All In

The popularity of poker opens another market for agents

By: Kathy Espin

More than 30 years ago, a poker room host, known as a “brush man,” would stand at the entrance to the local card rooms and call out to passing tourists like a carnival barker, trying to entice customers to sit down and play poker. In those days, and for several decades to follow, poker was the stepchild of the Las Vegas casino industry. Major casino operators offered poker because they had to in order to call themselves “full service” but the effort was often a token one. The money a poker room brought in was paltry compared to the same footage in slot machines.

The poker industry, at least in Las Vegas, declined greatly through the years and appeared on the verge of vanishing completely until just about three years ago when technology and television came together to create a boom like the business has never seen before. The brush man doesn’t have to lure customers any longer; they are flocking to fill the available seats.

Three things have worked hand-in-hand to give poker new life and visibility. One is the development of the mini video camera. The digital technology made it possible to show players’ hands during a game, letting the audience in on the action as it was happening. In the old days, watching televised poker was about as exciting as watching (dare we say it?) soccer where there is a lot of lag time between spurts of action.

The new technology gave rise to a host of televised poker tournaments including the “World Poker Tour,” “Celebrity Poker Showdown” and the venerable “World Series of Poker” broadcast on ESPN.

The “reality” poker shows introduced a whole new generation to the excitement of live poker but another medium allowed the neophytes to try their hands at the game without much risk. Online poker tournaments created thousands of new fans now itching to try their luck in Las Vegas.

The action though is in poker tournaments not in live play. In a tournament, all players start with the same amount of money and the players who still have cash at the end win relatively big prizes. Clients who have never played in a live game before have a perception of comfort and safety in tournament play because the potential cost is limited. And you never know. You might find yourself rubbing elbows with the likes of Ben Affleck, Matt Damon or Tobey Maguire; all are known poker tournament aficionados.

Tournaments are everywhere. The card room at the Bellagio holds two major tournaments. The Five Star World Poker Classic is held in April and the Five Diamond Poker Classic in December. These tournaments are part of the “World Poker Tour” that will give away $90 to $100 million by the time the season ends. The Mirage Poker Showdown is held each May and the Mandalay Bay Poker Championship is held in early June. Entry fees range from $1,500 to $15,000.

The “World Series of Poker” is being held now through Aug. 10. The granddaddy of poker tournaments that once made Binion’s Horseshoe famous, is now held at the Rio All Suite Hotel and Casino. The entry fees run from $1,500 to $10,000.

That might be a bit too rich for the blood of most clients, but there is a much less painful way to get one’s feet wet in the poker world. Many poker rooms hold daily and weekly tournaments with entry fees that run from a low of $55 at the Golden Nugget in downtown Las Vegas to a $330 buy-in at the Venetian. Almost every major poker room, and some not so major, hold tournaments of some kind including Caesars Place and the Luxor.

To travel agents, of course, all of this action means more clients booking travel to Las Vegas. The “World Poker Tour” events, all held at MGM Mirage properties, do not offer room discounts. Discounts are available at all Harrah’s properties for the World Series of Poker. Rates run from $65 per night for a weekday at the Flamingo to $309 for a weekend night at Caesars Palace.

Since the poker craze began, experts have been predicting that it would never last. They may be right, but for now, clients still see poker tournaments as a chance to play with the big boys.