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Borgata Booms: The Story Behind the East Coast's Premier Poker Destination

  • The story behind Borgata, the East Coast's premier poker destination.

In the year 2000, poker was all but dead.

Sure, you could find a game at The Mirage in Las Vegas, or at any number of small above-board and underground card rooms around the United States. But in a place like Atlantic City, despite a slight uptick in interest in the game after the 1998 film Rounders made the Trump Taj Mahal the home of poker on the East Coast, the number of poker tables in rooms on the aging Boardwalk was steadily declining.

In fact, Atlantic City gaming revenues were on a downswing across the board.

The latest plan to revitalize the city's gaming industry was still being bandied about. Casino mogul Steve Wynn was promising to build a modern casino property in the city's marina area and was backing the government's plan to build a tunnel from the Atlantic City Expressway to the soon-to-be-developed land.

Some residents and Atlantic City casino owner and now presidential candidate Donald Trump opposed the project, and Wynn's plans eventually changed, but the construction of the Atlantic City-Brigantine Connector did go ahead.

Trump agreed to drop his opposition to the project when an exit ramp leading to his own Trump Marina property was added, and Wynn was bought out by MGM Grand Inc., creating the MGM Mirage company. That's when MGM went to work on an idea that would prove to be a game changer.

In the spring of 2003, Chris Moneymaker, an accountant and amateur poker player from Tennessee, won the World Series of Poker Main Event, igniting the poker boom. But before Moneymaker's story had time to grip the American public the way it eventually would, and despite the fact Atlantic City poker rooms were shrinking and most casinos were replacing table games with slots in an attempt to hold on to what was left of declining gaming revenues, in July of 2003, MGM, in partnership with Boyd Gaming, opened the doors to a massive Las Vegas-style hotel, casino, and spa with 200 table games, an array of top-quality nightlife, entertainment, restaurant options, and a 34-table poker room on the marina land.

"When Borgata opened its doors in 2003, Atlantic City was introduced to its first Las Vegas-style casino property; offering a first-class hotel, great restaurants, an award-winning spa, and A-list entertainers and deejays the likes of which hadn't been seen in this city," says Borgata Senior Vice President of Operations, Joe Lupo.

Borgata was an immediate success, becoming the top-grossing casino in Atlantic City right out of the gate and holding on to that position to this day.

The property really bucked the trends. In 2002, The Sands pulled the last of its table games and was moving towards being a slots-only facility. Borgata took a different approach altogether, trying to rejuvenate table games in Atlantic City.

When they opened the doors, poker hadn't really taken off yet. Still, Borgata opened 34 tables at the same time most of the competition was pulling out of poker. Popular thinking at the time was that poker was a good resting place for the guy who wanted to sit back and smoke a cigar while his wife pulled the arm on a slot machine inside the casino. From 1994-2002 there were about 124 poker tables in operation in Atlantic City. Borgata came out of nowhere with a room 25 percent of the size of the existing market. It was almost as if they knew what lay ahead.

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Borgata's poker room

It has been well documented that over the next few years poker boomed immensely, and Borgata was right at the forefront if it all. Hole-card cameras made the game watchable on TV, and ratings began to soar for the burgeoning World Poker Tour broadcast.

Borgata jumped on board right away, hosting a Season 2 stop on the tour in the year the property opened, seeing the WPT as a great way to give the property and its poker product some credibility and exposure.

By the time 2006 rolled around and poker was peaking in popularity, Borgata was running two WPT stops each year, and setting field-size records for tour events every time around. The property itself also underwent a $200 million expansion, bumping its poker room up to 85 tables. Room revenues went through the roof and Borgata was running some of the biggest cash games in the country.

By focusing on providing the best facilities, and customer service, including the top dealers and floor staff in the country, Borgata drew the biggest and best games around, quickly becoming the proving ground for the top poker players on the east coast and around the country.

Over the next few years, Borgata expanded its major tournament series to include seasonal festivals five times a year. The 15-20 day poker tournament series are now the biggest in the country outside of the WSOP in Las Vegas and run on a 100-plus table footprint inside the property's Event Center just to keep up with ever-increasing entry numbers. Plus, when the WPT decided to take its World Championship event on a tour of its properties outside of Las Vegas three years ago, it landed at the only place that really made sense over the next two years: Borgata.

Pundits have been writing the poker boom's obituary ever since the game's popularity peaked in 2006, but Borgata continues to stop the presses.

While some feel as though poker is in a state of decline, industry numbers tell a different story. With the expansion of poker outside of New Jersey — introduced in Pennsylvania (July 2010) and Maryland (March 2013) — poker is continuing to grow in rooms in the east coast region.

The only thing that had waned were the online satellite numbers on which those early, record-breaking fields from live events at Borgata were built. They fell by the wayside with the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act in 2006, and ultimately Black Friday, when the Department of Justice shut down the last of the major online poker operators in the country on April 15, 2011, causing the demise of online poker in the United States.

At the time, the dream of qualifying into a major event at Borgata for pennies on the dollar appeared dead, but in February 2013, the New Jersey Legislature brought it back to life, legalizing online casino gambling, including poker, for a 10-year trial period. By the time the new legal, regulated, and taxed online poker market opened in November 2013, Borgata was more than ready to get back in the game.

"Anticipating New Jersey legislation to legalize online gaming would come sooner than later, Borgata initiated mobile gaming on property, which not only enabled us to learn about a new type of online gaming, but put Borgata at the forefront of the industry," explains Lupo. "We worked tirelessly to ensure that Borgata was one of the first providers launching our very successful poker and casino sites."

From the jump, and have been offering a completely safe and secure, full-service online gaming product that customers can quickly and easily sign up for all across the country, and use the minute they step foot inside the state of New Jersey.

Almost immediately, the online poker site began running qualifiers for land-based events at Borgata and they're now sending qualifiers from online into every one of its on-property championship events. This has proven a successful proposition for Borgata, as its online satellite program put 104 entries into its most recent Borgata Winter Poker Open series.

The biggest advantage they have in the online market is the building, and the ability to offer online players the chance to qualify for land-based events for as little as $5. By all accounts, the online poker and casino sites are delivering on all the lofty expectations people have for the Borgata brand.

In the spring of last year, Asher Conniff proved the system works, satelliting into the massive $560 Borgata Spring Poker Open opening event and winning it for $203,231. Two weeks later, he accidentally entered a $1,600 buy-in satellite for the $15,000 WPT World Championship on and went on to win the seat, and the entire tournament, for another $937,683.

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Asher Conniff (photo: WPT)

Borgata listens to its players and tries to give them what they want. They see that the game is changing and evolving, and they try to do the same along with it.

"We strive to be the premiere destination in the country, offering not only the best poker product, but world-class entertainment, nightlife, fine dining and spa amenities, and that's why it is imperative to stay ahead of the curve," says Lupo.

The property celebrated its 13th anniversary this year, but you wouldn't know it from taking a walk on the casino floor. Borgata has continued to make capital improvements on the property now into its second decade in the market, keeping things fresh and updated in an effort to make sure it never looks as dated as some of the old-school Atlantic City Boardwalk properties.

Restaurant offerings from celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay (Bobby Flay Steak) and Wolfgang Puck (Wolfgang Puck American Grille), alongside Fornelletto, Izakaya, and Old Homestead Steak House continue to draw rave reviews from East Coast foodies. The Borgata Outdoor Pool was recently launched, including over 300 lounges, daybeds, and cabanas surrounding a 3,200-square-foot Roman-style pool, and they opened up the Borgata Beer Garden right next door, featuring a full-service canopied bar serving more than 15 domestic and craft beers.

The two nightclubs on the property were popular, but starting to feel a bit stale, so Borgata recently built and opened up the $14 million state-of-the-art Premier Nightclub to replace mur.mur and MIXX.

"Borgata has always recognized the need to evolve and remain innovative through capital investment in differentiating ourselves from the rest of the competition," explains Lupo. "We are continuously looking to ensure our property is fresh and considering new amenities for our customers with a new project always under consideration. For example, in 2017, we will be opening a new culinary experience. We simply do not rest on our laurels, which in part is why Borgata continues to lead the market as the premier resort destination on the east coast, which we fully intend to continue on that path."

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