How to Build Your Own Casino3 years ago
As a businessman and poker fanatic, Leon Tsoukernik posed himself just such a question 15 years ago, and the answers he came up with led to the creation of his remarkable King’s Casino in Rozvadov, a small town in the Czech Republic which is now a thriving hub of top-drawer poker activity.
A decade-and-a-half later, the multi-millionaire is bucking the poker trend and economic uncertainty… and expanding. He has discovered that his niche market - focused on providing live poker players of all standards with an incredible experience – is, if not a licence to print money, then at least a fantastic way to realize his dreams. And his dreams are big!
Money + Location = Reality
Dreams usually require funding and at the turn of the Millennium, Leon’s thriving antique-dealing businesses providing him with the finance to spread his business wings into one of his other loves – the game of poker.
In 2002, he found the perfect spot for his poker palace in sleepy Rozvadov – just over an hour from Prague and a mere stones-throw from the German border – and his casino was remarkably up-and-running early in the following summer, although the full-on ‘poker focus’ didn’t arrive until several years later when he discovered his niche, a mix of tournaments and cash games across all levels of players and wealth.
To entice players in, however, he had to offer something beyond the norm for a casino – and the King’s was refurbished and re-invented in spectacular fashion. I could describe it here in detail, but as Leon told me himself:
"You really need to visit us to see what we have to offer!”
I took him up on this (as you do when someone offers you a chance to visit a casino and not lose money), but for now you’ll have to make do with this amazing walk-through courtesy of Google Maps to see the grandeur and ambition of the Russian-born, Czech business magnate’s poker visions!
You might think that 160 poker tables, nightly action on the felt which brought in over 200,000 players and paid out some €15million in 2014 alone – making King’s the biggest card-room in all of Europe – would satisfy him? Not a bit of it! Every year has to see improvement.
"Last year alone, in 2015, we brought over 250,000 poker players to Rozvadov. Although this is already a great result for a town of 500, I believe we will be able to double that number as soon as our plans for expansion are completed and people will get the opportunity to come here for a proper poker holiday.”
As he had found in the world of antiquities, standing still was never going to be an option for Leon Tsoukernik– and ambitious plans to expand his poker portfolio mirrored his earlier antique-dealing strategy, which had seen him move firstly from Toronto to Prague, before moving into the international antiques market in New York and beyond.
The similarities to his poker dreams are clear to see. A small-ish casino becoming bigger on the back of clear vision, impressively hard work – “20 hours per day is normal for me” Leon told me recently - and great entrepreneurial skills, leading to more exposure, more players, more prizemoney and, finally – the biggest of deals.
The Circuit comes to town
The World Series of Poker is the daddy of them all in the tournament poker world, but from its conception in 1970 it has been a once-a-year affair in Las Vegas, until 2002 when it branched out to stop off at other cities in the USA.
Another decade would pass before the US-based organisation realized that World Series is a misnomer if they don’t actually visit anywhere else in the world – and Leon Tsoukernik and his King’s Casino were among the first six hotspots for the WSOP Circuit’s expansion last year, following it up with the recently concluded 2nd edition.
The 2016 Festival witnessed a record-breaking event which attracted 11,770 players fighting it out for 14 Circuit rings over a 20-day festival in the massive Rozvadov card-room, cementing its status as the premier poker casino in the whole of Europe, drawing players from dozens of countries like flies to honey – and the almost €4million in prize money of course.
And the ‘honeypot’ has just been made even sweeter for the poker fans, both recreational and professional, with the recent announcement of a huge WSOP Europe deal which will dwarf even the Circuit events which have helped to raise the King’s profile.
World Series of Poker Europe
The massive deal will see the WSOP Europe take place in Rozvadov in the autumn of both 2017 and 2019, with a guaranteed €5,000,000 prize fund and a minimum of 10 bracelet events, followed in the even years by spring and autumn WSOP Circuit events, as well as Circuit events in the spring of the next three odd-numbered years, 2017,2019 and 2021.
WSOP Executive Director Ty Stewart explained why the Vegas festivals European version will be heading to King’s, stating:
"I have really bought into Leon’s vision for creating a poker-first destination in Central Europe,” remarking that, “The existing setup already reminds me of the Amazon Room at the Rio and it’s only going to get bigger.”
Stewart continued his enthusiastic line, saying:
"Considering the way Leon and staff cater to poker players, this is going to be a very comfortable environment for a large festival such as ours. With King’s backing, large guarantees and media coverage, we believe we have found a long term home for WSOPE to replicate the scale we enjoy in Las Vegas.”
But how does a casino expand to meet such expectations? How will Leon Tsoukernik rise to yet another challenge and deliver unprecedented value and quality to what will be a truly international affair, despite the ‘Europe’ tag?
It’s all about the people!
Nobody ever achieved anything entirely on their own and Leon understands this, surrounding himself with a team of professionals who know the business of poker and gaming inside out.
Warren Lush was brought in as a consultant – the multi-talented Englishman spending ten years as the frontman for PartyPoker, winning the European Poker Staff Person of Year 2011 along the way, and using his political background to help transform Antanas ‘Tony G’ Guoga through his transformation from poker player to MEP.
Michal Hanzik joined King’s in 2011 – and without a doubt he is the operations Mr Fixit. Multitasking from casino planning to individual customer enquiries, “no two days are ever the same” he says, involving “extraordinary long hours and commitment” but coming with immense job satisfaction and remuneration.
The casino’s poker manager, Tarkan Karadas, joined in 2010 and is the direct liaison for players, the creator of King’s famous big games which have seen the likes of Fedor Holz, Tony G, Dan Colman and Daniel ‘Jungleman’ Cates all take their seats in the exclusive VIP area or the specially-devised ‘CasinoKingsLive’ arena.
And not forgetting the man in charge of the much-vaunted King’s Casino dealer school, Vojta Julis – a poker dealer himself for six years whose wife Tereza works alongside him as a floor-manager.
Building buildings and dealing with deals
As I walked around the King’s Casino extension, it looked just like any other building site I had seen in my life - diggers, cranes, workmen aplenty and bricks piling up to make who knows what. Except I did know what: having seen the blueprints it was, if not mind-blowing, then impressive beyond any poker-based casino I had ever been in.
An extra 1800m2 of tournament space for poker tables; a 218-room 5* hotel to house the new guests; a spa, fitness rooms, restaurant and everything else you might expect from a top-class venue. The cost? €20million give or take a bit of pocket change!
In a poker world which is changing but not generally expanding, Leon Tsoukernik has made it his goal to create a venue for players from all over the world.
Fun-loving ‘tourist’ players who want a week or two of the high-life indulging their passion, tournamentregulars who want a full and lucrative schedule without constantly crossing the ends of the earth to find it; high-stakes players who want to be pampered; and cash game regulars who expect a consistently high standard of everything from accommodation to dealers to games.
A big ask, yes, but Leon Tsoukernik is a big man with big plans. Plans which include…
- Tapping the UK and Scandinavian markets – thousands of poker players who, if they only knew what to expect in the Czech Republic (outside of Prague) might easily flock to his events.
- Encouraging poker tours to make their main European halt in Rozvadov. The WSOP are there now, and 888PokerLive will visit soon. King’s have already spread out their arms and welcomed in the German, Italian, Spanish and Belgian Masters events and tours – and more will surely follow.
- Continuing to improve the quality of everything on offer is a must. You can see from the photos and walk-through that King’s is an impressively attractive place to be, but this must extend to everything that they – and the players – see and hear and touch and do.
I wrote recently about their poker dealer school – an absolute gem which is producing fantastically professional dealers and receiving rave reviews. But it can’t stop with the obvious poker-related things.
That’s why smoking and customer service must be on the agenda, especially if the plans to attract more ‘Western’ clientele are to bear fruit. You simply can’t have smoking in the main poker and gaming areas, and despite the fact I’m a 20 a day man, separate well-ventilated rooms nearby have to be in the plan.
Likewise, customer service levels vary the further East you travel in Europe, and in Rozvadov it ranged from adequate to good. Which is not good enough yet for a world-beating venue!
Ownership of problems, fast-and-friendly service and a nothing-is-too-much-trouble attitude is paramount if you want to compete with the best in the world. On my visit only Dasha, the receptionist, got 100%!
But I know this will change…the future for King’s Casino and Leon’s dreams seems not only to be bright, but positively brilliant! As Leon told me just before he left for his birthday trip to Mauritius:
"If you want fashion you go to Milan, if you want poker you come to Rozvadov!”
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