Poker room review: London's Empire Casino – a home game in Leicester Square

Lee Jones poker writer
Lee Jones
Posted on: February 15, 2024 07:12 PST

There aren't many places that you can walk 100 yards from one poker room to another. Certainly you can't do that in Las Vegas. Then again, in Las Vegas, you can't walk 100 yards from the poker room to your hotel room in the same casino.

But somehow the Hippodrome Casino and the Empire Casino ended up within a three-minute walk of each other at the north end of Leicester Square in Westminster, London.

I chose to play at both places on the same evening, so I could get a true side-by-side comparison. In full transparency, I've played at the Empire a handful of times before, but had never played at the Hippodrome before this trip.

The Empire poker room is in the basement of the Empire Casino, square at what I would call "twelve o' clock" of Leicester Square. When I worked at PokerStars, employees visiting the London office (a short walk from Piccadilly Circus) were housed at the Radisson Blu hotel on the south side of Leicester Square. After a day's work and dinner, the Empire was a five-minute walk from my hotel room.

London's home game

From the first time I played there, the room felt "comfortable." It gives off the vibe of a home game that just happens to have 12 tables. As much as I enjoy the Vic -- and I do -- you know the poker is serious business there. At the Empire, it feels more recreational, though the pounds being contested spend just as nicely.

Most of the games are £1/2, with the odd £2/5 popping off at times. They also have a regularly scheduled PLO (simply "Omaha" over there) game.

I think part of it is that the lighting is bright and inviting - the Hippodrome has a darker feel. But there's more of a community vibe in the room. Every year they have a series of tournaments, and the winners get packages to fly to Las Vegas for the WSOP, and play in the Main Event as part of Team Empire. It's hard to overstate the pride and excitement people feel about a trip to Sin City as part of a poker team.

They have a special promotion where if you win a hand with six-five suited you get a ticket for a no-rake pot. And this matters because the rake tops out at a very London-y £11.

There's full bar and meal service, up until about 3:00am, and the cappuccini are absolutely on-point. That is, they are light in the hand because they are mostly foam, not mostly milk. I.e. the way a proper cappuccino should be prepared.

When I was there, they were training new poker dealers at an adjacent table, and I got to thinking about how many whacky and arcane rules live poker has. It was clear that some of the trainees were coming from the casino side of the house and had no experience in poker. I wish them well as they try to grok binding verbal action, one player to a hand, side pots, one-chip rules, and a dozen other things that are part of the game.

I also want to shout out to the woman who seems to be the shift manager whenever I'm in there. She runs a tight ship, but is also unfailingly polite and gracious with her guests. If you know her name, please drop me a note so I can update this piece.

And finally, there's no telling who you might find across the table from you at the Empire. Because even Canadian pop giga-stars sometimes want to see a flop or two.

I get it. London is a busy, high-speed place. Especially Leicester Square, at the nexus of the theater district, Piccadilly Circus, Covent Garden, Regent Street shopping, etc. So when I slip into that basement at the Empire, and hear the soft clicking of chips, and subdued conversation, it's a balm. I'm not trying escape tens of thousands screaming fans, but whatever noise and chaos my life has, it evaporates when I settle into the comfortable five-leg chairs. I arrange 3-4 neat stacks of £5 chips in front of me, tell the dealer, "Yes, please – I'm ready for a hand," and I am content.

Empire Casino Poker by the numbers

Convenience. Easy to get to from anywhere. The Empire is a 3-minute walk from either the PIccadilly Circus or Leicester Square tube stop.

Tables: 12

Non-smoking. The UK gets it. Non-smoking means the entire building.

Dress code. There's a secret Clue-like entrance to the poker room. If I ever found myself improperly attired for the main casino, I might try to sneak in that way.

Minimum age: 18.

Restrooms: Right at the back of the the room.

Cards: Fournier poker size (2.5" x 3.5"), large index. These are different from standard American poker rooms, which use bridge-size cards (2.25" x 3.5"). And yes, they have automatic shufflers. Unlike the Hippodrome. That in itself is a compelling USP.

Food: There is a poker room menu.

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

Rake: 5% capped at £10, plus a £1 promotional fee. Leicester Square is expensive.

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

Chairs: comfortable five-caster

WiFi: Good quality.

Cocktail and full food service.