Our insider’s guide to the sin city of Las Vegas, the biggest poker room on the planet
|There’s a fun chatty feel to it and the ladies seem to like it here|
Las Vegas has always been the biggest sandbox on the planet – attracting some 33 million visitors a year – but until recently poker hasn’t been the big draw. In the last two years, however, Sin City’s casinos, which previously pooh-poohed the poker player, have remodelled and expanded to include poker rooms. MGM Grand, Tropicana, Aladdin, Monte Carlo… the list goes on. This means more cash games, more tournaments and more options.
Admittedly the casinos aren’t as committed to poker as their housefavouring table games, but poker’s undeniable popularity has meant they can no longer ignore it. Where once the TVs over every bar screened basketball and baseball, now every other monitor has Hellmuth and Negreanu beaming down. Poker, it seems, has finally taken Vegas by storm.
The key to playing successful poker in Las Vegas is finding the right game. If you’re used to playing $20 online tournaments you should head for the 9am $22 tourney at the Stratosphere or the 10am $25 game at the Luxor. If you’re a regular down the local £5 beginners’ tournament night, The Bellagio Poker Room should be given a wide berth. You’re looking at around $500 just to get involved and it’s one of the only poker rooms in Vegas with a dress code. Flip-flops and vest tops are a big no-no. Bloody snobs.
Taking the time to investigate the various schedules before you get cracking is paramount as they constantly change and the free guides you can pick up in Las Vegas list only cash games, not tournaments. That’s not to say that one of your first objectives shouldn’t be to collect the likes of Showbiz, What’s On and Today in Las Vegas from the many magazine racks dotted around casinos and hotel lobbies. After all, they’re free, carry invaluable info for your Vegas trip, and are packed with pages of vouchers that give you anything from price reductions in the various casino buffets, to souvenir glasses every time you buy a beer.
With such a wide variety of games on offer, you’ll want to maximise your time in Vegas and tour as many poker rooms as you can. You’ll find a totally different set of opponents in each and the vibe can also differ from room to room. Though the Imperial Palace room is not much more than a ropedoff area with ten tables, there’s a fun, chatty feel to it and, for some reason, the ladies seem to like it here. If you want a more serious game, The Mirage at night continues to deliver one of the most popular poker rooms in Nevada and holds some of the toughest non-pro players you’re ever likely to play.
The key thing to remember is that this isn’t the hardened gambling of the sports book or the high-roller Baccarat table. The poker room is the single place in Vegas you’re not playing against a casino with percentages mathematically plotted in its favour. Poker is a serious game of skill but it’s also the most social game too, so enjoy the surroundings, free beers, make some friends and win some money. Like this…
Though I arrive at 9.10am, 20 minutes before registration for the MGM’s 11am $65 multi-table tournament, there’s already a healthy line of hopefuls and I finally register only to be designated an Alternate, or standby seat. Ray Perry, MGM’s poker room manager, explains that they have no limit on Alternates, as it increases the pot (and MGM’s rake), and they dont’ like turning players away. As it turns out it only takes ten minutes for a casualty to fall and I’m able to claim a seat. A friendly chap called Frank wishes me well as I join the table and shakes my hand hard enough to ensure I can’t riffle any chips for the next three days. As an extra bonus I’ve come to this morning’s tournament with an enormous spot on the side of my head (possibly as a result of sleep deprivation and a couple of libations the night before). It’s not quite hideous enough to make the table collectively shudder, but the two players to my right look appropriately horrified as they stare at my pus-filled zit.
With the tournament underway, I steadily leak chips for 20 minutes with no cards arriving, until I find myself with a pair of Eights that look like Kings after the drought I’ve suffered. Seat one raises behind my big blind and three others call before me, but I already have $100 in the pot as big blind and only $550 to play with. I decide to make a stand and go all-in. Only seat one calls with A-8 and is clearly gutted when the last Eight in the deck appears in the flop to strengthen my hand considerably. The board fails to deliver the runner-runner he needs and I rake. Friendly Frank offers to shake my hand once again but I decline, plasma still oozing from my crushed paw.
Revenge of the snowmen
A guy in a Transformers jacket sits to my immediate right and we strike up a conversation about silly favoured starting hands. I mentioned my everfaithful J-9 and Dylan from Orange County tells me that he has a similar friend by the name of Q-7. Within seconds of this conversation, a flop neither of us is involved in comes up Q-Q-7. Much whooping and high-fiving takes place. I don’t know if my hand can take much more of this.
A female player with the confident look of an Olympic swimmer who’s accidentally been entered into the javelin event joins our table and proceeds to ‘lose’ against a Queen-high flush until someone points out that she has a winning full house. You need to watch out for players like this as any tells you pick up are probably based upon what they think they have rather than what they actually have. No one plays against her for an hour in the hope that she’ll have learnt how to play poker.
We’re about to go into the first break that will see an end to Alternates joining and I look down at 8-8. Very stupidly I remember how good they were to me earlier and don’t hesitate in backing them, when the surfer dude to my immediate left goes all-in with his remaining $375. I have him covered, but really have no need to get involved. I do anyway and pay the price as he shows J-J. The board does nothing to help me, and I go into the break berating myself and cursing ‘Bloody f***ing stupid f***ing snowmen!’
Back from the break and our new dealer takes interest in my note-taking. When I mention I’m reporting on the tournament, he announces proudly that he is Daryl, an Omaha champion and author of one of the very first poker websites, back in 1995. I politely make a note of this so he knows I’m taking him seriously, but he seems decidedly disappointed that I don’t immediately produce a camera and dictaphone. I pray he doesn’t start giving me crap cards and as I receive A-K offsuit I give him an appreciative look that I hope says something like ‘Omaha, you say? Good lord. Well done.’ With only $800 in front of me and a $200 big blind approaching fast I take these bad boys all-in and receive only one caller. Surfer dude is teasing me with the chips he won from me before the break and once again shows me J-J. This time his fish hooks give way as I hit a King on the flop and he surfs out of the poker room on a wave of mumbled curses.
Players now start dropping like Vegas magicians at a zoo, with no Alternates to fill their chairs. The next hour is pretty quiet for me, with a 7-7 holding up against A-J to protect my stack from the blinds, which are climbing up to a more damaging level. Dylan is doing very well and building up a nice little stack next to me, but has made the mistake of finding me amusing, so goes easy on me whenever we get involved in a hand together as he likes having me around. I try extra hard to be entirely English and ‘hilarious’ because, frankly, his chip stack scares the shit out of me so any extra leeway is more than welcome.
Just before the next break I get my pants pulled down as I go all-in with 3-3 to find A-A staring back at me. I’m up on my feet and ready to go find surfer dude and see if he has anything harder than Corona, when a Three hits the river and I survive.
Making the best of a parade of innocuous hands, we eventually get down to the last table and Dylan is ecstatic to draw the seat next to me, only at my other side. I’m also ecstatic as this means I can have a go at pushing him around for a change, having been bullied by him and his massive bloody chip stack for the last few hours.
The blinds are now up to $800/$1600 and I’ve only $2700 left, so immediate action is needed. I go all-in with K-2 suited only to stare down the barrel of what has become my bogey hand – J-J. A young jock-type to my left called Randy shakes my weary hand in a ‘Good luck. No, really, I hope I don’t win all your chips and knock you out,’ way. The board is kind enough to drop K-2-9-7-A to give me two-pair. I offer Randy a return shake, but all I receive is a ‘Screw you!’ in return. I get the feeling that it’s going to take more than a few hilarious Mr Bean impersonations to rekindle that particular friendship.
Dylan looks on with the beaming smile of a proud parent as I play his favourity Q-7 and flop two-pair off it. Sadly my courageous run comes to an end as I go all-in on 5-5 and once again run into pocket rockets.
The dealer, rather disappointingly, deals the cards out ludicrously quickly, injecting not a jot of drama into the situation. I watch as 4-4-K-2-7 keeps the Aces good and I’m out in sixth place. At least I’m in the money and lasted longer than 92 other hopefuls. Success.
The epilogue to the story is that Orange County’s Dylan actually went on to win the tournament, taking home $2,020 for a $65 entry fee. Rest assured I will be playing Q-7 like a man possessed from now on…