Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Thawing the Poker Cold War at the Venetian

MANY FOLKS VIEW POKER as a war, especially poker of the tournament or no-limit variety. Every player is an enemy general, every chip on the felt a soldier. Ground is ceded or conquered at the flip of a card. From a distance, a Vegas poker table can look like a hostile parley among several military strongmen, eyes walled off by mirrorshades and obscured by caps or visors, arms folded, the silence only split by terse pronouncements of bets and the crash of chips across the green field of battle, and your only ally an unbeatable hand.

The truth is far more complex. Given the right blend of players, game conditions, dealers, and alcohol, a poker table can rival in spirit even the most convivial craps game. Amid the forbidding silence of an all-in bet awaiting a call, and the reluctant creak of a player’s joints as he rises, chipless, from his seat, the anonymous bettors to one’s left and right can turn out to be comrades by the last deal of the night.

One night during my last trip to Las Vegas, I played at the regal poker room of the Venetian Hotel and Casino. This room was designed for serious, comfortable play: lush seats, gorgeous new chips and tables, cocktail waitresses both toothsome and swift with the firewater, and a highly skilled cadre of dealers. Without capturing the interest of the local Vegas players, no poker room will thrive, and the way to keep locals happy is to give them a comfortable space, a generous comp program, tableside food, and a constant flow of rich fish from the schools of tourists washing through the casino. In this, the Venetian comes up aces.

Players ringed most every table of this lush card palace, either battling it out in the daily tournament, or peering at one another across stacks of hard-won chips at the regular ring games. I had read that the Venetian’s regular no-limit Texas hold’em players ran to the shark end of the spectrum, so I shied away from those tables for my virgin expedition. I was also smarting from a beating at no-limit two days earlier, in which my pocket Aces — the strongest starting hand in hold’em — were shot out of the sky twice in the same day. Having restored my confidence with several hours of limit hold’em the day before, I decided to keep working out the cramps at one of the Venetian’s limit tables. With bets and raises in structured denominations, your money can last longer. Unlike no-limit, therefore, you won’t go broke on the first hand. You also have a better chance of finding a player who pre-dates the no-limit craze, a veteran from whom you can learn. Wide public interest in no-limit is only about 5 years old; players who survived the late-Nineties closure of Vegas poker rooms are likely to have a rich trove of wisdom and stories about the game. This can pay more, long term, than winning for just that one day.

I took a seat with a couple of racks of the peculiar $3 chips used at the Venetian’s $6/$12 game. I had a feeling this denomination would lead to a calmer game than the one the night before at the MGM Grand. There, the $6/$12 game used the more traditional $1 and $5 chips. For the first two betting rounds, folks tended to bet with six singles; they did the same at the turn and river for the double bets. This made average-value pots look far huger: massive seas of blue chips with the odd $5 leering out in alluring red. Players who otherwise might not call a raise on the flop took one look at the gargantuan pile of cashlicious clay and decided, sure, why not throw another $6 in? Add to this a maniacally loose player to my right who raised and reraised nearly every hand preflop — and got at least two calls per hand — the dealers had to push some of these pots to their winners in three or four sweeps.

My hunch about the pace of the game proved to be correct. I was looking for a change from the heart-pounding duel of no-limit, but this was almost too slow. A $36 pot looks a lot more impressive as 36 individual dollar chips, rather than as a wan clutch of 12 tokens in this game.

It did give me a chance to get acquainted with my tablemates. None seemed to be a stereotypical “rock,” a local player grinding out steady wins by raising rarely, folding frequently, and breaking his silence about once per evening, usually to complain about some young “World Poker tour punk” who dared to raise his blinds. I did recognize one local, an off-duty Venetian dealer in fact, who I had seen during my trip the previous summer at the Aladdin. By her chitchat to her neighbors, I identified at least two of them as fellow Venetian poker dealers. Some players salivate at the prospect of playing with a bunch of dealers, believing them to be weaker players or risk-happy gamblers, but the one I recognized had a fairly effective, if straightforward, game. She did make the mistake of tacitly broadcasting her strategy in her between-hand commentary. I filed this information away in case we got head to head at all.

I struck up a conversation with the guy to my right, with whom I shared a number of favorite classic animated cartoons, including a few that I could imitate. Skilled mimicry of Homer Simpson can get even a stiff table laughing. Even better, the aforementioned dealer was wearing an Aqua Teen Hunger Force T-shirt, marking her as a geek of quality.

Our attention was drawn to a loud player two tables away. In a Russian accent slowed by a few drinks, he called for more chips and fresh booze at regular intervals. I smiled. Russians have a special place in the hearts of many recent converts to hold’em. In the film Rounders, John Malkovich portrays the ruthless underground poker-club owner Teddy KGB. Log enough table time and you will inevitably hear someone drop such classic KGB lines as, “Is position bet. I call,” and “Pay him . . . pay that man his money” in their most menacing faux-Russian accents.

In real life, however, poker players love gambling it up with Russian nationals, because if they’ve got the scratch to vacation in Vegas, they likely will be cavalier about throwing more green into the game. Few gamblers are as enthusiastic as Russians when they are building a mini-Kremlin of chips . . . and win or lose, they absolutely will have a drink or three with you. If you’re not having fun with a Russian sitting at your table, you’re deader than Lenin.

“Cheeps! Cheeps!” bellowed the Russian, as I and my seatmate steepled our fingers in a Monty Burns–like pose of financial anticipation. Would the Poker Gods guide this wandering son of the tundra to our table? I watched him accept another rack of chips from a runner, then stand and head to the exit, slapping a fresh pack of Marlboros smartly against his palm. If you’ve ever seen From Russia With Love, our man at the Venetian closely resembled a suntanned Red Grant, with his blond hair cropped closer, and dressed for holiday in a striped T-shirt and khaki cargo shorts. No stereotypical, lumpy gray Muscovite this.

Over the course of the next hour, I kept an eye on him — who, for the sake of at least giving him a name, I shall call “Yuri” — as he burned through chips with a scorched-earth vengeance, guided hapless cocktail waitresses into an empty seat to harangue them on some point, and above all downed drink after drink with a lusty “Na Zdorov'ye!” . . . until a spilled tequila shot got him cut off. A grievous blow!

As if feeling jinxed by that incident, Yuri rose slowly with the remainder of his chips and sat down at a no-limit table adjacent to mine. This evidently proved costly, accelerating his donation of chips to a point where even this gamble-happy guy had had enough. With a bellowed “I do not like NO LEEMIT!”, he once again called for chips, rose again . . . and sat down to my immediate left. I nudged my neighbor and quietly issued a Quagmire-esque “Giggity giggity giggity giggity!”

Yuri seemed more sedate than his earlier self as he carefully unracked his new chips. Perhaps his losses at the no-limit table had finally reached his threshold of pain. When someone takes a licking but still has chips, or seems willing to buy more, you leave them along with their thoughts for a while. The worst thing you can do is to rub the player’s nose in it and induce them to leave. In poker parlance, the exhortation to keep a fish in play is, “Don’t tap on the glass.” So I let Yuri think, stack his chips, and bet when the action came to him.

A way of opening a connection presented itself in the form of my dinner. Earlier that evening, my neighbor had availed himself of the tableside dining option by selecting, from the leatherbound mini-menu of entrees, fish and chips. When the golden-battered fish arrived, nestled in a bed of green-leaf lettuce next to a fragrant sheaf of shoestring fries and enticing tubs of tartar sauce and cider vinegar, I pointed a quivering finger at it and all but commanded the waiter to clone it for me. I devoured the fish upon its arrival, but could only engulf about half of the fries. So I offered Yuri the chance to help me finish them. He graciously thanked me and set to work cleaning the plate.

I gently chatted with him about poker, thinking less of him now as a sheep to be sheared and more as a fellow player. He definitely preferred limit hold’em, not liking the dramatic swings of no-limit. I could see why, based on his style of play; he bet to the river with hands as small as a single pair and chased draws like a pitbull chasing a chicken-fried cat. I never got into a hand with him, my cards having gone dead-ass cold. I sympathized with him at getting cut off from the free-drink train, and suggested he ask the floorman to reconsider. All Yuri really did was knock over a glass onto the rolling drink stand next to the table. Hardly a bootable offense.

About an hour after Yuri sat down, I counted my own chip stack and decided the combination of good limit players and my growing drowsiness were not going to restore it to its starting size anytime soon. As I had guessed, the $3 chips made the pots visibly smaller, and thus less worth loose calls and raising wars, than the gargantuan pots buckling the MGM $6/$12 tables. And the only real fish I had encountered was the deep-fried kind I had engulfed earlier. Yuri was a steady, but not wild, donor, betting but rarely raising, more like someone playing a multistage blackjack hand. He fell short of being the true maniac every solid poker player covets.

In the area of courtesy, however, Yuri measured up strongly. I racked up my chips and offered him my hand and a parting “Do svidanya.” He smiled, rose, accepted my hand with both of his, and returned my valediction, adding a sincere “Good luck.” As I redeemed my chips at the poker room cage, I could still feel the warm impression of his handshake.

All told, I probably lost about $100 at the Venetian poker room. I returned to my hotel room less disappointed with losing than I might have been. With a few more days left to battle it out at the poker tables, I considered the loss no more than a new scar across my back from the most recent hand-to-hand melee with the enemy. Amid the press, however, Yuri distinguished himself as a welcome and friendly rival.

Far from my initial eagerness to loot him, I was now glad I hadn’t been at the no-limit table and in a position to take his whole stack. To paraphrase Hannibal Lecter’s reason for sparing Clarice Starling, the poker world was far more interesting with Yuri in it. He was worth more than a hundred grumpy rocks who bitch incessantly about the casino air conditioning or drink service. Give me a table full of Yuris each time I play poker, and I can retire, if not rich, then happy.

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