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Associated Press
Brian Norwood gets a massage from Sabina Verbeck during a break in play at the poker room in Caesar’s Palace on Wednesday in Las Vegas.

Poker a losing hand for casinos in Vegas

– The Tropicana hoped to step back into the big leagues when it opened its poker room in the heart of the Las Vegas Strip, touting it as the coolest in town.

But that same morning, federal agents shut down the three biggest online poker sites on the Internet.

Last September, less than a year and a half later, the iconic casino quietly swapped out its green felt tables for slot machines.

It’s a story that’s become increasingly common as the crackdown on Internet gambling weakens poker’s appeal, and the casinos that once competed to lure fans of Texas Hold ’Em abandon the waning game in favor of more lucrative alternatives.

Poker has never been a big moneymaker like slot machines or roulette. But when the game’s popularity soared during the 2000s, casinos were willing to forgo the extra dollars to get players inside their buildings.

Now the calculus is shifting. In Sin City, epicenter of the poker craze, at least eight rooms have folded in the past two years.

The trend is also playing out in Mississippi riverboats, Indian casinos and gambling halls near big cities from California to Florida.

Poker’s proponents insist the game remains as popular as ever, and some larger casinos say their rooms are bustling.

But the spate of poker room closures on the Strip has some wondering whether the largest gambling trend to sweep the country in 25 years may be losing momentum.

“I just think the allure of poker is lessening,” said William Thompson, author of the encyclopedia “Gambling in America” and professor of public administration at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “That’s one reason the smaller casinos would just say, ‘Hey it’s not worth all the time to set everything up. A slot machine would do a lot better.’ ”

Poker revenue has been falling in Nevada since 2007, the year after the federal government first cracked down on virtual gambling and forced online companies to close or relocate offshore.

On April 15, 2011, the federal government took its strongest stand yet against the semilegal world of Internet poker, blacking out three major sites on a date later dubbed “Black Friday.”

No longer could fresh crops of poker players develop their games online.

The Tropicana hotel-resort, which was remaking itself with several major renovations at the time, opened its new poker room the same spring day.

“Poker had gone through a dramatic popularity phase. It grew really quickly. And we jumped on board,” said Fred Harmon, chief marketing officer for the casino.

The decision to replace the room with slot machines was pure economics, Harmon said.

“I think every company over the last several years have had to look at what they do and what makes money,” he said.

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