The Early Years of the Atlantic City Poker Scene
“It wasn’t so long ago that every Hold’em player on the East Coast knew each other.”
It’s hard to imagine this now, but 25 years ago there wasn’t a casino in the entire American Northeast which offered poker, nor were there any legal full-time poker rooms. Not even one.
Atlantic City had gambling. But poker wasn’t legal. Not until 1993.
Now, casinos spread poker games just about everywhere — in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. Poker will be coming soon to Massachusetts. Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia will have poker within a year (at nearby MGM National Harbor, which is actually in Maryland). Poker will also expand significantly throughout New York State, as seven new casinos have been approved.
Most new casinos have constructed huge poker rooms which are often packed to full capacity. On many nights and most weekends, waiting lists are common. Online poker is now even legal in two states — New Jersey and Delaware. Meanwhile other states are considering the prospect. In fact, contrary to widespread reporting that the poker boom has faded, the live version of the game has actually never been as popular with as many people as right now in the Northeast.
I lived in Washington, DC in between the years 1992 and 2001. So, I experienced poker’s formative period firsthand when it was first introduced in Atlantic City casinos, then later at Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun (in Connecticut). Poker’s expansion gave me the opportunity to write for Card Player magazine (my first poker writing gig) way back in 1993. One could say that poker’s move into New Jersey eventually triggered what for me ended up being a career change. Many of my friend’s lives changed as well, as they became professional poker players, or eventually found jobs working within the industry.
The fact is, when poker began spreading across the country two decades ago, that gave lot’s of people like me new opportunities. One presumes the same thing still happens wherever and whenever poker continues to expand. That’s one of the reasons I’m such an uncompromising political activist for all forms of legalized poker. The game must be given the chance to flourish in as many new markets as possible. Just because I made it doesn’t mean I don’t have an obligation to fight for those who will hopefully follow me.
We should all remember that, and continue to live by it.
Prior to Atlantic City’s legalization of poker, the only games in the Northeast were held at so-called charity casinos, fraternal and social clubs, and quasi-legal underground establishments.
For many years, the Washington, D.C. suburbs were one of the earliest hotbeds of poker. Games were run by makeshift volunteer fire departments throughout Prince George’s County, Maryland. They operated games (even casino games) every night of the week and usually included 5 or 6 poker tables with limits ranging from $3-6 up to $20-40 limit. Hold’em and Omaha High-Low were most commonly spread.
Social and fraternal clubs also provided a safe, if unregulated place to play poker legally in many areas. Local VFW halls, Rotary Clubs, Lion’s Clubs, Fraternal Order of Police, union halls, and other social organizations spread poker games for their members, which mirrored the legal poker scene commonly associated with Gardena (California) at the time. Since most towns and cities had social clubs of one kind or another, there were games spread just about everywhere. Poker games were easy to find. The challenge wasn’t getting into a game, it was putting up with the cigarette smoke.
Legally speaking, underground poker games were a gray area. Law enforcement tended to look the other way for several years, particularly in New York City where the Mayfair Club flourished for a long time and nurtured some of the best players in the world — Dan Harrington, Mickey Appleman, Jay Heimowitz, Erik Seidel, among them. Other clubs opened and closed, one of the best known being the Diamond Club. But the Mayfair Club, now a fond memory, will always be remembered as the legendary stomping grounds of a thriving New York City poker scene, at least until it was closed down in 2000. It even served as the model for the poker club portrayed in the movie “Rounders.”
Once Atlantic City casinos opened up for poker, everything changed. There remains some debate about where the first legal hand of poker was dealt. Most agree it was at the Atlantic City Sands, which has since been demolished. However, management at the old Showboat Casino once insisted they were the first to offer poker (by one day, the old poker manager told me). Whatever the truth is, the epicenter of the East Coast poker universe instantly became the Trump Taj Mahal, which opened a sparkling 50-table room in the Summer of 1993. Within months, poker was also being spread at Harrah’s, the Showboat, Resorts International, Bally’s, Caesars, Sands, and the Atlantic City Hilton. Later, poker came into the Claridge, Trump Castle, and the Tropicana. According to memory, the only Atlantic City casino which never offered poker at any time was the Trump Plaza.
During Atlantic City’s first ten years (1993-2003), Seven-Card Stud was the most popular poker game by a wide margin. Some casinos didn’t even bother to spread Hold’em. In fact, during the first few years, the Taj and Resorts (located next door) were the only two poker rooms which regularly offered Limit Hold’em, and that was for modest stakes which rarely got any higher than $15-30. The limited selection of games didn’t matter. The action was fabulous.
I didn’t particularly like playing Stud. But how could you not play it, when there were so many horrible players?
You go where the money is, and for any poker player living in the Northeast, that meant heading to Atlantic City.
I spent most of my weekends in Atlantic City during those early years. I rode the train up on Friday night from Washington’s Union Station directly into Atlantic City. The ticket cost $40 round trip. The ride took almost four hours, with stops in Baltimore, Wilmington, and Philadelphia. That meant I could sleep on the train — both coming and going. That saved on the hotel. On most weekends, I arrived in the Taj poker room on Friday at 8 pm and played straight through until Sunday morning, non-stop. Stamina wasn’t a problem when I was age 30, and when most of the pots were 7- and 8-handed. Sleeping cost me money, I figured. Even when playing on no rest, formula-style A-B-C poker could crush the games and still pull one if not two big bets an hour out of almost any low- to mid-stakes table. Those early days were a gold mine.
Then, the players gradually got better. Many of the worst players gave up. Others took their place who then started reading poker books. The Internet became popular. Poker and Atlantic City began to change.
But before these changes occurred, New Jersey poker got an unwelcome challenger to the north. Foxwoods opened a new 35-table poker room in 1995. That was followed some time later by the nearby Mohegan Sun opening its own poker room. This second wave of poker expansion didn’t seem to pose much of a threat to Atlantic City, not directly anyway. But what did occur was the luscious New York City poker market become divided in two, if not three. All that juicy money got split up. There were more pockets. Lining those pockets were less and less hundred dollar bills. On weekends, half the poker players headed north up to Connecticut, some three hours away. The other half traveled south, two hours away (in good traffic), to Atlantic City. Accordingly, New Jersey’s poker market stagnated during the mid to late 1990s. A few poker rooms even closed down.
I spent some great times in Atlantic City. There were some amazing games. One of the very best was something called “the pink-chip game,” which was played with $2.50-denomination chips. The $7.50-15 “pink” game was a perfect crossroads for every up and coming player or action junkie living in between Richmond and Hartford. Players would drive in just to sit in that game. Swings to $1,500 and even $2,000 weren’t uncommon. Pots were sometimes so big it took the dealer five shoves to push the chips. Then, it took the next three hands to finish stacking. I saw players take ten full racks out of that game.
Indeed, there were many wild nights, and even crazier mornings. Time was of no consequence. Sometimes, the best game in the city was going at 7 am. Half the table would be stuck and on full-stream tilt. If you could play around the clock, this was like being handed a key to the vault. Sometimes, desperately in need of a fresh shower, I’d scam my way into one of the hotel indoor pools, jump in the water, change clothes, and be back in my seat getting dealt a new hand an orbit later.
I met a lot of friends, many of whom are still my closest confidants to this day. I made good money for what had become a part-time job, not so much because my play was skillful, but because I got pretty good at game selectioin. Most important, I was enjoying what I was doing.
In the Spring of 1996, I learned about an unusual gathering of poker players which was to hold its first meeting in Atlantic City, at Resorts from a pal named Alan Tiger. It was to be a group of professionals (non-pros), who mostly worked in high-tech. The group was formed by an unusual man named Jazbo, who had been a mathematician for the United States Army. He was determined to spread the first Pot-Limit Hold’em game ever in Atlantic City. By the way, this is the same group that would spawn Greg “Fossilman” Raymer, Andy Bloch, Bill Chen, J.P. Massar, Jerrod Ankenman, Matt Matros, and some other familiar names you might recognize but no one knew at the time. Easy pickings.
Low buy-in Pot-Limit games had been a forte for me during the 1980’s. Trouble was, the game was impossible to find. All but extinct, it wasn’t spread anywhere. Now, it was coming to Atlantic City the following weekend.
I signed up, attended, and joined the game.
After playing Limit poker for more than two and a half years, the sight of big stacks of chips and raises worth hundreds of dollars at a table off the to the side of the room was a magnet for many curious eyes. That spark of a game lit a fuse of interest and excitement. Within a few months, Pot-Limit began its residency at Resorts every Friday and Saturday night. Most of us bought in for $500 to $1,000. It was a friendly game. We laughed. We drank. We played poker all night, until the next morning. For a while, that was the only Pot-Limit game going in the United States. And we were sitting in it.
Lucky us. Life was good.
Players came and went. New faces replaced old. Some went broke. Others gave up. After a few years, the game began to die out. Eventually, Pot-Limit was no more.
It wasn’t until 1998 when I decided to try and jump start interest in the game again. Since every Hold’em player on the East Coast knew each other at the time, all it took was a post to a popular Internet newsgroup called rec.gambling.poker, and the game was sure to be a go.
I set up the game at the Sands with the help of some regulars. The game was launched, and it continued on weekends right up until a new poker room opened up. In poker, nothing stays the same.
The new kid on the block was called the Tropicana. At 40-tables, a high-limit room, and a special tournament area, that quickly became the second-biggest poker room in town, after the Taj Mahal. The Trop even poached many of the staff directly from the Taj. To say they were rivals was an understatement.
The “Taj” and the “Trop” as they were commonly known became to Atlantic City poker what Coke and Pepsi were to soft drinks. You tended to favor one of the other. All the other little guys in the middle either didn’t matter or got squeezed out of business. Some poker rooms eventually reduced their size, and in some cases were even closed. The big two dominated the poker market.
Then, an announcement came that a new casino was about to be built. It was to be called “the Borgata.” The model for this shining new city on a hill was to be the Bellagio in Las Vegas and the Beau Rivage in Biloxi. Poker had never quite been done like this before, not in Atlantic City.
Tournament poker was never quite as big a deal in Atlantic City as it was in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. At least not until televised poker tournaments started some years later.
Bally’s ran the first poker tournament ever in New Jersey, in 1995. Resorts then acquired a sponsor from the Macanudo cigar company and ran its own tournament about year later. The Tropicana offered up a short-lived series called the “New Jersey State Poker Championships.” But the Taj Mahal’s inaugural “United States Poker Championship” held in 1996 (repeated again in subsequent years) represented a hallmark moment for East Coast poker. That tournament was taped and televised by ESPN. Jim Albrecht and Jack McClelland, both from WSOP fame, were even brought in to run the tournament.
Until the Borgata got into the tournament business sometime later, the USPC was pretty much it in Atlantic City. By 2000, the biggest and best poker tournaments in the Northeast were being held at Foxwoods. The World Poker Finals and the New England Poker Classic, both played in Connecticut and held six months apart, launched many poker careers (Daniel Negreanu among them).
No one could possibly foresee that Atlantic City’s thriving poker scene, utterly suffocated by a game which is almost never spread anymore, and a market dominated by two mega-sized poker rooms was about to turned upside down and inside out. On Saturdays and Sundays, players couldn’t get a seat in the big poker rooms. The lists were always long and every seat was filled.
The opening of the Borgata would ultimately change all this. A newer, more player-friendly room would ultimately vacuum most of the business from the other two, which would gradually fall behind, never to recover from the decline.
Then, Chris Moneymaker would win the World Series of Poker. His unlikely victory would be shown on ESPN and would convert millions of everyday dreamers into curious new poker enthusiasts, launching what became known as “poker boom.”
The decaying old monarch known as Seven-Card Stud was about to be toppled. With it, Limit poker would also decline. They would be replaced by a new king in the poker kingdom by the name of No-Limit Hold’em.
I departed the Atlantic City poker scene as a regular player in 2002.
Within the past dozen years, I’ve returned perhaps two-dozen times. Each time I return there and see it now, it’s changed a little. Over the course of time, it’s changed a lot. Perhaps I’ve changed, too. Much like setting foot amidst a forest, one doesn’t notice new roots nor dying branches when standing too close. Observational skills improve at a distance, and are enhanced even more when seeing the bigger picture as a whole.
I worked most of the WSOP Circuit events held at Caesars and Harrah’s 2004-2012. Those casinos are still around. I took occasional assignments at the Showboat and Sands. They’re gone.
A few years ago, I went back to the Taj Mahal poker room on a Saturday afternoon. The room was nearly empty, except for 4 or 5 small stakes games going which were full of seniors. Someone made the acute observation that this room would have been bustling with action a decade earlier. It seemed to be the epicenter of the poker universe, at least for us on the East Coast. We didn’t need the Mirage or Binion’s Horseshoe. We had the Taj. Now, it was a relic. What had been a shiny new vehicle the envy of everyone was now an engine badly leaking oil with 185,000 miles on it, a few jumps starts away from it’s final drive — hooked up to a tow-truck on its way to the junkyard.
The Taj Mahal will soon close, for good. The Showboat eliminated it’s poker room, then shuttered its doors. Caesars Atlantic City closed down it’s poker room. The Trump Plaza went bankrupt and closed. The Atlantic City Hilton, once thought to be the place where poker would revive itself with the infusion of new capital from PokerStars, wnet belly up and closed down. And the Revel, one of the most ill-advised and poorly managed casinos in the history of the sector, never made much of a go of poker. The billion-dollar blemish was boarded up last year and now sits vacant and dark.
When forests die, there’s always an undergrowth. Dead leaves beget new trees.
The Borgata continues to thrive with one of the most successful marketing efforts poker has ever seen. The World Series of Poker Circuit held it’s national championship on the famed Boardwalk last Summer, and just completed its tenth year at Harrah’s Atlantic City, last month. There are some survivors.
In two weeks, I’ll be coming to the Golden Nugget, which is hosting the next filming location for “Poker Night in America.” I expect to see many old friends. I hope to make some new ones, too.
And when I look around, I shall see the ghosts of my past. Places where I’ve been and invested a significant portion of my life.
Atlantic City will always be with me, forever.
Note 1: An excellent source for news and information about the Atlantic City casino and entertainment scene is www.phillygambles.com, run by Bill Ordine. I encourage you to visit his site.
Note 2: The best poker book written about the early days of the Atlantic City poker scene is “Shut Up and Deal,” by Jesse May. I highly recommend it.