Forgive me for going all Hyman Roth on you (and forgive me if you don't get the "Godfather II" reference), but nowhere in Atlantic City is there a plaque dedicated to Phil Roura.
It was on June 25, 1993--20 years ago today--that Roura earned a tiny place in Atlantic City history when he won the first legal hand of poker ever dealt there.
If you're wondering how I know that, believe me, it is forever etched in my memory, for it was me who Roura beat to win that historic hand. But let's start at the beginning.
Contrary to what many (especially younger casino patrons) may believe, poker was not always on AyCee's gambling menu. There were two reasons why, for 15 years, the game was banned by state law.
First, as originally written in 1977, the Casino Control Act--the state legislation that spelled out the whys, wherefores and thou-shalt-nots of New Jersey's then-fledgling gaming industry--sanctioned only what were considered "games of chance." That is, only blackjack, craps, roulette, baccarat the Big Six ("money") Wheel and slot machines were allowed because their outcomes are always, without exception, determined by mathematical probability. Poker on the other hand, was and is considered a game of skill.
Likewise, poker was banned because there was also a law that prohibited players from touching cards (to this day, blackjack players in Atlantic City use hand signals to communicate with dealers, as opposed to some places, including Las Vegas, where "21" devotees use an inward sweeping motion of their first two cards to request a "hit" from the dealer).
But in 1992, state regulators began to moderate the rules, including the one that did away with players not being allowed to touch cards (poker demands players be able to touch them. Otherwise, they couldn't see their "hole" cards).
So it was that by the first weekend of summer four casinos--Sands, Resorts, Trump's Castle (now Golden Nugget) and Trump Taj Mahal--were ready to put the cards in the air, as they say.
The Sands somehow got there first, opening its poker salon just hours before the others.
That Friday began with a celebrity tournament; the participants each played for a charity of their choice. From the world of sports, the august group gathered around the table included football legends Tony Dorsett and Art Donovan, and pro basketballers Rick Mahorn (a former 76er) and Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, a Philly-born superstar of the short-shorts era. Also from that realm was Michael ("Let's get ready to RUUUMMMMMMMMMBLE!") Buffer, then at the height of his fame as the public-address voice of professional boxing.
The other nationally (and in this case, internationally) recognizable name belonged to the late, great Clarence Clemons of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, who that weekend was booked at the Sands for a rare solo gig.
The Limit Texas Hold'Em field was rounded out by what the next day's New York Times identified as three "nobodies from the press." That would be Roura, a longtime New York Daily News columnist, the publisher of the Press of Atlantic City and Yours Truly.
Mahorn wound up winning the charity scrum's $5,000 top prize. I came in second, winning a $2,500 donation from the Sands to the American Diabetes Association. Everyone won something, with finishers 4-9 getting $500 a piece for their efforts. We were each presented with giant ceremonial checks, which we all autographed for our fellow players. Mahorn's inscription to me: "Dear Chuck, Thanks for losing!"
Then the group moved to the actual poker room where we all bought chips (with our own cash) and played the first official hand ever dealt.
The game was $5-$10 Limit Hold'Em. I held a 10-8, while Roura had two clubs. Two clubs hit the "flop" (the first three community cards to be exposed) and I made a pair of 10s. The fourth (or "turn") card was a red 8, giving me two pair, 10s and 8s. The final (or "river" card) was the queen of clubs, giving Roura a flush. That I lost a hand I thought I was a lock to win on the last card should have been a sign of things to come for me in the poker wars!
Later that day, the other three poker rooms opened (the coolest card parlor of all was at Resorts, whose space, with its wood paneling and leather armchairs for those not in the games resembled an English men's club,
However, on that first weekend (and for sometime beyond that), chaos reigned. The waiting lists for seats were backed up for hours, and it seemed like each hand dealt included a five-minute argument (players, dealers and floor people alike were pretty much learning as they went along).
While all of the 12 casinos open at the time--save for Trump Plaza, which has never offered the game-- introduced poker that summer, soon enough, only a few casinos maintained it. It was only with Borgata's 2003 entry into the market and the near-simultaneous World Series of Poker championship win by then-amateur Chris Moneymaker, that poker became the popular casino game it is today in Atlantic City.