Is Las Vegas or California Better for Young Poker Players?

Poker Table at a Casino - California and Nevada Map Silhouette - Young Adult Woman Thinking About Something

In the cult-classic poker flick “Rounders” (1998), Matt Damon plays an ambitious young poker player in New York City who dreams of building a bankroll big enough to take a shot at Las Vegas. Damon’s character “Mike McD” describes Sin City’s poker scene circa the late ‘90s in almost reverential tones, repeatedly positioning Las Vegas as the pinnacle of the profession.

“The poker room at the Mirage in Vegas is the center of the poker universe. Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, Phil Helmuth… the legends consider it their office. Every couple of days a new millionaire shows up, wanting to beat a world champion. Usually they go home with nothing but a story.”

I won’t spoil the plot for folks who haven’t seen Rounders. But if you’re reading this page and you haven’t seen the best poker movie ever made, correct that mistake immediately. Las Vegas is still on Mike McD’s mind in the film’s final scene.

As an aspiring poker pro, Las Vegas represents the world’s undisputed capital for every version and variation of the game. Cash games running at the lowest stakes operate around the clock in casino card rooms on the Strip, downtown, and surrounding suburbs.

On top of that, the greatest poker tournament series of all, World Series of Poker, has called Las Vegas home for 50 years and counting. Every summer, thousands of hopefuls from every corner of the globe arrive at the Rio All Suites Hotel and Casino to take part.

Clearly then, Las Vegas remains the center of the poker universe as Mike McD once wistfully described. Nonetheless, a highly-competitive poker industry in California has been humming along on the sidelines for decades now, playing the proverbial second fiddle to Sin City.

Centered around iconic card rooms like the Bicycle Club and Commerce Casino in the Los Angeles suburbs, California’s poker scene has produced top pros like Barry Greenstein, J.C. Tran, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, Brian Rast, and Mike McD’s nemesis at the old Trump Taj Mahal, 10-time WSOP bracelet winner and two-time Main Event World Champ Johnny Chan.

With hundreds of casinos and card rooms spanning the state’s massive land mass, California is increasingly becoming a destination for up and coming poker pros looking to break into the biggest games.

Poker fans in the know religiously sweat the livestreamed high-stakes cash game action from the Bicycle Club in a regular program called “Live at the Bike.”

And thanks to national series like the World Poker Tour (WPT) and World Series of Poker Circuit (WSOP-C), tournament players from San Jose to LA can take part in top-tier events every year.

As a young poker player looking to take your game to the next level, is Las Vegas or California the best place to establish yourself as a pro?

Well, that’s an extremely important decision for anybody to make, so this page won’t pretend to offer definitive answers one way or another. What it will do, however, is offer an objective review of both locales written from a poker-centric perspective, complete with pros and cons for each area.

When you’re finished reviewing the information here, my hope is to leave you with a much better idea as to which place to embark on your next poker adventure.

Pros of Playing in Las Vegas

I already alluded to the historic nature of Las Vegas’ utterly unique poker scene, but it bears repeating. There’s no place on earth with more poker games running right now than Las Vegas.

From the fabulous Las Vegas Strip, where the Venetian and the Bellagio are home to an astounding 37 tables apiece, to the off-Strip casino The Orleans and its 35-table poker room, the game continues to flourish here despite the occasional closure.

The beauty of playing poker in Vegas is that you’ll never be forced to quit for lack of demand. Games run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year without fail. Sure, one room might empty out at certain hours, but it’ll only be a short walk or Uber ride to the next casino to find a crowded game in full bloom.

And this selection is hardly limited to Texas holdem either. While the two-card game popularized on ESPN’s iconic broadcast of the 2003 WSOP Main Event is definitely the most prevalent variant you’ll find in Las Vegas, it’s far from alone. In the larger poker rooms like Bellagio, the sign-up board represents a veritable smorgasbord of poker mixed games and stakes, as shown by the PokerAtlas listing below.

Cash Games Offered at the Bellagio Poker Room

$1/$3 No Limit holdem

  • Buy-in: $100 to $300
  • Runs: Always
$2/$5 No Limit holdem

  • Buy-in: $200 to $500
  • Runs: Always
$5/$10 No Limit holdem

  • Buy-in: $400 to $1,500
  • Runs: Always
$10/$20 No Limit holdem

  • Buy-in: $800 to No Max
  • Runs: Always
$10/$20/$40 No Limit holdem

  • Buy-in: $1,500 to No Max
  • Runs: Weekends and evenings
$50/$100 No Limit holdem

  • Buy-in: $5,000 to No Max
  • Runs: During busier hours
$2/$5 Pot Limit Omaha Hi

  • Buy-in: $200 to $1,000
  • Runs: Rarely
$4/$8 Limit holdem

  • Buy-in: $40 to No Max
  • Runs: Occasionally
$9/$18 Limit holdem

  • Buy-in: $100 to No Max
  • Runs: One or two tables
$50/$100 Stud

  • Buy-in: $500 to No Max
  • Runs: Occasionally
$20/$40 Limit holdem

  • Buy-in: $200 to No Max
  • Runs: Always
$20/$40 Limit Omaha 8/b

  • Buy-in: $200 to No Max
  • Runs: One or two tables
$40/$80 Limit holdem

  • Buy-in: $600 to No Max
  • Runs: Occasionally
$40/$80 Mixed

  • Buy-in: $600 to No Max
  • Runs: Occasionally
$40/$80 Limit Omaha 8/b

  • Buy-in: $800 to No Max
  • Runs: Occasionally
$50/$100 Mixed

  • Buy-in: $1,000 to No Max
  • Runs: Occasionally
$60/$120 Mixed

  • Buy-in: $1,000 to No Max
  • Runs: Occasionally
$30/$60 Stud 8/b

  • Buy-in: $500 to No Max
  • Runs: Friday and Saturday
$80/$160 Limit holdem

  • Buy-in: $1,500 to No Max
  • Runs: During busier hours
$80/$160 Mixed

  • Buy-in: $1,500 to No Max
  • Runs: Occasionally
$100/$200 Limit holdem

  • Buy-in: $2,000 to No Max
  • Runs: During busier hours
$100/$200 Mixed

  • Buy-in: $2,000 to No Max
  • Runs: During busier hours
$150/$300 Mixed

  • Buy-in: $3,000 to No Max
  • Runs: During busier hours
$200/$400 Limit holdem

  • Buy-in: $4,000 to No Max
  • Runs: During busier hours
$300/$600 Mixed

  • Buy-in: $6,000 to No Max
  • Runs: During busier hours
$400/$800 Mixed

  • Buy-in: $8,000 to No Max
  • Runs: Occasionally
$600/$1,200 Mixed

  • Buy-in: $10,000 to No Max
  • Runs: During busier hours
$25/$50 Mixed

  • Buy-in: $5,000 to No Max
  • Runs: Occasionally
$20/$40 Stud

  • Buy-in: $200 to No Max
  • Runs: Usually one table
$30/$60 Limit Omaha 8/b

  • Buy-in: $500 to No Max
  • Runs: During busier hours

Just get a load of the staggering level of variety found on that list, and that’s at the Bellagio alone. Fellow mega-resorts on the Strip such as the Aria, Wynn, and Venetian all boast world-class poker rooms with similar selection. This is why so many international pros make sure to rent suites for extended stays spent grinding for weeks and months on end.

If you’re willing to put in the time and work by consistently playing at a specific Las Vegas poker room, and paying rake on every hand or half-hour, the venue will typically “take care of you” in the form of comps, cash back, and other perks.

The bountiful abundance of options also extends to tournament play, as the WSOP annually spreads upwards of 100 gold bracelet events while paying out nine-figures in prizes to top performers. For six weeks every summer, Las Vegas lives up to Mike McD’s label, attracting the world’s best players, recreational poker fans, and grinders looking to make a life-changing splash on the big stage.

The tourney action here runs year-round too, with recurring seasonal series like the Venetian DeepStack Extravaganza and Wynn Signature Series generating huge prize pools over condensed month-long schedules. The WPT makes annual stops at the Bellagio, the WSOP-C hits the Rio for a revival tour twice a year, and poker rooms like the Orleans specialize in medium-stakes events for weekend warriors.

On a final note, if you’re looking to enjoy a little online poker on the side of your live action, California has nothing on Las Vegas. And I do mean that literally. Nevada is one of only four states in the country, along with New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, where online poker is fully legal and regulated.

Cons of Playing in Las Vegas

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably noticed by now that this page has placed an emphasis on just how good the players in Las Vegas really are.

Leaving aside the insanely talented top pros duking it out at Bobby’s Room and the Aria’s “High Roller” tournaments, Las Vegas still attracts players like Mike McD, the best of the bunch from their hometown who want to test their skills against the best.

You just might be one of them, too, a talented young poker player ready to take the leap and bring their game to the next level. If that’s the case, godspeed good reader, and a sincere “good luck” your way.

When you arrive in Las Vegas intent on earning a living at the poker table, you’ll usually meet five or six players in every game who have the exact same intentions. Aside from the intense competition fostered by Las Vegas’ status as the peak for poker industry climbers, the city has its other drawbacks as well.

Serious Poker Players at a Casino

In order to play on the Las Vegas Strip day in and day out, you’ll need to absorb a litany of supplementary expenses. Comps can only go so far, which means you’ll be paying out of pocket when you tip the valet, hit the buffet, or grab necessities at the gift shop.

These hidden charges extend to the tables too, as Las Vegas’ higher stakes games ($5/$5 and above) generally charge a higher rake than their counterparts in California. Young poker players often neglect to take the rake, or the chips deducted from every pot as the house’s cut, when assessing the viability of one game versus another.

These fees can be charged in “time rake” form at the higher stakes, with all players ponying up a set amount every half hour, but Las Vegas tends to charge higher rates than California no matter how it’s collected.

Rake concerns also extend to tournament play. So, when you’re comparing the various structures used by card rooms in Las Vegas and California, always be sure to check for “service fees” deducted from your overall buy-in.

Conclusion

For poker players of every generation, from the old road gamblers in the 1970s to the online whiz kids inspired by Chris Moneymaker at the 2003 WSOP Main Event, Las Vegas holds an allure like no other.

This city is where the WSOP was born, where Nick “The Greek” Dandolos and Johnny Moss once played the highest-stakes heads-up poker game in history, and it’s where the world’s most talented players convene on a nightly basis to this day.

California may be positioning itself as a potential sidekick. For more on the pros and cons of the Golden State’s poker scene, be sure to check out Part II of this series, but Las Vegas will always be every poker aficionado’s first love.