I don’t class poker as Gaming for the purposes of this blog for one very important reason. When you play poker in Vegas you play against the other players who sit at your table or who play in the same tournament. Gaming is when you play against the house or casino. Blackjack is gaming because you’ll win from or lose to the casino, at poker you win from or lose to your fellow players. To read about Gaming see that blog entry, this one just deals with poker.
So what? When you play against the casino it has a mathematical advantage or edge over you. The amount of this edge varies from game to game and maybe as little as 0.45% (Blackjack played optimally) or absurdly high (some other table games like Caribbean Stud Poker). When you play against other players the question of who wins is partly a matter of luck but also partly skill. You may even have an edge over the players you compete against and an expectation of winning!
As a poker player you can play a cash or ‘ring’ game or a tournament. I presume, if you’re reading this, that you have some idea what you’re doing so I won’t go into this in depth. In a tournament you pay the prescribed fee to enter, they give you a certain amount of otherwise worthless chips in return and, when you lose them all, you have to leave. In a cash game you sit down with cash equivalent chips which you buy from the casino. The amount you can buy is dictated by the rules of the particular game you’re playing. There is always a minimum ‘buy in’ below which you can’t participate and usually a maximum ‘buy in’ also. You start with chips within this range. When you run out you don’t have to leave, instead you can put more money on the table up to the given limit.
There is a misapprehension that if you’re holding a really good hand you can dig into your pocket and put more money on the table to gamble on those cards. This is not allowed anywhere in Vegas. You must play a hand with whatever you have on the table at the start of the hand. If you want to but can’t bet more because you’ve run out of chips you’re ‘all in’. If you win the pot you get the chips and can continue. If you lose you buy in again or leave.
How, you ask, does the casino make any money out of this when you win or lose to or from the other players? The answer is ‘rake’. Watch the dealer. Out of each pot he or she will take some of the money and deposit it down a slot in the table. This is the rake which is, essentially a commission.
How much can the house take you enquire? This is regulated by law and more specifically by Nevada Gaming Commission Regulation 23. The casino may not take more than 10% of the pot as rake. Does this mean they always take 10%? No, it varies from place to place. In fact the poker rooms in Vegas choose to limit the amount of rake they take to either $4 or $5 a hand. So, if the pot contains $30 all properties will take $3 being 10% and less than their self-imposed maximum rake. If the pot is $100 they will take either $4 or $5 because they don’t allow themselves to take the full 10% which the law permits.
Self-evidently you are better off playing at a venue that takes no more than $4 a hand rather than at one that will take $5. To play at the latter venue there must presumably be something else to compensate for you to decide to give up an additional 25%. This might be better surroundings, nicer looking cocktail waitresses, better chairs etc. In reality this is rarely the case. There is no nicer room in which to play poker than the Venetian in terms of facilities and surroundings yet they rake only up to $4.
If you’re a casual player on vacation from time to time it really makes little difference whether the house takes one extra Dollar or not. It only costs you if you win the pot anyway. What matters more is whether you have a good time or not. If you play more though you might start to get aggrieved that the house is not giving you extra for that Dollar and shop around. A while back I undertook a survey of which major rooms took $4 or $5. This is what I found:
Higher $5 rake
All Caesars’ (Harrah’s) properties.
Lower $4 rake
All other Strip properties.
You’ll need to check whether this is still the case but it does make you think doesn’t it?
You may also notice the poker dealer take another $1 chip and slip it down a different table slot at some stage. Some rooms operate jackpots. Essentially these come in two formats: High Hand and Bad Beat and this $1 dollar per pot is how they finance this promotion. You didn’t really think they just gave it to you did you?
You win a High Hand Jackpot when you make a certain hand using your hole (personal, hidden) cards and the community cards. The designated hands usually start at Quad Twos and run all the way up to a Royal Flush. Each hand in that range usually has a value attributed to it depending on when it was last won. The longer ago that was, the more it pays. It doesn’t matter whether you win the pot (although you usually will with Quad Twos or more), you still win the jackpot. These jackpots don’t tend to be that large as they are regularly won.
Bad Beat Jackpots on the other hand can become truly enormous because they occur much less often. Again there is a similar range of hands and, to win the Bad Beat, you must have at least Quad Twos and be beaten by a better hand! In fact the qualifying hands vary from location to location and you need to check. If this does happen the jackpot will usually be split with the largest share going to the loser of the hand, a smaller share going to the winner of the hand and the remainder being equally divided between the other participating players at the table. Once won the jackpot then resets either to zero or to some other figure then gradually starts to increase again as that $1 drops down the slot. Bad Beat Jackpots can sometimes top $100,000. If the jackpot in a particular room becomes huge that room will attract more players until it’s won.
Sounds like there’s no downside to this you say. Wrong. Periodically I play poker at the Mandalay Bay. There can sometimes be a good game if the right convention crowd is in. They operate a High Hand Jackpot. The problem is the game is very popular with local Vegas seniors who like to sit for hours, playing as tight as can be, hoping to hit a jackpot then leave. It ruins the game and for a jackpot which rarely goes much over $50. Also, you yourself have paid into that jackpot by virtue of the extra $1 per pot. If there’s a jackpot at one of the venues taking a rake of $5 they’re actually taking $6 a hand and that means the amount of money on the table that you can potentially win dwindles much quicker.
Bad Beat Jackpots sound attractive but similar considerations apply. You are paying each and every hand but your chance of winning a bad beat is akin to winning the lottery. It’s OK to buy a ticket every now and then but not twenty five times an hour! That said they have their devotees who are hugely disappointed when they sit down in a cash game at the Venetian and find out there’s no jackpot at all. I don’t care though I’m only paying $4 to sit in the best room in town.
Again, a little while back I surveyed which rooms offer a jackpot and this is what I found: Every house on The Strip took an additional Dollar except Luxor, MGM, Bellagio, Venetian and Wynn. Again please check that I’m up to date and let me know if I’m not. You jackpot aficionados can decide where to play accordingly. By the way, if you’re lucky enough to win a jackpot, please don’t stiff the dealer. Etiquette requires you to tip him or her. I would suggest 10% up to $100 with a reducing percentage thereafter. I repeat what I said in my blog entry about Tipping. These guys only earn the minimum wage and rely very heavily on your tips.
So how does the casino make money from a tournament when there’s no rake? There can be no rake because you’re playing with worthless chips so there’s nothing to post down the slot. Say you’ve paid $115 to enter the competition. You’ll find $100 goes into the prize pool and $15 goes to the casino. The more players there are the more the house gets which is reasonable since more players means more tables being used, more dealers etc.
But what about the poor starving dealers you ask. How can I tip them if there’s no cash value chips on the table? You don’t! You’ll usually find that about 3% of the prize pool is diverted to divide among the dealers. The exact deduction will be posted or they’ll tell you if you ask. If you’re lucky enough to win a tournament you might feel pressured to hand over some of your winnings for the staff. Ask whether there’s been a deduction. If not then absolutely, a tip is appropriate. If there has been a deduction then certainly not unless you’re a very generous person.
So poker rooms make lots of money from poker for the casino to pay for the facilities, dealers and any comps they give us? No. Most poker rooms run at a modest loss. Very few make a profit. Dr. Anthony Lucas, Professor of Hotel Administration at UNLV, did however undertake analysis which has confirmed that a poker room attracts players to a venue and drives them to play slot machines and table games there before or after poker, both of which are the casino’s bread and butter. It follows that the better a poker room the better the clientele it will bring in and the more they are likely to lose at the venue’s profit-making games. This is why the vast majority of properties offer poker to some extent. Great for us poker players.
Where should I play?
You were wondering when I was going to get round to this. Setting aside the issue of the rake, the answer is it depends what you’re looking for. If all you want is the nicest possible, most comfortable room then I would present you with the following list which represents my own view of the better Strip properties in descending order:
- MGM Grand
If the type of game, the stakes and the action are of more interest to you then we have to look a little closer and we need to look at tournaments and cash games separately.
Really this is about two issues: stakes and whether the property offers anything other than Texas Hold’Em. Nearly all of you will only ever play Hold’Em and you may not even know that Omaha, Omaha High/Lo, Big O and other games even exist.
If you want to play big you really have to go to Bellagio. This is a list of the cash games they were spreading on a random Saturday afternoon (I’ve taken the same period for all of my examples):
25-50 NL HOLDEM
5-10 NL HOLDEM
1-3 NL HOLDEM
4-8 Holdem 1/2 Kill
20-40 OMAHA 8/B 1/2 KILL
10-20 NL HOLDEM
2-5 NL HOLDEM
As you can see the stakes rise as high as $100 – $200. You won’t find this anywhere else. They’re also offering a limit Omaha Hi Lo game. Another upside of Bellagio is that they give you $2 an hour to play there (as of 1/16). It also attracts a lot of players and action because of its longstanding reputation.
The downside includes a cramped room with the tables way too close together; you’re constantly being bumped by someone else and if a player wants to eat, the presence of a food table can make it ridiculous. Whilst there is no smoking in the room itself, its proximity to the rest of the casino can make it a smoky environment. There are often very long queues because the room is too small and I’m not that keen on some of the dealers whose attitude is not matched by their ability.
If you don’t want to play at bigger stakes than 2-5 HOLDEM then I rank the other rooms in the same order as above with the games they were spreading as follows. The decor and facilities in all these rooms are excellent:
4-8 HOLDEM H/K
2-5 NL HOLDEM
1-2 NL HOLDEM
4-8 OMAHA 8/B H/K
This doesn’t mean the Venetian only has four tables in play, in fact there were five 2-5 tables in play and seven 1-2 tables when this sample was taken. This room concentrates on these two limits. Note again there is one limit Omaha game. A Pot Limit Omaha game is usually played in the late evening and sometimes a Big O variant also (with 5 hole cards each).
Unlike Bellagio, the Venetian poker room is enormous so the tables are well spaced and jostling is reduced to a minimum. This means the cocktail waitresses can go about their business more efficiently. There are cup holders in front of each player (so you don’t spill your drink on the baize, unlike Bellagio) and side tables are available upon request. You can have food brought to you without bringing movement in the room to a standstill and there is ample room for the very competent massage therapists ($2 a minute) to do their thing while you play. There is very little in the way of intrusive smoke. I find the dealers the best in the city.
The one downside of The Venetian compared to Bellagio is that they currently only give you $1 an hour as a comp rather than $2. This used to be $2 and let’s hope that comes back soon!
1-2 PL OMAHA 1
2-5 NL HOLDEM 4
1-3 NL HOLDEM 6
2-5 PL OMAHA
Note immediately that Aria is spreading two different level PLO games in mid afternoon. Aria is trying to and is pretty successfully cornering the market in Pot Limit Omaha (my favourite game). This is the best reason to play at Aria. If you’re not interested in PLO then the Venetian is preferable unless you’re staying at the Southern end of The Strip in which case Aria will be closer. If there’s little in it distance wise then I recommend The Venetian because the poker room at Aria is too small for the amount of business it attracts. There are very often long queues to play at busy times which rarely happens at The Venetian because it’s so much bigger. Aria also currently comps at $2 an hour, the waitresses are good and so are the massage therapists.
2-5 NL Holdem
1-3 NL Holdem
The room at the Wynn is smaller still so there can also be long lines when you want to play. The fare on offer is also limited to routine no limit Hold’Em but the cocktail waitresses are possibly among the most attractive in the city. I’m not sure they comp you at all as you play at the Wynn at the moment – please tell me if this is not correct.
2-5 NL HOLDEM
1-2 NL HOLDEM
I used to love this room but the cash game action simply became too scarce. There’s no point in playing somewhere if there aren’t enough opponents to take money from. I think they’re slowly remedying this. The room is big enough to cope. One downside is the proximity to the nightclub next door. There can be a long line for the nearby lavatory and the occasional drunk lying in front of a urinal or in a cubicle. Again no games except Hold’Em on offer but they comp you $2 an hour and give you 34 tier credits to help you edge your way up to a higher level on the M Life scale.
1-2 NL HOLDEM
Just five tables of the lowest limit Hold’Em on a Saturday afternoon spells out the issue at the MGM. The room is very large and can accommodate a lot more but there aren’t the players or the action for cash games. Shame, because it’s a nice venue. I believe (subject to correction) that they only comp you $2 an hour at 2-5 upwards, if there is one.
1-2 NL HOLDEM
Seven tables in all in action at low stakes. They comp you $2 an hour but I think the Mirage poker room has gone down hill enormously over the last ten years. I remember flying in specially to play a circuit event here and I doubt that will ever happen again. The dealers are simply not as good as they are at the Venetian or Aria in terms of appearance or performance. Nowadays I tend only to play here if I’ve had a very bad session across the road and I want to get it out of my system. I find the players here are not generally as capable as the other properties listed above but the action can also be poorer.
I’m not going to list every poker room in town or even on The Strip for that matter because it’s very unusual that I would play in any of the others so why would I recommend them to you? I’ve played in them all from time to time but now I stick to what I consider to be the best. You may not agree and if that’s the case you can see what games are being spread, how many tables there are in play and what waiting lists there are using a very simple and informative app.
Bravo Poker Live is indispensable if you’re a keen poker player. You must register on the site but then you can look on your phone or tablet and instantly see where to play that’s offering what you desire. Check it out and see what other rooms on The Strip appear in the list. You’ll be surprised how many there are.
A good tournament can offer value for money especially if you’re on a budget. You know what you’re spending and you don’t find yourself re-buying each time you lose like you do in a cash game. The current trend is to give you a lot of starting chips for your money. I remember the days when you might only start with 1,000 chips but this is unthinkable today. It’s not uncommon to start with 12,500 chips now which, theoretically at least, means you should be able to play for longer and the longer you play the less it’s costing you an hour.
This also represents the downside for me with tournaments. Sometimes you have to set aside 12 hours or more to play the tournaments with the best payouts and do you really want to play for that long? You must assume you’re in with a chance of winning every tournament you enter or why bother so you must surely be available to play it to the end? If you have to meet the wife in four hours this is probably not the choice for you. With a cash game you can play as long or as little as you want since you can leave at any time.
Assuming you’re prepared to play for as long as it takes you probably want to play your tournament somewhere with good facilities. Besides that there are really only two further considerations; how much it is to enter and when it starts. You won’t believe the options available to you. In fact there are so many I can’t list them all here so I’m going to link you to one of several helpful sites which do purport to list them all comprehensively; Poker Atlas.
As you can see there are tourneys costing from $20 to $300 to enter and starting at all times of the day and night. Not all of the venues listed are actually on The Strip. The list includes rooms like The Orleans, just the other side of the I 15, where they spread some more adventurous games like Horse and Omaha Hi Lo. Climb in a cab and give it a go! I wouldn’t put you off any of the tournaments at the properties listed above.
There are poker rooms Downtown and when I’m there I always make sure I play something at the Golden Nugget. If you’re really adventurous and have a car try playing at the Red Rock or the Green Valley Ranch. There is some good PLO action to be had sometimes at the Station Casinos.
I save playing at the Rio for World Series of Poker time. You can play there all year but the normal poker room is not something to write home about. All that changes when the WSOP is in town! There are major events at the Rio every day from 31st May 2016 to July 18th. Buy ins for tournaments are much larger than you’ll find during the ordinary calendar. They start at about $565 and go up to $100,000. As far as I know it hasn’t yet been announced whether there will be a $1 million buy in event this year or not.
The Rio comes alive for the duration and it’s the best place to stay. Besides the tourneys themselves there are satellite competitions to win entry to them and all manner of cash games at low and very high stakes and encompassing every type of poker that exists. See you there in July for the Main Event perhaps?
Poker is a very big subject and I won’t have covered anywhere near all the questions you have. Feel free to message me in response to this post and I’ll either put you right or, if I can’t, I’ll direct you to someone who hopefully can.