'Low limit' tournaments fun for some, frustrating for others
SEABROOK - Aaron Wrightsmith isn't looking to get rich when he plays in a poker tournament at the Seabrook Poker Room.
Sure, there's money at stake. He once won $1,200 in a tournament.
The money makes it "thrilling," he said, but that's not why he and many other players come to New Hampshire's charitable gaming rooms.
"It's for the social experience," said Wrightsmith, a 31-year-old Newmarket man who works at the Seabrook Poker Room at Seabrook Park and likes to play on his days off.
The poker room is hardly Foxwoods or a Vegas-style casino, but it offers a place where customers 18 and older can get together without the high-stakes pressure, chit chat and share laughs and a playing strategy or two, and hopefully go home with some cash.
Customers and workers describe it as a comfortable, relatively laid back and friendly atmosphere where, because of state law, players are limited in the amount of cash they can throw at a game.
"If you've never played before, this is definitely the place to learn because it's a low limit," said poker room employee Kenny Lacroix, 27, of Saugus, Mass.
Last Thursday night, Lacroix and a few coworkers who were off work joined customers at the poker tables on one side of the smoke-free room while other customers played novelty games such as Roulette, Black Jack, Let it Ride and Boston 7.
And on this night, the Greater Manchester Colt League was the charity benefiting from the games.
Under state law, 35 percent of the gaming operation's daily gross proceeds after prizes are paid out must be given to charity.
Other charities helped in the past include Greyhound Pets of America, American Legions throughout the region, Seabrook police and fire departments, local Little Leagues, and many others.
There's currently a five-year waiting list for charities looking to benefit from the proceeds, said Paula Nicolacopoulos, general manager of the poker room at Seabrook Park, which is owned by Rockingham Gaming LLC.
The company also operates Rockingham Park in Salem, and its president, Ed Callahan, selects the charities to benefit.
"He does a good job of floating a lot of different charities through to make it fair to give everybody a slice of the pie," Nicolacopoulos said.
In Seabrook, the poker room runs three poker tournaments each weekday and four or five on Fridays and weekends.
The tournaments are no-limit Texas hold 'em games, in which players spend a certain amount to enter the tournament and the money goes into the prize pool. For instance, a player Thursday could spend $60 and receive 8,000 non-monetary value pay chips.
Because of state law, the buy-in can't exceed $250 for more than one game per game date.
In cash games, the most a player can wager is $4, unless the particular game has a limit of less than $4.
Nicolacopoulos said the limits have made it hard to compete with gaming operations elsewhere that can offer larger prizes.
"It wouldn't be so bad if our limits got raised because we could keep up with the times. Being at a $4 limit in cash and a $250 max in tournaments, it kind of handcuffs us to what we can do because we can't compete with Maine, when you can spend whatever you want on a Black Jack table or a Roulette table," she said.
Still, there are hundreds to thousands of dollars in cash prizes at stake, depending on the game.
Nicolacopoulos recalled the biggest prize at the Seabrook Park was paid out in October during a two-day tournament, when a player bought in for $250 and won $12,000.
The average prize pool on any given week is about $1,400, she said.
The poker room still manages to draw players, with more coming from Massachusetts than New Hampshire. Many are regulars who bounce around from one gaming establishment to another.
"You'll see a lot of the same faces when you go to the Rockingham Poker Room or the one in Hampton Falls," Nicolacopoulos said.
Poker player Mike Keith, 57, of Exeter likes coming to Seabrook and said the most he's ever won was $1,600.
"I paid some bills," he said.
While some players didn't mind sharing their experiences and their names, others were hesitant, and some wouldn't give their last names.
Players joked with those who were reluctant to talk.
"Does your wife know you're here?" one player teased another.
During a game of Boston 7, one player who looks a lot like Santa Claus and actually works as a Santa at Christmas recalled how he became a "habitual gambler" in 1994.
He didn't want his name used, but said he got hooked while teaching a commercial real estate course in Nevada and was put up at Harrah's in Las Vegas. He attended a "learn it game" where a dealer showed him how to play craps.
"It's a long story, but I walked away from that craps table with $84,000. The casinos have owned me ever since," he said.