Las Vegas and poker have a strong connection, thanks in large part to tournaments like the World Series of Poker, which are hosted there annually.
But if you are not a highly ranked professional player, Vegas is not the best place to play. Certainly, the glamour of playing poker at a place like the Bellagio has its appeal, but the extra costs, high table limits and professional card “sharks” can quickly destroy your bankroll. In fact, the less experienced you are, the further away you should stay from playing on the Strip!
Online play can now easily replicate what makes Vegas poker so appealing, and you'll enjoy certain advantages that no traditional card room can match.
The Player's Guide to Vegas Poker
In this guide, we'll take a look at how poker works in Vegas and compare the experience to what you'll encounter online. We'll also go over the full range of cost savings experienced when you play at home. Online equivalents of Las Vegas video poker machines are also covered, as well as unique advantages available to both table poker and video poker players.
If your dream is to someday play in a televised tournament in Vegas, we'll discuss the poker types most commonly played at these events and how you can sharpen your skills online.
How Vegas Poker Rooms Work
Even at the largest casinos, poker rooms in Vegas tend to be small. The biggest poker room in Vegas is the Sands Room at the Venetian, with 59 tables. Rooms that large are the exception rather than the rule, however—most of the other major casinos only have about 10 to 20 tables. The Rio, which hosts the World Series of Poker each year, has 14 tables regularly available.
A lot of the big-name casinos have stopped offering poker entirely in recent years. These include the Palms, the Tropicana, the Hard Rock, Luxor and Monte Carlo. Why would casinos drop table poker? Simply put, it doesn't make them money. Slot machines bring in a lot more money every night than poker tables, which tend to be populated by “whales.”
Some casinos found poker so unprofitable, that they decided empty space was better than continuing to maintain tables! For example, Texas Station put up fake walls to cover where the poker room used to be.
Still, poker hasn't withered in Vegas due to lack of player interest. It's due to cost and overhead. The only way for casinos to make money from poker is to charge the players an hourly fee to sit in, or a rake on each pot. Poker tables also require employees, which makes them much more costly than a slot machine.
The fewer tables there are, the more the field tends toward experienced professionals with large bankrolls. That's why Vegas poker rooms are a bad choice for those with little experience or modest bankrolls. Vegas table limits are never below one or two dollars, and standard rakes are 10% with a maximum of $3 to $5 per pot. While a one or two dollar game with a maximum rake of $3 may not sound expensive, there's also the minimum buy-in to consider—at a Vegas standard of $100 to $200 for low-tier games. Conventional wisdom suggests a minimum bankroll of $300 to 600—three times the buy-in—for every day you want to play.
Most non-professionals don't have the money to sustain playing at Vegas table limits for very long, considering the quality of competition. And this is all before you consider the added expenses of the game and the Vegas trip!
Let's think about those additional expenses for a minute.
First, if you don't live in or around Vegas, there's the travel cost. In addition to transportation, there's lodging. You can find good hotel deals from Sunday through Thursday if a big convention or major event isn't in town. But if you want to be anywhere near the Vegas Strip on a Friday or Saturday night, expect hotel prices to at least triple. They climb even higher if it's a three-day holiday weekend. When the Raiders finally make it to Vegas, expect prices for game nights to be inflated as well.
The costs don't end there! The convenience of eating at the casino comes at a premium. Also, it's customary to tip for every service rendered by casino personnel. That means the dealer (for each pot you win), wait staff and cashiers or floor runners.
All of these extra expenses must be factored in on top of the minimum $300-600 you'll need to set aside to play poker in Vegas.
The Types of Poker Played in Vegas
Though Vegas is a poor place to learn how to play poker, it's a dream destination for professionals playing in high-stakes tournaments. Backed by sponsors, they can enjoy the experience without worrying about personal financial ruin.
If you're hoping to join those illustrious ranks someday, you'll need to focus on three types of poker: Texas Hold'em, Omaha Hold'em and Seven-Card Stud. You'll also need to be familiar with the “lowball” variants of each game—where the rules are the same but card and hand values are inverted.
On any given night in Vegas, the tables are overwhelmingly occupied with one of these three games. The only exceptions may be a handful of tables running draw poker or Chinese poker games.
Vegas Video Poker
Of course, there are plenty of video poker machines on Vegas casino floors. Though not as profitable as the slots, these still bring in good money for casinos.
Unfortunately, that's because they tend to have unfavorable pay tables, and the Strip is notorious for having some of the worst pay tables. Traditional “full pay” tables have been weeded out entirely at some casinos, and reduced to a single bank at others. The remaining games are not comped nearly as generously as other games, and on some Vegas casino floors, it's a challenge to find any Jacks or Better game—one of the most consistently favorable variants.
Advantages You'll Only Find Online
We've discussed the disadvantages of playing poker in Vegas. Playing online gives you the same types of games while allowing you to get around those drawbacks. Online you can expect no ancillary expenses, table limits that go as low as one or two cents per hand, and no shortage of tables.
Online poker is also the only place where you'll find “freeroll” tournaments, or those that don't require you to put up any real money but have cash prizes. If you just want to practice at no risk, there are plenty of “play money” rooms where other people at a similar skill level can compete.
As you gain experience, you will discover that online poker allows you to play many hands per hour, which adds to your total earnings over time. You can also engage in multi-tabling, or playing multiple tables simultaneously to increase your income.
You'll also lose less money to the rake when playing online. Rakes for online games are comparable to the lower end of live tables, but most sites will kick back anywhere from 25% to 50% of your raked funds as a rakeback bonus each month.
If you do want the Vegas high roller games, they are available online, but you'll never be forced into stakes or terms you are not comfortable with because of a lack of options.
Beating Vegas Poker
Ultimately, the best way to beat the Vegas system is to stay at home. You'll get everything Vegas poker offers online, but at better terms and lower costs.