As trend wanes, Vegas casinos fold on poker rooms

Thursday - 2/28/2013, 12:56pm EST

FILE - In this May 31, 2011 file photo, players compete in a Heads-Up poker tournament during the World Series of Poker at the Rio hotel and casino in Las Vegas. At the height of the poker fad, Las Vegas couldn't get enough of poker rooms. Now some of those rooms are folding. Four casinos yanked their poker tables last year, including the Tropicana, and three other rooms closed shop in 2011. (AP Photo/Eric Jamison, File)

HANNAH DREIER
Associated Press

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- The Tropicana hoped to step back into the big leagues when it opened its poker room in the heart of the Las Vegas Strip, touting it as the coolest in town.

But that same morning, federal agents shut down the three biggest online poker sites on the Internet. Last September, less than a year and a half later, the iconic casino quietly swapped out its green felt tables for slot machines.

It's a story that's become increasingly common as the crackdown on Internet gambling weakens poker's appeal, and the casinos that once competed to lure fans of Texas Hold 'Em abandon the waning game in favor of more lucrative alternatives.

Poker has never been a big moneymaker like slot machines or roulette. But when the game's popularity soared during the 2000s, casinos were willing to forgo the extra dollars to get players inside their buildings.

Now the calculus is shifting. In Sin City, epicenter of the poker craze, at least eight rooms have folded in the past two years. The trend is also playing out in Mississippi riverboats, Indian casinos and gambling halls near big cities from California to Florida.

Poker's proponents insist the game remains as popular as ever, and some larger casinos say their rooms are bustling.

In a statement this month announcing the World Series of Poker lineup, executive director Ty Stewart said the summer bonanza in Las Vegas would be an "affirmation about the strength and global appeal of the game."

But the spate of poker room closures on the Strip has some wondering whether the largest gambling trend to sweep the country in 25 years may be losing momentum.

"I just think the allure of poker is lessening," said William Thompson, author of the encyclopedia "Gambling in America" and professor of public administration at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "That's one reason the smaller casinos would just say, 'Hey it's not worth all the time to set everything up. A slot machine would do a lot better.'"

Poker revenue has been falling in Nevada since 2007, the year after the federal government first cracked down on virtual gambling and forced online companies to close or relocate offshore.

The recession hobbled casinos across the board, but while winnings from other games began to pick back up in 2010, poker revenue continues to slump by an average of 6 percent a year, according to annual reports from the state Gaming Control Board.

Poker revenues stacked up to $123 million last year, down from a high of $168 million in 2007.

Entries in the World Series of Poker's main event also took tumble in 2007, falling by 28 percent from a high of 8,773. Entries have only topped 7,000 once in the years since.

On April 15, 2011, the federal government took its strongest stand yet against the semi-legal world of internet poker, blacking out three major sites on a date later dubbed "Black Friday."

No longer could fresh crops of poker players develop their games online.

The Tropicana hotel-resort, which was remaking itself with several major renovations at the time, opened its new poker room the same spring day.

"Poker had gone through a dramatic popularity phase. It grew really quickly. And we jumped on board," said Fred Harmon, chief marketing officer for the casino that sits on a busy Strip intersection opposite the MGM Grand and New York New York.

The decision to replace the room with slot machines last fall was pure economics, Harmon said.

"I think every company over the last several years have had to look at what they do and what makes money," he said.

Casinos across the country are making the same calculation.

Sam's Town in Tunica, Mississippi, closed its poker room in January, citing the economy. The Seminole Casino Hollywood near Fort Lauderdale, Fla., replaced its room with slots in September.

Indian casinos in states like Minnesota and the Dakotas are also pulling their rooms, according to marketing consultant Theron "Scarlet Raven" Thompson.

"What you're seeing is the mom and pop-sized poker rooms are closing. The larger properties are monopolizing the poker crowd," he said.

Several smaller Las Vegas casinos decided they no longer wanted to bet on the game in 2012, including Ellis Island, which closed its room just two months after opening it. Casino bosses also removed rooms from the Silverton south of the Strip, Aliante to the north, and Fitzgerald's, which eliminated its room when it rebranded as the D.