A lot of attention is paid to fixing online poker, and creating the right atmosphere and player experience to attract recreational players. There is far less focus placed on land-based US poker rooms and what they’re doing (or not doing) to make sure the environment is open and welcoming to new and casual poker players.
I’ve spent time in about three dozen different poker rooms over the years in New Jersey, Nevada and beyond. I’ve found some to be very accommodating to visitors and others that treat outsiders like … well, like outsiders.
Most of the time the rooms are very inviting, but sometimes I’ve felt somewhere between uncomfortable and unwelcome. With that in mind, here’s my list of 10 principles and areas where good poker rooms thrive and poor poker rooms fail.
#1: Everything is conveniently located
The first indication that you’re in a well-run poker room appears before you even take your first step into the room. If it’s a good poker room, the sign-up desk will be easy to locate and the staff will be present (I hate when the desk is deserted) and approachable.
Even more than when no one is manning the desk, I can’t begin to explain how off-putting it is to feel like you’re putting the clerk out.
It’s not my fault I have a question about a poker room I’ve never stepped foot in, especially when the list of games and the wait lists aren’t visible or easy to understand, which segues quite nicely into the next attribute of a good poker room.
#2: Don’t make me ask a “stupid” question
Game lists and waiting lists should be visible and easy to understand.
I’d rather not have to ask what a certain acronym means, what types of non-Hold’em games are offered, if it’s a waiting list or an interest list for a certain game, or even where I’m supposed to get my chips. All that information should be clearly visible and easy for anyone to interpret.
And if I do need to ask a question…
#3: Make my question seem legitimate and normal
The third thing a poker room can do to win me over before I ever sit down at a table is having a friendly and helpful staff that clearly lays out the local SOP — where to get chips, where the tables I’ve signed up for are located, and so on.
I like the conservation to be some variation of this:
“OK, Steve, you’re on the list for $2/$5 no limit hold’em and $8/$16 Omaha 8. The hold’em games are all on this side of the room, and the three Omaha 8 tables are in that back corner over there. My name is Karen. If you have any other questions just let me know.”
I’m much more inclined to ask where to buy chips, how long of a wait it might be before my seat opens, or if I’m brand new, what chips/amount people typically buy into the game for, from Karen than from someone who puts my name on the list and says, “OK, you’re good.”
When it comes to relaxing nervous first-time players or out-of-towners who are used to their local card rooms policies and procedures, a friendly, well-trained staff is important.
#4: Regulars who ‘get it’
Imagine walking into a party where everyone is miserable. They talk about their bad luck and make every visitor feel uncomfortable and wishing they were anywhere else but here.
When I used to run gyms, I was a firm believer that the customers you attracted were largely based on the employees you hired. The same seems to be true in poker rooms; miserable regulars tend to attract miserable visitors, or cut down on the time a cheery person spends in the room.
On the other hand, when a visitor sits down and the other players are friendly and talkative, they tend to stay a bit longer, and more importantly, want to return.
It also puts some…
#5: Excitement in the air
On top of being friendly, some poker rooms just have an inherent electricity about them.
It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what causes this, but these rooms have a certain level of buzz and white noise in the air: chips being shuffled, laughter, oohs and aahs, all smooshed together.
But there are other factors that contribute a great deal to atmosphere.
#6: The room is spacious and bright
Another factor that often enhances the overall vibe and ambience is when the poker is clean and bright with plenty of space.
Space is an often overlooked aspect of poker rooms — unused space to be more specific.
I don’t need to be able to put my arms straight out to my side without touching another player, but there does need to be some space in between tables and at least one central walkway bisecting the room.
The last thing I want to feel is that I’m essentially stuffed in coach on an 8-hour, cross-country flight; some poker rooms are savvy enough to give you a business-class or first-class upgrade.
From experience, I can say that the Foxwoods poker room was far more inviting and had a much better atmosphere when it was located upstairs, with lots of light and high ceilings. Since it moved the poker room back downstairs (to its original location) where the ceilings feel like they’re eight feet high and the room is dark (which makes everything look dirty), the atmosphere has definitely gone south.
The brightness of a poker room directly correlates to the atmosphere and the demeanor of the players within it.
#7: The equipment is clean and in good working order
It doesn’t have to be brand-spanking new, or as classy as the Wynn poker room in Las Vegas.
Bbut it helps when the tables and chairs are clean and in good shape and when the chips haven’t been in circulation since the Reagan administration.
#8: Beverage service is on point
The eighth hallmark of a well-run poker is when I hear the word “beverages” early and often.
It’s not because I want free stuff. In fact, I don’t take advantage of the free drinks nearly as much as I should when I play cards. But I’ve played poker long enough to know that a thirsty customer is going to be a disgruntled customer. And once one person at the table starts complaining about the lack of beverage service, the proverbial flood gates are open, and the mood at the table often turns sour with complaints on anything and everything.
The availability of drinks isn’t just a sign of good service; it’s a way to put out any bad-mood fires that might be getting ready to ignite.
Now, the next two entries are huge pet peeves of mine that have to do with gameplay, and both would make me not return to a poker room ever again.
#9: Prompt but not rush the players
I’m a huge advocate for keeping the game moving along, but not if it means you are constantly rushing and harassing the players to act the moment the action is on them.
One of my biggest pet peeves is when a player calls/raises/folds and the dealer immediately points at the very next player or says, “It’s on you,” or something similar.
It’s pretty obvious when a person is unaware the action is on them, so there is no need to rush a person who is just starting to look at their cards.
#10: Protect the newbie
It drives me crazy when a poker room has an obscure “local” rule that allows regulars to shoot angles against out-of-towners.
Usually, this is some hard rule that leaves the floor with no wiggle room to protect a new player. But the fact that it’s even in place says a lot about the room’s priorities when it comes to regulars vs. visitors.
A good room makes sure these types of exploitative rules don’t exist.