Nick Marucci, of Handover, NJ, left and Joe Loftus, of Maryland, MD, right take part in poker game at Caesar's Atlantic City Thursday. Edward Lea

By STEVEN LEMONGELLO

Staff Writer

ATLANTIC CITY - It's a rare moment when you can win almost $250,000 with a losing poker hand - but players waited for hours for a chance to do just that Thursday at the Caesars Atlantic City poker room.

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The total "Bad Beat" progressive jackpot at Caesars was at $499,752 as of Thursday. The jackpot has been growing since September, and if nobody won it late Thursday night, the total pot will exceed the half-million dollar mark when the numbers are refreshed today.

"It's tremendous," said Gary Pettigrow, of New York City, after he finished up his game. "It's a beacon for a lot of people."

"It's a circus," said a less-than-thrilled Greg Rudolph, also of New York City, still waiting for a table. "It really is."

The jackpot was the highest of any of the "bad beat" progressive jackpots that have sprung up across Atlantic City since 2006 - and it was happening at the very place that initiated the concept in Atlantic City in 2006, according to Caesars table games manager Thomas McDonough.

The idea behind the jackpot is simple - draw a killer hand, play it out, and still lose to an even stronger hand, and you have what's known in the poker world as a "bad beat."

At Caesars - and the rules vary at different casinos - lose a Texas Hold ‘em showdown with a hand of four-of-a-kind or better, and half of the jackpot is yours. The winner of the hand gets 25 percent, and the lucky bystanders (or by-sitters) at the table with you split the remaining 25 percent.

Players have won a total of $5,902,566 in the three-plus years since the jackpot began, but McDonough said that someone usually collects every couple of weeks. The dry spell since the last winner, on Sept. 29, is unprecedented - and poker players of all stripes were on hand to find out if they could strike it rich by losing.

"I live in Columbia, (Md.), and I call in every d ay to see what it's up to," said player Joe Loftus. "You have more of a chance with this than you do a lottery. It's exciting being in a room with so much at stake, even though the odds are against you. But you never know when lightning is going to strike."

The poker room, he said, has been 80 percent full since the jackpot hit $200,000 - and that was months ago.

"They're even calling part-time dealers to come in," Loftus said, shaking his head with amusement. "At this point," he joked, "they're liable to ask me to deal tomorrow."

Eugenia Chough and Justin Wong, of New York City, felt for the dealers - "I think now it's at the breaking point," Wong said - but that didn't stop them from waiting their turn.

"I usually play at the Borgata, but (the jackpot) is so high here," said Chough, who almost came close to winning a share of the jackpot a few years ago, when all the table needed was for somebody, anybody, to pull a nine - but alas, no one did.

Next to Loftus at the table was self-described "novice player" Nick Marucci, of East Hanover, Morris County, who said he "doesn't play often, but I hear a lot of stories about people winning (this jackpot). Hopefully, I'll turn my fortunes around tonight."

Of course, get any group of poker players together in one place and you're sure to have a difference of opinion. How the jackpot is paid for - by taking $1 out of every pot of $20 or more - is what annoyed Greg Rudolph

"I don't like it," Rudolph said. "All that money is taken away from the poker community and distributed to a select few. ... They used to have an option to play "Bad Beat." Now, you have no choice. Since I'm forced to put up the money, I might as well play at the place with the biggest jackpot in Atlantic City history. Even though it's a one-in-infinity chance, I'll take a shot at it."

Fran Pinchot, who proudly talked of his 50 years in the poker game, said that it was "an advantage to a player like me, who's a good player, to play against (the novices) here for ‘Bad Beat.' ... You see all the best players in town just for this. I know 90 percent of the players in there."

"It's good for the casinos," Pinchot added. "But it's hard for them, too. It's hard for people used to working a certain way, and all of a sudden, there's (so many) people here, and you're working more hours. Those people are worn out."

As for Caesars management? They're thrilled.

"The Bad Beat Jackpot has been a tremendous success at Caesars Atlantic City," Caesars Senior Vice President and General Manager Joe Domenico said in a statement. "The anticipation of this record-setting hand has brought an amazing energy to our poker room as we prepare to host the World Series of Poker circuit event in March."

Back on the floor, meanwhile, everyone still had their fingers crossed - one way or another.

"Hopefully," said McDonough, "we can keep it going for a little while longer."

Staff writer Elaine Rose contributed to this report.

Contact Steven Lemongello:

609-272-7275

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