Tournament poker has largely returned to pre-pandemic levels, in terms of prize pools and participation. In some cases, like the recent WPT World Championship and European Poker Tour events in London and Prague, some of the numbers were staggering as guarantees were crushed and major prizes were on the table across the board.
But one particular region of the United States, which has long been a stronghold for major events and the development of some of the best poker players in the world, has lagged well behind everywhere else – until this past week.
With “The Return,” a major four-event series at The Borgata in Atlantic City, the region has hope that a long dormant period is nearing its end.
Two of the events drew tremendous interest and brought in players from around the world. The opening tournament, a $2,200 Mystery Bounty tournament, generated a prize pool of over $2.6 million with $1 million guaranteed in bounties. After a nine-way ICM chop at the final table, with Samuel Laskowitz claiming the largest slice of the pie at $146,509, the players agreed to each pull one of the remaining mystery bounty prizes. Ninth-place finisher Ryan Dodd nearly tripled his payout when he drew the coveted $250,000 bounty.
The crown jewel of the series was the eponymous tournament, “The Return” – a $5,300 buy-in tournament with 1,142 entries and a $5.5 million prize pool. A heads-up deal awarded Philadelphia’s Bin Weng Borgata’s first $1 million prize since 2008. Runner-up Sundiata Devore, of Brooklyn, took home $926,128 – the second-largest poker tournament payout at Borgata in the last 15 years. 2005 WSOP Main Event champion Joe McKeehen finished third, and Laskowitz doubled his payout for the week by finishing ninth.
Those two tournaments, in addition to a smaller bounty event and a $10,000 Survivor tournament, are the first major series at Borgata since the WPT Borgata Winter Poker Open in January 2020. There’s a hope that it could be a spark that ignites a much-needed resurgence. Outside of a few minor one-off events at Borgata, the pickings have been slim north of Maryland for three years – a tough stretch for what was once a cornerstone for the industry. A glance at the state of some of the major rooms in the region speaks volumes.
The Northeastern United States played a major role in the poker boom and the two decades that followed. Foxwoods once boasted a 114-table poker room, one of the biggest in the world, with a massive tournament room upstairs that hosted $10,000 WPT events from Season 1 through Season 10. There were milestones galore there in Mashantucket, Connecticut, including the first $1 million prize in a WPT $10K event (Hoyt Corkins, in Season 2). Nick Schulman’s breakout $2.1 million WPT victory happened at Foxwoods in 2005, and he then finished runner-up two years later for another $864,562.
As of January 2023, there are now only 35 poker tables in a smaller poker room at Foxwoods, there hasn’t been a tournament series since early 2020 and curfew is now at 1 a.m. during the week (4 a.m. on weekends).
Nearby, Mohegan Sun also had its fair share of poker history. In a truly improbable feat, Vanessa Selbst won back-to-back NAPT Mohegan Sun Main events, and Jason Mercier won back-to-back NAPT Mohegan Sun High Rollers; the second of each of those titles were captured mere hours before the Black Friday shutdowns in 2011. While daily tournaments are still on the docket, Mohegan Sun now has a 23-table room with daily tournament offerings and its own 4 a.m. closing time.
Heading south, Parx in Philadephia – another former WPT main tour host – hasn’t put on a series since Big Stax XXXII in February 2020. Harrah’s Philadelphia (formerly Chester), a longtime WSOP Circuit stop, closed its poker room altogether. But there is some hope for the area beyond Borgata, though, as Rivers Philadelphia is set to run a $250K guaranteed multi-flight event starting Jan. 11 and Live! Casino & Hotel Philadelphia will have a pair of $150K guaranteed tournaments in January as well. There’s also the very positive step for online players in New Jersey, with PokerStars merging player pools with Michigan on Jan. 1.
The lone outlier in the Northeast poker downturn has been Turning Stone. Located in Verona, New York, about 30 minutes east of Syracuse, Turning Stone ran the two biggest poker tournaments in the region prior to “The Return.” During a WSOP Circuit stop in March 2022, there was a $400 event with a $700K+ prize pool and a $1,700 WSOPC main event that hit $1.35 million. The place where so many of today’s poker superstars got their feet wet from the ages of 18-21 in the early poker boom days served as an oasis for players desperate for action in the area.
There’s hope, now, for more, after “The Return” proved that an event in the Northeast can draw big numbers. Now it’s time to see if Borgata, Turning Stone, and any other property willing to take a chance can build on that momentum and help revitalize a player pool with a clear thirst for more.