For a few years there, everybody and their mother wanted to win big bucks by becoming a professional poker player in Las Vegas.
And while the epic “Poker Boom” of 2003-2006 may have faded away into fad status, no limit Texas holdem and pot limit Omaha tables here in Sin City are still filled to capacity. Poker definitely isn’t as popular as it once was with the fair-weather fans, but the true enthusiasts with a deep passion for the game aren’t going anywhere soon.
Except for Las Vegas perhaps…
Every year sees tens of thousands of tourists descend on America’s gambling capital with one game in mind – poker. They might be attending the annual World Series of Poker (WSOP) to grind the summer long tournament schedule, or hitting the Bellagio or Aria for some cash game action – but poker players consider a visit to Vegas as a rite of passage.
Unfortunately, many of these poker fanatics touch down in town with the wrong idea about what to expect from the local poker scene. Myths and misconceptions abound when it comes to Las Vegas poker rooms, so I’d like to use my experience as a regular cash game and tournament grinder here to help dispel the most commonly held mistaken beliefs.
On that note, let’s dive right into my list of six fallacies that have become widely associated with the poker providers that make Las Vegas such a popular destination.
1 – The Average Player Here Is Much Better Than Tourists Are Accustomed To
If you’re an aspiring poker pro looking to take the leap and elevate your game to the next level, there’s no better proving ground on the planet than Las Vegas.
That’s the story many folks have been sold anyhow…
According to this account, the best players from their local home games – the steady winners who seem to have a supernatural level of success even as they climb in stakes – eventually “graduate” to the big leagues of Las Vegas. And once they get here, they’ll finally face off against opponents who can match their skill level, making the city an arena of sorts where top poker minds test their mettle battling one another.
This is true in a sense too, but only for a few elite talents that manage to beat the odds by becoming one of the best poker players in the world. Indeed, superstars like Daniel Negreanu and Phil Ivey made their way to Las Vegas from Toronto and Atlantic City, respectively, during the 1990s as raw 20-something poker prodigies. Through hard work and dedication to their craft, Negreanu and Ivey conquered all comers and built their bankrolls into the multimillions.
You’ve got to remember one thing… most poker players vastly overrate their own abilities. Ask any of the eight strangers surrounding you at your next poker game if they’re up or down lifetime, and you’ll quickly see eight thumbs shoot skyward to signal their winning status.
Of course, poker is a zero-sum game defined by winners devouring the stacks of losers, so the odds of all eight players surveyed actually being up lifetime are slim to none. Even so, this little thought experiment shows just how easy it can be for poker people to inflate their own skill level.
And the best part is, all of those guys and gals who have deluded themselves into thinking they’re God’s gift to poker eventually take their shot at Las Vegas. That means you’ll be competing against a slew of opponents who believe they’re the best player at the table at all times.
In actuality, when these dreamers combine with the actual tourists and recreational players just looking to have fun, the average poker player in Las Vegas is just that – decidedly average at best.
2 – The Average Player Here Is a Tourist Who Can’t Compete Against Skilled Opponents
If you don’t think Las Vegas poker players are the best around, you probably believe they’re the exact opposite – a tank full of “fish” just waiting for the sharks to start swarming.
Up until the Poker Boom era, this assessment likely would’ve been quite accurate. Back in those days – before Chris Moneymaker showed the world how to play no limit Texas holdem by beating the world’s best to win the WSOP Main Event – poker was largely considered a niche hobby within the world of gambling. You had your handful of hardcore pros who played the game for a living, along with legions of Las Vegas tourists who lined the pros pockets simply by showing up and taking a seat.
These days, however, things have changed considerably in terms of the average local player’s relative skill level. Like I said above, they might not be world champion caliber players who can pinpoint your hand to a tee, but your run of the mill regular at a Las Vegas poker room can definitely hold their own.
If you show up here expecting to fleece a steady steam of fish who don’t know the flop from fourth street, you’re in for a world of hurt. Simply through the process of attrition, most truly bad players have long since lost interest in chasing gold bracelets and glory. And for the players who stuck around, the increasingly “solvable” nature of Texas holdem strategy has become widely available through training academies and instructional websites.
All things considered, unless you get lucky and sit down at a table full of frat bros or drunk businesspeople, there’s no reason to believe the stranger sitting across from you is an awful player. Until proven otherwise, keep your guard up and proceed cautiously unless you want to get swallowed up by a shark in disguise.
3 – If You Get Lucky, You Might Even Play Pots Against Superstar Poker Pros
One of the more oft repeated mantras used by poker operators to attract prospective players goes a little something like this:
“Baseball fans will never get the chance to swing at a Justin Verlander fastball, and hoopsters can’t try to guard LeBron in the paint, but poker gives anybody the opportunity to take pots off the game’s top pros!”
This type of marketing is typically associated with the major tournament series like the World Series of Poker (WSOP) and the World Poker Tour (WPT). And sure enough, if you pay a pretty penny to enter a WSOP or WPT event, chances are good that you’ll wind up sitting with a well-known pro or two throughout the marathon session.
But this analogy doesn’t really extend to the cash game tables that make up the bulk of Las Vegas’ daily and nightly poker production. At the Bellagio casino, higher-ups there like to trumpet their exclusive high-stakes area “Bobby’s Room,” where legends like Doyle Brunson, Gus Hansen, Negreanu, and Ivey regularly convene to play in the city’s biggest games.
The poker economy is stratified by nature, with the best players gravitating towards high-stakes games and the rest of us settling for lower-stakes alternatives. That means recognizable pros won’t be caught dead grinding $2/$5 no limit holdem at the South Point anytime soon.
With that said, players who want to savor the experience of trying to bluff pros they’ve seen on TV do have an outlet in the tournament series. In fact, yours truly once won a few pots at the Venetian DeepStack series by beating a pair of former WSOP Main Event world champions – Tom McEvoy (1983) and Carlos Mortensen (2001) – in a single $500 buy-in tournament to boot.
4 – Las Vegas Poker Tables Don’t Offer Comps and Perks Like the Table Games and Machines
Casino gamblers love nothing more than “comps,” or complimentary gifts and goodies handed out by the house to reward regular play.
That’s why you’ll see grannies who don’t look like the gambling type feverishly grinding the penny slots on a Tuesday afternoon. Along with a longshot chance at a jackpot score, every spin they put in produces comp points that can be redeemed for cash, accommodations, in-house discounts, and even free play for the next session.
Chasing comps in Las Vegas is a big business for local gamblers and visitors alike, but for whatever reason, many people falsely consider poker rooms to be a “no comp zone.” That might be based on the fact that poker players win and lose money from one another, and not the house. Or perhaps the average gambler simply associates comps with slots and table games rather than poker.
In any case, you’ll often hear people dismiss a trip to the poker room in favor of the pit based on the faulty reasoning that they can’t earn casino comps there.
That couldn’t be further from the truth though, as every reputable Las Vegas poker room uses the Player’s Club system to reward their regulars. The usual setup sees players slide their Club card to the dealer, who then scans them into the system for tracking purposes. From there, every hour of play spent at the table produces comp points, typically to the tune of $2-$3 per 60 minutes of play.
That may not sound like much at first glance, but considering most poker players spend an entire evening on the grind, just one session can easily produce enough comp points to grab dinner on the house afterward.
5 – Cheating Rarely Goes Down Thanks to Security Guards and Overhead Cameras
If you’ve ever watched a popular poker movie like “The Sting” (1973) or “Rounders” (1998), you’d be forgiven for assuming every poker game is lined with cheaters and thieves.
Those films largely focused on underground card clubs and informal tavern games, which were indeed rife with cheating through the game’s infancy and early days. Through the rise of regulated gambling in Nevada though – and sophisticated security technology along with it – much of the criminality which plagued the poker community back then has thankfully been purged.
Knowing this, plenty of poker players out there come to Las Vegas expecting the games to be completely safe and secure. They’re correct for the most part too, as a combination of overhead cameras, trained dealers, and eagle-eyed opponents help to deter prospective cheats from plying their trade.
Commonly encountered forms of cheating include marked cards, sneaking a peek at a neighbor’s hole cards, and even lifting chips off somebody else’s stack when they aren’t paying attention. You’ll also find “angle-shooting” – a slang term for unscrupulous acts that don’t rise to the level of cheating but are nonetheless considered to be unethical – to be a far more popular form of malfeasance.
6 – They Dealers Earn a Hefty Wage, So They Don’t Deserve to Be Tipped
This one gets my goat for a number of reasons, but whenever I see a poker player spend hours at the table without tipping a dollar, I get pretty upset.
For whatever reason, many visitors to Las Vegas like to imagine that the dealers here make hefty salaries. But these are service industry workers just like baristas and waiters, providing a skilled service on the fly for customers who largely don’t appreciate the labor involved. And just like any other service industry worker, poker dealers in Sin City rely on tips to survive.
For the most part, poker people toss the dealer a chip or two as a tip whenever they drag a pot. If that doesn’t fly with your money management style, you can always wait until the dealer’s “down” – or shift at your table – ends to slide them a couple bucks in added compensation.
Failing to tip will out you as a tourist, and you might even get shamed or shunned for doing so, with a regular who isn’t as tight with their bankroll tipping the dealer derisively on your behalf. To avoid that awfulness altogether, be prepared to part ways with a few chips along the way as you enjoy your time at Las Vegas’ bountiful poker tables.
I’ve been playing poker in Las Vegas since the day I turned 21, and if you can’t tell by now, I’ve loved every minute of it. My home away from home at the Venetian has it all, and I’m happy to dispel a few of the most commonly held myths and misconceptions about the local poker scene. If any of these erroneous beliefs have prevented you from playing poker here before, please do consider changing your mind and giving it a shot on your next excursion to Sin City.