you’ll need a valid ID.
When your 20-table room is nearly packed with cash-game players it’s hard to justify running tournaments, too, which is why Barrett only has one a week, a $120 event on Wednesday mornings at 11.
“We get about 70-80 people for that,” he said, “but when the busy season returns we’ll get close to the 120-player cap.”
You’ll get 3,500 chips (a $10 optional add-on for 1,500 more) and 30-minute blinds. Of course you can’t forget its circuit events and WSOP satellites. The WSOP circuit has changed this year, utilizing consistent formats and payouts at every property that hosts a WSOPC series. There will be 11 standard events at each host site (though rooms are encouraged to squeeze in more events, just as long as the core events remain the same price, etc.) Main events start at noon, and at Harrah’s New Orleans there are about 65 tables at Barrett’s disposal, with 45 in the casino’s theatre.
But back to the room itself, which was recently downsized and will be getting some much-needed changes.
“We’ll be moving the registration area to the other side of the room,” Barrett said of the upcoming reconfiguration. “We’ll be adding slots in the poker room to close off the room from the casino and keep the smoke out.”
No smoke is always best, especially if you’re eating at the table, which is allowed on the little side tables. “But we ask that they don’t put food or drink on the tables,” Barrett said. “The worst thing you can do is come back to the table and see mustard on the felt from a Lucky Dog (the hot dog stand just outside the poker room).” And if there’s enough staff on duty they’ll get your food for you.
LOCATION: New Orleans
MANAGER: Larry Barrett; STAFF: 72 dealers; TABLES: 20
POPULAR GAMES/LIMITS: $1-$2 and $2-$5 NLHE, $4-$8 limit (plus a $4-$8 half-and-half hold’em and Omaha game).
OF NOTE: Harrah’s was the only Louisiana room that said $1-$2 NLHE was its most popular cash game, likely because of the tourist market.