We can talk about the newness of sports betting and online gaming until the dice grow cold, but for some, the hand-to-hand combat and high stakes of poker, in all its names and glories — Stud, Hold’em, Omaha, Razz — reign supreme. Often obsessively so, when you consider the multi-million dollar banks available to tournament poker combatants. “So many of us hate to leave the table to do anything, including eating, drinking or even going to bathroom,” said Thomas Bates, bi-coastal poker player-turned-casino director.
Casinos across New Jersey and Pennsylvania offer poker tourneys with several hosting their own rooms. And, like NJ has already, the PA Gaming Control Board is currently reviewing interactive applications for online poker connected to specific casinos. But come January, Atlantic City’s Borgata and SugarHouse in Philly, rule the poker roost with the Borgata Winter Poker Open 2019 (Jan. 15 – Feb. 1) with the $2 Million Guaranteed Deepstack Kick-Off, a $1 Million Guaranteed Almighty Stack, and the Televised WPT $3 Million Guaranteed Borgata Championship which runs from Jan. 27 to Jan. 31).
Then there is SugarHouse’s Poker Night in America Room hosting a $100,000 Guaranteed Little Rush, a multiday No Limit Texas Hold’em poker tournament from January 13 to 19, featuring 20,000 starting stacks for $150 with two flights each day at noon and 7:00 p.m. Also happening in Philadelphia’s first and only poker room is its “Thursday Thunder” high hands with high hands hitting $500 every 30 minutes from noon to midnight.
“Poker has been an important part of Borgata’s brand since we debuted in 2003,” said Mike Woodside, VP of Marketing for Borgata. “As our product and players grew and evolved, so have we; opening an 80+ table Poker Room — the largest in Atlantic City — in 2006, and offering multimillion dollar tournaments throughout each year. Our poker team is constantly communicating with our players and developing new and innovative gaming options to keep our product fresh and unique.”
That last element, communicating with players to see what they need, is what’s kept Bates — SugarHouse’s director of poker — up at night. Bates laughs when he talks, proudly, about the convenience he’s created for SugarHouse’s poker players. “Not only do we offer free alcoholic beverages to those playing at our tables, the players can text food orders to any restaurant at the casino — from Taconelli’s pizza to Hugo’s steakhouse — so to eat at the table while playing.”
Atlantic City and Philly casinos remain all in
Bates has a pretty good idea of what is necessary for a great casino poker game, up-to-and-including the Borgata as he came from that AC casino (with a stop in-between) before getting the call to take over SugarHouse’s poker room. In all honesty, Bates is made of casino stuff, as he started at Harrahs’ AC in 1984 with table games, and moved to poker when Resorts came on the scene in 1991. This was a time pre-Chris Moneymaker whose $2.5 million victory during 2003’s World Series of Poker changed the game and stakes forever when it came to casino poker. With supervisory experience at table games for casinos, poker was a breeze for Bates. “They’re both highly customer-based, which I can handle as that comes from my mom raising me right: ‘treat people how you want to be treated,” he said. “They want a great and fun experience at a cost. …I can show you the tax returns.”
Bates eventually headed to the San Diego casino scene where “all I had to do was deal and surf, my two passions,” stated Bates. By 2001, Bates was a dealer at AC’s Taj Mahal when Borgata called and made Bates part of its opening team, managing its WPT tournaments and calling the final tables for television. “That was an exciting. No one had ever done these tournaments before on the East Coast, I was famously familiar with it. That was a big deal.” Bates stayed at Borgata until 2013, hit the sands at Florida’s Hard Rock where he designed Tampa poker rooms, and turned that into the #1 poker hall in Florida, until Rush Street Gaming’s SugarHouse made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. “I design poker rooms as a player,” he said.
Bates describes Philadelphia poker players as a tad more conservative in their approach and their betting — versus the West Coast or Midwest — but equally daring. “Philly players are more mindful of their money, but, the West Coast was the wild west when I was out there. Pennsylvania and New Jersey is more reserved and do things by the books without varying — which is good. The best idea for a poker room and player is to build a great foundation and to play by the rules.”