Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Cash me out

On Tuesday evening I played for a few hours but I was really there just to say goodbye to the regulars. Despite some of the bitchy things I’ve written about them they were usually pretty kind to me and I miss not being able to sit around a table playing cards with those guys. I even exchanged email addresses and telephone numbers with a couple of them. Round about midnight I packed in, had a final drink at the east-side bar and went to bed.

The next day was entirely taken up with travel. I took a taxi to the airport at 9.45am (the limo fell through) and the plane took off pretty much on time at midday. Along the way I saw the mega-hotels of Vegas, the Hoover dam, the Grand Canyon and the Empire State Building. I travelled a third of the way around the world and wound up at misty, chilly Birmingham airport at 9.30am Thursday morning. It was over.

Now I’m back in Coventry. When I leave my room in the morning I’m not confronted by row after row of slot machines, winking and bleeping at no-one in particular. And when I step outside my house the sky’s not blotted out by a giant TV screen that forms a four-block long canopy over the street. There’s no piped music, no security guards, no cowboys, no women with trays of drinks calling “cocktails!” every few yards. I can’t get steak and eggs for £4 at 3am. I can’t watch college football. And I can’t wake up at any time of the day or night and know for sure that somewhere nearby there’s a poker game going on. “Seat open; player’s checks on thirteen; you’re five hundred behind - would you like to buy the button?” Yes, yes I would.

Las Vegas is an unreal place - any fool can see that - it’s tough and dazzling and grandiose and absurd. But by the end of my thirty days there it felt familiar - not mundane, but comfortable. It felt like the right place to be.
So how did it go? Well, I returned with less money than I went out with, that’s for sure. I won at the poker table but it wasn’t enough to cover my expenses. My game has plenty of room for improvement, but there’s only one way that’s going to happen: I’ll be back.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Aces

When you play no-limit poker your winnings or losses in any given session almost always depend on the outcome of two or three crucial hands (this is in stark contrast to limit poker where success is achieved through a process of steady accumulation). On Tuesday, my last full day in Vegas, it call came down to a single hand - about two minutes of play. My opponent was what I’d call a typical Vegas local: elderly, severe and tough as the desert mountains. I think he was called Dave and his severity was increased by the fact that he spoke using an electronic voice box. Unlike the usual models, however, his device was implanted or hidden in some way so that when he wanted to speak he didn’t have to hold the thing against his throat as if he’d suddenly decided to shave a spot on his Adam’s apple. Instead, he discreetly pressed a button near his left collar bone and out came the words like a dusty wind through a cheese grater. Normally Dave was pretty implacable, inoculated by long experience against the stomach-churning swings of the game, but on this occasion he’d suffered several bad beats in a row and I think it was getting to him. Anyway, he raised it up to $7, got called by a fairly loose Mexican kid on my right and I looked down to see two black aces in the hole. I reraised to about $40, which should’ve killed the hand right there, but I just had this feeling that Dave had strong cards and might be stung into doing something rash. When you’ve lost a few hands with the best of it and then find some know-nothing punk (ie, me) piling over the top of your initial raise it can really snap your self-restraint. And, sure enough, when the action came back round to Dave he peeled off two one-hundred dollar bills from under his chips and let them float disdainfully onto the pot. He’d drawn his line in the sand. The Mexican kid was clearly stunned by how the hand had suddenly exploded into war and quickly got out of the way. I paused for a moment before announcing that I was all-in for the rest of my money - about $800 in total. With Dave already in for two hundred bucks it’d be tough for him to lay his hand down and even if he did I’d still scoop a fairly healthy pot (they say that with aces you either win a small pot or lose a big one; two hundred dollars represents a more than respectable result with those cards). Dave stared at my money, ashen-faced. A few times I thought he was about to fold but then he rasped, “call” like he was saying “fuck you!” and started counting out the bills. Now, for the first time, I thought, “Christ! I hope I don’t lose!” and it also occurred to me that maybe Dave had aces as well, in which case we’d almost certainly split the pot and all that drama would’ve been for nothing. But the dealer started laying out the community cards in the centre of the table and when the turn card was an ace (giving me three of a kind) I knew I’d won the hand. Straight away I turned over my hole cards, shrugged and announced three aces. Dave gazed quietly down at them for a few seconds and then threw his hand into the muck. The dealer pushed the large pile of chips and notes towards me: a little over sixteen hundred bucks. Then, in a moment of spleen, Dave said, “I knew you had aces”. What he meant was that I was an obvious player - a guy who only bet when he was sure he had the best hand. This stung me a little because there was a large grain of truth in it.
“But I had kings,” he continued, “so what was I to do?”
“You could’ve folded,” I said.
“I still could’ve caught a king to beat you.”
“Well, if you’re willing to pay even money to hit a five to one shot, that’s your prerogative.”
“Yes it is, so why don’t you shut your mouth and count your money?”
And right away I regretted my comments. It was true that Dave’s call contradicted his claim that my game was obvious and easy to read, but he’d put his money in the pot - a lot of money - and lost the hand. He deserved a little respect for that, if nothing else.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Snapshots

The sun setting over Mount Charleston; the mountains are smoky blue at dawn and dusk but a crisp, sandy brown during the day.... mild-mannered old Charlie plays with a smile on his face until he loses a big hand when he flings his cards at the dealer and cries, "fucking cocksuckers!" But the change is so incongruous that everyone else just giggles including, after a moment's reflection, Charlie himself.... the sinister elegance of Steve Wynn's latest mega-resort (imaginatively called "Wynn"). The hotel's sign features his signature in lights God knows how many stories high, so that it seems to float in the air above night-time Vegas.... Vinnie's "hate-face" when he squared up to a guy from the next table who complained about his bad language. "You don't fuck with me, pal," he snarled, "take a look around!" - meaning that his picture was on posters all over the casino advertising his comedy show.... drinking a Long Island iced tea in the Bellagio's Petrossian bar while a pianist tinkled through a medley of Beatles songs and visitors in jeans and gaudy t-shirts ambled through the ostentatiously elegant lobby. It looked like the aftermath of a very well-mannered proletariat revolution.... Americans: their mixture of toughness, gross sentimentality and blind, raging patriotism; it's like how I imagine Victorian Britons must've been.... deadbeat Mexicans in the laundrette on North Las Vegas Blvd (crossing north of Bonanza is like stepping into a different world and you'd best not do it at night, either). But even they're a step up from the barflies in the "Ukelele" across the road - drinking draft Budweiser from plastic beakers at 10am. Outside the laundrette a guy offers me 25c for a cigarette. I roll him one for free. "Thanks, homes - I'm broke," he says and shares the cigarette with his friend.... the uniform greeting from poker players who recognize me: "Hey! English! How's it going?".... Action Dan, a young guy who moved to Vegas from Pittsburgh about eight weeks ago; every day he buys in for the minimum $100 and painstakingly works it up to about $300 before quitting.... the obnoxious jerk from Chicago who got talked into playing a $1,000 heads-up freeze-out with Roberto. Against the odds he won the freeze-out but then, blind drunk, returned to the cash game and lost $4,000 in no time at all. For the next couple of days he was seen in the Horseshoe begging players for some money to get home.... being afraid to play after a daunting loss and likewise being afraid to play after a decent win.... in the restroom at the Horseshoe comes a voice from the cubicle: "John Wayne toilet paper: rough, tough and don't take no shit off nobody!"....

Monday, December 06, 2004

But Where are the Hats?

On 1 December the National Finals Rodeo rolled into town and ever since then you haven't been able to move in Vegas for "hats". Everywhere you look there are wiry young men and pot-bellied middle-aged guys wearing black cowboy hats, denim jackets, jeans, boots and BIG belt buckles. Popular accessories include an arm in a sling and a severe limp plus walking stick. Now, I must admit I had some plans for these rootin' tootin' good ol' boys. I was hoping that years spent risking their lives on top of belligerent bulls would've given them a taste for the white-knuckle ride that is no limit Texas Hold 'Em. Hell, I thought they'd come riding into the casino on horseback, shoot a few rounds into the ceiling, lasso the poker room manager and shout, "sign me up for that there pokey game, mam - YEEEEEE HAW!" Unfortunately, most cowboys are actually rather poor and so far they've stuck to the gentle hills and valleys of $2/$4 limit poker. Only once has a cowboy strayed into my game and he played tighter than two coats of paint. Despite that, I've been doing pretty well lately. I won $300 on Thursday, $600 on Friday, lost $35 on Saturday (I only played for a couple of hours, went to the Steakhouse for some oysters and filet mignon then fell asleep in my room) and won $600 yesterday. As I mentioned before, I've lost track of my exact situation but I reckon that over all I'm about $500 ahead. To celebrate this life-changing triumph, this morning I blew $50 on a stretch-limo to take me to the airport on Wednesday morning. I really don't want to go back but I'm also quite looking forward to going home.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

America vrs Britain

Three things Britain does better than America:

1. Cheese. American cheese is probably the worst excuse for a foodstuff ever created. At some stage some of the ingredients may have been somewhere near a cow, but I doubt it. Most likely it's a by-product of the space race - I'm sure it would make a good heat shield for space craft re-entering Earth's atmosphere. Just don't eat it.

2. Newspapers. American papers (both local ones like the Las Vegas Review Journal and national ones like the New York Times) give accurate, in-depth coverage of US and world events. And they're dull. They're very, very dull. Jesus Christ, are they dull.

3. Vegetables. Americans complain that we Brits boil the shit out of our vegetables, and that's true. However, I don't know what Americans do to their vegetables, but it sure makes them a challenge to eat. Somewhere between the field and your plate they become tough, bitter and synthetic-tasting. Personally, I think there's something wrong with a meal if the vegetables refuse to go down without a fight.

Three things America does better than Britain:

1. Steaks. They're big, juicy and cheap. And even the chef in the crummy local diner knows the difference between "medium rare" and "burnt to a crisp". Outstanding.

2. Hotel showers. In Britain hotel showers emit a feeble stream of luke-warm water that usually evaporates before it reaches your body. In the US the shower pins you to the wall and sand-blasts you clean.

3. Ice. If you ask for a scotch on the rocks in a British bar the bartender pours scotch in to a glass using a pipette (which is the wrong bloody way round, for a start) and then grudgingly adds one or two ice cubes. You'd think they were diamonds, you really would. In the US they do things right: pack the glass with ice and then pour in a liberal measure of liquour. Note to British bar staff: ice is not an endangered species. It really isn't.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Cast List

Here are some of the regulars in the Horseshoe's no limit cash game:

Vinnie Favorito: Italian American from Boston who looks and sounds strikingly like Joe Pesci. He's always getting into spats at the table because of his wisecracks (his basic approach is to mortally insult you then expect you to laugh along). A typical example: a slightly battered old lady was stood behind Vinnie at the table. "Can I watch?" she asked. Vinnie rather aggressively told her she couldn't stand right behind the players; she had to go behind the rail a few feet away. The woman backed off saying "I don't like you". "Hey!" shouted Vinnie, "I thought I told you to wait in the car!" The rest of the table cracked up and the old woman hurried out of sight.

Rene: plump thirty-something with boyish features. He plays a wild, unpredictable game and never comes to the table with less than $3,000. He talks non-stop and almost all of his talk is aimed at convincing you (and himself) that he's God's gift to, er, everything. He's a nice lad but I can't help thinking he has some self-worth issues.

Roberto: big, imposing man with a gay moustache who seems to be Rene's mentor and role model. Roberto never comes to the table with less than $5,000. He's as cocksure as Rene without the excuse of being too young to know better. Whenever he sees me he says "bloody bollocks" in an English accent that would make Dick Van Dyke blush. And I always reply "you wanker" in my best Bob Hoskins voice. But he's a good poker player and you fuck with him at your peril. Rene and Roberto both spend a lot of time hanging out at "Glitter Gultch", the local strip club that seems to be the focus for much of the wheeling and dealing that goes on in downtown Vegas.

Richard: early fifties (?), slim, shoulder-length hair, gigalo moustache, always dressed to the nines. No, Richard dresses to the twelves. The first time I saw him he was in his full black-tie outfit (including coat tails) with a red rose pinned to the lapel. I thought he must be working in a show somewhere. He never comes to the table without a wad of hundred dollar bills too thick for me to accurately estimate its worth. Ten thousand dollars? Twenty thousand? It could be more. But he also never plays for more than about two hours at a stretch. He's just there to be seen and admired.

Buffy: white-haired, stout old man with gimlet eyes set in a totally emotionless face. In his youth he made over a million dollars playing pool against a rich idiot and since then he's built that sum into a considerable fortune. He looks non-descript, almost dumb but in fact he's one of the best sports handicappers in America and regularly bets huge amounts on basketball and college football.

Ryan: aka The Eclipse. 350lbs of gentle giant, though he gets a little grumpy when he's been playing for 48 hours straight. Ryan's only been a regular while I've been here. He plays for two days and then sleeps for a day, thereby saving money on hotel bills. He's pretty good too, but pisses away a lot of his winnings at the craps table.

Paul the Fat Controller: reasonable poker player with a fondness for apple crisp. Paul's a nice fella but he's always laying down the law to passers-by who smoke near the poker tables. It's quite funny to watch this normally placid man suddenly get agitated, bobbing around in his seat shouting "sir! sir! - no smoking in the poker room". He's also quick to get his oar in whenever there's a dispute about the rules. You'd think the rules of poker were pretty straight forward but, believe me, the game is always being delayed by arguments about who did what when: string bets, acting out of turn, where the dealer button should or shouldn't be; such things provide endless scope for controversy and Paul is always in the thick of it so that you want to ask him to show you his badge.

Friday, December 03, 2004

We're not at the end of the world, but we can see it from here

Sorry for the gap in updates (and hi Dave) but I've fallen into a routine of sleeping till 2pm, getting something to eat (steak and eggs and Binion's coffee shop for $7) and then playing no limit poker at the Horseshoe until about 6 or 7am. The game's pretty tough but there's just enough loose money flying about to make it worth the candle (especially at weekends), plus I know most of the other players there so there's a social aspect that's not to be underestimated. And, of course, it means I don't have the hassle of taking the CAT down to the strip casinos, I can nip back up to my room for a quick rest or a shower, etc etc. Basically, it's the game of choice for a lazy bastard like me.

And when I'm winning, like I did last night ($300), Vegas seems like the best place on earth and sat at the east-side bar at 7am drinking a beer and a Maker's Mark I was filled with the urge to spend the rest of my days playing poker with Vinnie Favorito (a stand-up comedian who looks and sounds just like Joe Pesci and one dated Gotti's neice) and Ryan the Eclipse and Paul the Fat Controller and Rene and Roberto and all the other degenerates who haunt the Horseshoe's poker room. Except, of course, that my results this month hardly justify the move. I've stopped taking detailed records, but I'm probably a few hundred dollars down over all. Still, that's pretty respectable and I'm sure I could improve my game with a few months' more practice. And I was mulling all this over when another beer and Maker's Mark appeared in front of me and Rob the barman indicated it was from a toothless old coot up at the other end of the bar who was buying drinks for everyone (ie, me and one other guy) so I thanked him and then he bought me another and then we got talking and then he took offence at something I said - actually, I think it was accent he didn't care for - and then he forgave me and rambled drunkenly on and on about his job helping down and outs in Vegas and how I didn't understand, I didn't know the truth, and I'm thinking, "Jesus, if this is who the poor have in their corner then they're really fucked" and I refused a third drink (Rob gave me an imploring look), shook the old coot's hand and staggered back to my room laughing my head off at the craziness of it all.