Live Poker: Is the Fad Over or Here to Stay?

I am sure that you have watched the various televised poker tournaments on cable television sometime in the past 10 years, and I am sure that many of you have been approached about hosting a televised poker event or by a professional poker management group that wants to market and manage a major poker tournament for your property. And I can lay 3:1 odds that now you are wondering if the poker fad is over and whether you should downsize or eliminate your poker room operation.

However, I’d like to make the case that poker is still a necessary amenity that can enhance your casino, building a player base that adds to your bottom line while providing a positioning statement about what your full-service casino is about. In addition, I would like to make the case that those with smaller operations should actually expand their poker rooms during this time of economic downturn, putting in more spots for players who are tired of gambling on slots or blackjack and watching their bankrolls diminish thanks to the negative ROI of those games. [Note: I make the distinction between gambling against the house and playing against other poker players. That is how poker players view it, and that is how your slot and other table game gamblers view it. Everyone is looking for the best return on investment, and gambling against the house is not it.]

I started out in gaming more than 21 years ago as a poker dealer, then a poker supervisor, working my way up to poker manager at several different properties, live games manager, player development manager over a half-million person database, marketing manager, general manager of two different gaming operations, and eventually corporate marketing director over three full-service casino operations. Finally, for the past decade I have been a gaming and marketing consultant for casinos coast to coast. It is this front-line-through-top-management background—and everything in between—that I am calling upon in offering my advice; my expertise encompasses poker, marketing and management.

Overall, the nationwide revenue for poker dropped slightly last year (1 to 3 percent), but this is nowhere near the drop for slots (4 to 7 percent) and other table games (3 to 5 percent). A well-managed poker room is more recession-proof than the rest of the casino, and it takes less money to market than the rest of the casino. It also attracts more players, because players play against each other instead of gambling against the house and the house advantage. In fact, because of this, there may be migration of gamblers from slots and other table games to the poker room. According to the American Gaming Association’s 2008 report, the nationwide drop in poker revenue was the first drop in poker revenue since 2003, and the drop was not as extensive as the drop in slots and table gaming; overall the gaming industry was down 4.7 percent.

Poker can be used as a positioning statement by holding celebrity poker tournaments for charity, where local radio and television personalities and invited celebrities play for their own local charity alongside players from your own poker room. This is an excellent PR opportunity that provides free advertising with an invaluable public/community relations message on all the media outlets that are invited for weeks up to and after the event.

This, along with more high-scale, televised events such as the World Poker Tour, Heartland Poker Tour and the Native American Poker Tour can highlight your gaming operation for a cable television audience. These events help bring attention to your property and show your local community the “Hollywood” effect.

Another possibility for poker room exposure is hosting a big weeklong poker event each year or bi-annually, planned and managed by your marketing or poker management teams or by a third-party professional poker management group. The positive side of hiring an outside group is that your personnel can handle the live games that spin off from the tournament while the management group handles the big tournament; the negative side is the money that must be spent to bring the management group in. I would again wager 3:1 that if you find the right group, it will more than pay for itself as your staff will not have to handle both sides with one side suffering, which would result in a negative impression by the tournament participants. Since poker is a customer-service area, that is a mistake you cannot afford to make.

How can you enhance your big tournament? Many casinos believe that hiring a poker celebrity to host their tournament is beneficial to garner additional media attention for the event. I strongly agree with this approach, but you need to make sure that the poker celebrity has a good reputation and will deliver what is promised in a well-written contract. Some celebrities will actually play in your poker tournament or live games, which will result in great publicity for your poker room. Plus, the players in your poker room will be able to brag about playing against the Great So-and-So, and the casino can even put a “bounty” on the celebrity. This creates excitement and action for anyone who beats the celebrity in the tournament or a live game. There are a few agencies that handle professional poker players, and you can talk with them about which one would be the best fit for your region. I would recommend arranging an exclusive relationship with whichever poker celebrity that you bring in so that no other casinos in your primary or secondary market can compete against you with the same celebrity.

Finally, from my experience on the front-line and up, I know that poker is an immensely beneficial addition to a property, just like the buffet or the entertainment that you bring in to give your casino that “Vegas” feel—even though it’s thousands of miles and millions of dollars away. Holding mid- to large-sized charity events and tournaments will enhance your presence in your local community and benefit the charities within it, as well as garner media attention that will create top-of-mind awareness of your casino operation as a valuable member of the community—all the while turning slots and table games gamblers into poker players. It is also a way to draw players and gamblers away from other properties in your primary, secondary and tertiary markets and into your casino property because of your commitment to poker and the public awareness that your tournaments and events have created.

Leave a Comment