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Best of Gary Trask
LAS VEGAS – "Excuse me," the 40ish guy sitting across the table from me said politely as he waved down the host of the Excalibur poker room in Las Vegas. "Can we get some Windex over here? The table is smudged."
It was at that moment that I officially realized I was playing poker like I never had before.
Back in August, the Excalibur became the first casino in Las Vegas to begin using electronic tables exclusively in its poker room. The unexpected move drew a harsh reaction from "poker purists" who scoffed at the idea of playing poker without a dealer or real chips and cards. Meanwhile, MGM Mirage – which operates 11 casinos in Las Vegas, including the Excalibur – made the very strong case that the idea made sense from an economics standpoint and, at the same time, was a good thing for the players because the electronic table had a faster pace and a lower rake per hand.
So when I made a visit to Las Vegas earlier this month I made it a point to travel down the south end of the strip and visit the Excalibur so I could try the new tables myself.
The poker room at the Excalibur isn't actually a "room." It's a sectioned off area smack dab in the middle of the casino floor. From afar, it doesn't appear that much has changed. But once you get closer you quickly realize that this is no longer your typical poker room. The normal sound of players rolling their chips through their fingers is non-existent. And the silence is deafening.
Spread throughout the area is 12 PokerPro electronic tables. The tables are a product of PokerTek, which has installed 230 PokerPro tables worldwide, including Montreal, Michigan, Indiana, Connecticut and Atlantic City as well as on cruise ships.
Before sitting down and actually playing a game, I decided to walk around and acclimate myself. I was happy to find that there was table in the corner of the room that was designated for demo play. An older gentleman that worked in the room approached me and asked if I wanted to sit down and give it a try. I found it ironic that this man – clearly in his late 60s or early 70s – was the one introducing me to the game since most of the opposition to an electronic room centered on the fact that "old school" poker players would never go for it.
It turned out that this man was as "old school" as it gets. His name was Dan Bell. He is 71 years old and had worked as a poker dealer in the Excalibur for 18 years. Despite the flashy, new tables, Bell was happy to still be reporting to work at the poker room.
"I was working here the day the place opened – June 19, 1990 – and I never left," he told me proudly. "But times have changed. These [electronic] tables are a great thing. I think they benefit everyone – the players, the casino. I love'em."
Bell, a native of Los Angeles, did a superb job explaining how to operate the tables. And to be quite honest, they are not very difficult to figure out.
"Most people are apprehensive at first, and that's expected," said Bell, who added that he thought business is still slow in the poker room, but much better than it was before the electronic tables made their debut. "But the tables are very player-friendly. Most people pick it up within a few minutes. After three hands or so they get used to the speed of the game and then they're on their way."
I played a few hands at the demo table with three other guys, who were all playing electronically for the first time as well. We helped each other out, made some bets that we probably wouldn't have made if actual cash was on the line, and we had a few laughs. But before long it was quite apparent that all four of us were all anxious to play the game for real. Luckily, the daily 1 p.m. $30 No Limit Hold'em tournament was beginning in 10 minutes. The Excalibur hosts a $20 buy-in tournament each day at 9 a.m. and a $30 at 1 p.m. On Mondays through Thursdays there is a $60 buy-in at 11 p.m.
I went to the front desk where a very friendly woman registered me for the tournament. She asked if I had ever played on the new tables before and when I told her no, she urged me to play a few rounds at the demo table. When I told her I already had, she smiled gave me my new players card, which you slide into the table like a debit card into an ATM, and told me what table I'd be at to start the tournament. She also handed me a receipt and I immediately started to think of a way that I could write the 30 bucks off on my expense report.
As I sat down at my table it struck me that the demographics of the people entering the tournament were quite varied. This definitely wasn't something that simply attracted beginning players. Most of the people clearly knew how to play the game. And the room also wasn't just full of younger players. In fact, of the 24 people in the tournament, there were four women – by my guess, two in their late-20s and two in their mid-50s – and 20 men ranging in age from around 23 to 65.
"We get all kinds of players," Bell told me. "We get men, women, young players and old players. I think the only kind we don't get are the type of people out there who still refuse to learn how to use a computer or buy a cell phone. But I guess we're never going to get those folks. They just don't like change, even though the world is changing around them everyday."
By my estimate, six of the eight people sitting at my table were novices with the PokerTek machines. The atmosphere was friendly and amicable. Maybe it was because the stakes were low or maybe these tables simply attract those kinds of players. Either way, it was refreshing to play with a group of people who were there to both have a good time and try to win some money. That's my kind of poker table.
Playing poker on an electronic machine is quite similar to playing online, except in order to see your hole cards you cover them with your hands and the corners turn over. As soon as you take your hands away, the cards go face down so no one else can view them. The light in front of your monitor turns on when it is your turn to act, and to do so you simply press the button of your choice – call, fold, raise or check. And if you mistakenly hit raise when you meant to hit fold, you're not committed to that move. Before your action becomes official, you must hit the confirm button.
The pace of the game is fast. There's no shuffling of the deck, counting out chips or throwing your hand into a muck pile. Everything is automated. You still get complimentary drinks and you're still sitting in a casino environment. There are just no cards, chips or dealers.
"The game moves at a brisk pace and I think that benefits the player," said Alan Tyson, the shift boss on duty. "There are no mistakes. No squinting your eyes to see how much somebody raised or bet. It's all right there in front of you.
"The thing I like about them the most is how accurate everything is. Have you ever been at a table playing Omaha 8 or better Hi/Lo and you've got six side pots? It's a nightmare for the dealer and the players can easily get confused. Not with these tables. It's all done automatically."
The one obvious and major difference between playing on electronic table vs. playing online is that you have human interaction. You can have a conversation with others and you have to be careful about giving off tells.
Oh, and you have to be dressed.
"I had one guy who was used to playing online tell me that the only think he didn't like about the room was that he couldn't play in his underwear," Bell said chuckling. "Maybe we can arrange some sort of pajama tournament down the road for guys like that."
About 40 minutes into the tournament, I was the chip leader at my table after winning three or four pots simply by raising when in position. I did hit one decent pot when the guy to my left called my action and I ended up taking him down head-to-head with two pair. I actually started to wonder if I would be expected to share the winnings with my boss if I really did write off the $30 entry fee as a work expense.
There were all men at my table. Two of them were in their mid-60s and appeared to be together. Another guy was in his 40s and his wife was dutifully sitting at an empty table reading the newspaper as she waited for him. The guy to my right said that he had played at these tables before and seemed to be getting a bit nervous by the fact that from time to time I would try to secretly jot down notes for this story.
Of all the players at the table, the one that scared me the most was the young kid sitting three players to my left. He was in his 20s and had a friendly demeanor. It was his first time playing at the tables, but certainly not his first time playing poker. He wasn't doing much damage, but there was something about him I didn't like. I made a mental note to try and avoid him.
One hour in and our table of eight was down to six. I was still the chip leader and I was starting to feel pretty good about things. Of course, sitting in a casino on a Thursday afternoon with a beer and a big stack of chips – even if they aren't real ones – in front of you can have that affect.
I was on the button when I was dealt A-9. Three players folded and two called. When the light on my monitor flashed, I raised. The young kid – who was down to about 1,500 chips – called me, and so did the Nervous Nelly to my right. The flop came out A-3-7 and when the action was called to me again, I tried to bully my way to the pot and made another raise. But I got a sinking feeling when the young kid reluctantly called me again, before the other guy folded.
The turn was a jack and when it was checked to me I couldn't resist. I decided to go for it and push the kid all-in. With a flush out of the question, I put him on a high pair like Ks or Qs, and in that case I had him beat unless he hit a set on the river. Either that or he'd get out of my way and fold and put me in complete control of the table, which, of course, was what I was hoping for.
I quickly realized my thought process was more than just flawed when he insta-called me with a quick push of the button. It turned out that I was drawing dead as the screen in front of me proved by flashing a 100% in front of him and a 0% in front of me. That bastard had pocket aces and he slow-played me like a fiddle! I don't even remember what the river was. I was cooked.
My once healthy stack was crippled and my vision of writing a story about a new poker room that featured me – the genius poker player/writer – taking down the tournament was all but gone. I managed to hang around for another 15 minutes, but my head was still smarting from the beating the kid gave me and so was my bankroll. I was mercifully eliminated when I pushed all in with a pair of eights and got beat by pocket 10s. As I wished everyone good luck when I got up from the table, the kid gave me a sheepish smile and let out a little laugh as if to say, "I'm sorry about that hand…but not really."
Despite the embarrassing beat, my experience at an all-electronic poker room was a positive one. I enjoyed the atmosphere, loved how fast the game went and didn't mind not being able to grasp my chips and/or cards. Maybe it's because I've become accustomed to playing a decent amount of online poker. Maybe I'm simply not a "poker purist." Whatever the case, I will be back to the Excalibur the next time I'm in Vegas.
"You're not alone," Tyson told me after I thanked him for his time and started to walk out the door with my proverbial tail between my legs. "The people who actually sit down and play for a couple hours always seem to love it. I'd say that probably 90% of the people who come in and play leave the room with every intention of coming back."
You can count me in among that 90%. I just hope next time I follow my sixth sense and avoid trouble when I smell it.