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Down to the Felt: Why Poker Room Looks Matter

by Justin Moyer |  Published: Oct 30, 2013


In four sessions between 2007 and 2012, I lost $344, or more than $30 per hour, playing $1-2 no limit hold‘em at Harrah’s in New Orleans. Why such poor results?

Explanations abound: I’m a touring musician who plays many hands late at night after shows when I’m tired and not at my best; I’m still plugging leaks in a tight-aggressive style most effective against loose players in the Big Easy; maybe I caught a bad beat or three.   
But I blame the felt.

The purple felt at Harrah’s New Orleans is heinous, the color of bruises and arterial blood. Harrah’s $1 and $5 chips feature cartoonish Mardi Gras-themed images that clash with the felt, making each pot a swirl of colors not unlike an abstract Jackson Pollock canvas. Add the incessant buzzing of slot machines — unlike self-contained poker rooms at, say, the Bellagio or Maryland Live!, Harrah’s poker room is in the middle of the casino — and you have a recipe for a headache.

Winning poker players spend hours scrutinizing the moves they and their opponents make. They sweat the merits of limping with aces in early position, or the expected value (EV) of drawing to a gutshot against a large field on the river. But they rarely gauge their results against an important factor they often can’t control: their surroundings.

Hold‘em is a patient game. If, like me, you’re impatient, you must be on the lookout for triggers that will make your A-game slip. These include hunger and fatigue, of course. But for me, they also include WSOP logos in outdated fonts on the felt in New Orleans, ugly $2 green chips pointlessly used in $1-2 no limit hold’em games at Maryland Live! that clash with the green felt, and grating fluorescent lights at the Taj Mahal.
“I’m an artist — and I’m sensitive. And I’m not the only one.

“If I’ll be spending ten to twelve hours a day someplace then I absolutely want it to be as comfortable as possible — and yes, appearance is a part of that,” says Matt Matros, Card Player columnist and WSOP bracelet winner.

Matros continues: “One casino, when it first opened, used decks where the four aces each had a huge icon in the middle corresponding to the suit, as you would typically see only with the ace of spades. For the red suits this wasn’t an issue, but when the ace of clubs appeared on the flop, many players immediately registered it as the ace of spades, especially if they weren’t aware of the issue. I know someone who lost a huge pot in a $10,000 buy-in event because he thought he had a flush when there were only two spades (and, of course, the ace of clubs) on board. They fixed the problem for their next big event, and I haven’t seen anything as bad since. In general, my biggest pet peeve is flimsy cards. They’re easy to scuff up which means cheaters can take advantage of them, and they get damaged often which leads to pauses for deck changes and new setups.”

I like blandly-decorated poker rooms that, as much as possible, replicate the experience of playing in a quiet, clean home. I like rooms preferably located near the front of a casino or, in places like Washington State, in a strip mall. A long walk from a parking lot like the ones I’ve taken at Charles Town, West Virginia, and Delaware Park can put me on tilt.

I like tables, cards and dealer uniforms of neutral colors. The Borgata’s browns probably come closest to my ideal, though some of that casino’s wall decor and glass sculptures are horrific. Since I’m epileptic, I don’t like loud music or flashing lights — playing for a few days at the MGM Grand in 2006, when the poker room was next to a bar with strobes and go-go dancers, was an adventure (that cost me $250). I don’t like when a casino just sort of spills into a poker room, as at Hollywood Casino in Perryville, Maryland. On my way to my seat, I don’t even want to see a slot machine or a dice pit.
This isn’t just taste — it’s science.

Paint company Sherman-Williams, citing academic research, recommends employers “add some stimulating red or orange to a conference room, and meetings might move along faster.” Meanwhile, the company notes that people who have trouble ignoring their surroundings — people like me — “tended to feel overwhelmed in bright rooms and were more productive in blue-green environments, which they found relaxing.”

Most casinos prefer stimulating to relaxing. Think about it: Have you ever seen an aquamarine cardroom?

If this whining about poker-room aesthetics seems ridiculous, ask yourself: If you’re a nonsmoker, do you play better in smoke-free casinos? Do you get stressed at the Commerce because it feels like Grand Central Station? Do the filthy $1 chips at the Taj subconsciously force you to ship them to your opponents?

Washington, D.C. players like me once had to make the four-hour drive to Atlantic City to play cards legally. The landscape’s changed — by my count, six poker rooms have opened or will open within 100 miles of my house by 2016. As we pick winners in this newly open market, let’s congregate where casinos competing for our dollars treat us best. This means comps, short waitlists, and a beatable rake. But it also means not forcing us to endure migraine-inducing color schemes or uncomfortable chairs.  
We’re poker players. We don’t need bells and whistles — and we definitely don’t need purple felt. ♠

Justin Moyer, a musician, is on the editorial staff of The Washington Post’s Outlook section.