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Spring 2005 Ante Up!

Ante Up! It’s the new battle cry. Poker has come out of the shadows and into the limelight in the past two years, bringing with it a whole new category of poker-related merchandise.

And it seems everyone’s playing.

In fact, the size of the poker market is growing so quickly that industry observers won’t even hazard a guess as to its value. But with 100 million people at the table, it’s easily a multi-billion dollar game. And it’s not just about cards and poker chips: consumers are looking for everything poker—from books and trophies to themed snack bowls and swizzle sticks to T-shirts and tea towels.

Card-crazy

So what’s got everyone amped about poker? After all, it’s hardly new. Lots of guys have been playing for years. “Friday-night poker” has been around for decades—generations, even. And poker is a pop-culture staple, from old Westerns to The Odd Couple.

What’s new is that several high-stakes poker tournaments and celebrity games are now on TV. Suddenly they’re the shows to watch. And everybody watching wants to be dealt in. Who knew poker could be riveting television drama? “Cards are as un-telegenic as you can imagine,” says Robert Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University. “It seems distinctly boring.” And for years it was, says Jackie Lapin, spokesperson for the World Poker Tour.

Then documentary filmmaker Steve Lipscomb conceived of a new way to film the game, and in 1999 created the World Poker Tour as the “PGA of poker.” Prior to that, watching card games was like watching paint dry. “What was groundbreaking [about the World Poker Tour],” says Jonathan Grotenstein, co-author of Poker: The Real Deal, “was the way they televised [the tournament]: 10 microphones and 16 cameras, including several ‘lipstick’ cameras that allowed the TV viewer to see a player’s hole cards at the same moment the players did. Combine that with the huge sums of money at stake—millions could be riding on a single hand—and you’ve got quite an appealing product.”

The World Poker Tour immediately became the Travel Channel’s highest-rated show when it aired in March 2003, spawning competing shows like Celebrity Poker Showdown, Bravo’s highest-rated show, according to Grotenstein. Together, these shows have heightened interest in all things poker-related.

At the table

imageThe World Poker Tour estimates 100 million poker players in the US, up from 50 million just a few years ago. The number of players participating in poker tournaments has also jumped—from 3,000 in 2003 to more than 10,000 in 2005. The more than triple increase may be in response to larger prize pools, which climbed from about $10 million to $70 million.

But the action isn’t just in official tournaments and games. Home games are up, as well, says Lapin. Men and women both are playing cards with friends, and driving up sales of equipment including items like felt tabletops, as well as home décor items like poker-themed platters and bar accessories. Of all the poker equipment anyone needs, however, poker chips and cards are the two essentials. And some suppliers are having trouble keeping them in stock.

In the chips

“We’ve been in the gaming business for 30 years, but the last 18 months it’s really been hectic,” says Marc Sidoti, director of sales at Marion & Co., Inc. (Miami, FL). One of their hottest products are chips, which come in several varieties. Customers can choose chips made of plastic or clay composite, or a hybrid—the coin-centered chip that has a metal center surrounded by clay or plastic. Besides the choice of plastic, clay or metal center, players can choose the weight, the number of colors (solid, two-, or three-colored chips) and edging detail such as dice, diamonds and card suits. The most popular chip is two-color, Sidoti says. Personalizing chips with a monogram or other symbol is also popular, especially when purchased as a gift.

Customers can designate the color they want for each chip denomination, but many go with casino colors, the ones most casinos use: white for the lowest denomination (typically $1), red for $5, green for $25, black for $100, purple for $500, and yellow for $1,000.

Chips are cheap, making them an easy sell. Even the more elaborate ones are affordable, despite all the options, retailing for as little as a nickel a chip to a top price of 85¢ each. Plastic chips are the least expensive, retailing for $10 per 100. They’re also the lightest at four grams. Solid-color clay-composite chips (weighing about 8 grams) that feature a unicorn or diamond on the edging retail for around $21 per 100. An 11.5 gram two-color clay-composite chip with an extra-heavy diamond edging retails for $29.99. Add a monogram or hot stamp, and the retail price rises to around $50. Markups are about 200 percent on the lower end of the chip spectrum, and 300 percent or more for the pricier ones. Because the market is becoming more competitive, says Sidoti, kiosk operators in some malls may be able to score a higher markup than those in others where there’s more competition.

imageCustomers who have invested in chips frequently want something snazzy to put them in. Marion & Co.’s aluminum chip case in three sizes (200, 300 or 500 chips) is a strong seller, says Sidoti, and another affordable, desirable item. There’s also the vinyl case that holds 1,000 chips. And for players who want a complete set for themselves or as an upscale gift, the company has a chip set. Inside a lacquered wood box emblazoned with two clubs and two spades are 300 11.5 gram chips, two decks of cards, and five dice.

Wood Expressions, Inc. (Gardena, CA) also supplies players with the right stuff—chips, felts, cases, card holders, carousels, dealer shoes, card shufflers and, of course, cards. Owner Donna Morita says “sales have definitely taken off” since TV poker shows have become popular.

Some of the company’s most popular items include an oval walnut carousel with handles. The carousel comes with 300 8.2 gram diamond-style chips (100 white, 100 red, 50 blue and 50 black).

Another hot seller is a casino tabletop that converts a plain table to a poker playing surface. Covered with green felt, the 47” octagonal topper has eight betting positions, each with spaces for poker chips and a drink. It also comes with a handy black canvas carrying case. Plastic card shufflers are also hot and, surprisingly, so are dealer buttons—2” white plastic disks with “Dealer” imprinted in red or black that identify who’s dealing.

Inspired by TV poker games, some players are looking for instruction to improve their game. Tiffany Design in (where else?) Las Vegas sells videos that teach the fundamentals of several casino games, including poker and video poker, blackjack, craps and slot machines. Veteran poker player and teacher David Wilhite, who teaches poker at the Venetian Resort, is the on-camera instructor. Viewers learn the basics of seven card stud, Texas hold’em, Omaha, Caribbean stud, and Pai Gow poker.

Just as poker paraphernalia is selling briskly, so are everyday items with a poker theme. Stationery and note-card company Paper House Productions (Woodstock, NY) has been selling distinctive cards for more than 20 years. The company is well-known for its die-cut and photo card images, which have an artsy look and feel. Its images of flowers, sports and food have always sold well, but in an effort to appeal to more male card-buyers, Paper House developed several note cards with more masculine subject matter. One is the “Royal Flush,” which shows five playing cards—the 10 through ace of hearts—on the front; on the back are informative and funny facts about poker. Paper House also sells refrigerator magnets, including one with a die-cut blackjack image featuring two playing cards, the ace and jack of spades.

House rules

imageWith so many people playing poker at home these days, several leading companies have branched out into poker-themed home décor. Penny Lane Publishing, Inc. (New Carlisle, OH) is one of them. Penny Lane has always done well with primitive, artsy unframed prints, but sales of the poker-related wall hangings that débuted in October 2004 “have been phenomenal,” says Lynda Gill, sales representative. They’ve sold so quickly that the company has already had to reprint them.

The colorful prints on heavy stock paper are striking in a black frame, says Gill. Two designs feature card images against a black or red harlequin background; a third has the word “Poker” in the foreground and cards in the background. All are sold in a variety of sizes: 8”x10”, 11”x14” and 5”x20” (each $5), and 8”x30”. The prints’ neutral (and masculine) colors—maroon, black and tan—are a large part of what make the prints so popular for game rooms, says Gill.

Lava Candles (San Diego, CA), a division of Lava Enterprises, Inc., introduced its Casino Collection of candles in mid-2004—a huge success, says sales manager Romy Mason. In fact, it was the top new-category introduction of the year, she says, and still running strong. These colorful candles and decorative accessories feature images of playing cards and dice. The scented square pillars have bright queens, kings or aces printed on the sides of the candles, and are scented. Also scented are the casino pillars. In 3”x4” and 3”x6” sizes, these white candles have either a royal flush or a royal straight printed on the side.

While some companies turned their attention to male poker players when the game took off, Pacific Enterprise, LLC (Orlando, FL) decided to appeal to the increasing number of female poker players. The company’s Girls Night Out line includes mugs, plates, snack bowls, platters, chip-and-dip bowls, spreaders, swizzle sticks and pitchers, all decorated with playing-card images and sayings.

“When we came out with Girls Night Out, it was an immediate hit,” says Chris Huddle, the company’s marketing communications coordinator. Some of the popular items include the four-section square plate, a set of four 10-oz. mugs, and a set of four 6-oz. snack bowls featuring spades, hearts, clubs and diamonds. An item that coordinates well with Girls Night Out is the cocktail shaker from Accoutrements (Seattle, WA). The 91⁄2” white plastic shaker is adorned with a diamond, heart, spade and club on the upper edge of the base.

Accoutrements has seen sales of its poker-related products double in the last year, mainly because poker has become so accessible to the average consumer. “What used to be a mysterious game played by professionals in a smoky room behind closed doors is now played in your living room while you sit and watch TV in your pj’s,” says David Wahl, the company’s public relations manager.

Dealer’s choice

A hundred million people are at the poker table, putting their money where their hearts and spades, flushes and straights are. With poker getting ever hotter and interest in all things poker-related on the rise, it may be time to get in the poker-merchandise game. Play your cards right, and you could walk away a winner.


Marcia Layton Turner

MarciaLaytonTurner.com -- Turner writes frequently for business publications. Her work has appeared in Business Week, Business 2.0, MyBusiness and numerous trade magazines. She is also the author of Emeril! (John Wiley & Sons, 2004).

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