**This story was originally written for a well-known poker magazine with global circulation. They wanted to publish this piece without paying me for it, and I had to respectfully decline their offer to promote me as a writer in place of payment. I put hours and hours of hard work into this piece, driving back and forth to Tunica from Memphis three times in December to complete my research and interviews. All pictures were taken by me unless I’ve noted otherwise.
The casinos of Tunica represent the third largest gambling oasis in the United States, behind only Las Vegas and Atlantic CIty. Located about 30 minutes southwest of Memphis, this small Mississippi county of 10,000 people contains nine casinos. Five of these gambling halls have poker rooms.
If the cash game scene in Tunica had a slogan, it would possibly be: It’s not Vegas, but it ain’t half-bad either! As much as any other place in the country, the volume and stakes of the cash games here depend almost entirely on the tournament circuit.
Local pro Bob Talbot moved to Tunica seven years ago from his home in Ft. Worth, TX after he retired from a career in law enforcement. “Tunica is half-way between my family in Texas and my wife’s family in Georgia,” said Talbot. “What other place can you live and pay a property tax of only $50 per year? Back in Ft. Worth my property taxes were $4,400 per year. My car tags are here in Mississippi cost zero. You also don’t have to worry about cheating in a casino–at the underground games (in Ft. Worth and Dallas) you do.”
Talbot says that while there are a lot of regulars at Tunica poker tables, the games are still very beatable. “We more than enough tourists to pick on here,” said Talbot. “There’s enough of their money to go around for everyone. I like it better than Vegas because the people here are friendlier.”
“And besides,” Talbot added. “My wife won’t move to Vegas!”
The Horseshoe Tunica is home to the area’s busiest poker room. With 16 tables and daily tournaments, this Caesars Entertainment-owned casino where many local grinders and gambling tourists call home. The large mural near the front of the casino which features Benny and Jack Binion, the grandfather and father of the WSOP, leaves no doubt as to how seriously the Horseshoe takes poker.
Horseshoe Poker Room Manager Lisa Crompton and Tournament Director Dale Carden keep the Binion family’s legacy of southern hospitality alive, and run the hottest poker room in town. “We’ve tried to keep the room running on (Horseshoe Tunica founder) Jack Binion’s philosophy: be liberal with your comps and take care of the gamblers,” said Crompton. “I definitely think it’s because of the Jack Binion philosophy that we’ve been so successful.”
Carden agrees, and feels the dealers, staff, and the comp policy really keep cash game players coming back to the Horseshoe. “We give a free comp for our buffet after three hours of play,” said Carden. “We can also give a comp for Noodles, our Asian restaurant, or our cafe where you can order something and eat it right at the table.”
A member of the Senior Poker Hall of Fame, Carden has been with the Horseshoe since the very beginning. “It is tough to beat the Binion name when it comes to poker,” said Carden. “Even though ownership of the casino has, the poker room hasn’t changed. When the bigger tournament players come to town, they give us their live action.”
Carden recalls dealing a huge cash game years back with several famous players. “We let the players play the game with white chips because they didn’t want to attract a crowd,” said Carden. “The players would keep track of the money on scratch pieces of paper and settle up with one another afterwards.
“Sammy Farah was sitting to my left and he kept on moving my muck,” added Carden. “I finally called the floor, and they told me, ‘Sammy can move the muck wherever he wants.’ We’ve always tried to accommodate the big money players here at the Horseshoe.”
Crompton describes action brought into the Horseshoe by the tournament circuit as incredible. “Even when Harrah’s or Goldstrike host tournaments, it is always beneficial to us,” said Crompton. “They have a lot of tournaments over the year that definitely draw players in here. The Horseshoe is always the live action room to play in when the tournaments are in town.”
“We have (staff members) who remember the names of players who only come in three times per year,” added Cromption. “Our strong, knowledgable staff, without a doubt, is what keeps players coming back.”
For stud action, Carden says the Horseshoe is the only game in town. “Right now (in the middle of the weekday) we have three 1-5 limit stud tables going, but it is more of a social game than anything,” said Carden. “We do get $4-$8, $10-$20, $20-$40 Limit Hold ‘Em going on weekends. Come tournament time we spread $20-$40 limit games and up. We spread $5-$10 and $10-$20 No-Limit Hold ‘Em as well as Pot-Limit Omaha.”
Talbot’s Tell: The Horseshoe became number one when Jack Binion was running it. He ran a great casino. In the poker room, they’ve continued the traditions that Jack started. During they week it is usually just $1-$3 No-Limit Hold ‘Em running. During the weekend there is always $2-$5 (No-Limit Hold ‘Em) and a $10-$20 limit (Hold ‘Em) game going.
The 31-story Gold Strike is the second tallest building in Mississippi and has a casino which was remodeled in 2009. Their 16-table poker room benefitted from that remodel by getting new tables and an upscale look. Located next door to the Horseshoe, this MGM Resorts International-owned property is just a short walk (think Caesars Palace and The Mirage in Las Vegas) away.
Ken Lambert, Jr., MGM Resorts International Mississippi Regional Director of Poker Operations, considers Gold Strike’s location to be an asset. “Being in close proximity to three casinos (Bally’s, Tunica Roadhouse, and the Horseshoe) does help us out,” said Lambert. “Two of us have poker–it is an advantage because if a player doesn’t like one game he can go on to the next. To me, the Hoseshoe and Goldstrike being side by side gives a lot of opportunity to poker players.”
Lambert credits his old boss, Jack Binion and his current boss, MGM Resorts International President of Regional Operations George Corchis, for the southern hospitality which has become a Gold Strike trademark. “Jack Binion was all about customer service, and that has rubbed off on everyone around Tunica,” said Lambert. “You’ve got to get people in the door, and his name brought people in. It was his philosophy: lets bring them in, feed them, and treat them like family. I don’t think many ever left without having a full belly and a great experience.”
Players who log in five hours receive either a buffet comp or a $12 voucher for the Atrium or food court. Cash game grinders aren’t limited to just one voucher per day–if they log in an additional five hours they will get a second buffet comp or $12 food voucher.
Lambert, who started his casino career at Binion’s Horseshoe (Las Vegas) in 1979, says most of the cash game players who come to Gold Strike are either tourists who are coming to town just to gamble or people who live close by. “Tunica is a gambling place, and is not a big resort area as we all know,” said Lambert. “The weekend business is good, and we get some tourists who come in here to play. We can pretty much count on a 1-2 or 2-5 (No-Limit Hold ‘Em) game every day during the week and weekend, along with $4-$8 Omaha 8 or Better game.”
For players looking for a Pot-Limit Omaha game, Lambert says the Gold Strike hosts a regular game once per month. “We have a group of players who will travel here for a Friday-Saturday-Sunday session,” said Lambert. “It’s usually the same group that comes here for tournaments, and they’ve been coming here for years. They spend a lot of time here and they also play a lot at our other (Mississippi) property, the Beau Rivage in Biloxi.”
The cash games at Gold Strike, Lambert says, are good but perhaps not as loose as some players would like. “There are some players who play at this property who have won major events around the country,” said Lambert. “They leave may leave for awhile, but they always end up coming back here. If you want to come down to the Gold Strike in Tunica to play a little poker, you better come with your game face on.”
Talbot’s Tell: At Gold Strike there is no cap on the buy in. Some people don’t like caps on games, and I don’t because it takes away from the game truly being no-limit. I’ll come to the table and see what the largest stack is and match it. Once some players get a stack of $800 or so on a no-limit table, they can walk all over the table if they really know what they are doing–it doesn’t make for a fair game.
Formerly known as Grand Casino Tunica, Harrah’s is the largest casino in the United States between Atlantic City and Las Vegas. Their 14-table poker room, like the poker room at the Horseshoe, is just steps from the casino floor.
Poker room shift supervisor Steve Batewell says everyone knows the Horseshoe in Tunica for poker, but the poker room at Harrah’s has a lot of offer players as well. “Like Hertz used to say, when you are #3 you try harder,” said Batewell. “We’ll comp a player a burger if they are hungry, or give a Paula Deen Buffet comp for those who put in a few extra hours.”
“We’ve come a long way in the last couple of years,” added Batewell. “But (#3 in Tunica) is really where we’re at.”
Harrah’s is best known for hosting Tunica’s WSOP Circuit Event, and Batewell becomes the event’s tournament registration manager when it rolls into town. He sees first-hand how the WSOP Circuit transforms this poker room into a cash game paradise
Batewell says the poker room expands to 26 tables to accommodate the cash games when the WSOP is in town. “There is always a following of cash game players who come around with the tournaments,” said Batewell. “Whatever kind of action you could fathom will be trumped up either here or next door (at the Horseshoe or Gold Strike) and it is really a boon for all of us in this economy. Tunica’s WSOP Circuit Event is one of the biggest of the season.”
“Being a host casino for the circuit event every year gives us a niche to market,” added Batewell. “As long as we keep maintaining the quality of events we put on here, the people will keep coming because we put on a damn good show. And that’s what it is all about.”
Talbot’s Tell: You get 100 points for swiping your card, and 26 points per hour at Harrah’s. It used to be unheard of to get diamond status points just from playing poker. That is really hard to beat! You get $1 an hour here when you play normally, but just like the Horseshoe they’ll feed you if you are hungry. They won’t tell you that you don’t have enough points. Harrah’s used to have the #4 poker room in Tunica, but now they are only behind the Horseshoe and Gold Strike.
Located about seven miles south of Harrah’s on Route 61 is Sam’s Town. The poker room boasts 16 tables, and is located upstairs from the casino floor.
One thing that makes Sam’s Town desirable for game players is their uncapped 1-3 no-limit hold ‘em game. Another reason to play here is their generous comp system. Poker players get $2.50 an hour in comp dollars to spend at any restaurant on property–even the swanky Twain’s Steakhouse
The game of choice at Sam’s Town is $4-$8 limit hold ‘em, and it isn’t unusual to find three or four tables of it running at any point during the day.
Talbot’s Tell: I like that they can offer an uncapped no-limit game, but everyone plays $4-$8 limit there and that’s not for me. Sam’s Town used have the third best poker room in town, but now they’re #4.
Hollywood Casino is located across the street and within manageable traveling distance for gamblers looking to casino hop to and from Sam’s Town. Of the five Tunica poker rooms, this one is the smallest with six poker tables.
Where this poker room shines is through its generous $3 per hour players get in food comps. For those cash game grinders looking for a purely recreational game, Hollywood offers the only regular $3-$6 limit hold ‘em game in Tunica.
Talbot’s Tell: Hollywood can hardly get a no-limit game going anymore. I tore up my player’s club card some time ago and haven’t gone back.
Tunica as a cash game destination
How do the Tunica poker rooms stack up with other poker destinations? Like just about anywhere else, according to Talbot, there are plenty of good games to be had on the weekends. “Year-round, the good games are on Friday, Saturday, an Sunday,” said Talbot.
There’s no doubt, however, that Tunica fosters a world-class cash game atmosphere when tournaments like the World Poker Open and the WSOP Circuit come to town. Talbot says Tunica is a don’t-miss on the tournament calendar. “During the WSOP, tournaments at the Gold Strike, and the Horseshoe tournaments, the cash games get fantastic,” said Talbot. “The players just come to give their money away.”
“Let’s put it this way,” added Talbot. “They watch too much poker on TV. Anybody who doesn’t come to Tunica to play poker while the tournaments are here is crazy.”
A sample day in Tunica of the cash games
Poker room attendance on 12/29/10
Goldstrike, 4:00- 2 tables of $1-$2 nlhe, 4 tables of $4-$8 lhe
Hoseshoe, 5:00- 3 tables of $1-$3 nlhe, 3 tables of $1-$5 stud, 3 tables of $4-$8 lhe
Sam’s Town, 7:00- 1 table of $1-$3 nlhe, 4 tables of $4-$8 lhe
Hollywood, 7:30- 1 table of $3-$6 lhe
Harrah’s, 8:00- 3 tables of $1-$3 nlhe, 2 tables of $4-$8 lhe
About Bob Talbot
The 64 year-old Talbot has been a fixture in pot-limit omaha and no-limit hold ‘em cash games all over the South since taking up poker and moving to Tunica seven years ago. He is easily identified at the poker table by his red wheelchair and his rings; a beautiful jewel-encrusted horseshoe-shaped ring given to him by the legendary Benny Binion in 1986 and a WSOP Circuit ring are just a few of them.
Only recently has Talbot devoted any real time to tournaments, and before 2010, his only recorded tournament cash was a 10th place, $975 score at the Scotty Nguyen Poker Challenge III in 2007. Talbot’s increased dedication to tournament play showed in 2010, however, when he made five final tables and cashed seven times for $51,713.
Talbot was Casino Champion at the WSOP Circuit Event in Biloxi thanks to his 3rd place Main Event finish and a 6th place finish in a preliminary event. In winning this title, Talbot qualified for the first-ever WSOP Circuit Championship to be held May 27-29 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. He will be one of 100 WSOP Circuit qualifiers competing for a prize pool of $1.000,000 and the first WSOP gold bracelet ever to be awarded outside of the annual WSOP in Las Vegas, or the annual WSOP Europe in London.