Live poker rooms are still a major attractant for card gamers these days, despite what the statistics might appear to show. After watching dozens of poker venues close across Las Vegas and Atlantic City in the last few years, skeptics are wondering if the ‘poker boom’ is truly over. But it seems the reality of the situation can be chalked up to the old cliché, ‘out with the old, in with the new’.

Live poker rooms evolving in the USThe cannibalization of live poker rooms was a huge concern among those who opposed the legalization and regulation of online poker throughout US states, particularly in Nevada and New Jersey, where land-based gambling dollars make up a significant portion of the states’ revenue. Both states launched online poker markets in 2013, and both have seen a remarkable number of their live poker rooms close since then.

Five poker venues disappeared from Atlantic City in 2014 alone. The first to go was The Atlantic Club (January 13, 2014), followed by the Showboat Casino (August 31, 2014), Revel Atlantic City (September 2, 2014) and Trump Plaza (September 16, 2014). The Trump Taj Mahal just recently closed its live poker room, but the casino remains open, and they say there are plans to reopen the poker tables this summer. Whether that will actually happen remains to be seen.

Spinning the globe 2,500 miles to the west in Las Vegas, we find the same data reflected. At least 16 live poker rooms have ceased services in recent years, starting with the card rooms at Tropicana and Ellis Island in September of 2012, and ending with the most recent closure at Hooters just this month.

Charles Darwin once said, “It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.” That statement can be easily applied to the evolution of poker. It is not a lack of interest from players that is reducing the number of live poker rooms throughout the US, but rather a modernization of the game and the way players enjoy it.

New and Renovated Live Poker Rooms

There’s evidence to that theory in the vision of casino development experts and marketers throughout the country. While the dated card rooms mentioned above were shuttering their doors and windows, new—and thus far immensely popular—live poker rooms were opening at places like the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Florida, Maryland LIVE! Casino in Maryland, and the Parx Casino in Pennsylvania. Another is set to open soon at Philadelphia’s Sugarhouse Casino.

Some other live poker rooms are renovating their establishment’s to keep up with the changing tides. Caesars Entertainment has two of its live poker rooms with exclusive branding at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, and Harrah’s Atlantic City. The company is clearly looking to promote its online poker presence in both of those states.

What it all boils down to is superior advertising, availability and tournament scheduling; giving players what they desire in today’s advanced market. The poker boom of the early 2000’s is not over, it’s just evolved. Live poker rooms must enhance their services to keep up, or get out of the way.

Virginia has some pretty strange laws. For example, it is illegal to tickle a woman, drive a motor vehicle without shoes, or have sex with the lights on. It is perfectly permissible, however, to marry your cousin, or for candidates to practice corrupt bribery tactics. Most of Virginia’s ridiculous laws are not enforced, but if you happen to arrange a game of poker where dealers are paid for their services out of the pot, expect the SWAT Team to come barreling through your doors with rifles loaded.

SWAT Team raids high stakes poker game in VirginiaThat’s exactly what happened at a quiet home in the Great Falls area of Fairfax County last November. There were 10 gentlemen, all respected members of their community, seated around a friendly poker table in the basement of an affluent home, enjoying a friendly, albeit high-stakes, game of poker. The next thing they knew, a group of fully armed SWAT Team agents came bursting through the door, pointing rifles at the players and demanding cooperation.

Frightened beyond belief, each of the men was quick to comply, raising their hands and remaining quietly in their seats as police seized $150,000 from the host. Afterwards, 8 of the 10 men were charged with illegal gambling, a Class 3 Misdemeanor in Virginia that carries a maximum penalty of up to $500 in fines.

It certainly wasn’t your run-of-the-mill home poker game. The minimum buy-in for those present was $20,000, with an option to re-buy if one’s chips were depleted. Comparatively speaking, that’s twice the entry fee for the World Series of Poker Main Event in Las Vegas.

The identities of the men arrested that night have not been revealed to protect their families and reputation, but two of the players, as well as the host, are said to be professional poker players. The host confessed that he did skim 1.5% of the buy-ins, but that it was not intended as a profit, but rather payment for the employment of two dealers and two assistants, whose responsibilities were to serve coffee and massage the shoulders of tense players.

But Fairfax County police didn’t see it that way. According to Virginia law, “taking a cut” turns a friendly home poker game into an illegal gambling enterprise. That, and a supposed search warrant, gave the SWAT Team the authority to raid the home.

Interestingly enough, the search warrant remains unsealed, and the host, who by all legal accounts should have been the primary suspect, was not charged in the case.

One of the players at the table gave his account of the raid to the Washington Post, but asked not to be named. He said that he looked out the window of the basement’s French doors and, “saw these helmets bobbing up and down”. The dark figures, barely visible in the cover of dark, shouted that they were Fairfax County police, and had a search warrant. At that point, the player said about eight SWAT Team officers entered the home. “They were all yelling, ‘Does anybody have a weapon?’ and ‘please don’t move’. One pointed his assault rifle at me and said, ‘Hands up,’” recounted the player, who said he couldn’t believe what was happening.

He went on to explain that there were no guns or weapons at the table, and none of the players resisted. “They could’ve sent a retired detective with a clipboard and gotten the same result.”

The Fairfax police have come under fire for their radical enforcement of illegal gambling over the years. In 2006, they sent the SWAT Team to arrest a single individual, Dr. Salvitore J. Culosi Jr., for sports betting. The optometrist was accidentally shot and killed during the raid by Officer Deval Bullock. In an official statement to the community, Fairfax County did not apologize for the “unintentional” death of Dr. Culosi Jr., blaming the incident on an “involuntary muscle contraction” experienced by the officer.

Then in 2010, it was revealed that the police department had wagered, and lost, more than $300,000 on sports bets as part of a sting operation meant to take down a Las Vegas bookie and his Virginia-based operators.

According to one of the players, the police justified their use of extreme force against the Great Falls poker game by claiming that, “Asian gangs” have been “targeting these games”. His desired reply was, “So you robbed us first?”, but he thought better of it.

In the end, the best way to protect the citizens of Virginia from these gang-related robberies (and over-zealous police departments) is to legalize the game under regulated circumstances. The state classifies poker, along with casino-style gambling, as a “game of chance”. The desire to keep casinos outside the state’s border is all well and good, but if poker were deemed a game of skill, and licensed, regulated card rooms opened, the state would still make money (via taxation, rather than seizure), and poker players would have a safe place to enjoy their pastime in a 100% legal capacity.

On July 15, 120 days ago, the 2014 World Series of Poker Main Event reached its final table of 9 players. It happened just after midnight when Louis Velador became the unfortunate recipient of $565,193; unfortunate because it meant he was out in 10th place, one position shy of a final table appearance in the poker world’s most prestigious event. With that, the November Nine was formed, and now, four months later, they are all preparing a return to the felt tonight, Monday, November 10th.

The conclusion of the 2014 WSOP Main Event begins at 7:30 pm ET in the Penn & Teller Theater at the Rio All Suite in Las Vegas, Nevada. “Live” coverage begins on ESPN2 at 8:00pm, imposing a 30-minute delay to preserve the integrity of the game. Thanks to that delay, for the first time in history, viewers will be able to see the hole cards of all players from the start of the hand, rather than when the hand concludes. The November Nine will continue to play until just two competitors remain, then resume with the final heads-up battle Tuesday night, where the eventual winner is guaranteed $10 million.

This year’s WSOP Main Event will feature a bevy of young greenhorns. None of the 2014 November Nines has ever won a WSOP bracelet, and the oldest at the table will be Brazilian Bruno Politano, just 32 years old. Only one player has experience in the November Nine; Mark Newhouse, who came into the 2013 WSOP Main Event final table as the low stack, finishing 9th to the surprise of no one.

The highest stack belongs to 31 year old Jorryt van Hoof (38,375,000), a Dutch poker pro residing in London who operates his own online poker training website. In second position is 24 year old Felix Stephensen (32,775,000) of Oslo, Norway, a relatively inexperienced poker player who was inspired to join the WSOP Main Event after he and his friend won $60k betting on the World Cup. The third highest stack belongs to 29 year old American poker pro Mark Newhouse (26,000,000), one of the most experienced of the November Nine with a WPT Title and nearly $3 million in live tournament winnings.

The youngest player in the mix at 22, Andoni Larrabe (22,550,000) of Spain holds the fourth highest stack. Coming in fifth is 30 year old Dan Sindelar (21,200,000), another American poker pro who dropped out of college in Nebraska to pursue his career in Las Vegas. Another 30 year old American, Billy Pappaconstantinou (aka ‘Billy Pappa’; 17,500,000) will bring the 6th highest stack to the table, but is considered the greenest of the bunch, having very little live poker experience, but an extensive championship status in the foosball world.

27 year old Will Tonking (15,050,000) joins the table from New Jersey where he plays online poker professionally. 27 year old British poker pro Martin Jacobson is the second smallest stack, but the most experienced poker player in the field as the only 2014 November Niner with 7-figures in WSOP tournament winnings under his belt. Last but certainly not least is 32 year old Brazilian poker hobbyist Bruno Politano (12,125,000), who is dead last in the chip counts, but expected to rally the most extravagant fan support of any player in the history of the WSOP Main Event Final Table.