Sunday, June 01, 2008

Nevada Again

Nothing prepares you for Vegas. No matter how many times you’ve seen Ocean’s Eleven or listened to Sinatra at the Sands (“Get your hands off that broad!”) or seen poor hapless Fredo dissed by Moe Green, nothing prepares you for Vegas.

The first thing that strikes you is the heat, and strikes is just the word. It’s like walking into a blowtorch. You might have come to Vegas to play poker but even the Mormons dive for the casinos to get away from the awful, Hellish heat that scorches all it touches.

The casinos themselves present a different challenge. The sheer size of them is stunning; as feats of engineering they are astonishing, and have a strangely Disneylike air about them. They’re like really expensive malls in some ways, with high-end shops instead of K-Mart and Burger King.

And then there are the poker rooms, the heart of the Las Vegas experience. The main gambling floors are dedicated to slots and table games like blackjack and roulette. They’ll have a sportsbook in the corner with big soft easy chairs and banks of TV monitors showing games and horse-races from all across the States, and a wall of cashiers to take the bets. And then, in a room entire to itself, there is the poker room.

When I went to the poker room in Caesar’s Palace last year, the night San Antonio won the NBA Championship, I asked for seven-card stud, the chicken and chips of modern poker. An Spailpín Fánach plays Hold ‘Em of course, but just well enough to get beat. Your correspondent will not be at the final table of the WSOP anytime soon. But seven-card stud was what I was weaned on, and Herbert Yardley’s famous book gave me some little insight into the game.

“We don’t have stud,” the lady told me. “Nobody plays it anymore. All we have is hold ‘em.”

“Then take me to the hold ‘em cells,” I said. Sometimes, it’s too late to back away.

If you sit down at a Hold ‘Em tournament in Las Vegas, two hundred dollars in chips doesn’t like one hell of a lot, even at the baby infants level. Imagine playing in the US Open with just a seven iron, and standing next to Tiger with the full bag and the yardage books and the multiple major wins and all that staggering talent. Your inferiority complex becomes very simple in those circumstances.

I sat to the right of the dealer. To her left an overweight man, probably a businessman, who looked neither confident nor comfortable. Left again, a guy in his fifties, wavy hair, sitting back and enjoying it all. Another guy with a moustache. And then two younger guys, teenagers or early twenties, who didn’t look like they saw the sun much. Brett Maverick chic wasn’t for them – they favoured leisurewear, and sat hunched over their chips, just as Gollum crouches over his Precious.

This wasn’t their first time in the poker rooms of Vegas, but it was mine. I felt like Hawkeye walking into the Huron camp, but without Daniel Day-Lewis’ bedroom eyes. My eyes were more of the Tex Avery out-on-stalks-in-blind-terror type of eyes, something that may have been picked up by the opposition. I played for maybe an hour, never without any real idea of what was going on at any particular time. Playing at home, it was different. Online it’s different again, because you don’t have to worry about tells. In Vegas, in the arena, even at the baby infants level arena, I was out of my depth.

I was hung, drawn, quartered, skilleted, filleted, strung up, cut down, sliced, diced, shook up, shaken down, taken for a ride, led up the garden path and made offers I couldn’t refuse. I was carried out on my shield when all my dough was done and spent the rest of the night drinking sodas and looking at the fountains. And now, one year on, I’m going back, to see if the lesson was worth the price. What can I tell you? Vegas is that kind of place.

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