Vegas Long Weekend

Last weekend we went to Las Vegas for the first time in several years. (For those following along at home, due to the frail condition of our two cats Newton and Blackjack, we didn’t go away on vacation for several years. Both of them have since passed away, so we’ve been travelling again.)

Something about this trip didn’t feel quite right to me from the time we booked it. This isn’t foreshadowing, nothing bad happened on the trip; it just felt slightly off, like I couldn’t quite figure out why we were going. Vegas can be a bit of an odd trip for us, trying to figure out what we want to spend time doing, especially since we’ve seen most of the spectacle before several times. But walking around aimlessly is tiring and kind of pointless.

What we did do was book tickets to go see Cirque du Soleil’s “O”, which we saw the first time we went to Vegas about ten years ago. (We had wanted to see their new show, Zarkana, but it was dark during January.) We flew in Saturday afternoon and went to the show in the evening. It’s quite a spectacle, of course; it seemed like they’d changed it up a bit (in particular the closing piece was different from what I remembered).

We stayed at the MGM Grand, where we’ve stayed several times before. We liked them partly because they had a branch of Fat Tuesday in them, but also because they had a killer poker room, a large room with a variety of games. Sadly, their great room is no more, the space largely unused, and the remaining poker tables shoved into an alcove to one side of the casino. And they only seem to have 1/2 no-limit games anymore. Disappointing. Also, the room where they used to bring in lions from a nearby preserve has been remodeled into a night club. And it turns out that Fat Tuesday now has something like eight locations on the strip, so we could find daiquiris all kinds of places.

Anyway, I went to the site All Vegas Poker to check out rooms, and it seems that the collapse of on-line poker has hit poker rooms on the strip hard, with many of the downsizing or closing.

I struggle to have the courage to play no-limit poker; all my poker playing friends seem to play no-limit when they come to Vegas, and that’s what we play in our nickel-dime home games, at which I hold my own (and our home games are tough). But I feel more comfortable playing limit when I play for real money, so we went to the Flamingo, which still has a 2/4 game and I’ve enjoyed playing at before. It was a good choice: We visited several other poker rooms over the weekend and they were pretty consistently quiet, while the Flamingo’s room was active during the day and busy at night. I talked to several people I played with during the trip and they said the Flamingo was one of the better rooms on the strip for finding a game at all hours.

While I play poker Debbi usually goes to play a mix of pai-gow poker and video poker. I often feel guilty for separating from her for hours at a time to play poker, but she seems okay with it. This trip I tried to embrace her giving me the time to sit at the table for a lengthy session.

Well, the first couple of days it didn’t work out so well. Sunday in particular I spent the afternoon being dreadfully card-dead. Honestly the best I can say from the session was that I didn’t lose much more than I was going to lose, and I actually made some pretty good folds when I did have good (but losing) hands. Monday afternoon was more of the same, except I had the sense to order some coffee with Bailey’s to warm things up (or “add some variance to my game” as I joked).

Coffee and Chips

Monday night my luck finally changed and I was able to recoup most of my losses from the rest of the trip, winning some big hands and losing a few through bad luck. Overall I was pretty happy with how I played, which I guess means I need to figure out what the next step is to become a better player.

Monday night we also went to our usual dinner at Bally’s Steakhouse (Bally’s – another casino which has shoved its poker room into a corner of the casino). I was pleased to see they haven’t changed much – if anything they’ve improved a bit with the addition of a mixed drink menu (their Old Fashioned was well worth the price). Afterwards we went to the top of the Eiffel Tower replica at Paris, which was a bit over-priced but fun anyway. I got a couple of good pictures of the strip from up there, too:

Strip facing south
Strip facing north

We had a quiet morning Tuesday before flying out. It was, overall, a fun trip, but it felt slightly dreamlike at times. I’m not sure if I wasn’t quite mentally into it, or if the place has changed just enough in five years that I was thrown off. I do want to go back, though, and perhaps we’ll figure things out ahead of time a little better, now that we’re familiar with what’s changed.

Not Much Luck

We’re back from our latest vacation to Las Vegas. It was a fun trip, as always – except for the losing part, that is.

We flew in on Saturday as usual, and this time got a room in the west wing of the MGM Grand, where we tend to stay these days. The west wing is quiet and we had a room right next to its elevator, which was convenient since we usually have a hike from our room to get to it. The west wing’s elevator also drops you out near the poker room, which was convenient for me. And the room itself has more gadgets in it than the normal rooms (a television in the bathroom mirror, a touch-to-activate lamp, and so forth), so we spent a while playing once we arrived.

Then we puttered around for the afternoon before going to see Lance Burton at the Monte Carlo. Burton is a classic magician – he opens his act by running down a short genealogy of magicians dating back to the 1800s, with himself as the current heir to the throne. His illusions rely heavily on making things disappear and reappear, the most spectacular form of illusion, I guess. He even has a couple of tricks which made me think of The Prestige to the point that I wondered whether he has a twin brother.

One of the most surprising things about Burton’s show is the gap between his promotional material and the show itself. The posters and images I’ve seen of him are split between him as a debonair high society man from the early 20th century, and a more modern “tall dark stranger” in black clothing (especially the 2009 image all over the Monte Carlo). In the show, though, he seems quite different from what I’d expected from the images, though not at all displeasing: The biggest surprise is that he still has a fairly strong hint of a Kentucky accent, not the “standard American” midwest accent most performers have (nor even a southern country accent). Another difference is that he’s all smiles all the time, not at all mysterious in his demeanor (plus he currently has his hair cut short, very different from in the photos). His act itself is actually rather jokey, and the dramatic flair (such as the masked stranger who appears from time to time) seems too goofy to take seriously. There’s also a lot more skin in the show (in the form of seven scantily-clad women) than I’d expected from a show which seems targeted at families. Overall quite different then I’d been expecting.

But the show is basically a lot of fun: I have some vague understandings of how sleight-of-hand works (I’m far from being an expert, but I’m not entirely clueless), but some of his illusions are truly impressive. We were able to get second-row seats so we got a good view of everything, and I don’t have a first idea how many of his tricks work. And that’s not a bad thing. So if you enjoy magic shows, you ought to enjoy seeing Burton.

Sunday morning we had brunch at the Café Bellagio, and then went to check out the new property on the strip: City Center, a 5-hotel project which reportedly cost in the vicinity of $11 billion (with a ‘B’) dollars to build. We walked through some pieces of it, but mostly went and gambled at the Aria, the only hotel of the five which has a casino, including a poker room. The thing is certainly a step forward in elegance and extravagance in Vegas hotels, but – it’s still a Vegas hotel, and making a bigger, posher one is just no longer impressive in and of itself.

Sunday was also the day of the NFL championship games. While we were at the Aria, the Jets/Colts game was on, and it was amusing to hear the cheers from the bar nearby while playing poker: Jets fans were much louder (and therefore probably more numerous) than Colts fans, and their TVs were showing the game a few seconds earlier than ours were, so we could tell when a big play happened based on how loud the cheers were. Since I always root against New York sports teams, I was happy to see the Jets lose. Despite being a Patriots fan, I don’t have any problems rooting for the Colts; the teams have been big rivals in this decade, but it’s hard to root against Peyton Manning, who I think is clearly the best quarterback of his generation.

Later in the afternoon we gambled at the Flamingo, during which time the Saints/Vikings game was on. At one point I took a bathroom break and passed a bar with 5 people sitting at it, all wearing Vikings jerseys. Vikings fans seemed to greatly outnumber Saints fans, and there were plenty of Packers fans wearing their Favre jerseys, too. I was rooting a little more for the Saints, since I went to college in New Orleans, but seeing Favre get to another Super Bowl would have been fine, too. But it wasn’t to be for Favre, as the Vikings turned the ball over 5 times – including Favre’s last-minute interception throw in the 4th quarter – and the Saints won it in overtime. The teams did hit the over on the total score of 53.5, though, and the Super Bowl had an over/under of 56.5 when we left Vegas, so it may be an exciting game.

We finished the evening with our annual meal at Bally’s Steakhouse, which was delicious as always. The after-dinner coffee with kahlua and grand marnier was excellent, too!

Our weekend at the gambling tables was not quite as much fun, though. We’ve almost entirely moved away from slot machines and video poker, to games which have less of a house edge, or in my case, no house edge, at the poker tables. Debbi mostly plays Pai Gow Poker, where the house still has an edge, but you can play for a long time and often break even. Our first day we played some Pai Gow together and Debbi won what I lost, and I lost a little more at those tables over the weekend. But at the poker tables themselves, I had a really rough weekend.

The first game I played was 2/4 limit at the MGM, which was a tight-passive game where I basically bleeded off chips over two hours. The next game, 3/6 limit at the Aria on Sunday, was a loose-aggressive game where I did not get very many good cards and lost over a full buy-in. Finally at the Flamingo on Sunday, the 2/4 limit game was good to me and I was able to recoup some of my losses. But Monday I finally tried the 1/2 no-limit game at the Flamingo, and got stacked twice, mostly I think through bad luck, but it overwhelmed my good luck. I finished the weekend with a break-even session of 2/4 back at the MGM.

A few memorable hands:

  • In limit at the Flamingo, I got a “big blind special”, flopping a flush with J5h and getting paid off. I later flopped the nut flush with AKh and got paid there, too.
  • The first hand in which I got stacked in NL: I had about $110 in the small blind. After a few limpers, I raised to $10 with pocket Queens. The big blind reraised to $20. The limpers folded, and I raised to $50. The big blind called. So there’s about $105 in the pot, and I have about $60 left. The flop is AA6, and I go all-in. The big blind calls and shows Kings. The final board is AA6-6-A, so even if a queen had come, the 3 aces would have counterfeited my full house. The big blind was a guy from Russia who didn’t speak English (his English seemed limited to “I don’t speak English”), but he crushed the table, going on a tremendous run and winning about $500 in a little over an hour. In a later hand, I managed to get out from under his turned nut flush (which he showed) when I folded my pocket Tens on a Jack-high board.
  • The other hand had me on the button with about $75 in my stack. After 4 limpers, I raised to $12 with pocket Aces. The small blind called, and the big blind and limpers folded (pot $34). The flop is KQ9r, and the small blind bets $10. I go all-in for my last $63, and she calls. She shows K9 for two pair. I hit my 5-outer on the turn, a Queen, and she rivers her 4-outer, a King, and I lose. Yes, she was sitting in the same seat as the guy who stacked me the first time.

It’s not clear that I could have gotten away from either of the big hands, although on reflection I should have played the first hand more carefully, since AK and AQ were within his range (even though I hadn’t been at the table long enough to get a read on anyone) and obviously crush me on an AA7 board. Then again, with him having Kings, AK, AQ and AA were within my range so I arguably had some fold equity. I dunno.

All told this was I think my worst showing at the tables in Vegas I’ve ever had, which was pretty demoralizing since I thought I’d been getting better over the last couple of years. But other than one encouraging session, it was almost entirely disappointing. Just bad luck, or so I have some serious work to do to improve my game to take on even the low-stakes tables? I’m not sure.

We flew out Tuesday afternoon. It was still a fun trip, but the losing part did color it unfavorably to some degree. I’m sure we’ll go back next year (if anything, because Debbi wants to go see Garth Brooks), but it might take most of that time to work back my enthusiasm for the trip. At least for the gambling part.

Chilly Vegas Trip

We’re back from a long weekend in Las Vegas. While we didn’t get the snow that the city got last month, it was surprisingly chilly all week, with lows below 40. We don’t often have to wear jackets when we go to Vegas, but this time…

Saturday night we went to see Le Rêve, the show at the upscale Wynn hotel. It’s not actually a Cirque du Soleil show, but it was created by a former Cirque choreographer. Apparently it wasn’t a big hit when it debuted, and has undergone quite a few changes since, but overall it’s quite good. For those who have been to Vegas, it’s a water-based show like “O”, but has many of the feats of strength and agility of Mystere. The music is somewhere in between, with several songs with English lyrics. The story – such as it is – doesn’t make a lot of sense, but as a framework for the sights and sounds it works well enough. Overall I still think Ka is the strongest show of this sort in Vegas, and it actually does have a story that makes sense! But Le Rêve is worth seeing, and I could see going back to see it, too.

We bookended our trip with our usual outing to the steakhouse at Bally’s, which was excellent as always. We never regret going there. If anything, we only regret being too full to eat everything on the menu.

Chinese New Year fell on Monday, so many hotels had decorations up for the event, such as the Venetian:

Venetian tower decked out for Chinese New Year 2009
(click for larger image)

…and, as always, the Bellagio conservatory:

Bellagio conservatory decorated for Chinese New Year

Panda plant sculptures at the Bellagio conservatory

We didn’t try many new restaurants this time; the only new one was BLT Burger at the Mirage, which was quite good. The Mirage is reconfiguring things since Siegfried and Roy are no longer there, and BLT replaced the white tiger habitat, which is too bad, but that’s the way it goes I guess. Otherwise we hit our usual haunts, which were good as usual, save that we had really bad service at the Studio Cafe at the MGM: Slow service, and Debbi’s eggs benedict were cooked wrong and we sent it back. We were very grumpy about this, especially because we’ve always liked them in the past, but now we’re not sure we’ll go back. We probably will eventually, once we get over this experience.

Debbi played a bunch of Pai Gow poker and I joined her for much of it. We had a few interesting hands, as every so often you have several choices of directions to go and one is clearly better than another. The most interesting was a hand Debbi had where she had both a straight and a flush, but playing the straight gave her a pair in the low hand, which was better overall. I played two hands at once for a little while, on the theory that it would lower my variance, which seems like a good idea in games played against the house.

We had some really nice dealers, especially one woman at the MGM. We also watched the other players, who can be fascinating: A lot of high rollers play pai gow, and bet $100 and up on each hand, which is a good way to win or lose really quickly. That’s an order of magnitude higher than we feel comfortable with, but it’s interesting to see. Some of them are perfectly friendly and others seem to want to just play their game and not be bothered.

I also played some poker, mixing in limit games with some 1-2 no limit. I was pretty lucky all around, and had a few memorable hands:

  • Picked up Aces in the big blind. Before the action came to me there was a raise, two calls, and a reraise. I reraised, the first raiser and callers folded, and the other player reraised me all in. I called. Someone asked, “Who has Aces and who has Kings?” A King came on the board, which worried me, but he had Queens, and I won the pot (and his whole stack, since I had him covered). I wonder what he thought when the other played wondered who had Aces and who had Kings?
  • A young woman sat down at the table and gave the impression of knowing the basics of the game, but none of the nuance. A few hands later I hit my set of 8s on the flop, and rivered a full house, and put her all in, winning her stack. The other players ragged on me for dampening the mood at the table (many of them were flirting with her). She re-bought and started winning many hands, including a huge one just after I left the table.
  • In my last session I got stacked myself: The under-the-gun player called the blind, the next player called, and I raised with Ace-Jack. UTG reraised and everyone else folded. UTG was an aggressive player who had won many pots at the table (which had just been formed when I joined) without showing down any hands, so I thought there was a good chance he had a worse Ace or even King-Queen or something like that. But he had Ace-King, and I didn’t catch a Jack and got stacked. Bummer. I did consider folding rather than going all-in, but it seemed like a borderline situation, where I could go either way.

Limit poker went well too, although the hands were less memorable.

We also always enjoy seeing the lion habitat at the MGM:

Lazy lion at the MGM Grand's lion habitat

One thing we noticed was how quiet things were the whole time. It even started in San Jose airport when we got there on Saturday, and there were maybe a couple dozen people in Terminal A when we got through security. Las Vegas was relatively quiet, too; Debbi says one dealer said the whole city is like that, but that the MGM Grand’s casino is doing better than most. The recession is hitting Vegas pretty hard.

On the other hand, we did have to wait to get seated at a couple of restaurants, and the poker rooms seemed as busy as usual when I played. So it’s not completely dead.

All-in-all, another pleasant getaway. Going back to work was a bit of a shock!

Vegas FTW

Debbi and I are back from a three-day trip to Las Vegas. This time around we went to meet up with her parents, who are spending the week there. We flew in Sunday and had an evening to ourselves before they arrived, and had our usual dinner at Bally’s Steakhouse, which was delicious as always. The waiters there are also terrific: Low-key yet entertaining. Ours introduced himself and said, “I’m here to bring you whatever you want.” Whatever we wanted was an appetizer of beef short rib ravioli, two steaks, sides of asparagus and onion rings, and a very rich chocolate hazelnut praline dessert. Oh, and two glasses of wine. We rarely indulge in these sorts of restaurants, but we do like this one.

Monday morning we gambled at the MGM Grand, where Debbi hit a royal flush on a nickel video poker machine:

Debbi's royal flush at video poker

Since it was a nickel slot it wasn’t the ginormous win it could have been, but still: It may be years before either of us hits another of those.

Deb’s parents, Jerry and Sis, arrived in the early afternoon. They’re not the big walkers that Debbi and I are – we regularly walk all over the Strip and are usually pretty pooped by the end of the day – so we cut back on our perambulations some. We did head up to Treasure Island where we had dinner at Kahunaville, an island-themed restaurant we discovered a few years back. They were a bit short on staff so we had a longer wait than we’d expected, but the food was still good. Jerry got a huge drink in a souvenir glass which we all shared, in addition to our own drinks.

Then we went to Harrah’s to see comedian Rita Rudner, who was very funny. I think I’ve seen a little of her in the past, but not a whole lot; her material focuses on gender differences. If you enjoy stand-up comedy, I recommend her.

We went to a few other hotels to see some of the sights. After brunch on Tuesday at the Bellagio cafe, we visited their conservatory, which right now has an autumn theme, like so:

The Bellagio conservatory in fall

We also went to the Flamingo where we looked in on their reserve of birds and fish, and their elaborate network of pools. Next time we go during warm weather (highs were in the 80s every day we were there) we might stay at the Flamingo and use their pools.

Debbi and Michael at the Flamingo hotel

On the gambling side of things, Debbi picked up Pai Gow Poker, since she’d been getting frustrated with not winning much at the slots or video poker machines. She thinks she’s found her game now, since she was winning or breaking even almost every time she played. I played too and finished up slightly at the game. We played a couple different (though slight) variants of the game, though they’re all basically the same. At one table a fellow sat down and made a big bet on the bonus circle and was dealt a royal flush, which won him five hundred dollars instantly! Yoiks!

For myself, I played regular poker, and had my winningest time ever in Vegas, even factoring in a poor first day there. I mostly crushed the low-limit games, which was satisfying since I ought to be able to crush those games at this point. I also played my first casino session of no-limit poker (at a 1/2 table) and won there, too, mainly on the strength of a 20-minute run of good hands. I saw a few tables where the betting was crazy before the flop, but this table was relatively sane: Some loose calls before the flop, but a fair respect for raises after the flop. I’ve been nervous about playing no-limit in the casino for a while, since I’m sure it can be very different from our fairly disciplined home games that I play in (for much lower stakes – on a really bad night you might lose all of $60, but that’s pretty rare), but this makes me think perhaps I should be playing no limit more often.

As usual, it was a trip of good food and good times. I think Deb’s parents had a good time, too. But certain furry friends were very happy to have us get back home:

Happy to be home

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.

Vegas Trip Poker Roundup

A roundup of my poker exploits on our recent trip to Las Vegas.

Okay, a roundup of my poker exploits on our recent trip to Las Vegas.

My First Tournament

After a fashion, the highlight of poker on the trip was playing playing the 11 am $65 no-limit hold ’em tournament at the MGM Grand. This was actually my first experience playing no-limit hold ’em; all of the cash games I play are low limit, which means the amount you can bet in each round is strictly structured. In no-limit, of course, you can bet any amount at any time up to your total chip stack.

This tournament provides everyone with $2000 in chips for their buy-in. Blinds start at $25/$50, and go up every 20 minutes. This is a very fast tournament; by the fifth level, someone was going all-in on every hand because of the escalating blinds and antes. Moreover, only about 10 hands (i.e., one full orbit around the table) were played per level, so everyone would post only one set of blinds before they went up. The tournament started with 6 tables of 10 players each, and an alternates list who would sit when someone got knocked out. I was alternate #2, and was seated about halfway through the first round. Ultimately there were about 95 buy-ins, including people who got knocked out and rebought as an alternate. One guy next to be rebought twice. The top 8 finishers won money.

I sat down and my very first hand I was dealt a pair of 7s. So I raised to $300, everyone folded to the big blind, and the big blind went all-in. He had about $900 left, so I could either surrender my $300 raise, or potentially lose half my stack. I dithered for a moment, and decided to fold.

Over the next 40 minutes my stack steadily dwindled, as I never managed to hit anything on the flop. Finally I got down to about $1100, with blinds of $100/$200, and played J-To. I flopped two pair and pushed all-in, getting two callers. One guy made a straight on the turn, but then another ten came on the river giving me the winning full house. I had tripled up and was still in it! I went all-in again not longer after that with A-K, and everyone folded so I won the blinds and antes. I managed to win a couple more pots, and when the first break came after the fourth round I had about $5500, which I judged to be above-average.

Shortly after the break I went all-in against a short stack, and a larger stack went all-in as well, forcing me to go all-in, along with a fourth player. The short stack won the hand, but I came in second, and since I had him covered I picked up the rest of the chips, and came out slightly ahead.

Shortly before 1:00 we were down to 3 tables, and a woman in early position went all-in. I judged her to be in a position with the escalating blinds where she felt she had to push, and I looked down at… a pair of 7s. Again. I figured while she might have a bigger pair, more likely she had two big cards (which would make us a coin flip as to who won), or maybe even an Ace-rag (low card). So I called her. She had A-T. The flop and turn didn’t help her, so I was about 7-to-1 to win the hand, but a Ten hit on the river, she doubled up, and I was crippled. I went out the next hand when I pushed with T-7 and lost easily. (I probably should have waited the 3 hands I had left before the blinds hit me to see if I could get something better, but that wasn’t the hand that killed me.)

Overall I was very happy with my play, finishing 24th out of 95. I had some luck, but I think I played fairly well, too. This tournament is so fast-paced that luck probably oughtweighed skill overall. (Games that emphasize skill tend to have higher buy-ins, $150 or more.) But I think I got a feel for how the game is played, and I had fun. And that’s what counts.

Cash Games

I played about 9 hours of cash games, almost all of them at $2/4 limits, and one at $3/6 limits. The ritzy poker rooms tend to start at $4/8, and I don’t think I’m quite good enough to go to those limits. I’m still not a winning player, after all.

We made a tour of poker rooms on the Strip, and there’s a lot of variety. I think the MGM has the nicest room of those I’ve played in: It’s a space between the sports book and a bar, with walls on both sides, nice tables, and good dealers. (Debbi noticed that all poker rooms in the casinos seem to be right near the sports book. I wonder why that is? Do sports gamblers like to play poker between making bets? Do poker players like to bet on sports during their breaks? Is it just convenient for the casino somehow?)

By contrast, the Excalibur‘s poker room is right in the middle of one of the main access ways. Even though all poker rooms prohibit smoking, the Excalibur’s therefore gets a lot of ambient smoke, which is not so great. Bally’s is similar. The Luxor and Flamingo put their rooms in corners at the edge of the casino, which is sort of a compromise. Mandalay Bay and the Rio put them in separate rooms which are open on one or two sides; the Bellagio and Venetian do something similar, but dress up the room to make it stand out more. And Caesar’s Palace and Harrah’s have completely separate rooms for poker.

Some poker rooms have snazzy video waiting lists, which makes it very easy to figure out what games are going on and whether there’s any wait. I was more willing to try new rooms when they had these screens; some rooms don’t have visible waiting lists, which deterred me somewhat from trying them.

Overall, I think Excalibur and Luxor have the easiest tables to play at of those I’ve tried, while Caesar’s is the toughest. The MGM is somewhere in the middle. Of course, I probably don’t have a large enough sample to draw any firm conclusions.

My worst round was at the $3/6 game at Caesar’s. I didn’t play real well, didn’t have a lot of luck either, and lost $73 in an hour. Ouch. I had a session at the Excalibur that was about half as bad, but in that case I just never got any cards. On the other hand, I had another session at the Excalibur which cancelled out the bad one. And I was up-and-down at the MGM, and had a bit of bad luck at the end of a session at the Flamingo which left me down a little after being up a bunch. Bummer.

The more I played, the more I had to think about: I realized why some people say that slowplaying two pair is a bad idea, since it’s much easier for someone to beat you. Two pair is a good hand, but you do want to knock out people on draws. I need to be more careful playing two overcards to the flop, as I think I’m too quick to call bets in that situation, or bet out myself. Finally, I need to pay better attention to the odds, as I think I fold in some situations where I could continue.

The one hand I keep coming back to is this: In one session I kept being dealt Ace-rag. It was a loose and very passive game, so I started playing some of these hands. One hand I had A-7 offsuit. The slop was Q-8-2 with two clubs, and I had the Ace of clubs. One player bet, and I thought for a moment and folded. But in retrospect I think I should have continued. The reason is that any bettor probably had either top pair or a flush draw. If I hit an Ace, then I will have a better top pair, and since I have the Ace of clubs, anyone on a flush draw would not be helped in that case. However, if a club hits, someone on a flush draw would make it, but I’d have a redraw to the nut flush, if a fourth club came. With 7 bets already in the pot, I think I had the odds to call, and it was likely that there would be enough callers that I could continue to the river, as well. So I should have called. And indeed, the next two cards were clubs, and the winner had a flush that I would have beaten had I stayed in.

Ironically, the very next hand I had A-6 offsuit, the flop was like A-K-3 with the K-3 being of my Ace’s suit. This time I did go to the river, and my top pair beat my opponent’s pair of Kings.

Anyway, I had fun, even though I didn’t win. I look forward to the day that not every poker session leaves me with more things to think about and work on than to be happy about and proud of. Maybe someday…

Good Karma in Sin City

A summary of our trip to Las Vegas last weekend, with pictures!

So as I said, Debbi and I went to Las Vegas for a long weekend. We left Saturday afternoon and got to Las Vegas without a hitch.

No, the hitches only started after we landed.

First, the shuttle bus we took (Showtime) had a very grumpy driver, who took forever to load all the passengers, and took forever to get us to our hotel. It took us an hour after getting our bags to get to our hotel. Not cool. We stayed at the Excalibur, which is not the flashiest hotel, but its rates are cheap. Unfortunately, for the third consecutive time they didn’t have a king-sized bed that Debbi had requested, so we ended up with two queens instead. This isn’t a horrible thing, but it does make you feel like they’re pulling a fast one on you.

And on top of that, I realized after we were nicely ensconced in our hotel room that I’d left one of my poker books on the plane. Argh.

Fortunately, things mostly got better from here on out. Starting with dinner. I did some research on restaurants on the Strip (for instance, at and found some places we hadn’t been, at least not there. So Friday night we went to Il Fornaio at New York New York, which was quite tasty.


The Hoover Dam

The main reason we made this trip a 4-night stay was to visit the Hoover Dam. We took this tour, which was actually quite good: A chatty bus driver who provided perspective on the trip and some funny commentary (often using the word “dam”, of course), a 2-hour stay at the Dam, lunch at the buffet of a nearby Casino, and a trip to the Ethel M chocolate factory and cactus garden. All things considered, the lunch and Ethel M stops are probably not essential, so if you decide to go you might want to skip the Deluxe tour, but it wasn’t bad.

The Dam, however, was cool. The thing is really huge, and the tour takes you down into the Dam to see the turbines, and further down to see one of the huge metal spillways built into the canyon walls. There’s also a lot of fascinating historical info on the Dam, which was built during the Great Depression and was a cutting-edge engineering feat then, and would probably still be a pretty impressive effort even today.

The Hoover Dam
(click on an image to view it full size)

The views from the Dam are stunning: Lake Mead on one side, the continuation of the Colorado River on the other, the walls of the Black Canyon, and the highway running right over the top of the Dam. Meanwhile, a new superhighway is being built to run over the Canyon a few hundred feet downriver from the Dam, to help with traffic and to provide some redundancy in case the Dam ever comes to harm (natural or otherwise) and has to have its roadway closed.

The Dam Turbines

Plus, each side of the Dam are in different time zones, which means you can walk across into another time zone. And beyond that, I added a new state – Arizona – to the list of those I’ve visited.

The Hoover Dam: A very cool visit. I recommend it.

In the evening we made our usual trip to the Bally’s steak house. It’s really quite good, as I’m sure I’ve said before, and well worth the price. Casual dress is fine, and the wait staff treats everyone promptly and well. Someday we may try another steak house in Vegas, but we’re in no rush; we like this one.

Penn & Teller

Monday I played in my first-ever poker tournament (about which more later), and then had lunch at the Rainforest Cafe in the MGM Grand (mainly because I wanted the chicken-fried steak). Then in mid-afternoon we headed over to the Rio in order to see Penn & Teller.

Now, I should mention this up front: The Rio is not on the strip, and is in fact about a half-hour walk from the nearest point on the strip, through an area which – while not dangerous – is in fact extremely boring (you walk over a freeway, for instance). I highly recommend not doing this walk, and instead catching the Rio shuttle from one of several strip hotels (such as Bally’s, which is also on the Las Vegas Monorail). Unless you really need the exercise, which – after eating a chicken-fried steak – I arguably did.

The Rio as Seen From Our Walk Over

The Rio is also the home of the World Series of Poker, so I was curious to play in their poker room. However, it turned out to be rather small, and the whole time they were there they only had 2-3 games going, so I never did. Oh, well!

Penn & Teller themselves were quite cool. Although the show was on the short side (about 75 minutes), the hour before the show features Penn on bass and Mike Jones on piano. I liked Jones’ style a lot, and may need to pick up some of his work on CD.

Now, I’ve seen Penn & Teller on TV a couple of times, including their turn on Babylon 5, but that’s only a few appearances, so their act was basically new to me. I think what I enjoyed most were Penn’s feats of dexterity, by which I mean juggling, as well as his witty banter throughout the show (it wouldn’t be the same show without it). I found the magic tricks to be uneven: I enjoyed the tricks where they revealed how they did it, although it mostly seems to rely on sleight-of-hand, much the way that Richard Feynman described lockpicking as mainly using some heuristics that work in many common cases, but not all. I was also intrigued by Penn’s demonstration of psychic scams such as cold reading, hot reading, and a third whose name I can’t remember. I was disappointed that he didn’t discuss how these tricks worked (which made me wonder whether they actually did employ a very sophisticated mechanism for using plants in the audience, despite the pains they took to show that they weren’t), but at least I can read up on them on-line.

(If anyone knows their act and can remember the third method Penn used, please let me know so I can read up on it!)

Honestly, even knowing how they do it, it’s still pretty impressive.

My biggest disappointment was their closing trick, the “magic bullet” trick, which despite the large build-up just isn’t a real impressive trick, I thought, mainly because bullets are so small that there’s not a real big “wow!” moment.

Despite that, it was a cool show, and I’d go see them again, since I guess they change up their act on a regular basis.


Most of the rest of our trip was spent gambling.

Now, I get ribbed a bit by some of my cow-orkers about this: In general, you have a negative expectation when gambling. But the whole point of gambling is to win money, yet overall you can expect to lose money. So am I just paying a math tax, or what?

Well, some of both. I don’t find slot machines very compelling, since there’s no skill at all involved. While the bright lights can be entertaining, I don’t want to spend a lot of money on them. So these days I only play the penny slots, where my losses can be minimized. I’ll also play some video poker, where you can win money. And then I play “real” poker, because I figure with some practice I will eventually actually be better than most of the poker players in Vegas (who tend to be tourists), and I can actually win money. Plus, in poker there is skill involved, so it’s a real game, and therefore interesting to me, because I like games.

But I also enjoy gambling because I get to spend time with Debbi while we’re in Vegas. In fact, I tend to repeatedly confirm with her that it’s okay that I play poker, because since she doesn’t play, that means we’ll be doing separate things while I play. But she doesn’t mind. So we do some things together, and other times I play poker. So it works out.

Sometimes we just go watch the Bellagio Fountains

Anyway, our first night there I played some poker for a couple of hours and went up to cash in my chips. The woman behind the desk said, “So that’s… six hundred and ten dollars.”

“Uh,” I said, “those are ones.”

She smacked her head and gave me my one hundred and two dollars, and thanked me for being honest. “So many people around here just try to get anything they can, even if they have to lie about it,” she said. Well, while an extra $500 isn’t nothing, it’s not going to change my life, either, so I figured why not be honest about it? (As people have pointed out to me since, the $500 probably means a lot more to her than it does to me.)

Debbi points to this bit of honesty as the moment of good karma which explains my good luck for the rest of the trip, to wit:

I won $220 playing penny slots!

I mean, geez, have you ever heard of anyone winning this much at penny slots?

When playing a slot machine, I usually look for one with several “controls” to make the game slightly more interesting, even though I know it doesn’t make a lick of difference in whether you actually win. At the Rio, I noticed a new (to me), Mardi Gras-themed slot called Carnival of Mystery, so I played that. After figuring out how it worked, I started making some $1.25 bets on it, and soon found myself regularly winning $10 or $20 every few spins, and was soon up over $60 from my original $20. This seemed deeply peculiar, and though I would usually cash out with that amount of profit, I kept playing. And eventually got up over $150. Then the machine finally went cold (another concept which makes no mathematical sense since the machine presumably uses a true pseudorandom computer algorithm to perform the spins) and I cashed out at $100.

This was the silliest thing I saw at the Rio
Part of the Masquerade Show in the Sky

Then, the next day at Bally’s, I found another of the same machines, put in my $20 and played for a bit. I got down to $5 and figured the end was nigh.

And then on one spin I won $144.00.

Since the machine pays out in credits, I had to do the math multiple times just to convince myself that I’d really won $144.00 and not $14.40. But no, I really did. After a few more small wins, I cashed out at $150.

I had some more wins on an old standby, Hexbreaker, and ended up about +$220.00 on the penny slots for the trip. Which is really just amazing. It paid for (basically) my losses at the poker tables and our Penn & Teller tickets. I’ll say it again: Geez!

Like I said, it’s not life-changing money, but it doesn’t hurt, and I came by it honestly, so I have no regrets about it at all.

My poker exploits were less impressive. I stuck to low-limit games an lost about $80 during the weekend. Plus the entry fee for the tournament, since I did well, but not well enough to cash. I’m going to write a separate entry for all the geeky poker goodness of the trip. I had a good time and learned some stuff, but I’m still not a winning poker player.

Lion Cubs at the MGM Grand

Going Home

We ate a lot of good food on the trip. Besides what I mentioned above, we also had lunch at the Cafe Bellagio (which turns out to border the hotel’s conservatory, not its famous outside pool as I’d thought) and at Kahunaville at Treasure Island. While Kahunaville had good food, it was its mixed drinks that really stood out: I got a White Chocotini, which consisted of white chocolate liqueur, Bailey’s Irish Creme, and vodka, in a martini glass lined with a veneer of chocolate syrup. Wow. Debbi got a Rum Runner, an extremely tasty fruity drink. They were really, really good.

View from our table at Cafe Bellagio

But finally on Wednesday it was time to go home. Actually, I was feeling like the trip was a day longer than it needed to be, and coming home was not such a bad thing. We certainly had a good time, but next time we’ll probably stick to just 3 nights in Vegas.

Getting through security at the Vegas airport took forever, but we finally made it back home, and were greeted by happy kitties on our arrival. Coming home was marred a bit by dropping my stone turtle which I use as card protector when playing poker, and breaking two extremities. I might be able to glue it back together, but I was really angry, since it’s a really nice little carving that I picked up at WisCon last year. Grrr. Thinking about it still makes me upset, but I have no one but myself to blame.

But, we’re home now, and we’re one big happy (mostly furry) family again. It was a good trip, but it’s good to be home.

Rating the Las Vegas Poker Tournaments

This is pretty neat for those of us who play poker and visit Las Vegas: A day-by-day list of Las Vegas poker tournaments, with difficulty ratings. (The sidebar has links to similar pages for other locales. None yet for northern California.)

For reference, here’s a map of hotel-casinos on the Strip.

The patience factor and skill levels referenced in those tables are interesting: “Low-skill” tournaments are ones which have rapidly increasing blinds and are much more affected by luck, while “high-skill” tournaments last longer and provide more opportunity for skilled players to gain an edge through smart play. Which makes sense if you think about it. Moreover, it seems like the high-skill tournaments tend to be more expensive to enter, which also makes sense since the poker rooms need to charge more for the expected hourly use of their tables by the tournament.

(Via Wil Wheaton.)