Monday, August 14, 2006

Las Vegas 7/06: Opening Fire on the Locals

Early Skirmish at Bugsy's Joint

IT WAS SOMETIME IN the early afternoon of Thursday, July 13, that I felt battle had to be joined. I hadn't flown across the country merely to watch these games from the rail or to cruise through the new rooms without at least giving one of the old poker pits a try. After eating, my wanderings took me to the Flamingo, where I had stayed for my first three trips to Vegas, and where — like most casinos in town — they had expanded their poker room to accommodate the surge in interest. From what had been a vestigial nook, the management had grown a respectable-sized cluster of tables in one corner of the casino floor.

I watched the play for a while, selecting a $1/$2 no-limit hold'em game situated close to the rail. Play seemed weak; few preflop raises, and pots being taken down on the flop or turn with a single raise. Spying an open seat, I decided to take a chance.

It turned out I was sitting close to a very drunk player, two seats to my left. This guy was betting at every pot, seeing just about 75% of flops, and seemingly stealing pots at random. This made it tempting to play back at him, but with very little time to have seen what sort of cards he played, I held back. When I did finally get into a hand with him, I found myself facing an all-in river bet after he called my increasing flop and turn bets . . . and I had only a strong Ace paired with one on the board. Not wanting to go broke this early on merely top pair, good kicker, I folded. The guy mucked without showing and mumbled, "I bluffed you." He repeated this a few times while stacking the $150 or so pot. I said nothing, having lost an early profit and only about $20 of my starting buy-in, so I wasn't too upset about how things had gone down. Besides, this guy's starting hand range was fairly broad, so if I got him all in with a solid hand, I was a favorite to take the win back. Tragically, he racked up and left before I had the chance, balancing two racks of red $5 chips and a Budweiser as he weaved to the cashier.

Around this point, some skilled locals sat down. I have a post in the back of my head about identifying this sort of potentially dangerous player, so all I will say at this point is that I took my advice from January's trip and racked up when a new $1/$2 NL table opened.

You can travel halfway across the globe and be surprised to find someone from not only your own country, but your neighborhood. I didn't hit that close, but the young couple who sat to my left at the new table was from Cape May, New Jersey. I chatted them up, primarily to see if they were regulars at Atlantic City to their north, and learned that they actually habituated an underground cardroom down in their neck of the woods. Never hurts to be friendly at a poker table, especially with the two folks to your left, because, among other reasons, they're the folks whose blinds you'll be stealing as often as you can when you have the button or the cutoff seat. (You'll also be chopping the blinds with the person to your immediate left, another reason to at least be on speaking terms.)

Although the couple spoke in terms that led me to believe they had some technical depth at hold'em, the young man was outclassed in skill by his girlfriend. He was making very poor plays with only a single high pair (the sort of trap I had avoided earlier with the drunk), and he rebought twice before busting a third time and storming off in a sullen rage. With one mediocre player gone, and a couple of locals sitting down, I decided to cash out and secure some food. After being ahead nearly $100 at the other game, I was now dead even, and if my choice is a hard-fought tie or a loss born of stupid play, I'll take the former every time.

Storming the Castle

A LIVELY COMMUNITY OF poker bloggers has been regaling the Internet with their adventures for better than two years now. These folks have met up in Las Vegas a couple of times, to put names to faces and let off some steam with low-limit poker enhanced by alcohol and sleep deprivation. In one early jaunt, one blogger suggested the entire group descend on the poker room contained within the Camelot-like fa├žade of the Excalibur. Echoing Billy Crystal's parting exhortation to Cary Elwes and Andre the Giant in The Princess Bride, this plan was cloaked under the codename of "storming the castle."

After grabbing some dinner, I was ready to mount a siege of my own. I've played some fun poker at the Excalibur, owing to its low table limits and the lessons the poker room offers to passing tourists. It does host a no-limit game, for those looking for a higher-level game. This doesn't guarantee that you'll get a table of skilled operators, though. Table selection is still key, no matter what the reputation of a room as a fish tank might be.

I noticed two no-limit tables running. The floor person was initially looking at the "main game," but it looked to be populated with serious players. I wanted funloving tourists and drunks out to donk it up with a couple of surplus Benjamins. That description more closely suited the second table, which had a couple of seats ready and waiting. "I'll take one of those seats, please," I said, peeling two C-notes off for conversion into chips. He acquiesced, and the cage person proffered a stack of 20 reds, an abbreviated second stack of 16 more fivers, and 20 blue $1 checks. I noticed that the Excal had sprung for new chips, not an insubstantial investment. Nice to see one of the comparative bargain properties laying out some coin.

My initial assessment of the table was correct. This one was laughing, betting it up, with four or five players seeing flops. I'm normally a "tight" player, seeing fewer than average flops with my starting cards, but when you have half the table tossing in $2 to take a chance on the next three cards, and even three or four of them calling a raise, I broaden my range somewhat to take advantage of strong draws or to kill the crowd with a flopped set. At a fun table like this, you want to join in, and if it means you sacrifice a couple of two-buck bets so as not to stick out as a rock, you'll have a great chance of cracking someone when your middle pair catches a third or your suited connectors flop straight and flush draws.

Despite loosening up preflop, I didn't take too many hands to the river. I won a few pots here and there, which made up for the flow of chips my looser play had created. This would become moot when two new players sat down. After about an hour or so, our table became shorthanded, with only 6 players. I like short games; you can push single pairs harder and price opponents out of draws much more easily. Some of my poker-night regulars dislike short games like this for that very reason. Hell, six-person (aka 6max) tables have become a staple on Internet poker sites, many folks on the Two Plus Two message forums have inquired as to the production of a book devoted to shorthanded play, and there is even a 6max event at the World Series of Poker now. Last year, poker legend Doyle Brunson, who was winning big across the oil states and in Vegas before the Internet was born, took his 10th championship bracelet in the 6max no-limit event. So this is a straight-up legit form of poker.

So as I said, my chance to be more aggressive at the shorter table was interrupted by the two new arrivals. I initially regretted this, because my earlier, looser play would have benefitted me now. I was already entering a greater number of pots, which is a staple of 6max play, so when I put the pedal down and raised preflop more with a wider range of hands, I might have gotten more calls with even worse hands than mine. Then when I had KK or AA, I could take them to school. With eight players, however, this sort of deceptive, lucrative larceny is a little more difficult.

My regrets faded about a half hour into playing with these two new guys. One was clearly experienced but favored unreasoning aggression over selective force, and this cost him. I limped into a pot (i.e., called the starting bet, then called a raise that came after me without reraising) with A5 of the same suit. I had at least three other callers in addition to the aggro guy, so I had favorable odds for a flush draw on the flop.

Instead of the flush draw, I got an Ace and a 5, two pair. No matching cards, no straight possibilities. Split two pair on a rainbow flop is a great hand. The aggro guy bet strongly, I called, figuring to push on the turn, and the other players folded. The turn was a beautiful Ace. He checked, I thought for a while and bet about half the pot (I didn't want to scare him out), and he went all in. The only problem was that he pushed the bulk of his chips in, then said, "All in," and tried to drop the remaining $60 or $70 in. I said nothing, but the dealer immediately called it a string bet, and declared only the initial, majority bet to be a legal raise.

I have played long enough to sit there with some discipline while someone is in the process of putting his or her foot in the snare, so I waited while the dealer sorted this out, then said, "I call," and flipped up my cards to show the full house. Aggro-man yelled "Fuck!!" and pounded the rail with both fists. He showed Ace King for trips, which did not catch another King. I took down a $270 pot on that hand.

I drifted down about $70 over the course of the next hour, due to draws that didn't come in on the river that I had to fold, but I was still firmly in the black when I scrounged for a chip rack and headed over to the podium to cash out. I did find out why the two guys had come over in the first place. They had been sitting at the other no-limit game, the more serious-looking one, and at some point it had simply broken up. The second of the two players who migrated to my table — the one I didn't clobber with the Aces full — got into an argument shortly thereafter with the dealer. When a person went all in, the dealer counted down the bet. The second guy (hereinafter Nit) — who wasn't one of the two participants in the hand — said the dealer wasn't allowed to do this. The dealer disagreed, and after Nit became vociferous, the floorman was called. After getting the dealer's side of things, he declared it legal and departed . . . but not before angrily telling Nit, upon learning that he wasn't in the hand, to mind his own business when he didn't have cards. This shut Nit up for the duration of my stay, which, after sensing this was why the previous table had collapsed, was not much longer than the time it took to lose the aforementioned $70 or so. I instead hit the parking lot, reflecting in turn on how lacking in etiquette both men had been in their own ways, and of course bouncing along on the cushion of a win.

Ealier entries in this tale of degeneracy can be perused here:

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