Tuesday, January 27, 2004

A Vegas virgin's First Time

As promised, my trip report for my first trip to Vegas:

This is long.

Those of you who have read my long rant below, about how much I hate my job, know that a small part of this trip was intended to find out how I stack against the competition, because I don't like my job, and grinding out a living at the poker tables seems like a lot less of a pain in the ass.

After Gil and I spent three and a half days there, the answer is about what one could expect: I don't know.

General Impressions

One watches movies and TV shows set in Las Vegas and the biggest impression one has is: Neon. But, while there is a lot of neon, I never thought it was overwhelming, not moreso than any other tourist attraction. But given the neon and lights, it gives "Vegas in the Morning" a very hung-over look.

When I've read CardPlayer magazine while waiting for a table around here (casinos in Detroit, Chicago, and Manistee, Mich), I got the impression that all of the Vegas cardrooms are huge rooms with fifty tables or more. It turns out that they really aren't that much bigger than the rooms I'm familiar with, with a few exceptions, but they're generally run a lot better.

I would have thought that poker would be run pretty much the same way anywhere. But, apparently, midwestern poker bears a number of differences with poker in Las Vegas. This surprised me. Now, I am surprised that I was surprised, but there it is.

I didn't realize how rare it is to play with $2 chips. In all of the casinos we were in, they played $4/$8 with $1 chips (and they weren't always white). This made cold-calling or reraising on a later street in a kill pot a giant pain in the ass, as 24 or 36 chips had to be stacked out there. And then re-stacked when you rake the pot, because you sure as hell better rake the pot if you're making it 3 on a later street. Bring on the $2 chips!

I hadn't seen shuffling machines in the poker room, before. When you sit down, it's pretty obvious what they are, because a big metal plate with a door in it, in the middle of the table, can't have many other purposes. After each hand, the dealer presses a button, the door opens, he puts one deck in, and takes one (shuffled) deck out. The first deck is shuffled while the second deck is in play, and vice versa.

The dealers claimed the stats were that four more hands per dealer shift are dealt with the shufflers, than when the dealer shuffles, which means eight more hands an hour. If you figure an average rake of $2, that's $16 an hour that machine is netting the casino. The shufflers were said (again, by the dealers) to cost $18,000. If you do the math, the shufflers are paid for after (depending on how much the table is used) two to six months, and then that's an extra $40,000 or so a year out of the poker room. So the big question is: Why don't they all use the shufflers?

Another thing I found very strange was that in the $4/$8 games at all three places I played them, the blinds were $1 and $2, and the first preflop raise was to $6. At one place it was actually spread-limit, meaning one could bet from $1 to $4 on the first two betting rounds or from $1 to $8 on the last two. The normal rules on raising applied; you had to raise by at least the amount of the previous bet or raise.

I never really felt like I got a handle on this. My intuition was and still is that one should play more hands, cheaply at least, and hope to hit a flop, but I think on balance, loosening my starting requirements ended up costing me money just as it does in a game with a "normal" half-bet/full-bet blind structure. If I ever take my shot at it out there, this is something I have to figure out.

I liked that the rakes were figured down to the quarter-dollar, although it meant that one ended up with a pile of quarters after winning a few pots. Quarters ended up being the most common thing the dealers needed when they called for a fill.

Thursday Evening: My Kind of Town

We arrived at the McCarran Airport in Las Vegas at around 4:00 local time, giving us an opportunity to get to the hotel and have dinner. The accommodations that Gil arranged for us were at Circus Circus, which a couple of people here in Michigan had mentioned as a "dump." I have to disagree; the casino might be old but the rooms were decent, and we didn't spend any time in the room except to sleep anyway. They even have a poker room, but we didn't check it out except to watch one hand from the rail.

Anyway, we had dinner there (at their café--fair, nothing spectacular) we headed over to the Luxor. Gil had printed the Vegas tournament schedule from CardPlayer before we left, and it looked like there was a tournament scheduled there for an hour or so hence. Seats were completely filled in the tournament when we got there (they'll only seat 41), so we asked about a ring game. Apparently they didn't have enough dealers scheduled for that night, so there weren't any openings available, and they had long lists for their tables. I was then introduced to one of the Good Things About Vegas: You can always go somewhere else.

At Mandalay Bay they did have seats, and so we sat down at a $4/$8 holdem game, the largest they were dealing. (This surprised me: I expected to see black-chip games at every casino. Just see, of course; my bankroll isn't that big.) I don't recall Gil and I being on the same table, but we might have been. Actually, I don't recall much about this session, but my notes remind me that my big hand of the (four-hour) night was when I had a chance to reraise with AA on the button, and the two of us capping it. The board came all babies, which couldn't have helped any kind of hand he might have stood that many raises with, and so after a lot more betting and raising he showed KK. Surprisingly, for this type of story, the favorite won, and I ended the night having won $110.

Friday Morning: Let's Get Them Through Fast

Gil found that his tournament list showed a limit game at Mandalay Bay in the morning, so we headed over there to register and have breakfast, which was excellent, but we both thought $13 was a bit pricy for a breakfast buffet.

After breakfast, we settled into another $4/$8 holdem game. It was on the same table as the night before, and one of the people there had sat down before I'd left the night before. Mostly I didn't get cards, or didn't flop to them, and so I lost $55 in the hour or so before the tournament started.

Ahh, the tournament. Either the tournament structure here wasn't thought out well, or it was thought out very well and very cynically. Each player started with $300 in chips, but at the end of the first hour the blinds were up to $50/$100, which is the level I managed to cling on to. It wasn't enough, though, to get me down better than about 25th (of 40). I really didn't like this tournament structure, where a player can't win without hitting a lot of cards early and often. It turned out that player was Gil, for about a $250 score off his buyin, but I had lost my $30. This soured me on pretty much all of the tournaments on Gil's list; it seems like they are designed to give the players the tournaments they are asking for, but get the damn things over as quickly as possible and either get them onto ring games or accept the house cut of the pool and wave goodbye. PartyPoker's single-table tourneys have less luck involved, for a better payoff (relatively) against a smaller field.

To Boldly Go Where a Couple Hundred Thousand Have Gone Before

Being down to a mere $25 in profit for the trip, we decide to take a break from poker (I'm not sure whether Gil had a sour taste from that tourney or not, but he needed a break too) and go see the Star Trek exhibit/show/ride/whatever at the Hilton.

This opened a few years ago, and might be going stale, but I hadn't seen it, and I'm a fairly big fan of the show (although not the current show, so much; I've seen less than five episodes of it all the way through). Actually, it was reasonably impressive. $30 was too much for what was basically a ten-minute floor show and one of those virtual-reality motion-simulator thingies, but anything Paramount does usually has a high price tag. Actually, it was well-done; the Enterprise-D's bridge set looks a lot more sparse from above (basically Worf's station) than it does from the viewscreen area, where they usually had the cameras on the show. And the actors all took things quite seriously, which is, of course, what a true Trekker would demand.

I'm not quite sure it works to have actors in Klingon or Ferengi makeup pacing the halls of the exhibit; the suspension of disbelief becomes impossible once you step out into the retail area. But the alternative is to completely hit you over the head with the concept, with Klingons challenging you and Ferengi complaining about profit and so on, and that might not fly when the hotel advertises Quark's Bar along with all of the other restaurants in the casino.

I didn't spring the $20 for the picture of me in the captain's chair. Somehow I don't think the Captain of the Enterprise would be wearing a Detroit Tigers jersey.

In any case, I'm glad I saw this, but I don't think I'd make a special trip again for the show, unless (maybe) I somehow was going through it alone, where I could go ahead and suspend my damned disbelief come hell or high water.

Friday Evening: Bad Vibes and Bad Plays

Afterwards, we returned to the strip. We intended to play at the Bellagio, but their lists were longer than Santa's. So, following our new rule, we found ourselves in front of the Monte Carlo, which Gil (who's been to Vegas before) remembered having a poker room, so we went in. The room was nice but a bit crowded, the decor was nice, but we both felt some sort of weird vibe there and decided in short order that we wanted to play somewhere else, even though this was probably the softest game we saw all weekend. On the table for less than an hour, through a switch from $2/$4 to $4/$8 (all but one on the $2/$4 table were on the $4/$8 list, so we changed it), I leave up $18.

We then went back to the Luxor. We must have been there a good long time, but I don't remember much of it. My notes have two hands that I played very badly but won a lot of money. Both were club flushes, one with A4♣ and one with (can you believe it?) 25♣. I think I played the A4 badly all the way through, but it kept costing me more and more money to draw to my nut flush. I made it, and it was good, but I shouldn't have been in there that long anyway nohow. My guess (now) is that I intended to play for the $2 blind, but got raised, called, flopped the nut draw, and called way too many bets to get there on the river.

The 25♣ I remember more vividly, because I knew when I did it that it was stupid, but I tossed in $2 for the same reason I did with the A4♣. Stupidly, I called the $4 raise that occurred behind me, but I got the 119-to-1 occurrence of flopping a flush. That one I bet hard, because I didn't want to let anyone with even a single club do to me what I did to whoever had a great hand when I was drawing to my A4♣.

In any case, I end the session having won $106, although looking at my notes it seems as if this is despite my play rather than because of it.

Saturday Morning: Isn't Anybody in this Town a Local?

Saturday morning we (mostly I) want to test our mettle against some of the locals who have the opportunity to play every day, or every weekend at least. Gil and I have both heard that the Orleans is known for catering to the locals, so we have the cab driver bring us there.

This is the first room whose size impressed me. The main poker room has about 25 tables, and we passed an overflow area on the way to the main room with another eight or so. The biggest game when we got there (around 8AM local time) was $4/$8, so we sat down there, but they got $6/$12 and $10/$20 going in short order.

Soon enough we discover that at noon there's a limit holdem tournament, and the blind structure is posted on the wall. The buy-in is $50 with a $20 rebuy. This sounds interesting to both of us, and we stay on our $4/$8 games until 11:15 or so, when we get lunch and join the tournament.

It turns out that we have around 115 entrants on twelve tables, and the final table gets the money.

The blind structures are indeed better than at Mandalay Bay, especially as the $20 rebuy gets one twice the chips that the original $50 bought, and a $3 toke to the dealers bought another 75 chips. All told, those who rebought and toked (nearly everyone) ended up with T$975.

Still, there was a stretch where the blinds were escalating too fast relative to the average stack size. For the couple of levels before the second break, the average stack size is still about T$2400, but the bets are T$300/T$600 ... meaning that the average stack is four big bets. This is the point where I go out. I don't remember the hand, but essentially any hand one played had to be all-in. I did, and I lost, going out about 25th.

I then sweat Gil for a while, who's in much better chip position than I was. Actually, after I pee and go get a Guinness (the Orleans has Guinness!), I find that my table was broken almost as soon as I busted out, and they're down to two tables. "Well," I figure, "this is almost over, so it makes no sense to get into a ring game." I have this hopeless thought in my head for the next two hours of standing on the rail watching the action.

Gil is in good shape when there are eleven left, and possibly chip leader. When the tournament director holds up the action to ask the players if they should pay the bubble, Gil doesn't object. I thought he should have objected, because of the absurdity of it. Take money from the first-place player, to pay the eleventh-place player. What have you done? You've made the short stack happy, but you just move the bubble to the twelfth-place player. Why?

Anyway, it gets down to three, with Gil and, ummm, "Oldie" about equal and, hmm, "Slimy" at less than half of either of the others. Gil said later that he never did figure out Oldie, and I was briefly on Slimy's table ... very aggressive. There was a $5 bounty paid for knocking people out, and I'm sure he had a nice stack of red chips.

Slimy went all in at least ten or fifteen times, always either with the best of it or catching his card, and always lived to tell the tale, but the blinds would come around again and he'd have to go all-in on a hand. The blinds reached 3000/6000, I think, and they were playing with T$500 chips (I don't think the Orleans has higher-denomination tournament chips), so merely paying the big blind was more than half a stack.

All of a sudden, Oldie collapses. Slimy doubles up off of him, Gil takes a nice pot, and finally Slimy takes his last few chips. Now Gil is headsup with Slimy, and Gil has something like an 8-1 chip lead. Unsurprisingly, Slimy offered a deal for first and second. Unsurprisingly, Gil didn't take the deal. It only took about three hands for Gil to win it all for about $1800 and a "tournament winner" jacket that didn't fit.

Dinner was on him.

Saturday Evening: The Moo Man Group

We went to the Mirage for dinner, although I don't know why. Their poker room didn't look any different than anyone else's, although I didn't go in. Gil was in the mood for a steak, so we went into Kokomo's, their nice steakhouse. This is well-done, because it's a classy restaurant that doesn't make their blue-jeans patrons (who might have hit a jackpot or something, like, well, us) feel out of place. Of course, it's $50 for a steak. Gil orders prime rib, that turns out to be large enough to have its own gravity, and I order a veal chop, which is a more normal amount of food. Both are excellent.

During dinner, we decide a long night of poker isn't in the cards (ho ho, what a funny guy I am) for either of us, and we decide to see one of the shows. We call over to the Luxor to enquire about tickets to the Blue Man Group, which are available. We go get our tickets, and sit down for about an hour of poker before the show starts. I lose $78 mostly on two hands I play very badly, in both cases with second-best hands that were second-best all the way. (I blew off $1000 in a weekend that way, once. I'm still pissed about that, and it was a couple of months ago.)

While we're waiting for the show, my brain goes off on one of those wierd tangents when I realize that if the Blue Man Group were replaced by cows, they'd be the Moo Man Group. And I can't stop myself, it keeps going and going ...

  • If the BMG were replaced by all different animals (Zoo Man Group)
  • If one of them was sick (Two Man Group)
  • If they replaced all three (New Man Group)
  • If they were Hungarian chefs (Stew Man Group)
  • If one of them was a talking dog (Scooby Doo Man Group)
  • If they were playing a board game (Clue Man Group)
  • If they were ghosts (Boo Man Group)
  • If they had to relieve themselves (Poo Man Group)
  • If they had to relieve themselves in Britain (Loo Man Group)
  • If they lived in southwestern Michigan (Kalamazoo Man Group)
  • And on, and on, and on ... fortunately the show started.

    Very interesting. I want to say "excellent show," but that's what everybody always says, even if it wasn't. It was interesting. Some of it, I feel like I've seen before, because of those Pentium III and Pentium 4 commercials they did, but mostly it was interesting in a cool way. A lot of it seemed like they were looking for ways to do a live music video with strange musical instruments, but others were funny. The pretty blonde girl they picked from the audience (why always a pretty blonde girl, and not a big fat white guy?) for one part was so good she could have been a shill, but the blue men played off her well.

    Sunday Morning: Okay, What have you got?

    "But all I'm really thinking about is Vegas and the fucking Mirage."

    "The poker room at the Mirage, in Vegas, is the center of the poker universe. Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, Phil Hellmuth--the legends consider it their office. Every couple of days a new millionaire shows up, wanting to beat a world champion. Usually they go home with nothing but a story."

    Mike McDermott, "Rounders"

    This is no longer true, of course, because the Big Name Players that aren't on the tournament circuit normally play at Bellagio. But we were at the Mirage for one reason: We wanted to test ourselves at a "middle-limit" game against decent competition. So Gil and I each bought a rack of red and headed for the "high-limit" section of the room.

    This is really cool. Okay, yeah, we're playing $10/$20, and not $20/$40 or higher, but we're in the raised section of the room ("the hill"), above the pæons playing piddly little $3/$6 and $6/$12. We have our own cocktail server. We have phones conveniently placed around the table in case we have to take care of other business. The table is real felt. If a dealer needed a floorman or a chip runner, he was right there. It's easy to see why the second "Rounders" quote was true, as this is easily the best-run and nicest room we played in the whole weekend.

    Many of the players we were up against were very good. I'd put them on a par with the better players in Manistee, which I've said is among the toughest $4/$8 games you'll find. Many of the players clearly had very high opinions of themselves or of their play, like the guy who made sure to let us know about the time he was playing with Cloutier and Ivey and someone else at his table in a tournament, and he had his aces cracked (in a stupid way, and he admitted it was stupid, but it didn't stop the name-dropping).

    I was the youngest player at the table most of the time. Gil is more than twenty years older than me, and he was often the second youngest. These were all retirees, many of them regulars. This game is beatable, because none of the players I saw are the type to work to improve their games.

    Oh, how'd I do? I lost $101. I consider that a moral victory, though, since I held my own. I was never more than $250 up or down. I now know whether I can be competitive at $10/$20. The answer, in Las Vegas, is yes.

    (Unless I just had a good day ... Hmm ...)

    Sunday Evening: Oh, how I wish that there were more than 24 hours in the day

    Gil and I pick up in time to get to the Orleans in time to have some dinner and buy into their 7:00 tournament. The Irish pub there had marginal food at best, but they had Guinness and Beamish on tap, and that was a good thing. While we were eating and telling each other our bad beat stories, the bartender came up and asked, "Hey, were you playing at the Luxor last night?" Apparently he was on my table, and I never recognized him behind the bar. Once he said something, I remembered, but I wasn't on the table long enough to get a handle on his play.

    We then head for the poker room and buy into ring games, $4/$8 again. Very soft game, this one was, with people firing at the pot and raising with nothing but runner-runner draws, and announcing they were doing it. I didn't catch much of it, and only won $14.

    Then the tournament started. I didn't do very much in the beginning, and reached the tight spot of the T$300/T$600 stakes with a slightly less than average stack. But then I started catching.

    Without ever really winning a huge put, I ran my stack up to T$6000 or T$8000, which was about three times the average at the time. But I got stuck there. I never really won a lot or lost a lot all the way to the point where I worried about whether or not I'd make it into the money.

    I'd been planning on announcing when there were 20 left that I was against paying the bubble. For whatever reason (probably I had a lot of chips and it would be impolitic), I didn't. As it happened, it was a moot question, because 12th and 11th went out at almost exactly the same time, and we never got to vote on whether or not to pay the bubble.

    So I made the final table, and the money. But, as one of my opponents pointed out, my "nuts were in a vise," as I was one of the shortest stacks. Even so, somehow I never managed to go all-in, until the pivotal hand.

    I had 99 in mid position with about 6 left on the table. With only one player and the blinds behind me, I don't care whether I get called or not, because I probably have the best hand. The big blind calls me. When the flop comes 944, giving me the boat, I can hardly contain my glee -- and then I'm bet into!

    The stakes at this point are T$2000/T$4000, so I do my best acting job about not liking my call, and push in four chips. He said later he had me on AK or AQ, which I attribute to my acting. The call itself is displaying great weakness on my part anyway, whether my acting was good or not. When the turn is a 5, the big blind bets out again, and I immediately raise.

    Now my opponent has to put me on A5, because that's the only thing I might have raised with (weak raise, but we were short-handed) where that 5 helped me. So he asks for a chip count, and it turns out that I'm one short of calling a big bet. So we're all in for 23 chips, T$11,500 apiece, plus the preflop and flop action, and he turns over ... A9! The 9 hit him, and when he put me on AK or AQ he was playing for the best hand, when he was actually drawing dead.

    So now I'm in second chip position, my recent opponent is in that nut-vise, as is the player on my right. In fact, the chip leader and I together probably had well over 75% of the chips, so we clearly were going to take first and second. I took a hand or two, he took a hand or two, we each put out a couple of players (once I did it with JJJJ), and we were headsup.

    Those of you who read my glee at the money finish I had last week in a PartyPoker cash tournament might remember that I wasn't happy with my headsup play. I also didn't want to play headsup against this player, since the entire tournament he was very good at reading hands. He was mumbling about a split, I offered, he stared at the payout board for a while. He didn't seem to make a decision, but he had the dealer deal the next hand. When I took his blind (with a very good headsup hand, QT or something), he said, "fuck it, let's chop."

    If you've never done this, it involves taking the prize money for first and second and splitting it. In this case, first paid about $2600, and second paid about $1600. So we split the difference and each won $2,125. (Of course, we'd each already lost the $113 we'd put up for the tournament.) We counted the chips; of the T$111,000 in play, I had $52,500, or barely under half. It would have taken forever to play that out.

    I look at the chop this way. My headsup play might be weak, and this player is strong, so between the two let's say I have a 1-in-3 chance of winning. To play it out, then, would mean that I was betting $500 for a 1-in-3 shot at $1000. I don't have to ask a poker player whether I should make that bet.


    First, don't let me near a keyboard, lest I type again ...

    Second, doing the math gets me a total net win of $2033. I don't count dealer tokes, or tips for the servers, in my winnings, since I usually do that in chips and I can't cash them out.

    Third: If you subtract my tournament play, I'm net down in ring games for the weekend, mostly due to my own mistakes. And I'm not sure how to rate my tournament play: it's a net win, but is it part of the same bankroll?

    The fact that Gil won the tournament the day before leads me to not want to dismiss the possibility that I really am good enough to usually make the final table. But to be long-term winner in that structure (and size) tournament, one would probably have to have a top-five placement in them once a week or so just to cover the buyins. Even with fields in the 80-120 size, that seems unreasonable to expect. And, of course, if one player wins them all the time, people wouldn't play as many ...

    The wierd thing is that as I type this, I'm down to the last 20 in a cash tournament on PartyPoker, in good chip position to make the final table, for a profit of at least $130 and as much as $4500. So I'm completely mystified as to whether I'm good enough.


    I ended up finishing fifth for a gain of $1101 and a net of $1046. I can add it to the stake, and I'm that much closer to having the stake I said I'd need to give Vegas a shot ...