Television credited with local poker rebirth|[7/08/05]

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 8, 2005

Turn on the television to just about any cable sports channel these days and you’re likely to see a poker game.

Poker, and in this case a variation called Texas Hold’ em, has taken the United States and a lot of Europe by storm.

Thursday, poker’s premier event, the World Series of Poker, got started at Rio Resorts Casino in Las Vegas. More than 6,000 players willingly put up the $10,000 entry fee to compete for a first place prize of $7.5 million.

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In 2003, an unknown amateur named Chris Moneymaker of Tennessee won the coveted golden bracelet, symbolizing a WSOP champion, along with a first place prize of $2.5 million.

Poker has been played in Vicksburg since the old riverboat gambling days of the 1800s, but legally came about when Warren County voters approved casino gaming in 1993. It is now played seven days a week at the Horizon Casino in downtown Vicksburg and at the Blind Dog Poker Room at the Rainbow Casino on Warrenton Road.

Talk to those affiliated with poker on the local scene, from management to dealers, old and young, and they credit the rebirth to the emergence of the televised game.

“No doubt it’s been TV,” said Grady Tucker of Jackson, a regular player at the Horizon Casino. “I’ve played poker since I was 7 years old. But now, anytime you scan cable TV, especially sports, you’re likely to see some tournament game on.”

When gaming started in Vicksburg, the Isle of Capri and Ameristar offered poker. But it disappeared after it turned out to be unprofitable.

Gradually, poker began to recede statewide as casino bosses shut down rooms throughout the state, replacing them with more cost efficient slot and video poker machines. The Isle of Capri closed its room and the Ameristar followed by closing its room in early 2002.

“When the Ameristar closed down the last room, there was no poker here for nearly a year,” said Horizon Poker Room shift manager Shellie Wells who has spent 19 years in the gaming industry, primarily in Laughlin, Nev. “Now, it’s everywhere. On the Internet, on TV. I think the casinos that shut it down, now regret that decision.”

Horizon poker dealer Al Betts, 63, said when the game came back to Vicksburg, it came back in a different style.

“I think the biggest change, locally, has been the game itself. Back then, the big game was 7-card Stud. Now it’s Texas Hold’ em and I think that’s all because of TV and the publicity it has given to the game,” he said. “It has brought in a lot of new players, specifically, a much younger crowd.”

One of those new young guns is Reubin Harvey, 26 of Jackson, who hopes someday soon to play at the WSOP in Las Vegas.

“I’m a big sports fan and every time I go to check my scores, you now see a poker game,” he said. “It’s what got me into poker. TV made it attractive.

“I started going online and did well in a Party Poker Tournament and won $79,000. Then I played a satellite tournament for the World Poker Tour in Philadelphia (Miss.). I hope to get to Las Vegas or Aruba for one of those big events, real soon.” Harvey said.

As the 2005 WSOP begins – the final table is scheduled to be filled by July 15 – players locally said watching the game on TV is seeing how the pros do it.

“The guy I like to watch is Phil Ivey. He is a lot like the new, young breed of player,” Harvey said.