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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

TV, Web Driving Poker Fever

12 October 2004

While the popularity of televised poker tournaments has helped drive business to casino poker rooms, online poker sites may be equally, if not more responsible, for the surge in casino traffic.

"There are people who would not be in a poker room (in a casino) if not for the Internet," said Jennifer Harman, a professional poker player who participated in one of several panel discussions about poker at last week's Global Gaming Expo.

Online poker exists in a legal gray area. Certain states such as Nevada explicitly prohibit Internet betting or some forms of gambling while others don't. Some legal experts say poker is exempted from state gambling laws because it's a game of skill while others disagree. The Justice Department maintains that all Internet wagers are illegal because they involve transactions that cross state lines.

Meanwhile federal prosecutors have threatened legal action against several major media companies, claiming the companies are "aiding and abetting" illegal gambling sites by hosting advertising for the sites and providing other services.

Americans, meanwhile, are paying little attention to such legal maneuvering and are joining Internet poker games in record numbers for a shot at winning a seat in televised poker tournaments in casinos worldwide. Others have less lofty goals of playing poker in a Las Vegas casino and are practicing in the privacy of their own homes to avoid making rookie mistakes.

"Everyone wants to be on TV," said Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor gambler newsletter.

Curtis said many Internet sites that are concerned about legal restrictions will find a way to make money by selling ads to sites that offer free games and prizes for winners, he said.

Online sites are engaging in subtle advertising and sly marketing campaigns as standing outside casinos to sign up customers on mailing lists, said Debee Silverman, marketing manager of, an online portal that caters to Internet casinos.

The lure of the game is enough to attract others to the Internet, Silverman said.

"It's all word of mouth," she said. "People are winning big money online."

About half of the roughly 2,600 people who played in the World Series of Poker at Binion's Horseshoe this year likely came from "satellite" poker tournaments online, said Doug Dalton, director of poker operations at the Bellagio.

Jack Binion, former chief executive of Horseshoe Gaming and former owner and manager of Binion's Horsehoe, estimates that some 60,000 people are playing online poker during peak hours nationwide.

Online poker jackpots have risen from the hundreds of thousands of dollars to the millions of dollars, Harman said.

Many people are now making a living largely by playing poker online, experts said.

Some pros are playing online "thirteen to fifteen hours a day" in two or three poker rooms and then supplementing that with playing a few casino tournaments a year, said Peter Marcus, marketing director of adsdotcom, a U.K.-based marketer of Internet gambling sites.

While some forms of gambling like sports betting will always be male-dominated, poker has witnessed a steady increase of female players, Silverman said.

About 72 percent of members who play poker online are men, down from 84 percent last year, she said.

For the typical customer, poker has become an expected part of their gambling vacation, said Lyle Berman, chief executive officer of Lakes Entertainment Inc., which owns the televised World Poker Tour.

"The average player wants a poker experience," Berman said. "If you don't have a poker room they're going to go somewhere else. They see it on TV and they expect to be able to play."

Seeing people play poker on television also gives players an excuse to go to Las Vegas or elsewhere to gamble, Curtis said.

"It entitles them to go back because they think they can beat the casino," he said.

Dalton said many casinos are making the mistake of slapping up a poker room in the back of their casino without spending the time and money to promote it or make it an important part of the casino floor.

They're saying, "We'll put it in and make a lot of money off it, too,' " Dalton said. "But you have to support it and make it high profile."

TV, Web Driving Poker Fever is republished from