Poker has a long and storied history in the State of New York. Now, as lawmakers consider opening up a legal and regulated online poker market in New York, it’s worth taking a look at just how intertwined the game is with Empire State culture.
Stu Ungar and the Ghoulies
In New York City, the popularity of the modern game of poker was born in the Ghoulash Joints, or Ghoulies, of the 1960s and 1970s. These Eastern European run back room and underground card games were the place where one of the greatest poker players in the history of the game got his start.
In fact, for three-time World Series of Poker Main Event Champion Stu Ungar, the Ghoulies were the family business.
Ungar was born and raised in Manhattan. His father Isidore Ungar ran a bar and social club called Foxes Corner that was essentially a Ghoulash Joint where illegal gambling was prevalent. Ungar learned the game of Gin Rummy there. When his father died in 1967, he dropped out of school to play professionally. It wasn’t long before he developed a reputation as one of the best players in the city. In fact, Ungar was practically unbeatable at the game.
Gin may have been Ungar’s game of choice, but most Ghoulies also spread poker as well.
From NYC to Las Vegas
Ten years after the death of his father, Ungar moved out to Las Vegas and his reputation followed him. In fact, he couldn’t get a game of Gin in Las Vegas because of it. Ungar soon turned to poker. By 1980, he’d become one of the best poker player on the planet, winning the 1980 WSOP Main Event. A year later he won his second bracelet in the $10,000 Deuce to Seven Draw event. He ultimately went on to repeat as WSOP Main Event Champion, capturing his third. Ungar won a fourth WSOP bracelet in the 1983 $5,000 Seven Card Stud event.
In the meantime, back in New York City, Ungar’s growing reputation helped drive poker’s popularity at the Ghoulash Joints where he got his start. In fact, New York City’s underground poker scene flourished in the 1980s and 1990s. It ultimately became the setting for cult hit film Rounders.
Back in Las Vegas, New York’s most famous card player struggled with drug addiction and gambling leaks for more than a decade. In 1997, Ungar cleaned up long enough to come back and win a third WSOP Main Event title. This cemented his status as one of the greatest poker players of all time. However, a little over a year later, he died at the age of 45 almost penniless in a motel at the end of the Las Vegas Strip.
From the Trop to the Taj and the Mayfair to the Chesterfield
Collusion ran rampant in the New York City Goulash Joint poker games of the 1970s. These places were filled with more than just chips, cards and Eastern European delicacies. They regularly housed gangsters, hustlers and a real criminal element. So it came as little surprise that a lot of the action moved South to Atlantic City, New Jersey once legal and regulated poker games became a reality there.
But that didn’t happen until The New Jersey State Legislature made live poker legal in the summer of 1993. This is when the Trump Taj Mahal opened a 50-table room and became the center of the poker Universe on the East Coast. The Taj was regularly filled with players from across New York State until some competition emerged in neighboring states. In 1995, Foxwoods opened a 35-table poker room in the middle of Massachusetts forest. Mohegan Sun soon followed suit. By 1998 a 40-table poker room at the Tropicana in Atlantic City opened up. This made the fight to draw New York City poker players to Atlantic City a two-horse race between the Trop and the Taj.
But even before then, a new and more sophisticated type of underground poker club emerged as a threat to the Ghoulash Joints inside the city.
The Mayfair Club
New York City’s Mayfair Club began as a bridge and backgammon club in the 1940s. Sometime in the early 1980s they traded checkers for chips and began playing poker. Games at the Mayfair ran thanks to wealthy financiers with a penchant for going on tilt and a group of increasingly savvy players taking a more scientific and cerebral approach to poker. Some of these players went on to become the most successful in the history of the game. Even to this day.
In fact, coming out of the Mayfair Club were players including Erik Seidel, who famously finished runner-up in the 1988 WSOP Main Event to Johnny Chan. Seidel went on to win eight WSOP bracelets and earn more than $31 million in tournament cashes, battling for the top spot on poker’s all-time leading money winners list to this day.
The list of Mayfair players who found global poker success also includes 1995 WSOP Main Event winner Dan Harrington and two-time WSOP bracelet winner, two-time World Poker Tour title holder and former Full Tilt Poker founder Howard Lederer.
The Mayfair Club started out in the basement of a Gramercy Park high rise and ultimately moved to a larger space on East 25th Street. Security at Mayfair, and other clubs of that ilk in the city, including the Diamond Club, was certainly a step up from the Ghoulies. Mayfair Club employees wore medallions allowing them to call the police with the touch of a button should a problem arise. Few did and New York City’s underground poker clubs ran with impunity from the law for the better part of 20 years.
Shining the spotlight on the underground
Sometime in the early 1990s, writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien discovered the scene and ultimately went on to immortalize it in the 1998 film Rounders. The Chesterfield Club in the film was modeled after the Mayfair Club and several characters were based on players from there.
The spotlight the film shined on the New York City scene may have been good for the growth of poker overall, but not the clubs.
Ultimately, underground card rooms like the Mayfair Club became victims to Mayor Rudy Giuliani‘s law and order campaign and a broken windows approach to law enforcement. In 2000, New York police raided the Mayfair Club and shut it down.
But, while high-profile spots like the Mayfair Club were shuttered, others popped up in it’s place. In fact, the New York city underground poker scene continued to flourish as poker’s popularity soon reached new heights around the world.
NYC underground unfazed by poker’s boom
With underground card rooms like the Mayfair Club shut down, some New York City players flocked to Atlantic City casinos and the huge poker rooms at the Trop and Taj. Others simply went across the street.
Manhattan-based underground card rooms like Union Square‘s Playstation and the Upper West Side‘s Players’ Club picked up the slack in the wake of Mayfair’s demise.
Players were well aware of the law. Running a poker game was illegal in New York, but playing in one wasn’t. So even when these new clubs got busted, the players walked away unscathed. Those running the games looked at a bust as the cost of doing business, and if players were forced to walk away with money left on the table, they often covered that as well.
New York City’s underground scene only grew when a Tennessee accountant named Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 WSOP Main Event. Rounders video rentals went through the roof, the WPT implemented the use of hole-card cameras bringing TV poker into the homes of millions of Americans and the game’s popularity boomed like never before.
Celebrities like New York Yankees great Alex Rodriguez and Sopranos actor Robert Iler even turned up at raided games.
The clubs might have been forced to stay quiet for a few weeks, but they would always reopen before long.
A new threat to the underground emerges
Law enforcement may not have been a big threat to the burgeoning underground poker scene in New York City. However, the lawless environment police raids helped create certainly was.
Knowing the local precincts were no longer on the payroll, and the underground poker clubs were now on the run from the law, a criminal element stepped in and took advantage. Police raids were one thing, but New York City’s underground card rooms now had to fear stick up men more than ever before.
The number of robberies at underground poker clubs rose until November 2007, when a 5th Avenue and 28th Street club was held up and a 55-year-old math teacher from New Jersey was accidentally shot and killed.
Players suddenly stayed away in large numbers. The clubs themselves decided being smaller and a lot less public was the best way to avoid getting robbed. The New York City underground poker scene still exists to this day, but it’s noticeably smaller and quieter than it once was.
However, New York based authorities went after more than just the local underground poker scene in New York City.
While it is well known it was the US Department of Justice that unsealed indictments against the three largest online poker operators on April 15, 2011, effectively shutting down the billion dollar online poker industry in America, it was actually the New York arm of the DOJ that was behind it all.
The online poker community has come to know the date as Black Friday, and Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, was the one who put together the case against PokerStars, Full Tilt and Cereus (Absolute/Ultimate Bet) that caused it all.
In fact, Bharara even used New York law to do it.
Felony indictments were handed down for violations of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 and the sites were also charged with violating the Illegal Gambling Business Act of 1955. However, Bharara also charged the online poker operators with a New York Class A misdemeanor for running a game of chance where bets are placed within New York state.
None of the online poker sites involved were based in New York, but the prosecution of these sites, and ultimately the demise of online poker in America, all took place inside the Empire State.
The poker tournament boom continues
Poker’s boom in the early 2000’s created more than just an uptick in interest in New York City underground cash games and online poker. The interest in live tournament poker grew across the country, reaching the Empire State as well.
At the time, New York did not have legal commercial casinos like those in Nevada and New Jersey. But it did have Native American Casinos.
The Turning Stone Casino Resort in Verona, New York became New York State’s first and only land-based casino when it opened in 1993. The property still features a live poker room with more than 30 tables to this day.
In 2002, Turning Stone hosted the first ever East Coast Poker Championships. The $300+$$30 No Limit Hold’em Championship drew 51 players creating a $15,300 prize pool. In 2006, at the height of the poker boom, the buy-in for the East Coast Poker Championships Main Event at Turning Stone was bumped up to $1,000+$60. That year it drew 181 entries creating a $175,570 prize pool.
To this day, Turning Stone still hosts a number of popular tournament series, including the East Coast Poker Championship and the Empire State Hold’em Championships. In fact, the 2016 Empire State Hold’em Championships $1,010+$130 Main Event drew 285 players last summer, creating a $287,850 prize pool.
A contender emerges
A contender to Turning Stone’s title as New York’s premier poker destination emerged when the Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino opened it’s doors in Downtown Niagara Falls back in 2002.
To this day The Niagara Falls Poker Room at the Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino features 23 poker tables and the property has been hosting major tournament series since 2006. In fact, Niagara Falls Poker Room now hosts three major tournament series each year in the Spring, Summer and Fall. Seneca tournaments peaked in 2016 when the $910+$90 Seneca Fall Poker Classic Main Event drew 300 entries creating a $264,810 prize pool.
New blood in New York
The poker scene across New York continues to grow with the addition of a number of new commercial casinos properties across the state.
New York voters supported a referendum in 2013 authorizing the issue of a three new commercial gaming licenses in the state. A year later, licenses were granted to Rivers Casino & Resort Schenectady, the del Lago Resort & Casino in Waterloo, NY and the Montreign Resort and Casino in the Catskill Mountains.
The Tioga Downs Racino successfully campaigned to re-open the bidding process and was ultimately granted a fourth commercial gaming license later that year. The New Tioga Downs Casino was the first to open up in December 2016 and the property’s Winner’s Circle Lounge was re-purposed as the casino’s new 12-table Poker Room.
The del Lago Resort & Casino was next, opening its doors on February 1, 2017 with a 12-table live poker room. Rivers Casino and Resort Schenectady opened up a week later with a 15-table poker room.
The $1 billion Montreign Resort and Casino is scheduled to open in Monticello, New York in the Spring of 2018 and it would be a shock to see it do so without a poker room.