The End Of The Taj

This article was originally published by BLUFF.com on February 18th, 2015. 

This past weekend, if only for a day or two, was a glimpse into the past. A glimpse into where the epicenter of the Atlantic City poker scene once was. A glimpse into what the Trump Taj Mahal poker room used to look like on a Saturday night almost two decades ago.

Seats filled, mountains of chips on tables, waiting lists being formed, dealers shuffling cards, drinks being ordered. The standard, almost monotonous noises one becomes numb to after spending hours, days, sometimes a lifetime in a poker room.

That hasn't been the scene at the “Taj” for some time, but in the late hours of February 14th, you would have thought you’d been sucked back to the mid-1990’s. Sucked back to the early days of the Taj poker room, when it was the biggest and best game in town.

***

The Trump Taj Mahal made their announcement late last Thursday night that midnight on Sunday, February 15th would see the final hand dealt at the Taj, putting an official end to one of the most iconic Atlantic City poker rooms once and for all.

That announcement, which has been expected over the last few months, was coupled with a new explanation of their bad beat jackpot payouts and qualifiers. Those qualifiers drove players to the room in the tablefuls for the first time in recent memory. While that rush has died down significantly since the $184,000 bad beat jackpot was hit, fittingly, on Friday the 13th, some players remained at tables in the center of the room late into Sunday night, closing down their poker room on their own terms.

The tables were, in and of themselves, a look into the past. There were no Millennial generation internet kids with sunglasses, headphones, or hoods, but an older crowd sporting baseball caps, leather jackets and collared shirts. They've been checking, betting, raising and folding for the last few hours, but with each hand, each pot, each look at their watch or cell phone, they were getting closer to the end of the Taj.

***

“How long we got?” asks Eric Bird, a Taj regular since 1996 who is in the room every day for the, “family feel of it more than the money.”

Blas Galang is the room manager. He's dressed in a gold button down “Taj Poker” dress shirt and has been with the Taj since he started dealing there when he was 21 years old. He's spent the better part of his life in the poker room and this is his last night as well.

He quickly runs behind a desk to check his clock. It’s 11:50 pm, meaning there’s still time for a few more hands.

But, enough seems like enough for an older gentleman with short, balding, gray hair, wearing wire rim glasses, pressed slacks, and a maroon sweater that almost blends in with the poker room upholstery. He begins to rack his chips, drawing eyes from the rest of the players at his table. No one says a word as they watch the old man walk up to the podium to swipe his players card for the last time.

“Where you going?” Blas asks quietly.

“Figure I’d beat the rush.” The old man replies, moving to the payout cage and then out of the poker room with just a few minutes left on the clock before the final hand. No goodbyes, his head hung until he’s out of sight on the casino floor.

***

With the Mid-Atlantic and East Coast poker market shared among a half a dozen newer casinos and now the addition of an online marketplace in New Jersey, the Atlantic City player pool has dried up over the last few years and the Taj has more or less been a desert.

The majority of the post-poker boom player pool have never stepped foot in the Taj, knowing it only due to one of the more memorable quotes from Rounders where Edward Norton’s character "Worm" is trying to convince his friend "Mike McDermott", played by Matt Damon, to take a trip to Atlantic City. Worm’s selling point was simple, “check-raising stupid tourists, taking huge pots off of them. Playing all-night high-limit hold’em at the Taj, ‘where the sand turns to gold.’ Stacks and towers of checks I can’t even see over.”

Worm knew where the money and the action was. While the walls of the Taj poker room are almost completely bare, stripped of their signage, their advertisements, their history; if those walls could talk, they’d tell you more bad beats, suck outs, and hand histories than you could probably stomach and they’d teach you more than any book, movie, podcast, or app could about the game of poker.

They’d tell you about a young Phil Ivey sneaking into the Taj with a fake ID. Coining the nickname "No Home Jerome" while he built a bankroll and a knowledge for the game that has elevated him to the top of today's poker world.

They’d tell you about the, now infamous, "pink chip game”. The $7.50-$15 Limit Hold’em game, played with pink $2.50 chips, would draw all sorts of players, from the professionals to recreationalists to tourists from up and down the East Coast and was regularly the “best action game around”.

They’d tell you about Ken “Skyhawk” Flaton defeating Surinder Sunar for the first-ever United States Poker Championships (USPC) Main Event in 1996. His $500,000 take was easily the biggest cash prize in poker at that time aside from the $1,000,000 purse for winning the World Series of Poker Main Event.

They’d tell you tales about the biggest names in poker, from mix-game specialist Chris Reslock to Men “The Master” Nguyen to Mike “Little Man” Sica to some of the more recognizable names of today like 1999 USPC Champion Daniel Negreanu, Allen “Chainsaw” Kessler, Ted Forrest, Phil Hellmuth Jr., Erik Seidel, and so many more…

***

A floor member checks the clock again, 11:55 PM.

The final preparations for the closure have already begun. Two security guards roll portable safes into the room, parking them next to two unmanned tables where dealers begin to empty their racks, counting white and red $1 and $5 chips that have made their last actions in the Taj poker room.

Of the fifty or so tables in the room, this process likely hasn't been performed on many of them in some time. The tables in the back corner of the room, the area reserved for the “high limit, high action games of the past” as Blas puts it, look more like antiques than functioning poker tables; racks dusty, felt pilling and in desperate need of repair.

“This used to be it,” Blas says, peering around running his hand through his short, dark, middle-parted hair, almost imagining the busyness of it all. “You wanted action? Didn't matter what day, what time, we had it.”

“This room,” he continues, turning, spreading his arms, “filled from wall to wall, every seat. We even had to add twelve tables in the back after a few years. Biggest room in the country.”

Behind Blas is a steel plate mounted to the wall that reads “Maximum Occupancy: 1,375”. That number that seems comical now but one that was surely laughed at years ago as well, except for the opposite reason. If someone wanted to play and could fit, they’d open up a table and deal them in.

***

When the Taj first opened it's poker room doors, it was literally and figuratively the only game in town.

Many Atlantic City casinos still didn't offer poker and, when they finally did, their home for the game was a far cry from what we recognize today as a poker room. The Taj was the exception, opening a 50-table room in the summer of 1993 that instantly became the go-to destination for poker players on the East Coast.

The Taj was the first poker room in Atlantic City to spread Limit Hold’em, along with being home to some of the best Seven Card Stud action in the country. It was also the first Atlantic City room to hold a major tournament series and the United States Poker Championships quickly became the East Coast players close-to-home version of the WSOP.

The USPC was held from 1996 to 2010 and regularly boasted some of the biggest tournament fields and prize pools around the world during the early years of that series. It's main event was also one of the first poker events outside the WSOP to be filmed and broadcast on ESPN.

The big names have moved on to different card rooms and the United States Poker Championships have been replaced by bigger tournament series, both worldwide and close to home. But, the action and tournament schedules that Foxwoods, initially, and now the Borgata offer on a near monthly basis all stem from those early groundbreaking series at the Taj.

***

The announcements have been coming over the microphones alerting players as the clock winds down, minute by minute. They’re all keeping their own time though, so when 11:59 PM finally comes, they all look up and, in unison, say, “Last hand?”

Blas gets on the loudspeaker, one final time, “Last hand everyone. Dealers shuffle up and deal!” attempting to keep his professionalism, but emphasizing the last bit ever so slightly, almost as if he were Mike Sexton opening up a World Poker Tour final table.

The dealers simultaneously cut their decks, and while the players ready themselves for the final hand in the Taj poker room, Carlos Santos, a middle aged man in a dark suit with slicked back hair and a graying mustache, enters the room with a handful of coins. He begins handing them out, one by one, to each player at the remaining tables.

Carlos is another regular at the Taj, and regardless of whether the players know him or not, they graciously accept his gift. Each receive a 50 cent Trump Taj Mahal slot token, an ode to the Taj's past and a souvenir from the room’s final night of poker.

***

There were no “massive stacks and towers of checks” on Sunday night, no $600/$1,200 Seven Card Stud, no $400/$800 Limit Hold’em. The games have changed and the stakes have lessened drastically over the last few years, but the excitement and energy brought on by winning a massive pot has not lessened and likely never will. Even if it’s just for a few dozen big bets at a $2/$4 Limit Hold’em game.

“I don’t care what you have, I know I’m winning,” Charles Jackson, a shorter man with grey balding hair shouts as he throws nearly his entire stack into the middle of the pot.

He and Ken Chow, a younger player probably half Jackson’s age, are locked in a leveling war on a board of [9d] [8d] [2s] [6d], with the barrage of raises capping the action, and leaving Jackson with just one $1 chip in front of him.

The entire room has surrounded the table to see the historic last hand play out. As soon as the [4h] falls on the river, Jackson, out of turn, announces himself "all-in", slamming his final chip into the pot.

Chow can't seem to bring himself to fold for the extra dollar, sheepishly throwing in a chip of his own, only to see Jackson table [Ad] [Td] for the nut flush.

Jackson ushers the dealer to send him the pot, but Chow still has to reveal his hand, claiming he hasn't looked at his cards just yet. He peers at one, tabling the [5d] and the ultimate sweat is on. The crowd around the table begins to talk almost fanatically about the how fitting it would be to see the Taj poker room close with a pseudo-bad beat, straight flush over nut flush, as it’s final act.

Unfortunately for everyone else, but not Jackson, Chow scoffs at his other card. He throws the [Qc] into the muck, laughing the entire time and giving Jackson a very well deserved, “Nice hand.”

Jackson collects his winnings and shouts, “I was here day one and now I’m taking in the last pot!” drawing a round of applause from everyone in the room. The twenty or so remaining players back away from the table and begin making their way to the payout cage--one final trip to cash out before leaving the Taj for good.

***

Everyone waits in line, except for Ken Chow, who remains at his table just staring off into the emptiness of the room.

“It just brings back a lot of memories for me. I remember coming here on my 21st birthday, my friends and I all ‘played poker’,” he throws up sarcastic air quotes, “walking in here close to ten years ago was the coolest thing ever. I had no idea what I was doing, I might have gone to the ATM like five times, but the rush, I’ll never forget that. That’s why I had to come back.”

Chow, who was staying at the Borgata this past weekend for a week-long tournament series, is one of those East Coast players that has moved on, but he, like so many others, certainly won’t forget their first experience at the Taj. Before he stood, he slid the dealer the rest of his chips and asked her, “So where do you go from here?”

She shrugged and Chow nodded his head in understanding before turning to an almost hidden painted section of the Taj poker room wall. It reads, in huge thin black letters leading to a fan of cards in sequential order for a royal flush, “Taj Poker” with “The Legend Continues” written right below it.

He was the last person to leave the room, bypassing the payout cage that already had their “Next Window Please” signs up. The final counts and paperwork have already begun as the staff quickly worked to officially close down the iconic poker room.

***

Since the room closed this past weekend, the Taj Mahal has issued another statement saying that the closure is “temporary" and the room will "reopen in July after a complete makeover”. 

That remains to be seen. But wherever Blas, the Taj staff, Eric Bird, Charles Jackson, Ken Chow and the East Coast poker community goes from here, players will still be “turning sand to gold” somewhere and, regardless of where “the legend continues,” it will always be traced back to the Taj.