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Las Vegas Virgins

by Jennifer Mason |  Published: Sep 01, 2009


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I spent the whole month of June in Las Vegas; a stretch of time which would undoubtedly have resulted in slot machine noise-induced psychosis had it not been in a huge house off-strip. Groups of players who want to be able to get up and eat cereal in their own kitchen before tackling the crush of the Amazon Room at the Rio have long known the benefits of renting privately over total hotel immersion. This time round, the small UK stable of Neil Channing’s Black Belt Poker were the beneficiaries of their own swimming pool (complete with waterfall and miniature grotto), pool table, and a house which could comfortably sleep the nightly population of the Victoria Casino. That’s where I spent the first few weeks watching how eight young, mainly online players would adapt to the culture shock and general poker overload which awaited them.

For a start, the variety of live games on offer 24/7 was an eye-opener for many. Players like Adam Latimer who’d comfortably beaten the mid-stakes pot-limit and no-limit Omaha high-low games online, now found that one could play this at many stakes levels with real cards, against real people who were often just dipping a toe into something new. In tournament form the still niche games were the ones in which he and fellow housemate Richard Hawes saw the most value. “You know what’s going to happen?” he said as we made our way to the Binion’s Poker Classic $150 pot-limit Omaha high-low tournament, “Someone will hit a set on a low board, the whole thing will straighten out, and he’ll still stack off on the river.” Like a prophet of donking, Adam did in fact receive exactly that helpful start to his tournament, which the participants regarded as a warm-up for the $1,500 bracelet event in the same game coming up later that week.

In fact, it was another one of the group who went deepest in that tournament, David Tighe, who’d never played before. Roland de Wolfe, who actually won the high-low bracelet, apparently decided to make some strategy-related phone calls to more experienced players somewhere around the day 2 mark when it looked like he was actually getting somewhere. Stories like the Jennifer Harman’s first-time-playing bracelet win at deuce-to-seven lowball clearly have an insidious encouraging effect.

There’s no better opportunity in the world to take on forms of tournament poker which aren’t Texas hold’em; they are rarely offered at all, but at the World Series of Poker, they are part of the 57-event carnival generating impressive field sizes. This year saw, for example, a $10,000 mixed event bring together everything from razz to pot-limit Omaha in one confusing eight-game package, which still attracted 194 entrants and was won by Finn Ville Wahlbeck.

Meanwhile, cash games extended their tempting tentacles from a variety of plush surroundings such as the Venetian, Bellagio, and Wynn, where you can play bigger live stakes than most European venues offer against the highest concentration of poker players (good and bad) anywhere in the world. The huge poker factory which the Rio Convention Centre becomes isn’t the be all and end all of the WSOP action, although everyone I was living with started out their days in there, one way or the other.

For these mainly online players, it was a fairly new experience to be thrown into the biggest live tournament fields around, day after day. High volume grinder Sida Yuen, for example, experienced the frustration of busting from just one table per day, which sucks up a lot of hours thanks to the triple-stack innovation this year. He returned from the $5,000 short-handed event making a noise like a traumatised elephant and alternating between haranguing himself, the deck, and his opponents; it’s obviously easier to avoid the emotional highs and lows which come with tournament variance when you can just open another six immediately.

I’ve heard the phrase, “Live tournaments suck,” more times in one week than in the whole preceding month. Sarah Berry, who’s been out here playing cash, noticed that the online regulars often showed the standard combination of aloof superiority and nail-biting ennui. “All the ones dressed like the Unabomber tend to get busy indiscriminately,” she said, “presumably because they’re bored.” The WSOP might be somewhat tedious for players used to many more hands per hour — but it seems that no one, from the online names to the elderly gentlemen who’ve come here for the last 25 years, can pass up the opportunity that it represents.

Along with the bad surprises, like how tough it is to actually win a WSOP event (no matter how easy JP Kelly might make it look), came the realization that the World Series, as it drew near the main event, offered an unparalleled series of opportunities for party attendance. Invite eight guys, whose average age is 22, to the Hugh Hefner suite at the Palms Hotel, give them unlimited booze and access to a balcony pool, and you can imagine the results. Like most things in life, they had to learn the hard way that getting up for a noon bracelet event after a night out in this town is extremely difficult. The WSOP provides the perfect environment to take advantage of as much live poker as you can take, while simultaneously providing more diversions from the game than anywhere else on earth. Our guys normally only have to cope with the distraction of late night re-runs of QI on Dave while playing poker. Over here the taxi drivers all try to convince you that you really wanted to go to a strip club in the first place, and the clock-less casinos are finely tuned to keep you within their air-conditioned walls for as long as possible.

There’s no doubt the Black Belt players all take the game, and their staking, very seriously — most have been making a living from it for a good while (Kevin Allen, Jerome Bradpiece, to name two more), and all came out to the Series with the intention of giving every tournament a good shot, and taking advantage of the soft cash games in between. But the Vegas first-timers would have to be blindfolded and bundled into and out of a taxi every day to escape some of the hedonistic neon-lit delights which await winners and losers alike. Jamie Roberts is a good example — 16th in the $2,000 no-limit hold’em event, and then 34th in the following week’s $1,500 event, at the time of writing he wins the house prize for both cashing and partying in between. Even staying off-strip in a relaxing environment doesn’t help — it’s just a matter of experience before anyone gets the balance right between playing and “playing”. Spade Suit

Jen Mason is a part of She is responsible for its live tournament coverage in the UK and abroad.