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Gazing into the Abyss: Michael Rawdon's Journal


Poker Night in Vegas

As promised earlier this week, here's a report on my first experience playing poker in Las Vegas.

That sounds rather pretentious, actually, making it out to be more of an event than it really was. However, I've never been much of a gambler, and playing poker for money against actual people - strangers, yet! - just feels more serious than playing poker for quarters against friends. I take money pretty seriously; in addition to being somewhat tight-fisted, I've always been keenly aware that money is a serious subject for most people, the sort of thing that can wreck friendships if managed poorly. That's why I never loan anyone money that I'm not prepared to never see again; I never expect people to act entirely rationally where money is concerned. And playing a game which is famously played specifically to win money from other players seems like an environment to take seriously, to treat with respect.

Which is one reason I haven't played serious poker before. A second reason is that poker has always struck me as a good way to lose a lot of money awfully quickly if you're not any good. And a third reason is, well, I've had some not-fun experiences playing poker in the past (though I've thought about playing occasionally).

So, all that said: The venue for my poker run was our hotel in Las Vegas, the Excalibur. One report claims this is a "soft" poker room, with a lot of novices. I have no idea how true this is, but as it was just one session, you can probably assume that my opponents were not average, even for the stakes at the table, though whether they were better or worse, I have no idea.

To sum up the intent of this entry: This is how a casino poker game looks to a rank amateur. Assume bias and lack of experience behind everything I say!


The Excalibur's poker room gives free lessons every day at 2 pm, so Debbi and I went and sat in on Monday, January 30. I had previously read up a little on Texas Hold 'Em poker, but the lesson - which was only 30 minutes long - was definitely worth it. I figure you can read up on the rules easier than I can outline them here, so I won't get too mundane about it. The instructor/dealer - Tim - was friendly and funny and open to answering all questions.

After the lesson most of the novices - including myself (but not Debbi) - stayed for the 1/3 low-limit poker game afterwards. I only stayed for 45 minutes because Debbi and I had other things we wanted to do on our last day in Vegas, but we played some good hands. Most frustrating, on one hand I had pocket aces and lost to another player who had pocket kings because a king came up on the board to make three! Gah! Overall I broke even on this short session - maybe made a couple of bucks.

I learned that the dealers switch out every 15-45 minutes. I'm not sure exactly what their schedule is, but it seemed like about every 30 minutes on average (but not exactly consistently). I presume this is to keep the dealers sharp and not bored so that they manage the game and the pot accurately.


In the evening - after dinner and some shopping - we came back and I hooked up with a 2/4 game, which had one opening at the table when I arrived. There was a short waiting list for a 1/3 table, but I figured 2/4 stakes were only a little higher and I'd give that a try.

I had no idea how much money to bring to the table, so I decided on $60, and that if I lost that I'd decide whether I felt like I was making any progress or at least losing it slowly enough that I was having fun in order to decide whether to buy more chips. I learned later that a tray of $1 chips holds $100, so that seems like a reasonable starting point when playing for (approximately) these stakes in the future. Besides, most other people were starting at $100, and my winnings would probably look more impressive if I started there!

At a glance, poker appears to be a men's game. There were never many women around any poker table in the room whenever I looked; the men outnumbered the women anywhere from 2-to-1 to 4-to-1. The table I sat down at had a range of players from 20-something through 50-something, but as the evening wore on the table got steadily younger. By midnight I might have been the oldest person at the table - or close enough that I couldn't tell, anyway.

Here was my first experience playing at the table: Man, these people play fast! It was all I could do to look at my hole cards before it was my turn to bet (and the dealer was nice enough to let me come in after the blinds had passed me by, so I was bidding late, too). Already being nervous, I felt my heart racing in pretty short order. At least I had some idea of what to expect, and was willing to fold my cards immediately if they looked like junk (as they often do) - more importantly, I could tell if my hand looked like junk.

Here's the surprising thing, though: Within about 45 minutes I'd won three big pots, totalling about $80! The pot I remember I won because I actually had four-of-a-kind, a 7 in my hand, and three on the table. The Excalibur has a deal (I think to encourage people to play there rather than elsewhere) where if you strike a four-of-a-kind or a straight flush that you can go up and spin a wheel to win $20-$100 from the casino. So I sat out a hand and spun the wheel and got another $25 from it (the woman managing it said, "the wheel is stingy tonight"). That was pretty exciting! People at my table asked me what I got when I came back.

About an hour in I started getting a feel for the people at my table, by which I mean for the people, not their playing. I didn't get very far at reading their styles of play. I think there was one guy who was clearly a little ahead of everyone else, winning some big pots, bidding up when he knew he had a real winner (he grabbed a big pot from me that way), and leaving the table with a pretty big haul. I don't think he was far ahead of us in skill, but he seemed better.

My feeling is that I was mixed in with the next tier of talent at the table. Sitting two people down to my right about an hour in was one of the three women who sat there that night, a chatty lady who clearly liked trying to figure out what other people were thinking.

Sitting to my right was an outgoing and funny guy whom the woman referred to as "the raiser" (though I kept thinking of it spelled as "the razor") because he liked to raise people's bids left and right. He'd say things during a pot like, "I got nuthin'!" He'd play some borderline hands and one time struck his straight on the river card (the last one turned over to the board), which was some kind of luck. Playing next to him was fun, and I think he was sometimes making a point of trying to take my money, as he at least once groused when I folded a hand which he was probably hoping to raise me on. We each took a big pot from the other. I'm not sure if the raiser was playing just for fun and the free drinks, or what. I noticed his stack of chips tended to dwindle to close to nothing (he went all in once) and then he'd win a big pot and play that one down for a while. On the other hand, several of us seemed pretty evenly matched and broke even once we got each other's measure.

I wouldn't say the other folks were nondescript, but those three are the ones I remember most clearly, plus one other friendly guy who mostly seemed to be getting crummy cards and folding his hand a lot. But, it happens. Almost everyone was having a good time, whether they were winning or losing.

As I mentioned, the dealers changed every 30 minutes or so, so we got a wide variety of people handling the cards. Some were chatty and/or funny, some were stern or quiet or a little grumpy. The convention in the room is to tip the dealer when you win a pot. I probably tipped more heavily than I needed to - could have kept another $10 if I'd tipped what other people were tipping! But it's all good. That's not really what was on my mind for the evening.

Some of the mechanics were pretty neat: Auto-shufflers built into the table. A hole for the dealer to put the rake (the cut of each pot that the casino takes, which is how it makes its money), the contents of which were removed by hotel security a little after midnight. Watching the dealer move the chips around into the pot. I got the big things pretty much right, but would forget little things like the fact that I could check instead of fold if no one had bid in a round, or that I had to bid $4 rather than $2 in the third and fourth rounds of bidding. The cocktail waitresses came by every so often. I got a water one time, and ordered one (but never received it) the second time. You can tip them with poker chips!

Two people at the table had neat chip tricks: One guy would hold two or more chips in one hand and steadily flip a chip over the top of the stack to the end. Another woman could take a stack of 8 chips, split them into two, and shuffle them perfectly back into one stack - with one hand! She was a very quiet and serious woman who left after losing a big pot to someone else who had a monster hand. I suspect she just wasn't in a mood to play if she was going to have a run of bad luck.

I never quite got the hang of the table banter. This is partly because my humor tends to run to three sorts:

  1. Obscure;
  2. Intellectual, or
  3. Puns.
Not that this wasn't a smart crowd - they clearly were - but I wasn't going to pull out the punts for this group, they weren't likely to get my cultural references, and intellectual humor tends only to work around people of a similar mind to mine. So I was left with the odd movie quote (which no one seemed to get), and comments about being glad it wasn't baseball season because I'd have been watching the big-screen TV rather than the game. Boy did that go over like a ton of bricks. So other than occasionally talking about where we were from, I mostly kept quiet and played the game. It was a little weird, since I'm quite a talker at Subrata's gaming nights, but that's the way it goes. I didn't have the energy to try to up my level of banter.

I did, however, try to take time - especially after folding - to look at peoples' faces and get an idea of who I was playing.

I had a few hands which I thought played out pretty well. I drew a straight to my 10-J on the flop at one point, which put me in a great position to bid up the pot. I made a full house on a pair of kings to win another pot. On the other hand, I wasn't nearly sophisticated enough to pull off a bluff, and people were picking up on that late in the night. The lady to my right picked up on this fastest, and one time when I raised with a pair of Jacks in the hole, she looked at me and said, "Nah, I don't think so," and folded. So that's something I'll need to work on.

Despite my early success, I only broke even over the rest of the night. Though that's better than losing money! I did get more comfortable sitting at the table, used to the social conventions, less worried that I was going to blow my money. The pots I won tended to be big, and I tended to fold my bad hands early. I did lose a couple of big pots, one on a hand I thought I had a great chance of winning with (the winner had pocket aces - oh well), and another on a pretty good hand where the winner just edged me out.


Overall, I'd have to count leaving the table up $100 to be a definite win in my first night of casino poker. It was just one session, but it left me feeling encouraged. I felt like I learned a lot, and on reflection have identified a number of areas in which I need to work on my game (bluffing, reading other players). If this session is indicative of anything, it means that at least I can hold my own at the low-stakes tables, and with some practice might be ready to move to a higher-stakes table.

Practice? Well, I doubt I'm going to hit the Indian casinos anytime soon (but you never know). But Debbi and I have talked about going to Vegas more often, maybe for shorter trips (it's only about an hour's flight away - plus getting to and from the plane, of course), and when we go I'm probably going to be more inclined to hit the poker table than the slots.

Although, you know, Debbi did run up an amazing total on her slot club card with all that video poker...


The best thing about casino poker? Compared to other gambling at the casino, you're playing against other players, not against the house. The slots, video poker, and other table games seem to mostly be grind-'em-out games in order to try to get any edge on the house (if you even can). But in poker, if you can improve your skills, then you're playing against other humans and if you can beat them then you can overcome the house's built-in taxes (the rake and the dealer's tips). And that seems more worthwhile.

And, of course, it's a new skill to hone. And you know how I love working on my skills, obsessive-compulsive that I am.


So here's a question: What's the likelihood that anyone from the table will ever read this entry? Probably small. Hardly anyone mentioned their name (and hardly anyone ever asked), and I suspect this was just one more night of poker for most of them, and there's be no reason for them to see if anyone blogged it. But, you know, maybe someone will surprise me.

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