Our inaugural WSOP Player’s Guide published in 2018 was such a success that we’ve decided to update it every year until people stop reading it. It was initially intended for Vegas rookies, but veterans found our links to all the major poker series useful. Additionally, the ever-changing face of Vegas poker means that even if you visit fairly regularly, our on-the-spot reports of current trends will give you the best available information.
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 serve a purpose beyond covering pulsing neck veins or whatever it is they’re supposed to conceal. I have also witnessed people playing poker at the Rio wearing fingerless mittens. Be prepared.
One of our most popular podcasts features Doug Hull opining on “Doing Vegas on a budget for the WSOP.” Most of the information he provides remains solid, with one major change being that Las Vegas now has Uber/Lyft service. 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. Former 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 2019 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 2019 WSOP schedule. Note that this is, in some sense, an historic occasion in that the 2019 gathering marks the 50th anniversary of the first WSOP at Binion’s. Most pros will remain unimpressed by this unless organizers celebrate by reducing tournament rake, but there may be more banners and bunting than usual.
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 $1100 Main Event satellite there in 2017. 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 2019, 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. In addition to our PRO video library the growing number of tournament hand examples in CORE is a great resource.
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. Throughout the period of the bracelet events, Daily Deep Stacks attract large crowds. To be precise, there are Daily Deep Stacks that actually occur every day with the following start times/buy-in/level lengths: 1pm/$250/30m, 4pm/$200/30m, 7pm/$400/20m, 10pm/$150/20m. These one-day events can still be grueling if you go deep, but are not the marathons of the multi-day tournaments. New in 2019 are “daily” PLO events that occur every Sunday at 5pm with a $250 buy-in, and seniors (50+) one-day events every Wednesday at 9am, because as well all know, once a poker player turns 50 he or she suddenly starts getting up at sunrise. Finally in this category of dailies that aren’t actually held every day, there are some larger buy-in events ($500 to $888), a full list of which can be found here.
If your time commitment is even shorter than that required for dailies, 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. For some reason the WSOP is bizarrely coy about the details of their STTs, such that the most recent information we found online is for 2017. We will update here if that changes, with the recommendation for now that you stop by the tournament area and pick up a bit of paper. If they have one.
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.
Beyond the WSOP
The main competition to the WSOP in 2019, at least in terms of sheer scale, is again being provided by the Venetian. This property has established itself as the leading “off-season” poker tournament destination, with 2018 marking a huge expansion of its summer series. That trend continues in 2019 with a mega-series that extends from May 13th to July 28th and totals over $24 million in guaranteed prize pools. Buy-ins range from as low as $200 to $5,000 for the four-day Card Player Poker Tour Main Event. The complete series schedule offers a reasonable smattering of non-NLHE events along with a buy-in range that seems designed for a broad appeal to all budgets.
Poker series at the Wynn invariably have the lowest juice in Vegas and that appears to be the case for their 2019 Summer Classic. The majority of the dailies are $550 affairs, with the larger offerings including a $1100 PLO championship and a $1,600 NLHE Championship Event that carries a $2 million guarantee. Also of note are the satellites and super-satellites to the larger tournaments that start at $200. The series runs from May 30th to July 16th.
If you haven’t been to Vegas for a few years you will not have had the pleasure of visiting the Wynn poker room in the Encore. Most players agree that 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. Perhaps because of this up-market theme, the Aria historically doesn’t mess around with publishing their series on their own website, and since the RCP press department isn’t on their mailing list I refer you to this link to their summer series schedule. The Aria poker summer starts with the big bang of a $10k WPT event, but is perhaps more notable for a healthy number of more budget-friendly $240 events including a short-deck tournament. The conventional wisdom among Vegas grinders is that the Aria tournaments tend to have softer fields than those at Venetian and Wynn, thereby adding further potential value.
In one of those bold marketing decisions that the corporation is known for, Caesars is once again competing with its own WSOP product at the Rio by also offering a poker tournament series at Planet Hollywood. From May 28th to July 7th the “Phamous Poker Series GOLIATH” will offer a wide selection of tournaments covering multiple poker variants. The provisional schedule was released on Feb 22nd with promises of an update that has yet to materialize.
Assuming the events remain mostly unchanged, this is a rather muddled collection of low buy-in, high juice offerings, along with notable $1100 events in PLO, PLO8 and Big O. Including oddities like $38+12 all-in or fold “tournaments” simply makes the whole shebang feel rather gimmicky, but equally some people clearly enjoy the approach.
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 28th to July 8th. It offers lower buy-ins and shorter tournaments than the big Strip rooms, with the affordable end of the spectrum being the $120 7pm contests that are available most evenings. The property also does a decent job of offering tournaments in variants other than NLHE, with the added attraction that the fields have the reputation for being soft.
If someone claimed The Orleans features the rudest regulars in Vegas I would have a hard time disagreeing, but I have to say their 2019 summer series is pleasantly coherent. Running from May 28th to July 7th, tournament buy-ins are all in the $130 to $400 range, suggesting they have a definite market in mind. All the major forms of poker are well represented and, in a blow to its traditional fuddy-duddy reputation, the series includes a $200 short-deck tournament.
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. As last year, this compact series runs tidily from June 1st to July 1st. There are many non-NLHE events in the $550 to $1100 range, most of which start at 11 a.m.
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.
One quick warning if you prefer to play the daily tournaments outside of the various series described above. 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 WSOP season, don’t assume the structure will be the same during the summer.
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 Poker meet-up, 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 player’s 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 bridging the gap. If you ask four people which of the big four rooms has the best cash games, you’ll likely get four different answers. 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.
The influx of poker players for the WSOP and other series seriously skews the natural order in the cash games. 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.