What happened to Tunica?
Tunica, Mississippi has become the lost city of poker. It suddenly disappeared and collapsed into the Mighty Mississippi and flushed out to sea. Never to be seen ever again. A wispy apparition. Like New Coke and Tae Bo.
For decades, Tunica was the center of the poker universe. Every January like clockwork. The small gambling Mecca was just a quick thirty minute drive south of Memphis, TN. The town itself was nothing special and included a couple a no-tell motels and a Waffle House a few miles down the road, but for a week or so every year, Tunica was the place to be in poker.
Tunica was one of the few stops on the tournament trail that I skipped. I always regretted that decision. Friends of mine, like Amy Calistri, made dedicated pilgrimages every year. It was the WSOP, the Masters and, the Kentucky Derby all rolled into one for Southern rounders.
Tunica attracted a bevy of regional poker players from the deep South and the Southeast in addition to wealthy types with disposable bankrolls; disgusting oil rich Texans, shyster lawyers from Atlanta, and half-baked dotcommers from the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area. The side games were juicy. The craps tables were packed. Tunica featured some of the biggest PLO cash games on the tour. Big action attracted the Big Dogs and Eurosharks as players from all over the US and world flocked to Tunica to engage in utter degeneracy and a shot to start off the new year with a big score.
I was in Atlantic City in 2006 when I heard the first whispers about the guy in Tunica who drove his car through the lobby of one of the casinos. That sort of absurdity added to the allure to a dump like Tunica. You just had to check it out for yourself because you'd never know what sort of peculiar event might happen.
I missed Tunica in 2006 because I covered the Borgata Winter Open for the Borgata. In 2007 and 2008, I headed Down Under to cover the Aussie Millions for Poker News. This year, I went to the Bahamas to cover the PCA for Poker Stars. It wasn't until the last day in the Bahamas when someone asked me if I was going to Biloxi.
"Why the fuck would I go there? Isn't Tunica going on? What about the annual Jack Binion World Poker Open?"
Tunica was a faded memory. No one was talking about it in the Bahamas. The next destinations for players and media included the Borgata, Biloxi, and the LAPC at Commerce. Tunica? Not on anyone's itinerary.
Tunica. Over night it became a ghost town.
Last year, there were two stops in Mississippi on the WPT (Tunica & Biloxi). Who knew that state was so worldy? The Gulf Coast Poker Championship at Beau Rivage in Biloxi, MS was added to the WPT schedule for Season 6. Bill Edler won the first ever event in Biloxi. Capt. Tom's Penis was at the final table and finished in sixth place.
Anyway, this year Tunica was dropped from WPT Season 7, but Biloxi got the nod with slight change in name. The Gulf Coast Poker Championship was dropped in favor of the Southern Poker Championship. The tournament was still hosted at Beau Rivage in Biloxi but moved from September to January... an obvious replacement for the void that Tunica left. The annual Jack Binion World Poker Open was nevermore.
The World Poker Open organizers switched the dates on their big tournament series. It was moved from January to October. That changeover was in effect in October of 2008 which meant that they hosted two WPOs in 2008. I'm assuming that the declining numbers of entrants were to blame for the change and the reason they were dropped from the WPT schedule. The WPO in January also had to compete with the ever popular PokerStars PCA , the Aussie Millions, and the Borgata Winter Open.
Take a peek at the declining numbers...
Number of Entrants at the WPT Jack Binion World Poker Open in Tunica:In 2003, Devilfish won the Jack Binion World Poker Open in Tunica after he beat Phil Ivey heads up in one of the more memorable episodes of Season 1 of the WPT. Phil Hellmuth finished in 10th place that year.
In 2004, Barry Greenstein won $1,278,370 for first place. He beat Randy Jensen heads up and the final table also included a rare TV final table for Chip Reese and one of my favorite players in C.K. Hua. Eskimo Clark came in 10th that year.
2005 was a record setting year in poker, not just for Tunica. Unknown John Stolzmann won a whopping $1,491,444 when he beat Chau Giang heads up for the title. Also at that final table? Daniel Negreanu, Scotty Nguyen, and The Grinder. Talk about stacked.
2006 was the first year that numbers started to decline. Scotty Nguyen won a shade under $1 million when he beat The Grinder heads up for the victory. Josh Aireh took 13th place and Liz Lieu finished in 18th place.
There was another decline in 2007 in one of the first major WPT events in the post UIGEA-era. Unknown Bryan Sumner won $913K and beat Daniel Negreanu heads up. JC Tran also made that final table.
In 2008, the number of runners at the WPO slipped to 259, the lowest since 2003. Amateur player Brett Faustman won $892,413. He beat Hoyt Corkins heads up for the crown. Also at the final table? Men the Master, Freddy Deeb, and John Spadavecchia.
Wanna talk about some impressive names who finished second at the WPO in Tunica? Phil Ivey, Daniel Negreanu, Chau Giang, Hoyt Corkins, The Grinder, and Randy Jensen.
And of course, Tunica was also won by a handful of unknowns who haven't done much since; Brett Faustman, John Stolzmann, and Bryan Sumner.
And if you don't know, Clonie Gowen actually won the main event at the World Poker Open at the Gold Strike in October of 2008. The second installment of the WPO kicked off without a lot of hype. I forgot about the WPO switcheroo and it would have been a total afterthought if Clonie did not win it. The main event was reduced to a $5,000 buy in; halved from the original $10,000 buy in. And there were less than 70 players in the main event. Essentially, Clonie won a seven table SNG for a $193,224 score. That was the second tournament that she had won since the $433K score at the Bellagio Cup in July.
Tunica in January is no longer a destination for the elite poker players on the planet. Tunica has morphed into a haven for slot-addicted bluehaired church groups bused in from Memphis and other parts of the South. The rest of the riverboats were filled with slack-jawed yokels at the craps tables juiced up on bathtub gin and tweakers jacked up on a fresh batch of crank.
Perhaps, Biloxi was a more attractive choice for the WPT in 2009. The Southern Poker Championship at Beau Rivage attracted 283 players which is a couple of more runners than last year's WPO in Tunica and last year's Gulf Coast Poker Championship (which had 256 entrants). Although the Beau Rivage's overall numbers are up, it happened to be the second smallest field on WPT Season 7. Only Barcelona had less players.
Alas, it appears that Biloxi is trying to become the new Tunica.
Ah, Biloxi. I spent a lot of time in Biloxi when I was a college student in Atlanta. We made frequent trips to the riverboats in the mid-1990s. It was a 400 mile journey from Atlanta. We'd take I-85 to Montgomery, Alabama then catch I-65 south until we linked up to I-10 and drove that to Biloxi. The drive took six hours on average. We once did it in five and drove like maniacs the entire way. The Biloxi Bell and Casino Magic were popular stops. I was primarily a black jack player and only played Seven-card Stud when I was almost out of money and wanted to kill some time before we left.
Most of our trips to Biloxi were spur of the moment gambling sojourns. Like the one Friday afternoon when a bunch of us drank a handle of Jim Beam on the porch of my fraternity house and decided to drive to Biloxi. We hotboxed Jerry's car and listened to Dead bootlegs on the way. A friend of mine got sick eating a gas station sandwich, but we made it safely and gambled all night playing black jack. My buddy Chicago Bob went on a heater and was betting so high enough that the pit boss comped all of us breakfast. We took turns driving back to Atlanta the next morning and got back just in time for me to play an intramural softball game.
OK, so the real reason I have yet to set foot in Mississippi in almost a decade is due to a speeding ticket that I acquired just outside of Biloxi in 1998. I was driving from New Orleans to Biloxi with my current fling at the time when I get tagged by old Smokey on I-10. The speeding ticket did not have a price listed on it. I got a letter in the mail several weeks later stating that I owed close to $600. It was doubled because I was supposedly speeding in a construction zone. Friends of mine who were lawyers suggested that I write to the judge and tell him that I was broke and to ask for a reduced fine. I blew it off. $600 was a ton of money in 1998. And I figured, when the hell would I ever be back in Mississippi?
Well it turned out that I passed through Mississippi a couple of times at the end of the century, mostly on Phish tour. I made my girlfriend at the time drive the car during the Mississippi stretches. I did not for the life of me want to get pulled over by the cops in Mississippi. I was a total long-haired hippie back then, and a Yankee too, and probably holding. You know they'd have a field day inserting god knows what into my rectum had I fallen into custody.
I safely avoided Mississippi and protected my anus. Alas, my outlaw past caught up to me many years later when I started covering poker. I desperately wanted to check out the Tunica scene, but I couldn't take the risk. I opted for other assignments, all of which happened to be amazing in their own right, so I felt as though I really didn't miss anything.
The risk far exceeded the reward. And I never set foot in Tunica which is a shame because it slowly fades away into obscurity. A place that used to be hip. A place that used to be a gathering place of poker's elite. We're living under a new world order of leaner economic times and the once rich oases of poker in the middle of nowhere are quickly drying up.
The ebbs and flows of the poker universe. Who knows which enclave will become the next hot spot or which current popular destination begins to sing it's swan song?
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