Foxwoods was first casino to buy into World Poker Tour

As the poker craze refuses to die down, execs at Connecticut’s Foxwoods Resort and Casino are still marveling at their good fortune.

Foxwoods was the first casino to buy into Steve Lipscomb’s vision of a World Poker Tour, which launched in 2003 on the Travel Channel. It’s hard to believe now, but before that, the idea of televised poker matches sent most viewers fleeing.

“It was like watching paint dry,” says Kathy Raymond, Foxwood’s director of poker operations, of how the events used to be televised.

But Lipscomb’s idea of letting a lipstick camera see players’ hold cards — as well as his vision of cobbling together various poker tourneys into one PGA-style TV event — quickly swayed Raymond’s bosses.

“Once I realized the scope of what he had in mind, it didn’t take much to realize this could be big,” she says. “Poker at the time was successful, but it wasn’t the mainstay of any casino.”

“(Foxwoods) deserves a lot of credit for being one of the leaders in the gaming boom,” Lipscomb says. “I walked in with myself, a colleague and a flip chart, and we made a pitch they couldn’t refuse.”

For a small membership fee and a five-year agreement (with an option for five more), Foxwoods was promised a pair of two-hour national broadcasts in the first year. The casino quickly signed on as a charter member of the World Poker Tour. Lipscomb says the nationwide exposure for Foxwoods has been huge.

“It made a huge difference when Foxwoods signed on,” he says. “Pretty soon after, the Bellagio joined in, and then Commerce. After those three signed on, a who’s who of other poker tourneys felt they would be left out if they didn’t join.”

Now the WPT has been licensed in 16 countries, and the trend shows no signs of cooling.

“I always believed, even when we were sitting in those pitch rooms, that we’d manage to make poker into something big on TV,” says Lipscomb.

Foxwoods’ World Poker Finals, which became one of 16 events that now make up Lipscomb’s World Poker Tour, has exploded. The tourney, which began in 1992, gave away $3 million in 2003; this year Foxwoods expects the pot to rise to at least $8 million.

This year’s event, held from Oct. 27 to the final World Poker Tour table Nov. 18, requires a $10,000 buy-in.

Foxwoods’ other big event, the spring New England Poker Classic, has also benefited from the poker explosion. Once a local tourney with $100 buy-ins, the event has morphed into a $5,000 buy-in with a $600,000 prize.

The resort’s daily and weekly tournaments are also filled to the brim with players, so much that Foxwoods had to move the tourneys to 8 a.m. in order to handle a manageable number of entrants.

“From 2002-2005 we’ve had 258% growth in our tournament revenue,” Raymond says. “Our live action from 2002 to now has grown by 50% or more.”

Raymond says young adults and women have started flocking to the casino as well. As a result, Foxwoods has gone from 52 poker tables to 81 — and it’s still looking to add more.

“After the first season of World Poker Tour aired, it was like a locomotive going down the track,” she says. “We’ve been trying to cram into our existing gaming real estate as many tables as we possibly can. On the weekends, we’re reaching absolute capacity with long waiting lists.”

“The intimidation factor is gone,” Raymond says. “It’s taking poker from the kitchen table to the card rooms, which used to be the scariest thing imaginable. Now you get a 21-year-old girl coming in or an 85-year-old grandmother playing with these seasoned pros — and sometimes winning.”

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