Poker Room Review: The Hippodrome – an icon of London entertainment history

Lee Jones
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Posted on: February 10, 2024 7:45 pm EST

There’s London poker history (e.g. the Vic), but then there’s history that reaches beyond the confines of poker. The Hippodrome Casino, located on the northeast corner of Leicester Square in the center of Westminster, is arguably the most famous entertainment venue in London that isn’t the Royal Albert Hall.

A pillar of London entertainment history

Your American Legion hall does not look like this.

Opened in 1900, the Hippodrome was an entertainment hub that hosted performances by Harry Houdini and the English premier of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. In 1914, a Hippodrome showgirl named Lola McGuire disappeared, never to be found. The police learned that she had been running an underground (ah, “under-stage”) drinking and gambling establishment under the Hippodrome stage. Give the woman full marks for entrepreneurship. Julie Andrews had her professional debut at the Hippodrome, and fortunately, did not disappear.

During the ’60s, when the venue was known as “The Talk of the Town,” the stage hosted Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr, Michael Jackson, Judy Garland, John Denver, Tom Jones, Frank Sinatra, and the Carpenters.

So even if you had zero interest in gambling or poker, the Hippodrome would make a fine historical destination – you know, after the British Museum and Tower of London had closed for the day. But In 2012 the Hippodrome was re-opened as a casino, and in 2013, the poker room was opened with a PokerStars theme. I remember that because, as a PokerStars employee, I wasn’t allowed to play in the poker room.

Poker among the history

Now, five years after I’d left PokerStars, I was eager to give the poker room a shot.

The first thing you notice is that the poker room, like most poker rooms everywhere, is consigned to secondary real estate within the casino. In this case, it’s on the third floor (“fourth floor” to Americans) of the building, among a warren of tiny little rooms. And man, I wish those rooms could tell their stories. Like, maybe they know where Lola is.

Maybe Lola’s behind the fireplace?

The tables are scattered around the poker rooms in a floor with low ceilings, in what would have been dressing rooms, or who knows what? My favorite was the room that has a TV over the fireplace. I mean, a real fireplace (but no, it’s no longer in use).

The Twisty Little Passages arrangement makes it a bit harder for the floor-persons to manage what’s going on, but they get the job done, and move from room to room to bring chips, move players between tables, and so on.

I’m not sure how to say it, but I found the mood of the Hippodrome somber. Maybe it was the tables that I was at, but everybody was wearing shades of black and grey, nobody was talking, and the low ceilings only contributed to the sense of playing in somebody’s basement, but without the pizza and Hustler Casino Live on the TV. To be fair, they did have the NFL on the TV, which was kinda cool to see in a country that thinks footballs are spherical.

Poker in the theater district

But all in all, it’s a perfectly fine place to have a game of cards. On a Sunday night, there were five £1/2 tables running, so there was plenty of action to choose from. And the Hippo’s location in Leicester Square makes it wildly convenient. The Leicester Square tube stop is 50 meters away across Charing Cross Road, so it’s easy to get to from anywhere. Soho is a ten-minute walk to the northwest, and you walk right through Chinatown to get to Soho. Walk ten minutes east, and you’re in the center of Covent Garden. Ten minutes south, Trafalgar Square and the (British) National Gallery. Ten minutes southwest and you’re at Piccadilly Circus. Oh, and you’re surrounded by West End theaters no matter what direction you walk.

Indeed, while the Hippodrome might not be the most inviting or glamorous poker room you’ll ever be in, its history and location make it a must-see when you’re in that part of London. Or anywhere near the Piccadilly Line on the Tube.

Finally, the Hippodrome created a secondary casino. Under the stage. Named it “Lola’s Underground Casino.” Nothing could be more perfect.

Hippodrome Casino by the numbers

Tables: 13

Non-smoking. Like literally, non-smoking in the whole building.

Dress code. The Hippo feels a bit more lax than the Vic about clothing, probably because it’s at ground zero of the Leicester Square / West End / Covent Garden tourist zone, and Americans don’t know how to dress. But again, I wouldn’t rock up in a track suit or board shorts and expect to get in. If you do rock up in that attire, please contact me and let me know how it went. Also, don’t try to get in wearing a baseball cap, or any hat for that matter.

Minimum age: 18. Like all of the UK. Because they’re not as hypocritical about vice as the U.S.

Restrooms: Away from the room, but on the same floor.

Shufflers: There are none. And no, I’m not making that up. If I were raking ten quid per hand, there is no universe where I wouldn’t have automatic shufflers. Maybe some of the tables had them, but the two I played at didn’t.

Cards: Copag poker size (2.5″ x 3.5″), large index. Now, you’d think that poker rooms would use poker size cards. But in fact, essentially all American poker rooms use bridge size (2.25″ x 3.5″) cards. Don’t ask, because I don’t know. What I do know is that poker size cards feel weird in my hands. A brief Internet search suggests that poker rooms prefer bridge size cards because they’re easier to handle. I concur.

Food: There is a poker room menu. But pro tip: The Heliot Steak House has a glorious view of the entire casino floor, and because U.K., there’s no smoke anywhere. The prices are quite reasonable, particularly by London standards, and it’s open until 10:00pm (10:45pm on the weekend).

No-limit hold’em buy-in caps: £1/2 – £50-£400 ; £2/5 – £250- £1,000; £5/10 – £500-£2,000.

Rake: 5% capped at £10, plus a £1 promotional fee. I get that you’re playing poker on the most expensive dirt in the UK, so that’s the cost of admission. But I wouldn’t want to be a £1/2 grinder in London.

Straddles: Under the gun only, 2x the big blind, except the £1/2 straddle is to £5.

Bomb pots: Never saw a bomb pot.

WiFi: Good quality.

Cocktail service and lovely cappuccini.