Las Vegas at World Series of Poker

It’s a poker player’s dream. Or it should be — going out to Las Vegas during the World Series of Poker (WSOP for short). There is really no other poker experience anything like it. I try to do it every year — though I’ve missed a few during the last ten years. Since 2006 I’ve gone out during the WSOP 12 times. They’ve each been great in their own way.

I used to go to cover the event for a publication or radio show. I didn’t do that this time. I went out strictly for me (though I did have a few articles on the event published in I used to hang out in the press room, walk around the tournament area a few times every day, interview a few “name pros”, and write of my impressions. That was fun. But it isn’t necessary to enjoy the event.

The great thing about the WSOP, and what makes it unique in all the world for major high level competitions, is that anyone, and I mean anyone, can compete with the very best in the world, with at least some decent chance of prevailing. Joe Poker Player from Cowdung, USA, who just learned how to play the game this year, can pay the entry fee for a bracelet event (one of the events that awards a gold bracelet to the winner), sit next to the most famous poker player in the world, play hands against that pro, and beat them out of a pot. It happens thousands of times a day at the WSOP.

Can you imagine doing that in any other competitive event? Imagine being on the roster for a major league game, facing your favorite MLB pitcher, and getting a hit. Imagine catching a pass and scoring a touchdown against your favorite team, or golfing against the best in the world and winning a hole. All clearly, humorously impossible. Not so with the WSOP. Pay the entry fee, get your seat, and you might find yourself playing hands against the stars — and winning from time to time — maybe even the whole tournament. It happens.

So that’s where I was for a few days. I didn’t enter the $10,000 Main Event that is shown on TV and that has become synonymous with the WSOP. I played in a $1,500 event. I didn’t win; I didn’t cash; I barely won any hands as it turned out. But I lasted for 9 hours, took some hands off of some professional players, and enjoyed the experience. Though, to be sure, I would have enjoyed it a whole lot more if I had at least made it to day 2 of this 3 day event (something I’ve done in the past — though I’ve never won an event). As it was, I busted out when my 777 starting hand, that improved to a full house lost to Aces full on the river. Alas. Still, it was fun.

I have some takeaways from Las Vegas this year — some things that seemed very different from years past. I hadn’t been in four years — and the landscape has changed considerably in some ways. Let me share them with you.

5 Things in Las Vegas that have changed since my last WSOP in 2018.

  1. Many fewer poker rooms

Sadly, the pandemic, and the general decline in poker has caused many of the poker rooms that operated in 2018 to close. No more: Mirage, Club Fortune, Green Valley Ranch, Flamingo, Mandalay Bay, Binions, Silver Sevens, Planet Hollywood, Cannery, Excalibur, Harrahs, Palace Station, Rio, Sam’s Town, The Strat, Arizona Charlie’s Decator, or Treasure Island. I played in each, most a few times, some many times. I missed them all; and I’m sorry to see them go.

2. A whole lot of pot

I walked around a lot — at least 5 miles every day. I walked the full length of the strip, from the Strat down to Mandalay Bay. I walked around Chinatown, in North Las Vegas, on Spring Mountain, Twain, and dozen other streets. Everywhere — and I mean everywhere outside — there was the pungent aroma of marijuana. The city is also full of marijuana dispensaries. I passed half a dozen at least — probably more. People are lighting up all over the place — outside casino entrances, at gas stations, at bus stops, in fields, on city benches — all over. In 2018 you might smell it once every couple of day — but no one was smoking it openly.

3. Many more homeless and open poverty

There were people sleeping out in the open before. There were always a few bums and drunks that you’d see — especially downtown. But this trip seemed like the numbers of folks out on the streets had quadrupled. That could be a function of the weather only going up to 105 — instead of 120 as it had been in July when I would typically go — corresponding with the Main Event. Maybe people seek indoor shelter when the temperature becomes truly unbearable. So I can’t be sure that there are more poor people. But, man, I sure saw more — many more.

4. Prices are much higher.

This should be no surprise — as it’s going on everywhere around the world. But it was a bit of a shock to see how ridiculous they are pricing things at Bally’s and Paris — ground zero for the WSOP. Coffee was $9+, a bag of chips was $6, a slice of pizza was $11, water was $9. Insane!! But even at the historically moderate Asian places I was blown away. $14 for a noodle soup, $19 for a rice plate (at inexpensive places in Chinatown). Of course you could still find bargains — which I did. Roberto’s had a $5 burrito. There was a $3 1/4 pound hot dog and beer, and a $1 beer across the street from Bally’s at the Stage Canteen, and 2 slices of pizza for $1 at 7-11 (and the pizza was at least fair). But expect to pay a lot more for your victuals than you have in the past.

And don’t even get me started on rental cars. They were so high that I did without the first few days (see my remarks about buses below).

5. A lot more dirt and debris

This was disappointing. Las Vegas has never been the cleanest place. But the amount of trash on the sidewalk — even in front of high priced strip hotels — was much, much greater than before. I have no idea if this was just a blip or a trend — as I was only in town for 5 days. But it was noticeable. And I walked early in the morning, just as I did my last few visits.

6. Less traffic

Sure, traffic on the strip was annoying. But it was noticeably less than before — I’d estimate about 30% less. In 2018 it was often moving at a bare crawl on the Strip. It could take 30-40 minutes just to move a couple of blocks — not just at night but even during the day. This trip the same trip frequently took 5-10 minutes. Still stopping a few times for traffic — but moving along. Similarly, the side roads were often unimpeded at all. I zipped along at all times of day and night. Again, it could have been the product of my visit being earlier in the summer than in years past. This year I was there the first weekend in June; in the past I had been there the first and second week of July. But I didn’t have a problem getting around.

I noticed a few other things that aren’t comparatives — as I hadn’t done them before.

I rode the buses. They are excellent. Having a mass transit feature on my phone helps a lot. I could time my arrival at bus stops; and I’d know how long I’d have to wait. I could see all the routes and how to get from place to place most efficiently. This made a huge differences from how I approached buses before. They were mysteries. So I avoided them. This time I went all over; and enjoyed my experience.

Buses are cheap. $2 for a city bus with many free transfers. I bought a 3 day unlimited pass for $20. If you can get a senior ID it’s half price (60+).

You can’t safely walk from the airport. I tried. I tried to walk to my hotel — a distance of about 3 miles. I was met with highway entrances when I left the airport. There may be a way to navigate to a city street without encountering scary highways and entrance ramps, but I couldn’t figure it out. I ended up taking a city bus. It would have been $2, but I used my $20 for 3-day pass. It was a hell of a lot cheaper than Uber, Lyft or a cab. They would have been $30 to my hotel. And a rental car would have been $500 for a week.

A moderately inexpensive option for renting a car, that I took advantage of, was to use a non-airport rental service. I rented a car for two days at the Westin Hotel, across the street from Bally’s. It was Enterprise. The total cost, including taxes, fees, and a gas surcharge, was $90. Had I rented from the airport it would have been almost double that. Pick up and drop off were easy. I did the drop off after they were closed for the day. Very easy.

Resorts World is really, really, really nice — and they have mixed games! If I only had one room to play in it would surely be there. Gary Hager, the poker room manager who opened the room, has done a tremendous job. The staff are the best in Las Vegas from what I can see. And it’s just a great place to play. I hit on an $8/16 17-game mixed game and had a ball. They also spread the typical NLHE and PLO. But you’ve got to go here for the mixed games. In addition to $8/16 they had $4/8, $80/160 (in a glassed off room inside the main poker room). They also had super high stakes PLO and NLHE: $300/600 and $500/1000 respectively. Too rich for me — but maybe not for you.

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