ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Early on a Thursday afternoon in late April, the new World Series of Poker room at Bally's Atlantic City's Wild Wild West casino felt a bit empty. The 42-table room, which also features a large section for tournaments and an additional, closed-off "high limit" area, had six live cash games running. It was quiet.
To its credit, the WSOP room has remained fluid since it opened in late February.
"The traffic's been pretty steady," said Dan Morelli, who manages poker for Caesars Entertainment's Atlantic City properties. "We don't go dark at all, and our weekend tournaments are starting to gain some traction."
But on this Thursday, a half-mile down the road and off the boardwalk, the poker room at the Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa was packed to the brim. The Borgata has long dominated the city's poker market. It boasts a massive, bright room with a parking lot right outside and a bustling food court a stone's throw from the tables. It has become an East Coast poker destination; on this day, players from all over the world flocked there to play in the casino's Spring Poker Open.
Despite the Borgata's place at the top of the market, Caesars believes it has a hit with its new attraction at Bally's, and thinks it can attract its fair share of players.
"[The Borgata] has had a stranglehold on poker for forever," said Fred Niceta, the director of table game operations for Caesars' Atlantic City properties. "They've got a great facility there and competition is good. I think what we're going after is some of their customers, but we want to make sure we get a hold of people who are already coming to the boardwalk."
The WSOP room remains in its infant stages, in terms of both in-house planning and popularity with players. But the room's design is already a one-of-a-kind spectacle.
The World Series of Poker has become "Disneyfied" over the years thanks to its relationship with ESPN, which airs the WSOP television broadcasts. And that's not a bad thing -- ESPN is a big reason why poker boomed in the early 2000s, and the network has done an excellent job bringing the game into the mainstream. Since moving out of Binion's Gambling Hall & Hotel and into the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in 2004, the WSOP has certainly taken on a different, more colorful look, one that matches the presentation of ESPN and its sponsors.
But the WSOP room at Bally's has more of an old-time feel as large black-and-white photos of legendary WSOP champions like Doyle Brunson and Stu Ungar drape the walls. The room compliments the overall setting at the Wild Wild West casino; like a smoky gambling hall minus the actual smoke.
"We're very happy to call this the WSOP room, but it's a different WSOP," Niceta said. "You don't see this anywhere else; you would see this in an old Jack Binion room."
Most poker players today, who likely became immersed in the game after watching Chris Moneymaker's incredible path to winning the 2003 WSOP Main Event title, will get a kick out of the experience. But first, they need to show up.
"I think the summer's really going to be a hit for this room, because of our location on the boardwalk," Niceta said.
This summer could indeed be a turning point, but it might have more to do with scheduling than location. Bally's will host the 2014 National Circuit Championship on Memorial Day weekend (May 22-24), which is sure to bring hundreds of professionals and poker buffs to the new room. On May 19, Bally's will host a free satellite in the WSOP room exclusively for real-money online poker players from WSOP.com - New Jersey. The winner will earn a seat into the $10,000 event.
And Caesars wants to do more to leverage the WSOP brand, unquestionably the most powerful poker brand in the world. There are plans in the works to have Bally's host satellites to both World Series of Poker events in Las Vegas and to WSOP Circuit events at Harrah's Philadelphia. Eventually, WSOP.com players in New Jersey will be able to play in online satellites to brick-and-mortar tournaments at Bally's.
Meanwhile, the WSOP room already offers healthy promotions to cash game players. Players earn $1.50 per hour in rake back (with a minimum of 50 hours and a maximum of 200 hours per month) in addition to the standard hotel and food comps all Caesars customers can earn. If you play 50 hours at the cash tables in a given month, you are entered into a $15,000 survivor freeroll the following month, where the top 30 players win $500 each.
Players can also order food from the Wild Wild West's restaurants and have it delivered tableside. The room offers free WiFi for all players, free phone charging stations and more than 20 HDTVs positioned throughout the room.
The WSOP room is designed for the poker enthusiast. Many players, according to Morelli, enjoy live play at the cash tables while simultaneously playing on WSOP.com on their tablets.
"The advent of this room came down to providing a luxury experience to players who are well established within the region," said Caesars Regional Public Relations Manager Jerry Eisenband. "We're trying to give them the comforts they won't experience in any other room."
The perks are there. The atmosphere is enticing. But so far, it's tough to tell if the WSOP will prove to be the attraction Caesars is banking on.
"We're going to find out where we stand this summer," Niceta acknowledged.
Dan Podheiser has covered the gambling industry since 2013, but he has been an avid poker player for more than a decade, starting when he was just 14 years old. When he turned 18, he played online poker regularly on U.S.-friendly sites until Black Friday in April 2011.