Monday, August 07, 2006

Las Vegas 7/06: Abbreviated World Poker Tour

WITH MY TRAVEL DAY behind me, with my body slowly adjusting to Vegas Time (i.e., no clocks and no work make James a sleep-deprived boy), I arose on Thursday ready for some cards. I began the day with a trip to Whole Foods, located far west on Charleston, near the new Red Rock Station hotel and casino. Vegas's Whole Foods is a huge, grand temple of freshness, and I chowed down on hot breakfast selections, yogurt, and a bran muffin while reading printouts of AllVegasPoker's poker-room reviews and stealing glimpses of a strikingly curvy local sitting on the other side of the store window, with a friend, chatting and splitting a quarter-watermelon with a friend in the early morning heat.

But I didn't come to Las Vegas to look at women. (Well, it wasn't my first priority.) I was here for some poker, and this time around, I had a few new venues in which to play, and before settling down to some cards, I wanted to check out my broader range of playing options.

So after polishing off my muffin and casting one last longing look at the beauty beside me, I drove back down to the Strip, parked at the beautiful Wynn Las Vegas, and began my walking tour.

I did take a quick peek at Wynn's room, which actually opened more than a year ago but which still gets high grades from players. The average skill level there exceeds my own, even at the "lower" games (e.g., they spread a low-cost no-limit game, but there is no maximum buy-in, which skilled, aggressive players favor), so I have not played there yet, a trend that continued for this trip. Someday I'll give the $1/$3 no-limit or one of the inexpensive limit games a shot, but not this trip.

Next, I walked a sweltering block south to the Venetian. Their room went in only a few months ago, and it's a spacious affair with lots of tables, comfortable seats, the electronic seating board most new rooms install to help players see how long their wait might be, and a slew of smaller amenities like tableside dining and an automated login for player's cards so folks can track their comp dollars. A classy room for one of the more upscale properties on the Strip.

Across the street from the Venetian sits Treasure Island, or TI as they have renamed themselves in an attempt to snare the hipster crowd. Its sister property, the Mirage, had what was the premier poker room of its time when it was built in the Nineties. Years later, as poker ebbed, then rushed back in with the force of a Phil Hellmuth temper tantrum, TI finally offered a room to capture some of the wave. Although I missed it at first and had to ask a keno-desk person for directions, in retrospect it's pretty damn easy to find. Walking around from one of these new poker rooms to the next was like Christmas morning; each one a mystery box waiting to be unwrapped. TI's room is mostly enclosed, though you can watch the games from two large rail-windows or the main entrance. It looked very nice, and at that time of day (around 11:00 a.m.) wasn't really so crowded, but it was fairly small. I suspected it would fill up quickly during these weeks with the WSOP in town.

After TI, I took the tram over to the Mirage. I like playing here, even though in my early visits, I took a few solid lumps playing seven-card stud against devious experts. Had I not diverted into hold'em, I probably would have continued to work on my stud skills so I could play in the games here as an equal.

Trouble is, hold'em has almost completely displaced stud in Las Vegas. What few stud games still run are low-buyin, $1-$5 spread-limit games that attract mostly local retirees who play barely any pots, wait for the absolute nuts to begin betting, and castigate anyone who dares to raise a pot. The Mirage used to host two of the few mid-level stud games ($5/$10 and $10/$20) in town. When I visited the room that day and on future occasions, the low-limit version was all they had left. Aside from the Bellagio, where games of many types and nearly every limit can be found, I couldn't imagine where else the dedicate core of mid-limit stud players might have gone. Too bad, because it featured an interesting blend of personalities, which could almost be a blog post on its own.

One other change I regretted at the Mirage was in the change of dealer uniforms. This is a trend that has spread across most casinos. The traditional garb for a poker dealer is a white oxford or tux-inspired shirt, bowtie, black pants, and either a short apron or, increasingly, a fanny pack for personal items. Maybe a vest over the shirt, which always had a left front pocket for tips. In new rooms, and as time goes by in many old ones, poker dealers now wear the same smocks as the rest of the dealers, and what had once been a small company of professional-looking card dealers at the Mirage now had no individuality. Chalk it up to corporate monomania, or perhaps to sentimentality on my part. Another story I could tell you concerns how I actually played dealer at a birthday party, and how I approximated the classic look, even on a roasting-hot July day, but again, that can wait for another entry.

My walking tour — getting hotter by the hour under skies clouded by smoke blown in from a California wildfire — took me next to Caesars Palace. As part of the Harrah's megalith, which also owns the WSOP, opening a poker room in one of the company's star properties was a dead bang. As befits a sprawling resort like Caesars, its poker room is likewise immense. Equally large is the adjoining tournament area, where both independent competitions and satellites for the WSOP can be run. When I arrived, a new no-limit tournament had just started, and the side room was packed with players, the only sounds the clicking of myriad poker chips being nervously shuffled together as the players began forming early impressions of their opponents, testing the table's nerves with a raise here and there, nothing too crazy this early, just enough to let them know a Player is in town. Yeah, most of them have something akin to this kind of crazy dream, all except for the very new players, who have ponied up a buck-twenty for the entry fee and are shaking in their sneakers, or the seasoned local pros, who are already charting their way to the final table through this ill-kempt scrub and wondering which other regulars they will see there.

Having completed my survey of the new offerings in town, it was time to get some actual play under my belt. This will be the topic of my next entry, as will a demonstration of how right and how wrong the best starting hand in hold'em can be.

To view the first two moves along this tainted Candyland board of a city, slide over to these links:

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