Indian Casinos Adding Poker Tables

From the Sacramento Business Journal - June 24, 2011

“We are expanding largely because of demand,” said Doug Elmets, spokesman for Thunder Valley. “The addition is based on the number of people who want to play.”

 

 

Several tribal casinos in California are adding poker tables to help broaden their appeal and stay competitive with casinos in Nevada and elsewhere.

For years, tribal casinos jammed as many slot machines on the floor as possible, given that slots are the most profitable part of a casino. But catering only to the slot-machine crowd cuts out a large number of potential casino visitors — like poker players.

“If you don’t offer everything, then you are not as competitive,” said Alan Meister, principal economist and gaming analyst with Nathan Associates in Irvine. “To keep up with commercial gaming, you have to be able to offer what they have in Las Vegas.”

But it’s a tricky balance for tribal casinos because poker is one of the least profitable games for the house.

“It is interesting to watch the casinos in California evolve,” said Kim Stoll, director of marketing with Red Hawk Casino near Placerville. “Typically, poker is an amenity. It is something you offer because it is expected,” said Stoll, who used to work in a Nevada casino.

Poker players tend to be younger than the casino population in general, she added.

Red Hawk recently added a seventh poker table. And early next month Thunder Valley Casino in Lincoln is adding five poker tables to its current count of 16. The new tables take up 900 square feet.

“We are expanding largely because of demand,” said Doug Elmets, spokesman for Thunder Valley. “The addition is based on the number of people who want to play.”

‘Part of the package’

Thunder Valley opened in June 2003 with slot machines, blackjack and other games — but no poker. An expansion a year ago added 16 poker tables, a new hotel, spa, pool and expanded gaming floor.

“You are seeing the casinos add poker that hadn’t had a strong poker product,” said Rich Hoffman, general manager of Jackson Rancheria Casino and Hotel in Amador County. Jackson has 15 poker tables, although they aren’t as busy now as they were a few years ago.

“Every piece of real estate in the casino is a part of the package. Different people like different things, so you offer something for everyone,” Hoffman said.

Casinos don’t make money by chance in poker play. Instead, they take a “rake” from the players — a commission from every pot — in return for providing the table, atmosphere and dealer.

“The game is between the players. We provide the table,” Hoffman said.

The house earns low returns from poker, especially compared to slot machines. Slots don’t require the staffing needed for table games and earn far more per square foot. In Nevada, where meticulous records are kept by the Nevada State Gaming Control Board, slot machines brought in $6.6 billion — or more than 63 percent — of the $10.4 billion from all gaming in the 12 months ending April 30.

Even among table games, poker is small potatoes. Over that same period, blackjack tables accounted for nearly $1 billion in winnings for the Nevada casinos, while poker earned $132 million.

TV drives interest

Even though poker isn’t very profitable, it is popular.

Poker’s popularity took off as television coverage of poker increased over the past decade, said Michael Lawton, senior research analyst with the Nevada State Gaming Control Board.

The big boom years for poker in Nevada — largely dominated by play in Las Vegas — were from 2004 through 2007. While the game has lost footing in Nevada, it remains the third most popular choice, behind slot machines and blackjack. Some attribute the decline in Nevada’s poker playing to the real estate bust and the onset of recession.

“Poker was booming for a few years there, and it has definitely subsided some,” Lawton said.

Red Hawk Casino opened in the end of 2009 with six poker tables. It now has seven. During the week, four to five of them are filled, and there is typically a wait on the weekends.

“We could have expanded it up to 10 tables,” said Scott Bean, marketing director of Red Hawk.

“With poker, it is not about the money. We pride ourselves on the service and the experience we can offer,” Bean said.

To improve that experience, Red Hawk in April moved its poker room from an upstairs smoking floor to a downstairs nonsmoking floor. That took the poker room away from the live entertainment at the upstairs bar and the noise of slot machines.

“It’s just a better experience,” Bean said.

Not all local casinos are adding poker tables. Cache Creek Casino Resort in Brooks rode the wave of poker’s increasing popularity through 2008 to move up to 28 tables. In the past three years it removed half of them, said Bill Harlan, head of table games at Cache Creek.

Cache Creek concluded that “poker does better when it is close to an urban area,” Harlan said, adding that there are many places to play poker, including card rooms, that don’t require the 40-mile drive out to Brooks.

Others are standing pat for now. Business has been strong since the poker tables started at Cordova Restaurant Casino in Rancho Cordova, for example. The card room and restaurant opened just over a year ago with nine poker tables, said Rob Ketchum, tournament director.

“With poker players, if one person comes in, they usually bring their friends,” Ketchum said.

 

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