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W.Va. poker comes up aces

| Saturday, Oct. 20, 2007

Four or five times a month, he drives an hour south of his Mercer County home to Mountaineer Race Track & Gaming Resort in Chester, W.Va., so his wife can play the slot machines.

Another two or three times a month, the semi-retired truck driver makes the 2 1/2-hour trip to Salamanca, N.Y., to play poker at the Seneca Gaming and Entertainment complex.

At about 2:30 p.m. Friday, the 54-year-old Nelson was standing in Mountaineer's yet-to-open River Poker Room, eager to put his card-playing skills to the test. "I love the competition, the ability to bluff, the thrill -- the rush of poker," Nelson said.

He and a number of other players had to wait until 4 p.m. when Mountaineer President and CEO Ted Arneault gave the command "shuffle up and deal," and table games officially came to Hancock County in the form of three types of poker.

Despite limited promotion, word-of-mouth was apparently enough to fill the poker tables at Mountaineer and at another West Virginia casino that began dealing cards yesterday. The state welcomed slot machines 13 years ago, but full-fledged casino gambling came to the state just yesterday, four months after getting the nod from voters in three counties.

Arneault spent about $1.2 million to turn an unused portion of Mountaineer's huge grandstand facility into 9,800 square feet of poker-playing Nirvana.

At 10 yesterday morning, Wheeling Island Racetrack and Gaming Center in Wheeling opened for poker play.

"We had a line at the door at the beginning of the day, and by noon, we were at capacity," said Wheeling Island spokeswoman Kim Florence. Capacity at the Wheeling parlor is 200 -- 10 seats at 20 tables.

"We really didn't know what to expect, if we would be slow at the opening and grow during the day, or open at capacity and things slow during the evening," Florence said. "But we couldn't be more pleased since we started strong, and even as late as 6:30, we were at capacity with a waiting list."

A third West Virginia casino, Tri-State Racetrack & Gaming Center in Kanawah County, will open table games later this year.

"We think we'll see widespread interest in the poker tables, as poker tends to attract younger players, plus players that have played a game a long time," Arneault said. "Younger players like the competitive nature of poker."

Decked out in his Pittsburgh Steelers championship T-shirt, Bill Fawcett, of Carrollton, Ohio, visited the poker room at Wheeling Island earlier in the day.

"This is a lot nicer than Wheeling -- should I say that?" Fawcett said, waiting his turn at one of Mountaineer's 37 total poker tables, including 30 with a $2 to $4 minimum bet limit. The remaining seven tables, across a wide aisle from the 30, make up a "high rollers section" that allows bet limits based on what players agree to.

Mountaineer spokeswoman Tamara Pettit said a "good crowd" was expected for opening day, but the resort didn't provide too much promotion, opting instead for a soft opening. On Monday and Tuesday of this week, the tables were busy raising money for charity while the roughly 275 new dealers, management, cage personnel and other workers got a taste of live action.

"I played in the charity event earlier in the week and broke even," said Nancy of Weirton, who would not give her last name. "I'm really a blackjack player, but that's not open yet, so I came today to play poker," she said.

Blackjack, craps and roulette are yet to come to West Virginia, with Mountaineer and Wheeling Island intending to add those games around the first of the year.

About 40 minutes into the initial day of poker playing, seven of Mountaineer's low-wager tables were going strong, with a number of bystanders rimming the room, keeping an eye on the action.

"I play every day, playing local tournaments. I really like this facility," said 70-year-old John Turatola, who won the first-ever hand of Texas Hold 'Em at Mountaineer.

Arneault sees table games as a way of getting back between 14 percent and 48 percent of the Western Pennsylvanians who regularly visited Wheeling Island and Mountaineer until a slot machine casino opened at Arneault's other racetrack slots parlor in Erie and at the Meadows in Washington County.

He plans to keep things lively. "We're going to be holding a lot of tournaments with top players. We'll have some big celebrity tournaments, and we're looking at holding a horsemen's tournament, because horse owners love to play poker," Arneault said.

Poker lovers certainly include Nelson. "This is easier than playing online," he said. "You can cash right out when you want to, you don't have to wait for a check in the mail, and you can see who you're playing against."

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