More Poker Rooms Going Smoke-Free
By Liz Benston, Las Vegas Sun
LAS VEGAS -- For more than a decade, nonsmoker Sylvia Reiter has played poker through a cloud of cigarette smoke at Palace Station's poker room.
Reiter, whose husband and two sons work in Strip casinos, is used to smoky surroundings. Starting this month, things have been very different for Reiter during her regular poker game. Last week she sat cheek and jowl with other players in a smoke-free room -- the only nonsmoking gambling area in the casino.
"I think it's wonderful," said Reiter, a regular casino visitor since 1961 who has lived in Las Vegas for the past 16 years. "Even the smokers I play with are happy about it."
Palace Station, along with Station Casinos Inc. sister properties Santa Fe Station and Texas Station, this year started following a trend that began in earnest in 2001 when poker rooms at the Mirage and Bellagio resorts banned smoking.
Since then, nearly every major poker room on the Strip has quietly gone smoke-free. Others including the Flamingo, Gold Coast and Aladdin have followed suit in recent months.
A few poker rooms like those at the Luxor and Sahara went smokeless when they decided to expand. In another sign that nonsmoking rooms aren't hurting business, others such as the Bellagio and Bally's are expanding already smoke-free rooms.
Signature properties Wynn Las Vegas, MGM Grand and Caesars Palace also are expected to open new poker rooms in the coming months that will be smoke-free.
It's a trend that Weldon Russell says will spread off-Strip to include big and small casinos alike in the coming years.
"Other poker rooms will eventually go smokeless," said Russell, corporate director of bingo, keno and poker for Station Casinos.
Several factors are contributing to the smoke-free trend.
Many poker players who flock to the Strip are from states such as California that have banned smoking in public areas, casino operators say.
"Personally, I thought it would never happen," Mirage Director of Poker Operations Donna Harris said of smoke-free poker rooms. "But with players being from California and California's restrictive laws, people had become accustomed to it."
Customers who think this step will lead to entire smoke-free casinos or casinos with large nonsmoking areas will be disappointed: Operators say that won't happen in the foreseeable future because a significant number of gamblers and other casino patrons still smoke and like it that way.
Operators say poker rooms are a different animal because they tend to be small spaces that are enclosed from the rest of the casino to keep out noise.
With the explosion of televised poker tournaments and online poker rooms, casino poker rooms in Las Vegas are bursting at the seams. Poker rooms that averaged a few full tables on weekends a year ago now have waiting lists of more than an hour long. Women and younger players are getting pointers from television and the Internet and joining games that historically have been dominated by older men.
More players means more smokers interspersed in the mix, making the air unbearable even for die-hard smokers.
"The rooms are too small and you can't get rid of the smoke," Russell said. "On a Friday night you could cut the air with a knife."
Some smokers have resisted the trend.
Reiter said a fellow player told everyone that he would "never come back to this place" after Palace Station went smoke-free. "Needless to say, he came back the next day and has been here ever since," she said.
Palace Station poker room manager Gary DeWitt said he was ready to fight the trend a year ago "probably because I'm a smoker myself."
DeWitt, scanning a full poker room on a Tuesday afternoon, said the move has been good for business.
"This time I'm 100 percent for it," he said. "The time was right."
For players who still want to smoke, it's a short jaunt to the casino floor, where smoking is allowed. Dealers save seats for players so they can eat, drink, smoke and take bathroom breaks during marathon sessions.
Reiter typically plays for eight to nine hours at a stretch while her husband works the swing shift. A friend she gambles with "smokes like a chimney" but has learned to live with the nonsmoking policy.
"She told me, 'I won't quit but I'll smoke less,' " she said.
Russell said the move to smoke-free rooms has boosted business for Station Casinos, which still allows smoking at its Boulder Station and Sunset Station poker rooms as well as poker tables in the main casino at Fiesta Rancho and Fiesta Henderson. The two other poker rooms will probably go smoke-free because the experiment has worked so far, he said.
"We gained more customers than we lost if we lost any," he said.
Santa Fe in January became the first Station property to offer a smoke-free poker room. Smokers and nonsmokers flocked to the casino to see the results and then requested smoke-free rooms at Texas Station and Palace Station, which adopted the policy this month, Russell said.
"They didn't realize how smoky it really was" until they saw a nonsmoking room, he said. "A lot of smokers don't realize how bad it can get."
Harris said the Mirage and Bellagio went smoke-free at the same time so as not to pick up the other property's smokers.
The properties lost some hard-core smokers to locals casinos that still allow smoking "but much fewer than we anticipated," she said.
Whether smoke-free rooms have helped business is hard to determine because the popularity of poker has increased gambling volume exponentially, she said.
Bellagio, considered the most luxurious poker room on the Strip, will be adding 10 more tables by the end of April to meet demand. Sister property MGM Grand will open a new nonsmoking room with 25 tables by early April.
The nonsmoking policy has its perks, Harris said.
Players are gambling longer and "aren't walking out of here smelling like smoke," she said. The policy also means "no dirty ashtrays or burn holes" on the tables.
For Garrett Okahara, playing poker always meant being able to smoke.
"I've always believed that smoking, drinking and gambling go hand in hand," said Okahara, director of poker operations at the Orleans. "But now we live in a more health-conscious society."
Okahara, a smoker and poker player, grew up in Las Vegas and dealt games at the Primm casinos before managing the Orleans poker room, Las Vegas' largest at 35 tables. The Orleans' room is virtually smoke-free because it permits smoking only during the graveyard shift between 3 a.m. and 9 a.m.
"I don't necessarily agree with it but it seems like a majority of people would rather have a nonsmoking room," Okahara said. "We live in a more health-conscious society."
These days, a majority of players appear to be nonsmokers, though some of the newer and younger poker players smoke, he said.
Russell said the nonsmoking trend will continue in part because of a dwindling number of poker rooms that still allow smoking.
People who still want to smoke will end up congregating at those places, making the air even worse for players, he said.
"They'll eventually go nonsmoking or they will go out of business," he said.
Copyright © Las Vegas Sun. Inc. Republished with permission.