Monday, April 09, 2007

The armpit of Las Vegas poker

In 1962, Edward Albee famously shocked audiences, certain religious folk, censors, and the Pulitzer Prize committee with his play "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", in large part because one of the main characters, Martha, has an attention-grabbing opening line: as she and her husband, George, enter their modest home, she disgustedly proclaims, "Jesus H. Christ--what a dump!"

Surely that line will occur afresh to all right-thinking, serious poker players upon their first experience with the poker room at the El Cortez hotel and casino.

I haven't done any poker room reviews in this blog, mainly because they all have their merits and demerits, and where one likes to play is a highly subjective call; my preferences aren't any better or worse or more objective than anybody else's. But this place deserves all the negative attention I can bring to it.

The El Cortez is easily the nearest place that I could go to play; it's only a block north of my apartment building. I've avoided it for the 9 months that I've lived here because I knew that it was one of the few remaining Vegas poker rooms that allowed players to smoke at the table, and I just couldn't stand that. But I read recently that they had joined the non-smoking bandwagon, and so today I decided to give it a whirl.

Jesus H. Christ--what a dump!

Let's talk about the smoking thing first. It's only a little better than it would be if smoking were allowed right at the table. The "room" isn't a room at all, just a little nook in the main casino, three tables right next to a bunch of slot machines. Five or ten feet is all one has to move to be in the smoking area. The tables, by the way, still bear the scars of the smoking era--the cheap vinyl rail has so many cigarette burn/melt scars, it looks like the lunar surface.

The tables are ancient. Whatever layer is under the felt has warped badly (probably from absorbing liquid from spilled drinks). The taut felt over the top no more hides these flaws than spandex bicycle shorts hide the cellulite on a 300-pound cyclist. My chips looked like I had stacked them drunk; no two stacks were parallel to each other, because the surface of the table was so uneven.

What can one say about the clientele? I'll try to quantify it. Their average age is about ten times their average number of remaining teeth. The place must really liven up the day the Social Security checks hit the mail. I've honestly never seen so many scooters, hearing aids, oxygen tanks, and cataract glasses around one poker table. The game was constantly slowed down by the hard-of-hearing asking, "What's the bet? What? WHAT? I can't hear you!" and the hard-of-seeing asking what cards were on the board. In my experience, it's pretty damn rare that at age 45 I'm the young gun at the table.

And I'll just add two more words, trusting that the reader knows whereof I speak, without the need to elaborate in nauseating detail: Body odor.

One elderly woman kept announcing what cards she folded whenever she would have made a pair with the board. After the third time--with the dealers, of course, saying nothing about it--I tried to tell her that that was against the rules. Her only response--and I am not making this up--was, "What? I can't hear you." I asked the dealer to enforce the rule about discussing the hand while it was in progress. The dealer got the same response as I did. She finally called the floor over to caution this fine patron of the game. It was obvious that the floor person did this only as a perfunctory obligation, given the complaint, but actually thought it was a point that didn't matter one little bit. The rest of the table looked at me as if I were from Mars for caring about such things. Rules? There are RULES?

When I was there, two tables were in use, both spreading the most ridiculous structure of hold'em I've ever seen--sillier, even, than the Luxor's bizarro $50 min/$50 max, 1-1-3 blinds game. At the El Cortez, they play a strange mutant spread-limit game: $1-3/$1-6. There is a single blind, which the player posting can make $1, $2, or $3. Raises/bets on the first three rounds are then $1-3 spread, with the larger range ($1-$6) applying only on the river. Among the octogenarian crowd, this produces infinite potential for confusion on every bet, every round, every hand. Half of the game is spent getting the pot right.

For the most part, the posted blind is just $1, and nearly the whole table limps in. This game would play almost identically, and move a hell of a lot faster, if they instead made the structure like this: Everybody puts in $5 blind, then gets their down cards, then the five community cards are put out all at once, and the hole cards are revealed. Winner gets the pot.

The reason this would have the same result is because nobody ever folds. Role of skill? 1%. Role of luck? 99%. Importance of position? Zero. Importance of being able to deduce an opponent's hand? Zero. Probability that the best starting hand will hold up? About 10%. Importance of selectivity in starting hands? Nil. You really can't even call what happens "sucking out," because it's the rule rather than the exception. It really would be more efficient to run it like the lottery that it is, and abandon the pretense that what they're playing is poker.

To make it even better, you can buy in for just $20--and you'd better believe that they do. Lose a hand, buy another $20. They also let even smaller denominations of currency play, so the dealers get the fun job of counting out the 1s and 5s that players toss into the pot, to replace them with the equivalent in blue chips. It's just like the worst home game you've ever been in, except a lot slower, smellier, with worse play, and the participants are drunker. (I won't venture a guess as to what fraction of them are really just there for the free drinks--but the number must be substantial.)

My guess is there isn't a single player there who can, over the long run, beat the rake by enough to average, say, more than $5/hour profit. My $100 got sucked down to nothing over the course of 90 minutes, though it was up significantly for a while. That's neither a complaint nor a boast, because the outcome either way is almost completely independent of skill.

With all the past and current smoking going on there, it's a small miracle that the El Cortez hasn't burned down yet. And though I would never advocate arson, I'll just note that if it did ever get torched, the poker world would be better off for it, and I would send up a little prayer of thanks to the firebug.

I have not yet been to every Vegas-area poker room (at my last count, there were 51, and I've played in 38 so far), but I have a hard time imagining that there is any overall worse room than the El Cortez. I will henceforth refer to it only as the armpit of Las Vegas poker--and I would dub it that even without the B.O. problem mentioned earlier.

Jesus H. Christ--what a dump!

Addendum, July 31, 2007

I just ran across one of Jennifer Tilly's columns from Bluff magazine (see here). She says, "At the El Cortez there is not much to see. A far cry from the glitz and glamour of the Bellagio, it resembles a bus station. There are rows of penny slot machines, and a shoe shine chair. The poker room smells of disinfectant, and has a distinct Wild West feel. It seems like the kind of place where you could get hit by a beer bottle if you’re caught bluffing."


--S said...

Yes! Poker at the El Burrito, home of the biggest collection of lung cancer victims in one location!

The wife dealt craps there when she was a break-in. I just loved going to visit her.

I do have to say that it's better than the Western, where she worked her first Vegas job.

By the way, I was in the El Cortez recently...they really have cleaned it up a lot and sunk quite a bit of money into it. And, no, I'm not kidding :)

Anonymous said...

I like your blog, cool info. You better hope El Cortez doesn't burn down though, all of those donkeys will end up somewhere else!

Dewey said...

I just discovered your blog and am enjoying the careful selection of photographs and your delightful syle of musing. But I have to also take this opportunity to balance this review of the El Cortez.
It is true that one can play there and drink very cheaply. When Caesar's has begun to stop giving away any drinkable alcohol, I'm happy to have Myers Rum coming regularly.
It is true that the structure of the game is unique to Vegas. I see that as a value.
It is true that one cannot expect to win a lot of money per hour, but then we don't lose a lot per hour either.
It is true that there are lots of people from the lower middle class and they may make some folks a bit uncomfortable. I find these plain folks and kooky characters fun and a refreshing (if not freshly dressed) break from strip poker limit games filled with arrogant suburban kids just as I find some of the old folks delightfully even if age has eroded their senses. We all are going there eventually. One of the oldest asking which cards are on the board may well be Jackie Gaughn himself who owned half the casinos in downtown Vegas. At 87 he can just barely play the game.
Here is a narrative from my recent visit to balance your review: