20/11/2009

The Evolution of the Las Vegas Card Room

Alex Rousso

For years playing poker only meant one thing. Whether it was the smoky back rooms of British spielers, or the gambling dens and river boats of the Mid West, poker was a game you played live.

The next stage in the evolution of poker is well documented. First the internet boom, then widespread coverage on TV. One way or another the world and, perhaps significantly, his wife learned to reraise all in with A-K offsuit, and the rest is history. The evolution of live poker since then has had many stages. We’ve somehow morphed into having the TV cameras take over live events, shuffling machines have speeded up the process for those action junkies, and one look at the card rooms of the Las Vegas Strip shows that those Mean Street games that TJ and Doyle wax lyrical about are (if you choose) a thing of the past. Last month in Las Vegas, another chapter in card room history was opened – the Excalibur started to offer games on automated tables with no dealers, cards or chips.

Las Vegas has always been the vanguard of all things gambling related in the world, and poker is no exception. When Steve Wynn opened the Mirage, he placed a heavy emphasis on making its card room the best on the Strip. This was a strange move considering that poker is not a high earner for casinos. The punter does not play (and therefore lose) against the house, so the casino will in fact only make a modest amount per table in comparison with, say, the high stakes black jack or craps. Wynn’s prescience may not seem like genius after the fact, but it’s stunning to think that his conviction was over a decade before the poker boom started in earnest.

Despite the obvious point that internet and TV poker have fuelled the popularity of card rooms, there is actually far less crossover between live and internet poker than one might think. For the most part, internet players stay in their corner and live players stay in theirs. The top players – at each pursuit – agree that there is a different skill set for each.

The advent of PokerPro tables in Las Vegas is something of a milestone then. With each player hunched over their own little screen, odds declared by the computer when there is an all in, and with novelties such as the option to “rabbit hunt” (of course, for a 50c fee), there’s the distinct possibility that in the future, the Vegas card room experience could go all internet on us.
PokerPro tables are not new to poker per se – in fact they have been around for over a year. They are ideal for things like cruise ships, where the traffic of players might be sporadic, and to keep a croupier on call might be costly. Likewise, the opportunities for the heads up version of the table – especially in places such as pubs – seem limitless. However, for Las Vegas and moreover other card rooms around the world, the reality of this hybrid of live and computer-based play is indeed a bizarre one, and something they will have to take seriously.

I had an opportunity to speak to Deborah Giardina – who has been Director of Poker Operations at the Wynn hotel since its opening – about the changes in live poker. She’s been in the business for a number of years, even having worked in the past for Lyle Berman (who is now Chairman of PokerTek, who make the tables) and had her own gaming consultancy.

“Even though it’s relatively quiet right now,” she says “you hear those chips, right?” I sit back and drink it all in. Indeed, even though it’s only 11am and there are about seven tables filled, there’s the ubiquitous clacking of hundreds of riffling chips, like a chorus of crickets. This is the real card room experience. It’s a far cry from a life spent at a computer desk, either being deathly quiet or shouting expletives at an impassive flat screen.

For me, as an online player, poker is the business of sitting at a desk, referring to mammoth spread sheets, and keeping my cool whilst making something in the region of one thousand decisions an hour. I could be wired after no sleep for 24 hours, slouching in my dressing gown, or on a beach in Rio for all my opponents know.

Live play is a different animal altogether. For a casino, it’s about keeping the customer happy. For Giardina, it’s about providing the player with a top of the line product – in line with the remit for the whole of the Wynn hotel. So that means comfortable chairs, well trained staff (the best in Vegas in my opinion) and top of the range equipment such as the card shufflers and so on. The Wynn is the only five star resort casino in the world. It’s difficult, of course, to imagine that kind of service level where the poker that’s on offer is on automated tables.
However, there’s more to it than that, and Giardina makes a very good point to that effect. “When you’re at home online, you can shout and scream at the screen and no-one can hear you – except maybe your family. When that happens in a casino – and it doesn’t happen often, but it does happen – you’re going to need a mediator.” During my time playing on the tables at the Excalibur, nothing like that ever happened, but anyone who has spent time in card rooms knows that it’s a part of the game, and one wonders what will happen the first time a full blown argument explodes at one of the PokerPro tables.

Many other glitches abound. Of course, one of the best things about the computerised tables is that there can be no dealer errors (and no tipping the dealer, for that matter). However, it’s not unknown for computers to go wrong, and even on the four week old machines on which I played in Excalibur, some people had problems with the touch screens. Some were even accidentally showing their hands by not covering the screen sufficiently when they peeked at them. All this makes for a far less casino friendly experience.

However, there are a few things about that advance of PokerPro tables which might prod card rooms into doing things a little better. First, being the Omaholic that I am, I always get a bit sick of Hold ‘em in Vegas. Given the number of Americans that are now found online playing other games such as Pot Limit Omaha and Omaha High/Low, it’s surprising how little action there is on the Strip (to its credit, the Wynn does spread a $10/20 Omaha High/Low game daily).

At present, the PokerPro tables only spread Hold ‘em, but the other game versions are in the pipeline. I wouldn’t mind betting that these other games become more popular once they are available on the PokerPro machines, and card rooms will realise just how much demand there is for them. Games like Omaha even have more action than Hold ‘em, which in turn means more rake for the house.

Giardina reckons it’s a supply and demand thing: “if we have two people who want to play a game, we’ll spread it,” she claims. In practise, I’m not sure it’s that easy. In the absence of any prompting that other games are available, most players will simply sit down at the tables that are open. Perhaps it will take some encouragement from the rooms themselves. Apart from when one of the casinos is holding a major tournament such as the WSOP, or Wynn’s own Classic series in early March, one rarely sees other games spread in Vegas.

It is also very easy to start up a game on the PokerPro tables. In Excalibur there were a couple of tables with only three or four players at a cash game. It’s almost unthinkable for a card room to start up a short-handed game that might collapse soon – what with the logistical nightmare of counting chips, assigning dealers, and so on. This is a shame, as I’ve spent many an hour waiting for a new game to start up in the various casinos of the Strip, in fact all over the world – even though I can see eleven or twelve people on the waiting list. Clearly, this is a policy decision, and who can blame the casinos? They might have to change their tune when they see the simplicity and speed with which a game can be set up on the computerised version.

However, Giardina warns that it’s not so easy. “Often, as the people who are spreading the game, we have a responsibility to those people in existing games to ensure that that specific game doesn’t break up easily. Let’s say you’ve got a player in there who’s stuck, he’s wanting to get his money back. You give the other players an opportunity to move to other games, that’s not fair on that player.” Indeed, online players have learned to live with “hit and run” tactics, however galling and pathetic they seem. Creating an army of offline short-stack specialists would detract from proceedings – both in terms of flow and camaraderie of the game.

Which brings me back again to the difference between offline and online poker. At least for players like myself, the online experience is about computer-bound obsessives, slaving over a hot calculator, and concentrating entirely on the “long run”. Offline poker is an altogether more fun experience. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, offline tournament players have to overcome staggeringly long-term volatility (we’re talking years) in order to scratch out a decent living, so for most people this isn’t about bringing home the bacon, it’s about enjoying the poker experience.

Little wonder then, that the Wynn concentrates on making customers happy. The place and the staff are always friendly and congenial. In spite of its splendour, this is the kind of poker room where a tubby Bostonian man could bowl in and everyone would hail “Norm!” Moreover, there is little concern that poker does not make the casino as much as the high stakes pit games. “It’s a full service casino,” claims Giardina, “if we have a couple staying with us for example, one might want to play the slots, and one poker, and so on. We consider the provision of all the games as an amenity.”

This extends to their attitude to the TV cameras. The Wynn Classic, which happens to be one of the most generous series in terms of stack sizes and blind structure, is one of the few that does not allow cameras in. In fact, there are no WPT events held at the Wynn. It seems that the high profile side of poker is not something the Wynn actively courts (even though, for example, the reprise of the Andy Beal versus The Corporation game was held here). Flicking through past copies of Bluff, one can understand why. Many players are getting sick of how ESPN dominates proceedings when they cover the events. All ins are paused for the show to be just perfect for mass media consumption, and often the players are treated with the utmost disrespect in the pursuit of a good televisual story angle.

As a general rule throughout the casino, the Wynn’s attitude is to protect celebrities or high rollers from the glare of the media, where other casinos do the exact opposite by trying to court celebrity and media coverage to promote their events.

All of which is a rather sobering realisation for someone who thought that bricks and mortar poker was just a slower version of the online madness! For the moment, Excalibur has a six month exclusivity in Las Vegas on the PokerPro machines. So far, the experiment has been a success. I’m not sure that they are the future of card rooms, but they may well become the future of card rooms which are not that busy or salubrious. They may well prompt card rooms to sit up and make a few changes. In this sense, the punter will benefit from not having to wait so long for new games to open up, and will have a wider spread of games to choose from. The real deal, however, is that live poker should be a pleasure to play. In that sense, the rooms which are busy enough, or posh enough, are doing just fine.

UPDATE: Since this article was written The Excalibur's poker room has returned to using conventional poker tables with dealers.