I recently had an opportunity to visit southern Florida for a combination family vacation and poker-playing trip. My, how the poker scene has changed recently.
Up until July of 2007, poker was limited to $2-limit games played on Indian reservations, dog and horse racing tracks, or jai alai frontons. With a $5 maximum rake and a $1 bad beat jackpot, these games were relatively dull affairs – and it was hard for anyone but the house to make money.
That all changed in July when Florida raised the limit to $5, allowed no-limit poker for the first time – with a $100 maximum buy-in – and allowed poker tournaments with up to an $800 buy-in.
The change has created an explosion of poker action. I saw it first-hand in 12 Floridian poker rooms, all of which I visited in a five-day period. I started my poker journey at the small Seminole casino in the relatively small city of Immokalee.
This is a pleasant little casino and 16-table poker room in the south central part of Florida that might aptly be described as "in the middle of nowhere." It's about 75 minutes south of Sebring, 90 minutes west of Miami and 45 minutes east of Ft. Myers. Aside from citrus trees and a number of housing developments for migrant labor, there's not much going on in Immokalee other than this casino.
I've visited here a few times. On each occasion I arrived at 10:00 AM, the time the poker room is officially scheduled to open. Each time, I discovered that the room did not really open until later in the day – more like 11:30 or noon. The room stays open until the last game dies off – sometimes not until four or five in the morning – but more commonly by midnight or 1:00 AM. I'd suggest that you call before you leave where you are, just to make sure that there will be a game going when you arrive.
The room is run by a seasoned and successful poker room manager, Rick O'Connell. He opened Ak-Chin casino in Arizona and the Cherokee Casino in Oklahoma, both thriving rooms. He's trying his experienced hand at making this room successful, removed as it is from any large population centers.
During my visits I managed to play in some great low-limit hold'em games (including my specialty of low-limit no-limit). Players tend to be retirees and their visiting families – often with no more poker knowledge than they have gleaned from a few family games or by watching TV. On the one occasion when I arrived at night, I found the action wild and reckless, injected as it was with copious amounts of beer drinking. In the daytime it tended to be a game filled with calling stations and players who overvalued their hands. I won nearly a hundred dollars from one woman who insisted on betting with bottom pair – from the flop to the river – seemingly disgusted when she lost to me when I drew my flush on the river. She seemed unaware of the fact that she was also behind two other players who showed middle and top pair.
There are 7:00 PM tournaments weekdays and a noon tourney on Saturday, though you should check with the room on their exact schedule before making plans since tournaments tend to change regularly. They have a bad beat jackpot and high-hand bonuses. The hold'em bad beat stood at the colossal sum of $118,000; the stud bad beat was at $35,000; the bonuses were $500 for a royal, $100 for a straight flush, and $50 for four aces. These bonuses are doubled between midnight and 6:00 AM (if you're lucky enough to find a game at that hour). This is funded with a $1 drop from each hand. The house also rakes 10% of each pot up to $5 – making for a $6 take-out from any large pot.
In addition to hold'em, the room spreads a $1-5 no-ante stud game, though I only found it going once in my three visits. The players tended to be very tight and passive during my one hour of play.
There is a nice little restaurant on the premises, the Talipi Grill. It's modestly priced, for a nice restaurant, with a very large cut of "Blackened Prime Rib" for $19 and what was described by a poker player as a "great Sunday jazz buffet" for only $13.
For those who are adventurous enough to venture off the premises, there are two very inexpensive and authentic cafeteria-like Mexican restaurants in town – where English is only spoken occasionally. I had terrific tacos and chicken soup at each place. There's also a somewhat more Americanized but still excellent family restaurant called Lozanos with reasonably priced enchiladas, fajitas, burritos, tacos, salads, and the like. It was wonderfully busy when I went during lunch time. Portions are large and all meals are served with a bottomless bowl of nachos and picante sauce.
If you like to drive to interesting little places just for the adventure, this is a neat place to visit away from the standard Floridian destination. And the poker action is good enough that you might well win enough to pay for the gas and the food!
506 South First Street