This billboard is so striking because it hits on so many different levels. The invitation to a family gathering is implied by Bally’s offer: come to us and you will feel like you are among relatives. But the kind of family on offer, particularly here in the South, with its unique history of the enslavement and eventual forced emancipation of African people, is astonishing. Here is Mamadou, who has presumably followed his stolen ancestors to this country of his own free will, only to find himself in a job making white folks feel like they are part of his family--with the corporate goal of getting them to let go of as much of their money as possible. There is perhaps a whiff of racism here, in that the billboard could easily be read by a speeding motorist as “Mama DO treat me like family” which reading feminizes the man and echoes the speech patterns of non-mainstream English speakers. Racism, however, is beside the point. The billboard is, above all, a beautiful example of corporate greed working overtime to bleed citizens - black, white, Asian, Indian alike - of their cash, by subliminally working the themes of American history, colonialism, and the longing for family.
I was in Tunica for a month, and I passed this billboard every morning on my way to the Grand Casino, and every evening on my way back to the Gold Strike. As readers of my tournament reports will note, both of these venues held poker tournaments in January. The Gold Strike World Poker Open, formerly run in tandem with the neighboring Horseshoe and known as the Jack Binion World Poker Open, ran from Jan. 9-23rd and featured nine events including the $10,000 WPT Championship. The Harrah’s-owned Grand Casino, has - since Harrah’s takeover of the Horseshoe last year - renamed its event the Jack Binion World Series of Poker Circuit. In the past, the Grand hosted a series of tournaments during the same period for buy-ins ranging mostly from $300-$500, much smaller than those for the WPO, which typically run about $1,000 apiece. Harrah’s this year increased the buy-ins for many of these events, which numbered 22, including the $10,000 WSOP Championship, which commenced the day after the WPO, ended.
Most observers and participants will tell you that the Gold Strike trumped the Grand in every way. While the Grand started strong with a series of $500 NL events beginning on Jan. 5th - one of which had a record 1345 entrants - the Gold Strike attracted much of the tournament action and the vast majority of side action from Jan. 9-23rd. Given that the Jack Binion WPO had been an annual tradition for several years, this may not be surprising. What was surprising is that the Grand made no real effort to be competitive. The Gold Strike simply treated its players better, offering them extremely liberal food comps (full buffet for anyone who asked, regardless of play), and well-organized room-rate reductions. The Grand, on the other hand, charged $3.00 for a hot dog and reportedly mishandled the reservations of a number of tournament circuit pros. But it was not just the price of a hot dog that soured things for the Grand. The WSOP team, while consummately professional and well organized, has to be demoralized by the departure of Ken Lambert as Director of Circuit Events. Lambert recently assumed the post of Director of Poker Operations at the Gold Strike. Furthermore, there was a general impression that at the highest levels of Harrah’s operation, there is a lack of concern for poker players. This is not to say that there were no problems at the WPO, however. Many of the dealers for its events were unskilled, and several of the top players have been alienated by the WPT’s requirement that they sign release forms that restrict their ability to control the use of their own images. Also, I suspect that we are beginning to see a saturation of the high-entry-fee tournament market. The WSOP and the WPT have big buy-in events every month at this point. While most of these $10,000 championships attract healthy numbers of entrants in the 250+ range, we may begin to see too many competing tournaments for the pool of players, particularly as more and more non-professional hopefuls lose over and over again.
Perhaps the nadir of the month in Tunica occurred late on the night of January 22nd, or technically in the early morning hours of January 23rd. An irate, drunk player, allegedly disgruntled over losing a big pot in Omaha when he thought he had the nut low, only to discover he was in fact playing Omaha high and not eight-or-better, grabbed a car from the valet area and drove it straight through the double glass doors of the Gold Strike and around and around the lobby, careening past the gift shop and not stopping until he hit the elevator bank, whereupon he calmly exited the vehicle, sat down on a bench, pulled a deck of cards from his pocket and began playing solitaire until the police arrived.
That is certainly no way to treat one’s family’s house. But then, this was an MGM property, not Harrah’s. Perhaps he had played too much poker. By then, we all had.