Big poker success in the Big Easy

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It’s late in the afternoon on the day after Christmas and the famed French Quarter is as lifeless as a zombie from Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo. The holiday is over and everyone has gone home. Even the locals are tuckered out. In the little suburb of Harvey, however, there’s a party going on at the Boomtown Casino poker room. The tables are filled and there’s a waiting list.

“We’re very busy tonight,” poker room manager Robert Horvath said. “And last night, Christmas evening, the place was packed.”

It’s a welcomed change for a poker room that was on life-support just a few short months ago. Boomtown is a relatively young face in the poker community and has experienced a fair amount of growing pains. In Shreveport the experiment failed miserably. A decision to utilize electronic poker tables to reduce the overhead of paid staff (no dealers) backfired and players balked. Many of them complained there just wasn’t enough personal attention. The lesson, albeit a hard one, was an eye-opener.

When Horvath took the reins of the New Orleans room in August he made customer service a priority and immediately began to make the room more player-friendly. He talked to the players and got to know his regulars on a first-name basis. This gave him the opportunity to introduce new games and amenities the players wanted. The response has been overwhelming. Within a month he doubled the drop. As of this writing he has almost tripled it, an unbelievable feat given the hurdles that stood in his way. The mountain was huge and Horvath, by his admission, was less than enthusiastic in the beginning.

“I thought I was being demoted,” he said with a laugh. “When my supervisor talked to me about taking the room I didn’t know how it would work out.”

One can easily understand Horvath’s concerns. The room occupies an area that, within the past six years, has suffered two hurricanes and a devastating oil spill. These disasters have left the local economy in a shambles. If that weren’t bad enough, Horvath and Boomtown also must contend for market share with the owners of the most recognized brand in poker, Harrah’s. While the Harrah’s poker room is just steps from the tourist-packed Vieux Carre, Boomtown is situated in the smaller suburb of Harvey about 10 miles away.

Horvath, however, is not a man to back down from a fight and he’s not easily intimidated. The Tulane grad projects an air of confidence that was forged in the crucible of Atlantic City during its formative years.

“It was tough there,” he said. “But I had a good mentor who was from the old school.”
Old School. Those words sum up Horvath’s approach to poker room management. His style is a throwback to when poker players were the gods of the casino. Most casinos now gear their operations toward slot players and these players usually benefit most from a casino-rewards program. Horvath knew he was going to have to change that if the room was going to succeed. One of the first things he did was install a hot dog machine in the poker room where players can help themselves to a snack at no cost. That may seem like a small gesture but players loved it, and the benefit for Horvath was two-fold.

“The players appreciated it,” he said. “That’s the main thing. Sometimes it’s not what you do, just that you do something. The other side of it was keeping players in the room. Let’s say you have a husband and wife playing at the same table and they get a little hungry and decide to go eat. If you have six or seven players at that table and two leave, guess what? You just broke the table. It helps to keep them in the room.”

Another thing that gained immediate popularity was Horvath’s willingness to spread a variety of games. One of the most popular has been a $4-$8 limit half-and-half. The lower-limit players love this chance to try their skills at Omaha without having to risk their bankroll in a pot-limit game. If you decide to give it a try expect a waiting list. The game is popular.

The Boomtown poker room also offers a variety of promotions. They have the standard bad-beat jackpot and offer a loyalty-based tournament each week on Tuesday. A Monday Night Football promo recently wrapped up with great success, and you can be sure more promotions are on the way. In a gesture of support for the work Horvath has done, Boomtown has loosened up the purse strings and gotten behind the effort with a substantial budget specifically dedicated to poker room promotions.

Horvath is quick to credit his staff for the room’s success.

“I have great people and a great supervisor. My dealers know I expect them to give their best and they do that every day.”

When I spoke to members of Horvath’s team their enthusiasm was infectious, and justifiably so. More traffic in the room means more tokes for the dealers. Supervisor/dealer Robyn Zanco joined Horvath’s team in October and was immediately impressed.

“You can see there is definite progress,” Zanco said. “I think Robert is doing very well in managing the room by introducing different promotions and I am excited to be part of the team.”

In an area that has seen gaming revenues drop dramatically — some casinos are down almost 60 percent since the BP oil spill — the Boomtown success story is a positive development for poker players in the Crescent City. Options are never a bad thing, and Horvath and his team are working hard to give locals and visitors plenty of them.

— Scotty “The Spokesman” Rushing is a poker professional and sports journalist. When he isn’t playing or writing about poker he’s usually reading about it. Email him at scottyrushing@gmail.com.