Sto­ried poker room at Taj Ma­hal folds

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - BUSINESS - By Josh Corn­field

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.”

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