It's a weekday afternoon in the poker room at the Bellagio Hotel & Casino, and something strange is going on: It's packed. The 30 tables wedged into a far corner of the casino...
LAS VEGAS — It’s a weekday afternoon in the poker room at the Bellagio Hotel & Casino, and something strange is going on: It’s packed.
The 30 tables wedged into a far corner of the casino are filled, mostly with young and middle-aged men clicking chips and shuffling cards, as a line of people waiting to ante up spills out the door.
“The game has been revived,” said Bill Thompson, a public-administration professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and author of a gambling encyclopedia. “Until the last four or five years, [poker] had sort of been an old man’s game for Friday nights.”
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But thanks to televised tournaments and a handful of celebrity card players lending glamour to the game, poker has exploded into popular culture — forcing Vegas casinos to jump on the bandwagon.
Caesars Palace is expected to announce plans to open its first poker room in more than a decade. The MGM Grand will reopen its poker room — closed for years — in March. Bally’s unveiled new poker tables over the summer, and the Mirage added more tables. Several other Strip casinos are considering expanding their poker operations or creating new ones.
“You can’t find a casino in Vegas that isn’t scrambling to open up a poker room in order to get people in it,” said Steven Lipscomb, creator of the televised World Poker Tour and president of WPT Enterprises.
Most players deal in Texas hold ’em, seven-card stud or Omaha, with bets starting at a few dollars and reaching thousands of dollars.
Don McGhie, a gaming consultant, said poker accounted for a small percentage of a casino’s profits and that the rooms usually were buried in casinos’ nooks and crannies.
To make money off poker, a game where players compete against one another, casinos skim a percentage of a table’s winnings, charge a fee per hand or, in higher-stakes games, charge for the time a table is used.
But expanding poker offerings isn’t only about cashing in; it also entices a new generation of gamblers to Sin City.
“Poker is more of an experience,” said Scott Ghertner, director of sports and promotions for MGM Mirage.
And it’s a safe bet that some poker players will wander into the craps and blackjack pits — pouring easy money into casino coffers — when they’re not holding out for the next flush.
“It’s such a popular game right now; it’s driving a lot of patrons into these properties,” said Dennis Neilander, chairman of the Nevada gaming-control board.
As the game favored by cowboys and World War II soldiers faded in popularity, many casinos folded their poker rooms in the 1990s, replacing them with more lucrative slot machines, Thompson said.
But the World Poker Tour and World Series of Poker — where regular-guy amateurs have taken home championship millions — and Bravo’s “Celebrity Poker Showdown” have hooked a new, younger viewing audience on the classic card game. The WPT’s “Battle of Champions,” which aired on NBC in February, drew an estimated 10 million viewers.
“It just exploded,” said Jack McClelland, poker-tournament director at the Bellagio and a 28-year industry veteran. Lipscomb described the game’s renaissance as a “social phenomenon.”
The World Series of Poker competition at Binion’s Horseshoe Hotel & Casino used to draw several hundred contestants, but more than 2,500 card players raised the stakes this year, competing for nearly $50 million in prize money. The World Poker Tour on the Travel Channel, which employs a tiny camera that reveals players’ face-down “hole” cards, went from 14 tournaments and $10 million in prize money in 2002-03 to 16 planned tournaments worth $70 million this year.
“Real people can relate to it,” McClelland said. “They can see it happening to them.”