A buffet of Las Vegas poker – Part 2

Lee Jones
Published by:
Posted on: September 3, 2023 3:00 pm EDT

When it takes two reasonable-length articles to describe a single day of poker in Las Vegas, this is a sure sign that I’m living my best life. Part 1 discussed the morning sessions at the Bellagio and Wynn. Let’s pick it up after my post-Wynn brunch at Urth Caffé (which sparkles for its off-casino-floor location, and excellent vegetarian options).

My poker degen traveling buddy had completed their professional responsibilities for the day and was itching for poker action.

“How about we go to the Venetian? I need their chip for my collection.”

The Venetian?!?!?

The Venetian? There was a time when I would have been equally enthusiastic about going on an elephant hunt with a large caliber rifle. If you are one of our younger readers, and/or haven’t been following the saga of online poker in the United States, this might seem strange to you. But let’s hop into the Wayback Machine for a moment…

It’s 2006, and you want to play some online poker, sitting in your den in Raleigh, North Carolina or San Jose, California. You fire up your desktop, laptop, or phone, and boot up the PokerStars client. You are offered a stunning array of real money poker games, with tens of thousands of concurrent players, any time day or night. The software is excellent, customer support is top-notch. Money can move smoothly between you and PokerStars. Your funds at PokerStars are safely and securely stored completely apart from the company’s operating capital. PokerStars employs a giant team whose sole purpose is to guarantee the security and integrity of the games.

It is online poker heaven.

What you don’t know is that, in the back halls of power in Washington, D.C., Sheldon Adelson, founder of the Sands casino empire (of which the Venetian is a flagship property), is doing everything in his power to destroy this poker Eden. He will ultimately pour tens of millions of dollars into the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 (UIGEA) and other lobbying in an attempt to kill off online poker in the U.S. This would all culminate in the Black Friday of April 15, 2011.

He didn’t kill off online poker – anymore than Prohibition killed off gin. But thanks in large part to Sheldon Adelson, online poker in the U.S. is a pale shadow of its former self.

Venetian poker room
I wasn’t sure I could really walk in here.

When your WPT heroes tell you to come play online poker with them, they have to add, in apologetic voices, “… if you don’t live in the U.S.” If you’re playing online in most of the U.S., it’s on unregulated sites, passing cash to faceless “agents,” with no meaningful security. The little regulated online poker we have is balkanized into tiny unproductive liquidity pools.

In short, the owner of the Venetian spent decades of his life, and tens of millions of dollars nearly destroying the industry that gave poker players instant access to the game, and – to be fair – put food in my mouth. I was never darkening the door of the Venetian while Sheldon Adelson lived, and I certainly wasn’t putting my rake money in his pocket.

But Adelson went to his “eternal reward,” whatever that may be, two and a half years ago. Conveniently, the Administration that nestled comfortably in Adelson’s pocket left (with much greater fanfare) a scant ten days later. The damage (by both entities) is done, but the actors have blessedly left the stage. Sure, I’ll add a Venetian poker chip to my collection.

Once I got over the initial jitters of walking into the room, everything was fine. A lovely woman greeted us and set me up with a player card (“You’ve never had one?” “No, long story.”). Pretty quickly, we were sitting in a $1/3 game, playing poker like nothing untoward had ever happened.

The only interesting hand came when I raised with A❤️Q♣️, and got the anticipated two or three callers. What I didn’t anticipate was the flop of Q♦️-Q♠️-8❤️. That’ll do. The first guy checked, I bet, got a fold, and the guy in front called. Oh baby. Please tell me that he has the case queen, and I’m about to get his stack.

I don’t remember the turn card, but he checked, I bet again, and he called. I was mentally loading up a big river bet – he didn’t seem like the type that would be calling with less than a queen, but didn’t seem to be in a queen-folding mood.

That all changed when the Q❤️ dropped on the river. Now my ace kicker was wasted. He checked, and I bet small, targeting – I don’t know, an eight? He folded, and I was about to muck, when somebody or two at the table said, “High hand?”

Huh? Oh yeah – there’s a high hand promotion that’s currently quad jacks. Yeah, I can beat that. I rolled over my quads, and they got duly recorded. I told my poker buddy that if it held, I’d chop the proceeds with them. It held.

However sordid the Venetian’s history, they know how to run a high hand promotion. During the month of August, the high hand jackpot was a mystery bounty. I went to a big rolling bin and pulled out an envelope. The smallest number in an envelope was $150 – the largest, $10,000.

“Do it slowly, look for a comma,” advised the shift manager overseeing my envelope opening. That is a woman who knows how to sweat a draw. The first digit was a “2,” which eliminated the $10k option, but probably increased my overall EV. The next digit was a “5,” and I ended up with $250. Not a bad outcome, since the #4 seat had managed to fold to my river bet.

We decided to head off to dinner, with our probabilistic rakeback paying for the sushi. After dinner, my companion had to return to their hotel, sleep, and prepare for another day of actual productive contribution to the American workforce. I got back to my hotel, opened up my laptop, and then had a thought…

I checked my watch and, sure enough, the casinos were still open.

The Westgate

My laptop served its purpose by telling me that the Westgate was a ten-minute walk from the Marriott where I was staying along Paradise Road. At 10:00pm the heat wouldn’t be a problem, but the Formula 1 preparations along Paradise (what are these people thinking?) turned the walk into a special kind of LED-lit pedestrian hell.

But soon enough I was in the doors of the Westgate. Marc Cohn says that Elvis’s ghost is at Graceland, but Elvis probably spent more time in this building than he did in Graceland.

You see, the Westgate was once the International Hotel, where Elvis did a seven-year residency. The story behind that residency is dark and depressing, revolving around his manager, Tom Parker. I couldn’t help but wonder if the Ghost of Elvis past wouldn’t be more comfortable in a place where he was adored by tens of thousands of fans. And I’m sure that Barry Manilow would be more than happy to share the green room with the King.

Elvis would have been comfortable playing poker here.

I made my way through a nearly empty, tiny casino that seems quaint and old-fashioned by modern standards. It reminded of the old days, before the giga-resorts visualized by Steve Wynn and others. Out the back of the casino, and into the giant sportsbook, off of which the poker room sits.

Light-years from the Wynn or the Bellagio, I was welcomed into the poker room by the manager herself. There was one table of $1/2 NLHE running, and I sat patiently at an empty table waiting for my seat to open. It was more like I was in Chicago Mike’s basement, hoping that Connie would get an Uber call and have to leave her seat. Or maybe YouTube Chris would decide it was time to go back to the editing suite. This was Elvis’s home poker game.

Two dealers alternated box time, while the manager sold chips, brought beverages, and kept the waitlist. Shortly after I got my seat, one of the dealers went home, and we were left with one dealer. Inexcusably, I have forgotten his name – it may have been Ben. I wondered why Ben was arranging himself so carefully in his seat, but then I realized that he was there to deal until the game broke. The manager was prepared to step in for bathroom breaks, but basically it was Ben pitching cards until the players left.

Ben had a previous career as a historian in the U.S. Army, so I’d quiz him on obscure military history, in exchange for tokes.

“Where did Stonewall Jackson die?”

“Chancellorsville. Friendly fire.”

He got an extra dollar for the friendly fire part.

Ben was also strong on rock music trivia, and earned himself a few dollars that way, too.

The poker? It was glorious. It played like a $1/2 home game in every respect, and my fellow players were gracious and convivial. Honestly, it was as good as poker can get, which is amazing. I left at 2:00am, only because I had obligations the next that morning. Otherwise, I’d have been happy to watch the button go around table, fold a lot, and quiz Ben and the others about who played drums on Werewolves of London.

Was it like playing at the Wynn? I mean, in the most important respects, it was identical to playing at the Wynn. Ultimately, whether it’s $1/2 at the Westgate or $5/10 at the Wynn, poker is bets, raises, and folds. It is bluffs, tells, and bad beats. Why is soccer (football) the international sport? Because a bunch of kids in Rwanda can tape a bundle of rags together, call it a football, and game on – the same game they’re playing at Old Trafford. Poker requires a deck of cards, something to represent betting units, and a relatively level playing surface. Then game on.

Every stop on my one-day tour of Las Vegas poker had something unique and special. But the common denominator was the game that draws me back to the table, day after week after month after year. I thought about that as I crossed the elegant entrance on my way out the front doors of the Westgate.

As I did, I swear… I thought I heard a baritone voice say, “Thank you. Thank you very much.”