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Room Reviews 2: Sahara, Palms, Wynn
CTO "Maniac" 08.27.2007

No, I'm not actually a maniac. I don't play every hand. That was last year. I'm down to every OTHER hand now. Tightened way way up.

I try to make it out to Vegas a few times a year just to avoid getting stuck in a rut. And to do research for future FlopTech products, of course. I'll start the Vegas series of reviews with three very different venues.

The Sahara
Las Vegas Blvd at Sahara Avenue

The outside has a 70s vibe, the inside is nearly generic, just slightly nicer than, say, the Riviera. It's almost like someone added a casino and roller coaster to a Ramada. It's way north on the Strip which is convenient if you want to check out the Stratosphere and downtown. Not so much if you want to hit the bigger, newer casinos on the Strip. But it's unpretentious and the hotel is relatively inexpensive.

The Place: The 11 table poker room is wedged in between slot machines, a restaurant, and an escalator. It can be hard to hear what people say at the tables if you're on the slot machine side. This is one place where I'd wear an iPod or even plain earplugs to reduce the noise pollution. I only played a few tournaments there (finishing 5th the first time).

The tournaments were very well-run, the dealers made almost no mistakes and were generally pleasant. I could have gotten more drinks if I had been more assertive, and waitresses were a solid average in looks.

The Games: No high rollers here, folks. The cash games that the Sahara spreads are $2/$4 limit hold'em. Occasionally they'll start up a $4/$8 limit and $1/$2 NLH game with $100 to $500 buy-in. The NLH games are usually started up after the Sahara's three daily tournaments. And if you're looking for a low-cost way to develop your 20 minute blind tourney chops, the Sahara is the place to go.

The tournaments start at 11am, 7pm, and 11pm. The buy-in for all their tourneys is $42, there's a one-time $20 rebuy (before the first hour) or add-on (after the first hour.) You get 2000 in chips to start, and 1500 for the rebuy or add-on. You're usually up against about 60 to 100 other players. The Sahara's tourneys are generally considered one of the best poker tournament bargains in Vegas. Be sure to sample the sandwiches that they provide on the break during the evening event.

The Players: Quite a few locals, many tourists, and a few dealers from the Sahara and other casinos play the daily tournaments. And most of the field are pretty terrible players. If they were good, they'd be playing more lucrative tourneys elsewhere. Not that I'm all that good, but man some of those people were multi-level donkeys. I saw all kinds of bad play, from calling down with air all the way to the river (a first-time poker player) to telegraphing crystal-clear bluffing tells (an over-aggressive kid) to reading a newspaper while playing (a crusty old local know-it-all).

On the other hand, the field did contain the occasional toughie. A dealer from the Sahara got pretty deep in one of the tournaments I played. And on another occasion, poker pro Joe Awada was moved to our table. We all thought "Cool, it's Joe Awada!" immediately followed by "Oh no, it's Joe Awada!"

Without really trying he knocked out 5 or 6 players and built up a massive stack. If he was serious we would have all been doomed. He could look at a player for 2 seconds and make the right decision. We all knew we were hugely overmatched. His kids came by and asked him if they could watch him play. He said "No, no. Go ride the roller coaster again," and they were delighted.

And then he started dumping chips off to us since he couldn't stay much longer. I had 72 of clubs in the big blind. Joe limped in, the small blind just called, so I checked. The flop was KT7, so I'd hit bottom pair no kicker. He said "OK, I've given chips to you, to you, and to you, but not you. I raise," looking at me and betting most of my stack. Then he said "I have nothing," to which I replied "Well, I have almost nothing." He was a little concerned at that, because it was clear that he was trying to dump off his chips to us before his kids came back. I moved in and he called with 53 offsuit and my sevens held up. Thanks Joe!

His kids came back, he signed a few more Card Player magazines for fans, and he left about 8000 on the table. For a few rounds we helped ourselves to undefended blinds in that seat, but the tournament director removed them and put a new player all too soon.

The Verdict: Great place to develop your small buy-in 20 minute blind tournament chops. If you want to play NLH cash games, wait a few hours after each tournament starts.

 
Palms
West Flamingo, off the Strip

I stayed at the Palms for a few days recently so I'll mention a little about the rooms, clubs, and service. I though it would be cool to stay off the Strip for a change.

The Place: The Palms is a beautiful casino and hotel. Nice woodwork and earth tones everywhere, with just a hint of Mediterranean / Mideastern flair. The casino is subdued and elegant and doesn't have the slightest trace of either cheesiness or pretention. It's dead solid perfectly hip for the MTV demographic, which may explain why The Real World was filmed there. This is where the Hard Rock crowd would stay if they had better taste.

The staff is extremely well trained. Everyone from the valets to the casino hosts to the poker room managers to the food servers to housekeeping seem to have been to the same "Palms Employee School." The reason for these high standards is obvious. They're off the Strip so they have to be good.

The rooms are very nicely done, with plenty of space, nice furniture, and free Rohto V Cool eyedrops in the bathroom. The best anti-redness eyedrops I've ever used. If you stay at the Palms, ask for a room on the 50th to the 52nd floor. There's a separate express elevator just for floors 50-53, Ghostbar on 54, and their fancy French restaurant on 55, Alizé.

But if your room is on the 53rd floor, like mine was, you'll be hearing Ghostbar's pounding bass beats until 4am when they close. The regular tower is nice, and there's a new fantasy tower with very high-end suites and several clubs including the brand new Playboy Club. I'll go next time, but the cover is $40. And I'll tell you right now: the cocktail waitresses in the Palms casino are smokin' hot. And you can see them for free!

If you stay at the Palms they'll comp you passes to Ghostbar and their downstairs nightclub, Rain. I went to Ghostbar and man does that place have a view! You can see the whole Strip from the deck, from the Stratosphere's tower to the golden Mandalay Bay. They spin some mad beats, there are beds and chaises to lounge on.

I had read in Card Player that the Palms offered a poker player room rate. They don't. I got the players' card and they tracked my hours but got no love. I talked to several people, but the casino manager gave me the brush off with a voice mail message. He said "We need to see an average bet of $25." Well, I was playing no-limit. $25 bets are commonplace. (More recent issues of Card Player no longer mention a poker room rate for the Palms.)

I did, however, earn $1 per hour in general Palms comps for playing. I used my comps when I bought a Palms jacket in their gift shop. Also: use the free valet service if you're driving. The valets are efficient, friendly, and can give you all kinds of useful directions and Vegas tips. In general, valets know everything about everything in Vegas. Just be warned that valet parking can get full on weekend nights, and sometimes they will temporarily close the entrance to valet parking to give VIPs more privacy and security.

The Games: The poker room is split into what they call "low limit" and "high limit" sides. "Low limit" means limit hold'em (6 tables, $2/$4 and $4/$8) and "high limit" means no-limit hold'em (4 tables, $2/$5 $200 - $1000 and sometimes $1/$2 $100 - $200 and $5/$10 $500 minimum uncapped buy-in). There were usually one or two $2/$5 games going 24/7. I saw the $5/$10 game going for a few hours on one of my sessions but I didn't play it.

The 10-seat tables are fairly new, have a synthetic suede playing surface, a corian synthetic granite racetrack, and cupholders in the rails. The tables all have built-in shuffle machines, the chairs are comfortable, height-adjustable, and have wheels. There are a few drink tables around. And, as I said ealier, the waitresses are ultra-vixen hot. In fact, the Palms Girl Calendar featured some of them and a $5 chip with the hottest one was issued. I kept one as a souvenir.

You might recognize some of the dealers from Celebrity Poker Showdown when it used to be taped at the Palms. And the beautiful and charming floor manager, Sharon, has dealt on High Stakes Poker as well.

The Players: I'd heard before that there was some wild action at the Palms. Not when I was there. There was about a 50/50 mix of locals and tourists, and a few obvious small-time pros. And some of them were extremely tough players. Friendly, quiet, hardened veterans.

There were, however, some wild ones too. I doubled up against a guy with pocket 4s when I had pocket aces. (Hey Rocket Boy! I had your hand!) The guy said "I thought you had ace-king." (See? My maniac image works sometimes.) I talked with the guy later and he basically admitted he was a compulsive gambler. He actually had won about $2k the night before at the Palms $2/$5 game. Or so he said.

On another session there, a mad bluffer sat down. The regulars all knew him, and I think he was a dealer at another casino. He immediately started pushing people around and at one point bet $400 into a $400 pot, which would have put his opponent all-in if he called. Everyone at the table knew he was bluffing. The guy wasn't showing any strength tells either. But his opponent didn't call.

I saw Gary Sheffield playing the $2/$5 game when I was at the other $2/$5 table. He didn't seem to be throwing money away, but he didn't have an especially big stack either.

The Verdict: Great place to stay and play. The poker room is a little small, but if the right celebs are there it could be fun and/or profitable.

Wynn
Las Vegas Blvd at Sands Avenue

OK, now we're talkin'. Sure, Palms was nice, but Wynn has pretty much got the rest of Vegas covered. No other place on the Strip has either its own Ferrari dealership or its own golf course. Wynn has both, and the Ferraris are conveniently next to the poker room. I wonder if you can use chips to buy your next 599 GTB Fiorano?

This is where the money is. Young, old, local, tourist, male, female, if you want to be seen as a playah, slide on over to Wynn. I saw more nubile, happy, extroverted party-ready women from my seat at the Parasol bar than at all the other joints I went to on that trip. And I was only at the bar for about an hour. You could almost hear them thinking "What happens in Vegas..."

The Place: Steve Wynn is done with building casinos featuring aquatic attractions that Joe Public can see from the Strip. Did the Mirage and its volcano. Did Treasure Island and its pirate show. Did Bellagio and its dancing waters. Done with that. He built a wall of trees around Wynn and now only guests can see its water show. Kind of weird on the outside.

Not to worry. It's weird on the inside too. But it's a fancy kind of weird. It's like Steve Wynn turned Bellagio inside-out. Bellagio: dancing waters visible from the Strip. Wynn: hidden "Le Reve" water show and golf course. Bellagio: huge airy lobby. Wynn: small low-ceiling lobby. Bellagio: tasteful near-old-world décor. Wynn: Louis-the-14th-from-Mars décor.

Which is all fine by me. The most important thing, the poker room, is truly nice. It's also truly far away from the lobby, so don't valet park unless you want to do a quarter mile of sightseeing through the casino, the restaurants, the bars, etc. Self-park all the way around back by the Ferrari store, and the poker room is about 50 steps away.

The poker room has an understated elegance to it. Once you're inside it's actually really comfortable. Thankfully it's very far away from any slot machines so the noise floor is very low. The chairs are wheeled and are height-adjustable, the 27 tables have shuffle machines, there is no shouting of "Seat open on table 6" because the floor staff communicate with lapel miked walkie-talkies, and the waiting list is displayed on large flat-panel monitors.

The floor boss actually walks you to your table, and the staff are obviously well trained. It's almost like having a meal at a fine restaurant with attentive and discreet service. Food service is available at the tables, which is somewhat unusual for Vegas casinos.

I hear that if you are a Wynn hotel guest, you can call down and have the brush put you on the list. When a seat opens, they'll call you. This is especially nice since, unlike the Palms, Wynn does in fact have a poker room rate. It's about $110 off the normal price on weekdays and weekends, and you'll need to put in 6 hours of play per day to be rated. Some day I'll take advantage of that deal, but not just yet. (The Palms, though not inexpensive, is still cheaper even with Wynn's poker rate.)

The Games: I have heard that Wynn regularly spreads $4/$8 to $30/$60 limit hold'em and occasionally $60/$120 to $300/$600 limit hold'em. I have also heard that they regularly spread $1/$3, $2/$5, and $5/$10 no-limit hold'em and occasionally spread $10/$20 and $25/$50 no-limit hold'em. Apparently Wynn spreads a variety of Omaha and mixed games up to $300/$600. I didn't see much of those games since I was there from 6am to 9am and only a few games were running. I sat down at the only NLH table, the $1/$3 $100 buy-in.

I asked the guy on my left what the buy-in was, he said "a hundred" so I bought in for $100. And I was given a few stacks of $3 chips and a few $1 chips. It was a little awkward calculating pot sizes with $3 chips. Many players, including me, just estimated the number of $3 chips in the pot, picked up an appropriate amount and said "I bet, uh, this much." The dealer, obviously used to it, counted out and announced the exact amount every time. It took a while to get used to the odd denomination.

Speaking of the dealers, they're the best dealers in Vegas. None of them made any mistakes, they made just the right tone and amount of table talk, and they were professional and friendly. In other words, they were just as well-trained as any Wynn employee. Very impressive.

The Players: I only played at Wynn from 6am to 9am on a Monday morning, so the players at my table may or may not be typical. But during that brief session I played against some of the most vividly bad, good, drunk, gorgeous, and well-heeled people I have ever faced at a poker table. I sincerely hope I can get into a game with some of them in the future (and that I can avoid the others.) Here are a few of them:

The Whiz Kid
He had about $1200 when I first sat down, in 3 large towers of chips. He talked about "The Poker Lifestyle," how he coached several players, the great 30/60 games he'd played in at the Commerce, etc. I was absolutely sure that I'd seen him somewhere before. He played pretty well but had some big swings. He rarely showed his cards and he left an hour after I got there. Never got a hand against him.

The Hottie
She sat down with a guy who was obviously her boyfriend, but at one point when she made a string bet she said "Don't confuse me. I'm a lesbian." If that were true it would be a tragedy for the world's hetero male population. She was extremely pretty, perfectly made up, petite, perfectly bronzed, had a tattoo on her right arm of the "zakuro," ("pomegranate" in Japanese), and wore a very thin low-cut cashmere sweater with no bra. I was thankful that the room was actually rather chilly. (You get one guess why.) She may have been Eurasian or maybe pure Caucasian but she was definitely a loose caller. I could tell that some of her naivete was an act. She took a bad beat and got busted but rebought, which made me happy as she was sitting on my immediate left.

The Cool Brother
This is the guy who was originally on my left and told me the buy-in was $100. He and another African American guy (or maybe he was Caribbean) only played for a short time after I got there then left with about $1000 each. The other guy waved at two hot girls walking past the poker room, they came up to the table, and made plans to go to a strip club, "Seamless." Cool Brother gave me a free pass so next time I'll go there. It was obvious that the girls were strangers since they asked the guys "Where are you from?" and the guys asked "Will they let you do that?" when they asked the girls about going to Seamless. What happens in Vegas yadda yadda...

The Happy Golfer
He had the shorts, the golf shirt, the visor and a whole lot of benjamins. He sat down at about 6:30am, said he had an 8am tee time, blew through about $1200 in an hour, and didn't seem to care. "Total disregard for money" he would declare as he happily bought rack after rack of $3 chips. He would actually tell us exactly what his hole cards were, then bet accordingly, and 9 times out of 10 he would lose. When he told us his crappy cards he always told the truth. When he clammed up he had a good hand and usually won. What a tell! A man of his word, he left before 8am to go golf. Too bad for us.

The Whale
An older Caucasian Nevadan, he said he was "The Money Man" and ran some kind of loan company and/or how-to-get-rich seminar. Whatever. He had several stacks of $3 chips, a stack of black $100 chips, plus a ring. A ring is a pack of 100 $100 bills, or $10,000. That's right. He had bought in for about $12,500. There is no maximum buy-in at any of Wynn's NLH games, and cash plays. He had the table covered by a factor of 3. "I just want to play some cards," he said matter-of-factly. We added a 10th chair and squared up just for him. He played loose-aggressive and lost a few hundred quickly, but it was only a tiny fraction of his stack. I suspected he was setting us up so when he did have hands he could bust us one by one. I didn't fall for it but I did beat him out of a decent pot.

The Drunk Singer
He arrived near the end of my session so I never had a hand against him but he was so Jagered up that he could barely walk. He got up to go to the bathroom after losing a huge pot and fell flat on his face. Another guy had to help him down the stairs. He got over the loss quickly and sang bits of U2 songs between hands. At least he was a happy drunk.

The Slider
A 20-something, with shaggy hair pulled down over his eyes, he would bet and/or call on the flop to build a pot then move in on later streets with just 2nd pair no kicker and other marginal hands. The whole table picked up on this and he dusted off several racks fast. He would push, strike a pose (usually arms straight out, palms down on the felt) then peer out through his bangs, obviously hoping not to get called. I never had a hand against him because he didn't last long enough. Whiz Kid got most of his money.

These aren't fictional characters I made up. They were there, and that was one of the most memorable poker sessions I ever had. I'll need to go back to Wynn again to see what the games are like during more normal hours. I suspect the mix of tourists and pros will be about the same 24/7, but I've heard Wynn is full of local pros.

The Verdict: Really great poker room. If you haven't been there yet, it's a must-see on your next Vegas trip. Just remember: self-park by the Ferrari shop and you're right there.