While some dealers may be worried that their occupation is in jeopardy, I do not feel that these dealerless tables will fly, in the long run. Sure, they may be beta tested for awhile, and the novelty may attract interest at first. But I think that the vast majority of players in brick and mortar cardrooms enjoy the game because it allows them to handle cards and chips, while relying on the dealer to get out the hands. Yes, we complain about tipping, dealer mistakes, misdeals, and the occasional slow dealer. Automated live poker, on the other hand, almost contradicts the nature of the game. Poker is slow. It requires patience. Furthermore, poker chips take on a life and a value of their own. There is nothing like sitting with a large number of chips, arrayed in stacks of twenty, or thirty, or more. The absence of an actual stack of chips is one of the biggest drawbacks of online play. In the cardroom, chips are the physical manifestation of one’s poker prowess. In fact, in places where cash plays, many a player refuses to sell his chips to a newcomer, preferring to keep the stacks arrayed in front of him rather than exchange some of them for bills. Cash on the table is simply not as intimidating as those stacks of chips.
Noted poker writer A. Alvarez wrote the seminal analysis of the chip. It can be found in his book, The Biggest Game in Town. He writes: “The chip is like a conjurer’s sleight of hand that turns an egg into a billiard ball, a necessity of life into a plaything, reality into illusion. Players who freeze up at the sight of a fifty-dollar bill, thinking it could buy them a week’s food at the supermarket, will toss two green chips into the pot without even hesitating if the odds are right.”
With the popularity of online poker, some players are wondering whether the internet games will supplant “brick and mortar” poker rooms altogether. For some of the same reasons that I don’t think the dealerless tables will replace dealers, I believe that live, in-person poker will continue to flourish. In fact, what we are seeing now is a synergy between the internet and brick and mortar poker rooms. As more and more players join the game through their computers, poker rooms are proliferating at a great rate. A few years ago, only a few casinos on the Las Vegas Strip spread games. Now, almost all of them do. In addition, a hotel cannot get a five-star rating unless its casino has a poker room.
The next few years will be a test to see whether the poker community is large enough to support all of these games, at all of these venues. From a poker room manager’s standpoint, the increasing numbers of rooms seem to be diluting the action somewhat. Some of the rooms are having difficulty attracting enough players to keep their staffs working. There are many players, particularly tourists, who would choose to play in a room such as the Bellagio based on the perception that that is where the action is. They may check out the new room at the Hilton, or the Stratosphere, if that is where they are staying, but they want to play at a “hot” room. To some extent, they are right. A poker room needs to reach a certain critical mass of players to be a success, and the Bellagio has that in spades, plus the added attraction of high-stakes celebrity players. But a room can be “hot” without celebrities and tourists, as long as it has enough loyal customers. Poker rooms such as the one at Green Valley Ranch, in Henderson, are also experiencing great success. They, too, have reached a critical mass of players. In the case of Green Valley, or several of the Station casinos around town, these players are mostly locals. The key is that there are a lot of them, and they play regularly. Nonetheless, the nature of poker is such that you really only need ten players to run a game. Once you are in a game, and really into the action, it doesn’t matter where you are, as long as you think the game is good. As a player, if I am in a good game, I couldn’t care less if it is at Santa Fe Station or the Hard Rock or the Bellagio. But if the game breaks, I want to be sure that there is another game to jump into.
I first learned to play poker in 1998. After a small blackjack misadventure at Foxwoods, I was leaving the casino. On my way out, I passed the poker room. There was a table with a sign on it offering free poker lessons. A few novices sat with a dealer, who explained the rank of hands while dealing 7 Card Stud. I joined the lesson for about twenty minutes. Then, I was ready to play! I signed up for a $1/5 Stud game and within minutes was playing my first real hand of poker. I experienced no shyness whatsoever. The game was too much fun, and besides, the dealer was there to make sure I acted in turn, and appropriately. I called with everything, somehow won a few hands, and by god, the $50 I bought in for lasted over four hours. There was no question in my mind that I was going to lose it eventually, but my goal was not to win. It was merely to keep playing for as long as possible. Initially, that was why I liked poker. You get a lot more play for your money than in blackjack, where as any bettor knows, you can lose the same $50 in five hands at a $10-minimum table. I suspect that this is one of the reasons many visitors to the casino have gotten interested in poker.
I also loved the interaction at the poker table--the silly banter, the gruffness of old people as they conceded defeat and folded, the posturing of young guns who came in to beat up on the low limit players for a bit. There was a kind of intimacy about the players’ interactions, even as they faced each other adversarially while trying to take down a pot. I was hooked.
When I “discovered” poker in 1998, there were no internet cardrooms. But I believe that even if I had learned to play in the past two or three years, I would still want to play live, in-person poker, for many of the reasons I’ve outlined here. To be sure, online play has its compensations. Sometimes after a session with particularly obnoxious opponents in a brick and mortar poker room, it is a relief to retreat to the anonymity of internet games. In the privacy and security of home, a player can relax. You don’t have to listen to, or, for that matter, smell other people. You can play in your pajamas, even in bed. You do have to guard against the addictive nature of online play, however. Recently I overheard Mike Matusow lamenting to a fellow player that he had no “parental controls” to restrict the amount of time he plays online. He sounded truly worried that online play could cost him everything - or, result in an unprecedented windfall. He didn’t seem to think there was any middle ground between those two extremes.
I do think there is a middle ground, however, and I believe that in the next few years we will see a sort of “regression to the mean” in the poker world. Online play will continue to be popular, as will “real world” card rooms. But it seems to me that in both arenas, there will be consolidation. Some poker rooms, on and offline, will expand; others will be forced to fold. Like New York City nightclubs, some rooms will be hot for awhile, and then the action will perhaps migrate someplace else, as seems to have happened in the past, as, for example, when a lot of action moved from the Mirage to the Bellagio. Well-managed poker rooms with a strong player base will surely continue to thrive, however.
Poker is America’s most popular game. Before it was on TV, or on the Internet, or in casinos, there were people congregated around kitchen tables and campfires, playing poker. There is no reason to think that that won’t continue, long after we have stopped tuning in to watch celebrities battle at the final table of the WPT or WSOP.