Big-time poker players are ready to ante up in Florida.
A state law that went into effect Thursday will mean bigger bets and bigger purses.
"There have been comments about Florida becoming the place to play poker," said Russ Christianson, the vice president for gaming operations at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa.
Even poker star Mike Matusow mentioned on a poker TV show that he will play in Florida because it'll have "real poker."
The law deals with no-limit Texas hold'em, a version of poker popularized in the last decade by televised tournaments and Hollywood. The game requires a minimum bet, but you also can bet all of your chips at any time, hence, the term "no-limit."
Under the old law, the player could start gambling with a maximum of $100.
The new law imposes no limits, meaning higher wagers and bigger pots. It also allows the state's 23 poker rooms to be open 24 hours on weekends and 18 hours during the week, up from 12.
Experts predict that professional poker players who traditionally focus on tournaments in California, Las Vegas and around the world could be enticed to visit Florida.
"Within the next couple months, Florida has the possibility to rival California," said Scott Long, an editor and owner of Ante Up magazine, which is based in the Tampa Bay area.
The chips were flying after midnight at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, Christianson said. Normally, 15 tables would be running at 3 a.m., he said. After the law went into effect, they had 40.
"It's a significant difference on Day One," he said. "Everyone's coming out to see what high stakes is all about."
He said the law will still allow regular lower-stakes players to enjoy their games, but it increases the attraction for professionals.
"With the new uncapped laws, you'll definitely see more people visiting the state," said Ante Up's Long, a former St. Petersburg Times editor.
At Derby Lane in St. Petersburg on Thursday afternoon, about 140 people were playing poker at 16 tables.
Mike Osa, a 28-year-old University of Tampa graduate student, said he visits Derby Lane a few times a week.
"This is very typical," he said of the crowd. "But the new law is going to bring more people in from out of state."
Osa said he occasionally went to Las Vegas or Biloxi, Miss., because of Florida's lower limits, but the new law gives him more reason to stay close to home.
Not everyone is happy about the changed law.
The average debt of the card player who calls the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling's 888-ADMIT-IT hotline was more than $50,000 this year, said Brian Kongsvik, the director of help line operations. In 2006, the average debt was $28,000, he said.
"We definitely expect an increase in gambling problems because of this," Kongsvik said.
Andy Boyle can be reached at (727) 893-8087 or firstname.lastname@example.org.