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Poker

[The Strip Sense]

Finding signs of poker’s demise in the cosmos

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The World Series of Poker at the Rio.
Harrah's

Now that those thrilling elections are behind us, who’s ready for some poker?

Uh, anyone? Hello?

Oh, sure, some of you are aware that Vegas’ next big thing is the World Series of Poker’s Main Event finale at the Rio. Come November 6, the nine guys who survived the initial field in July will clash until just two are left. Then, those two go head-to-head on Monday for the $8.9 million top prize and title. But you’re forgiven if you didn’t know that or if you have no idea who’s playing. Poker, once an all-consuming public fascination, has seen its popularity plummet. This year, the game’s important milestone hardly registers on the pop culture radar.

In fact, here’s some breaking news: The $3.9 billion Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas will open in December without a poker room. That’s groundbreaking, and not in a good way for The Game. (Poker people are constantly talking about whether some event or person is “good for The Game.”)

I can’t recall the last Vegas resort to open without a poker room, and it certainly hasn’t happened since the poker boom took off around 2003 with the WSOP triumph of unknown Chris Moneymaker. Having a poker room became a necessary amenity; it didn’t make most properties much money because the competition is between players and not against the house, but if you didn’t have a place for the trendy people to play, then they’d be partying, dining, shopping and doing the rest of their gambling elsewhere.

The Cosmopolitan, whose brass hasn’t said why it made this choice, clearly wants to cater to the trendy people. They’ve assembled a terrific lineup of restaurants, will offer unusually spacious rooms (with balconies!), and Marquee nightclub with its Strip vistas should be an instant phenomenon. They opened their TV ad campaign with a sexy, 60-second spot during the finale of Mad Men, which gives you some idea of whom they’re targeting.

Yet, no poker room. It’s not as though they don’t have the space, either. Their casino is slated to be 100,000 square feet, same as Planet Hollywood’s and bigger than those at the Flamingo or Bally’s.

“Casino designs, at least the modern ones, are not done by mistake,” noted Eric Gladstone, a Las Vegas Weekly contributing writer and Vegas blogger for Orbitz.com. “They’re very well thought-out. Maybe they’re betting that poker has peaked.” Well, hasn’t it? And wasn’t it inevitable?

Perhaps, but the poker gods sure didn’t think so back in 2008, when they decided to create the weird timeout before the WSOP Final Table to create anticipation, give the finalists a chance to promote and build suspense for ESPN viewers, who’d previously known who won the tournament before any of it had aired.

“The goal is to make the World Series of Poker more popular than ever and more relevant,” former WSOP Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack told me in 2008. “We stopped to ask, ‘If this were taking place on a basketball court or football field, how would we grow it?’”

Evidently, you don’t. Three years into this configuration, ESPN’s ratings for its serialized broadcast of the tournament’s first weeks leading up to the Final Table are down. A lot. You can create events on other continents and introduce new cultures to The Game, but everywhere poker goes, it will plateau. And that’s exactly what it’s done here. Its initial allure, you see, is that anyone can win, that even you at your computer in your mustard-stained wifebeater can defeat the most famous players. Neat fantasy, but it also means no Tiger or Federer or Phelps. Even poker stars like Annie Duke who cross into the pop-culture lexicon can’t force themselves into WSOP contention on sheer skill alone, and it’s hard for viewers to get worked up about stars they admire when they usually lose on the first day.

Everyone knows June means the NBA Playoffs and October means the World Series. Only die-hard poker players and the reporters who cover them equate November with the World Series of Poker. I suspect that’s never going to change.

Follow Steve on Twitter at TheStripPodcast or head to VegasHappensHere.com for his blog and weekly celeb-interview podcast, The Strip. E-mail him at SteveFriess@aol.com.
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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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