United States of Poker: New Jersey

US poker history New Jersey

The state of New Jersey, being one of the original colonies which formed the United States, has seen its share of history, and a large part of its history recently has been focused on Absecon Island, which is the site of the resort town of Atlantic City, one of the best-known cities in the United States. Merely the mention of Atlantic City, about 125 miles south of New York City and 60 miles southeast of Philadelphia, brings forth different images for different people. Some remember the summer resort town Atlantic City once was, conjuring images of its piers and the Boardwalk; to many others who have never even set foot in the town, the name evokes memories of the streets and places printed on the Monopoly boards most of us grew up with.

United States of Poker

These days, however, a mention of Atlantic City usually brings forth the image of gaming and, more recently, poker. After the city started falling on hard times in the 1970’s, the people of New Jersey passed a referendum for a constitutional amendment in 1976, which was followed by the passage of a law in 1977 by the state legislature, making Atlantic City at the time the only area of the United States outside of Nevada to allow casino gaming. The Resorts Casino became the first to open its doors in 1978, and remains part of the seaside gaming community to this day, although it does not currently stage live poker.

Even with the legalization of casino gaming, live poker was not authorized in Atlantic City casinos until June 1993, when the New Jersey state legislature legalized live poker, and even then, according to New Jersey Casino Control Commission public information officer Daniel Heneghan, casinos needed help to get poker off the ground.

“When poker was approved, if I recall, casinos weren’t interested in taking away existing casino space,” Heneghan said. “At about the same time, simulcasting was being introduced, so the legislature created new ‘simulcasting space’, and decided to allow gaming tables in simulcasting space.” Five of the six casinos currently offering live poker have their poker tables sharing space with the simulcast horse racing areas; Harrah’s does not offer simulcast racing.

Just as Atlantic City has had its ups and downs in its history, so too has poker since its legalization. For the first few years after poker debuted on the East Coast, nine of Atlantic City’s casinos offered some form of live poker, but that number declined over time until 2002, eight years after poker’s introduction, when only four casinos offered live poker. However, since the onset of televised poker and its resurgence in popularity, six casinos now operate a total of 192 poker tables, primarily playing hold’em and seven-card stud, with bets ranging from low limits of $1- $2 and up. No-limit hold’em is even an option in five of Atlantic City’s six poker rooms. Another reason for the resurgence of poker in Atlantic City can probably be tied to the opening of the city’s sixth poker area: The Borgata Casino and Resort in the marina area of Atlantic City in 2003, one of three casinos not directly located on the Boardwalk area. The Borgata (as of this writing) is the site of the World Poker Tour’s only stop in Atlantic City during this, their third season on the air. According to the WPT’s web site, the Borgata Poker Open is scheduled for September 19 through 22, the second time the Borgata has sponsored a WPT event, which drew 235 entries the first time it was played in 2003.

One feature of many poker rooms in Atlantic City is smoking, or specifically the lack of it; four of the six poker rooms are nonsmoking, one (Bally’s) still allows smoking, and the Sands poker room has a combination of smoking and nonsmoking tables. Hotel rooms and amenities are no problem in Atlantic City either, with hundreds of rooms and suites available at the six casino/hotels offering live poker. Restaurants, spas, and almost anything else players may require during their stay is also readily available. (Maintaining and building the poker bankroll, however, is still up to the player, as it is everywhere.)

When discussing the possibilities for future expansion of poker in Atlantic City or statewide, Heneghan said that, while he sees interest in poker growing, extending poker’s reach to anywhere else in the state of New Jersey besides Atlantic City is an entirely different question.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if casinos start offering more poker tables,” Heneghan said, but “there would be some constitutional questions you would have to get past in order to expand gambling outside of Atlantic City.”

Though the game of poker has experienced its share of ups and downs in its brief history as a legal game in New Jersey, live poker continues to slowly climb back from its low point a few years ago in Atlantic City, becoming once again one of the star attractions in the East Coast’s oldest gaming destination.