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Poker ‘very, very healthy’ in Northeast, director says

Tribune-Review
| Sunday, December 6, 2015 9:00 p.m
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The venerable game of poker might be down but it’s far from out — especially in Pennsylvania and neighboring states, says the man behind “Poker Night in America.”

“Poker seems to be doing very well, particularly in a geography that doesn’t get enough attention,” says Nolan Dalla, creative director for the series broadcast on CBS Sports Network, Root Sports and other outlets. “Almost all of the boom in the United States in the past five to 10 years has been in the Northeast.”

Dalla’s television series puts “real people” in games with the poker elite and concentrates on conversations as well as the cards, with the goal of showing the fun side of a poker game. Crews filmed at Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh before Thanksgiving. It was the third visit to Pittsburgh by the show, which also has filmed at casinos in upstate New York, Florida and Baltimore. Its only Nevada stop has been in Reno.

“The million-dollar tournaments — that’s really not poker. This is poker,” Dalla says, motioning to the Rivers’ 30-table poker room, which was packed with cash and tournament players. “This is your everyday thing. This state of poker is very, very healthy.”

Pennsylvania casinos added poker and other table games in 2010. Ohio’s first casino opened in 2012.

Nationwide, poker boomed in the early 2000s, fueled by tales of easy riches in unregulated online games and the 2003 triumph of amateur Chris Moneymaker, who won $2.5 million for beating 838 other players in the World Series of Poker Main Event. In 2011, federal authorities shut down American operations of the biggest online-poker sites, accusing them of violating banking laws.

Poker revenue has stagnated in recent years in American casinos. Pennsylvania casinos posted their highest poker win, $61.6 million, in fiscal 2011-12, according to the Gaming Control Board. In 2014-15, that fell to $56.5 million. Nevada has seen an even steeper drop. According to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and the Nevada Gaming Control Board, casinos’ poker win peaked in 2007 at $168 million and dropped to $120 million in 2014.

Poker fans in Pennsylvania might get a new outlet soon, as a bill to legalize and regulate online casino gambling is being considered as part of the answer to the state’s budget problems. “Pennsylvania’s looking very good,” says Chris Capra, U.S. marketing director for 888poker and 888casino, one of the world’s largest online-gambling providers. “Conservative estimates are $140 (million) to $160 million in Year 1, between licensing and taxable revenues, which is very hard to pass up. Plus, it’s a big investment by the companies into the state.”

Currently, only Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware allow any form of online casino gambling.

One player who won a seat at the Poker Night cash game lives in Pennsylvania but often travels to New Jersey because he enjoys playing online, Capra says. By law, players must be in the state to pay online.

Phil “The Unabomber” Laak, one of the pros participating in Poker Night’s game at Rivers, calls himself one of the world’s biggest fans of poker and predicts that card games will be around forever. He sees them as a “brilliant way for children to learn to compete in a cooperative environment,” where players must follow rules.

Dalla, who was media director for the World Series of Poker for many years, says the expansion of regulated online gambling in the United States might generate new growth in poker.

“It probably won’t be like 2004. I don’t think those days will ever come back,” he says. “But as more states climb aboard this (online) train, we think that’s good.”

Capra says New Jersey’s experience shows that people who play online probably wouldn’t have gone to a traditional casino to gamble. 888casino operates online games in all three states that allow it.

Although it might be a long shot, Dalla sees a world of untapped potential for online gaming.

“What if China opens?” he asks. “What about India? Another billion (people) with thriving middle classes. What about South America, Japan? You’ve got enormous untapped markets of poker players that are attracted to the game for the same reason we all are: It’s relatively easy to learn the game; it’s fun; there are social aspects. Given these great untapped markets that are still out there, could we have the days like before? Maybe, but it requires some things to fall our way.”

Mark Gruetze is Trib Total Media’s gambling columnist. Reach him at players@tribweb.com.

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