Every single day, poker players from out of town arrive in Las Vegas looking to take their game to the big leagues.
Home game heroes and local casino card game champions are joined by recreational Texas holdem and Omaha enthusiasts en masse, creating a massive influx of new blood which sustains the local Sin City poker scene.
And this is how it’s always worked too…
Since the days of Doyle Brunson dominating in Texas before taking on Nevada in the 1970s, America’s vast network of regional poker hotspots have served as subsidiaries which feed a steady flow of “fish” into the stream for Las Vegas’ local sharks to feast upon. Small-stakes players back then routinely built up their personal bankroll by beating the local games, then made the Mojave Desert sojourn with eyes on beating the best players in the world.
That’s exactly what happened in the case of one David “Chip” Reese.
The high-achieving student infamously took a detour to Las Vegas on his way to college in California during the summer of 1973, only to relocate permanently after cleaning the pros’ clock for a six-figure score in his first week at the tables. Soon enough, Reese had become a staple in Las Vegas’ highest-limit games, holding court over million-dollar pots while earning a reputation as the most feared cash game player on the planet until his untimely death in 2007.
Here’s how Reese’s improbable stopover in the gambling capital of the world was described by PokerPlayer365 magazine in its 2008 interview with Reese:
“Early on, while grinding it out at the Flamingo, he kept one eye on his cards and the other on what then qualified as Vegas’ Big Game. Reese watched the hi-lo split action with more than just a spectator’s interest. He had the audacity to believe that he could crush the game.
After all, Reese had earned his stripes at Dartmouth by playing this very form of poker. He knew that the best way to win was to play for the low and fold all other hands. But from spying on Brunson, Puggy Pearson and Johnny Moss going at it, he realized these titans of the game were playing incorrectly. They were angling for highs as well.
After getting a reluctant green light from his partner Robison, Reese bought in for $15,000, which amounted to a good chunk of their bankroll, and started playing. He forced himself to forget about the stakes – to sublimate thoughts of putting so much cash in jeopardy against such strong competition – and to just play the game.
Reese succeeded. He sat down on a Thursday afternoon and by Monday morning, he had run his buy-in up to a staggering $390,000. Needless to say, he never made it to law school, and instead became a consistent Big Game winner.”
The same thing happened to living legend Daniel Negreanu two decades later.
Long before the Canadian-born Negreanu was known the world over as “Kid Poker,” he was simply another 21-year old kid amongst the crowd trying his best not to go broke on his first trip to Las Vegas.
Having previously dispatched all comers in Toronto’s local “charity” poker games, Negreanu travelled to Las Vegas with high hopes – not to mention an uncanny knack for reading opponents like an open book. In a 2009 interview with Bluff magazine, Negreanu eagerly recounted his rags to riches path from tourist off the street to respected regular at the biggest “Big Game” in town at the time:
“I remember everything about my first trip to Vegas, it was like I entered a fantasy land. I can still see all the sights, sounds, and smells of the Mirage.
I was playing $20/$40 over at the Mirage, with a bankroll of maybe 600 or 700 bucks.
I’ve got 82 bucks left and I decide I was not going broke at that table, so I quit and took the 82 bucks over to a $1/$5 Stud game and grinded out 100 bucks. I then took the cash to a $6/$12 Limit holdem game and won another 100 bucks there.
So, I’m now back up to about $286. From there it was 300 bucks won at a $10/$20 Limit holdem and then back to the $20/$40 game where I won about $5,000.”
That boom or bust gamble at the Mirage occurred in 1995. Within only three years, Negreanu was playing – and improbably winning – his very first World Series of Poker (WSOP) tournament.
Stories like these are swapped around in local card clubs all over the country, providing all the motivation ambitious poker players will ever need to take their own shot at gold bracelets and glory.
Whether they lacked the raw natural talent shared by prodigies like Reese and Negreanu – or simply got unlucky in those early crucial session and headed home broke and busted – legions of poker players have fallen by the wayside when attempting to conquer Las Vegas like the pros. This phenomenon is pure natural selection at work, with poker’s predators devouring weaker prey in a methodical process that thins the proverbial herd.
No less an authority than T.J. Cloutier – a six-time WSOP champion and high-stakes cash game legend – described this ability of poker people to cull their own pack in his seminal strategy book “Championship No Limit and Pot Limit holdem” (1997):
“The World Series is a conglomeration of local champions.
There’s Joe Blow from Iowa who’s the champion from his game at home; hundreds of local champions like him come to Vegas to play the World Series.
But it’s like the difference between going from high school football to college football: It’s a big step up. And then going from college football to pro football is the next big step.
It’s not a question of whether these players can play poker – they just can’t play it on the level that some of the top players can.”
Oh, and if you doubt Cloutier’s bona fides with the football analogy, just remember that the larger than life Californian played in the 1959 Rose Bowl, before enjoying a brief stint with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League prior to his poker career taking off.
Now that you know more about the age-old story about poker players taking their shot at Las Vegas, the time has come to examine the gambit from all angles.
If you’re currently considering making the journey and seeing if you have the stuff to excel on poker’s grandest stage, try using the following pros and cons to help narrow down the right decision for you.
Pros of Embarking on a Poker Career in Las Vegas
1 – You Can’t Find a Better Place to Test Your Skills Against the Game’s Best
First things first… if you’re intent on taking on top quality players to see if your skill and strategic thinking match up, Las Vegas is the ultimate poker proving ground.
As relayed with relish by Cloutier, thousands of homegrown champs arrive here each and every year, either to play cash games or tournaments at the WSOP. And while most of them head home with their tails tucked squarely between their legs, plenty of players find a way to make it work and relocate full time.
They might not go on to become recognizable faces or sponsored pros, but at every table in town, you can expect to find seasoned vets who have long since paid their poker dues. These players know all of the math down pat, they can read inexperienced opponents to a tee, and they’re not afraid to run big bluffs or make major hero calls when the opportunity arises.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “scared money can’t make money” a time or two before, but in Las Vegas, the typical local regular’s motto is more like “confident money can always crush the newcomers.”
If you thought toppling the big winner in your regional casino was an accomplishment, just wait until you book your first winning week against the crème de la crème of Las Vegas’ poker rooms.
2 – The Steady Stream of Tourists Can Make Even Low-Stakes Tables Quite Lucrative
Conversely, you’ll never lack for lackluster opponents who are still learning the intricacies of poker when playing in Las Vegas.
These days, the masses of “rec” players who come here are embracing the four-card variant known as Pot Limit Omaha (PLO), but the same pattern holds true no matter the game. For every grizzled regular at the average table, you’ll also find a handful of fish who don’t know jack about PLO and its deeper strategic insights.
Whether you prefer holdem, Omaha, or any other version of poker, playing in Las Vegas – even in the smallest $1/2 blind games – serves up a long lineup of sheep just waiting to be sheared.
3 – You’ll Never Really Be Sure About Your Poker Dreams Unless You Take the Plunge and Try
This one’s less logical and more emotional nature, but the most important reason to push yourself onward in your Las Vegas poker quest is pride.
We all have personal ambitions, dreams that we consider worth pursuing at all costs, and “bucket list” items waiting to be scratched off once and for all. That’s true for poker players as well, and in this game, there’s no taller peak to summit than Sin City.
If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere as a poker pro – but you’ll never know for sure until you dive in headlong.
And if you never do make that dive, you’ll only face a lifetime of lingering doubts about what might have been.
Cons of Embarking on a Poker Career in Las Vegas
1 – You Can Always Find a Another Place to Play Poker at Your Personal Peak Level
Back in their respective days, Reese, Cloutier, and Negreanu had little choice but to make their way to Las Vegas if they hoped to compete against the best players in the biggest games.
Atlantic City’s poker industry offered the East Coast’s first real alternative in 1978, while card clubs like the Commerce and Bicycle casinos established a thriving cash game scene along the West Coast during the early 1980s. By 1988, the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act paved the way for local Native American tribes to open casinos and cardrooms all over the country.
Nowadays, you can find Las Vegas like casino resorts – complete with sprawling poker rooms staffed by highly trained personnel – in almost every state in the Union. Unless you’re stuck in a gambling wasteland like Utah or Hawaii, you probably have a “hometown” casino to call your own somewhere within reasonable driving distance.
Connecticut residents play at the enormous Foxwoods casino complex, the Borgata dominates in Atlantic City, Floridians splash around at the Seminole Hard Rock, and Arizonans can be found grinding away at Talking Stick Resort.
And while it’s true that these poker rooms can’t offer the sense of history and nostalgia Sin City is known for, they’re definitely quite comparable in terms of the perks and ambiance modern Las Vegas casino resorts can provide. Sure, you might not find superstars like Brunson and Negreanu plying their trade at “Bobby’s Room” in the Bellagio, but setting up shop at your local card club is still an effective way to enjoy poker at your preferred pace.
Take the Commerce Casino in Los Angeles or the Borgata in A.C. as the perfect examples. These venues are home to poker rooms that rival airport hangars in terms of size and scope, putting even the largest Las Vegas alternatives to shame. You can play every conceivable poker variant there too, from basic No Limit Texas holdem to limit Seven Card Stud Hi-Lo Eight or Better, or even more obscure formats like Razz, Badugi, and Chinese Poker.
And if it’s all about the Benjamins and building your poker bankroll, most of the major regional poker hotspots nationwide spread stakes that can easily climb into the upper echelon of what has always made Las Vegas so alluring in the first place.
2 – The Perpetual Pool of Sharks Can Make Even Low-Stakes Games Quite Difficult
Sitting down with a table full of fish can prompt a Las Vegas poker pro’s mouth to water, what with all of those chips just waiting to be won.
And unfortunately, you’ll be the table fish until proven otherwise. It’s one thing to be the best player in a Podunk town somewhere in middle America, but it’s a different beast altogether cutting your teeth in this cutthroat town.
Let’s say you’ve excelled in your local casino’s weekly tournament for years now, so you convince yourself to take a shot at the WSOP. You’ve studied game theory optimal (GTO) strategy, you memorized the latest “push / fold” charts, and your endgame approach has always been wildly effective.
The only thing is though, the regulars at the WSOP and other Las Vegas tournament series aren’t limited to weekly sessions. These guys and gals play every day and night, day in and day out, as their full-time job for years on end.
You might be good – they’re better. You might have a large bankroll on your side – they have more money than you can imagine. You might get lucky here and there – they have all the time in the world to let their skill edge win out in the end.
3 – You’ll always Be Haunted by Doubts and Regrets if Your Poker Dreams Are Cut Short
What’s worse… wondering what might’ve been, or knowing for a fact you tried and failed?
I’ll leave answering that existential conundrum up to you, but sufficed to say, realizing your poker dreams will never come to fruition can be a brutal reality check. Putting yourself on the line, only to plummet into the abyss by going broke several times over, is enough to wreak havoc on even the best.
If seeing the door to a potential future as a poker pro slam shut would be too much to bear, there’s no shame in staying home and sticking to what you know best.
A big part of becoming a professional poker player is finding good games. Las Vegas has more poker games than anywhere else in the world, so it’s a good place to be as a poker player. But it’s not the only option for pro poker players. Only you can determine if Las Vegas is the best place to advance your poker career.