×

Let the Games Begin: Proprietors Bet  On Poker Rooms

  • Pleasant Street Gaming co-owner Berkess Carroll hands dealer Joyce Ayer her tray for the night on May 11, 2018 in Claremont, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rob Gleason, left, and Eric Martell, both of Claremont, N.H. play Texas Hold'em at Pleasant Street Gaming on May 11, 2018. Dealer Joyce Ayer keeps track on the game. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Tyler Aumand, of Claremont, N.H. plays a game of Texas Hold'em at Pleasant Street Gaming in Claremont, on May 11, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Business Writer
Saturday, May 12, 2018

Claremont — It may lack the glitz and high rollers of Las Vegas or Atlantic City, but wagering a bet on your poker skills against other card sharks now is possible in the Upper Valley.

A new poker room has opened in Claremont and another is in the works to open in Lebanon, providing Upper Valley poker players with a nearby destination where they can indulge their passion without having to drive to poker rooms in Manchester, Keene, Nashua or Seacoast towns.

Playing for a pot of money in such casino-style games as poker, blackjack and roulette is legal in New Hampshire under the state’s “charitable gaming” statutes, which call for 35 percent of the house proceeds to be distributed to registered charities. The opening of Pleasant Street Gaming brings to 11 the number of charitable gaming locations in New Hampshire, which will increase to 12 when Lebanon and another room in Berlin open this year.

Pleasant Street Gaming, located next door to the Pleasant Street Restaurant on Pleasant Street in Claremont, opened on March 27 and already is attracting at least 30 card players on weekdays — and double that number on weekends. Launched by Claremont residents and step-siblings Berkess (Chuck) Carroll and Carla Prinn, the storefront card room has five tournament tables and two cash tables, and a doorway to the adjacent restaurant soon will be opened to allow tableside food and alcohol drink service to players.

“I know at least 50 people in Claremont who drive hours to play poker in Manchester and Keene,” Carroll said on Thursday night as he stood behind bank teller-like bars selling handfuls of chips to customers walking in off the street to join one of the games in progress.

“I knew if I would build it, they would come,” he said.

Pleasant Street Gaming already has made its first charitable donation: a $2,441.25 check drawn on its account at Mascoma Bank to the Claremont Senior Center on April 24, less than four weeks after it opened. Other nonprofits for which Pleasant Street Gaming currently is generating charitable donations include the Claremont Soup Kitchen, Hillsborough Lions Club and the Sullivan County Humane Society.

Prinn, a longtime Claremont-area hairdresser, is in charge of forging relationships with charities and handling Pleasant Street Gaming’s bookkeeping and myriad compliance forms with the state. Carroll oversees the poker room and runs the teller window.

Claire Lessard, executive director of the Claremont Senior Center, said she knew from the senior center’s own lottery ticket sales that $1,200 to $1,500 seemed like a reasonable amount that could be generated from people participating in a game of chance.

But the haul from poker exceeded her expectations.

The $2,441.25 check the Claremont Senior Center received from Pleasant Street Gaming accounts for more than 2 percent of the center’s annual $85,000 operating budget, Lessard said.

“It will help us pay our bills,” Lessard said, noting she already has committed to reserve a rotation with Pleasant Street Gaming again for next year. (New Hampshire law limits a nonprofit’s participation in charitable gaming to 10 days annually.)

“Since they will grow, it will only get bigger,” she said of the donations she expects to see from charitable gaming in the future.

For the fiscal year that ended on June 30, New Hampshire’s 10 licensed charitable gaming facilities generated more than $5.8 million that was distributed to charities and about $1.7 million in income to the state, according to the New Hampshire Racing and Charitable Gaming Commission.

At present, Pleasant Street Gaming is offering no-limit Texas Hold ’em and pot-limit Omaha games in both tournament and cash tables, and will be adding blackjack and roulette in the coming months. Carroll, who previously worked at the Pleasant Street Restaurant, built the poker tables by hand and said he has spent about $15,000 to start up the business.

Carroll said the biggest winner the house has seen to date is a player who walked away with $805 after spending $100 to “buy in” to a poker game. He said the typical buy-in he’s seeing from players ranges from $40 to $100, although he offers buy-ins for as low as $10 to $20 for some games.

He said he has hired 10 part-time dealers, all of whom have been certified by the state.

The dealers wear black shirts and slacks and observe players both from the floor and on a TV screen in a back room via an overhead video camera that is trained on the card tables.

Carroll said he’s seeing Vermonters coming up from Springfield, Chester and Ludlow to play at Pleasant Street Gaming. “Right now, we’re the farthest place north in New Hampshire,” he said, although that will change when the poker rooms open in Lebanon and Berlin.

On Thursday night, one player walked up to the teller window and cashed in his chips while Carroll doled out $20 from the cash box.

“He bought in for $100 and cashed out for $300,” Carroll said after the player walked away. “That’s $200 for an hour and a half of playing. Not bad. That’s real money.”

Of course, most players are not so lucky, and gambling empires are built upon the odds being vastly in favor of the house. But Carroll said the point of charitable gaming is less about winning money than it is about the social aspect and camaraderie that comes from like-minded players who enjoy poker — and the knowledge that they also are helping to support charities in the community.

“Why let all the money go to Manchester and Keene?” Carroll asked rhetorically about his reason for opening a charitable gaming location in Claremont. “This way, we put money back into our community.”

However, he said, given the 35 percent payout to charities and the 13 percent in taxes paid to the state, he and Prinn don’t expect to get rich running a poker room.

“If we can pay our employees and charities and I don’t have to work 60 hours a week in the kitchen, but 50 hours a week here for the same (pay), then that’s OK,” Carroll said.

Getting Ready in Lebanon

During a break from renovating the space inside 45 Hanover St., Thomas Sweet, a partner in Lebanon Poker Room and Casino, said he hopes to have the room of eight poker tables open for players by the middle of July.

“This has been a year in the making for me. It’s been a long process,” Sweet said of his plan to open the poker room. “We’ve still a long ways to go in a few months.”

The business will occupy the space that’s part of Lebanon Village Pizza and its co-located sports bar, The Cave, operated by building owner Steve Kritikos.

Players will be able to order food and beverages from the restaurant, with waitresses serving drinks from bar.

Sweet said Lebanon Poker Room and Casino will appeal to Upper Valley card players who have been without a venue since a previous poker room that operated as part of the Benning Street Bar & Grill closed in 2010.

“We haven’t had a place around here in years,” he said, adding he expects to draw people from as far as Barre and Newport, Vt.

Sweet, who owns the Lebanon information technology services company 3rd Level Solutions, is opening Lebanon Poker Room in partnership with Jamie Timbas, who operates Manchester Poker Room & Casino in Manchester and Keene Casino in Keene. Sweet estimates the initial investment to get up and running in Lebanon will be $60,000, a price that will cover game room equipment, including poker and pit game tables — a roulette table alone costs about $10,000 — felting, a camera and security system, chips, chairs and flat-screen TVs.

Lebanon Poker initially will offer a card game which Sweet calls New Hampshire Hold ’em (“the original name was Mississippi Hold ’em,” he said); Spanish 21, which he described as being “like blackjack;” and roulette.

Sweet said he expects to hire 15 to 20 people and that the room will be open, at least in the beginning, from 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and from noon to 1 a.m. on Saturdays. Dealers will receive training for licensing, if they don’t already have such permitting, at Timbas’ Manchester operation.

Sweet declined to say if any charities have yet committed, or to identify those which he is courting.

“We’re all friendly,” Sweet said of how poker rooms view neighboring locations offering charitable gaming. “Of course there’s competition. But we want everyone to do well.”

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.