In terms of uniqueness, Los Angeles poker takes the cake. Partly this reflects simple economics. The value of a dollar in L.A. is different than in, say, Las Vegas. The one life reality that all poker players share, except a handful who live in their 1992 Corollas, is that we all have to put a roof over our heads. For grinders in particular, housing is invariably the biggest monthly expense. Consequently, in regions where housing costs are high, professional players typically need to play bigger games to survive. Similarly, in higher cost areas there is more disposable income sloshing around. This is likely one reason why L.A. has the reputation for loose games in which even at $5/$5 and up there are plenty of recreational players who can lose several buy-ins without blinking.
What’s Different About L.A. Poker
If you’re used to playing poker in Vegas, another major change you’ll experience in L.A. is that there are very few tourists. One could argue the local/tourist divide is over-emphasized in Vegas: the conventional wisdom is that the locals are in some sense “solid” players (typically a misnomer for overly nitty players), whereas tourists are looser and easier money. This is obviously a gross over-simplification. However, the greater diversity in the Vegas player pool, fueled by visitors from all over the world, does tend to be reflected in a wide range of styles and abilities, with “tourist rooms” typically having the best action. In L.A., by contrast, the consensus is that the action is nearly always good, with a more homogeneous player pool preserving a common game texture. One important caveat is that there is a significant difference in action between morning and evening games. If your goal is to make money, wait until the breakfast club is long gone.
It is, however, the smallest NLHE games in L.A. where game texture is the most bizarre to outsiders, simply because of the caps on buy-in. A typical $1/$2 game, for example, may have a cap as low as $40. This is the case at The Commerce and The Gardens, where $40 is also the minimum buy-in. Compare this to Vegas where the most common min/max at this blind level is $100/$300. Even at $5/$5 the L.A. cap can be as low as $500, although $1,000 is offered at The Bike.
One could argue that the high housing costs in L.A. make a $5/$5 game an affordable limit for locals, so that this is essentially the emotional equivalent of $1/$2 in Vegas. Through this lens, the micro-caps of an L.A. $1/$2 game are even more unusual. They are essentially a sub-entry level game involving a structure not played anywhere else in the country.
Before looking at strategies appropriate for L.A. game texture and structure, a couple of remarks concerning local game mechanics.
L.A. poker rooms make money via a drop rather than a rake. At $2/$3 for example, commonly $4 for the house plus $1 for the promo is pulled off whenever anyone enters the pot with another dollar coming off on the turn, irrespective of the size of the pot. Typically this means that when the action is folded to the small blind (a rare occurrence, but it illustrates the concept), the small blind and big blind will alert each other if they have a jackpot hand. If not, the small blind simply tosses their hand away as the better option of two bad ones. The worse option is described by our man on the spot, Rosy Rosenquist:
A player who was very bad and somewhat new to poker open-completed from SB. I looked at him from BB and said, “Are you sure? I don’t think I can do it.” (I was referring to hitting a jackpot; my actual hand was 32o.) He didn’t understand and said, “I want to play, lets play.” We checked all three streets and his JTo turned into a pair on the river and he won a pot of $0. He smiled and said, “Anyway, it’s the same thing. I would have lost my $2 either way.” I replied, “True, but at least this way I got to lose $3 too.”
If your only experience of live cash games outside your hometown is from Vegas during the WSOP and the lengthy waiting lists, another key difference you’ll notice in L.A. is how fast you’ll get seated. This mostly reflects the large number of tables in action; locals claim in addition that it’s simply L.A. efficiency. As a result, it is unusual to phone ahead to get on a list, at least for low-to-mid stakes games, and only Commerce is on the Bravo app.
Finally, the fact that each dealer is responsible for their own tray which they carry with them from table to table will look odd if you’ve never seen it before. Again people who play in L.A. claim this is a vast improvement over the system in Vegas and elsewhere.
The Oddities Of 20bb Poker
While GTO solvers are now probing perfect play in deep-stacked, multi-street scenarios, game theory was first applied to short-stack poker in the context of late-stage tournaments. Entry-level L.A. games play at an identical stack depth and are thus, modulo antes and ICM considerations, mathematically equivalent. If we assume, for the moment, a $1/$2 game in which everybody is sitting 20bb deep, this means that all hands should follow one of three paths:
1. The hand folds to the blinds who chop;
2. A player raises and steals the blinds;
3. A player raises, a second player 3-bet shoves, and the opener either calls or folds.
That’s it. Any other line of action outside of a promo-chasing small blind completion is theoretically indefensible. And yet the vast majority of hands played at this stack depth in L.A. do not follow one of those three paths. In practice one sees a lot of open-limping and calls of open-raises, both of which are invariably horrendous mathematical errors.
If you like winning money at poker, your ears should immediately perk up at this revelation. After all, it follows from The Fundamental Theorem Of Poker that if nearly everyone is playing these games wrong and you play them right, then profit is guaranteed. The one spider in the jam is the drop, of course; this is not a zero-sum game.
So are these games beatable? We have concluded that by employing sound short-stack strategy they are. The most secure route to profit will be 3-bet shoving the correct range over opens. In the most passive games, you will need to rely on establishing open-raise/call and open-raise/fold ranges, and developing isolation-raise ranges over the inevitable limpers. For 3-bet shove ranges our crash course on the topic provides everything you’ll need. It includes a breakdown of how to use Holdem Resources Calculator, which is a powerful tool for perfecting all the aforementioned ranges.
There is perhaps a bigger question here, though, beyond how to beat these games. Do you really want to play them in the first place? One might regard them as a bankroll builder or useful training for late-stage tournament play, but if you’re genuinely interested in NLHE, the nuances of the game only flourish in a much deeper-stacked environment.
Playing In Deeper Games
The most notable feature of the higher-limit, deeper games played in L.A. has already been mentioned. Particularly from late afternoon onward, they are typically looser and softer than games at the same limit anywhere else in the country. Of course one frequently hears anecdotes of similar attractive action in New Mexico and Maryland casinos, a card club in Houston, or just about anywhere else, but the general consensus is that for reliable and consistent loose action at these limits, L.A. is the place to be.
A full strategy discussion of how to compete in such games is well beyond the scope of the current article. Our PRO library includes a dozen videos of direct analysis of L.A. games from The Bike, and naturally has multiple series dedicated to the skills you will need to succeed in such games.
If you want a starting point, we suggest Ed Miller’s “Playing The Player” as an excellent resource. This book provides specific strategies for combating loose-aggressive players and for surviving in action games in which you can anticipate wild swings. Other resources for fighting back against LAGs includes this podcast episode with LA-based professional Fausto Valdez. Fundamentally, playing in these games is often a roller-coaster ride, but if handled well an extremely profitable one.
L.A. Poker Rooms
L.A. locals tend to place their poker rooms into one of three categories: The Big Three, The Medium Two, and The Indian Rooms. There are no single-digit table rooms equivalent to the smallest found on the Vegas Strip which are also common in the Midwest.
The Big Three
Probably the highest profile L.A. poker room thanks to the long-running “Live At The Bike” stream and an infamous RCP game, The Bicycle features 185 tables, 100+ of which are dedicated to cash games. Outside of the short-stacked novelties, we regard the de facto entry-level game as the $2/$3, with a min/max buyin of $100/$300 and most hands sustaining a $6+$1 (promo) drop. The $3/hour comp rate strikes Las Vegans as generous, particularly given that the table-side food is pretty good.
Devotees of non-NLHE games will be able to find a table they like here. Even stud occasionally breaks out and LHE, PLO and mixed games are all common and sometimes seen at appreciable limits.
At 210 tables this is one of the largest poker rooms in the world. The drop varies from $3.50 to $7/hand, and it’s worth looking out for games that are being promoted that occasionally offer lower than normal rake. At higher limits a $15/half hour time drop is taken. The $2/$3 game has the same $6+$1 drop as its counterpart at The Bike, but the buy-in is a fixed $100 and comps are only a buck an hour.
Non-NLHE games also proliferate and typically the biggest games in SoCal break out here. In addition, The Commerce is also home to the L.A. Poker Classic – the longest-running tournament series in SoCal. During big tournament series the room has a reputation for being less clean that one might prefer, but this is frequently the case whenever a large number of tournament players descend on one venue.
The Gardens Casino
Weighing in at 110 tables, The Gardens splits the difference of its bigger competitors in its $2/$3 structure. The min/max buy-in is $100/$200 with $2/hour comps. It’s not until the $300/$600 buy-in of the $5/$5 game that one can sit with more than 100bb. Game varieties and limits are less varied than those at The Bike and Commerce, but compare favorably with offerings at the largest Vegas casinos.
A 2018 remodel of the property was well received by regulars, many of whom show a strong loyalty to the room and favor it over the competition. “Comfortable” and “great action” are what we hear most commonly.
The Medium Two
Small by SoCal standards, the 51 tables at Hollywood Park make it comfortably bigger than any non-WSOP facility in Las Vegas. Low-limit NLHE structures are a little different here, with $2/$3 being absent from the mix. Instead the $1/$2 offers a min/max buy-in of $40/$100, making it a little more consistent with games outside of SoCal. The $3/$5 is a rather disappointing $100/$300 and you’re going to need to play $5/$10 ($500/$2500) if you want to sit deeper than 100bb.
Drop on the $1/$2 is $5+$1 and the comps are… Honestly, the information on the Hollywood Park website is a little vague and seems to involve some points system, but we’re assured that in the smaller poker games it works out to about 30c/hour. Maybe they get away with this rather meager rate thanks to occasional appearances by Norm Chad and the fact there’s a racetrack on site.
The Hustler Casino seems to reflect the larger-than-life personality of owner Larry Flynt. Basic research for this entry involved trying to see around a huge banner announcing “The Most Anticipated Tournament in the 21st Century! Larry Flynt’s Strike It Rich Tournament Series! November 17 – 29, 2019! All new player friendly format and structures!” Here at Red Chip, we appreciate this sort of can-do, positive attitude, although our style guide calls for a less liberal use of exclamation points.
In terms of cash games, the lowest limit offered at The Hustler is $1/$3 with a min/max buy-in of $40/$100. Corresponding drop and comps are $5+1 and $2/hour, respectively. The $5/$5 looks rather more interesting with a buy-in from $300 to $1000 and comped food.
The Native American Rooms
Some SoCal pedants may argue that these final two rooms are not in L.A. at all, but from certain parts of town the notorious L.A. traffic makes them the most convenient to get to.
Located in Cabazon, at 13 tables this card room compares in size to the MGM in Las Vegas. The $1/$2 game has a min/max $40/$100, a $2 no-flop drop and an additional $4 rake. The 18+ room can get crowded when college is in session before students have spent all their loans. Unusually for SoCal, smoking is permitted inside the property which is a turn-off for some locals. That said, the poker room is in an enclosed area away from the main floor, and by Vegas standards would be regarded as commendably smoke free.
The room offers an uncapped $5/$10 which they claim runs during “busier hours”, but we were not able to confirm it is spread regularly. The overall impression is a rather crowded room with a younger clientele, which is worth of a visit if you happen to be in the area, but not really viable competition for regional rivals.
This Temecula facility sports 42 tables and is restricted to 21+. $1/$2, $1/$3 and $2/$3 are all spread, with min/max buy-ins of $40/$100, $100/$300 and $100/$300. We have no idea why they would offer that $1/$3 in the middle either, particularly given the buy-in is identical to the $2/$3, but we’re sure they know what they’re doing. House rake on the $2/$3 is $4/hand on any pot over $10, which makes it somewhat more attractive than the competition. Comps are a buck an hour.
With a spa, gym and golf course, this facility has that resort vibe familiar to Las Vegans. People come here to have a good time, and by reputation that is reflected in the good poker action.
Editor’s Note: Because we feel the information we provide should be based on first-hand experience, this series relies on contributions from staff and friends of RCP. For this article we would like to explicitly thank Rosy Rosenquist for jeopardizing his bankroll and sanity by sitting in LA entry-level games.