This article is part of my series 'Poker Culture, Strategy & Commentary'.
1 - Los Angeles, California L.A. is now, has been, and will remain for quite some time the poker capital of the world. There are two strong reasons why it has the very best action in a wide variety of games. For one, there are millions and millions of people there and they have lots of cash. There are tons businesses of all kinds based in L.A. as well as a greater than average number of people working in cash businesses and/or working for tips. Next, there is California's rich history of poker. It's been popular there since before California became a state and it boomed alongside the gold rush back in the 19th century. Also, poker was first legalized and deemed a game of skill by the powers that be in California way back in 1911. Also, let's not deny it just because it's a stereotype, Asians love to gamble at poker and L.A. has a huge Asian population. This is a hard combination of factors to beat. It's easy to guess that Los Angeles will remain the number one poker city in North America (as well as the entire world) for many years to come.
2- Las Vegas, Nevada Another city with a rich history of poker is Las Vegas. While Vegas has always been focused on fancy meals, shows, nightspots and house games, poker has nevertheless been affixed somewhere within the fabric of the Las Vegas experience. Vegas continues to host the biggest poker tournaments in the world, and is also home to much of the poker that the general public watches on television. So, Vegas will obviously play a big role in the future of poker. It's home to the buzz, as well as many of the biggest pros and nicest poker rooms in the world.
3- San Francisco Bay Area, California Let's take our list a few hundred miles up the Pacific coast to San Francisco, the city I've chosen third. The reasons are similar to the reasons given for choosing L.A. The Bay Area has many rooms and a strong California poker history as well as millions of people who generally have a lot of disposable income. I see San Francisco becoming a much more popular poker destination in the years to come than it is today and ultimately this is why I've ranked it so high. I think the poker playing public likely already sees San Francisco as a neat alternative to L.A. and Vegas as a place to go and catch some action while on a vacation and/or a poker trip. Although, they could probably use a, bigger, better and more central casino/cardroom.
4- Seattle, Washington and Vancouver, British Columbia I've lumped these two cities together because they are relatively close together and I consider them to be part of the same poker zone. Players can come up from the American side to enjoy the tax benefits of Canadian tournaments and Canadian players can head to the Seattle area to catch solid cash game action. Seattle seems to have retained steady limit poker action while no-limit dominates north of the border. Both the Muckleshoot Casino near Seattle and the Riverrock Casino in Vancouver are large, respectable casinos with above average poker rooms, and looking ahead I think this shows promise that the game is becoming more and more entrenched in the culture there.
5- Calgary, Alberta This is a bit of a dark horse entry on my list as Calgary really isn't that big of a city (population is approximately 1 million) and it's relatively far away from any major north American metropolises. Yet, I assure you it does deserve mention. Poker north of the border has lagged behind the United States for years but recently it's finally gotten to be about as popular per capita as it is in the U.S.A. And speaking per capita I would venture a guess that Calgary is likely the most poker loaded city on the entire continent (with the possible exception of the cities who's economy's are deeply linked to gambling, i.e. Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Niagara Falls). They've got several cardrooms all across town and pretty much the biggest action north of Vegas and San Fran. Genuine middle limit action in limit holdem, no-limit holdem and pot-limit omaha can be sought out every day and the big bet games can sometimes escalate into the higher stakes ( i.e. 10-25-50 PLO with some stacks over $10 000). Calgary is the business centre of Alberta, Canada's most oil rich province, and there's plenty of work there. Menial jobs pay more than double what they do in more recessed regions. Also, Calgary is the Canadian city with the deepest cultural connection to poker, as cowboys have been playing it for years and years along the stampede trail up from Texas.
Those That Didn't Make The Cut There are other cities that didn't make the list that perhaps deserve an honourable mention. Atlantic City NJ has a spruced up image with the construction of Borgata and it's brand new poker room. San Diego CA, Minneapolis MN and Toronto ON all have solid action, day in and day out. Montreal QC recently opened it's first legal poker room ever and are apparently getting surprisingly good interest in no-limit holdem in their giant classy casino there. Finally, Phoenix AR was the last to be cut from my list, although I've never been there I've heard from reputable sources that $40-80 limit games are the norm every day and that games as high as $100-200 are sometimes held at peak times, and they also spread no-limit.
What Does It Take? So what does it take for a city to play a major role in the future of poker in North America? I think I've isolated the two key factors that need to be present and aplenty: 1- The city must have a strong economy where average citizen has both ample disposable income and enough free time to partake in a hobby as involving as poker. 2- The city must already own a sense of history with the game. Places where many people see themselves as poker players and have for a long time (perhaps even for generations in places such as California, Nevada or even Calgary), have a tendency to stay true to the game and spread the game properly. By this I mean building decent cardrooms with the appropriate amenities (food,drink, parking etc...), using the right rules, choosing proper equipment and hiring competent staff. In part is is their experience running cardrooms that breeds unequaled competence but above all that there's a bigger factor at work that really shines through, a passion for the game.