It pains me just to write these words. But as of December 2022, the Mirage Hotel/Casino in Las Vegas was taken over by the copy/paste kings of the United States: Hard Rock. They’re going to tear down the front of the hotel, the volcano, all of it. In its place will be a huge guitar-shaped building – what a unique and novel concept.
Long before Matt Damon immortalized the place in Rounders,1 the Mirage was the place for poker in Las Vegas, maybe the planet. And not only was it the place for poker, it was unlike any other hotel/casino in Vegas. During the early 90’s, I was a regular old Silicon Valley software engineer, but one for whom poker, not programming, was a passion. On my far-too-rare visits to Las Vegas, I always stayed at the Mirage because, honestly, that was where poker players stayed. If my parking-fu was on that day, I could find a space on the same level with the walkway that went into the main building (I was far too cheap and in too much of a hurry, to valet). As poker fever skyrocketed, I walked in and took the escalator down into the registration lobby. Even before I got there, I smelled the difference – they misted coconut scent into the air. And then waiting behind the registration desk was this:
I didn’t mind a lengthy check-in wait, because (as some of you will know) I’m an avid scuba diver. Time with this epic aquarium passed plenty quickly. Once I got checked in, I walked through the jungle – Mirage vets will know exactly what I mean by this. One legendary 90’s trip reporter (aka “blogger before there were blogs”) rhetorically asked, “Don’t you think there’s a five-foot iguana in there somewhere?”
But I never stopped to look for any reptiles. Nope, it was straight to my room, drop my stuff, and get down to the poker room, just a stone’s throw from the jungle itself.
Sadly, the picture above does not show the Gauguin-esque mural on the back wall. But it was right there behind the $20/40 limit hold’em game that was the home of poker publishing legend Mason Malmuth. And during its heyday, all the big boys (and girls – hi, Jennifer Harman) were gambling it up on the raised “high-limit” section at the back.
Me, I was headed for the $6/12 limit game. The next step up was Mason’s $20/40, and I was in no shape, either in ability or bankroll, to compete there.2 But I would spend every possible minute in those games, stopping only for a quick bite at CPK next door.
You told time not by your watch, but by the movement of people nearby. There would be a tsunami of humanity as the Siegfried & Roy show was starting, then the outgoing tide at the end. You had to carefully time bathroom breaks to avoid either one.
Then and now
When I went back last month for my farewell lap, the CPK was still there, but the poker room itself had long ago been replaced by slots.
I even wandered into the pit where they used to deal a delicious two-deck blackjack game, deep, with excellent rules. I sat down and played a few hands, but my heart wasn’t in it. Back in my counting days, man, that pit was good to me. The pit people were mellow (maybe it was the coconut mist), and the comped restaurants were good.
Honestly, I didn’t want to stick around. My memories were better than the current reality, and I wanted to leave them intact. There were, however, four fellows that I wanted to salute on my way out…
I am told that the Cirque du Soleil Love show will survive the transition to the Hard Rock brand. I hope so – it seemed like the one thing that I’d truly miss about the Mirage of 2022.
It was thirty years ago today…
Just passing through
I was sitting in the $6/12 game when a guy walked through the poker room wearing nothing but a bikini swimsuit and a pink plastic flamingo-shaped headpiece. One of the players looked up in astonishment – “Did you see that?”
The dealer glanced up, and with a perfectly timed pause, “You’re new in town, aren’t you?”
Sadly, that was before I’d had the epiphany of toking for good entertainment. That would have been worth a red chip, right there.
Everything you need to know about the Mirage poker room
I’d say this is an apocryphal story, but Mike Caro swears it’s true, which is good enough for me. Bill Gates was playing $3/6 limit hold’em at the Mirage, because that’s where Bill Gates would have played. He saw Doyle Brunson in a massive game in the high-limit section, and sent a copy of Super/System over, with a request for an autograph. Doyle refused, unless Bill came and played in his game.
You can read Caro’s analysis of that exchange here, but consider this: Bill Gates was playing $3/6 limit hold’em at the Mirage. Simultaneously, Doyle Brunson was playing $3k/$6k mixed limit games in the same room. As a poker player, would you have wanted to be anywhere else?
I mentioned that I was an avid scuba diver. One day, while waiting to check in at the Mirage, I was stunned and delighted to see three different species of sharks in the aquarium: Whitetip Reef Shark (T. obesus), Blacktip Reef Shark (C. melanopterus), and a Leopard Shark (T. semifasciata). I’m a bit of a shark bigot, and I’d lay long odds that there is nowhere in the world that those three critters exist side-by-side. But there they all were, happily cruising around the aquarium.
When I got home, I wrote a letter – on paper, with a stamp – to the Mirage, asking how they could manage such a miracle. A bit later, I got a lovely reply (in an envelope, with a stamp) from the Mirage’s Chief Aquarist saying that she agreed that there was nowhere in the world that the three species could be found together. But the aquarium staff had done their homework, and settled on a water temperature and salinity that made all three (and all the other critters) happy. There was, understandably, no small element of pride in her letter.
As real as it gets
If you were entering the Mirage from the south side (coming from the direction of Caesar’s), there was a people-mover conveyor belt that brought you to the hotel from the sidewalk. Once you entered the hotel, you walked past a glassed-in area where Siegfried & Roy’s white tigers lived. In a town that traffics in copies, make-believe, and the surreal, those cats were a special treat. There was something visceral and elemental about them, and I’d often stop just to admire their effortless grace.
I will miss the tigers, and that magical poker world that sat so close to them.
- If you don’t recognize this reference, you owe it to yourself to look it up. Try searching “Rounders McDermott Mirage”. If you do recognize the reference, you’re welcome.
- One day, feeling particularly flush and/or adventurous, and seeing a seat empty in the $20/40 game, I summoned up the nerve to go exchange my mixed blue $1 and red $5 chips for a rack of $5 chips, planning to take a shot. Just as I got to the table, Mason was leaving. Playing in the game with him was one of my excuses for trying it.
“Why are you leaving?” I asked.
I didn’t want Mason Malmuth to see me sitting down in a game he’d just declared “terrible,” so I slunk back to my $6/12 game, at least a little relieved. Only thing worse would have been if I’d sat down anyway, and he had promptly changed his mind and returned to the game.