For Evelyn Ng, a professional poker player from Toronto, the game has everything to do with mental agility and very little else.
"Luck is not in my vocabulary," said Ng, 30, as she sat behind a table at the Borgata Poker Open here this week. "My strategy is really to just try to stay focused and wait for the others to make mistakes."
Wearing white-rimmed sunglasses, Ng and her every move were being filmed for the World Poker Tour, a television show on the Travel Channel that features high-stakes poker tournaments around the nation.
Slot machines still power Atlantic City casinos, but table games led by poker are making the industry's pot grow. So far this year, the city's 12 casinos generated $2.5 billion from slots, compared with $890 million from table games. But table game revenue is growing at a faster rate than slots, 5.6 percent vs. 2.2 percent, for the first eight months of the year.
Nearly every Atlantic City casino is either adding poker rooms, expanding the ones they have, or hosting tournaments.
There were no fewer than three major poker tournaments around town this week. The Borgata started its tournament on Monday, the same day the Trump Taj Mahal kicked off its month-long U.S. Poker Tournament. On Wednesday, the Tropicana Casino & Resort began its 26-week ProJo Poker Tournament series.
Poker enthusiasts and those who track the game say 2003 was the turning point. That year, the World Poker Tour began airing on the Travel Channel using a special table that allows television viewers not only to see the cards in the players' hands, but the ones dealt face down. That same year, poker star Chris Moneymaker won $2.5 million in the World Series of Poker on ESPN, the game's other signature event with finals held each year in Las Vegas.
The California company behind the World Poker Tour - WPT Enterprises Inc. - is shooting tournaments in other high-end casinos, such as the Bellagio in Las Vegas. The Borgata Poker Open will air on the Travel Channel this spring.
"Viewers can now see how the players think, and when they're bluffing," Tom Gitto, director of poker operations at Trump Taj Mahal, said. The U.S. Poker Tournament began Monday at the Taj Mahal and concludes Oct. 8. The $10,000 "buy-in" event, to be held over the final five days, will be televised on ESPN. The buy-in is the amount of money each player pays toward the tournament prize.
Of the three Trump casinos in Atlantic City, only the Taj Mahal offers poker. In 1996, the first year the casino hosted the U.S. Poker Tournament, the company that owns the Trump casinos paid six figures to ESPN to televise it, Gitto said.
Last year, the casino signed a five-year deal with ESPN under which the cable network will pay Trump six figures each year to televise the tournament.
Gitto said the Taj Mahal controls one-third of Atlantic City's poker revenue and has been able to increase its share entirely through tournament play.
Just two years ago, the Taj Majal held only two major poker tournaments: the Trump Classic in December and the U.S. Poker Championships in September and October.
It now holds poker tournaments twice a day, along with the hugely popular "sit-and-go tournaments," where 10 players gather at one table and winner takes all.
The Sands Casino Hotel holds four tournaments a week with different buy-in ranges. The casino was still seeing benefits from hosting the Million Dollar Showdown Poker Tournament in 2003 that Fox Sportsnet televised on Thanksgiving Day that year, and which is still being replayed on ESPN, said Sands president George Toth.
Toth said poker and blackjack were fueling the table games' resurgence in Atlantic City. Although blackjack generates more revenue, poker brings in a lot of foot traffic, he said. At the Sands, Toth said table games account for 25 percent of revenue. The casino is moving its poker room from the fourth floor to the more spacious ground level because of its popularity.
Harrah's Entertainment Inc. purchased the rights to the World Series of Poker from Binion's Gambling Hall and Hotel casino in Las Vegas in 2004.
This summer the series expanded its circuit schedule to include more events in Atlantic City, where it owns Harrah's, Showboat, Caesars and Bally's casinos. All four properties have either a new or expanded poker room, and each casino holds weekly poker tournaments.
Resorts Atlantic City casino hotel added a new poker room in May with six tables and holds tournaments every Tuesday and Thursday, while a new 22-table poker room is being built at the Atlantic City Hilton and is slated to open in December.
The Tropicana had close to a 30 percent increase in poker revenue from last year, said poker manager Scott Griffin. It offers tournaments daily.
The Borgata is in the midst of a $200 million expansion that includes boosting the size of its poker room from 35 to 85 tables. The casino is positioning poker as "a main part of our message and brand," said chief operating officer Larry Mullin.
Ng played online poker for years before she started competing for cash a year and a half ago.
"Some get too overzealous when they have a lot of chips," she said. "I try to be selectively aggressive and not let the boys or other ladies bully me around."
By Wednesday afternoon, the original 516 players at the Borgata Poker Open had been whittled down to 45. Only the top 45 finishers won money. Three were women: Clonie Gowen finished 31st, Ng 11th, and Kathy Liebert 3d.
"Poker is the ultimate mind game," Ng said while puffing on a cigarette between rounds.
Ng was eliminated at 1:51 a.m. Thursday, after nearly 15 hours of marathon play. Her take: $64,942.