Paying attention to the jackpot rake

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My phone rang, and I saw it was Scott Poole calling.
The director of poker operations at Gulfstream Park sounded incredulous.

“Have you heard that some rooms have gone to a $2 jackpot rake?” he said in that call many months ago.

I told him I had, and that several rooms around the state had made the leap. We shared our views on it, and commiserated over what the effects might be.

So imagine the chuckle I had when I stopped by his office on a quick trip to South Florida in late April and he told me, “Scott, you’re going to laugh, but we’re going to a $2 jackpot rake on May 1.”

Laugh I did, but I also had empathy for Poole and the handful of other Florida poker room managers who have told me they begrudgingly doubled their jackpot rake in the past year or so to keep up with the Joneses. Without the promotional money that the extra dollar provides, rooms are hard-pressed to compete in what one manager appropriately described as the “renting” of players. Rooms try to outdo themselves with ever-better promotions, only to run out of money and watch those players move on to another room until the war chest is built up again so they can lure those same players back.

“I guess I’m old school and need to adapt, but it’s my feeling that a true poker player would want as much money as possible to stay in the pot,” Poole said. “In an aggressive market, sometimes your competitor will force you to do things that you normally wouldn’t do.

In South Florida, four of the five poker rooms in our immediate area have $2 jackpot rakes and therefore could offer some really attractive promotions. The market has spoken, and it seems this is what our player is asking for.”

Poole’s argument against the $2 rake is the same one I’ve argued in this column before. If you believe poker is a game of skill (and you should), then why would you want $1 (and now $2) of every pot that you’ve won by skill to be awarded to someone else based purely on luck?

I remain opposed to bad-beat jackpots, which lock up the promotional money for long periods of time and reward almost all of it to just two people (possibly even tourists) with little hope that much of it will return to the poker economy from where it was vacuumed. But I have made my peace with easier-to-hit high-hand promotions. While those jackpot dollars add up for a skilled player, the promotions they pay for without a doubt increase business. Poole agrees.

“I don’t believe there are as many ‘chasers’ of these high-hand promotions as there are large bad-beat jackpots, but the high-hand promotions definitely move the needle,” he said.

And that increased business, generally speaking, is composed of players who are there to, as Poole says, “chase” the jackpot. Thus, they aren’t likely to be strong players. So while skilled players watch a dollar (or two) drop down the Slot O’ Luck each hand, they need to recognize the increased pool of softer players the promotions provide may in the end be profitable for them. That’s hard to quantify, but we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t try.

While Poole and other managers have come to grips with the need for the jackpot rake, the real concern is how high jackpot-rake inflation will go. Players obviously weren’t happy with promotions that came from a $1 rake, which is what promoted managers to go to $2. What happens when players are no longer satisfied with the promotions that are made possible with a $2 rake?

“I hope we are not heading away from traditional poker, and moving toward a ‘draw some cards and play the lottery mentality,’ ” Poole said. “I would be extremely surprised if our players were ever receptive to a $3 jackpot rake. However, we are talking Florida poker, so let’s wait and see.”

Florida hits the big time

Florida is not yet one year removed from having stifling restrictions on buy-in and bet limits removed, but we’re seeing robust tournament numbers for marquee events. Fresh off visiting the record-setting World Series of Poker Circuit event at Palm Beach Kennel Club, I flew to South Florida to check out the events that followed.

I found a packed house at Isle Pompano for its annual Battles at the Beach events, including some elusive limit cash games that have yet to take hold in most of Florida’s rooms. And Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood had impressive fields, too, for Florida’s first World Poker Tour event. The casino moved much of the later action to the nearby Hard Rock Live concert venue, which provided a great experience for spectators.

One other nice touch: All tournament structures were printed in a thick booklet that included a copy of the TDA rules that govern most major tournament these days. That’s a great item that will likely find a home in my backpack for future events.

— Scott Long is co-publisher of Ante Up. Email him at scott@anteupmagazine.com.