When the history of modern poker gets written, Ken Lambert’s name will be revered among those who were most responsible for the game’s worldwide expansion. He’s a living legend among cardroom staff and tournament directors, having overseen operations at multiple casinos throughout the United States.
He ran the World Series of Pokerduring the height of its popularity. He’s hosted multiple World Poker Tour events. He also oversaw operations for the Heartland Poker Tour. Today, Lambert can be found in Pompano Beach, Florida, working as the head of poker operations for the Isle of Capri Casino. Lambert, interviewed in his office, recently took some time away from his busy schedule to talk about his big plans and upcoming major events at Pompano Park.
Rich Korbin: Ken, thanks so much for agreeing to this interview. I’ve admired your work in and out of poker for the last 30 years. How did you first get involved in the casino and poker business?
Ken Lambert: At age 16, I started as a busboy at Binion’s Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas, which was also where my father was part of the WSOP for many years. Once I became old enough, I taught myself how to deal poker, then later I supervised on the floor, and also ran tournaments. In 1989, the Mirage in Las Vegas opened up and I worked there for the next five years.
About that time, Jack Binion started building his Horseshoe-branded casino properties in Louisiana and Mississippi. Then, I got the call. So, I took the cardroom manager position at Horseshoe Tunica where we ran the second-biggest tournament in the world for quite a while, which was the World Poker Open.
RK: You were instrumental in bridging the gap between Jack Binion and the WSOP when it was purchased by Harrah’s (now Caesars Entertainment) back in 2004. What do you recall about that remarkable era in poker history?
KL: Yeah, that was a crazy time for everyone in the business when the poker boom was
about to explode and I was right there in the middle of it, juggling a lot of responsibilities. At first, I thought about resigning and leaving it all when Harrah’s Entertainment bought the Horseshoe Tunica property, where I was working. But they not only asked me to stay on and continue, they wanted me to oversee operations at the WSOP, which Harrah’s had acquired as part of the deal.
On top of all that, Harrah’s told me they intended to grow the WSOP brand, so they ask me to stay on, create, run, oversee and launch a new tournament series, which would go nationwide and ultimately become the WSOP Circuit. So, let’s just say it was a very busy time. I didn’t get much sleep during the poker boom.
RK: One classic story about you running the WSOP Circuit has become legendary among lots of poker business insiders. Tell us what really happened at the very first WSOP Circuit stop at Harrah’s Atlantic City, which was televised nationally by ESPN.
KL: Yeah, how can I forget? You must be talking about the first WSOP Circuit event
crisis in the dead of wintertime at Harrah’s Atlantic City when all the big name pros showed up but there was just one problem — we didn’t have any poker tables. They were to be shipped in from a company in California but the truck was nowhere to be found and doors were supposed to open at 11 a.m. A nightmare, but we did get tables and we were a little late opening. And rest was history.
RK: Well, the tables eventually arrived and the tourney went off without a glitch. Everything not only turned out okay, but went gangbusters after that. After handling the WSOP for a while, next you returned to Mississippi. What happened?
KL: I got a call from Bobby Baldwin, who I also consider to be one of my mentors along with Jack [Binion]. He was in charge of MGM Mirage and they had built the Beau Rivage in Biloxi, which was doing a huge amount of business up until the terrible devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Mr. Baldwin offered me the Regional Director position and I jumped on it. What was even more intriguing was being asked to help them re-open the Beau Rivage after the storm. I took that as a personal challenge and almost a call to arms since I’d seen what had happened to the area and knew so many of the terrific people who were affected so badly by the disaster. I took the job and worked there for several years where we hosted several WPT events.
RK: You also worked for the HPT. What can you tell us about that?
KL: I was in charge of the HPT for about two-and-a-half years. We ran
big events all over the country and I spent most of my time traveling to many of them. We built up the HPT brand and televised all main event tournaments. But, I have to confess — the extensive travel finally got to me. After being on the road so much during my years with the WSOP and then the WSOP Circuit, the HPT was just as demanding. Perhaps more so. I resigned from HPT but couldn’t wait to find my next challenge.
RK: So, how did you end up working at the Isle of Capri, in Pompano Beach?
KL: I saw Eldorado Resorts had acquired all of the Isle of Capri casinos, I knew they had a great team and owners, so I started my pursuit to become part of that team. I flew out, interviewed and within a week of being offered the job, I moved here to South Florida and immediately dove in. I was that excited about the job and the property, and am even more so now after seeing what’s on the horizon with many more opportunities as Eldorado Resorts continues to expand the company.
RK: So, let’s talk about what’s on the horizon here at the Isle of Capri.
KL: Yes, lets! For one thing, we just ran another Florida State Poker Championship
(in July). Then, we host our first Card Player Poker Tour right after that! One thing we changed immediately was to totally rebrand out events. Most of our tournaments before attracted solid numbers, but they were very regional in nature. They mostly drew from the local market. They were all self-branded with the “Isle name. We decided it’s time to step up and appeal to a much wider customer base. A lot of poker players don’t even know that we are here.
We want poker players to come to the Isle and play from all over. We certainly have the attractions to boost our numbers, with the beaches and all South Florida has to offer. It’s time for poker to elevate its game in South Fl. so, we decided the CPPT was the right fit for us. It’s a chance to grow our player base, our Brand and get people to come here who may have not been aware of everything we can offer.
RK: What can you offer poker players at the Isle?
KL: First, the games here are great. Maybe the best anywhere in the country. Plenty of no-limit hold’em live action which everyone wants to play, but we will spread whatever our players want — from low-stakes to high-stakes games. Things are also just a little different here at the Isle of Capri than other casinos people may be used to. First, we open up at 9 am and close at 3 am — five days a week. We’re allowed to be open 24 hours only on Friday and Saturday (and some holidays).
Another difference from casinos elsewhere is that we’re not just a casino. We’re also a racetrack. Yes, we have slots and poker-based table games — and certainly poker – but we also run 126 days of live racing, October through May. Pompano Park has been the place to be during the horseracing season and with poker taking over during the summer months, we’re now busy year ‘round. I must also say, it’s really exciting to hear the people cheering outside for the horses while you’re playing poker. It’s a unique experience you won’t find in Las Vegas, or most other casinos.
RK: Yeah, and you don’t have to pay for parking, like in Las Vegas.
KL: Well, you can valet at the Isle of Capri Casino and be in your seat at a poker table within 2 minutes. As you say, parking here is free. Even the general admission lot takes just 5 minutes to get to the poker room, and that’s on the busiest day. We’re also just 15 minutes away from the Fort Lauderdale International Airport, which has connections all over the country. Oh, and then there’s the ocean, which is 10 minutes away. Do I sound like a commercial for the South Florida tourism board?
RK: Yeah, just a little. But I can tell you’re really excited to have a significant impact at the Isle and on the poker scene.
KL: Thanks, Rich. We are so thrilled to partner with the CPPT. We plan on being the finest and friendliest place to play poker in Florida. We want people to come here, not just locals, but tourists from all over the world.
RK: Anything else to add, Ken?
KL: Absolutely. This is just the beginning. We have a very bright future ahead. For one thing, the Isle owns one of the largest undeveloped parcels of urban land in South Florida. They’re already talking about building hotels, residential, bringing in new restaurants, and expanding entertainment facilities to create more visitors and expand far beyond just the gaming sector. We aren’t just looking to expand our poker, including live games and tournaments. We are a full service destination and a “must visit” for anyone who comes to South Florida.
RK: Sounds great, Ken. Our interview is done. Now, can I get a free comp to the
KL: Um, no. Now, if you’ll please get out of my chair, I have a poker room to run.
About The Upcoming Card Player Poker Tour Stop This August
A total of 10 CPPT poker events are scheduled with a combined $485,000 in guaranteed prize money. Cards fly in the air on Thursday, Aug. 16, which is the first of six starting flights for the first event. Although the buy-in for event no. 1 is $360, there are also five $90 qualifiers scheduled on opening day, which will enable many players to enter at a bargain discount. After that, it’s 11 straight days of poker (including a six-max tournament and a pot-limit Omaha event — with optional re-buys).
The main event promises to be attractive to every poker player. The $1,100 buy-in
tournament includes a $200,000 guarantee. To accommodate everyone’s schedule, three
starting flights will run Thursday, Friday, and Saturday with a last chance opportunity to buy–in on Sunday, Day 2 prior to the first card being dealt.
Satellites will also run regularly in the poker room to qualify at a discount. The Isle of Capri conveniently located in the heart of South Florida, a short drive from the Fort Lauderdale airport. Plenty of hotels are easily accessible. Visit the Isle of Capri Casino’s official website for information about hotel accommodations, including special rates for poker players. South Florida is arguably the hottest and most thriving poker market in the entire world. The Isle of Capri Casino is now primed to step up its game, raise the stakes, and host an exciting new tournament series where every visitor that arrives, is feeling like he or she is already a winner.