Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Poker is here to stay. Why Tennessee should wise up and benefit from it.

Many a naysayer say “nay” to the idea that the current torrent of interest in poker in the United States is anything more than a fad. Yet, I’m willing to gamble that poker will continue its roll through the American landscape. Nashville’s local news sources – though amazingly adept at exaggeration – have straddled the fence on poker’s popularity and its perspicuity, the latter with regards to the law. Yet few articles in the mainstream press have treated poker as anything more than the fashion of the day. Yet I believe its potentially much more than that – here’s why:

1. Poker has found its game – Texas Hold ‘Em, in both its Limit and No Limit form, has added layers of strategic dimension to the game. The old home game of 5-Card Draw was basically a game of catching cards and bluffing; Seven Card stud added the element of remembering cards that have been folded. Texas Hold ‘Em and other community-card-based games like Omaha introduced concepts like pot odds and putting your opponent on a hand. Calculating both requires considerable skill (in math and in reading people) and are far more important than luck towards long-term performance.

2. Poker has a fairy godmother – Her name is ESPN and her adopted child with Las Vegas is the World Series of Poker. ESPN loves the rating – far better than bowling or billiards – and the WSOP brand is being heavily pushed by the world’s second largest casino company in Harrah’s/Caesar Palace. The WSOP and the World Poker Tour and their many competitors have created a few recognizable poker superstars. From a sports and gaming marketing standpoint, having strong brands and familiar faces are critical elements for longevity.

3. Poker is gambling – Therefore, poker falls into the same category as crack rock, Jack Daniels, Camel Lights, and strawberry blondes. These things all make our neurotransmitters go click, click, click; so, we get hooked on them just the same. Nevadans were the first to figure this out (without wires and CAT scans) and so Las Vegas was born.

4. Poker is all about money – Americans like to bet. In the past week, I’ve made bets ranging from the Commodores’ W-L record to whether or not there is an “’s” in Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. With poker games, however, there is no house edge – it’s just you versus your opponent. There’s balance, no tipped scales, unless you put the time in and practice. In a game of luck, practice will help no one. In a game of skill, practice will. With increasing skill comes increasing ability to make money, and the money will always bring people back to the table.

I could easily continue the argument; suffice it to say, poker is here to stay. Tennessee has the right – and some would say responsibility – to regulate its economy to the benefit of its citizens. Clearly, demand is being met by an underground economy which police action will do little to prevent. Thus, Tennessee needs to bring it above board – license card rooms, regulate them, and then take its cut. The system works well in California, where games of skill like poker are sanctioned, regulated, and taxed. Tennessee officials speak often of the need to diversify its revenue stream; legalized gambling has become a haymaker for dozens of states.

There are, however, many arguments for and against. I’d definitely like to see some dialogue begin in the press simply to know that legislators are considering all their options with regard to the future of the Tennessee economy.

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