June 2008
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Our house

This summer will be our fourth spending a month in Las Vegas in a rented house.

We’ve stayed in the West, East and South sides of the Valley so I was really dreading this year’s inevitable trip to the North.

North Las Vegas scares the bejeezus out of me.  I can’t explain why, and I don’t even have any photos to try and illustrate this, but it’s like a whole other world. And it happens suddenly too. Drive just a little too far along Main Street and it’s like you stepped back 40 years – and not in a good way, like Downtown Las Vegas is meant to me.

Anyway, we’re in the East again, which worked out superbly for us last year being pretty close to the Orleans (where I spent a week playing in the Orleans Open poker tournaments) and the Palms (which is an excellent casino for video poker, albeit just about the only one that doesn’t think we’re worthy of any room offers in the mail).

This year’s home base is actually a little closer to the action too.  Streets and Trips finds 55 casinos within a 5 mile radius.  Orleans is still closest (2.0 miles away, but a 3.3 mile drive), then Palms (2.7 miles).

The quickest route to the strip is to the intersection with Tropicana Avenue (5 miles by road) which is where MGM Grand, Excalibur, New York New York and Tropicana all sit.

When traffic is good and the lights are with me, it’s going to be 10 minutes to get the car into the Tropicana valet parking, just leaving me with a choice of which footbridge to take over the road to get to the next casino.

This is what it looks like from the sky, thanks to Google Earth.

It’s second from left.  The one with the pool. 🙂

"This three bedroom and two and a half bath home sits in the beautiful and well kept grounds of the Cottages. Secured in a gated community you’ll enjoy very serene, peaceful surroundings.

Private back yard allows you to enjoy sunbathing poolside. The pool is just off the kitchen door with table and chairs for morning breakfast, lunch or diner…moonlight diners etc

The furniture, beddings and everything else are new, clean and comfortable. It’s a paradise! Bring your clothes, put your feet up and enjoy all the comforts of home."

More pics:


An interesting use of the word “tampons”

Chat from a Poker Stars sit-and-go tournament:

I am going to be looking out for the perfect opportunity to say "I think you’ve got tampons" in a live game.  I can’t wait.

Harrah’s doesn’t love me any more

It looks like my honeymoon with Harrah’s is over.  Things are starting to fall back to how they were.

I just logged in to my Total Rewards account and I can hardly get a room comp at all any more.  Even at the Imperial Palace.

I shouldn’t really be too bothered about that, because the IP was a bit shit.  And I’m not usually that fussy – I’ve stayed at some the really, really cheap hotels in Las Vegas.

Casino Royale, for instance, is a complete anomoly in the middle of the Strip and I’m sure it’s tiny hotel (which is outside the back of the casino and across the parking lot) would technically be a motel if it wasn’t for one set of outer doors, but the room was comfortable enough.  There’s no bellman or room service, but there’s a coffee machine and a fridge in the room and that goes a very long way.

When I stayed at the El Cortez a few years ago, before that scary part of Downtown was lit up and filled with bars, the room felt old but in an "it’s got a certain charm" kind of way – not a "why haven’t they knocked it down yet" way.  In fact, the thought of staying in a room that needed an extra coat of paint because a previous resident had bought a bullet and rented a gun just added to the character.

On the other hand, all I can say about Imperial Palace is that it was just kind of white.  I think they were going for a sterile, institutional sort of feel – which to be fair would suit the Asian theme of the property about as well as their weekly Hawaiian Luau, the Classic American Car exhibition or having a blackjack dealer that impersonates Stevie Wonder.

The pictures on their web site are somewhat flattering, suggesting that there is actually a subtle tone of colour in the bed linen and curtains.

I don’t remember that at all – unless I really wasn’t looking hard enough, everything was just plain white.  Which, I guess, at least usually goes some way to prove that the room was clean.

As well as the plain white bedside units you can see in thie picture, my room also had a white pedestal table with white wood frame chairs and a large white entertainment unit with the TV inside.

One perk was the patio door with its own private balcony area, much better than the barred window I expected to find before I pulled back the white curtain for the first time.  From my 11th floor cell I had direct access to a 3ft x 1ft exercise yard as well as an amazing view of… other cells.  Hundreds of them.  In every direction

Even so, I’m still quite disappointed that I can’t go back again for free.

The fundamental theorem of video poker

As so often happens at the Palms, I’d ended up sitting next to a professional video poker player.  You can always spot them by that slapping action on the buttons, which is something that only comes with hours of training.

I’ve tried it, and it makes me look great for a few minutes but my arms get tired really quickly.  I’m such a noob.

Thanks to the slot card reader, I knew this particular chap was called Rick and that he had over 100,000 points on his card.  I’ve seen many players with more than that, but even so he has probably achieved the the lofty status of never having to pay to eat again.

Once you achieve the "MVP" tier of the Palms’ slot club (50,000 points earned in 90 days) you get half off at the buffet when you redeem points to eat, and if you make the "Hall of Famer" level (200,000 points in 90 days) you get a 75% discount.  So not only do you have gazillions of points to redeem, you just can’t spend them fast enough.

You can only eat so many $4.25 champagne brunches.

You apparently get other shit like movie passes and free car washes at those levels too.  Obviously, it’s part of my summer plan to achieve this status.  Who doesn’t love a free car wash?

Anyway, Rick was having a bad day on Deuces Wild.  He told anyone who cared to listen that he needed to take a break as he just made three mistakes in a row.

As he got up and wandered off, I glanced across at his screen and saw: 8h 7h 4h 5c 4s.  He’d held the first four cards, with the last 4 making a worthless low pair after the draw.

I know this one now without looking it up.  When you have a four card straight draw with a gap but three of those cards are the same suit, you should always hold for the long shot straight flush above the gutshot straight.  This holds true even if there are two gaps in the straight flush draw (as in this case: 8 7 4).

He’d done it wrong, but at least he’d realised and taking a break was a smart move.

Perhaps he could have taken a longer break than four minutes, but I guess it doesn’t take long to go to the ATM and fetch a coffee, and any break much longer than that is really going to eat into your hourly rate.

He sat back at the same machine and the woman next to him asked if he liked that one in particular.  He explained, "I usually play on the other side, but it’s not been hitting so I came this side today".

Well, game selection is important.

He continued, "This week it’s been full of tourists so it’s hard for the regulars to get a read on it".

"Tourists" are clearly the "internet players" of the professional video poker circuit.

He went on to boast how he can usually tell when – as well as at which machine – the jackpot is going to pay out.  "It should go early today, not like $1300 or $1400" (in reference to the progressive jackpot, which resets to $1000 when a royal flush is hit, then increases with each game played until the next one).

I’m quite surprised he wasn’t wearing shades so the machines couldn’t soulscan him right back.

It wasn’t long before I was dealt a hand I needed to think about: three aces with a three card royal flush draw and no wild cards.  With a pair and a three-to-the-royal option, you always go for glory (in deuces wild, any pair has to improve to three-of-a-kind or better for a payout).  With trips already on screen, I wasn’t quite so sure what to do.

My strategy card said to hold the aces, but I still hesitated because of the progressive jackpot.  At that time it was set to pay $1122 for a royal flush instead of the usual $1000.  I just couldn’t work out if it was enough to make a difference.

Rick saw me scrunching my face up at the screen, then my cheat sheets, then starting to type the hand into my phone so I could check it later after I finally made a decision, and he jumped to my rescue.

"You have to go for it", he offered.  "Three to the royal beats pretty much everything".

Well, he’s not far off.  The only hands you would normally hold over a three card royal are a made straight, a made flush or an open-ended four card straight flush draw.  Oh yes, and three of a kind.

But after he said that, how could I not draw to the royal flush?  You just know that it’s going to draw the two cards you’d have needed (or at the very least one of them and a wild card) if you hold the aces and nothing would have put me on tilt for the rest of the trip more than seeing his "I told you so face".

I was never so glad to see rags: a meaningless 7 and 3 was about as emphatically not a jackpot as you can get, nor would it have improved my three aces to a bigger win.

This hand was actually not as close as I thought it would be.  I plugged the numbers into some video poker software and it calculated the ER of the three aces as 10.09 (that’s an expected return of just over ten coins for a five coin bet) and the royal flush draw came in at 6.54, if you disregard the progressive.  So, in normal circumstances, holding the three of a kind is worth over 50% more!

Pumping the jackpot up to $1122 in the simulation didn’t make any difference to the strategy.  The value of trips doesn’t change (because there’s no way to redraw to a royal flush) but the three card royal draw’s ER rose to 7.05.  It’s extra free money when you hit it, but it’s still nowhere near enough to throw away trips for.

In fact, the jackpot has to reach a massive $2000 before you would consider breaking the three aces (ER=10.09) for a three-card royal flush draw that contains an ace (ER=10.11), and even then it would be an extremely volatile play for a tiny edge.

With the jackpot that high the overall return of the machine becomes a whopping 102.70% (compared to 100.76% with no progressive) although I’m sure there must be other strategy adjustments you need to make to take full advantage of the monster jackpot.

In fact, Rick did tell me that when the meter gets to $1350, that’s when you throw away the wild card if you’re dealt a royal flush with one wild deuce.  That’s correct, although he’s probably not accounting for the fact that any jackpot of $1200 or more will trigger tax paperwork.

A $2000 progressive would happen only very rarely the Palms because the meter rises very slowly.  When it does, you can be sure that the bank of machines will be perma-occupied by pros until it hits, and then they’ll all go home.

And it was thinking about that kind of mass exodus – which you really do see after a brief moment of fake, bitter congratulations when a substantial progressive is hit – that got me thinking.  Rick’s bad advice not only cost me a little EV, but it also cost himself – and every other player sitting at that bank of machines!

When I make the correct play and hold the three aces, I will hit a royal flush on the draw exactly 0% of the time.  However, when I hold the three card royal draw, it is a possibility.  It’s a very slim possibility (the odds are 1080-1 against) but nevertheless it still happens more often than never.

The key thing is that when I do get lucky, not only do I win the jackpot but the progressive meter resets to $1000.

Let’s pretend I did hit it.  A few seconds ago, Rick was playing a game with a $1122 jackpot which had an expected return of 100.97%.  Now it suddenly became a standard 100.76% game.

A couple of tenths of one percent doesn’t sound like much, but even with that modest progressive his hourly win rate (before comps) was 28% bigger before the jackpot got hit.

If the progressive had crept up to about $1400, that would have been a 101.5% game until my jackpot just went and ruined it by cutting the player’s edge in half!

It’s easy to think that it’s completely irrelevant how well or how poorly the guy next to you plays at video poker because it’s a solo game.  In fact, when a progressive jackpot is involved, your edge can be affected directly by the decisions that those around you make.

Therefore a sharp video poker player would have absolutely encouraged me to hold the three-of-a-kind.  It makes no difference to him whether I’m making the optimal play on this hand, but it would make a difference if I made a donkey play that reset a jackpot which he still had a shot at winning.

And so, in anticipation of my inevitable 2+2 book deal, I proudly present the Fundamental Theorem of Video Poker.  You may call it the FTOVP if you wish.

"Whenever a player incorrectly holds a royal flush draw, they lose and everyone else playing that game also loses.  However, whenever a player incorrectly fails to hold a royal flush draw, they lose but everybody else gains".

OK, I admit it should really be called "an occasionally relevant theorem of multi-player progressive jackpot video poker", but it’s not quite as catchy is it?

The view, revisited

A few more pictures of the spectacular view I had from my suite at the Rio, now I’ve had chance to sort through them a little bit.

Panning the entire view from right to left we see: Imperial Palace, Harrah’s and Venetian, with parts of Caesars in the foreground (the Colosseum is far right).

Then Mirage, Palazzo, Wynn, Treasure Island and Encore…

… condos, condos, condos and construction of the Fontainebleau project.

Trump and Stratosphere, with the Circus Circus Adventuredome in the foreground.  Downtown Las Vegas is in the distance, with the Plaza far left.


Continuing all the way round to the left, we see the other Rio hotel tower and the pool, with the Valley stretching out towards the North.

Finally, a wide shot of the Strip at sunrise, from Stratosphere (far left) to Imperial Palace (far right).  If it wasn’t for the funny glare in parts of the picture I think this would be my favourite photo ever.  I guess I’ll just have to learn how to use Photoshop…

Unlucky numbers

So, just how unlucky was I in my poker tournaments on this trip?  I can certainly fudge some figures together to show a pretty unlucky number.

In the three main tournaments I played, I got my entire stack in and called exactly three times.  I lost them all.

If it had been just three coinflips, I’d be losing them all roughly once in every 8 times that this sequence of events cropped up.  I’d still be cursing my luck.

However, because I was a massive favourite in one hand the actual number is more like 1 time in 80.  The other 79 times, I’m winning at least one of the all-ins and going a little bit deeper in at least one of the tournaments.

There’s no guarantee of converting that into winning money, of course, but if you constantly fail to get past your first all-in situation there’s absolutely no hope.

In my key hand at the Golden Nugget (it didn’t quite bust me, but left me so short stacked everything afterwards became irrelevant) I was a 95% favourite when the money went in.

Blinds were 50/100 and I’d raised one limper to 600 with my KK.  I got an immediate call from my left who then also called my flop bet and my turn push for about 6000 chips in total.  The board was J424, he had QJ and revealed "I thought you had pocket tens".  Obviously.  The river brought another jack, one of the two remaining cards in the deck he could win with.

You’d think that one would have hurt more, but actually I felt pretty good about it.  A coinflip is a coinflip and there are times you just have to push and hope.  You usually don’t want to get called because half the time you’ll be going home.  This time know I played the hand just fine.

Being a 95% favourite is an absolute luxury.  You’re four times less likely to go broke on the hand than with pocket aces against pocket kings all in pre-flop.  There’s no shame in betting the ranch when you’re in such a commanding position.

Whereas with 50/50s, well… you can always ask yourself "did I really have to do that?".  The answer is usually "yes", but there’s always room for debate.

So, sorry to all my backers that I couldn’t manage to bring back a fat wad of cash for you, and unfortunately I can’t pay you in Sklansky Bucks.  Next time I’ll try to be luckier.

Live updates: Golden Nugget Grand Poker Series ($225)

Begins at noon (8pm UK time)

Half a pencil

I can’t think of a hotel I’ve stayed at that didn’t put a notepad and pen in the room.

After all, I usually nab the pen. I have a pot full of them on my desk.

However, all the Imperial Palace has to offer is half a pencil.

I can’t tell if they actually make them this size, or if the maids just sharpen them each day until they get down to the lettering.

You wait 5 days then 50 come along at once

By rights, I should now have a photo like this one up on a Winners’ Wall somewhere.

Unfortunately, Harrah’s Laughlin doesn’t have anything of the sort (and if they did, they probably would have asked me to change my shirt) so I’ll have to make do with this one the dude sitting next to me took when I hit this video poker machine for TEN FREAKING GRAND!

It was looking like I’d go right through the trip without hitting a 40,000-1 royal flush at all. So instead I hit this 650,000-1 dealt royal flush on the bottom line of a 50-play machine.

At 4,000 coins per royal, times 5c per coin that’s $200 for each one. Fifty times. Just let me say it again – that’s ten grand!

This must have been by an east-facing window (views of the outside world are permitted in casinos in Laughlin) because the glare on the screen from the morning sun is horrible. I couldn’t get a very good photo at all, but at least I managed to get myself in the picture with this one.

The sign on top of this bank says "Hottest Slots of the Month". The players club actually compiles a list you can collect with the locations of which particular machines have been paying well lately. I’m assuming this one will stick around on the list for another month now.

If you played this game with a maximum $12.50 bet per spin for three hours every day, you’d see this miracle hand on average once a year, and to do so would cost over $40,000 even in this "full pay" (99.5% payback) version of the game. Most similar machines are much less generous.

I had hardly any time left before needing to leave – I had to get back to Las Vegas to check into the Imperial Palace and then get down to Binions to register for the tournament before noon – and apparently it usually takes about an hour and a half for the casino to issue a cheque.

Otherwise the whole process of winning was impressively fast. A slot attendant appeared almost immediately, the supervisor was about ten seconds behind and one started to fill in the tax paperwork while the other called up to the eye in the sky to make sure I’d shown genuine delight at winning, or something. No problem with the tax withholding, I gave them my ITIN and I got 100% of the money.

In cash. Counted out into my hand in the middle of the casino floor.

This is what ten grand in notes looks like.

And yes, they do all have Benjamin Franklin’s face on, this is not a made-for-TV brick of $1 bills with a $100 on each end.

Two hours later, it was in the bank (I’m not daft) and I still made it to Binions with ten minutes to spare – where I saw garbage for five hours, then lost a race with ace-king against a pair of tens.

So, live poker probably owes me a coinflip but I think it’s safe to say that for the time being I’m sitting somewhat ahead of expectation at video poker.

Live updates: Binion’s Poker Classic ($500)