Florida: A New Poker Mecca?

I’m sitting in a $2/$5 No Limit Hold’em game somewhere on the Treasure Coast. A cup of brown sludge sits in a protective cupholder on a sidetable nestled between my seat and the seat of the player to my right, who we’ll call Billy Bob. Billy Bob runs a profitable landscaping business but sadly has hemorrhaged three $500 buy-ins in the last hour and looks primed to lose a fourth. It’s October 2011. Uncapped No Limit Hold’em has only existed in Florida for a year and three months. I’ve been here three weeks.

View Coding the Wheel’s Tactical Florida Poker Map.

The guy to my left, who we’ll call Bubba, has just announced to the table that he’ll be going all-in preflop on the very next hand, without looking at his cards or even so much as glancing at his cards, so help him. That earns him a chuckle from the retired school teacher in Seat 4, who’s playing her very first session of poker tonight in our midst, and occasionally has to be instructed on the whole betting vs. calling vs. raising thing. The guy doing most of said instructing is hunkered down in the 1-seat and currently rocking a pair of dark shades and Unabomber-style hoodie, presumably so the other players won’t catch any “reads” off him, potentially threatening the security of his $84 stack. I peg him as an online player instantly.

Casting my gaze around the Friday night crowd, I feel like a nameless stick figure in a Where’s Waldo scene of poker cardroom debauchery. Players calling half their stacks off preflop with low pairs, implied odds shot to hell, hoping for the miracle set anyway. Lopsided 20BB preflop raises getting called in six spots. Family pots. Friendly I’ll-check-it-down-with-you pots. Rebates. Blind bets. Promotion-chasing. Straddles and restraddles. Short stacks playing like they’re deep, deep stacks playing like they’re short. Table captains showing off 2nd-grade poker knowledge to the rest of the table, instructing them, their lucky student-opponents nodding sagely whilst raising K9o under the gun.

Welcome to sunny, stormy Florida, where the games are as soft as the waters are warm, where recreational players are as common as palm trees, and where even uninspired ABC poker can be enough to breeze your way to a steady earn. Hopefully without going broke in the process.

A New Poker Mecca

You can play poker anywhere. But if you want access to nonstop action and miles of green felt, if you crave all-night high-limit Hold’em at the Taj, where the sands turn to gold, you still have to make the pilgrimage to a poker mecca: a place where friendly poker laws and a sufficient local population combine to create monster demand. Traditionally, that’s meant Las Vegas, California, or Atlantic City.

Now, after years of legislative hand-wringing, you can add Florida to that list—and add it somewhere near the top. Florida is no longer the shady poker backwater with confusing poker rules it was in days of yore. As Cardplayer reported in July 2010:

In April, the two chambers of the Florida government voted to alter the gambling laws in the state, which included scrapping the $100 max buy-in for cash games and the $1,000 max buy-in for tournaments.

The move, which goes into effect today, is expected to propel Florida into one of the premiere poker destinations in the country.

“Florida becomes another Atlantic City, Tunica or Vegas,” said Russ Christianson, the vice president of gaming operations at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. “Why would you want to go to Atlantic City in January when you can come to Florida?”

But there’s more to the Florida scene than friendly poker laws. From her geography to her climate to her population, Florida is ideally suited for poker and other forms of gaming.

  • Demographics. Florida is a top vacation spot, a playground of the rich, and a world-famous retirement destination. It also has the fourth-largest population in the USA behind California, Texas, and New York (in that order).
  • Climate. Balmy weather and ocean-cooled breezes make Florida a favorite wintering spot for the northern set, but summer in Tampa is still preferable to summer in Vegas.
  • Recreation. Like California, Florida is a vacation destination in its own right. It doesn’t need casino gaming to attract visitors. The same can’t be said for Vegas.
  • Saturation. From the panhandle to the keys, you’re never more than an hour from a cardroom, and when you’re at a cardroom, you’re never more than an hour from the beach.

You can keep your crotchety Vegas regulars and seedy-majestic California cardrooms. Florida, with her pristine beaches, armies of recreational players, and sun ‘n fun lifestyle, rates to become one of the premiere poker destinations in the world.

Rounding in Florida and the TRP


View the Florida Circuit Map in a larger map

Several hours later. I’m riding shotgun in a dilapidated Honda somewhere on I-95S, that artery of asphault, which runs north to south along Florida’s east coast. It’s about twenty minutes after midnight. Ft. Pierce Jai Alai & Poker just shut its door for the night and we’re en route to the cardroom at Palm Beach Kennel Club, where we’ll play until it closes at 4am. After that, we’ll drive another 45 minutes down to the Seminole Hard Rock, where the games run 24/7.

And after that? Miami.

The guy in the driver’s seat is a Florida rounder by the name of Roy. Roy’s been showing me some of the tricks out of his playbook—which cardrooms have the best games, where the promotions are running hottest, locations of cheap restaurants and extended stays. That sort of thing. As a former theoretical computer guy, he understands the alchemy of optimized poker rounding like nobody’s business. Unfortunately Roy doesn’t talk much, or share his secrets easily. He’s a non-self-weighting (NSW) kind of dude a la Mason Malmuth. When he talks, people listen.

He talks now.

“Playing poker as a rounder is more of a Travelling Salesman problem than anything else,” he says, face illuminated by the shattered glow of oncoming traffic. “The trick is to find the optimized path between cardrooms. Not just the mathematically shortest path, but the path that exposes you to the most action, the best promotions, consuming the least amount of gas. The path that doesn’t leave you trapped in Jacksonville when where you really need to be is Tampa, or Miami, or wherever.”

My ears perk up at this. The Travelling Salesman Problem has been the bane of computer science students since time immemorial. But the TSP, as it’s affectionately known, is really a special case of the Travelling Purchaser Problem.

The travelling purchaser problem (TPP) is an NP-hard problem studied in theoretical computer science. Given a list of marketplaces, the cost of travelling between different marketplaces, and a list of available goods together with the price of each such good at each marketplace, the task is to find for a given list of articles the route with the minimum combined cost of purchases and travelling. The traveling salesman problem is a special case of this problem.

Taking poker as our domain, we can rewrite that as the Travelling Rounder Problem, or TRP.

Given a list of poker rooms, the cost of travelling between different poker rooms, and a list of available games along with the rake structure, promotional artifacts, and amount of “action” at each poker room, the task is to find, for a given selection of desired games, the route that yields the maximum profit.

This, as it turns out, it easier said than done. The TPP is known to be NP-Hard. Throw in some fuzzy terms (how do you quantify a poker room’s amount of “action”?) and some varying terms (travel cost will vary with traffic, construction, and the price of gasoline/petrol) and it becomes NP-Really-Freaking-Hard. “Of course, you don’t have to get it perfect,” Roy notes. “You just don’t want to spend four hours driving to Miami if there are better games thirty minutes down the road.”

Well, yeah. Computers are hard, let’s go swimming.

“Maybe somebody should write a piece of software to help figure all this stuff out,” I suggest, stepping into my role as Annoying Software Construction Guy. “There’s an app for everything. But not that.”

“Maybe,” he concedes. “The point I’m trying to make is that finding acceptable solutions for the Travelling problem is easier in Florida than Vegas or Nevada. Getting around is easier. Finding profitable games is easier. Living is easier. The weather’s better. There are more promotions. Players are more forgiving.”

It’s an excellent point. The only other spot in the United States that offers a similar mix of poker and non-poker fun in a warm climate with proximity to the beach is California, and if you took California, bent it in half, flattened the mountains, unclogged the traffic, cleared the smog, warmed the waters, and reduced the cost of living by about 30%, you’d end up with Florida again. So you might as well just head to Florida and solve your TRP there. You’ll have to learn a different set of tricks of course:

  • Forget about finding a cardroom near Disney World.
  • Schedule your play to take advantage of the non-24/7 rooms when they’re open.
  • Have a car and know when to take I-95 vs. I-75 vs. the Florida Turnpike vs. US-1 etc.
  • Find out which cardrooms draw big crowds for which events and promotions.
  • Find cheap motels and places to stay.

But in general, Florida is one of the easier places to stay afloat as a poker player, which means its only extremely difficult as opposed to outlandishly, offensively difficult.

“Roy, you should write a blog.”

“How do you know I don’t?” he says, gunning the accelerator. The wheels grab the pavement and the lights of Ft. Pierce dwindle to embers in the rearview.

The Florida Anomaly

Florida was not always the palm-studded poker paradise it is today. Early legislative restrictions on pot sizes, betting amounts, and buy-ins effectively crippled the games and robbed them of all fun, tarnishing Florida’s poker reputation for decades.

Level of Pain Endured by Florida Poker Players, 1989 to Present

No Limit games were finally introduced in 2007, a watershed moment in Florida poker history. But even then you couldn’t buy in for more than $100. Facing a $100 buy-in cap the cardrooms could have spread No Limit Hold’em in the $0.25/$0.50 to $1/$2 range, allowing for standard poker buys of 200BB down to 50BB. That would have been sensible policy so far as stack-size-relative-to-the-blinds is concerned. But that’s not what happened.

Instead, Florida cardrooms gleefully started spreading $1/$2, $2/$5, and $5/$10. No Limit. With a $100 cap.[1]

Caught between the buy-in cap mandated by the legislature and the blind sizes mandated by the cardrooms, tens of thousands of players were ushered into shallow $1/$2 NLH games (50BB max) and chronically short-stacked $2/$5 and $5/$10 games (20BB and 10BB, respectively). The result was a free-for-all of lopsided “throwaway poker” in which naive players tossed buy-in after buy-in down the drain in hopes of finally achieving a playable stack—truly a case of the BLINDS leading the blind. In the end, the legislative restrictions intended to protect players encouraged a freewheeling multiple-rebuy culture which persists to this day, two years after the restrictions have been lifted.

Florida Poker Tips

Poker games in the Sunshine State are characterized by erratic, occasionally insane players and plentiful short stacks. Read on for some possible strategy adjustments.

Bone up on your short-stacked play. The Florida buy-in caps may
be history, but a lot of players still buy in short. A solid understanding of short-stacked play is crucial to winning in Florida.

Adjust your preflop raises. It’s common to find yourself at a table where the average preflop raise is something like 10BB. If you’re in a $1/$2 game and raisers are making it $25 to go with AJs and getting called in three or four spots, a standard $7 or $9 raise plays more like a min-raise or a pot sweetener.

Appreciate the straddles. It’s a rare Florida game that doesn’t have a perpetual straddler or two artificially jacking up the limits at their own expense. Make sure you’re comfortable playing against the straddle as well as occasionally straddling yourself, for effect.

Learn the promotions. Florida poker is promotion-heavy compared to the average cardroom on the Strip. Aside from the now-standard bad beat jackpot, you’ll find high hand jackpots, prizes for royals, straight flushes, and quads, Aces cracked promotions, pay-to-play incentives, player drawings, and more. Some of these promotions can influence correct play of a hand so it’s important to stay on top of them with a simple “‘what promotions are you running tonight?” when you sit down. Every. Time. You. Sit. Down.

Trim your flop continuation bets. Players are somewhat looser in Florida, but they’re especially loose preflop and on on the flop. And like most bad players, they’re constantly suspicious that they’re being taken advantage of with a c-bet. In general you’ll see more flops with more opponents who will call you more often in Florida, so hold off on the heavy c-betting in those table conditions and be more willing to value bet your strong hands.

Sign up for a Player’s Card. Ever hear the story about the guy who missed out on the $100,000 bad beat jackpot because he didn’t have a Player’s Card? No? We didn’t either. Don’t be that guy. Or gal, as the case may be.

Hard Rock Player's Card

Play at the right time. The right time to play in Florida is “when recreational players are playing”: after business hours, towards the end of the week and on the weekend, and around bigger tournaments and promotions.

Play at the right room. The games are softer in the more out-of-the-way cardrooms (Ft. Pierce Jai Alai & Poker for example), but there’s more action, and often better promotions, in the city.

Never pay full price for a tournament. You can usually buy a ticket to the event from a local scalper for 50% to 75% of face value. Conversely, if you win any tourney tickets to tourneys you know you won’t be playing, make sure to sell them.

You don’t need to bring your A game to win at Florida poker. You need to bring your ABC game. As always when facing less serious, more erratic players: standard plays, sensible bets, and stalwart patience will get the money in the long run.

Viva Las Floridas

Florida gaming revenues exploded by 40% between the 2009 and 2010 fiscal years, the Sun-Sentinel’s Nick Sortal reported in June:

That imaginary pie gambling industry analysts talk about is still growing in Florida.

The 2012 version of Casino City’s North American Gaming Almanac was released Wednesday, compiling revenues for casinos across the United States. Overall, gambling for 2010 shrank from $92 billion to $91 billion.

But in Florida, slot, poker and pari-mutuel wagering revenues from Florida horse tracks, dog tracks and jai-alai frontons grew 39.8 percent, from $318 million in 2009 to $445 million in 2010.

But what about poker? Taking a look at the figures provided by The Florida Department of Business & Professional Regulation’s Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering (FDBPRDPMW for short) we can see that Florida cardroom receipts climbed almost 20% between the 2009 and 2010 fiscal years, and another 5% in 2011. And most of that growth was created locally.

Last spring, the Florida Legislature considered a bill that would have brought up to three destination-style resort casinos to Florida, which proponents argued would attract tourists to gamble. The existing casinos draw mostly local gamblers, they said.

If Florida does get into the destination-style resort casino business, Vegas should be very, very worried. Once you strip away those gleaming casino facades and the tourism they attract, once you pierce the collective mirage towering over those Nevada sands, you’re left with a patch of desert in the middle of a desert surrounded by desert.

But Narayanan said the figures support an even bigger supposition, made by Genting Berhad, the Las Vegas Sands Corp, and other companies: That Florida could easily support destination casinos—a prospect that scares Las Vegas, he said.

“The one thing that scares them in Vegas is a casino in Miami,” he said. “They know Florida as a state is a resort destination not just for the east coast but for Latin America.”

Florida won’t be replacing Las Vegas or California anytime soon, of course, but don’t underestimate this future contender to the throne. Taking into account the yet-to-be-saturated local market and possible future equity in the national and global markets, the future of Florida gaming has never been brighter.

[1] In fairness, games like $0.25/$0.50 NLH are poorly suited for B&M cardroom economics. They don’t generate enough rake, they don’t generate player excitement, and it’s tedious to have to procure and maintain a set of sub-dollar chips in addition to the standard $1, $5, $25, and $100 denominations.

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