It is deeply ironic that the poker game that has captured America’s attention – Texas Hold’em – has long been illegal in Texas. There are no licensed and regulated casinos in Texas, no California-style regulated cardrooms.
But starting a few years ago, a number of “social clubs” devoted to poker have opened across the state. The technical details and legal drama around their operation are discussions for another time. This is merely my trip report to one of those social clubs, The Lodge Poker Club and Card House in Round Rock, Texas.
Situated just a bit north of Austin, the Lodge is the largest card house in Texas. It has gained some fame by hosting live-streamed high-stakes games featuring massive pots with not-massive hand quality and a player pool whose VPIPs look like solid C- work on a 100-point test.
But the big shot in the Lodge’s arm came in January of 2022 when high-stakes legend Doug Polk and vlogging heroes Andrew Neeme and Brad Owen teamed up to purchase a significant share of the club. They brought with them Polk’s 160,000 Twitter followers and Andrew and Brad’s half a million YouTube subscribers.
Last week, I made a trip down to Austin to get a look at what all the excitement is about.
Note that whenever I go to a poker room of any sort, I have two pairs of glasses that I wear simultaneously. One pair is focused on the game itself and my perspective as a poker player. Are people here good at the game? Where do my skills align with theirs? How much do I enjoy the experience?
The alternate focus comes from more than 30 years as a poker industry insider, and a lover of all things poker. How does this poker room compare to others I’ve seen? What advantages and disadvantages does it have? If I were running the place, what changes, if any, would I make?
The Bellagio, this isn’t
If your public poker experience has been at Las Vegas Strip casinos or similar, then reset your expectations right now. The Lodge is in a strip mall, hard on the shores of I-35 in Round Rock. It’s in a space formerly occupied by a kids’ play center called “PlayMazing,” a fact that I couldn’t begin to make up. And in my first bit of advice to the Lodge management, I argue that changing the branding and room design was a critical mistake.
But as played, it’s the Lodge (or “Lodge Mahal”). One thing I love is that they retained the high “industrial” ceiling, which makes the room feel bright, open, and airy. With bright light throughout and high ceilings, the effect is the exact opposite of most casinos, and certainly any home game or underground club.
Bright lights, small city
Putting on my “poker industry” glasses, let’s take it from stepping inside the door. You’re at the reception desk where they sign you in and put you on any game waiting lists you want. The gambling loophole in the Texas laws that allows them to operate requires that the customers be members of a social club. So you have to pay a membership fee which can be for a day, a week, or longer.
Also with my industry glasses on, the Lodge makes excellent use of the Poker Atlas information and queuing system. You can use the app on your phone to get on wait lists and then simply check in–again on your phone–when you arrive. When your seat is ready, you get a text message and go up to the desk to get your table number.
A word to poker rooms across the country and around the world: this level of sign-up and check-in automation is minimal best practice in the year 2022. In a world where you can do your banking, order groceries, or book an airline flight on your phone, you should certainly be able to sign up and check in for a public poker game the same way.
Everything is bigger in Texas
When you sit down in your game, the dealer will log you into your seat on their table-top tablet (no loyalty card required) and you’re in a poker game that’s like every other poker game you’ve ever been in.
Except bigger. And here’s where my eyes were truly opened.
In essentially all poker rooms across the U.S. and the world, there’s a rake taken from the pot. Particularly in the smallest games, this has the effect of siphoning off a huge amount of money relative to the chips in play. For instance, in a typical $1/2 game with a $200-300 buy-in cap, the rake removes 1 to 1.5 buyins from the table every hour. Imagine a $1/2 game in which a tough pro sits down, wins $275 in an hour, then gets up and leaves. Their seat is taken by another tough pro, who does the same thing. This continues as long as the game runs. This is exactly what a typical rake does. It has the effect of constantly trimming stacks, and, if the line-up in the game has been fairly static, it’s possible for everybody in the game to be stuck.
Not so in Texas. The moment you take a rake in Texas, you are violating a bunch of laws of which you don’t want to run afoul. So the clubs charge the aforementioned “membership fee” – at the Lodge, it’s $10/hour – which is taken at the desk. Thus chip stacks can grow and thrive, as losers rebuy, but there’s no pro-level rake scooping up 1.5 buy-ins and then leaving once an hour. The total cost to the players is $90/hour, not $250-$300.
Thus I was surprised and a little shocked to look around the $1/2 tables which have a $300 buy-in cap and see stacks of $800 to $1k or more. The strategic implications of such depth (400-500+ BB) are not the point of this article, but they’re myriad.
Put out the matches
When the Texas card clubs first opened, one of the dear operating principles, presumably brought over from underground games, was “match the stack” (MTS). That is, there is an initial buy-in cap, but the cap floats up with the largest stack at the table. So in a $1/2 game, the initial buy-in cap is $300. But if a player doubles up on the first hand and has a $600 stack, the new buy-in cap is $600. Again, with no rake to dampen the growth, stacks could quickly rocket to Shanghai skyscraper levels, and all-in confrontations often involved multiple thousands of dollars.
This does not serve the game, the players, or the operators well.
While it’s fun to win a $2000 pot in a $1/2 game, it’s likely to produce some bad outcomes. Maybe the winner doesn’t want to have $2,000 at risk, so they get up and leave. Maybe the loser, having won more money than they’d ever won in a poker game, goes nuts over losing it all in a single hand, and stomps off, never to return.
And importantly, those pots are usually going in the direction of the best players, who will take that money and do awful things such as buy refrigerators and pay rent with it. That’s money that the players at the Lodge will never see again.
Fortunately, when the Polk consortium took over, they almost immediately dropped MTS. In the movie Rounders, Matt Damon’s character, Mike McDermott, quotes Amarillo Slim: “You can shear a sheep many times, but skin it only once.”
It’s a bit mercenary to call the weaker players “sheep,” but the point stands. MTS leans an already tilted playing field further toward the strong players, and heavily so. Polk and his team did a huge service to everybody – yes, even the pros – by dropping MTS.
Coming up in Part 2: No nukes–another major change from Polk. & Co. that’s good for the game