Road Trip: Atlantic City Poker Rooms

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By Christopher Cosenza

The demise of Atlantic City poker was greatly exaggerated, and extremely premature. We ventured to America’s Funland to see just how things are going, and believe us, things are thriving in AC.

Caesars Entertainment Properties

How do you combat the competition when it makes up two of the largest, busiest poker rooms in the world? One word: synergies.
With the massive poker rooms of Borgata and the Taj flanking the Atlantic City gaming district, the task of the four Caesars Entertainment poker rooms is not an easy one. But they may have found the right formula: Total AC Poker. With moderately sized poker rooms in Bally’s, Caesars, Harrah’s and Showboat, the poker directors from each property realized a team effort would be their best shot at capturing their collective share of the market.

“We all got together and said we’re four small rooms; we can’t really put big numbers out there for promotions individually,” Harrah’s AC manager John Arthur said. “But if we get together, we can do certain things as a group.”

The partnership began modestly with the Total Bad Beat, in which all four properties contributed to one bad-beat jackpot, generating the types of numbers on par with the Borgata and Taj. And unlike elsewhere, if you’re playing in a hold’em cash game at any of the four CE properties when the bad beat hits, you get a share.

This program was so successful the Total AC Poker program was a natural next step. So what is it? It’s a combined effort to offer something for every type of poker player, from a wider variety of buy-ins and games spread to large freerolls and synchronized tournament schedules to avoid competing with each other.

“We can do a $50,000 freeroll,” Arthur said, “which is tough for a small room to do, but between the four of us you can put a $50K out there. And you can play at any four properties and combine your hours (to qualify). So we started with the freeroll, then we put the Tournament of Champions together. The bottom line is, we said we’re four rooms, but if we combine certain things we can compete, put the Total Rewards out there, have some decent promotions and we can each have our own identity as best we can.”

The collective properties take $1 from each tournament entry, which goes toward funding monthly TOC freerolls for tournament winners. July qualifiers (combined 50 hours at AC Total Rewards rooms) will play at 10 a.m. on Aug. 9 at the Showboat. August qualifiers will play at 2 p.m. on Sept. 13 at Harrah’s.

But enough about the joint effort, what about each room individually?

HARRAH’S: Arthur, who was named manager in 2005, opened the Harrah’s poker room in 1993. He’s seen the room go through two expansions before reaching the current 40-table configuration and says $1-$2 no-limit hold’em is the mainstay, though $2-$5 NLHE and $2-$4 limit are spread liberally. But he’s really proud of getting the pink-chip game resurrected, a $7.50-$15 stud/8-Omaha/8 game that uses pink $2.50 chips.

The room, on the marina side of town, sports the amenities you’ve come to expect in a modern facility with the Bravo tracking system (all CE properties were expected to have Bravo up and running before summer’s end), automatic shufflers, comped beverages and tableside dining. But Arthur said it’s the Total Rewards card that makes the CE rooms special.
“Total Rewards is huge,” he said. “There are other rooms in town that have poker and (player) cards, and we have relatively the same offerings as far as comps, but the transportability the Total Rewards offers between the four properties … now you have 27-30 restaurants you can go to in the city, just at the four properties. But then you expand that to Vegas and all the other properties, so now the Total Rewards is really the lynch pin of what makes us a little bit different. I’ve got guys who play all year long, save up their points and the take trips to Vegas as a group, all on Total Rewards.”
The other perk that has become synonymous with CE properties is the World Series of Poker, and Harrah’s reaps these benefits in the form of a WSOP Circuit stop every December.

“December for us is huge,” he said. “We take the risk in December; it’s cold, it’s the Northeast, but the flip side of that is I have a lot of hotel rooms and we can do poker offers that are better. Usually on a Saturday night you’re not going to get a good room rate for a poker tournament, but December is slow so we can have poker-room rates for regular play.”
Satellites for their WSOPC events, which are hosted in the 83-table upstairs ballroom, usually start a couple of months out. (See our Where to Play pages for daily tournament buy-ins and times). And with all of these grand plans Arthur still hasn’t lost sight of the player in his room.

“We’re not big enough where it’s just a list,” Arthur said. “We have a lot of regulars, so they’re going to get personalized service. … It’s just not a list of names and initials on a board and we just point to a general area and someone calls you over. We try to make it personal.”

BALLY’S: At 26 tables Bally’s is a nice-sized locals room. And in keeping with the Total AC plan, it has some offerings not found on other CE properties, such as a $1-$1 NLHE cash game with a $40-$100 buy-in.

“We don’t offer a $1-$2,” manager Rick Meyer said. “We offer a $1-$3 where the buy-in is $100-$300. So to capture some of the play that wanted to play $1-$2, we have the $1-$1. It seems to be very popular. It’s $2 to call, however.”
The room also spreads a $2-$4-$6 limit game, which is a $2-$4 game with a $6 river bet. And the occasional $2-$5 NLHE game gets going on the weekends. But the promotions are where Bally’s stands out the most.

“We have the Winners Wheel, which is used on Mondays and Tuesdays,” said Meyer, who has been with Bally’s since 1981, though he was named poker room manager about a year ago. “If you get quads or better you spin the wheel and you can get Total Rewards credits or prizes.”

On Friday and Saturday if you’re aces get cracked you can spin the wheel, too.

Eliminated from a knockout tournament? Drop your registration receipt in the raffle drum and when the event gets down to the end they draw seven names and those players get to compete for a portion of the prize pool.

“It seems to have captured some of the play that was walking out of the room,” Meyer said. “It’s something that separates us. We do a lot of unique things in Bally’s. We have niche players. I’ve probably been looking at the same faces for a decade. It’s a locals-only place.”

CAESARS PALACE: If you’re looking for a lot of NLHE choices at a CE property you’ve found it here. Caesars spreads almost exclusively NLHE ($1-$2, $2-$5 and $5-$10 on the occasional weekend), though limit games do break out.
There are 32 tables (about 15 with shufflers), including eight huge tables that seat 11 players in the lower tournament area, and tons of flatscreen TVs circle the room. (See our Where to Play pages for tournament buy-ins and times).

As far as specials, at press time there was a $100 royal-flush giveaway and double-comp dollars on select days. And of course the Total Bad Beat and Total AC Poker.

If you’re planning a trip, the World Series of Poker Circuit comes to town in March. You’ll be sure to find plenty of action and affordable tournament buy-ins.

SHOWBOAT: Just steps from the famed AC boardwalk, the Showboat is the smallest of the CE poker rooms at 24 tables, though it can accommodate more in the ballroom for special events, such as the upcoming TOC freeroll in August.

Games spread include the usual fare, $1-$2 and $2-$5 NLHE, plus $2-$4 limit and smallish tournaments. Automatic shufflers and the Bravo system speed up the game, while quality dealers and a friendly staff make that time enjoyable. (See our Where to Play pages for tournament buy-ins and times).

Sources tell us $1-$10 and $5-$25 spread-limit games are making an appearance here, giving Showboat its unique identity among four CE properties and the Total AC Poker experience.

Rumors of the Atlantic City poker demise were greatly exaggerated. Yes, Delaware and Pennsylvania recently opened poker rooms in the area, and Connecticut continues to do its best to draw players to the north. But what we found when we visited AC this summer were bustling poker rooms driven by innovative management and a community that sets tournament attendance records and embraces its storied poker history.

Borgata

In the case of the Borgata poker room, bigger is indeed better. With 85 tables the Borgata is not only the biggest room in Atlantic City, it’s one of the largest poker rooms in the world. Its high-limit area (18 tables) is larger than most casinos’ entire poker room.

You can find no-limit hold’em from $1-$2 all the way to $100-$200 on a regular basis, plus limit runs from $2-4 to $80-$160. On a recent Saturday the room spread $20-$40 H.O.S.E., $50-$100 H.O.S.E., $200-$400 Omaha/8-stud/8 and $600-$1,200 stud.

“We’re just glad the size of our room and the size of our high-limit room let’s us offer all of these different game types,” director of poker operations Stan Strickland said.

And this theme spreads to its tournament offerings. The Borgata has a tournament series every month, though it has become famous for its signature seasonal series. The Winter Poker Open is in January, followed by Spring (April), Summer (June) and Fall (September). The September event is partnered with the World Poker Tour, though the main event buy-in is the one time when the Borgata chose to stray from its bigger-is-better mentality. Most WPT stops have a $5K, $10K or even $25K buy-in to its championship event, but the Borgata has chosen to make its main event $3,500, which has been wildly successful to the point of record fields.

“We knew what we we’re doing; we talked about it at length,” poker room marketing director Raymond Stefanelli said. “There are some rooms out there that think you have to have a $10K or $25K buy-in and that works for them. We chose to go with $3,500 and it’s a model that we like. It doesn’t mean that we won’t switch it up in the future.”

But why would they? Especially since the prize pool is still in the millions, something the WPT cherishes.

“A couple of years ago if you didn’t have the $10K you just didn’t play,” said Stickland, who is the only manager the Borgata has known since its 2003 opening. “And if you didn’t win a satellite you didn’t play as well. What we did was we gave the masses the ability to play. In doing so, now we’re over a thousand participants, giving so many more people the opportunity to come play in a WPT event and a chance to play on TV, which was unheard of a couple of years ago. So we really broadened our market.”

The Borgata has 90 more tables in the event center to help with the larger fields. Other amenities include the Bravo system, automatic shufflers, scores of TVs, dedicated restrooms and a poker host to help you with spending comps on poker-room rates and tableside dining.

There’s a bad-beat jackpot that lately has been getting hit on average every 11 days or so. Quad 10s is the main bad-beat qualifier while losing with smaller quads gets you 25 percent of the main. A new tournament leaderboard awards the top-three players with prizes, including a $3,500 buy-in to the WPT main event for first.

Plus there are daily tournaments, including every Wednesday a $30K guarantee for a $100 buy-in. (See our Where to Play pages for more tournament buy-ins and times).

In the back right corner of the poker room plans are under way to construct a two-table ultra high-limit room (a la Bobby’s Room at the Bellagio) by the fall, plus fresh carpet and more huge plasma TVs.

“Just being in the Borgata is a first-class operation,” Strickland said. “Everything about the Borgata will help us in the poker room, and vice versa. Being such a large room we have the ability to hold a massive tournament. Yesterday we had 829 participants in the poker room (for a tournament) and still had live cash games going. Not every poker room has that capability.”

Trump Taj Mahal

This is one of the times when having an identity crisis doesn’t hurt you. Complete this sentence: The Taj Mahal poker room is …

A. the stud capital of the Northeast.
B. the birth of big-time AC poker.
C. famous for being in Rounders.
D. host of the U.S. Poker Championship.
E. All of the above.

The answer, of course, is E. At one time the Taj action overflowed beyond capacity, but competition and a settling of ravenous poker junkies calmed things down a bit. The room boasts 68 tables, second largest in the area and down from a peak of 72. Gerald Hicks, the room’s host, said having fewer tables means relaxed players.

“Now we can get in and out of the tables and accommodate guests,” he said. “Everybody is comfortable whereas before it was a little tight.”

Not every room has a poker host to meet and greet you, to get to know your name. The phone never stopped ringing at the Taj, and just about everyone on the other end was looking for Hicks, because he’s the man who can get things done for you. Comps, rooms, answers, he’s the one players trust.

As for games, no-limit hold’em is preferred, but there’s stud aplenty and can be found at all levels in this room on the Boardwalk and steps from valet parking.

“We really try to get the stud action,” Hicks said. “We do promotions to keep these guys here and accommodate them well.”

Speaking of promos, during our visit there was a $500 hourly high-hand drawing giveaway that had the room buzzing. You had to be a high-hand winner from the previous month and you had to be present to win. If not, then the prize rolled over.

The tables have automatic shufflers, plus Hicks assured us the Bravo system was coming shortly. And there’s tableside dining.

“Most places don’t have eating at the tables,” he said. “Here, we have to clean up a little bit after them because these guys love to order at the table. You want to be able to say you can have a sandwich while you sit and play. Just keep some napkins around so we don’t get grease on the cards.”

Cleanliness is important to Hicks.

“This room is always clean. We have people on it all the time. … We have someone who comes around to take care of that. So you come into this room for the first time and you are going to get a treat.”

The USPC generally runs in the fall, though Hicks said they were undecided when the series will run this year.
“It’s a popular thing and it’s not affiliated with any of the other tours or series,” he said. “So that makes ours so unique. We’re still holding our own. Our competition isn’t really here in Atlantic City anymore. It’s the other places out there that opened up. Those are the players we used to get. I talked to a guy yesterday who said, “Why would I travel (to AC) when I’m 15 minutes away from (Philadelphia)?” I told him that made sense but we love you here, come back down. He said he’d come back down and I told him great, I’ll set you up.”

Tropicana

The Trop Poker Club, which is one of the two original rooms to offer poker when it was legalized for New Jersey in the early ’90s, has 28 tables these days, down from around 40 just a few years ago. But it still gets a steady stream of business.

Typical offerings fill the board ($1-$2, $2-$5 NLHE, $2-4 limit), but what isn’t typical is the method for displaying the brush’s list. A mini camera is aimed at an old-fashioned handwritten board and it broadcasts the board on a glass-tube TV above the poker-room floor. It’s an old-school-meet-new-school feature that makes the Trop unique. The room does have automatic shufflers, though.

You can eat at the table (there’s a special poker menu; try the Tropicana Club sandwich) and drinks are free, plus you can get a poker rate for the hotel if you’ve played at least four hours. Comps range from 50 cents to $2 an hour depending on your level of play.

Royal flushes win you a room at the hotel and the high hand of the day earns you $250 comp dollars.

Only recently did the room add a bad-beat jackpot rake. The qualifier is aces full of kings and tournament players get a separate jackpot as well. At press time the totals were $72K for the tournament bad beat and $330K for cash games. According to its website, the Trop has paid more than $4 million in bad beats since July 2008.

There are two tournaments daily, 11:15 a.m. and 7:15 p.m. All tournaments are $62 except Friday night and both Saturday events, which are $122. If you want to play you must have a Trop Poker Club card. Also, there are no rebuys or add-ons anymore. This is old school poker, after all.