A Winning Hand
A Winning HandProperties follow different paths toward card tournament successAn idea of how far card tournaments have risen in the eyes of casino operators was displayed during the recent purchase of downtown Las Vegas' Binion's Horseshoe by Harrah's Entertainment.
Local newspapers and gaming analysts claimed that the motivation for the purchase was not the property itself, which many speculated would eventually be sold off to an operator with a greater stake in the Las Vegas locals market. The real driving force behind the purchase: A chance for Harrah's to own the World Series of Poker, one of the premier televised poker events in the United States.
Harrah's has done little to dissuade the gaming public from this belief. "We've been very forthcoming that we like the brand and we definitely want the World Series of Poker," Gary Thompson, a spokesperson for Harrah's told the Las Vegas Review-Journal while the deal to purchase Binion's Horseshoe was being negotiated. "It's the largest event in the world of gaming, draws customers from all over the world, generates tremendous publicity and we will keep operating it."
Indeed, one of the first steps Harrah's took after finalizing the deal was to announce that the 2004 World Series of Poker would be held as planned at Binion's Horseshoe, and that the prize pool for the event would surpass $20 million.
"The tournament has a long a colorful history, and we look forward to preserving the traditions that have made it the world-renowned phenomenon it is today," Harrah's President and CEO Gary Loveman said in a prepared statement.
Televised frenzyAs recently as one year ago, it is doubtful that a card tournament, no matter how well known, would have garnered such attention and praise. Indeed, these tournaments, especially in the world of poker, were considered something of a loss leader-a costly but necessary evil to attract new players. Over time, these players would hopefully become regular customers and start to play live poker, where card rooms tend to make most of their money.
But then last March the Travel Channel debuted the World Poker Tour, the brainchild of Steven Lipscomb, a documentary filmmaker who had been introduced to the world of tournament poker while filming the World Series of Poker for the Discovery Channel five years ago.
The goal of Lipscomb and his partner, Lyle Berman of Lakes Entertainment, was to create a series of linked televised tournaments that would eventually become the "PGA of the poker world" (see sidebar, page 24). Their use of cameras, graphics, story lines and expert "live" commentators transformed the way people view poker, and created an unexpected smash television hit.
An idea of how successful World Poker Tour has been is the host of imitators it has spawned, everything from Celebrity Poker Challenge on Bravo to the World Series Of Blackjack which is soon to air on Game Show Network.
The impact of WPT and its emulators on card play, especially poker, has been profound. Casinos from California to Connecticut report anywhere from a 10 percent to 30 percent increase in poker play. Properties lucky enough to be a stop on the WPT have seen tournament interest and prize pools skyrocket. Bell Gardens Calif.-based The Bicycle Casino had the prize pool for its most recent "Legends Of Poker" tournament increase $900,000, thanks to participation from an additional 175 players. Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut reported a 372 percent increase in tournament participation and a 25 percent revenue increase from weekend poker games after the property was featured on a WPT program.
Seeking exposureThis sudden spark of public interest in card tournaments is forcing card rooms and casinos around the country to rethink their tournament strategies. One such property is the Borgata in Atlantic City. Although in operation less than a year, the facility was lucky enough to land its "Borgata Poker Open" on WPT.
"The producers of the show approached us and asked if we would be willing to take the 12th and last spot [on the second season] of the tour," said Michael Facenda, director of marketing services for the Borgata. "Of course we agreed and we're glad we did. The program hasn't aired yet, but we know it will position Borgata as a great place to come and play poker."
Putting together the WPT event for a television audience was not without its challenges however. But Facenda believes it was well worth the costs in time, personnel and money.
"How much is a two-hour show that is basically an infomercial about your property worth?" Facenda asked. "Yes, there are some costs involved with having the televised tournament. But look at all the publicity and exposure you receive in return. That is not something you can put a price on."
Borgata was so enamored of the experience that it signed a long-term deal with WPT and hopes to have its "Borgata Poker Open" filmed each year.
Meanwhile, the popularity of televised poker shows has forced the property to reconsider its tournament offerings. The Borgata now offers a $30 buy-in tournaments five nights a week, and is attracting large crowds each night, according to Stan Strickland, poker room manager for the property.
"Most nights, we attract a capacity crowd," he said. "Some of our prize pools have reached as high as $15,000; it has been very good."
The success of these daily tournaments advertised largely by word-of-mouth only is still something of a shock to Strickland.
"I have been in poker management for 10 years and was thinking at one point that poker was a dying sport," he said. "But then came the WPT and the World Series of Poker on ESPN and the game was put into the spotlight. Now younger people are interested in the game. It's great to watch a whole new generation building up interest in poker."
Youth movementThe Borgata was not the only property to experience an increase in younger players after hosting a televised poker tournament. The Bicycle Casino also experienced an increase in younger patrons after its "Legends Of Poker" tournament was aired during the WPT inaugural season.
"We had Ben Affleck actually come to our property and sign up for an event," said Kelley O'Hara, director of marketing of The Bicycle Casino. "He is an avid player and loves the sport. It has taken some of the stigma off the sport among the young and hip, and we are seeing more of them come to play."
Meanwhile, The Bicycle Casino continues to bask in the additional tangible benefits of having a televised tournament, such as increased patronage and the aforementioned boost to tournament prize pools. To O'Hara, however, the biggest plus of WPT exposure has been the increase in local and national publicity for the casino and its events.
"The Bike has always been a well-known casino, if you were a poker player," O'Hara said. "But I bet a lot of people didn't even know card rooms existed in Southern California until our WPT segment aired. The phone was ringing off the hook months after that with people wanting to play 'that game they saw on TV.'"
O'Hara said one reason for the lack of local interest was that clubs tended to spend most of their promotional time and money on their own player bases. The success of WPT and its subsequent spin-offs has brought the Los Angeles-area card clubs out of their marketing shell, so to speak. Now, said O'Hara, all the local card clubs/casinos are working together to promote poker in Los Angeles to both locals and customers elsewhere in the United States.
"The national press suddenly took an interest in us after WPT," she said. "We've been in Sports Illustrated, Cigar Aficionado and other national publications. This type of press allowed us to position poker here as it belongs, as an entertainment sport that anyone can play. It also alerted locals that they did not have to travel to Las Vegas to gamble."
The end result: a marked increase in poker play for all area casinos, according to O'Hara.
On the tournament front, the WPT has actually done little to alter The Bicycle Casino's event strategy, other then to affirm it was on the right track to begin with. The Bike has always been a "tournament heavy" operation said O'Hara, hosting at least four major tournaments a year.
"I'm pretty sure we are the most tournament-laden of all the Los Angeles card clubs," she added.
These tournaments feature tiered buy-ins to meet all customer play levels. The game involved in most of these events is No Limit Texas Hold' Em, the hot play of the moment thanks to the televised card shows. On occasion, The Bicycle Casino will dedicate a tournament to Stud Hi Lo or Pineapple.
O'Hara was quick to point out that despite the increased popularity of tournaments, they still tend to be money-losers for the host casinos.
"We spend a fortune on our tourneys and often make nothing-I spend upwards of $50,000 to $60,000 and rarely make a dime," she said. "The benefits are as they have always been: increased publicity and, hopefully, an influx of new players to the property. As they go bust, you hope they go to play the live poker games, and become steady clientele over time."
Prize possessionFor many casinos, this still tends to be the primary use of the tournament-as bait to lure and capture the daily, live poker player.
"The whole objective is to foster live action games, not tournaments," said Weldon Russell, corporate director of bingo, keno and poker for Las Vegas-based Station Casinos. "Poker is really the growing business, not the tournaments. They are simply not cost effective."
However, Station will occasionally resort to increased tournament play if there is a need for increased patronage-such as when a new poker game is being introduced.
"Last year we wanted to establish an Omaha game," said Mike Doe, poker manager for Texas Station, a Station Casinos subsidiary. "So we ran a tourney two nights and three mornings each week. But once the customers for the game became established, we did away with the tourneys."
But this is not to say Station Casinos is totally bereft of tourneys. Last year, the Station properties (Palace Station, Boulder Station, Green Valley Ranch Station, Texas Station and Sunset Station) did run a two-month long event called the "$100,000 Poker Plus Tournament."
The company is also experimenting with ways to boost poker play outside the establishment of new tourneys. Jumbo Hold' Em Poker Progressive is one such method. It is a progressive jackpot that is activated when a Hold' Em game suffers a "bad beat," such as when four-of-a-kind is defeated by a higher four-of-a-kind. The level of the progressive payout can be determined by just how bad the "beat" is. For example, the Jumbo $100,000 Progressive is won when four 5's or higher is beaten by a higher four-of-a-kind. In this instance, the losing hand would win $35,000, the winning hand would receive $20,000, and everyone else playing also gets some money.
"One time the progressive hit during the graveyard shift and every player ended up receiving $2,100," Weldon said. "It's worked very well for us." CJ
MINI SIDEBARSStart me up Looking to start a poker tournament? Here's some advice from the experts: • -Make sure there is a pre-existing market for a tournament - Just because tournaments are hot right now does not mean all areas can support one. Often, a location with a lot of live action players does not want or need a tournament.
• -Keep it small - The ultimate goal of a tournament is to increase live poker play. If an event becomes too large, it will take too long to play, leaving no time for live action.
• -Maintain control - Tourneys should not be an excuse for players to act or run wild. Establish a strict zero tolerance policy with penalties for unacceptable behavior such as swearing or slamming cards. An orderly tourney assures players will return to the property.
Hosting a televised poker event for the first time? Here are some things to keep in mind:• -Work closely with state casino commissions - Filmed card events often require the use of a specialized space that is off the casino floor. To actually use such spaces for gaming will likely require clearance from a state casino control commission. Any other odd requests should also be run by the commission to ensure legality.
• -Security - Televised poker events are starting to attract crowds. Extra security may be needed to control events. Some jurisdictions may also require a security guard be present in the control booth during live card play to make sure no signals are being passed onto players.
• -Overflow room - Once again, televised poker tournaments are becoming a big draw. Setting up monitors and overflow seating areas is probably a good idea.
Tech advantageIncreased poker play has led some properties to experiment with new technologies. Here are some of the products that helped improve poker room productivity:
• Wireless microphones - Poker room attendants usually rely on radios or walkie-talkies to communicate during tourneys. At the Borgata, employees switched to wireless microphones hooked into an intercom system. This gives them the freedom to instantaneously call players to a table from anywhere in the room.
• Palm Pilots - To help manage tournament activities, employees at the Borgata use synched Palm Pilots. This technology allows them to automatically and instantaneously update player lists. The use of a magnetic strip reader attachment also allows the property to better track and rate poker patrons.
• Shuffle Master products - ShuffleMaster has come up with Deck Mate, a shuffling and card security system specially designed for poker table play. Executives at Station Casinos, where it is in use, claim the technology has dramatically increased the number of hands played per session.
World Poker Tour creator Steve Lipscomb believes in quality programming and careful growthFew would argue that the recent surge in poker stems from the creation of World Poker Tour, a wildly successful Travel Channel show that focuses on the action and drama of a poker tournament as it takes place at a casino or card club.
"I can tell you that poker rooms involved with WPT have seen their poker business grow up to 20 percent after the program airs," said Stan Strickland, poker room manager for the Borgata.
Credit for the WPT concept goes largely to one man-Steven Lipscomb, its creator and guiding light. Lipscomb originally came up with the idea for WPT after filming "Inside The World Series of Poker," a documentary that ran on the Discovery Channel in 1999.
"It was the first time the World Series of Poker had ever been filmed for television," Lipscomb said. "When it was shown, it doubled its audience inside of an hour, something that very rarely happens on cable TV. It became obvious to me that there was an audience for this type of show, and that is when I started to go around to television broadcasters and pitch the idea of weekly poker show."
He was laughed out of many an office.
"I didn't blame them-the way poker was filmed up to that point made it dull to everyone except poker players," Lipscomb said.
A star is bornSo Lipscomb went back to the drawing board, trying to come up with a way to make poker popular to the masses. That's when he started toying with the idea of creating a PGA-type tour for poker. The World Poker Tour was born.
Still, the concept might have been a hard sell for television if it was not for the backing of Lyle Berman, the head of Lakes Gaming.
"I put together a business plan for WPT and set up some investor meetings, the first with Lyle Berman. Did I walk into the right place," Lipscomb said. "He understood the PGA of poker concept right away. He was a poker player himself, and had the vision to put up millions of dollars, shoot the first season, and buy the air time to broadcast it if necessary."
Fortunately, it did not come to that. With Berman's backing, Lipscomb was able to produce the type of show that attracted broadcasters, and make sure it was aired in a way conducive for the type of audience he was looking to attract.
"Lyle's backing let me stick to my guns and insist we get a weekly commitment from the broadcaster," Lipscomb said. "To make this work, I knew it had to become appointment television."
The Travel Channel was willing to meet this demand. "They had had success with Las Vegas programming," Lipscomb said. "They were willing to give us a prime spot on Wednesday and build an audience."
With Travel Channel in place, it was just a matter of lining up the tournaments-a process that proved remarkably easy, according to Lipscomb. "To become the PGA of poker, we realized we would have to partner with the biggest and best poker tournaments," he said. "When we went to the facilities that were holding these events, we quickly found out that they had never been approached before about having their events filmed."
Price of successOnce the casinos were on board, film was shot and the series aired in the spring of 2003 to immediate acclaim. Indeed, the series has proven so successful that Lipscomb had little problem lining up many of the same properties for a second season, which is currently airing. Players are now streaming to these events; an observation backed up by the ability of the WPT to increase the prize pool of its combined tourneys from $10 million the first season to $30 million this season.
But this success does come at a price. According to Lipscomb, each show costs $350,000 to $400,000 to produce, making the WPT a break-even business, at least for the time being, for Lipscomb and his backers.
The reason for this high cost is the quality of the production. Each WPT event requires the use of 16 to 17 cameras, not to mention the use of a specialized truck that carts around the set used to film action at the final table. There's also the use of "WPT Cameras," which are placed in the front of each player so viewers can see the cards, expensive graphics and commentators.
Lipscomb believes all these items are necessary to the success of WPT.
"I think the key for us is the ability to create 'live action.' Instead of traditional poker commentary, we have created the kind of atmosphere you get at a live sporting event. It's in the present, it's alive, and it puts you on the edge of your chair the moment someone makes a million dollar decision."
Growth limitsUnfortunately for many casinos, Lipscomb wants to keep the quality of WPT events high, so he is taking a slow approach towards expansion.
"Our goal is not to expand that much, Lipscomb said. "We may add a casino or two that makes strategic sense because they have a big event or in a part of the country we want to move into. But our business plan is to take each of these events and build them into the Pebble Beaches of the poker world.
Meanwhile, to satisfy pent-up demand for WPT, Lipscomb has initiated a satellite event, in which participating casinos can hold a WPT-sanctioned event with the winner going on to a Super Satellite tourney at the Bellagio.
"We know host facilities have benefited from the WPT, and are trying to find ways to get more properties involved with the organization," Lipscomb said.