Poker Faces

Looking for a painless way to lose your shirt? Head down to the Canterbury Card Club, where bad luck comes in spades, some lucky schmo is always raking in all the chips, and even if you win the house takes its cut.

In May 1999 the Minnesota Legislature amended its gambling laws to clear the way for a card room at Canterbury Park. Lawmakers surmised that if money from the poker tables were funneled to the track, the value of purses for the horse races would grow (a purse is the prize money awarded to the owners of winning horses). This in turn would encourage more people to raise and race horses in Minnesota, thereby bolstering agriculture in the state. Translation: Poker is good for farmers.

When Canterbury Downs opened the gates in 1985, under the stewardship of former grain company executive and lead investor Brooks Fields, people came in droves to bet on the ponies. The average daily attendance for live racing that inaugural year was more than 13,000. But by the end of the Eighties, because of poor management, marketing snafus (legendary jockey Willie Shoemaker signed on to run betting seminars at Canterbury only to become paralyzed in a drunken-driving accident just prior to the start of the season), and its then-remote location, Canterbury was ailing. It was sold in 1989 to two Michigan businessmen and eventually bottomed out in 1993. Live racing was canceled and the place went dark.

The Sampsons, a Minnesota family that made its money in cable television and telecommunications, purchased the track from the previous owners and formed the publicly traded Canterbury Park Holding Corporation. By the spring of 1995 the horses were running again. But the gamblers and horse breeders were slow to follow. The Sampsons immediately began lobbying the Legislature for the right to give their customers more gaming options. They had hoped for the more lucrative slot machines, but, under pressure from Indian gaming interests, the Legislature balked. Ultimately Canterbury settled for cards.

David Kern

The Legislature didn't green-light the poker room without some stipulations, however. They dictated that Canterbury set aside a portion of the money made in their card room. Ten percent of the first $6 million in revenue is earmarked for purses. After that, the set-aside increases to 14 percent.

Since opening on April 19 this year, the card club has pumped more than $3 million back into the corporation, almost equaling the racetrack's first-quarter revenue. As a result, before the start of this year's live racing season in May, Canterbury Park increased their purses by a full ten percent. On July 27 purses will jump another ten percent.

It is not clear what poker's impact will be on Canterbury's bottom line. In the first quarter of 2000, Canterbury Park Holding Corporation had profits of $177,767--$350,000 less than from the same period in 1999. But CEO Randy Sampson attributes the dip to expenses incurred in setting up the card room, noting that, compared with last year, revenues have actually increased slightly.

The card room has also had affected track attendance. After the first 34 days of racing, total attendance at Canterbury Park was 132,847, up 12 percent from 1999. "I do think there are some people who are saying, 'Let's go out early and play some races and then we'll play some cards,'" Sampson says. But he admits it's difficult to quantify exactly how many people are drawn to the track because of the card room.

The Canterbury Card Club is a distant cousin of similar operations in Nevada and California, which have larger rooms and higher stakes. In the main poker room at Canterbury, bets range from a minimum of $2 per game to a maximum of $30, capped by law. This falls in the middle rung of poker stakes. In Vegas games routinely require wagers of $150 to $300.

Even so, a single hand in the highest stake games at Canterbury, sometimes lasting less than a minute, can swing a player's bankroll by $1,000. The desire to play for this kind of money keeps people coming to the card club 24 hours a day. And poker has an added allure. Unlike gamblers who play the odds at roulette or craps or at the slots, poker players can control their own destiny. They are not playing the house. They are playing each other.

Or as one poker regular puts it: "In here I'm playing against the average schmuck, and the average schmuck doesn't worry me."


Christopher Smith doesn't play poker at night anymore. The 26-year-old high school math teacher and Purdue graduate says he has been through too many erratic, caffeine-fueled games where people wager recklessly. And the smart play becomes harder to determine when the decisions of others at the table are based on nothing but hope and whimsy.

Smith prefers the mornings and afternoons, the time of day when players can be read as easily as the lettering on a poker chip. There are the retirees--to bed at dusk, gambling at dawn. ("They're tight as hell," Smith observes. "I'm not saying they're easy to beat, but it's tough to lose to them.") And there are players who have been gambling all night and are "on tilt"; eyes bleary, hair matted, blurring diamonds into hearts and eights into threes. ("If you sit down with someone who starts bragging about how they've been playing for 36, 48 hours and they bet, raise 'em. 'Cause they got their head up their ass.")

On this Monday afternoon in early July, Smith takes a seat at a Texas Hold 'Em table, $80 worth of chips piled neatly in front of him. He's a stocky man with a scraggly black goatee. In his left ear are four hoop earrings, and another one in his right. He wears a gray T-shirt, baggy shorts, and a green baseball cap.

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