On paper, Oklahoma shouldn’t be such a big deal in the poker world. The Midwestern state ranks only 28th out of 50 in the U.S. in terms of population, and it is known to outsiders mostly as a Bible-Belt state with a propensity for tornadoes.As recently as 2004, Oklahoma didn’t even have legal poker rooms. But today, Oklahoma is a major player on the U.S. poker scene. The reason? Location, location, location.After Oklahoma’s government and the National Indian Gaming Council allowed tribes in the state to offer poker in 2005, the gambling industry in the state surged, thanks in large part to Oklahoma’s neighbors. The panhandle state borders six others — New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and, most importantly, Texas.In the great state of Texas, the second-largest state in the U.S. both in terms of land and population, they sure do love their poker.“They don’t call it Texas hold’em for nothing,” said Jay Wiles, the poker manager for WinStar World Casino, the largest casino in the state, located just north of the Oklahoma-Texas border. “Texas is our constituency, our main demographic.”WinStar is about a 90-minute drive from Dallas.At WinStar and the Choctaw Casino in Durant, another casino that caters to the Dallas/Fort Worth area, the two large poker rooms offer $1-$2, $2-$5, and $5-$10 no-limit hold’em.Wiles says that WinStar even spreads the occasional $10-$20 and $10-$25 no-limit hold’em games, as well as $1-$2, $2-$5, and $5-$10 pot-limit Omaha most weekends. The casino houses an expansive 46-table poker room.Although some states like Florida have strange laws on the book that cap the buy-in of cash games, those restrictions do not exist in Oklahoma.“The industry standard in Oklahoma is pretty much that of Las Vegas,” said Frank Converse, the poker room manager of Choctaw Casino in Durant.If you’re wondering just how much of a priority poker has become for some of these tribes, all you have to do is look at Durant’s new poker room. Choctaw Casino welcomed players into its new property for a grand opening in February, and poker players in the area are undoubtedly pleased at the new accommodations.“The class of the poker room really speaks for itself,” said Converse. “I’ve had comments from T.J. Cloutier , Tom McEvoy , and Kathy Liebert that it’s one of the nicest poker rooms they’ve been in. I think that’s what a lot of our players feel when they come to our room. It’s a high-class poker room.”While the old Durant casino had 18 tables, this new room — located in seclusion on the second floor of the casino, away from the slots and the main gaming floor — holds 30 tables.What Has Changed in the Past Five Years?Once the laws changed and poker was officially allowed in the state, seemingly every tribe in Oklahoma instituted the game at almost every one of its gaming properties. Poker was everywhere, the market over-saturated with the number of rooms.“I think there has been a bit of natural selection to it,” said Wiles. “In 2005, there were many more poker rooms than there are now, and I can say that without any animosity toward anyone else because that’s true for our tribe. In 2005, we had seven properties that offered poker, and now there are three.”The Chickasaw Nation runs the WinStar casino, as well as 12 other properties throughout the state.While some poker rooms grew — WinStar went from 27 tables to 46 tables — and while others shut down, the growth of poker’s overall popularity in the area was undeniable.“Phenomenal is almost an understatement when describing the growth,” said Wiles, who remembers when his casino first ran its River Poker Series with a $250 buy-in tournament and about 200 players. Now, the casino guarantees $3 million in the prize pool over the course of the series, and its $2,100 main event has attracted as many as 1,400 players in past years.The desire for the occasional bigger buy-in tournament is certainly present in the area.In Durant, Choctaw Casino is hosting a $1,650 event in September called the T.J. Cloutier and Choctaw Poker Classic . The casino recently signed Cloutier to represent its room.And celebrity tournaments are not only a Vegas phenomenon. The FireLake Grand Casino in Shawnee, located just outside of Oklahoma City, is hosting its annual MDA Celebrity Poker Tournament on Aug. 14.“That’s usually a really big tournament,” said Troy Becker, an assistant shift manager in the FireLake poker room. “In previous years, we’ve had a lot of people from reality TV like Big Brother and Survivor, local celebrities like Tommy Morrison, and a lot of ex- NFL players and Heisman winners.”While Oklahoma’s border states continue to provide a certain critical mass for the continued success of a variety of casinos, the industry continues to grow in Oklahoma City and Tulsa and throughout the state.It’s difficult to know exactly how many locations spread live poker games in Oklahoma because smaller casinos can drop or add poker on a whim, but Wiles estimates that approximately 30 properties offer poker out of the roughly 120 gaming facilities in the state.Today’s MarketWhile poker’s popularity has grown exponentially in the past decade, the current economic strains have certainly hurt the gaming industry, and Oklahoma is no exception.The Muscogee Creek Nation reported that its River Spirit Casino in Tulsa suffered a 61 percent decline in revenue over the first quarter of 2010 when compared to last year. The tribe’s casinos made $83.5 million in 2009, but it is only estimating a $44 million profit this year — down 47 percent.The Chickasaw Nation and the Cherokee Nation have also acknowledged revenue decline.“I’m not going to lie to you. We’ve seen a little bit of a drop off,” said Converse, estimating his poker room’s revenue might be down 8-10 percent this year. “It’s probably declined here somewhat, but not as much as I think the poker rooms in Las Vegas have.”While many Oklahoma casinos depend on tourism dollars almost as much as Las Vegas casinos do, the difference is that many of Oklahoma’s patrons are just a long drive away, as opposed to Las Vegas casinos, where visitors usually need to hop on a plane and pay more just to get there.In Oklahoma, casinos continue to try to attract its local players through a variety of promotions. At FireLake, for example, the casino runs a special deal every day for its players (like aces cracked), with the exception of Fridays. On Friday evenings, the Firelake runs its popular $50 freezeout tournament at 6 p.m., with the room often reaching capacity.While the economy may have slowed down the poker boom somewhat in the state, it seems clear that the poker industry in Oklahoma is still alive and well.
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