The pot-limit Omaha game in Evansville started at around 6 p.m. on Wednesday evening. The game was good, but things weren't going so hot. I also had to get going: I had a room reservation for that night at Harrah's (NYSE:HET) Caesars Indiana in Elizabeth -- just across the river from Louisville. And being two hours away and a time zone ahead, I left the game and was on the road by 9 p.m. I arrived at Caesars just before midnight.

Casino

Gaming Sq. Ft.

Table Games

Slots

Hotel Rooms

Argosy Lawrenceburg

74,300

86

2,432

300

Caesars Indiana

93,000

134

2,096

503

Belterra

38,000

56

1,632

608

Grand Victoria

40,000

47

1,406

200

Aztar Evansville

38,360

57

1,352

250



Caesars Indiana
Caesars Indiana is the largest riverboat casino in the country, with 93,000 square feet of gaming space on four floors. The casino features 2,096 slots and 134 table games, and its 33-table poker room is the largest in the region. The property also features a 503-room hotel, 24,000 square feet of conference space, and an 18-hole golf course.

The property is located about 10 miles off the highway, and in a very lightly populated area. The one drawback is that it would be difficult to find if you weren't looking for it or didn't already know where it was -- there's nothing obvious about its location, nor is there much in the way of road signs.

The surrounding area isn't much to look at, either.

On the plus side, Caesars is one of the marquee properties in the industry, and the closest and most accessible riverboat casino from Louisville. The boat is fairly spacious for a riverboat. There are also three delis and a full-service restaurant on the boat. The closest competitor -- Pinnacle Entertainment's (NYSE:PNK) Belterra -- is about two hours away.

The last time I was at Caesars was back in October, taking in the side action during the World Series of Poker Circuit tournaments being held there. Back then, poker players from all over the Midwest came out, and the first tournament was heavily oversubscribed -- 954 players paid the $340 buy-in plus entry fee, but the casino only had 53 tables set up. As a result, the tournament started off with 53 tables playing 11-handed (usually the game is played nine- or 10-handed), with 371 "alternates" (see WSOP Circuit: Alternate No. 361) who had to wait for players to be knocked out before they could get into the tournament.

This time, Caesars was hosting the Midwest Regional Poker Championships. Unfortunately, the turnout was much smaller and the action much lighter. Part of the reason for this is that there was no discount on the room rates for poker players this time around. They did have a relatively nosebleed-stakes $5/$10/$25 pot-limit Omaha game going, which I am told runs on Wednesdays and on the weekends.

Belterra Casino Resort
On Thursday afternoon, I left Caesars around noon and made the drive to Pinnacle's Belterra Casino Resort. I arrived there around 2 p.m.

I had never been to a Pinnacle-owned property before. The riverboat isn't particularly large at around 38,000 square feet of gaming space, but pound for pound, Belterra matches up well against anything I've seen in the industry. The property features an 18-hole golf course, 608 hotel rooms, an 1,800-seat entertainment showroom, 33,000 square-feet of meeting and conference space, and multiple dining options. Like many casinos these days, it seems, the land area also has a Starbucks.

In a word, I wouldn't hesitate to call it brilliant.

The casino houses 1,632 slot machines and 56 table games on two floors -- with an escalator. It also has a nine-table poker room, which is easily the nicest of any of the similarly sized riverboats I've seen. Unlike the two previous casinos, the Belterra doesn't have a regularly scheduled pot-limit Omaha game. But from what I was told, they do run a game with some frequency where they alternate rounds of $2/$5 blind no-limit hold'em and $2/$5 blind pot-limit Omaha.

But in terms of location, the property has its drawbacks. Don't get me wrong: The surrounding area is nothing short of pleasant-looking. The problem is that if you didn't know where the place was, you'd never find it.

Belterra is located about halfway between Louisville and Cincinnati, perhaps an hour's drive from both. But to get there, you have to get off I-71 and drive 20 miles down two-lane roads on the Kentucky side of the river with no signs pointing to the casino. And then you have to find the bridge to cross it. It would probably be a nightmare if your first visit to Belterra was at night.

In all, Belterra is a fairly distant third in the region, behind Penn National's (NASDAQ:PENN) Argosy Lawrenceburg and Caesars Indiana. There's no question that this is due more to the property's location than to any apparent lack of quality. Belterra generated about $40 million in EBITDA on $169 million in revenue in 2005.

Look for Part 3: Grand Victoria and Argosy Lawrenceburg.

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