With poker's new popularity, casinos open card rooms

Sunday, August 15, 2004

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A few years ago, casinos across the United States were closing their poker rooms to make space for more popular and lucrative slot machines.

But the improbable triumph in 2003 of a 27-year-old accountant from Tennessee, who beat some of the world's greatest professional players on national television, has sent the country into a poker frenzy.

Anybody who watches ESPN probably already knows the story: A man named Chris Moneymaker wins a $40 Texas Hold 'Em poker tournament on the Internet, qualifies to play in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, then outlasts a colorful cast of characters to win $2.5 million.

"When the World Poker Tour got into television and used technology to show the hole cards, it sparked enormous interest in poker," said Gary Thompson, spokesman for Harrah's Entertainment in Las Vegas. "Americans are very competitive people. You can't compete with Tiger Woods on a golf course, or a heavyweight boxer in the ring, but you can compete at a poker table and knock out a world champion."

The rising popularity of the game prompted Harrah's to buy Binion's Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas earlier this year, and with it, the rights to the World Series of Poker. Thompson said Harrah's, which owns 28 casinos nationwide, recently opened poker rooms at three of its Midwestern casinos. It plans to adds four more at other casinos.

Harrah's has capitalized on Moneymaker by giving poker players around the nation a chance to compete against the former world champion. Moneymaker is scheduled to be at the Kansas City casino on Aug. 22.

"Even after I won the tournament, I didn't believe it would do what it's done," said Moneymaker, who four months ago quit his accounting job and became a professional poker player. "I had several people tell me I'm going to change the face of poker."

Harrah's Kansas City casino opened a poker room on July 15, two weeks after the Isle of Capri opened one at its Kansas City property. Both casinos had poker rooms when they opened a decade ago, but Harrah's shut its live poker tables down in June 1998, and Isle of Capri closed its room in 2000.

"The popularity of what we have now has mushroomed based on what people see on television," said Tracy Owens, spokesman for Ameristar Casinos, which operates a casino in Kansas City.

"In Kansas City, the poker room is packed on weekends, with 100 to 150 people playing, and on a typical weeknight, we have upwards of 80 to 100 people."

Know when to fold them

Dave Folks, 55, of Kansas City, who was playing an afternoon game of Texas Hold 'Em recently at Harrah's, said he welcomes the new players who think they can win at the casino after watching the game on television.

"Anybody who watches poker on TV and tries to copy how they play is extremely misled," said Folks, who was wearing a hat he won on the Internet site, ultimatebet.com. "They don't realize that you probably fold 70 percent of your hands if you're a good player."

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