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Poker Weekend

We’re just back from a long weekend in Las Vegas! Last year we went for 4 nights since we went out to see the Hoover Dam, but I think we felt that was a little long, so we cut it back to our usual 3 nights this time around.

We flew out Saturday afternoon and despite worrying about the weather (it’s been raining a lot in the Bay Area, and some in Las Vegas, too) and whether the fire at the Monte Carlo would result in people rebooking their hotel stays and keeping us from getting our room, everything went perfectly smoothly. I guess the fire made life hell for a lot of local workers for a while, but we didn’t notice. (You couldn’t even see the damage from the Strip, since it’s on the other side of the hotel.)

We’ve been staying at the Excalibur the last few trips, largely because it’s really cheap to stay there, but this time we got a decent deal and stayed at the MGM Grand. Not only is it in the monorail, but it also has Fat Tuesday, the daiquiri place we patronize.

MGM Grand Exterior

We were really impressed! Not only did we actually get a king-sized bed (something the Excalibur always seemed to promise but never delivered) but our room wasn’t down at the end of the hallway. It’s also kind of neat how the hotel’s exterior lights give the room a green glow when you get back at night.

MGM Grand hotel room
(click for larger image)

Yes, it’s the little things. But fundamentally we were happy with the bed, and the shower, and the location, which is pretty much what you pay for in a hotel. So I’m sure we’ll be going back.

We weren’t sure which show to go see this time around, although there are several that interest us. But while I was browsing various hotels’ web sites looking for information about their poker rooms, I came across the winner: We bought a couple of tickets and went Saturday night to see Wayne Brady, whom we’ve enjoyed for years on Whose Line Is It Anyway?, who’s playing at The Venetian. Although Brady was the headliner, he had a partner/foil for his improvisational comedy. The 90-minute show featured a song for an audience member, and the side-splittingly hilarious sketch where Brady and his partner alternated words in a story. This one was so funny I nearly peed myself. Brady is also a talented singer and performed several soul and funk songs with a strong backing band. It was a great show and we might go back next time.

I played a lot of poker this weekend. The reason I’d been checking out the casinos’ poker rooms on-line was that I’m interested in playing 7-card stud, but it appears that stud is all but dead on the Strip. The only stud game I actually saw going in the rooms wde went to was at The Mirage, but the 8 people seated all looked to be older, serious players, so I expect it was a very tough game, and I decided to pass on it.

I’d also expected to crack no-limit hold ‘em in a casino, but I ended up playing a lot of low-limit hold ‘em and was having pretty consistent success at it, so I figured I’d stick with what was working.

Although another reason we decided to stay at the MGM was that they have a large a good poker room, I actually only played there once. Instead I played in a lot of different rooms this time, mostly ones I’d never played in before:

  • The Venetian: I played in the 4/8 game here, which was lively and felt tough, although I only played for an hour before Wayne Brady’s show. I didn’t get a strong feel for the room, but it felt classy.
  • The Mirage: I played in 3/6 game here. The Mirage seemed skewed toward an older crowd, but I was happy to play there for several hours. The chairs were particularly comfortable, I thought. (This might sound frivolous, but after a couple hours of folding hands and tossing out chips, you come to appreciate the quality of the chair you’re sitting in.)
  • Planet Hollywood: Formerly the Aladdin, PH has substantially renovated this hotel. Unfortunately I had a bad experience playing 2/4 in their brand-new poker room, in that the table had a couple of ill-tempered players at it which gave the whole thing a bad vibe. I left soon after I got there. They also don’t have a computerized waiting list. Disappointing.
  • Bally’s: Despite having stayed there once and gambled there many times before, I’d never played poker there. The poker room is small and in the middle of the casino floor, which means it’s not as isolated from the ambient smoke as other rooms. That said, I had a terrific time here playing 3/6: The dealers were friendly, funny, and professional. The chips are stylish. The other players were friendly, too. Everyone seemed to be having a good time. I’d definitely play here again.
  • Mandalay Bay: This is why I only played at the MGM once: Mandalay Bay has a terrific poker room, with excellent dealers, high-quality tables and chips, and fantastic table service. Also, the 2/4 game has only a single $2 blind, eliminating the $1 small blind, and no requirement to post to come in. The players were a mix of younger and older players, but the older players mixed in well with a younger crowd. I recommend this one.

I had a very up-and-down time playing poker (which is sort of how poker goes, really). But I did end up winning money at it overall, though only a few bucks. I feel like I’m getting there in becoming a good low-limit player. I still make a few bad plays, but I’m making some good ones, too. A few memorable hands:

  • Rivering quad Jacks and getting paid off by someone who made a full house.
  • Flopping top pair (a pair of 8s!) and getting bet down to the river by an opponent. An Ace hit on the river, he bet, I thought for a short while, and finally called. “Nice call,” he said, turning over King-high. Somehow I just couldn’t buy that he had me beat. More importantly, I figured I had the best hand at least half the time, so the pot odds made it worth the call. This sort of thinking is what I’m most pleased with in my development.
  • Playing K-J on a K-Q-x flop, betting and getting called by two players. The turn is a J, giving me two pair, and the river is a Q which also completes a diamond flush. One player bets, another one raises, and I just see too many ways I can lose, so I fold. Naturally I folded the best hand, which was a bummer since that was my biggest losing session of the weekend.
  • Here’s the big one: One guy is playing almost every hand and raising preflop every time as well. Preflop he goes all-in for $5, and every player at the table calls him – a 9-way pot. I call with A-To. Flop is T-8-3 with two hearts. I’m first to act (I was the small blind) and I bet with top-pair-top-kicker. Everyone calls. The turn is an 8, and I bet. Only one player folds. At this point the dealer remarks on what a big pot this is. The river is a 7, so someone could have hit a straight, but the flush didn’t come in. I bet, and only 2 players call. I show my tens-and-eights with top kicker, and one other player shows tens-and-eights with a King. The other two fold, and I win. Wow.

There’s still plenty of room for improvement, of course, and I haven’t even cracked no-limit other than against my friends, but still, I had fun and I feel like I’m getting better. Can’t beat that.

Monday night we rode The Deuce bus (so called because it costs $2 each way to ride) downtown to the Fremont Street Experience, which is basically “old school” Las Vegas. It’s where the World Series of Poker began, at Binion’s Horseshoe. Fremont Street has been turned into a partially-covered pedestrian mall with an hourly show projected on the roof in the evening. It was worth a visit, but I wasn’t especially impressed (the show was an impressive display of technology used for very frivolous ends). Binion’s is surely nothing like it was back in the day, but it does have a large poker room and a number of displays related to poker history. Worth a look.

It was interesting to me that some of the old Las Vegas kitsch is still there (like the cowboy above the Pioneer casino), but the insides of the old casinos feel very classy, with wood paneling and stylish decor. Contrast to the “new Vegas kitsch”, like the Luxor‘s elaborate Egyptian themes, or even the swank Italiana of the Venetian. The newer Vegas seems more self-conscious, whereas the old Vegas seems to scream, “It may be goofy, but we guarantee you’ll have fun!” If a 50-foot-tall neon cowboy can seem more authentic than a giant glass pyramid, then that’s what Fremont Street has going for it.

The rest of our trip involved the usual good food (including our annual trip to Bally’s Steakhouse) and visits to a few more hotels we hadn’t been to, like the Sahara, which purports to be the last original Rat Pack hotel remaining. Also the Tropicana, where part of the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever takes place. I think I figured out where they might have filmed some of the scenes, but nearly 40 years later you can’t really tell. (The Tropicana was apparently brand-new when the film came out, but it’s slated to be demolished in the next few years.)

And of course we played some slot machines and video poker. And didn’t win at either, although Debbi seemed to do better at them when I wasn’t around. Plus we got to brave some rain both on Fremont Street and while wandering around on Monday. But nothing like what the Bay Area’s gotten, I understand.

The weekend went by way too quickly, and I definitely don’t feel like going into work tomorrow. But, all good things etc. As always, it was a fun trip and we’ll go back if not this year then next winter. Maybe by then I’ll be ready to play some no-limit hold ‘em in a casino.