Pittsburgh becoming ‘hot poker area'

by: Mark Gruetze, TribLIVE Updated:

PITTSBURGH - Pittsburgh is getting recognized as a hot poker area, players and others involved with the game say.

(This article was written by Mark Gruetze, an administrative editor for Channel 11’s news exchange partners at TribLIVE.)

Scores of Western Pennsylvania residents play in the annual World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, as well as in less-publicized tournaments that offer big payouts and prestige, such as the World Poker Tour and Borgata Open. Last month, a company hoping to market a television series called “Poker Night in America” came to Pittsburgh to film local players in a high-stakes cash game with world-famous pros. Big-money games typically associated with Las Vegas and Atlantic City can be found in Pittsburgh.

“Poker in Pittsburgh is actually pretty big,” says Jack Schanbacher, 31, of Reserve, who went up against 2004 WSOP Main Event champion Greg Raymer, 2009 Main Event champion Joe Cada and four other big names during the “Poker Night” filming at Rivers Casino. “There are some high-stakes games that go on in Pittsburgh that you don't find across the country. There are some wealthy guys that enjoy playing poker. We get some very big games.”

Nolan Dalla, creative director for “Poker Night,” says Pittsburgh was an easy choice for the program.

“(It's) a fresh, new market where poker is popular and seems to be growing,” says Dalla, who has been media director for the World Series of Poker since 2002 and was PokerStars' communications director for three years. “We find that players are much more excited and open to what we are trying to do in poker locations that are relatively new and fresh.”

Schanbacher, a 2005 graduate of La Roche College, plays more cash games than tournaments. He thinks that gave him an edge over “Poker Night” pros who won their millions in tournaments.

“Even though these guys are big names and poker pros, I feel like they were playing more in my element,” Schanbacher says, noting that strategy differs for cash games and tourneys. “I felt comfortable and in control the whole time.”

Schanbacher says no-limit hold 'em games with blinds of $10 to $25 or $25 to $50 ­-- games that might be dealt at one table in Las Vegas or Atlantic City -- are not unheard-of in Pittsburgh.

The “Poker Night” game had $25 and $50 blinds, with a minimum buy-in of $5,000.

Rivers poker manager Jim Tinney, who has worked at the Flamingo and Rio in Las Vegas and was a World Series of Poker shift manager, said Pittsburgh has many “action players” comfortable with high stakes.

“Interest in poker is definitely heightened,” he says.

With 30 tables, Rivers has the state's fourth-largest poker room. Rivers' poker revenue for July through December was $3.45 million, up from $3.38 million for the same period in 2012. The Meadows poker room, which has dropped from 20 tables to 14 in the past year, has seen its revenue fall from $1.56 million for the last six months of 2012 to $1.18 million in the same period in 2013.

Schanbacher says poker has many elements to attract people: competition, interaction with other players, a sense of camaraderie at the table, its math and the tough decisions it forces.

“For myself, I love the game,” he says. “I don't even look at it as work.”

He advises players contemplating a poker career to make sure they have enough money set aside to weather the inevitable bad runs. The buy-in for a cash game is typically 100 big blinds — or $1,000 at a $5 to $10 game. He says a pro needs a total bankroll of 100 buy-ins, or $100,000 strictly for poker, before launching a career.

Schanbacher says he made “a few thousand” in the “Poker Night” game. Fans will have to wait to see how he did it.

The company also filmed games at Turning Stone Casino in New York and at Peppermill Casino in Reno. Dalla says four to six more games are to be filmed by summer to get a full season of programming. A television syndication deal is being negotiated, with agreements in place in Philadelphia and Chicago, he says.

Mark Gruetze is administrative editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7838 or players@tribweb.com.