This week I paid a visit to my old stomping grounds, Foxwoods Resort and Casino, with the intention of playing poker for the first time in a long time.
While I always check out the poker room whenever I go, my recent visits to Foxwoods (and to Mohegan Sun for that matter) had me going there for dinner or to see a show with the missus, but this time was going to be different. This trip we would be spending an evening together and then going our separate ways the following day – her to the spa and me to the poker room.
If you didn’t know (and why would you), I was an avid poker player before Chris Moneymaker’s 2003 World Series of poker victory ushered in the “Poker Boom” so I’ve seen both sides of the proverbial curtain.
I’ve seen Foxwoods before the Boom (in fact I’ve seen it before Internet poker was anything but Planet Poker) and I’ve seen the buildup, the apex, and of course the regression of poker following UIGEA and later Black Friday.
This column is specifically about Foxwoods, but I have little doubt the same dynamics can be found in poker rooms across the US, especially in California.
Tuesday night in the Foxwoods Poker Room
While I wouldn’t call it dead, there were plenty of open tables, plenty of short-handed tables, and very few waiting lists.
It resembled the Foxwoods I remember from 2002 and not the Foxwoods of 2005, or even the Foxwoods of 2010 – which had already started to slink back into the abyss, where I had already noticed the stakes had dwindled and the room wasn’t as vibrant.
I didn’t stay long Tuesday night, but what I saw was somewhat depressing – which could also be attributed to the poker room having been moved downstairs in what is a dark, low ceiling basement like room, far away from the sounds of the casino.
There is no chance for the random passerby to stumble upon the poker room, a matter made all the more troubling when you see the old poker room location upstairs taken up by empty tournament tables, it’s a literal dead man’s zone with no activity.
So my first bit of advice to Foxwoods: Flip the tournament and cash game rooms!
Wednesday morning in the Foxwoods Poker Room
I arrived for my actual session at about 8:30 AM, and was even more shocked than the night before at the lack of games going.
I literally thought I had time-travelled back to 2001, as a few big Stud Games (and the handful of usual small ones were still going) as were the low limit holdem games.
If Tuesday night’s crowd was disheartening, Wednesday morning was downright scary.
The room did pick up by noon time, but it was still basically all low limit games with lots of moving pieces; also known as games going from full to short-handed with open-seating and back to full again.
All in all, my visit to Foxwoods did not leave me with an optimistic appraisal of poker if things continue on their current path.
The most troubling aspect
Setting aside the lack of activity, the level of depression in that room was astounding. People would rant and rave over losses of a few hundred dollars. My feeling has always been if you can’t lose the money in front of you with a smile on your face than you are playing for more than you should.
Poker needs to be fun, and nobody in that room was having fun.
You could tell these were players who got caught up in the Poker Boom and thought it would be rainbows and puppies forever. But now they are finding that the stakes they were crushing just a few years ago during the Boom no longer run on the regular, and the small stakes games are tougher and practically unbeatable due to the increased sophistication of casual players and of course the rake.
As I explained to my wife, you see dejection on the casino floor all the time, even the occasional guy mumbling to himself as he pulls out a cigarette and looks for the exit, but in the poker room the emotion is more than this; it’s an unhealthy combination of anger and entitlement.
You see people tearing up cards over $400 pots, and leaving the table screaming “nice call buddy.” It’s pervasive and other players are walking on egg shells, not even capable of consoling someone who took a bad beat with a “tough loss” as the person is already tilted.
This has even trickled down to the floor and the dealers in some respects.
Basically, the atmosphere in the Foxwoods poker room is not good, and is not conducive to bringing new people to the tables – assuming they could find the poker room to begin with, in its tucked away location.
How online poker could help
What I saw on this trip was definitely a bit disheartening, and only strengthened my feeling that brick & mortar poker needs online poker to survive. The two work together and this really is no longer a debatable point.
I blame the lack of players and even the atmosphere on the lack of new players and money in the game.
During the Boom years there was never a shortage of people who had no idea what they were doing. Whether they heard about poker at work, saw it on TV, or participated in play money games online there was always a constant stream of new money into the poker room.
This dynamic was almost completely absent from the players in the room. For the most part the games were tight (lots of chopping) and the soft seats were basically people who played a few too many hands and/or couldn’t gauge their aggression properly.
So what I witnessed was regulars just passing money around while the rake ate them all up.
They knew it was going on; they understand their hourly rate has been cut so deeply that grinding out a living playing poker is almost impossible. But they do it anyway, apparently thinking things will change and waiting for the second “Poker Boom” we have been promised.
What could help is the return of online poker.
Online poker could bring those new players, and their money, back into live card rooms, and provide these new players with the incentive to seek out the Foxwoods poker room – have I mentioned its terrible location yet?
This infusion of new cash and energetic players (who are just ecstatic to be playing real live poker and not so much interested in the results) would also boost the bankrolls of the grinders, and could lead to a domino effect of sorts, where the poker room is bustling, and smiling faces can be found within the sea of humanity.
If brick & mortar poker is going to be kept from regressing even further we need the return of online poker.