October 2006
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The price of poker just went up, Vince

At Leicester Gala the £20+£2 tournament on Wednesday is now a £20+£7.

That’s a 26% rake!

Well, no it’s not. That would be illegal. Instead, there’s a £5 "session fee" that you have to pay before you can register for the tournament. And apparently they not only have the backing of the Gaming Board to do this, Gala is piloting the scheme for them to see if works well enough to use at casinos across the country.

The fee does cover you for as much as you want to play that night, however. Whoopy doo. If you’re very unlucky you could perhaps fit in two sit-and-goes (I have no idea if that’s the correct way to pluralise it) but if you do well, or have no intention of playing anything else after you bust it’s another five quid on top of a twenty quid tournament.  You effectively get taxed more when you win, than when you keep on losing.

The terrible thing is that people are already paying this. Even worse is that last night those people included me. Well, I’d driven an hour to get there and if I’m prepared to drive a 140 mile round trip to play in that game it does seem a little on the stubborn side to go straight home once I’m there. Won’t be going again though.  Numbers were down, with 40 runners compared to the usual sell-out 56, but the night before they’d still managed to fill the room for the, effectively, £10+£6 tournament.  If they owned up to what the charge really was, that would be a 38% rake.

Las Vegas Advisor maintains a list of the poker tournaments in town with their respective percentage paybacks.  Only Sunset Station and Sams Town are this greedy, which actually surprised me a little.  Even the quick and nasty tourist tournaments on the strip are 80-85% payback.

Geoff and I spoke to cardroom manager Steve, who was obviously disappointed that he had to do this, knowing that it would drive away many of the regular players.  However this seems to be exactly what those higher up are trying to achieve.  You see, the Play and Party Poker Zone is not really a cardroom.  The casino is not interested in developing poker players or creating loyalty, because they do not generate any profits until they are either paying their 10% on three-figure buy-in tournaments or generating hourly seat charges in cash games.  And whilst a £100 tournament would attract a handful of gamblers who fancy a shot at a big prize, it’s something that takes more effort to promote than a regular game, and not something you can do every night in a provincial casino.  So it’s quantity over quality, and they just want to get as many players through the door as possible hoping that if you throw enough suckers in the direction of a roulette table then some will stick.

So why am I so upset about this?  I guess mostly because of the stealthy and semi-legal way in which it’s been done.  The Gambling Commission’s Guidelines for the Casino Industry document states that a registration fee may be no more than 10% or £50, whichever is greater.  Simply calling the charge a "session fee" doesn’t cut it, and I just can’t see how this is legal.

The casinos who have put pressure on the Gambling Commission to take action against borderline-illegal clubs – who take a "service charge" out of every pot, don’t anyone dare say the word "rake" – are hypocrites.  Now is a time when poker desparately needs a new way of being regulated to protect the player from an inevitable undesirable element.  If indeed the GC are behind this scheme, as Steve suggested, all they have managed to come up with is a way to allow the regulated venues to charge an unlimited rake and legally fleece their players.  Well, I guess that’s what casinos have been doing for years, just not quite so blatently.  Meantime the clubs that do cater for those that just want to play some cards (there’s no blackjack, no roulette, just a 10% rake – let’s call a spade a spade here) are still waiting to hear whether they will get shut down.