Where to Join the Poker Crowd

Poker, poker everywhere, but nary a place to play.

The five-card craze has spawned a plethora of poker-themed television shows, Web sites where rookies can test their skills and even a magazine called All In, which debuted in May. According to the American Gaming Association, poker revenue in the state of Nevada rose 18.2% last year, while New Jersey saw a 14.2% increase. But while the game's popularity is spreading, finding a casino with a great poker room can be more difficult than you'd expect.

The reason: Casinos don't make much money off of poker because the house doesn't really have an edge when it comes to odds. In the majority of poker variants, especially the popular games seen in television tournaments, players bet against other players to take home the pot. As a result, the house is left to essentially charge "rent" for the use of the tables, taking a minuscule percentage of the winnings as a fee.

Casinos aren't entirely resistant to the trend. Some are looking to expand their poker rooms, if only to bring in high rollers who will stay the night and spend their money at restaurants and shops. By and large, however, casinos have decided to either court poker players or ignore them -- which means poker, as played in a casino, can be a hit-or-miss proposition. (For more on casinos and poker, click here. )

But to find the poker hot spots, all you need to do is follow the professional players who tend to hold court at a select number of casinos, where an Average Joker can play against them. Here's a look at the places where poker remains king and the kings of poker go to play.

Las Vegas on the East Coast

Atlantic City's dozen casinos generated $4.5 billion in gaming revenue during 2003, just shy of the $4.8 billion in gaming revenue generated in Las Vegas. But while Atlantic City is a gaming mecca, a poker mecca it is not.

There are only five poker rooms in all of Atlantic City and only two of them are really worth mentioning -- the Trump Taj Mahal, which has 68 tables and is home to the U.S. Poker Championship; and the year-old Borgata, which has 34 tables and is rapidly replacing the venerable Taj as the "it" Atlantic City poker destination among hard-core players.

"I'm a big Borgata fan," said Daniel Negreanu, the youngest poker professional to ever win a world championship event. "I hated playing in Atlantic City for years. It was dreary and grungy. But at the Borgata, it's like I'm back in Las Vegas. It's the only casino where I feel like I'm at home. It's classy, the poker room is clean and it's well organized."

Indeed, the poker room at the Borgata has moved away from the chintzy, gold-plated, blinking-lights aesthetic found in other casinos and towards a contemporary, elegant and downright muted feel that has attracted a vibrant mix of poker enthusiasts.

The Borgata's poker room hosts daily tournaments, holds regular lessons and is set apart from the rest of the casino, far from the clanking slots. The room has a private snack bar, so you don't need to wander around the casino in search of food, but if you're hungry for more than a nosh, there are a wide-variety of upscale eateries, including a steakhouse and two fine Italian restaurants.

"The Borgata is redefining Atlantic City gaming. It's the number one place. Its poker room has really raised the bar. It's different than anything else out there," said Steve Lipscomb, founder and CEO of the World Poker Tour. "On the east coast, with the exception of Foxwoods, I haven't walked into a place and gasped like that. It's just beautiful."

In fact, the biggest knock on the Borgata is that it's too popular -- the poker room is usually jam-packed even during weekdays -- which is why the casino plans to double its size when the Borgata expands. And the only thing harder than finding a seat at the tables is finding a room in the hotel over the weekend, when rates run as high as $400 a night. The best deals can be found during the week, with rates starting at $170 a night, including a complimentary breakfast buffet.

If the Borgata's too crowded, don't worry: The Taj has twice as many tables up the street.

The Hollywood Shuffle

The only thing better than meeting celebrities is taking their money -- and you can do it at the Commerce Casino, seven miles south of downtown Los Angeles and not far from Disneyland.

Celebrities love poker these days, with failed sitcom stars, B-list Hollywood actors and two-bit comedians popping up on television shows like Bravo's Celebrity Poker Showdown and the World Poker Tour's Hollywood Home Game. And when the stars look to throw some cards and chops around, they head to Commerce, or the Bicycle Casino, nicknamed "The Bike" and home to the Legends of Poker tournament, which is also in Los Angeles.

But the Commerce is the one that's been grabbing headlines lately. In June, Ben Affleck won Commerce Casino's California State Poker Championship, walking off with $356,000 in prize money, a seat at next April's World Poker Tour Championship and bragging rights for beating a 90-player field, which included a number of poker pros and other A-list names, like Spider-Man 2 star Tobey McGuire.

Such celebrity sightings are nothing new for Commerce, which has developed a reputation for catering to stars over the last 21 years by keeping the star-struck at bay and giving celebs special treatment.

"We value and protect their privacy," explained Nancy Friedman, spokesperson for the casino. "That's a very important practice for us. They feel comfortable coming down here to our casino to play just like any other person."

Commerce, the self-described "Poker Capital of the World" and new home to the World Poker Tour Poker Walk of Fame, offers more poker than anywhere else in the United States. Because of California's gaming regulations, you won't find any jangling slot machines at the Commerce, where its Babylonian-themed interior sports more than 200 tables, a wide variety of betting limits and at least 10 different poker variants, including harder-to-find games like Pineapple, Low-Ball and Mexican Poker.

There's more than just poker at the Commerce, though. In 2001, the Crowne Plaza Hotel opened a 200-room hotel tower at the casino, which also has a day spa, beauty salon and a number of restaurants. Rooms are rather affordable and start at $130 a night.

Don't, however, expect a Las Vegas-scale experience. More often than not, the stars playing poker are often bigger than the ones entertaining guests. Unlike nearly every other casino in America, poker is the entree at the Commerce, with the other amenities serving as garnish.

"It's simply huge. When you walk into the Commerce, it's like walking into a poker warehouse," said Lipscomb. "There are restaurants and nice accommodations and some entertainment and some comedy shows, but primarily, it's all about the poker."

Take a Flyer on Paris

In 1907, in the wake of World War I, a group of French aviators got together and created a little club to play poker. Nearly a century later, the Aviation Club de France embodies everything you'd expect from a time when a generation of sartorial gentlemen played games of chance.

"You walk right off the Champs-Elysees and enter the era of Louis the XVI," said Lipscomb. "The walls are covered in elaborate wood paneling; there are statues and a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. It's just a block-and-a-half from the Arc de Triumph. And it virtually defines sex appeal. If you're looking for a place you'll talk about for the rest of your life, this is it."

With a long history and a location unmatched by any other casino on Earth, the Aviation Club is the kind of throwback that Las Vegas can only pull off with faux finishes. This authenticity attracts an upscale clientele and some of Europe's best poker players, who pass their time lounging around on the red leather furniture, inspecting the fine artwork on the walls and eating in the four-star restaurant -- that is, when they're not playing poker.

Three Quick Poker Tips From the Pros
Playing cards at home is one thing, but playing in a casino can be a nerve-shredding, money-losing experience. Here's what two pros had to say to avoid making rookie mistakes
Tip Quote
Ask for help, as that's what it's there for. "Before you sit down, you should watch for a good 20 minutes. And when you want to play, make sure you talk to a floor man. He will help you get your chips and will provide you with a smooth transition into playing in person." -- Daniel Negreanu
Suckers and sharks like to talk. "To spot a shark, look around and see who is talking a lot. If you see a lot of friendly chatter, chances are they could be the sucker -- but if they're not, they could be one of the professionals, conversing with the rest of the clique." -- Negreanu
Calm down and play slowly. "I would say the best advice I can give is 'be patient' and 'wait for hands.' Don't be involved in every single pot. The first thing I always say is, 'you play too many hands,' before I even know how they play." -- Jennifer Harman

In addition to stud poker, the Aviation Club offers a number of unusual variants to spice things up, like Aviation and Courchevel, giving the feel of a home game in a museum-quality setting. The club offers baccarat, backgammon, Parisian-style blackjack and rami, a French version of Tarot. Still, poker is the main draw, so be prepared to plunk down some money to play if you want to swim with the big fish -- buy-ins run as high as 5,000 euros ($6,090) for a pot-limit game and 8,000 euros ($9,745) for a limit game. Those with smaller budgets can buy-in for as little as 50 euros ($61).

And while the Aviation Club lacks a hotel, the club is more than willing to help customers with a discounted rate at one of more than a dozen nearby places, whose prices range from 63 euros ($76.75) to 350 euros ($426) a night. To top off the opulent experience, be sure to make a reservation at the Aviation Club's gourmet restaurant as well, where head chef Serge Langevin begins serving four-course meals at 7:30 p.m.

Pack your fineries, take your passport and brush up on your French -- at the Aviation Club, instead of the word "call" you'll often hear "suivi."

"It's just got a completely different feel than any other place," said Negreanu. "For us, poker rooms are no longer smoky; no longer have that connection to the past. In Paris, everyone is well-dressed at the casino. It has a real European flavor -- everything is done differently there."

The House That Poker Built

Celebrities live in Hollywood. Writers live in New York City. And professional poker players live in Las Vegas.

And when the poker pros look to sharpen up their card skills, they're often ensconced at one of the Bellagio's 30 tables. Professionals flock to the Bellagio for its attention to detail and high standard of service, but even more so because the casino attracts people who are willing to lose big, if only to gamble with professionals.

"For high limits, the Bellagio is the only place to play," said Jennifer Harman, a professional poker player and owner of two World Series of Poker bracelets. "Everyone wants to play there. It's replaced the Mirage as the top casino, the action has increased and it's on TV now. "

Perhaps it was the Bellagio's star turn in the film "Ocean's Eleven," but the casino has acquired new cache in poker circles. In April, the Bellagio played host to the World Poker Tour Championship, handing out more than $2.7 million to the first-place winner, the most ever paid in a televised poker tournament. And even when the television cameras are off, the Bellagio is all about high stakes. The casino's high-limit room, which sits in a top section above the regular tables, is slowly becoming legendary for its million-dollar pots and the homegrown poker pros who hang out there even when they're not playing tournaments.

Staying and playing at the Bellagio, however, can be a pricey proposition. But as one of the few five-star hotels in Las Vegas, you get what you pay for. Rooms cost about $360 on the weekends, when vacancies are scarce, and $200 during the week -- of course, you can always stay elsewhere and visit the poker room.

And while the casino has a reputation for being a haven for high-rollers, it offers a number of betting levels ranging from $1 to $5 for a game of seven-card stud into the hundreds of thousands of dollars at the no-limit table -- which was a special request from a deep-pocketed Texas billionaire who sought to up the ante significantly.

"There's no other place where you can see a billionaire come in and lay down $15 million with the greatest players in the world," said Lipscomb. "That happens a lot at the Bellagio -- all of the faces on our TV shows, their home base is Bellagio. It's becoming the cornerstone of the professional poker world."

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