Every year at Red Chip we get multiple inquiries about where to play cash games and tournaments and a host of other questions concerning the poker summer in Las Vegas. We’ve published several resources over the last three years, but I felt it was time to bring as much information as possible into a single guide. The information below is designed with the Las Vegas rookie in mind. That said, the ever-changing face of Vegas poker means even veterans will find something of interest, such as the links to all the major summer series given below.
This may seem a little too basic, but Las Vegas is really hot in the summer. The average daily highs range from 100°F at the beginning of the WSOP to 105°F when the main event gets underway, but these are only averages. Highs of 115°F are common in July and the fact it is a dry heat only compounds the dangers of dehydration. If you spend any time at all outside, drink twice as much water as you feel you need. Then have a glass of water.
Something that is less well-known is that, with the possible exception of a couple of meat-storage facilities near the airport, the coldest places in southern Nevada in the summer are Las Vegas poker rooms. Those ubiquitous hoodies you see on TV do serve a purpose. I have also witnessed people playing poker at the Rio wearing fingerless mittens. Be prepared.
In the spring of 2015, Doug Hull recorded a podcast “Doing Vegas on a budget for the WSOP.” Most of the information he provides remains solid three years later, with one major change being that Las Vegas now has Uber/Lyft service. I realize some people have issues with the business practices of these companies, but in my experience both are cleaner, cheaper and have more pleasant drivers than the local cab companies.
I take issue with one suggestion made by Doug concerning the infamous “$20 trick.” As he explains, slipping your hotel check-in clerk a $20 may get you a room upgrade. I have always been extremely dubious about this idea for multiple reasons. First, are you really going to know you got an upgrade? All hotel rooms look the same to me. Second, is the possibility of an extra fifty square feet and a phone in the bathroom worth $20? Finally, if you’re spending enough time in your hotel room for an upgrade to matter, you’re probably doing Vegas wrong.
As a companion piece to Doug’s podcast, I strongly recommend a second: WSOP Trip Report: What To Expect. Podcast host and RCP media guru Zac Shaw gives a tantalizing report from his first ever trip to the WSOP. If you’re pretty sure you want to come and join the festivities, Zac’s enthusiasm and amazement at the sheer scale of the Rio poker ballrooms will put you over the edge. Zac also describes a novel approach to rectifying getting long-hauled by a Vegas cabby, which played into my recommendation to take Uber/Lyft instead.
Summer 2018 Tournament Series
While the WSOP at the Rio is the series that attracts all the attention and TV cameras there are many other series every summer that may be better suited to your bankroll and your bladder (more on this shortly). However, if this is your first trip out for a Vegas poker summer, it’s more than likely that you’re planning to play at least one WSOP event. Here is the entire 2018 WSOP schedule.
The sheer scale of the WSOP makes it different to other series and can be intimidating for a rookie. To give you the best chance to perform up to your potential, James “Splitsuit” Sweeney put together this list of tips.
James covers all aspects of preparing for playing a WSOP from working on your game to food, sleep, meditation and peeing.
Let me add a personal take here. I first played the WSOP in 2006. I played a $5k Limit Hold’em event and the Main. I did poorly. Since then I have played an event about once every two or three years and have repeated the complete lack of success from my debut. I played a satellite there last year. You can guess the result. The only thing that has remained as constant as my futility in WSOP tournaments over this period is the enormous length of the lines to the bathrooms. So I will not be at the Rio in 2018, but if you’re concerned, as you should be, about peeing, read James’ article linked above.
The only area in which I deviate from James’ advice is in his book recommendations. If you only read “Harrington on Hold’em” you’re going to be extremely puzzled by the size of open-raises all around you and will also be lacking some other insights that reflect changes in MTT theory since Dan Harrington wrote his excellent (for the time) trilogy. It may be a testament to the success of poker training sites that there are not many good recent poker books on tournament play, but two that I think would be helpful to taking on the large fields of the WSOP are Bertrand “Elky” Grospellier’s “The Raiser’s Edge,” and Jonathan Little’s three-volume “Secrets of Professional Tournament Poker.” However, I should also point out that while I am an avid reader of anything related to poker, my preference for tuning up my MTT skills is to use training videos.
If you do decide to play tournaments at the Rio, be aware that the bracelet events are only one element of the overall tournament offerings. From May 29th until July 15th the Daily Deep Stacks attract large crowds. In addition to the $250 entry tournaments that start at 1pm (although on at least one “official” WSOP they are listed as noon), there are faster-structured tournaments starting at 4pm, 7pm and 10pm. These one-day events can still be grueling if you go deep, but are not the marathons of the multi-day tournaments. For some perspective on this check out our 2017 podcast: “Outlasting 17,000 players in the Colossus.”
Finally, the Rio offers single-table tournaments (sit-and-goes). Such tournaments used to be fairly common in Vegas year round at places like the Mirage, but these days they are almost exclusively restricted to the WSOP. At the time of writing this guide I have not been able to confirm the buy-ins for the 2018 sit-and-goes, but last year’s info is likely to be close.
You do find some specialists in these tournaments, but you also find less-adept players who jump into them because they’ve got a couple of hours to kill, thereby creating a useful overlay for anyone who is competent. Doug Hull has had considerable success in this format and shared his wisdom on topics from making deals to using push-fold charts in an article in 2014.
Beyond the WSOP
The main competition to the WSOP in 2018, at least in terms of sheer scale, is being provided by the Venetian. Vegas players have been puzzled about the direction the Venetian has been taking in terms of poker, particularly after the main poker room was reduced in size. Consequently it came as something of a surprise when the property announced its “Championship Poker DeepStack Series” for 2018 would include 103 additional tables set up in the neighboring Sands Expo Convention Center.
In detail, the series will run a remarkable eleven weeks from May 14th to July 29th with guaranteed prize pools totaling more than $31 million. Buy-ins range from $200 for the cheapest dailies to $5000 for the $2 million guarantee Card Player Poker Tour event. Tournaments forming part of the Mid-Stakes Poker Tour are also included in this Venetian marathon. It’s going to be fascinating to see how all this plays out, particularly given the Venetian’s history of providing well-organized and well-attended tournament series.
However, it’s also worth noting that Venetian tournaments historically have had a higher rake than some competitors. When you’re deciding at which property to play, it’s always a good idea to study the tournament structure sheets carefully for both rake and any additional “staff fees” that can drain the prize pool.
In contrast, poker series at the Wynn invariably have the lowest juice in Vegas and at the time of writing that appears to be the case for their 2018 Summer Classic. Buy-ins range from $400 for some of the dailies to $1,600 for the Championship Event that carries a $1.5 million guarantee. Also of note are the satellites and super-satellites to the larger tournaments that start at $200. The series runs from June 1st to July 16th.
If you haven’t been to Vegas for a couple of years you will not have had the pleasure of visiting the new Wynn poker room. The first thing you need to know is that it is actually in the Encore. In my opinion it is even more enjoyable to play in than the old space in the Wynn proper. For tournament series, overflow tables are set up immediately adjacent to the poker room in a pleasant and fairly quiet area of the Encore floor. My personal recommendation is that if you only play one tournament this summer you do so at the Wynn. It’s quite possible I am heavily biased by the fact I have done well in Wynn tournaments, but equally I don’t know of a property that matches the organizational efficiency and overall positive experience.
Staying with opulence and cocktail servers who are hired as fashion models, we have the Aria Poker Classic. Despite being fairly good at Googling, I could only find the schedule for this series on secondary outlets. I imagine closer to the May 26th kick-off that structure sheets and other details will appear on the Aria website. The series runs through July 8th and includes a $1,100 main event.
The conventional wisdom among Vegas grinders is that the Aria tournaments tend to have softer fields than those at Venetian and Wynn. For those of you on limited time and cash budgets, the Aria offers $240 tournaments at 7pm during this series with somewhat faster structures than their 11am offerings.
In one of those bold marketing decisions that the corporation is known for, Caesars competes with its own WSOP product at the Rio by also offering a poker tournament series at Planet Hollywood. From May 24th to July 15th the “Goliath Phamous Poker Series” will offer a wide selection of tournaments covering multiple poker variants.
I have to say I always feel Planet Hollywood tries a little too hard with the offbeat spellings and tournament names. For example I have no idea if “The Big Bill” – a $75+25 daily running throughout the series – is simply a high-juice daily with a buy-in of one hundred dollars, or if additionally it is dedicated to the memory of a large person named William. That said, the property deserves credit for the range of their tournament types, and the general sentiment is that the organization and location on the mezzanine level lead to a good overall experience for the customer.
The Golden Nugget has offered a summer poker series for more than a decade which is popular with many locals. This year’s “Grand Poker Series” runs from May 29th to July 3rd.
I’ve provided links directly to the pdfs for the schedule and structures because when I went to the main Golden Nugget site all my AV and malware software went bananas. This is somewhat ironic given that I haven’t been downtown since 2008 because it’s a bit too real for me. Equally I know some people have a preference for downtown over The Strip.
The Nugget series is another that offers lower buy-ins and shorter tournaments, with the affordable end of the spectrum being the $110 nightlies starting at 7pm. The property also does a decent job of offering tournaments in variants other than NLHE.
Finally we have the place where it all started: Binions. This is another property that seems slightly coy about promoting its summer series, hence the link to a secondary source. The “Dog Days Of Summer” runs tidily from June 1st to July 1st and in many ways mirrors the pricing and variety of the Nugget on the other side of Fremont Street.
Locals again seem to like this series. Tourists who pop in expecting to find the Poker Hall of Fame will be somewhat disappointed since there is no physical Poker Hall of Fame. There are, however, photos of hall-of-famers and the iconic neon logo out front is definitely worth seeing once if you have an emotional attachment to poker history.
Finally, a quick warning if you prefer to play the daily tournaments outside the various series. Poker rooms are so busy in the summer that tables are at a premium. Consequently some rooms accelerate the structures of their dailies to get the tables back into cash action as soon as possible. If you played a 7pm at a property outside the series, don’t assume the structure will be the same during the series.
For a comprehensive listing of all Vegas summer tournaments in one place check out this insanely useful spreadsheet.
One of the most common questions I get asked by Vegas summer debutantes is “where are the best cash games?” The simple answer is “I have no idea.” The WSOP overlaps our fifth season of ultra-summer and with the exception of a couple of tournaments at Wynn/Encore and the Red Chip meet-up at Mirage. I prefer to stay home in the A/C writing articles about why the WSOP should be moved back to May, preferably in Reno
However, largely through osmosis I have absorbed some basic information about summer cash games in Vegas, which I can supplement with the experience I’ve acquired outside of the poker summer from playing a few thousand hours of low-limit NLHE, along with some PLO and Omaha-8.
If you don’t have it already, install the Bravo poker app on your phone. You really can’t get by without this. In addition to telling you which games are currently being spread at nearly every poker room in town, the app also shows current waiting lists and provides one-click dialing to get your name on those lists.
Essentially all regular players in Vegas use Bravo year-round, but it’s particularly useful during the series because so many poker rooms are filled to capacity and thus frequently have long waiting lists. If you have a tier status of diamond or higher at Caesars properties, your TR card will get you to the top of those waiting lists.
Where you actually play largely boils down to personal tastes and requirements. I know many people who set up camp in the Rio cash-game area and never play anywhere else. You’ll likely find any poker variant at the limit you want at the Rio and by reputation the games are good. You will also have to deal with oddities like the absence of chip runners.
I tend to divide Strip rooms by a slightly arbitrary distinction of the large, fancy ones (Aria, Venetian, Wynn, Bellagio) and the rest, with Caesars Palace sitting uncomfortably in no man’s land. I should point out that some of “the rest” are attractive and roomy and others… well there are some where a fresh coat of paint would be a good start.
If you ask four people which of the big four rooms has the best cash games you’ll likely get four different answers. Aria, Bellagio and Wynn all offer $1/3 rather than the more common $1/2 at Venetian and most of the smaller rooms. The Bellagio caps its $2/5 at $500 whereas the other rooms are at least $1000.
As I have mentioned on the forum, the influx of poker players for the WSOP and other series seriously skews the natural order in the cash games. I have seen a $25/50 PLO game break out at T.I. and the cap being taken off multiple $1/2 games by the consent of the players. Game texture can change rapidly from room to room and day to day, partly because many locals are staying home. If a dozen Scandinavian tournament pros converge on the Flamingo at the same time, which has happened, the game is completely untethered from the Flamingo norm.
One interesting recent change is that many of the smaller center-strip rooms now spread $2/3 and $2/5 with relatively high caps. Outside of the series the $2/5 rarely runs in such rooms, but there’s a buzz around town that higher caps in rooms that have no regular $2/5 grinders might lead to some interesting action.
If you don’t mind moving away from the geographical heart of the action, there are additional options. The Stratosphere has the attraction of free parking with plenty of cash action during the series. Further afield the rooms at Red Rock and Green Valley Ranch are quite plush and will have plenty of $2/5. If you want to go full-blown bizarro, take a shot at the Limit $4/8 Omaha at Boulder Station.
Ultimately where you play may reflect non-poker preferences that have little to do with the anticipated action. For instance, I know one player who can’t play at the Venetian because the perfume turns her stomach, and another who bases his decision on where to play almost exclusively on the quality of the bathrooms. The one thing you absolutely must not do, however, is to spend more than ten minutes in a crappy game.
If you’re a poker player and have never been to Vegas during the WSOP, it’s worth making the trip. While I would prefer the WSOP to be held anywhere but Vegas for reasons I have outlined elsewhere, the spectacle is remarkable, as is the cicada-trilling cacophony of a thousand poker players riffling chips.
And every year there’s a strange optimism surrounding the Main Event that something is going to happen to trigger a second poker boom. Maybe this year? Maybe you’ll be here to witness it.