Designing the Perfect Poker Room

What would the perfect poker room look like? From all the rooms you’ve attended what features and services would create the ideal playing experience? Sure, these days you may just be looking for a room that’s open. But let’s look ahead (and back) to simpler times when all of our favorite poker rooms are open and safe an ready for action. Here are the features that make up our perfect poker room.

Perfect Poker Room: The Approach

The perfect poker room experience really starts before you enter. Whether the room lies within a large casino or exists as a standalone building, it starts with easy access. Is the room within an easy drive or located near public transportation? Or, conversely, is it in Florida? Sorry Florida, the PTSD of your traffic and never-ending traffic lights lingers. Our favorite rooms in nearby New Hampshire are all fairly convenient drives…unless it is Friday in the summer. Elsewhere in New England, Mohegan Sun near the interstate in rural CT is more convenient than Encore Boston Harbor.

Assuming you’ve driven to your location, parking becomes the next hurdle. At most standalone card rooms the lot is right outside the poker room. However, large casino parking lots can vary in their proximity to the poker room. Now, proximity is not a huge deal if you don’t mind walking, unless you like to leave things in the car like snacks, computers, etc. that you may want to access later. Say, as you wait for your partner to bubble in a tournament four hours after your set was rivered by a flush draw. Not that we have experienced such joy.

Availability, though, is key. Nothing quite like showing up for a tournament and spending the first two blind levels circling the garage, only to end up in remote parking and taking a shuttle in. We actually abandoned an attempt to play at Casino de Montreal one cold, winter night because the overflow lot felt like it was in Toronto. The hassle and frostbite were just not worth it.

Perfect Poker Room: Hard Rock Tampa

The Architecture

Physical space sets a tone. When Foxwoods moved its cash poker room from the dark, low-ceilinged, basement to their current upstairs digs in 2019, the improvement in the atmosphere was seismic. Suddenly, claustrophobia was replaced by high ceilings, good lighting, and space between tables. Personal preference will dictate whether you like smaller, more intimate settings or larger more spacious ones. One of our favorite, now defunct rooms, Hampton Falls, featured a  wood-paneled basement tournament room that felt like a lodge from the 1950s. It was cozy and friendly and appealing. However, in our experience, rooms with higher ceilings and neutral walls create a more comfortable tone.

Many players don’t care about a room’s character. For us, some interesting architecture, whether it be curved walls and ceilings like at the new Mohegan Sun poker room, or a more traditional, upscale look like the Borgata, add something to the experience. When you look up from your cards, it’s nice to see something visually pleasing.


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Perfect Poker Room: The Setting and Atmosphere

We’ll just come out swinging on this one: poker rooms dropped in the middle of a casino floor without walls are horrible. They are loud, sometimes smoky, and distracting.  We prefer a room that is designated for poker and completely walled off from the rest of the casino. Even a small casino like The Rivers in New York can do this well. Give us walls and solid glass door and that’s a good start. It’s also a plus if the entire casino is smoke-free.

If background music is piped in, it should be at low volume and fairly indistinct. Listening to thrash metal blaring while I’m trying to decide whether a big river bet is a bluff is not ideal. Room acoustics in general can add to the pleasure of a space. Rooms that are built to absorb sound create a pleasant “din” rather than a cacophony.

The perfect poker room lighting is dim enough to create a cozy atmosphere, with targeted lights on the table that are strong enough to enable you to see the flop. We have played in some rooms where the lighting is blinding, and others where we needed a seeing-eye dog.

Room temperature is a common complaint. Many rooms like to keep it cool to offset potential large crowds. While some rooms can become meat freezers, we tend to prefer cool rooms. You can always put on a jacket. When a room is hot and stuffy, there is little to do. Rooms in which the air is fresh are of course preferable.

The Table and Chairs

Anyone who has been cramped around a 10-handed, small table knows that a decent size table is a poker necessity. If you are bumping elbows constantly with your neighbor, it affects your physical comfort substantially. Alternately, some rooms have tables so big that if you are in the 2, 3, 7 or 8 seats, the flop seems like it’s in another country. Tables that are large enough to give you room to wiggle around a bit, but not the size of a small vehicle are ideal.

Manchester Poker Room Table 2
We love these tables with USB ports built right in!

Modern poker means a demand for modern conveniences. The perfect poker room sports a table that has: built-in cup holders, USB ports for phone charging, padded rails, electronic displays so a dealer can address distracted players by name, and auto shufflers to speed play.

There are so many ways to get poker chairs wrong. We’ve sat in chairs barely a step up from metal folding chairs all the way up to plush swivel chairs we wanted to take home. The best chairs are: well-padded, with arms, height-adjustable, and on wheels. In rare instances, a poker room can actually overdo chair size. At the Playground Poker Room, an otherwise fabulous room, the high-backed chairs are so large that you feel you are playing bumper cars with your neighbors. Turning to take a bite of a sandwich becomes a contortionist feat.

The Chips and Cards

The chips really only need to meet one criterion. They are clean. There is nothing worse than handling filthy chips that look like they haven’t been washed since Nixon was President. Sure, it’s a plus if the chips are nicely weighted to riffle easily through your hand. And, ok, it’s nice if the $500 chip is more than a shade away from the $5,000. But, really, we would be happy with clean.

Cards can be a little tricky. Preferably the cards are plastic, not cardboard. And it is also comforting to have cards that clearly feature the room on the back of the deck. I find it unsettling to play in a tournament in which the cardroom is using the EXACT Copag playing cards that we use around our kitchen table. Did someone smuggle those aces in from their home game? Visibility is also important. You don’t want the print to be so jumbo that your neighbor can easily read the cards in your hand. But you also don’t want them so small that you can’t tell an 8 from a 3 (or a heart from a diamond) on the board.

Perfect Poker Room: The Staff

The personnel at the cage/registration desk set the tone for your poker experience. We’ve bought into tournaments where the staff quickly processes us while giving us excellent direction to our tables. Conversely, we’ve had cage staff look confused throughout and register us for a tournament three days from now and then sell the same seat to 3 different players (not Isle Casino Pompano Park‘s finest hour).

Floor personal are key as well, some are great at greeting you enthusiastically and ushering you to a table. In tournaments, a great floor can make a huge difference. Many dealers are unable to see the tournament clock, so when a floor religiously shouts “blinds are up” it’s a major assist. Also, when there is a controversy at the table, an assertive, informed floor is a godsend. There is a floor currently working at The Brook in New Hampshire, we’ll call him Bill (because, well, that’s his name), who imbues us with the confidence of a well-run room every time we see him. Conversely, not to pile on, see our Pompano Park review for how a floor should not handle table conflicts.

Of course, the critical component of a good poker game is the quality of the dealers. Dealer pitfalls include any combination of being surly (we’ve had dealers openly express contempt for players), unknowledgeable (calculating a side pot scares some dealers), slow, and distractable. Some dealers stop dealing mid-hand while carrying on a conversation with a player. At the other end is the Turning Stone experience: fast, friendly, funny, knowledgeable dealers nearly without exception. Note to all players: if you get one of the great ones, tip liberally. They are worth their weight in chips!

Perfect Poker Room Lighting

Lastly, wait staff that circulates frequently and makes sure everyone is taken care of is a value add. Waitstaff are not always necessary if you are not eating or drinking, but when you need something, absent waitstaff can be a pain. Kudos here to Playground Poker for their excellent wait staff alert devices. Offering good food and drink options is also nice. Mohegan Sun’s free milkshakes deserve a shout-out.

Putting it All Together

Adding it all up: what is the dream scenario for the perfect poker room experience?

Your day begins by driving up on access roads that lead right to a large garage near the poker room. Strolling through the smoke-free casino, you see “Poker Room” emblazoned on thick glass doors. A staff member opens the door, revealing a high ceiling in a beautifully-designed room with curved walls and arches. Classic rock music plays softly in the background and, despite the large crowd, you hear no sharp voices. The air is clean and cool but not freezing.

You register quickly and easily at the cage. The floor answers your questions about the tournament structure graciously, and wishes you luck. Settling into your seat, you adjust your comfortably padded chair, and pull yourself toward the table. The waitress appears and asks for drink orders. You get a water immediately and place it into your cup holder in the padded rail. Alas, your phone is down to 40%. But lo and behold, there is a USB port at your seat!

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The dealer takes your player’s card, swipes it, and greets you by name. Ten minutes into the tournament, you realize that almost a full rotation has been dealt despite the good-natured banter between players and dealer. You are comfortable in your chair, the board is easy to see, and clean chips riffle seamlessly through your fingers. An hour in, two players debate a rule, the dealer calls the floor, and he offers a well-reasoned and clear ruling. Three hours in, while eating the best chicken club sandwich you have ever had, you can’t think of an even mediocre dealer in the tournament.

Six hours in, you’ve won the tournament. OK, even the best poker room in the world can’t guarantee that.

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