Poker leagues: A challenge to casinos?

Until recently, there were three main venues to play poker: Brick-and-Mortar (B&M) casinos, online poker sites, and home games. Without a lot of fanfare, a new resource has emerged: Poker Leagues.
My co-columnist, George “The Engineer” Epstein, recently shared with me his correspondence with one of his poker fans. Arlene J. lives in Philadelphia and enjoys her poker in a very active Poker League in which a number of local bars and restaurants participate.
She explained: The Poker League (she plays in a bar near her home) started about two years ago. At least two other poker leagues are in the area. They offer tournaments. Apparently it is quite legal. At least they have not been challenged. And it’s free to all participants! “Basically you show up at the designated time and sign in. . . By arriving a half-hour early, I get an extra $500 chip.”
At her venue, instead of regulation poker tables, they use roll-up table coverings which replicate the look of a poker table, that can be put over any table or two tables set together. There is a tournament director responsible for the game. The tournament starts with $25-$50 stakes that increase at 20-minute intervals.
“Each of the participants at the table is responsible for being the dealer on a rotating basis. We play for points. Depending on how many participants there are, determines the number of points to be received and how many places will get points. Most venues give a gift card for 1st place ($20 or $25). Sometimes there is also a second place winner. A few venues also give a cash prize to the big winner of the evening.”
How do the Poker League venues manage? Where does each get its income?
“The expectation is that the participants will patronize the restaurant/pub, and I think most people will buy a pint of beer. Some buy food or go early for dinner.”
Arlene’s venue periodically also holds a big tournament with semi-finals and then finals. In November, eight places out of 48 participants in the finals, won cash prizes.
Looking Ahead
More Poker Leagues are bound to sprout up, at least in states where they are not deemed illegal for whatever reason. Apparently it’s a good deal for both the players and the businesses. Presumably, offering prizes for the winners is not gambling since the players do not invest any of their own money – no risk.
Patronizing the restaurant/bar is only natural. We all have to eat. It brings customers into the business and is an incredible deal for recreational players. It’s a win-win. . .
What of Brick and Mortar Casinos?
As the Poker League phenomenon grows, will it hurt the conventional B&M casinos? My guess is that the casinos may very well lose low-limit recreational players. That’s a significant source of revenues.
There are good reasons why many may choose to abandon the casinos, not least of which is the casino rake – the chips removed from each hand played. In many casinos, especially in low-limit games that recreational players favor, the rake – added to a chip drop for the Bad-Beat Jackpot and a tip to the dealer – can represent a significant cost to the player – over $20 per hour of play.
So a player who buys in for $100 could see all of his chips disappear in less than five hours of play, all things being equal. There are relatively few winners.
To compete, casinos may seek other sources of revenue. Some may form alliances with Poker League venues. It’s not likely they would try to mimic the model of the Poker Leagues, and trump them with better services and goodies for their poker-playing customers.
Perhaps paid dealers may have to go. Certainly, a smaller rake would placate many players. It would help to treat the players as valued customers. Remember the old adage: “The customer is always right.”
Of course, there is also the chance that Poker Leagues will be declared illegal as recently happened to a venue in Florida.
Stay tuned…

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