Grand Designs: The Renovation of The Vic

Grand Designs: The Renovation of The Vic

Monday, 27 January 2014

Alex Rousso goes all Kevin McCloud.

I first went to The Vic in 2003. Back then, the poker room was tucked away behind glass in the far corner of the first floor. Most tables were self-deal, packed in cheek by jowl, but it was busy. Even then, it was known as the home of poker in the UK.

The following years saw a huge growth in poker. With each stage in the evolution, the Vic grew too. First, the poker room moved to a larger area upstairs. Soon after, it took over most of that floor, even encroaching on the restaurant with the creation of the VIP room. Last month, the latest stage in its evolution was unveiled. A refit costing close to £6m has taken almost the entire top floor over to poker.

Pickleman Vic Poker Room

I confess when I first heard about the plans for the refit I worried. Surely they were over-extending themselves? Yes, they had held off competition in the past. In the noughties, the semi-legal card rooms mushroomed: The Gutshot burst onto the scene, but then died, only to be reborn as The International, which in turn suffered the same fate. Then came a bigger threat: fully legal card rooms. The Palm Beach took some of the highrollers. The Empire – located perfectly for the tourists – also took a chunk. The Fox Club took some of the low stakes grinders.

Even in this environment The Vic held its own. But with the impending opening of the much larger, more glamorous cards rooms, I wasn’t so sure it could stay number one. Aspers opened a huge Vegas-like casino in the Olympic village, and the Hippodrome in Leicester Square was converted into a casino. Could The Vic cope with competition from these bigger guns?
If you take a trip to The Vic now, you’ll find the answer. The Vic has always offered a spread of different games, first class dealers and floor staff. With the refit, it now has a look to rival the higher end Vegas card rooms, and tables enough for 350 punters. More importantly, it’s really busy. There are around 8-12 cash game tables plus a tourney or two running, even on the quiet nights. There’s even a raised “stage” area for the higher stakes games – set up amid the bustle of the card room – a reversal of the contentious decision to move the high stakes games to the VIP room, away from the rest of the punters, in the old set up.

Understandably, they re-opened with a bang. On the first weekend, they had their loyalty freeroll – which doubles their usual numbers. The next weekend saw the GUKPT Grand Final. Even so, the numbers were up for that event – 294 runners for the Main Event and a 60% increase across the board for the side events. So the numbers bode well so far.

Pickleman Vic VIP

Even with 35 tables, The Vic feels like it has lots of space to spare. I asked Terry Schofield, the casino manager at The Vic in charge of poker, whether they had any plans to fit more people in. “We feel we can give quality of experience as well as numbers,” he says. “We could go to 400 [players], but we don’t feel it’s necessary. It’s better to provide a comfortable experience.”

There can be no doubt about the comfort. It’s a far cry from those days in the smoky back room. I kept finding myself thinking that this could be the ideal venue for the London EPT given that they would only need to host about 450 players at any one time. The apparent disgruntlement at the scattering of this year’s EPT between the Hippodrome and the Connaught might yet change things for next year.

Of course, it’s not just the EPT that comes to London. The WPT, the WSOPE and various smaller events such as the Unibet Open and Paradise Poker Tour have all visited. Surely The Vic would be the ideal location for these? “We do see ourselves as the best live poker product in London,” claims Tom Scott, Grosvenor’s Poker Team Leader in Customer Relations. “We are appealing for companies to set up their events here.”

Pickleman Vic Cafe

Obviously, it’s cards close to chest, but watch this space. The Vic themselves are planning to do a major festival at least once every couple of months. Grosvenor is planning to expand its regionalised “25/25” event (a £200 + £20 buy in, so called because players get 25k in chips and the prize pool is guaranteed at £25k), and The Vic, Grosvenor Luton and Grosvenor Reading will host three of these each next year. But there are also other ambitions. “I like what they’ve done in Prague with the poker festival,” says Terry. “I think we could do something like that in the UK.”
Certainly with a number of major card rooms in London now, it would be beneficial to the players to see some collaboration between card rooms, perhaps getting a few majors in town to run sequentially, as we saw in 2010.

In fact, the management in The Vic seem positive about the effect that competition has had on the live poker scene in London. “The Vic has always been run successfully and profitably,” says Terry. “Others have tried to emulate it – which is better for the poker players – but I don’t think any of them are matching us. Competition is a good thing, it acts as a magnet for poker players. As our market has diversified, we’ve had European professionals moving to London, as well as the younger UK based internet players too.”

Pickleman Vic restaurant

It seems that poker in London is still very much a growing business. I was clearly wrong about the effect competition would have. Not only do we now have great card rooms, capable of comfortably hosting major events (very much preferable to the EPT at the Metropole, or the WSOPE at the Empire), we have card rooms teeming with players all year round. The Vic is at the forefront of this. As Tom Scott puts it, it offers a total poker experience: “Everyone who comes through the door, we’ve got something for them.”

“We’ve not even started to plumb the depths of the market,” Terry enthuses. “There’s a lot of money in general in London right now – and it still seems to be growing.”

Tags: Alex Rousso, Pickleman, The Vic