DURANT — Cards flew and multicolored chips hit the pot as poker players from around Oklahoma and nearby states converged on the Choctaw Casino on Dec. 10-11 for the new Native American Casino Poker Tour.
The two-week tournament series was the idea of Card Player magazine, a leading publication in the poker industry, which partnered with the casino for the first event.
The federal crackdown on online poker in April (known in the poker world as “Black Friday”) has been a boon to live tournaments and cash play, which has helped many casinos and poker tours. Dominik Karelus, spokesman for Card Player Media, said the tour was introduced because of a niche in the market — American Indian casinos — and that the Choctaw Casino was a property with experience running major poker events. The casino boasts a poker room with 30 tables.
“The idea for the tour was always there, but Black Friday made Card Player realize that there will be an increased demand for live tournaments,” he said. “The Native American casinos are and have always been great clients and partners, and Card Player wanted to do something to increase the players' awareness of how great the Native American casino properties really are. Things have gone great thus far, with Choctaw reporting tournament revenues and interest way up from last year.”
Kansas wheat farmer Kirk Stewart, winner of the $1,000 buy-in Main Event championship, would take home $50,000, an intricately designed buffalo trophy, a buy-in to the casino's World Series of Poker Circuit event in January, and appear on a future cover of the magazine. The final table was also broadcast on the magazine's website. The total prize pool for the event totaled $290,681.
After playing late into the night, Stewart was thrilled with his victory and planned on investing his newly won cash in his farm and adding a bit to his poker bankroll.
Ken Lambert Jr., poker room manager at the casino, said he jumped at the chance to be the first casino in the tour series — and boost a traditionally slow month for the poker room. The low buy-ins for the event (from $100 to $300 for preliminary events) also helped attract more players looking to test their poker chops.
“The whole event has been great for us. It was interesting to be first. If you're first you get the perks — advertising, notoriety, etc.,” Lambert said. “We're looking at being a part of it again next year.”
Lambert expected between 200 and 250 players for the Main Event, but the turnout exceeded 320. Lambert said the low buy-ins definitely helped bring in players during a tough economy and holiday season. The idea worked and cardsharps and amateurs alike turned out for their chance at poker glory.
“To me it was more important to drive volume and get people in the door,” Lambert says. “Our idea was to give the average guys with a little money a chance to win some nice Christmas money.”
Most of the poker players seemed pleased with the events and turnout.
“I've enjoyed the experience. The facilities are nice and the people are always nice,” said Val Wood, of Durant, who took third in a $300 preliminary event for a $6,200 win. “The Main Event is affordable enough for most people who want to play.”
And what would he do with his winnings? Spend it on Christmas for his family, he said — no bluffing.