"We have to find a way to make people realize [poker] has to be a social game. You have to allow certain things. In other words, if I ran this room [TI], which I don’t, it’d be, “phones off the table.” And I do it too when I’m playing. This is ridiculous. Because nobody talks anymore. And that’s why they don’t have fun."
~ TI poker dealer Dominick Muzio, interviewed for Rob's Vegas & Poker Blog
I caught the Vegas poker bug just over a decade ago, and since then have averaged five or six trips to Poker Mecca each year. I've seen a lot of poker rooms open (Venetian, Aria) and close (Paris, Hilton, Imperial Palace/Linq, Tropicana). Although the Vegas poker scene is still vibrant, there is no question the bloom is off the rose—fewer rooms, fewer games, more local grinders, fewer drunken tourists.
The decline, or perhaps the maturation, of the Vegas poker scene undoubtedly has had a number of contributing factors. Black Friday and the evaporation of online poker has meant fewer new players being introduced to the game. The recession certainly didn't help the poker industry. And younger people are flocking to Vegas, not to gamble, but to party all day, club all night.
Nobody can do anything to unwind Black Friday or create another poker boom. But based on my recent visits to Vegas, between poker players and poker rooms, it feels like the poker industry is shooting itself in the foot. Longtime Vegas poker dealer Dominick Muzio addresses this issue and hits on several key problems in a recent interview. I agree with many of his points, but want to add in a couple of additional thoughts.
In recent years, many poker rooms are catering to players by adding cell phone charger outlets, offering free WiFi, and generally eliminating most restrictions against use of cell phones and tablets at the poker table. These changes are generally a good thing. Players can make plans, keep up with friends and family, or take care of routine work emails between hands. Heck, I've even negotiated a couple of multi-million dollar settlements while playing at Aria.
But, like all good things, some poker players have found a way to abuse this accommodation of electronic devices. During my last trip to Vegas in late December, I played at several tables in three different rooms (Aria, Ceasars Palace, and Planet Hollywood) where one or more players were watching movies or TV shows on their phones or tablets. In three different games I played in, there was at least one player (each an obvious local grinder) who would have a tablet out with large, noise-canceling headphones. Each of these players was completely oblivious to the action, and had to be nudged by the dealer every time the action was on them preflop. Even when they played a hand, the headphones never came off, often slowing the game further when they missed verbal declarations of bet sizes or other action. These players could hardly have been less engaged in the game. And from looking around the rooms, these players are surprisingly common and apparently tolerated by poker dealers and management.
Poker rooms also continue to ruin the poker environment with poorly conceived promotions. The biggest, busiest, most successful rooms (e.g., Aria, Venetian, Bellagio) seem not to need promotions beyond generous hourly comps and a reasonable rake. But some of the smaller rooms still take a jackpot drop to fund promotions. And, as long the promotion is a high hand jackpot or something similar, these promotions really are fairly innocuous, and may even achieve their purpose of making Joe Tourist excited about the game.
The problem is that some rooms are still using promotion dollars to chase "regulars" who far too often are more interested in the promotion than in the game itself. During my December visit, I decided to check out the recently renovated and relocated poker room at Caesars Palace. Now, the room has greatly improved in two respects. First, the rake has been dropped from $5+$1 to $4+$1, comparable to many of the mid-sized rooms on the Strip. Second, the new location adjacent to the sports book and in the middle of the casino floor offers better visibility for casual, "walk-by" players.
Unfortunately, Caesars was running a promotion in December which involved several weekly drawings and a monthly main drawing. Eligibility was based on playing a minimum number of hours for each week and for the month, and also required the player to be present at the time of the drawing. Essentially, the promotion was targeted at local players who were much more likely to qualify for and be present for the drawings than were tourists. The result was a predictable mess. Every table I played at had at least four or five players who were constantly checking to see if they had enough hours to qualify for the drawings. These players rarely played a hand preflop, and postflop there was little action unless two players hit the flop hard. The room was chock-full of nits who were reading magazines, drinking comped drinks, and checking their phones; basically doing anything except playing poker. Thrill a minute, I tell you.
It seems like many poker room managers and serious poker players don't grasp the concept that live poker—at least low-stakes poker—is really about entertainment. I'm not saying every game needs to involve drunken Brits tackling players or a Sherminator look-alike. But when Joe Tourist sits down with a few hundred dollars in his pocket, he would like to win money, but mostly he wants to enjoy himself for a few hours—have a few beers, share a few laughs, get a few stories to take back home. A table filled with local nits grinding hours, folding every hand, watching a movie, paying no attention to the game, and interacting mostly in grunts is pretty much the opposite of what casual players want to see. Sure, Joe Tourist may stick around and lose a buy-in to the game. But a casual player who is not enjoying himself won't pull out a second buy-in, or come back the next day. Treating low-stakes poker like a boring day job—even if is exactly that—is a terrible business decision.