From Stud to Stars: The Past, Present and Future of Poker in Atlantic City
History will no doubt be made when the first ever PokerStars Festival kicks off this weekend at the Resorts Casino Hotel on the Atlantic City Boardwalk in New Jersey, marking the return of PokerStars Live Events to American soil for the first time in more than five years.
When it comes to poker, Atlantic City certainly has a storied history already, but it's worth noting it isn't exactly a long one.
While there were underground gambling operations running in what was then called "The World's Playground" under colorful political boss Nucky Johnson in the 1920's, legalized casino gaming didn't come to Atlantic City until 1976, and even then, poker games were not spread.
The New Jersey State Legislature actually made live poker legal in the summer of 1993.
According to veteran World Series of Poker Media Director Nolan Dalla, who lived in the nearby Washington, D.C. area at the time and was a regular in the many local underground games run before Atlantic City Casinos got the green light to run live poker games, there is some debate as to where the first legal hand of poker was dealt.
"Most agree it was at the Atlantic City Sands, which has since been demolished," Dalla wrote in a 2015 blog post about the early years of poker in Atlantic City. "However, management at the old Showboat Casino once insisted they were the first to offer poker by one day, the old poker manager told me. Whatever the truth is, the epicenter of the East Coast poker universe instantly became the Trump Taj Mahal, which opened a sparkling 50-table room in the summer of 1993."
Several other Atlantic City casinos started offering poker later that year, but the Taj Mahal remained by far the biggest and, by most accounts, the best room in town.
Dalla, who would ride the train up from DC on weekends to play, said the game was seven-card stud, and limit hold’em was spread, but only sparingly in a few local poker rooms.
For the first two years, Atlantic City enjoyed a market without competition for poker in the Northeast, until Foxwoods opened a 35-table poker room in the wilds of Massachusetts in 1995. Nearby Mohegan Sun soon followed suit.
Three years into poker in Atlantic City, Dalla said he started playing in a regular pot-limit hold’em game first organized by a mathematician for the United States Army. Recognizable names like Greg Raymer, Andy Bloch, Bill Chen and Matt Matros were among those who also played in that one.
"For a while, that was the only pot-limit game going in the United States," Dalla said. "And we were sitting in it. Lucky us. Life was good."
Interest in the game eventually died, but Dalla kicked it back up again through the Internet newsgroup rec.gambling.poker in 1998, and they started playing again at the Sands. That's when a contender to the Taj Mahal crown emerged in the 40-table poker room at the Tropicana and a lot of the action in town moved over there, with the two properties running a fierce rivalry for the next few years.
"The 'Taj' and the 'Trop,' as they were commonly known, became to Atlantic City poker what Coke and Pepsi were to soft drinks," Dalla said. "You tended to favor one over the other. All the other little guys in the middle either didn’t matter or got squeezed out of business. Some poker rooms eventually reduced their size, and in some cases, were even closed. The big two dominated the poker market."
Using a fake ID with the name Jerome Graham, an 18-year-old Phil Ivey developed the nickname "No Home Jerome" around then, mostly because he was seemingly always inside the poker room at the Trop. Rumor has it that on Ivey's actual 21st birthday, the man everyone thought was Jerome Graham simply walked in the room, told the staff to start calling him Phil, and a legend was born.
It was also during this first decade of poker in Atlantic City where the famous Pink-Chip Game at the Trop kicked off. The $7.50/$15 game was named for the pink $2.50 denomination chips in play and built a reputation for hosting the biggest swings in town, with thousands of dollars changing hands over regularly lengthy and all-night sessions.
Cash games were the thing, but one major tournament did run at the Taj Mahal beginning in 1996 when Ken Flaton won the title and $500,000 first-place prize at a final table that included Surinder Sunar and Phil Hellmuth.
Skipping 1997, The $10,000 United States Poker Championship did run annually through 2010 at the Taj with poker superstars including Daniel Negreanu, Men Nguyen and John Hennigan claiming the crown. The tournament peaked in 2006 when eventual Jeopardy champ Alex Jacob took home the title and an $878,500 first-place prize, defeating a final table that included modern stars of the game like Jordan Morgan, Michael DeMichele, Dan Shak and Shane Schleger.
However, when it comes to tournament poker, the action in Atlantic City has really always centered around the newest and still biggest player in the local poker industry: Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa.
The Borgata opened in 2003, the very same year Chris Moneymaker won the WSOP Main Event and a massive poker boom kicked off. As outlined in the July 2016 PokerNews Feature Borgata Booms: The Story Behind the East Coast's Premier Poker Destination, Borgata was built by partners MGM Mirage and Boyd Gaming on a parcel of land in the city's marina area where casino mogul Steve Wynn had initially promised to build a modern casino if the city would build a tunnel to it from the Atlantic City Expressway.
The tunnel project went ahead, and after Wynn sold to MGM, so did the area's first Las Vegas-style-casino property, including what started out as a 34-table poker room. Borgata immediately started hosting events on the burgeoning World Poker Tour, eventually breaking tour entry-number records on a regular basis as the popularity of the WPT grew wildly.
The 1998 film Rounders immortalized the Taj as the home of poker on the East Coast. If it had been made five years later, it would have done the same for Borgata, who took the Taj Mahal's crown and ran with it, becoming local poker industry leaders the moment they opened the doors, and remaining on top to this day.
In fact, even as gaming revenues in Atlantic City have declined over the past few years and a number of regional casinos have opened up around the Northeast, poker numbers at Borgata continue to grow.
A labor dispute recently forced the closure of the Taj and the Trop has been reduced to a fraction of it's original size, but the local poker industry did get a boost in February 2013 when the New Jersey Legislature legalized online casino gambling, including poker, for a 10-year trial period. The market opened in November 2013 with Borgata's online offering taking it's natural place at the top from the outset. Players once again enjoyed the ability to satellite online into its on-property live events.
A contender emerged this year, however, with the world's largest online poker site receiving regulatory approval and jumping in the market this past March. Now, more than five years since the PokerStars North American Poker Tour wrapped up it's final stop at Mohegan Sun on the eve of Black Friday, when the US Department of Justice effectively shut down online poker in the United States, PokerStars is once again offering players in the New Jersey area the chance to satellite into one of the many fun and competitive events set to go off at the first ever PokerStars Festival.
The schedule, running Oct. 29-Nov. 6, 2016, is filled with tournaments featuring a wide range of buy-ins from $200 to $2,000, parties, concerts, games and more, making it obvious the immediate future of poker in Atlantic City is just as bright as its past.
*Photos courtesy of Google Images/Creative Commons and include a poster from the 1980 Louis Malle film Atlantic City, an iconic 'Greetings From Atlantic City' postcard and a poster from the 1998 film Rounders