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Poker Draws And Holds 'Em In

It's just another weekday afternoon at Foxwoods Resort Casino and the wait for a seat at a poker table is well over an hour. All 81 tables, all 810 seats at New England's only poker room, are filled.

"Look around. This place is packed," says Mark Whittaker, a home theater installer from Ashland, Mass., who drove an hour and a half to play Texas Hold 'Em but is playing Omaha instead because of the wait. "And it's what, noon on a Wednesday?"

Not too long ago, many gaming executives considered rooms like this to be wasted space. The games are too long and the casino's cut too small to make poker anything but a dud for the bottom line.

But poker's resurgence, driven by televised championships, celebrity tournaments and online games, has changed the equation. While it remains a game of incredibly small profits, destination hotels have stopped comparing poker to slot machines and are seeing it as a must-have amenity such as boxing, concerts and shows.

At Foxwoods, executives plan to add more tables and have made poker part of a marketing strategy to quintuple convention and group sales in the coming years. Last month, executives added a poker brochure to their convention packets.

"It's the hot thing right now, and they'll ask for it: 'Can we set up a poker tournament?"' said Joan Esneault, executive director of resort sales. "Maybe they have a reception on one side of the room and a gaming lesson or an actual tournament on the other side."

Even casinos that folded their poker operations are getting back into the game. In Las Vegas, the Golden Nugget, Harrah's and the Imperial Palace have reopened poker rooms and the MGM Grand has plans to do so this spring.

With cable stations seemingly running games around the clock and poker stars becoming sports celebrities, jumping into the game might seem an easy business decision. After all, Nevada poker revenue is up 38 percent and the average table earns 67 percent more than a decade ago.

But, despite its popularity, the balance sheets show that poker remains a gamble. It steadily accounts for less than 1 percent of Nevada gaming revenue. With just five slot machines, a casino can match a poker table's earnings without paying a dealer or a support staff.

Indian casinos typically are not required to report table game revenues, but experts say the numbers are comparable.

Casinos are again offering poker for the same reason they build giant pyramids and exploding volcanos, hire go-go dancers and hand out complimentary meal tickets.

"It's not a profitable game," said Sylke Finnegan, spokeswoman for the Golden Nugget, which last year dealt its first poker hands in nearly two decades. "But they want the whole Las Vegas experience. They want to see a show and eat at some of the best restaurants in the world. Why not go to Las Vegas and play poker?"

Casino consultants have noticed the philosophical shift.

"It just never paid to invest in poker because the return was limited," said Paul Girvan, director of the Innovation Group, a Louisiana consulting firm. "Now what's been discovered is, with its popularity, poker has the ability to draw people into the casino that might not otherwise be there."

If a basement poker player visits a casino, spends three hours at a table while his wife plays the slots, has dinner and leaves, poker has done its job. If he tries other games or gets a hotel room, even better.

Not everyone buys into that strategy.

Mohegan Sun, just a few miles from Foxwoods, closed its poker room 18 months ago and filled it with slots. Today, with fewer machines, its slot revenue regularly exceeds Foxwoods and its chief executive says he has no regrets.

But poker rooms are opening faster than they're closing. Twenty-five Nevada casinos have joined the game in just over two years.

At the Imperial Palace, executives aren't even pitching their new poker room to the people who play big pots and make more money for the house. Their low-stakes games attract tourists and beginners and create brand loyalty.

"If you offer that amenity, you will increase your appeal to a broader customer base," said David Strow, spokesman for Harrah's Entertainment, which recently purchased the rights to the World Series of Poker. "Many of them are not going to stop just at poker. You'll see an indirect increase in casino revenues overall."

By Matt Apuzzo

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