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Cashed Out 

Local charities could lose big when the Horseshoe comes to town

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But scarce are the reasons why it won't happen. Nautica, after all, is short on the creature comforts serious gamblers are accustomed to. In the words of one player who asked not to be identified: "Where to start?"

"It's all a big pain in the ass," says Scott, a regular who's been playing at Nautica twice a week for the last three years. He asked that his full name not be used for this story; he and other players aren't exactly keen on having their pictures taken, let alone their real names published.

Among the complaints: Unlike the all-hours access of the gaming palace up the hill, Nautica is required by Ohio law to close at midnight, and those restricted hours can lead to long wait times and hurried tournaments. There is no alcohol, the official lubricant of casual gamers everywhere. The dealers are your neighbor kid's mom and the guy who fixes your car — volunteers who are probably no more than marginally knowledgeable about the game they're running.

"You have to understand, playing [at Nautica] is terrible," says Scott. "You have to hold [the dealers'] hands because they don't know how to handle the chips or count the pot. There are no cameras watching the games, so there's no way to solve anything if there's a problem. I've seen someone steal another player's chips, and there's no proof.

"Plus, I can't tell you how many hours you spend standing around or sitting next-door [at McCarthy's bar], waiting for a table to open," he says. "That's not going to happen at the casino."

Despite efforts to make the experience as welcoming and efficient as possible, the final product at Nautica is still something more akin to sitting at a game in your friend's basement, with his uncle serving as dealer because he once saw a poker tournament on TV. It may be real money, but it's not the real thing.

"Nautica's always had this backroom feel to it," Scott says. "But not in a good way." His gripes aren't unique, but there's nothing that Nautica can do to overcome them, limited as it is by logistics and law.

Even the promise of the slightest improvements makes players drool every time. When a small private poker room in Berea opened up two years ago, about half of Nautica's customers switched venues, according to its own estimate. At Gemini Players Club, the house didn't take any rake at the tables, and the dealers were semi-professional.

But Gemini was open less than six months; Berea shut down the private club over concerns that it violated city legislation. So the players returned to Nautica — once again the only game in town — as a refuge of last resort.

One thing everyone at the tables agrees on: Nautica poker is not long for this world. I can't wait till the casino opens, has been a common refrain throughout the room for nearly a year.

Awaiting players at the Horseshoe will be an immaculate third-floor "World Series of Poker" room with 30 tables, surrounded by all the amenities one could ask for — the kind casinos so scientifically provide to not only make you feel welcome, but to feel like you never want to leave.

"Everybody is talking about how excited they are," says Scott.

There's at least one additional draw to Horseshoe, according to players: new people filling the tables — the kind Nautica was never able to lure.

Scott offers two examples. First, he expects to see a bevy of easy-target casual players. "Fish," as the regular players call them, will roll in ready to lose handfuls of cash. Given Nautica's location and its lack of advertising, the only fish near Charity Poker are blowing bubbles at the aquarium.

The other new breed at Horseshoe: competitive, professional players in need of a score ever since the feds clamped down on online gaming in 2011.

"A lot of the online pros from this town — people that you don't know or hear about, people that earned a living online before the sites went down last April — they are going to come to the Horseshoe," he says. "They didn't come out to Nautica because it's such a craphole."

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