Atlantic City's coveted visitor: The Poker Tourist

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Dan Sewnig of Fair Lawn in action. Of New Jersey players' dominance, he said: "We've had online for 2 1/2 years now. We've played so many more hands."

ATLANTIC CITY - Brendan Turner, 26, drove "12 or 13 hours" in a Chevy Malibu from Indiana to New Jersey for the privilege of playing poker - on his laptop.

But perhaps he should have driven an additional 15 minutes or so that first night, because Turner and his buddy Anthony Bos, 25, of Connecticut, ended up staying not in Atlantic City proper, but a few miles outside of town in a $60-a-night motel with a 1.5-star rating online.

Poker players are nothing if not careful about their money.

Turner's own online performance was not much better than his motel's on that day, the inaugural Resorts Run It Up Rumble, a hybrid online and live poker event dubbed "onlive," a (relatively) star-studded tournament (and VIP party, natch) held May 14 at Resorts Casino, a joint venture of Resorts and PokerStars, and Run It Up phenom Jason Somerville of online platform Twitch fame, who narrates his marathon online poker grinding for tens of thousands of fans to watch in slightly delayed real time.

Turner, by virtue of the distance he drove if not the amount of money he earned, was held up as a prime example of a new and coveted demographic: the Poker Tourist.

Because online gambling is only legal in a few states, and a gambler has to be physically within the borders of New Jersey to play online with Atlantic City casino-affiliated websites, Resorts CEO Mark Giannantonio says, the virtual gambler can also become a visitor to New Jersey.

And so it was that on a summery mid-May weekend, never mind the packed Boardwalk, 124 online poker players came out of the shadows and the basements and showed their faces to one another.

Instantly, there were new rules for "Onlive."

As Somerville explained to his online audience while set up at a table with a big mic like a ringside announcer: "It's like the urinal honor code. Make sure you keep your eyes to yourself."

The day online poker became legal in New Jersey, in 2013, Phil Neiman, 33, drove from his home in Queens over the Triborough Bridge, over the George Washington Bridge, and parked.

He may have been the original poker tourist.

"On Sundays, I would just park over at the deli," he said. "I could use their restroom and they had WiFi, and I could grind [play online] for like eight, nine hours in the car."

Perhaps not the economic impact envisioned by lawmakers, but Neiman said he sometimes bought a sandwich at the deli.

He says that all in all, he prefers live tournaments. He and his father, Jack, arrived in Atlantic City just a few minutes too late to enter the Resorts onlive tournament. Instead, he played in other online tournaments and reveled in the novelty of seeing online poker savant Somerville.

His mother, Marilee, from Long Island, said it was the first time she had seen her son compete since Little League. Shockingly, he busted out "on the bubble" - eliminated just below the 18 who win money.

Neiman said he would welcome poker cafes in Jersey, though if New York legalizes online poker, he'll just save on tolls. His father plays on "unregulated" websites, depositing money at a corner bodega.

The Resorts event addressed one goal of the New Jersey law: to bring new people to casinos. "It's a great way to blend online poker with a brick-and-mortar setting," Giannantonio said, looking at a ballroom full of players crouched over laptops.

PokerStars' entry into the New Jersey regulated market was long awaited; it had dominated the United States market from offshore before sites were shut down by the U.S. Department of Justice on April 15, 2011 (Black Friday for players).

Last month, New Jersey operators reported $16.5 million in online revenue, up 32.6 percent from the year before. PokerStars grew the online poker market 30 percent in April, its first month. In May, it had $1.15 million in revenue, down a bit from April.

Resorts feted players with the preferred millennial diet of mac and cheese, but a bunch, like Turner, stayed elsewhere, on the cheap.

As far as a brick-and-mortar bounce at Resorts, some bounced right to the Trump Taj Mahal's newly reopened live poker room.

Eventually everyone closed laptops and went outside. Players who wandered onto the casino floor seemed to recoil; poker players, especially online ones, are not likely to play the slots.

It all began with Chris Moneymaker, who legitimized the idea that you could grind online and wind up on ESPN winning millions. In 2003, Moneymaker won the main event at the World Series of Poker after qualifying online, winning $2.5 million and online immortality.

PokerStars hopes to host tournaments that draw and derive from online qualifiers, said Eric Hollreiser of Amaya/PokerStars. "There is an appetite for players to travel to Atlantic City," he said. "There's an aspirational aspect to live poker. You don't see ESPN televising online tournaments."

At Resorts, though, Moneymaker, surrounded by acolytes, nonetheless found his luck ran out fast.

"D-HARE, I hope you die!" he yelled after that screen name bested him.

In this case, D-HARE was a few tables away: Dave Hare, 26, of Mays Landing, who knew he was playing the legend.

It was truly an honor to have Moneymaker stand up in defeat and wish death upon him, he said.

Hare was at a table full of New Jersey players remarking over the novelty of having virtual opponents somewhere in the room to keep an eye on.

"There's people talking smack already," said Jason Bare, 42. "They seem to have forgotten we're all in the room together."

Bare was impressed that online poker landed him in a casino. "I can't remember the last time," he said. He and wife Tina McClain had left the kids with Grandma in Galloway.

At one table, Bryan Spadaro, a poker lobbyist from D.C., went all in with a pair of 10s; the player to his virtual left hit an ace to add to another ace.

Just then, someone stood up at his actual table to celebrate. "We didn't know we were at the same table until he reacted to my demise," Spadaro said.

It boiled down to a final table, nine players and nine screens. Little cardboard dividers discouraged errant glances. One player's connection was lost! Another player let his time run down to let a new laptop be brought in! Drama!

In the end, the Jersey players dominated the poker tourists. "We've had online for 21/2 years now. We've played so many more hands," said Dan Sewnig of Fair Lawn.

The outcome turned on a bunch of deuces. Runner-up: Matt Laverty (mattybuns1), a restaurant manager from Bradley Beach, $541.53; winner: Sewnig (monkeyman067), with a math degree from Ramapo College: $778.67.

Sewnig drew kings "three times, boom, boom, boom." In the final hand, he added two twos to a king and a two of diamonds, to beat pocket fives. They shook hands, which would not have happened at the usual locations: attic (Sewnig) and bedroom (Lavery).

arosenberg@phillynews.com

609-823-0453

@amysrosenberg

www.philly.com/downashore

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