The Taj Mahal had one of the more famous poker rooms for a number of years and was a favorite reference and inspiration for scenes in the film Rounders (Brian Koppleman said the scene whereMatt Damon faces off with Johnny Chan was inspired by his stint in the WSOP against Phil Hellmuth).
“It was the place that you could go play without violating any laws and where, if you were someone who wanted to get better at poker and study the best players, you were there,” Koppelman said toThe Associated Press. He created Showtime’s TV show, Billions with Rounders writing partner David Levien. “If you were someone who wanted to hustle people, you could go there and find tourists to hustle.”
The casino opened in 1990 after poker became legal in New Jersey. According to the Associated Press, it was made into a popular destination after the U.S. Poker Championship in 1996 where top players laid down $10,000, making it the first tournament on the East Coast to match the financial caliber of the World Series of Poker.
The opening of the Borgata Casino in 2003 began the downfall of the Taj poker room, with poker rooms in Connecticut (with Foxwoods Casino taking some of the New York market), Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland accounting for the rest of the poker room’s usual action.
After closing for renovations in February 2015, the Taj Mahal opened back up in May. Two months later, a worker’s strike appeared to be the last straw for the casino.
In the casino’s final days, the controller was Carl Icahn, who told CNN it was a “sad day for Atlantic City.” After being unable to make an agreement with the striking union workers, Icahn couldn’t afford to run the casino, and so 3,000 workers lost their jobs instead with its closure just before 6 a.m. on Oct. 10.
“Despite our best efforts, which included losing almost $350 million over just a few short years, we were unable to save the Taj Mahal,” Icahn said in a statement Monday. CNN reported that the union workers were able to make deals with four other casinos in the city, including another that Icahn owned.
Donald Trump stepped down as chief executive officer over a decade ago, unloading the 17-acre (and over $1 billion to build) casino in 2009, according to Vanity Fair. He sued his own company to take his name off the casinos because the casinos did not meet his reputation and had fallen into a poorer conditions than he would have liked.
According to CNN, five other casinos have closed in Atlantic City since 2014, including Trump Plaza. Seven remain but two have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection: Bally’s and Caesar’s. These closures have by and large been called Atlantic City’s casino crisis by AP. Icahn decided Aug. 3 to close down the casino after realizing it could bleed $100 million in the next year.
Trump Taj Mahal was not without its struggles; it had financial problems almost since its inception, according to CNN’s analysis of Trump documents filed with the state gaming authorities.
The 1990 New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement report showed that Trump financed the casino with junk bonds (unable to cover payments with gaming operation profits), had less than $0 in its account four of the first 16 days of operation and had deep deficits reaching $1.7 million.
The Taj Mahal would file bankruptcy three times due to interest payments forcing them into the red (despite operating profit): in 1991, in 2004, in 2009, according to CNN. Initially in 1990, the state approved a $65 million bailout after the fear of closing was thought to potentially threaten the Atlantic City economy.
One of the casino’s former cocktail watresses, Valerie McMorris, was one of the 3,000 employees out of work (the casino’s total is 11,000 jobs lost to date). She worked for the casino for 26 years and is a Unite-HERE Local 54 union leader, who expressed to Refinery29 how initially the casino took care of its employees but over time it turned into a bait and switch.
“I’m remembering the excitement and anticipation of that 20-year-old girl, standing on that stage among hundreds of perfumed and decorated women,” she said to Refinery29. “We were promised decent jobs and golden futures. But in the past 26 years, I have personally lived through Trump’s economy. Mine was one of the middle-class jobs Trump created, then subsequently destroyed.”
What Donald Trump once called the “eighth wonder of the world” is now something that he told AP shouldn’t have happened.
“I felt they should have been able to make a deal,” Trump said to The Associated Press in another story. “It’s hard to believe they weren’t able to make a deal.”
Once the casino closes, Trump told AP it’s too expensive to reopen. Many employees who decided to strike told AP that they did not regret their actions and that this instance should give Icahn pause in the future.