Florida State Poker Championship is July 11 at Isle

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When the Florida State Poker Championship begins at the Isle Casino in Pompano Beach on July 11, that big man with the familiar face will not be taking the microphone to welcome players and run down the rules. That’s because Mike Smith has left the building.

Before he did, though, he established a stellar reputation for the Isle as Florida’s top poker room in the eyes of many. Smith started the 38-table cardroom shortly after the casino opened in 2007, then when the state relaxed its regulations in 2010 to allow larger buy-ins, he fashioned an annual four-event rotation that attracted most of the South’s top players, in addition to many nationally known poker names from around the country.

But while there’s something to be said for long-term job security, many of the game’s top management personnel are constantly looking for that next challenge, and Smith found his at Maryland Live outside Baltimore, getting the opportunity to plan and build a new room from the ground up, leaving the Isle on March 21.

Less than three weeks later another big name in the business, Stan Strickland, left his position as director of poker at the Borgata in Atlantic City, a job he held since that prestigious room opened in 2006. He seamlessly stepped in on April 8 in South Florida to a similar position at the Isle, bringing a wealth of experience and management skills with him from a long stint at the one Northeast’s largest and highly respected facilities. Most of that area’s players were shocked Strickland would leave such a high-profile job, even if his new destination was in the growing poker scene in the Sunshine State.

Some speculated with a possible decline in the popularity of Atlantic City on the horizon (thanks to new poker rooms opening soon in nearby Maryland and probably Massachusetts and New York) that Strickland saw the writing on the wall and was even asked to resign, an insinuation he vehemently denied.

Strickland told me it was simply a decision driven by a desire to move back to the South. … that and a constant motivation to take on the next challenge in life.
“I never lived in the same place for more than four years, until I got to Atlantic City and stayed there for 10,” he said. “I knew the Isle was the No. 1 room in South Florida as far as revenues, games spread, limits offered and great customer service, so it’s a very attractive job and these positions don’t open up often. So I guess you could say that Mike’s good fortune was mine as well.”

It didn’t take long for Strickland to implement some of his ideas at the Isle, tweaking the daily tournament schedule by adding some more affordable options.

“I felt the room wasn’t marketing itself to all aspects of the community. I think with some additional lower buy-in events, we are making it more accessible to people of all financial levels,” he said. He said he has a steep learning curve ahead of him when it comes to determining exactly what South Florida players want, saying, “It’s like night and day comparing the expectations of New Jersey poker players to those here in South Florida.”

For example, a new tournament in early June carried a $50K guarantee despite a low $65 buy-in, offering six opening sessions, which allowed players to play in as many of those as they desired. Players were then allowed to carry their biggest stack to Day 2.

Now Strickland approaches his first Florida State Poker Championship, an event Smith used to call “our Super Bowl,” which will be July 11-30. The FSPC grew from a seven-event schedule and a $500 buy-in main event in 2008 to a more ambitious 17 events last year, culminating in a $5,300 main event won by Brandon Barnes. The highlight series came in 2011, when the main carried a million-dollar guarantee (eclipsing it by more than $400K). Last year, the main kept its $5,300 buy-in, but the guarantee was dropped to $500K, though the prize pool was still an impressive $940K.

This year’s schedule calls for 18 events plus 29 secondary events (mostly satellites). That makes 47 events in all (with satellites starting at $65) and among the 18 major events, most will call for buy-ins in the $200-$230 range and offer opportunities for re-entry. The main event, which will have three opening sessions (July 25-27 at 11 a.m.) will cost $2,500 but will still carry a half-million guarantee, providing great value for locals. There are several events in the $120-$150 range, which matches Strickland’s view that “nobody should be left out.”

Finally, with a history in the uber-competitive A.C. market, Strickland refuses to be overly concerned with what every other poker room here is doing.

“I am really going to focus on what we do, and that’s provide great customer service, and offer a clean, fresh and friendly place to play poker. … I think I bring a great deal of experience and knowledge to this room. I love poker; I love managing the games and this job is a good fit for me. I hope it continues to be a positive experience for both sides.”

HIALEAH PARK: It apparently won’t be long before the cards are in the air and the slot-machine wheels are spinning at historic Hialeah Park, with a tentative target date of July 27. A 20-table poker room is nearing completion, and I have been promised a tour of the facility early in July. Watch for my column in the August issue of Ante Up for a complete preview of South Florida’s newest poker room.

— Big Dave Lemmon is Ante Up’s South Florida Ambassador. Email him at bigdave@pokeractionline.com.