Birthday poker in Sin City: Vegas Day One

I turn 38 this month. Birthdays are not a big deal for me. I don’t freak out marking time, nor do I have special rituals that I
have to do on my birthday. Even the
actual day isn’t a momentous event. I
have breezed right through the actual day many years, and in most cases
attempts at parties have proven occasionally disastrous, with a recent birthday
that had me staring at more empty chairs at a Japanese restaurant than filled
ones. Whether it was organized too last
minute or that I simply don’t have the circle of friends I thought I did, I
found it horribly depressing. Even today
the recall of that dinner makes me somewhat melancholy. As my birthday approached this year, I swore
not to leave my birthday plans in anyone else’s hands. 

So this year I made my own plans for my birthday month.  I decided that I was going to indulge my
favorite hobby (poker) with one or two trips to live casinos where I hoped the
hundreds of hours of playing and coaching that I had put in would pay off. Though friends and acquaintances joke that I
have a gambling addiction because of my obsession with poker, if you actually
know anything about gambling addictions, I don’t have one. (You can study up on them at the Gambler’s
website, if you’re curious.)

The first trip I setup was a visit to Vegas. I haven’t been to Vegas in over seven years,
long before I discovered poker. On that
trip I think I probably played a little blackjack and some slot machines, but
no poker. I returned to Vegas this year
with over fifteen months of serious poker study and practice online, in Atlantic City, and in
local home games. I was determined to see
how well I had done by competing at Poker Ground Zero.

In poker there are games of varying stakes, from nickel-dime
to $100,000-$200,000. You probably need
$3 to play a nickel-dime game, where the bets go in increments of five and ten
cents. At the higher end, there are a
collection of poker players (who have dubbed their group The Corporation) that have arranged that higher end game by bankrolling
themselves for several tens of millions of dollars to play against Texas banker Andy Beal.

I knew my talents lay somewhere in between, but where? As the stakes get higher, the quality of the
players gets better. No matter how good
you are, there are games of some stakes you can consistently win money from,
some games that you occasionally win money from, and some games that you will
consistently lose money at.  

I find that I can consistently win money at $3/$6 and below,
while I’m challenged at games from $4/8, and $6/$12, and I’m almost certainly
the fish at the table when I’m playing $10/$20 or higher. (Which I’m smart enough not to play)

These aren’t hard and fast rules, of course. Sometimes the $2/$4 game is filled with the
right combination of people that are both talented and/or getting great
cards. In that case the challenge is not
losing money. In other cases you find
yourself sitting at a $6/$12 table and you’re getting lucky cards or the other
players happen to be playing incorrectly or above their skill levels.

My trip to Vegas was primarily to play some poker, but
specifically I wanted to hone my skills as I begin to move up limits now that
I’m good enough to consistently make money at poker. Where was my skill level? What games could I truly beat? 

My guide

My longtime poker buddy, Katie, was to be my guide on this
trip. She knows Vegas very well, having
made many trips out there for poker before. No other issues withstanding, I can imagine that she’d probably move
there in a heartbeat.

We planned our trip carefully, picking a Sunday to Wednesday
stay at the Sahara for minimal hotel
costs. (Casino hotel rooms are cheapest
on weekdays). The hotel was cheap, but
it’s one of the older hotels, and it had an unpleasant odor in the
hallway. We didn’t spend a lot of time
there, though, so it was a good value for the money.

Sunday – The MGM Grand

We arrived on our Independence Air $150 round trip flight in
Vegas on Sunday afternoon.  I made it
about two hundred feet from the airplane gate before I saw my first obviously
fake pair of breasts on display. I’d
forgotten that in the land of waitresses, dealers, and other service people
that work for tips, I was going to see a lot of them in the next few days.

We picked up the rental car and headed over to the Sahara for a quick checkin and luggage dropoff. Katie immediately plugged her iPod
charger/transmitter into the car and started the playlist she’d assembled for
our trip. Our musical tastes are like
two circles of a Venn diagram where the overlap happens only at Lyle Lovett and
Tom Waits.

We listened to a lot of Lovett and Waits.

After confirming that the Sahara did indeed have a poker room that we could use in a pinch, we drove straight to
the MGM Grand, a room that had received an excellent
from, one of the
best sources of poker room reviews around.

The MGM Grand is a nice room. It’s large, with lots of space between the
tables to walk. If you wanted to play
poker with a friend or two sitting behind you, it wouldn’t be a problem. They have a restaurant style paging system
for use when it’s extremely busy, and the now-standard computer-based queuing
system broadcast on plasma screens. The
tables are all new and contain automatic shuffling machines.

Most good poker players like to sit patiently and wait for
good cards in the right situation. You
can spot a bad poker player because he or she is playing every hand. A good poker player is playing one in every
ten to twenty hands at a full, ten-person table. An automatic shuffling machine means you will
be dealt almost twice as many hands per hour, and it will take less time to see
the hands you really want to play. 

While there Katie and I both played in the $4/$8 games. The lowest level they offer, $2/$4, is
something that I don’t play online anymore unless it’s the only game I can
find, since I consistently can beat it.

I sat down around and bought in for $300. The competition was pretty tough, and having
been away from a legal casino for so long, I probably didn’t have my card sense
adequately honed. As the evening drew on
I began to pick up reads on different players, and absorbed the conversation to
learn what I could about them. Generally
I try to listen carefully to the table conversation. You can quickly learn a lot about the people
at your table by how they act. 

I’d been watching a regular at my table whom I’d tagged Cranky Man.  He was a terrible player, or he was playing
terribly, and he bluffed way too much. He was known to all the dealers and many of the other players,
suggesting that he played a lot. After
hours of watching him bluff at pots when nobody bet, I realized it was
senseless to fold to him on the river if I’d had any sort of hand. I also detected that he habitually bet at the
board whenever it paired, almost compulsively, thinking everyone else would
fold immediately. This is a trick that
probably works if you do it occasionally and if you have a strong table image
as a player who solid in the cards he plays, but it doesn’t work if you do it
constantly and repeatedly.

Seven hours into my session I found myself in a hand with
Cranky Guy and one other player. I was
in middle position, with Cranky behind me and my one caller in front of
me. I held pocket Kings and the flop
came A-6-3. I had raised before the flop
to thin the field and maximize my profit, and now, as the first caller checked
to me, I bet and they both called. People at this table had been calling raises before the flop with any
Ace, so I thought I was about to get pushed out of my pot. 

The fourth card, the turn, came and it was a 3. Already unsure of my position, the early
caller and I both checked. Cranky Guy
bet at the pot almost immediately and my bullshit detector went off. The early caller folded, and I called. On the river I checked and Cranky Guy
checked. I said, “Do you have an Ace?”
as I turned over my Kings and he mucked his hand. “Of course I don’t have an Ace, I checked
didn’t I? I would have bet if I had an
Ace.” He voice went up half an octave
and he pulled out money to buy in yet again and he said, “That’s an inane
question. That’s why I checked! A good player would have bet the river.”

I thought to myself, “If I raise before the flop and you’re
worried we both have Aces but you don’t have a good kicker, you might
check.” But then what do I know, I’m just an amateur poker player. However my mean side came out and I said, “I
may be inane, but I’m stacking up your chips.” 

The table quieted and I peeked up to see if sagebrush went
rolling by. “Don’t feel so cocky kid,
EVERYONE is stacking up my chips today.” It was true, I’d seen him burn through $400-$500 since I’d sat
down. He spent the next several hours
buying in for $20 at a time and then playing a hand or two and then walking
away. He never recovered.

  Days later I saw him hovering around the Mandalay Bay poker room, using the house phone and saying hello to people.  He never sat down to play.  His was clearly a sad existence.

This reminded me of the fact that there are a number of
people who are trying to make their living as poker players in Vegas. I can’t imagine you could do that at $8 per
hour, the expected win rate for playing $4/$8 poker. Furthermore, I already have some expensive
habits that couldn’t be paid for by such a salary. Katie ran into one of these people, called
“grinders”, at her very profitable $4/$8 table. He’d moved to
Vegas to seek his fortune at poker, and had lately had a pretty bad
streak. He had to get a job doing
something else in order to pay his bills. He sat down at next to Katie with $100 (not enough to really be competitive at a
$4/$8 table), and promptly lost it badly, playing depressed poker.

Over the course of the evening I lost $200 and the players
at my table grew steadily more talented. We had only two or at the most three people playing any hand together,
and a lot of folding on the flop. While
this was an opportunity to steal some small pots, I was unable to put together
any large hands to get any action. Hoping to relieve some tourists of their money, I moved over to Katie’s
table, which she said was particularly soft. 

The one plus was that since we were close to the nightclub,
we got to hear the DJ’s music. He was
playing an excellent selection of mashups, and so I had the rare
privilege of getting to listen to music while playing live poker, without having
to be that annoying guy that wears an iPod. I hate that guy, you always have to elbow him when it’s his turn because
he has no idea what’s going on.

At Katie’s table I saw a very disturbing phenomenon. The table was good, with two sisters in their
late 40’s who had lucked out on a bunch of pots, and were sitting on big stacks
of chips, probably $400 a piece. Because they couldn’t play
worth a lick, they were going to give it back over time. One off-shift dealer, myself, and Katie were all
waiting to get the right cards to relieve one or both of them of their money. We each got a little piece of it, but before
we could make any big scores the other mediocre players at our table began to
leave and were replaced by other dealers and their friends as they got off
work. It isn’t necessarily true that
poker dealers make great poker players, but the smart ones do, and
they get thousands of hours more observation time than you do. As the table filled up I didn’t detect any
cheating, but I found myself having to navigate the hands more carefully. Not only was I looking for the right cards,
but I was looking for the right cards that would have me competing against the
flush tourists and not the dealer sharks.

I never found it, and the last straw was when I lost a big
hand to a friend of one of the dealers who had come by to sit in on the
game. At this point I decided I was done
for the night. The tourist sisters had
moved to another table, thinking that their luck would be better at $2/$4. It would be better, but probably because none
of the people at our table would play $2/$4. They’d be competing against other tourists who were basically playing
“poker bingo”, a style of poker where you throw your money into the pot with
any two cards and wait to see who wins when all of the five common cards are
laid out. 

We finally bailed out of the MGM and went back to our rooms at the Sahara to crash. Katie was up several hundred, but I was down on my first day into the

MGM session: -$182

Trip total: -$182

Continue reading Vegas Day Two: Raking Pots Among The Chic At Wynn