The Cards Spoke

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10/20/2003

 

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.

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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 cot 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 sucker 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 ‘Em or stud tournament, and he exclaims "Stud!" and I want to pull an Ed Norton in fight club and punch myself in the face. I tell M, who wants to pull a Brad Pitt and punch me in the face, and we dejectedly turn to discuss our options. What a choke, I didn't even ask what kind of tournament it was, even though all I had to go on was some lady at the Luxor's guess that the tourney was Hold ‘Em. A $30 cab fare for nothing, and what's worse is we have to come back here to collect if Klitschko wins.

We decide that we have to hit a poker room somewhere, and the natural choice is to return to the soft games of Excalibur and try one last time to get a spin on the money wheel. M gets the first seat this time, and I join him a few minutes later, saying hi to the rock from last night who had the hernia operation. There are a few young, clueless looking players at the table, and the game looks pretty soft to me. The first hour is relatively uneventful, and I win a couple small pots to pull in $60, while M loses a couple to go down 35. The money wheel sits quietly in the corner, getting spun occasionally by some lucky tourists.

I'm dealt pocket 8's in early position, and I pre-flop raise it the max to $8 to try to drive some players out of the pot. A couple players fold, and a young redhead girl on the button calls, along with one other player. She has been playing tight, so I think my pocket 8's are in trouble, but maybe she's got A-K. The flop comes rainbow 8-J-4, and I figure the pot is mine, hoping that somebody with A-J will call me down to the river. I want to slow play it, but I figure I should just bet, figuring that redhead won't fold anyway. I bet out 6, and the 2 players fold to the redhead, who reraises me 6, to my delight and surprise. I put her on A-J, and everyone else folds, leaving us heads-up. I reraise it to 18, and she calls, and I can't be happier. The turn comes 6, which I figure can't hurt me, so I bet. Redhead immediately raises, and I start to get a little worried. Could she have pocket Jacks? I call her, and think about the odds of two sets on the same hand. But the dealer turns over a beautiful 8 on the river, and I actually feel a bit bad since I think she had me beat before, and I'm about to take all her chips. I bet and am called, and turn over my 8s, as the table "ooohhhs" and she mucks her cards angrily. Ah well... I rake in the big pot and realize that IT'S TIME TO SPIN THE WHEEL! The $60 she just contributed to me is probably a lot more than I'll get from the wheel, but hey, IT'S THE MONEY WHEEL!

I stand up to spin and ask the manager if the wheel has to go around twice in order for the spin to count. "Yeah but it spins pretty easily, so don't worrry about that." I look at the wheel, which is full of $20 and $30 markings, but I want to hit the "Triple" mark, which gives you another spin at triple the value. I try to get 2 full rotations to the triple, and give it a soft spin at what I figure will be the only time I ever spin a money wheel. Click, click, click goes the clacker, and I retreat towards my seat with an eye on the wheel. The triple goes past 2, 3 times and the $20 approaches the pin. The pin goes over the $20s, and ends up anticlimactically at the $30. I groan, and collect my $30 chips from the floorman before sitting back down. Ah well, at least I got to spin!

M asks the manager if he can put the fight on the big screen, which is currently tuned to a baseball game. He fiddles with the remote a while, and then we are treated to a closeup on the mug of the big Russian, who appears ready to fight. Lewis comes in, looking a little bit pudgy, but more or less in shape. I'm feeling pretty good about this bet as the fight starts, and the Russian dances with Lennox awhile before landing a couple of straight right hands. Lennox looks a little lazy, and although the Russian fights stiffly, our bet is looking pretty good after the first round. The HBO announcers give the first round to Klitschko, as M and I try to catch the action between folds.

The fight goes on and the Russian is outboxing Lewis, who looks tired and out of shape after 3 rounds. The judges give Klitschko the first 3 rounds, but he is lunging too much and looks like he will be caught by a Lewis bomb if he keeps it up. In the 4rth, Lewis catches him with an overhand right that spurts blood from the Russian's eye, but it looks like a glancing blow. The big brit then tackles Klitschko, and the 2 go to the mat together. The round ends, and HBO gives us a close up on the Russian's cut right eye, where the skin has been split and looks like a fresh cut of salmon. M and I groan, and I tell the table that the docs will soon stop it with a gash like that. But the Russian comes out strong in the 5th, and lands a couple hard shots... Lennox gets in a couple also, but at the end of the 5th the judges have Klitschko winning 4 rounds, and Lennox 1. Lennox bombs away in the 6th, landing a couple big shots that stagger the Russian, but both fighters appear strong. As they come out to start the 7th, the referee steps in and a crowd fills the ring. Klitschko looks angry, and even gets in Lewis' face as the two talk trash in the center of the ring. Looks like they stopped it. TKO Lewis if the docs have forced Klitschko to stop, and Lennox raises his arm in victory. But wait--after some commotion, a bloody face Klitschko stands on the ropes, raising his arm to the crowd in victory. M and I get excited, thinking that a stoppage may go to the scorecards, and the Russian may have pulled it out! After more commotion, Lewis again raises his arm, and we wait for a ruling. With the sound off, we have no idea, but eventually a graphic announces that Lewis has won by TKO. Ah well... a good bet, which I would make again... a $40 gash, which M and I will have to win back on the BJ table.

After 3 hours at the Excalibur, the BJ tables are calling, and after M takes a big pot down with 5s full of kings, I cash out up 100 (miserable after hitting that 4 of a kind), and M down 16. Both of us were doing fine until a kid from Seattle sat down and not only was dealt pocket aces 5 times, but won with them all 5 times. He demolished the table, but M and I managed to avoid most of his Aces, except when I was whooped with my pair of queens after he put a straddle (a blind raise without looking at his cards) on the table. Anyway, I'm back even in poker after last night, and we head towards the front to catch a cab downtown. Feeling good (and at this point heavily buzzed after 3 hours of continuous cocktails), we look for the cab line outside, but can't seem to find the entrance. Finally we see the "taxi line" sign right in front of the outside of the hotel, and I hop in line, fast-walking to get in front of the guy with the suitcase and his wife. I thought my fast-walk was a fair deal, almost a cut, but we had position, so no big deal. We grab a cab after a short wait, and we're headed downtown...

M: "Did you hear that guy?" H: "No... what?" M: "He said--did they just cut us?" H: "Yeah we just beat them to the line." M: (smiling) "Ahhh, no, there was a MASSIVE line going into the hotel." H: (laughing) "What? No way!" M: "Yup, it was stretching wwwwwaaaaay into the hotel..." H: "That's hilarious!" M: "Yeah, I wanted to see if the guy said something. He didn't so I didn't move." H: "That's great."

We were then in for the ride of the trip, greeted by a jolly foreign driver by a string of "yo what's up homies!" and other technical slang terminology. We asked where he was from and he told us Russia, so we mocked Klitschko for a couple minutes before moving on to more important topics... M: "Do you gamble?" Cabbie: "No, I used to play poker, but I got kicked out of MGM." M: "For what?" Cabbie: "Counting cards n shit." H: (pause) "In poker?" Cabbie: (pause) "...Poker, 21, everything" H: (smelling a rat) "What count system do you use?" Cabbie: "What do you mean?" H: "For counting... you know, Hi-Lo, Halves..." Cabbie: "There are different systems? I just use the one my dad taught me!"

We stepped out of the cab baffled and happy that the cabbie would lie about counting cards, which apparently was a cool thing to do. Yeah, we're cool!

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But alas, these 9 pages of trip report must end here. You will not hear of the losing battle that our young narrator and his faithful friend waged that night. The gods of chance were not kind to our heroes that night, and left them beaten mentally and spiritually. You will not hear of how far below the normal curve their results fell. Our narrator doesn't have the energy to tell you how he placed 3rd in a Sunday Hold 'Em tournament at the Luxor (yes, our heroes finally made it to a tournament), winning $75 on his $20 buy-in. You will not be given details of the 7 hour ride home, where our narrator played 3 hours of single deck blackjack against his dealing friend, and he was down nearly $2000 fictional dollars. You also can't be sure that he won all this back and more at card roulette, Dostoevsky style. You won't hear of the invention of a new casino game, "Find the Joker," developed by our heroes, and mastered by our non-narrator. What you will hear is that our duo went to sleep that night, not saddened by the money they lost, but strengthened by the experience, and dreaming of the next time the chips are on the table...



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