Loving their S-L-O-W-W POKER Stud may be sputtering at casinos, replaced by zippier play, but for these older fans nothing else will do.

Posted: January 13, 2010

Mario Salvatore still finds fun, friends, and emotional solace playing seven-card stud. But the game is suffering the passage of time, much like Salvatore himself.

The 85-year-old, a South Philadelphia native who now lives a stone's throw from the Atlantic City Boardwalk, is one of a fiercely loyal but shrinking group of stud poker players, mostly seniors, who hold court almost daily in the poker room at the Trump Taj Mahal, the only casino in town where you can count on a regular game.

They sit in sharp contrast to the rest of the hotel's poker tables, which these days cater mostly to players of Texas Hold 'em, a faster-paced option with a no-limit betting feature - which experts say is a definite draw for the younger crowd who grew up watching televised versions of the big-win game.

So the stud games that used to take up more than 50 of the Taj's 70 poker tables now occupy only eight or nine tables on weekdays and 12 to 14 on weekends - a reversal from 1993 when poker was legalized in Atlantic City, said Tom Gitto, the hotel's director of poker operations.

That still trumps the Tropicana, which hasn't offered dedicated stud poker tables for nearly two years, according to Mario DiGuiseppe, vice president of casino operations. The players represent a waning niche, he said, but if the hotel gets a request from players for a stud game, they will put their names on a "list of interest." However, a game doesn't often materialize.

The same holds true for other hotels with poker rooms. Christopher Jonic, a spokesman for Harrah's Entertainment Inc., the parent company for Harrah's Resort, Bally's, Caesars, and Showboat, said the casinos regularly provide at least one game of stud poker when enough people express interest, but the numbers aren't always there to offer it.

Go ahead and quote statistics. The stud faithful don't care. They're not there only for the winnings.

"I play to be with the people because they are like a family to me. I don't care about the money," said the soft-spoken Salvatore, who put in a whopping 270 hours of play in November.

The bustling 70-table poker room in the Taj, second in size only to the poker room at the Borgata, is tucked in a corner off the casino's main lobby. The 17,260-square-foot, nonsmoking room is softly lit by five supersized German crystal chandeliers and hums to the sound of clicking chips and cocktail waitresses taking drink orders. Here you find stud tables surrounded by Texas Hold 'em tables and a handful of Omaha tables, another version of poker.

In stud, a maximum of eight players are each dealt a mix of face-down and face-up cards, with multiple betting rounds. The object is to make the best five-card hand. At Salvatore's table, the bets range from $2 to only $10; at other stud tables, bets can reach $150.

In contrast, Texas Hold 'em players are dealt two face-down cards with five cards dealt face-up in the center of the table. Each player, up to 10, shares the community cards to make the best five-card hand in multiple betting rounds. In some games, players can bet all the money they have on the table - no limit.

Stud aficionados believe their game requires more mastery and affords more social interaction, mainly because stud tends to attract the same people.

Despite the game's minority status, the Taj Mahal has made a business decision to cater to stud players, even expanding its poker reward program in 2009 to include perks such as free rooms and food based on hours of play, Gitto said. It is now on par with what's offered to slot players.

But Gitto has witnessed firsthand how stud players concern themselves with more than the game.

"I see the relationships that are made," said Gitto, who has been managing the poker room since 1995. "These people know about each other's habits, their families, they share meals and a personal relationship with the poker-room staff. It's like the bar in Cheers; it's a place where everybody knows your name."

Gitto said he occasionally was asked by the group to check in on a player who hadn't shown up for a day or two.

For Salvatore, poker has been his salvation, especially after the retired building inspector and former tile business owner was dealt some very bad cards in life. In 1992, he lost his wife of 45 years. In 2009, his significant other of 15 years died, and before that, in a span of four years, he lost two sons, ages 42 and 54, a 29-year-old grandson, and his only brother - all from illness. Desperate and depressed, he found that playing poker soothed the ache in his heart. His poker buddies somehow fill the emptiness.

It is much the same story for many of the other regulars.

George Russo, 71, a retired airline worker from Philadelphia who lost his wife 17 years ago, comes to the tables three days a week, mostly for the friendship, he said.

"I made this a part of my life," he said. "We play, laugh, have lunch, and even meet outside of the casino occasionally. It's not about winning or losing."

Felix Perez, 74, makes the trip from New York by bus three days a week. The retired handyman, who is divorced and sports a cap and yellow-tinted wraparound glasses, says the trip is a small price to pay for the pleasure he gets.

"Money comes and money goes, but for me, this is not about gambling. We are friends and we care for each other and help each other."

Stud poker is not an all-male sport. The tables are peppered with a few female regulars.

Lillie Rosenthal, a widow for eight years, has been driving to Atlantic City from Marlboro, N.J., to play since the day poker was legalized. She finds the game both relaxing and challenging.

"I never get bored," she said. Now that she is by herself, she says "playing poker takes away the loneliness" of her home life.

Barbara Costanza of Bloomfield, N.J., and Patrick Giallorenzo of Jersey City, both 67, are one of a few stud poker couples. They have been coming to Atlantic City together for 20 years and have been playing poker weekly since 1993. "It keeps you thinking and alert," Giallorenzo said, as compared to Texas Hold 'em, which, he says, requires a lower level of skill.

For Salvatore, poker is all that and more. "People don't realize how good it is," he said.

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