Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Brush With Greatness

First, and very quickly, apologies to regular readers for being a ghost. As you know, sometimes the normal world interferes with the blogosphere. 'Nuf said!

I am here in Vegas with my lovely wife taking a long needed and well deserved vacation. Although we have been to Vegas regularly over the past 30 or so years, we have recently spent more time with our daughter and our grandkids to the north of the action and very little time on the Strip. We are spending a week here now devoted exclusively to visiting our old haunts.

Las Vegas, unlike most other gambling destinations, has consistently reinvented itself over the years in order to stay ahead financially. After our three or four year hiatus from the Strip, much has changed once again. The area between the Bellagio and the Monte Carlo going south, once a line of small businesses, has grown into the glitziest section of Las Vegas Boulevard. The Aria, the Cosmopolitan, the Mandarin Oriental, all tall and shiny, attract hordes of visitors. Now over 80% of the casinos on the Strip are controlled by either MGM or Caesars. You can move from the northern end of the Boulevard to the very southern end, crossing the street back and forth, and never enter traffic - good for pedestrians not getting run down, bad for old feet since all the crossovers are situated way back from the main road.

Big corporations buying up smaller ones like Caesars and MGM did is not always a bad thing but here it mostly is bad for someone. Casinos like the Flamingo, where we have always stayed given its very central location, have gone downhill. Small rooms are cheap and they have done some room renovations. But, belt tightening has resulted in changes that might be good for the business but not so good for the customers. What once was a spacious, inviting Keno Room, is now a corner of the casino with about a dozen seats and two employees. Everyone is down-sizing their Keno rooms or eliminating them altogether (except for Bally's and their huge Keno board!). The ways to get off your feet and only put a few bucks at risk are going away fast.

I always thought that one of the marvels of Vegas was the legions of workers hired specifically to keep the places looking great - bathroom attendants, guys cleaning glass doors all day long, people removing trash before it hit the ground. Most of them are gone, victims of reductions in staff.

Gone also are coin changers, slot attendants, waiters at the Buffet, all replaced by ATM machines, and soda machines. The number of electronic gaming devices in addition to slots is growing as well - electronic craps, blackjack, roulette, and baccarat. Electronic Texas Hold'em machines are in operation downtown and soon to be north of the Strip in Aliante. Even the Big Six Wheel, the perennial no-brainier that everyone could play, no gambling expertise required, has been replaced by the digital version that does not demand a paid employee to spin a winning number for you but instead relies on a random electronic/mechanical mechanism that doesn't get paid overtime.

Poker hasn't changed at all except for its growing popularity. Many smaller rooms have closed in deference to the bigger operations but a few Strip venues still maintain modest operations. I like playing in the Flamingo's room where it is friendly and the games are at reasonable limits. They have daily tournaments for low buy-ins ($50 this time around) and they normally draw 30+ participants.

I bought into one of these on a Sunday evening and that was the scene of my brush with greatness, poker greatness.

It's the beginning of July so the annual WSOP is winding down at the Rio, another Caesars property a few blocks west of the Strip. The Main Event, or the ME as the "tweeters" refer to it, was just beginning. Poker players are in town by the thousands, some staying from early June to mid-July, trying to cash in on the big action. Most WSOP tournaments have buy ins in the $1000 to $1500 range with a few lower and many higher, some much, much higher. The majority of these contests are played from early afternoon to early the next morning with players returning on subsequent days if they are lucky enough to still be in contention. Mornings are for satellite tournaments (satties) where players can win entry to large tournaments for lesser buy ins. These satellites also provide excellent practice fields for pros and amateurs alike. Most pros do not have to venture outside the Rio for all the action they desire for these six weeks. Seeing a pro playing outside of these satellites and in a low stakes tournament is rare indeed.

The Flamingo tournament I entered had 30 entrants and after about two hours we were down to one table of 10 that quickly became a table of 9 and after about 20 minutes became a table of seven. The tournament was paying 4 spots, the first place receiving more than $400.

I had played most of the tournament at one table of fairly good players, so good that most of the ten or so alternates came into the action at this table resulting in a situation where approximately 2/3 of the chips in play were at my table and about 1/3 were on the other. When we combined for the final table there were six player from my table and four from the other and only one of them, a woman, had a decent stack.

I'm no pro but I know that play around the "bubble," the line between those who get paid and those who do not, demands a different strategy than play at other points in a tournament. I also know that at this point when blinds are relatively larger, 1000 and 2000 at this point, players with short stacks get desperate and often go all-in where they might not otherwise.

Another woman at the table was in just that situation - short stacked with a little over 2000 in chips. She was in the seat before me. The woman with the larger stack had been playing aggressively, going all-in on multiple occasions and winning every hand.

Cautious though I was, when the woman to my right went all-in before the flop I saw an opportunity to snatch her stack with only one player to play after me. I met her all-in with an all-in of my own expecting the action to stop right there. Unfortunately it did not. The aggressive player, with slightly more chips than my 15 big blinds, went all in behind me. Everyone else folded.

I didn't know it at the time and if I did it would not have changed the way I played. I think my all-in was a good play and given the chance I'd do it again. My opponent, the aggressive player to my left, it turns out is a former WSOP bracelet winner enjoying herself playing in a low stake tournament.

As you have probably guessed I lost the hand - the original all-in showed A/4 suited in spades, I showed A/Q suited in clubs, and the bracelet owner showed A/K suited in hearts. At the end the board showed 3 hearts and the rest garbage. The table went from 7 to 5 very quickly. I left and they played the real bubble player out shortly after.

My opponent, it turns out, was Vanessa Hellebuyck, winner of the WSOP Women's Tournament in 2010 and the first ever bracelet for a French citizen. I don't know if she won this little tournament, just that she beat the day lights out of me. In addition to chalking another $50 bucks off my poker bankroll, this time I came away with a special memory.

PS - I saw a good old boy a day or two later who was still in the tournament when I busted. He said, and I quote, "I busted her up good! She didn't get anywhere near the money." So much for respect for greatness.