Florida’s poker potential yet to be realized

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As July 1 drew near, Florida poker players were giddy. That was the day “true poker” was coming to the Sunshine State, when the handcuffs were taken off the state’s 31 poker rooms, allowing them to deal games without bet and buy-in limits and for more than 12 hours a day.

I was giddy, too. Finally, real poker just 10 minutes from my house. But as giddy as I was, I tried to choose my words carefully when I ran into players in rooms or did media interviews. While the changes were indeed fantastic, I told folks that really all it meant was that Florida now had the potential to rival other poker jurisdictions. Potential. The reality was up to the state’s poker room managers and its players.

I also cautioned about making any brash comparisons. No doubt, the first weekend — especially since it fell on a holiday — was going to be wild and wacky. Heck, even the entire first month was likely to be strong as the new-car smell of real poker continued to waft through the state. But invariably, the action was expected to taper off in August and successive months, as the excitement wore off, as players began to go bust, as football season started and our kids went back to school and we returned to our normal lives.
But as we bear down on November, it’s time to take a look at how Florida poker has changed in just a few short months.

First, a look at the hardcore numbers:

The state’s 24 parimutuel poker rooms took in just shy of $1.9 million more in July 2010 than in July 2009, when you take away the revenue from Pensacola Greyhound Park and Calder Casino, which did not have poker rooms in July 2009. (The state’s seven Indian casinos don’t report their revenues). That’s an increase of nearly 22 percent.
Again, that’s largely a fanciful number (as is the 33.4 percent increase from June 2010 to July 2010), since the state’s poker players flooded rooms in July to check out the new action.

More telling perhaps are year-over-year comparisons in August and September. Those increases are 15 percent and 14.9 percent, respectively, (again not counting the revenue from the two rooms that weren’t open in 2009). Those numbers show some leveling off, so we might be able to start having some confidence in the assumption that longer operating hours and uncapped limits have resulted in 15 percent more revenue.

And to further bolster that still-early assumption, the dropoff in revenue from August 2009 to September 2009 was 9.2 percent. This year, the same two months saw a dropoff of 9.5 percent. That’s virtually the same.

Looking deeper into the raw numbers, we can see some truth to some long-standing assumptions.

First, the rich get richer. Poker is an action game. Players will gravitate to where the games are the juiciest and where the variety is widest. Before July 1, that division was smaller, since rooms were limited in what they could offer. But now, the gap is widening. It will be increasingly difficult for smaller rooms to compete with the big boys if they can’t attract enough players. The ones who flourish will be the ones who embrace a niche in the wide-open marketplace. As proof, eight parimutuel rooms are experiencing revenue boosts of 19 percent or more, while nine rooms are seeing numbers that essentially are flat or actually down.

And it’s not only the smaller rooms who can benefit from niche service. Palm Beach Kennel Club’s high-limit host Willie Meila cobbled together eight well-heeled players (including Celine Dion’s husband Rene Angelil) for a $5,100 buy-in single-table tournament. John F. Riordan won the hours-long event and $20,000, and the room is trying to repeat the event monthly.

Second, generally speaking, the clientele at a thoroughbred track is wealthier than that of the clientele at a greyhound or jai-alai facility, and as such, one can theorize those players have more money to put on an uncapped table than us working stiffs. Before July 1, it was hard to see evidence of a direct effect from that since everyone was limited to $100 at a time. But now, when players can buy-in for whatever they want, it shouldn’t be a drastic surprise to see that Tampa Bay Downs sustains a nose-bleed no-limit game on a regular basis. And Gulfstream Park was one of only two parimutuels in the state (neighboring Mardi Gras Casino was the other) to see an increase from July 2010 to August 2010, where the overall state numbers plunged 8.6 peercent. And both rooms are in hyper-competitive markets.

“It’s really been unprecedented growth,” Gulfstream Park general manager Steve Calabro said. “And what’s incredible is that we have fewer tables than all of our competitors.”
Third, the death of limit poker sadly wasn’t exaggerated. Forced to play $100 buy-in no-limit poker vs. $2-$4 limit bingo, most players chose the former in the three years between law changes. While players like yours truly had hoped to see a resurgence of limit after July 1, it hasn’t come to pass. Sure, there are sporadic games, especially in the big rooms, but by and large, Florida is a no-limit state.

And finally, while the invasion of professional players that many predicted hasn’t happened, quite a few pros, including Phil Ivey, have stopped in the Sunshine State to check out the action. Establishing a strong base to support the highest-limit players will take time. Those players will need to know the games and limits they enjoy playing in Nevada and California will be here consistently. Something that should help is the introduction of big-money tournaments that are televised across the country.

Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood and Orange Park Kennel Club near Jacksonville have $5,000 buy-in events on the schedule, and the Hard Rock also will host the state’s first World Poker Tour event in April. A World Series of Poker circuit event is rumored to be on its way. If the requisite cash games that come with those big events materialize, the players will follow.

Potential.

That’s still the key word here in Florida. Give the state some time to grow the market, and to let the rest of the world know it’s here. The big time is just around the corner.

— Email Scott at scott@anteupmagazine.com.