Before the Poker Boom: Poker in the 90s

Trump

In the 80s poker had become primarily a west coast phenomenon, but thanks to poker pioneers like Steve Wynn, Jack Binion, Lyle Berman, George Hardie and even Donald Trump, poker would expand across the United States in the 90s.

I became casino marketing director of the Bicycle Casino in 1991. Knowing I was from Alabama, the Bicycle Casino’s founder George Hardie sent me to Tunica, Mississippi, to scout the area for a large poker casino he had planned to develop there.

As I looked out at the cotton fields and the raging Mississippi river, I remember looking forward to running a poker room in the south; it would be going back home for me. I had hosted many games in that area for years and finally would have a chance to offer the players a legal and safe environment to play where they would not have to worry about law enforcement or hijackers.

Hardie had options on land around Robinson and the Tunica area, which would later be sold to Lyle Berman. Berman is one of the best Omaha players in the world. He would visit the Bicycle Casino to play in the Diamond Jim Brady tournaments and became good friends with Hardie. Hardie had an ambition to build the largest poker room in the world in Mississippi and purchased a piece of property called Buck Lake around Tunica.

Hardie had lobbied to have the nearest casino to Memphis, Tennessee. He would later sell that property to Berman, who built the Grand Casino in Tunica in 1996, which helped establish poker in Mississippi. Jack Binion also purchased land to build the Horseshoe casino, which opened the previous year. Poker had finally arrived in the south.

Ken Lambert Jr., Regional Director of Operations for the Heartland Poker Tour, recalls opening day of Jack Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Tunica where he was director of poker operations, “We finally opened in February of 1995 to long lines of excited players. The lines extended hundreds of feet. It was a cold day, but to warm as many of the guests as he could, Jack emptied out his gift shop and began handing out any type of cold apparel that was on hand.”

Lambert continues, “I had 10 poker tables opened and ready to go as players rushed to the room to be the first to play a hand in Tunica at Jack Binion’s Horseshoe. Not long after opening, the poker room expanded to 12 tables and the rest was history. We had the biggest players in the world come play. The new dealers were dealing games they had only heard about, $4,000/$8,000 limit Hold’em and the Pot-Limit Omaha had a $75,000 max bet.”

When the poker explosion happened in the 1980s and 1990s, I felt like Forrest Gump. I was lucky enough to see landmark events in poker history firsthand and even established a record myself. I became the first player to have four consecutive cashes in the WSOP Main Event in 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1994. My highest finish was 6th in 1994. Ronnie Bardah set a new record in 2014 with five consecutive cashes in the Main Event.

On the east coast, poker was also having its own boom. In Nolan Dalla’s article “The Early Years of the Atlantic City Poker Scene,” Dalla says, “The epicenter of the East Coast poker universe instantly became the Trump Taj Mahal, which opened the sparkling 50-table room in the Summer of 1993.”

Poker Hall of Famer Jack McClelland was hired by Donald Trump in 1996 as poker tournament director to establish a major poker tournament on the east coast. Trump created the United States Poker Championship tournament, which was a prestigious stop on the professional poker circuit for years and was televised on ESPN. McClelland recalls Trump as a no-nonsense, get-it-done-right kind of guy. He really enjoyed working for him.

I remember going to the opening of most of these new poker rooms in the south and on the east coast. Poker now had a showcase across the United States. This developed thousands of new poker players. Poker had arrived as a must-have amenity in casinos to reach out to a new demographic of gamblers.

The 90s was a great decade for me personally, as I found success both in casino boardrooms and on the felt. In part 2, I will discuss the poker boom in Las Vegas. Steve Wynn, with the help of Bobby Baldwin as his president, opened Bellagio, which would be a game changer in the history of poker.

Robert Turner is a legendary poker player and billiards/casino marketing expert. Robert is most well-known for introducing the game of Omaha poker to Nevada in 1982 and to California in 1986. He created the Legends of Poker for the Bicycle Casino in 1995. He also helped create Live at the Bike, the first live gaming site broadcast on the Internet in 2002.

Robert has over 30 years’ experience in casino marketing and player development. He can be reached at robertturnerpoker@gmail.com for consulting, marketing and coaching. Follow Robert on Twitter @thechipburner.

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Best Poker Tournaments in the West: Summer 2015 by Patricia Chavira

WPTDS Reno

As summer winds down, it’s a great time to play poker tournaments in California and Nevada. These events feature buy-ins that will appeal both to professional and recreational players. At the Bicycle Hotel & Casino in Bell Gardens, California, the World Poker Tour’s Legends of Poker Main Event will consist of three starting days beginning on Saturday, August 29 through Monday, August 31. The $3,700 buy-in No-Limit Hold’em tournament final table with 6 players will be filmed on Friday, September 4 at 4 p.m. The winner will receive a seat into the WPT World Championship. Last year’s winner, Harry Arutyunyan, topped a field of 593 entrants and collected $576,369. Previous winners of this prestigious tournament include Mel Judah and Dan Harrington.

The Atlantis Casino Resort Spa in Reno, Nevada is currently hosting the WPT’s DeepStacks tour, which runs through Sunday, August 30. The 11th stop on the DeepStacks’ 16-stop schedule features both No-Limit Hold’em and Omaha events with buy-ins to suit every budget. On Wednesday, August 26 there are two No-Limit Hold’em tournaments—one is a two-day, $550 buy-in event with a $40,000 guarantee, the other is a $150 buy-in tournament with a $5,000 guarantee.

The three-day $1,100 No-Limit Hold’em Main Event begins on Friday, August 28 and runs through Sunday, August 30. The last event of the series is a $150 No-Limit Hold’em Turbo at 6 p.m. on Sunday. If you get knocked out, you can play in the Atlantis’ poker room which spreads a variety of poker games including $6/$12 Omaha and $1/$2 Mixed Pot Limit while earning $2/hour comps. Call the poker room at 775-954-4142 for more information.

If you like to plan ahead, the next California stop on the WPT DeepStacks tour will be held at the Ocean’s 11 Casino in Oceanside, California just north of San Diego and will run from October 17-26.

The Commerce Poker Series at Commerce Casino starts Wednesday, September 2 and runs through September 20. The Series kicks off with a $350 buy-in No-Limit Hold’em tournament with $200,000 guaranteed. There will be four starting days held from Wednesday, September 2 to Saturday, September 5 with 2 flights on Friday and Saturday at 1p.m. and 5 p.m. The $1,650 buy-in No-Limit Hold’em Main Event will begin on Friday, September 18 with a $500,000 guarantee. For more details and structure sheets, visit commercecasino.com.

 

The First Poker Boom

Stardust

I was discussing music with my wife while we were listening to satellite radio in the car. Some stations were listed by decades. I knew just about every song from the 1960s and 1970s, and I had in fact seen many groups in concert from that era, but I knew nothing of the 1980s, the decade my wife grew up in.

Then the thought struck me that I knew nothing about the 80s because I had gambled away a whole decade. I spent so much time playing poker tournaments and live poker that nothing crossed my mind but poker. I traveled all over the world playing cards seven days a week without stopping to smell the roses.

In that decade, I probably won hundreds of tournament. At the time, it would not be unusual to play in Las Vegas in a poker room with 4-8 tables. The Stardust and Golden Nugget, which were the two biggest rooms in Las Vegas and the world at the time, featured only 15-20 tables.

I felt there was nothing more for me to accomplish, so I decided to retire at 32. I was living in Alabama at the time. I had bought a 2,500 square- foot home with five bedrooms and a huge pool. My mortgage payment was $99.00 a month. It was a great life I had built all from poker.

Then everything changed. California legalized Texas Hold’em around 1986. I was in Alabama thinking of all that gold, and I left for California to seek my second fortune. I was not wrong; poker became huge in Los Angeles and all of California.

In the 80s poker really exploded. George Hardie had a dream to build the largest poker room in the world when he opened the Bicycle Club in Bell Gardens, California, on November 30, 1984. The Commerce Casino opened the year before. These were super poker rooms and brought in new demographics to poker. Hold’em appealed more to the mainstream than lowball. These rooms were no longer considered second class but rather showplaces with the focus on poker for the first time in gaming history.

I was offered a job as a poker manager, then general manager at the Horseshoe in Gardena, California. At the time, everyone was spreading limit poker. Poker players were coming over from Las Vegas and the rest of the world to play poker in California. These players were used to playing PLO and Seven Stud Hi/Lo, so I introduced these games into the game mix in California.

The owners offered me ten percent of the casino to spread the new games as it was all new to them, and they had no business to speak of. I soon found myself in charge of a California casino. I developed twenty poker games in 90 days. It was a dream job.

Las Vegas was now trying to catch up to California. Eric Drache, Poker Hall of Famer, said Steve Wynn was interested in purchasing the Commerce Casino, but laws in California prohibited Las Vegas’ licensees from owning casinos in California.

Steve Wynn set a new standard when he built the Mirage in Las Vegas at a cost of $630 million, which was the most expensive hotel-casino in history at the time. When the Mirage opened in November 22, 1989, it featured the best poker room in Las Vegas with 31 tables. In 1990 Donald Trump opened the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, which would feature the east coast’s largest poker room. Foxwoods opened their casino and featured poker a few years later.

All of these great rooms laid the groundwork for the next poker boom that would take place from 2000 to 2010. I was at the right place at the right time to be a part of both history-making decades. With that much poker being showcased coast to coast, you can see how a person could get totally consumed by it.

I worked so hard for so many years that I lost contact with the outside world. The 1980s were a total blur. If something wasn’t poker or casino-related, it wasn’t on my radar. My friend Eric Drache said he lost the 70s when he moved from New Jersey to Las Vegas, so I’m not alone in this.

I became so consumed by work and gambling that it was like I lived in two worlds—one world with family and friends and regular life and then there was this other world that consisted of non-stop grinding.

Was my poker success worth it? Looking back on the amount of work and poker playing that I did, I would say no. I would not recommend that to anyone. But as Eric Drache said, “What else could we have done?”

Robert Turner is a legendary poker player and billiards/casino marketing expert. Robert is most well-known for introducing the game of Omaha poker to Nevada in 1982 and to California in 1986. He created Legends of Poker for the Bicycle Casino in 1995 and Live at the Bike, the first live gaming site broadcast on the Internet in 2002.

He has over 30 years’ experience in casino marketing and player development. Find Robert on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/thechipburner and on Twitter @thechipburner. He can be reached at robertturnerpoker@gmail.com for consulting and teaching.

Women in Poker: Sweeping Summer Tournaments by Patricia Chavira

Gina Hecht

Gina Hecht, Winner of WPT Legends of Poker Omaha 8 or Better

Women have been dominating some of the biggest tournaments of the summer. The winning streak started at the 2015 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas when Carol Fuchs became the only female winner of an open event this summer by winning the $1,500 Dealers Choice event on June 27. Fuchs, a screenwriter and film producer, topped a field of the best mixed game players in the world to win her first bracelet and the $127,735 first-place prize. The Dealers Choice is one of the toughest events in the entire series as it includes 18 different forms of poker.

Another notable achievement came on July 31 when Loni Hardwood won the 2015 WSOP National Championship at Harrah’s Cherokee in North Carolina. She took home the $341,599 first prize and her second gold bracelet. The final table included such notables as Daniel Negreanu, fresh off his 11th place finish in the WSOP Main Event, and Alexandru Masek, the most successful player on the WSOP Circuit with eight rings to his name. The final table was filmed by ESPN and will be broadcast on August 18.

Harwood now has over $1.6 million in live tournament earnings. She won her first gold bracelet at the 2013 WSOP in a $1,500 No-Limit Hold’em event. She had a spectacular run that summer as the then 23-year-old player from Staten Island, New York, cashed six times and made three final tables, tying Cyndy Violette’s 2005 record for most final table appearances by a female in a single series. Harwood won $874,698 at the 2013 WSOP, setting the record for the most money ever earned by a woman in a single WSOP in Las Vegas.

Women have also made an impressive showing at the World Poker Tour (WPT) Legends of Poker, running through Sept. 4 at the Bicycle Hotel & Casino in Bell Gardens, California. Three women have won events so far. Gina Hecht, an actress and producer, took first place in Event No. 6: a $235 buy-in Omaha 8 or Better on Sunday, August 2. The next day, Monday, August 3, Diana Yang topped a field of 242 players to win Event No. 9: the $150 buy-in No-Limit Hold’em Deepstack. Then on Tuesday, August 4, Wendy Weissman emerged victorious in Event No. 10: a $150 buy-in P.L.E.O.-Stud/Omaha 8 or Better.

While a debate rages about women in poker on social media, these female champions have proven they have what it takes to challenge the best poker players on the felt.

The Life of a Gambler: Easy Come, Easy Go

Poker Legends Doyle Brunson and Stu Ungar

Poker Legends Doyle Brunson and Stu Ungar

Las Vegas is a town defined by big gambles, spectacular successes and lost opportunities. A dealer once told me he had taken out a loan on his house to play a progressive slot machine at the Hilton. He and his wife, a cocktail waitress, had worked so hard for years to pay off the mortgage.

He said, “Robert, it has to hit.” It did hit, but it only got them even for the month they played. What if it hadn’t hit? Did he have a back-up plan? Was the long-shot of hitting a jackpot worth the very real risk of losing his home? I had a difficult time understanding his reasoning. Then I realized, there was no logic involved.

In my years of visiting and living in Las Vegas, I have seen how gambling can conquer even those who seem to be in control. The truth is a town like Las Vegas offers so many ways to knock you off your center and provide you with adrenalin rushes 24/7 that few gamblers are able to resist.

This is a perfect example. I remember the first time I ever laid eyes on Stu Ungar. He was walking from the Dune’s poker room with three women to the craps table, and I followed them. Stu bought in for $10,000 and placed his bets.

I watched in amazement as this kid with such a great reputation as a gambler began to shoot the dice. Stu lost it all, except for about $1,500 dollars. I will never forget what happened next. He took the last $1,500 from the tray and said, “This is for the boys,” and pitched the money across the dice table.

My thought was he is not a great gambler but a sucker with no regard for money. It is this “no- regard-for-money” attitude that makes or breaks great gamblers. How many gamblers really master self-control? In gambling, money can lose its value. In that regard, Stu was no different from your average gambler.

Another legendary gambler I have seen in action is Archie Karas, who is famous for turning $50 into $40 million, then losing it all. When Archie won all that money at the craps table, I begged him to invest in something for his future, but I could see in his eyes that it wasn’t his future he was thinking about during “the Run.”

Archie called me at the Bicycle Casino one Saturday morning and said he was going to play a $500,000 Razz freeze out with Johnny Chan. Archie beat Johnny, a player I consider to be in the top three of all time. Archie once told me, “Robert, look at all these players that have their pictures on Binion’s Hall of Fame. It should say Hall of Shame because I beat them all.” And he did; he beat Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese and Johnny Moss, all considered some of the best players ever to play the game. Archie is considered to be one of the greatest gamblers of all time—there certainly will never be another like him.

When I first started coming to Las Vegas in the 70s, I was playing poker at the Golden Nugget when an older gentleman dressed in a suit sat down. Different people kept coming up to him and congratulating him, so I assumed he was an employee of the casino.

He was playing very aggressively and drinking heavily. After playing for about an hour, he was approached by security and a couple of suits. They asked him to come with them. I was curious about what had just happened, so I asked about it the next day.

I was told the gentleman was a pit boss who retired after 25 years. The casino had a retirement party for him earlier that day. The problem was he had already lost $25,000 at dice that night, and rumor was he had not gambled in 25 years. Management intervened because it appeared he had fallen off the wagon.

I have been in the gambling business for over 50 years both as a player and as a marketing executive. I have seen it all. What drives most gamblers is the desire to make that score that will change their lives, so why then do they keep gambling even after they win life-changing money?

You can be successful in the professional world of gambling if you can master the art of staying in control of your bankroll and yourself. Like everything in life, it’s all about moderation. Know your limits before you start.

If you or someone you know may have a gambling problem, call the National Council on Problem Gambling’s toll-free helpline at 1-800-522-4700.

Robert Turner is a legendary poker player and billiards/casino marketing expert. Robert is most well known for introducing the game of Omaha poker to Nevada in 1982 and to California in 1986. He created Legends of Poker for the Bicycle Casino in 1995 and Live at the Bike, the first live gaming site broadcast on the Internet in 2002.

He has over 30 years experience in casino marketing and player development. Find Robert on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/thechipburner and on Twitter @thechipburner. He can also be reached at robertturnerpoker@gmail.com for consulting and teaching.