TRIP REPORT: VEGAS, June 19-21 2003

This was the first trip report I ever wrote, and represents the real turning point for me in terms of switching over from blackjack to poker. I’d only been playing poker for a few weeks before the trip, but it really sucked me in on this trip. The report is old, but I thought it sort of acts as an intro to the journal.

Although there is a fair bit of poker content in the report, I wrote it to document the trip rather than to document the poker playing. I spent about half my time counting cards, and the other half playing poker, so if you just want to read the poker stuff, feel free to skip over the blackjack.


TRIP REPORT: VEGAS, June 19-21 2003

Friday After a 2 month delay, my birthday Vegas trip is finally underway, as M ditches work early (1:00 pm) and I take off to meet him at 2–how convenient when the boss’s baby keeps him up all night! Looks like luck is on our side before we even hit the road… until we hit a horrible patch of traffic on the 15, and crawl through the desert, finally greeted by the Luxor moonbeam at 8:45 pm. Like an idiot, I have lifted legs the day before the trip, so I nearly collapse when my feet hit the pavement. We’ve decided to see if we can find a late-night poker tournament somewhere on the strip, since we figure that the BJ tables will be full prime-time Friday night.

After reading about a couple small Saturday tourneys at the Luxor and Mandalay Bay, we wander through Mandalay Bay as our eyes wander through fake breasts towards the poker room. We get there and are told that there are no weekend MB poker tourneys, although they have a daily weekday tournament, which we already missed. Strike 1. Undiscouraged, we hit the walkway to the Luxor, where I know there is a Saturday morning tourney. The guy at the poker desk tells us that there are tournaments at 10 and 12 the next morning, with only a $20 buy in, but if we want to play we had best get there early. M and I are unsure if this is good or bad news… even the noon tournament would require getting up at around 9 if we wanted to eat breakfast and make it from our downtown Hotel (Fitzgerald’s). We discuss the odds of waking up this early on our way to Excalibur, where we have heard that there is a nice friendly low-limit poker room. On the tram ride over, some girl’s ass inadvertently swallows M’s hand, and we take this as a sign of good luck.

We enter the small Excalibur poker room and ask what tables are available–the business-like manager tells us that it’s a 2-6 game, where players can raise $6 at any time, with a limit of 4 raises. I’ve never heard of this betting structure, and as I’m trying to figure out how this would change the game, I catch sight of the “money wheel,” a wheel of fortune type thing near the back corner of the room. I ask the manager what we need to do to spin the money wheel: Manager: “Either pocket aces beaten, or 4 of a kind or better.” I try to figure the probabilities, and figure that neither of us will hit it in the 2 hours or so we will play, but as people are spinning the thing every 5 minutes or so, optimism rears its pretty face and I wonder if M is also mumbling “mmmmonnnney wheeellllll” like Homer Simpson.

After only a couple minutes I get a seat, as M graciously gives me first shot at the table. Or maybe not graciously. I sit down at the friendliest table I have ever seen (we ain’t in Inglewood, Toto–no angry players like at my usual joint, Hollywood Park). The dealer is even laughing. I get lectured on the rules by the friendly old dealer (“Have you ever played here before son?), and a hefty dude with a goatee, dark shades, and an upper lip full of dip is to my left. The hefty dude starts off immediately, pulling some sort of cool, talkative Chris Farley act, and I figure that this table is guaranteed money.

I put my $140 buy-in on the table and look at my first cards to find J-10 offsuit in late position, and even though I have no clue what is going on at this table, I figure the players as a bunch of tourist calling stations. I throw in my 2 chips for a call, hoping not to see any raises. But the lady on the blinds raises it 6 to make it 8, and 2 players call. I throw in my 6 to call, still confused by the betting structure. Great start–8 chips to play J-10 offsuit. The flop comes 9c-Qc-Qh and one lady bets 6, I call with my open straight, and the raiser calls. I figure someone has the queen, and I’m happy that I’ve got a shot at the pot, which is now up over $50. The turn is the 7 of hearts… first lady bets, second lady raises to make it 12, and I am ordering a drink instead of calculating pot odds, so I throw in my 12, making the pot huge at $76. The river comes Kh, and I should be happy to rake in the huge pot for my straight, but something doesn’t feel right. The first lady bets, and I call, and button reraises again. Pot is huge so I have to call, but warning bells are going off… I am the first to show, and the early bettor turns over… Ah 9h??? Pair of 9s? Ahh, I missed the flush! And to rub it in, the raiser turns over Q-9 for the full house. I am amazed at the horribility of this play, and I look at my previously full rack of chips–now half empty. First hand in Vegas, and I’m down $36.

Hefty dude with the shades keeps talkin it up, and we learn he is a construction worker from Minnesota. By this time, M has moved to my table, and judging from the height of his stack he is doing better than me… 3rd to act, M raises it 6 to Minnesota Fats, who reraises to 12. I ponder my A-7 offsuit, and decide to throw it away to let M battle it out with Minnesota. Everyone else folds, M calls and the flop comes K-A-A. I am hoping M has A-K, but i can never put him on a hand anyway, so I bail and try to figure out what Minnesota’s got. Fats thinks for a while, and suprisingly comes out with, “That’s a great raise… great raise” and mucks his hand. Matt turns over K-10 and takes the pot, and the woman to Fats’ left asks what he had. “I had an Ace, what do you think I had? That was a great bet, I can’t call that!” I tell Fats I would have called, and the woman says, “Why didn’t you make a great call then?” I tell them I threw away my Ace pre-flop, and knowing Fats style, I tell him that I don’t think he had the Ace. Fats doesn’t like this, and gets quiet, and I decide to move next to M, where a seat has just opened up, although I was barely able to leave the money seat the the left of Minnesota. Fats is quiet for the remainder of the night, and soon leaves, while M and I sadly watch him go. I am sure he didn’t have an Ace.

The next two hours prove relatively uneventful… I lose big with A-K when a King flops and a rock who has played about 5 hands in the 2 hours we’ve been there calls me down to the river, and turns over his pocket Aces. As I ponder my bad play, the rock informs M that he’s in the worst pain of his life due to a recent hernia operation. I feel better and win a couple small pots, while M goes heads up a couple times against a young Asian kid whose girlfriend is sitting behind him silently. He wins the first battle, when 3 Kings flop and he calls the kid’s reraises with his pocket Queens, and the kid turns over a raggedy 7-3 at the showdown. The kid’s bluff proves profitable later on when M refuses to lay down his K-J on the A-Q-7 flop, and the kid shows down A-K.

We leave at 12:40, with M up 20 after 3 hours, and me down 100, mostly on the 2 big hands I lost early. Neither of us spin the wheel, but the look in M’s eye tells me we will be back… the next hour sees us through the residential neighborhoods of downtown Vegas when we take a wrong turn coming off the exit ramp. After driving past the “Default Senior Center,” we stumble upon downtown and arrive at the Fitzgerald at 1:40 AM.

Check in: we discover that we’ve been given 1 king size bed, and of course it’s too late to switch rooms. I feel like the main character in Lolita, as the clerk tells us he can give us a c
ot for free, and I prepare to fight for another bed for M. Thankfully, the manager is there and comps us a free trip to the buffet, which is good enough for M, who will happily take the cot and the free food. We won’t be sleeping much anyway.

After dropping our bags off (the room smelled strangely of wintergreen Skoal), we grab a late dinner at Shamrock’s, Fitzgerald’s 24-hour restaurant. The fries taste like cardboard, and we discuss the possibility of getting up early enough to play. An 8:45 wake up is not appealing, and we decide to sleep late and try to get in the 7 pm tourney at the Orleans, since we figure to own the blackjack tables at this hour. M wakes himself up and we hit the Fitz double deck tables, which offer pretty good penetration (.6) and great rules. We get a table to ourselves, and the counting begins.

We’re back and forth with $5 and $10 bets for a while as I wait for a good count. M looks like the game has woken him up, but sadly for me, there is no longer much adrenaline contributed by Blackjack. However, I figure that once the $50 bets come out, things should be more fun. The dealer, a middle-aged Asian guy, shuffles, and M tries to ease his boredom, striking up a conversation. The dealer, Chung, says he plays craps, and seems genuinely friendly. The momentum swings from M and I against the table to include Chung, who nows seems to be honestly rooting for us. So it’s us 3 against the house, but the positive counts are few and far between. The count hovers around zero as the night slowly rolls on, despite Chung’s best attempts to break the house. M and I hover around zero, and Chung looks about as bored as I am… in my favorite dealer moment of the trip, I get a 15 against a face card with a $25 bet out. I ask Chung for a 6, and suprisingly, he turns over a 6, leans forward and nearly punches me in the face as he celebrates the win with a fist pump. Finally after 3 hours of uneventful play, M is down 100 and I’m up 45, and we call it a night. I ask M about his “rogue betting” tactics, as he threw out a few medium sized bets against negative counts. He mumbles an answer, which I interpret to be something about the game being boring, which I definitely agree with. Alas, my love affair with Blackjack seems to be over.

In perhaps the most bizarre moment of the trip, I hop in bed and shut off the lights, and say good night to M who is reading peacefully in his cot. The book has no cover, but looks pretty hefty. I close my eyes for 5 minutes and suddenly remember something M said on the ride to Vegas: H: “Ahhh, what are you reading?” M: (mumbles) H: “IS THAT HARRY POTTER???” M: (grinning) H: “YOU’RE READING HARRY POTTER IN VEGAS!” M: (wider grin) H: “That’s gotta bring bad luck.” M: “No way–it’s magic!”

Saturday We get up at 11:30 after 6 hours of sleep, and amazingly we both feel very awake. We missed the tourney, but we take comfort in the fact that we can play in the Orleans tourney at 7, when the BJ tables will be packed anyway. So we have optimized our gambling as far as beating the crowds. After using our comp for the buffet (of course we missed breakfast by an hour–who the hell makes it up for breakfast by 10:30 in Vegas???), and I force down some spaghetti and meatballs to provide fuel for the day.

Time to bomb some single and double deck tables downtown–the plan is to hit each one for an hour, and move on to the next one. We start at the famous Horseshoe, planning to check out the poker room where the World Series is held. But we do a cartoon character stop at an empty single deck table, and in an hour I drop 90 while M wins 15. I lose a couple big hands with true counts over 5, ignoring the young pit boss who is more concerned with the player betting 4 greens in seat 1. Unfortunately 2 players joined us, so most of the good hands were eaten up and each of us only got to see 2 hands before a shuffle. The tiny poker room is disappointing, although the aura of the World Series is faintly present. But present enough for M and I to agree that we will try to make it for next May’s tourney.

The next hour takes us through a couple Downtown joints (Golden Nugget and Golden Gate) for more uneventful BJ. M wins 20 more over the course of a couple hours, and I drop 20. We just can’t seem to get that high positive count that makes the big money, and the dealers are hitting 5 card 21s and some ridiculous draws. M deflects the little heat we might get from the pit bosses, as he cracks enough jokes to make the dealer laugh and the pit bosses back off. Perfect conditions, just no results.

We finally arrive at Lady Luck, which according to the BJ journals, offers the most profitable game in town with their single deck game. But we opt for a double deck game with one player after not finding any single deck games going on, and the penetration is excellent–once again, great conditions. The trend of slow games continues, although we do see a few high positive counts… the other player at the table busts out, and we welcome the new dealer–a short little guy of unknown ethnicity with a name tag labeled “VALE”.

Vale deals quickly, stone-faced as M and I hope to get on a run with this guy. I ask him where he’s from, but his lizard eyes only look at me and wait for me to hit or stay. I ask again, but he continues to deal, ignoring me. H: “I guess Vale’s not in the mood.” M: “He’s not much of a talker, I guess.” H: “That’s fine with me!”

The uneventful blackjack goes on, and the great conditions continue, but the counts hover around zero for what seems like forever. I try to occupy two chairs to fend off would-be players, but eventually an old Asian lady stops, stands behinds the seat and gets ready to sit down. M and I groan, hoping that the lady will change her mind, and Vale draws a 5 to his 16 to hit 21. She makes some exclamation at seeing the 21, and quickly runs in the other direction. Vale eyes her and looks at us, with what almost looks like a hint of a smile. M: “I guess she didn’t like the dealer!” The smile slowly creeps across the lizard face, and the floodgates are open. Vale waves her away with his 3-card 21, and says “Good riddance!” I smile at M, who has finally cracked the Vale after over an hour of playing in complete silence. The silent dealer turns into a stand up comedy act, faking blackjacks after checking the hole card, and just doing strange things with the cards.

M’s luck with the dealer does not continue on to the cards, where he drops 120 in our 3-hour stint. I am up 50 after hitting and missing a few big bets. We were hoping to hit the pride of the downtown meal, the Horseshoe steak and eggs for a pre-tournament (poker at the Orleans) dinner, but we just can’t leave Vale. Finally at 5:30 we drag ourselves away from the table and grab a quick bite at McDonald’s before heading out. M wolfs down a burger ordered “H-style” (he’s eating healthy this weekend!) and we wade through the humid desert air to the first cab to the Orleans. We decide on the cab, figuring it will be 20 bucks each way, but I will be allowed to drink and won’t have to fight traffic, etc. And our cab drivers sure made it worthwhile…

We hop in the cab and I start coaching M: H: “Remember that people play much tighter in the tourney. Even K-J is a weak hand once the tourney tightens up.” The cabbie, a middle-aged black dude pipes in, Cabbie: “Sounds like y’all are poker players!” M: “Yep, we’re going to play in the tournament at the Orleans.” Cabbie: “Yeah, they gotta lotta em there.” H: “Do you play?” Cabbie: “Yeah…” H: “Which game? Stud?” Cabbie: “Yeah, I used to play some, but not much anymore.” H: “How long you been in Vegas?” Cabbie: “17 years… and it’s the best place to be if you’re lookin for women” H: “Yeah, my buddy and I were just noticing that when we got here…” Cabbie: “Fuck yeah! Finest bitches in the world be up in here, that’s where all the suckers are at!” H: “Yeah, I guess a pretty girl can make a lot of money here…” Cabbie: “I know this one bitch, she say some su
cker throwin her black chip every 20 minutes! I say bitch, why the fuck you hangin with me, you better go stand next to that sucker till his motherfuckin feet fall off! Shit, I’d stand there forever if he was givin me black chips! And it ain’t like the old rich guys ain’t getting their money’s worth… even if they ain’t getting pussy, they still get to walk around with a fine young thing on their arm. Money for the spendin! Like Tina said, what THE FUCK has love got to do with it???”

The man was a true vulgarian, and M and I thoroughly enjoyed the cynical diatribe on Vegas pussy. Unfortunately the cab ride was nearly 30 bucks with the tip, but hey, what the fuck has love got to do with it. We take our second-hand emotion into the Orleans, a big off-strip casino that supposedly hosts small buy-in poker tournaments. As we wander around looking for the poker room, the sheer size of the Orleans amazes me. The super high-ceilings and sprawling game room is overwhelming for an off-strip casino, and we finally are told that the poker room is in the back past the sportsbook. As we stride trhough the sportsbook, bells go off in M’s head and he stops dead in his tracks… “The Fight!” slips out from his mouth, and we turn to walk to the board to check on the odds on the Lennox Lewis-Vitaly Klitschko fight, which M remembers since the Staples billboard has been flashing it at us for weeks now. Klitschko is a huge Russian fighter who has looked promising so far, although he hasn’t fought anyone decent yet. It’s his first real fight, but he’s big and seems to be a pretty good technical fighter, which contrasts to Lewis’ knockout style. M argues that the champ has grown lax, and the young Russian really has nothing to lose. I agree, and so do the odds, which show Klitschko at a 3.4 to 1 underdog for a straight up win. There is also a number-of-rounds bet which is 1.1 to 1 for over 7.5 rounds and .9 to 1 for under 7.5. I think that if the Russian wins, it will be on technical skill and probably go to the decision, so it looks like the win and the over on rounds is an excellent parlay. A $20 win would win $60 for the straight up, and then double that for the parlay. M and I each opt for a $20 White Russian parlay, but are denied as the Orleans doesn’t accept fight parlays. So we take the straight up win, which will give us $136 if the underdog wins. I feel pretty good about this, and thank M and the Staples billboard for a good shot at $136.

Ok, we’re now off to the poker room, which is a small open room near the back of the casino. I tell the lady at the desk we are signed up for the 7 o’clock tourney, and she tells me to go to the desk. A sign says something about a 7-card stud tournament, and I get a bad feeling in my stomach… sure enough, I ask the desk man if the tourney is a Hold


After 5 months of playing, reading, and thinking the game, I feel it’s time to start recording the thoughts inspired by this complicated game. Before we get started, I thought you all might like to know my background– the angle you approach something affects the manner in which you learn and perform that something, so here goes:

Age: 26
Education: Master of Science, Computer Science (University of California, Irvine)
Past Life: Played football for 17 years– high school –> college –> semipro

Poker History:
After a brief stint as a card counter, I found that the edge a good player can obtain in Texas Hold ‘Em far exceeds any edge on the blackjack table. Although I’d rather take money from a huge casino bankroll than a fellow poker player, the psychological part of poker is more appealing than the mindless math of blackjack. I developed my game playing many hours on Wilson’s Turbo Texas Hold ‘Em, the best software tool for learning Hold Em. Lee Jones’ book was the first I read, followed by some Sklansky and both of Krieger’s books. I quickly moved past the wild $2-4 games (learning about variance along the way) at the local B&M to the $3-6 games where I took a few lumps while learning, but generally did ok. I did better online, where the play is more rational (“by the book”) and it’s much easier to put people on hands. Not surprisingly, I am a much bigger winner in the tight online games (where people actually fold and there is much more skill in reading hands) than in the wild B&M games in LA. I’m working on my “no fold ’em” skills, and still hoping to book that monster win at the Hollywood Park (my B&M) $6.12 game.

I keep session statistics with, an excellent free site that helps keep track of your stats over time. Here are my stats so far:

RESULTS FROM 2003-05-30 TO 2003-10-19: I AM $1466.84 AHEAD OVER 142 DAYS.
EARNINGS: $1466.84 AVG. RETURN: $12.43 RETURN STD.: $149.60
WIN RATE: $5.57/HR AVG. WIN RATE: $21.22/HR WIN RATE STD.: $117.58/HR
HOURS: 263.53 AVG. HOURS: 2.23

Note that the number of hours is inflated, since I usually play 2 tables at the same time when playing online. PokerCharts also gives us the following nugget:

From 2003-05-30 to 2003-10-19 I have mostly played Hold ‘Em (84% of the time), and after that Tournament Hold ‘Em (16% of the time). I am most successful playing Hold ‘Em ($1,324 overall), and least successful playing Tournament Hold ‘Em ($143 overall). In terms of venues, I play best at PartyPoker ($2,663 overall) and worst at Hollywood Park ($-1,016 overall). I have been averaging 12.99 hours of poker a week, or 11.60% of my waking hours (assuming I sleep eight a night).

I have moved up the limits to play $6-12 at B&M and $5-10 online (two tables). This is a little bit over my head bankroll wise, although I have a good job and some savings, so I suppose I’m in decent shape as far as bankroll goes. It is worth noting that in the last week, I have had both my biggest losing session and my biggest winning session. The biggest loser was at a wild weekend no fold em $6.12 game at Hollywood Park: $-680 in 9 hours! I had all kinds of bad beats, and while playing pretty well overall, I loosened up a bit too much at the end of the night, so I attribute a good portion of the loss to a lesser form of tilt. Luckily 3 days later (after vowing to “take a break” from poker) I was able to book a $660 win playing 2 party $5.10 tables for only an hour and fifteen minutes. There were a couple players just giving their money away, and I caught a nice run of cards… needless to say I felt a lot better about the big loss… and my best hourly win rate was 4 times greater than my worst hourly loss rate!

That’s it for my introduction. Hopefully this journal will help me improve my game, as well as give me a chance to develop some thoughts worth developing. And if it gives some readers a few laughs or nods of recognition along the way, that would be nice too…