When glamour and poker go hand in hand

Written by Ross Carter, CNN

When The Moneymaker Effect author, Lisa Wolfman, first interviewed Vegas de Icaza in 2008, he had just sold his Vegas Royale casino in Hawaii to a Chinese developer for $350 million and his group had just launched Pinnacle’s Sky Casino and Spa on the Las Vegas Strip.

However, his name didn’t even make the top 10.

“Poker was in transition,” Wolfman says. “As part of his investor protection plan, he didn’t really want to tell me because he knew, if the story came out, he would lose control of his business and Pinnacle. But it was early and he was having a hard time at the poker table.”

Now he’s worth $1.26 billion.

Even before the game changed with the arrival of table games (in 2003), Las Vegas had been a hub for organized gambling. But in the 1990s, the lure of Las Vegas casinos was primarily limited to casinos resorting to poker games by day to raise money.

“High-stakes poker basically grew because of poker tournaments in casinos,” said Wolfman. “You had these beautiful clubs, and the lucky winners would get swag bags full of cash, and then go and play at Pinnacle and Bellagio.”

Poker revival

As gaming began to migrate from Grand Banks on the north end of the river to the Strip, it sparked a greater interest in what were once viewed as low-stakes games. Professional poker has reached a new and lucrative generation of players, and new players have joined the scene.

The growth has brought a different attitude towards ethics and values. Pinnacle now sponsors poker player Ramsey Fernandez and has offered various free playing opportunities to players.

“It’s the economy, and it’s the legalization of poker,” said Wolfman. “Legalized gambling was new to Las Vegas, and the poker players who began to approach Vegas were taken from casinos, put in clubs, now they’re buying designer purses and houses. Casino goers have been able to choose and come to that.

Poker stars have moved to the Strip and competitors like Belter and Emerald have new developments. Credit: Harold See

“But when a lot of the profits fell to poker players, the casinos weren’t worried about who was winning or losing, and the poker players, although they want to stay out of casinos as much as possible, the casinos are giving them them.”

The revived popularity of poker has helped the new generation to make a name for themselves. Las Vegas has become an international destination again — but not without some problems.

Credit: Harlow S.

“You have places called busting clubs and busting pools,” said Wolfman. “A lot of the swimming pools have replaced pool tables. There’s now a smattering of on the Strip. It’s not like it was back in the 80s and 90s when casinos would double their hours when gaming was good.”

“Things have changed so much. A lot of good people made money when things were booming, but it was from a fickle market. There was more money in poker before and more money after, but I don’t think there’s been an epicurean renaissance.”

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