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What’s the future of live poker rooms in Vegas?

Updated February 3, 2024 - 8:34 am

Poker fans coming to Las Vegas in the 2000s and 2010s used to have dozens of room options to patronize — small rooms with a few games a day, mid-sized rooms on the Strip and large rooms that have long drawn in the best card players. Today, they have 19.

A mid-2000s boon for poker brought 70 cardrooms to the region by 2010, but a drop to about 20 rooms — many shuttered as a cost-saving measure post-pandemic — shows how much operating the game has changed for casinos and what it could be in the future.

Post-pandemic efficiencies

John Mehaffey tracked poker room closures throughout the pandemic for VegasAdvantage.com, a website he co-publishes with his wife Kristina. He said he wasn’t surprised that many casinos chose to shutter their small or mid-sized poker rooms “at a time when every penny counted.”

“What makes the small room so hard to run is if you only have one table going, you need two people – two hours of labor for every hour there – because the dealers rotate back and forth,” Mehaffey said. “The smaller the room is, the higher that number is going to be, the more economical it is to operate that poker room. The consolidation happened because these big rooms are as efficient as can be, and these little rooms just aren’t.”

While small and mid-sized rooms closed, larger rooms fared better because they could operate more efficiently and pull players from closed rooms, Mehaffey said.

“The big thing happening here is consolidation,” he said. “The rich get richer, so to speak. If you had a profitable, viable room before all this happened, you’re doing better than you did in 2019, at large.”

As many casinos closed their card rooms in 2021, newly opened Resorts World continued with its plans to open one. Director of Poker Operations Leon Wheeler said some companies choose to use the casino floor’s square footage for something more profitable, like slots or a shop. But those who choose to run a room treat it as an amenity that brings players in to spend elsewhere on site.

“I believe it’s an important part of the casino,” Wheeler said. “We really want to make a poker brand, kind of like Wynn, Bellagio and Aria. We want to be in that conversation.”

The future of Vegas poker rooms

Poker executives say the drop in poker rooms doesn’t mean the market is shrinking. Look no further than Sean McCormack’s role at MGM Resort International as director of poker strategy, a new position at the company created in 2022. He oversees big events and looks for ways to increase player incentives to visit other MGM markets.

“I wouldn’t look at (it) as a direct linear relationship of the business of poker,” McCormack said. “The ones that are continuing to do it are doing it bigger and better. Some rooms have actually expanded their footprint out a little larger.”

He points to Aria’s poker room as an example of the modern live way to play. The room has 24 tables with daily tournaments, cash games and multiple variations of games.

“The model today has strengthened the game of poker for the guests, because they know what the expectation is when they walk in the room, they know there will be some action,” he said. “I think we’re actually better today than even in other heydays.”

Another key element to poker’s future is connection between online and in-person play. McCormack said iGaming allows operators to welcome in new players at a smaller buy-in, drawing them to live tables through winning a trip to a tournament or classic.

Partnerships with online and other large poker brands is part of that integration. BetMGM works closely with the brick-and-mortar rooms in the company’s portfolio. Caesars Entertainment owns the World Series of Poker, Wynn partners with World Poker Tour for its championships, and Resorts World held its first tournament with PokerStars in November.

Connecting those two through technology could make the game even more popular, and rooms more efficient, Wheeler said. Technology like cash in/out options for online accounts at live tables could bring more guests to Vegas rooms.

“People have this misconception that online poker hurts the lie in the brick-and-mortar poker rooms which you know, it has the quite opposite effect,” Wheeler said. “Poker is a social game and that’s what’s missing in the online arena.”

McKenna Ross is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Contact her at mross@reviewjournal.com. Follow @mckenna_ross_ on X.

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