It was the year 2006, and whether it was obvious or not, the real estate market in Las Vegas was on the verge of sliding down the other side of the mountain. I made my way out to the desert, naively planning to buy property in what turned out to be a sparkling mirage. Apart from real estate, the poker scene was thriving. A few years earlier, an unknown amateur had won the World Series of Poker, sparking a gold rush of sorts. Professionals quit their jobs and moved to Vegas, and teenagers all over America became instant poker pros, dropping out of high school and college to play cards full- time. Texas Hold ‘em became the hottest thing going, not just in Vegas, but all across the country. I remember routinely walking into convenience stores and seeing poker cards and chip sets on full display right in front.
While I had previously been to Vegas on vacation, this time was clearly different. I was staying at a house that one of my friends owned, and it was no sweat off of his back. He told me that all he cared about was using that particular property for a home equity loan in order to bankroll him in his poker endeavors. Yes, he played poker too, and he was easily one of the worst players that I have ever seen. The last time I talked to him, in 2008, he had declared bankruptcy, as it turned out that he was leveraged to the hilt with properties throughout town.
My first night in Vegas, I went to the Bellagio hotel and casino, where the real action was for serious cash game players. I had no intention of playing that evening, but instead wanted to get the lay of the land, so to speak. I recall sitting at the bar right next to the poker room. Straight out of central casting, the crusty, middle-aged bartender struck up an innocent enough conversation with me. After a few minutes, he blurted out,
“You seem like a good enough fellow. Let me tell you something. I know you have seen those commercials where they say that whatever happens in Vegas, stays here. Well, we locals also have a saying: What money comes to Vegas, stays here. Someone is always getting hustled in this town. Either you’re hustling them, or they’re hustling you.”
He must have literally finished his shift, because he walked off and I never saw him again after that.
When I started playing limit hold ‘em the next day, I was prepared. I had been a winning player online for quite some time, and frequently won when I played in Atlantic City and Foxwoods. I was able to temper any emotions at the table due to my background a tournament chess player as a kid. Unlike a quick trip to A.C., though, the Vegas experience was quite different. After a few days, I started to recognize some of the faces at the tables. A few wealthy housewives here and there, some retired millionaires, business owners, internet phenoms, wannabes gambling their life savings away, degenerates borrowing from a loan shark, and so on. When I stepped up to the high limit room, the famous tournament players that you see on television were actually considered the “marks” in the game. Tournament poker is much different than cash game poker. Ironically, the same flashy style and emotional outbursts that made the “celebrity” poker pros famous, also made most of them horrendous cash game players.
After a while, I befriended a 23 year-old guy from Phoenix. His talent was impressive, and he seemed to have a great instinct at the poker table. Even in limit poker, which is much more of a science than no-limit, which is much more about feel and instinct, his skills were undeniable. Every time we played together, he seemed to be on a never-ending hot streak. We were playing $30/$60 limit hold ‘em, and the average buy-in was somewhere around $1,000 per player. I remember him consistently leaving up $3,000-$5,000. When he decided to step up to the $100/$200 game, his winning streak remained intact, as he took $10,000 out of the game his first time playing.
The grumpy local pros were growing increasingly exasperated by his success. They would often openly berate him at the table, out of frustration. But he was running hot, and more than just with the cards. One night, when I was lucky enough to not be seated at his table, he was literally winning big pot after big pot, sending people home broke, muttering to themselves as they stormed away from the poker room in a fit of rage. In an act of magnanimity, not to mention the sign of a great hustler, he bought everyone at the table dinner. As the hungry, losing faces dug into their steaks, he continued to wipe them out. All I could do was look over at him and start laughing in disbelief. After a while, he showed up to the poker room with a pretty girl on his arm. Every few days it would be a different girl. They sat behind him, and he smoothly stacked up everyone else’s chips, while cracking flirty jokes to his arm candy.
One night, he approached me and asked if I wanted to stake a percentage of the buy-in for a fairly big tournament he was going to enter. I took pride in the fact that I never, ever, lent or borrowed money from anyone. However, I was tempted to take a piece of the action, given his skills and hot streak. I thought it over for a bit, but eventually took a pass. Better to err on the side of caution, I figured. He ended up doing incredibly well in the tourny, taking 2nd place, and prize money of nearly $180,000 (I would have gotten $36,000 of it, had I backed him). I started to beat myself up. Once again, however, instead of rubbing his success in my face, he was magnanimous in his victory. He started living it up in Vegas, going to the best clubs and restaurants, and doing everything V.I.P. style. He actually insisted that I come along, and always picked up the tab. The only time I saw him lose his temper was when anyone offered to chip in to pay the bill. Hey, what can I say. He was a nice kid and he was doing great.
Eventually, he started wandering away from the poker room, into “the pit,” which essentially means all of those table games such as blackjack, roulette, craps. Instead of a different girl every few days, he started walking around with two or three girls at a time. Playing the pit is easily one of the huge downfalls for winning poker players. As opposed to poker, where you are playing against other gamblers, and the casino usually takes a very small percentage of every pot (“the rake”), the pit games put you directly against the casino. Believe me, those casinos are not built and kept in business because they are even money in blackjack or any other table game. No, those flashy hotels and spas receive much of their cash flow from mathematically challenged gamblers.
Seeing as the guy had gone above and beyond to be generous to me, I felt compelled to intervene. I pulled him aside and asked him if he was alright. I told him that playing the pit was a sucker’s bet. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t have any of it. He told me that “his girls” thought poker was too boring for them, and he was beginning to feel like it was too slow of a game for him. I tried, once again, to talk some sense into him, but it was all for naught.
Pretty soon, every high limit pit boss and casino host at the Bellagio and Wynn knew who he was. They started giving him and any amount of friends he wanted free V.I.P. access to all of the clubs and restaurants, all comped, so long as he kept playing blackjack. One time, I remember walking past his blackjack table at the Bellagio, and I saw that he was playing three hands at a time, each for $3,000.
About a week later, which in casino time might has well have been three months, he stumbled into the poker room and asked me if he could borrow money.
To be continued…