Sunday, April 6, 2014
Patrick Murphy, Director of Poker Operations
When Patrick Murphy arrived in Florida 20 years ago to work in a new card room at the Seminole Indians Casino in Tampa, few observers could have predicted the explosion of the interest in poker, especially among college-age men and young professionals. Within the next few years, however – as ESPN expanded its coverage of events such as the World Series of Poker, showing the players’ hole cards and focusing on the personalities and strategies – ratings skyrocketed. Murphy, a 39-year-old Massachusetts native who also worked on the popular “cruise ships to nowhere” and training new dealers, had returned to the New England area for a couple of years to work in corporate restaurant management, but in 2005 he knew the time was ripe to return to Florida. After working as a manager in the room, less than two years later, he was promoted by Tampa Bay Downs as its Director of Poker Operations; since then, he has overseen the development and growth of The Silks Poker Room into arguably the area’s most opulent, competitive and player-friendly destination. With 23 tables located on the third floor of the racetrack, Silks – open daily from 10 a.m.-4 a.m. – provides such games as Seven-Card Stud, Hi-Lo and Texas Hold’em, along with a diverse dining menu that makes it easier to lose with three of a kind to an inside straight. In addition to tableside dining and cocktails, Silks offers more than 50 plasma televisions, a 120-inch big-screen TV, a private high-limit room and relaxing tableside massages by specialists from Amenity Pro. Players throughout the area have responded to the room’s daily and tournament offerings, and a recent promotion culminated with the giveaway of a 2014 Toyota Corolla S Plus CVT to a lucky patron. “It’s all about customer service,” Murphy says of The Silks Poker Room’s runaway success. “All the poker rooms in the state have the exact same product, so what do you do to keep people coming back?” Certainly, horsemen at Tampa Bay Downs have faith in what Murphy is doing; about $1.2 million in purse money this season was funded through poker-room activity, helping them sustain a foothold in an ever-evolving economic climate. The Silks Poker Room’s burgeoning success is a source of professional and personal fulfillment for Murphy, who lives in nearby Land O’ Lakes with his wife Cheri, their sons Kolin, 8, and John, 6, and daughter Erin, 3. In this latest installment of Tampa Bay Downs’ “Racing In The Sunshine” profile series, Murphy took time to reflect on the integration of top-level poker into a Thoroughbred racetrack that opened in 1926.
WHEN I STARTED DEALING AT SEMINOLE IN THE MID-1990S, there was a running joke that high-stakes poker would arrive in Florida in two weeks. It was a long two weeks, but the potential was always there. If you wanted to play poker then, your choices basically were Las Vegas and a few card rooms in California and Mississippi. It started off in Florida as penny-ante games with 25 and 50-cent betting where the pots could not exceed $10, but over time the industry found loopholes to run tournaments, and gradually the restrictions were taken away to allow larger buy-ins and no-limit games. Most poker lovers could see the writing on the wall, even if it took longer than two weeks. Florida has always been a great vacation destination, and now poker players can get sun, fun and gambling while they’re here.
WE DO EVERYTHING WE CAN TO MAKE IT AS ATTRACTIVE AS WE CAN to get people to keep coming back. From building a poker room with a finish-line view of the racetrack, to the feel of the room, to our dining menu, everything is geared toward our customers. We’ve always prided ourselves on having the best dealers in the area. The No. 1 quality they must have is friendliness. It can be intimidating to sit down at a table to gamble for the first time, so our dealers walk them through the steps as they go to make them feel comfortable. No one wants to come back if they feel they’re out of their element or can’t adapt to that kind of game.
ONE OF THE THINGS I ENJOY MOST ABOUT MY JOB IS THE RELATIONSHIPS I’ve made with our customers. When we have a promotion like last weekend – with the car giveaway and cash giveaways every half-hour – and the room is packed and there are huge waiting lists to get a table, you know it’s succeeding. Seeing the hustle and bustle of the players, and knowing that the staff and company are making money – it is very rewarding.
I CAN DEFINITELY SEE THE POTENTIAL FOR TAMPA BAY DOWNS TO BECOME A RESORT DESTINATION equal to anything in the state of Florida. Obviously, there are horse racing fans who have never stepped foot in Silks, and there are poker players not too interested in racing. And there are customers who only come here to drive and practice at The Downs Golf Practice Facility. But, come on – being able to watch a few races, play poker, grab something to eat and channel your inner Phil Mickelson? There are not many places where you can do all that in one day. I think there has been a misconception that this is a different business, but we are all part of the whole Tampa Bay Downs.
IN SILKS, YOU CAN FIND A GAME FOR A $40 BUY-IN AND ONE FOR $1,000 or higher. So the novice tables, so to speak, are those on the smaller side, which people can use as a stepping stone to the next level. They don’t have to be a stepping stone; some of our recreational players are happy to play at those levels on a regular basis. We expanded last July by adding Players Poker Championship (PPC) Tour events, which enable players to qualify for the PPC World Championship in Aruba. We’ll be holding the PPC North American Championship here in July; the buy-in for the main event will be $580, with guaranteed prize money of more than $300,000 and four $5,000 Aruba packages at stake.
WHAT’S IT TAKE TO BE A SUCCESSFUL PLAYER? FIRST AND FOREMOST, it’s patience, because the cards aren’t always going to go your way. Even though luck plays a role, though, you have to put the time in to win consistently. That means studying the game and staying in the loop as far as what’s going on in the industry. I’ve never been one for reading a lot of “how-to” books, but I know there are a lot of people who do. Experience is a big factor; the more hands you play, the better you get. There are a lot of young kids who are seeing five or six games at a time on the Internet, so they see many more scenarios than the average person who sits down at a table and is playing maybe 30 hands in an hour.
FOR A WHILE, THAT’S WHAT I DID FOR A LIVING – PLAY POKER part-time and deal part-time. I was pretty decent, but obviously your priorities flip when you have kids. Just like someone who plays horses for a living, it’s hard to achieve any long-term success, unless you get real lucky and make a six-figure score in a tournament and are smart enough not to gamble it all back. But I know people who travel here to play and make their living in our room. We have some really aggressive games, and there are guys who sit down and don’t blink at playing for $30-$40,000.
FROM THE BEGINNING, WE KNEW THE BEST WAY TO DRAW PEOPLE AND RETAIN BUSINESS was to make sure our staff is the best it can be and make the building and our amenities stand out. The tableside massage services are very popular, and we have staff trained to accept wagers on the horses. I know it’s a cliché, but you are only as strong as your weakest link, and all of our employees have their role in making the operation a success. I am proud of all of them – the managers, tournament directors, cashiers, floor staff and members of the cleaning crew.
WE PROMOTE A LOT OF CHARITY AND FUND-RAISING EVENTS, and I’m always looking for new ways to increase our community involvement. In the past couple of years, we’ve held events for Ronald McDonald House, Support our Troops, Shriners and various youth sports organizations. If we can promote our business and give back at the same time, it’s a win-win for everyone.
THERE HAS ALWAYS BEEN TALK IN FLORIDA OF ADDING TABLE GAMES AND/OR SLOT MACHINES, and I’m open to all of it, because you know you’re giving more people what they want. We definitely have an eclectic mix of players, from ages 18-90, with about 10-15 percent of poker players being women. So I would expect things such as slot machines, blackjack and roulette wheels would give all of our customers attractive options they currently lack.
MY MAJOR SOURCE OF RECREATION IS FOLLOWING THE RED SOX AND THE PATRIOTS. My wife, Cheri, goes crazy every year because I try to go to as many games as I can. I always say the Sox are going to win the World Series, and you have to admit, three of the last 10 isn’t half-bad. I spend a lot of time with the kids, and we just got them a new puppy. We’re building a screened-in pool, because I want our house to be that neighborhood place where everyone hangs out. Whether it is after school or summertime, they can spend all their time there.