San Manuel Poker Room Closing Felt Like Losing a Friend

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It felt like the poker industry lost a family member on April 30.  I was playing in the San Manuel poker room the night the final hand was dealt at midnight; I certainly hope it’s not the last.

The poker room had been a part of the community for over 30 years. I listened and watched as players were in tears saying goodbye to dealers, staff and friends they had played with for decades.

The poker room was sold out that night with some games having a hundred players on the waiting list. I have never seen a room that size with hundreds of players waiting to get on the tables. Some, including me and my wife, waited hours for a seat.

Players were coming by tables and dropping off tips to dealers as a gift and saying thanks for the memories. In my 50-year career, I have never witnessed so much love among poker players and staff.

It’s not like a poker room closing in Las Vegas where you can go next door to gamble. San Manuel Casino, located in San Bernardino county with a population of over 2 million people, had a monopoly in the area since there were no other poker rooms within a 50-mile radius. Now players have to go to another city and hope to see their old friends again.

Some dealers said they would start a new career at San Manuel Casino, which offered some a chance to retrain to deal other games. But thousands of poker players were left with no place to play close by. The nearest poker rooms are at Morongo Casino, Resort and Spa in Cabazon, near Palm Springs, and Pechanga Resort Casino in Temecula, both nearly an hour away.

The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians owns and operates the San Manuel Casino located about one hour east from Los Angeles in Highland, California. San Manuel markets itself as having the “most slots in California” and intends to hold onto that title.

Poker players are often an overlooked demographic in casino marketing. San Manuel not only lost thousands of loyal poker players by closing the room but also the business those poker players bring to the rest of the casino.

To illustrate this point, I like to tell the story of a small-limit poker player who asked a card room manager in Los Angeles to help him get a room in Las Vegas. The manager called me, and I booked him a room. I was surprised when the casino said that over a few months time, the player gambled over $400,000 at slots and table games. This shows how you can never tell how much action a so-called “poker player” may give the casino.

This cross-over business is often overlooked. Casino executives often just look at the bottom-line number that the poker room generates and fail to recognize that poker players bring more than just buy-ins to the casino. They play slots and table games, they eat and they drink in all areas of the casino. And they use social media to promote the casino or vent their frustration.

Doyle Brunson once said that when poker players put their feet under the table, they are one big family. The night the San Manuel poker room closed, I witnessed that first hand. People were exchanging numbers with tears in their eyes. It felt like one big family that night as the dealers lined up at the door to say goodbye.

I hope San Manuel realizes that thousands of displaced poker players and their friends and family will go somewhere else to play. The camaraderie and sadness were a lasting memory for me. Poker is more than a business; it’s a game of relationships.

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.