Storied poker room at Taj Mahal folds
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. >> The closing of the Trump Taj Mahal casino on Monday will cost thousands of workers their jobs and bring a final end to Donald Trump’s legacy in the seaside resort, but it will also mean the closure of what was once one of the premiere destinations for poker outside Las Vegas.
The poker room in the casino on Atlantic City’s boardwalk long ago lost its luster, but in its heyday drew packed crowds of gamblers from around the region and country to dozens of tables around the clock.
Around lunchtime Wednesday, the 24 remaining tables were empty. A security guard and two soon-to-be unemployed employees milled about, but there were no dealers, no chips being shuffled, no cards flying through the air.
After opening in 1993 when poker was legalized in New Jersey, “the Taj” became “the center of the East Coast poker world, certainly the legal poker world,” said Brian Koppelman, who used the mix of locals, tourists and pros as inspiration for scenes in his 1998 film “Rounders.”
“It was the place that you could go play without violating any laws and where, if you were someone who wanted to get better at poker and study the best players, you were there,” Koppelman said. “If you were someone who wanted to hustle people, you could go there and find tourists to hustle.”
Koppelman, creator of TV’s “Billions” on Showtime along with “Rounders” writing partner David Levien, said the scene in the film where Matt Damon’s character plays for more money than he should against poker legend Johnny Chan was inspired by him sitting at a table at the Taj with
brash World Series of Poker champion Phil Hellmuth.
Koppelman and Levien traveled there for research after deciding to make a film about the New York underground poker scene. When they shot there, “none of us slept. We were shooting and then just playing cards.”
The steady stream of players from the New York and Philadelphia region made the room popular, but it was the U.S. Poker Championship
in 1996 that turned it into a destination. Some of the game’s top players laid down $10,000 in what was the first tournament on the East Coast on the same financial level as the World Series of Poker.
“When we went there, the Taj Mahal poker room was kind of a mess,” said former World Series of Poker tournament director Jack McClelland, who Trump hired to launch the tournament that was broadcast
on ESPN. “They ran the poker room like you run the blackjack pit . ... It was just a mess.”
McClelland says the tournament organizers helped to change some of the problems, and he said he enjoyed working for Trump, for whom he plans to vote in November.
Connecticut’s Foxwoods Casino had already begun splitting up the lucrative New York market, but it was the opening of Atlantic
City’s Vegas-style Borgata casino in 2003 that started the end of the Taj poker room. It began drawing most of the city’s big action, and the opening of poker rooms in Pennsylvania, Delaware and later Maryland took away most of the rest. The room closed for renovations in February 2015 and didn’t reopen until this past May, less than two months before workers at the casino went on strike.
Kevin Thompson, 38,
was walking through the room on Wednesday, looking for one last game. When that didn’t happen, he reminisced with a reporter about the good times. A full room. An attached horse racing and keno lounge. A place where the locals played and staffers treated you like family.
“There was always something to do. You could always enjoy yourself here,” he said. “I’m going to miss it a lot. Sad, it’s real sad.”