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Oklahoma Poker Scene Shows No Signs of Slowing Down

Sooner State's Casinos Continues to Grow

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Oklahoma's poker scene is thrivingSomeone forgot to tell Oklahoma that the tough economic times were supposed to hurt the casino industry.
   
While the recession has stalled the growth of casinos in other areas of the country, the Sooner State continues to see its casinos expand and grow in dramatic fashion.

Last year, tribal gambling raised $2.5 billion in revenue, a state figure that only trails California and Connecticut, according to the Indian Gaming Industry Report. This year’s overall numbers have not yet been released, but some individual casinos are already reporting a more successful 2008 than 2007.

“It’s been an exceptional year,” said a high-level employee at the WinStar Casino, who requested anonymity. “The Texas and Oklahoma economies are still strong.”

The WinStar Casino, located in Thackerville on the border of Texas and Oklahoma, is the largest casino in Oklahoma at 183,000 square feet. With 46 poker tables and plans for more on the way, it also is the home to the largest poker room in the state.

WinStar has doubled the size of its casino in the past 18 months, with the final touches to its casino additions being completed this week. In the past two years, its poker room alone has expanded from 15 tables to 46.

The WinStar employee said that, if anything, the tough economic times are just helping business because local gamblers are that much less likely to fly to Las Vegas. With WinStar just about an hour away from Dallas, Texas, customers from there easily make up the majority of its business, as compared to the local community.

“I’ve got more blackjack dealers than the entire population of Thackerville, Oklahoma,” said the WinStar employee, putting things into perspective.

Oklahoma casinos do benefit from its neighboring states quite a bit. While WinStar is on the Oklahoma-Texas border, the much more modest but still profitable Choctaw Casino in Pocola is located on the Oklahoma-Arkansas border.

“The economy hasn’t really affected our casino,” said Billy Shadwick, the manager of the poker room at Choctaw. “All of our stuff is local, so people don’t have to travel in to get here.”

Shadwick said that both the casino and the poker room itself will likely see higher revenue numbers in 2008 than in 2007, although he credits that to the fact that local patrons are starting to become more aware of what the casino has to offer. The Pocola casino’s 11-table poker room has been open just two years.

Even Oklahoma’s Cherokee Casino, located just outside of Tulsa, seems to have had a comparable year to 2007, even though the higher gas prices for much of the year might have hurt people traveling to the resort casino.

Bill Sutherland, a shift manager at Cherokee Casino, admits that revenue is slightly down, but says that the casino’s poker tournaments are seeing an increase in the number of players.

Cherokee’s Oklahoma State Championship, a $340 buy-in event that brought out poker pro Scotty Nguyen and several local players, attracted 754 entrants this year.

Cherokee Casino is also in the middle of a huge expansion, adding a 19-story tower with 250 hotel rooms. The casino also struck a deal with Hard Rock earlier this year; while the ownership will not change, the location will take the Hard Rock name in 2009.

“The economy hasn’t slowed down any expansion we’re doing,” said Sutherland. “We’re growing like crazy.”

Chris Hyams, the poker tournament project manager at Cherokee, seemed to sum it up best:

“Poker is good here in Oklahoma.”