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Las Vegas poker games return: An inside look

The coronavirus pandemic changed the way poker games are run, but it didn’t change poker players.

Games are limited to five players instead of the normal nine or 10, and masks and hand sanitizer are prevalent throughout the rooms. However, other than dealing with the new safety precautions, the players at the three Las Vegas casinos offering games Friday — the South Point, The Orleans and The Venetian — were focused on their hole cards instead of the world’s problems.

Here’s a player’s view of the games around town Friday:

2 p.m.: I arrive at the South Point and get on the list for a 1-2 No-limit Hold’em cash game. (Note: 1-2 refers to the rotating blind bets two players post to begin each hand, in this case, $1 and $2.)

Questions about whether people would turn out to play in the five-handed games mandated by gaming officials have been answered: Yes, they will. There are 15 tables in play with more than 70 people on the waiting list. I’m afraid that I’ll be waiting for a long time, but I receive a text in less than 30 minutes saying my seat is ready.

2:30 p.m.: We are playing poker. The two players to my left are wearing masks; the two to my right aren’t. The unmasked clearly outnumber the masked throughout the room.

There is no table chatter, just hands passing quietly.

2:42 p.m.: Perhaps too quietly. After a series of unremarkable hands, one man asks how long do we think games will be limited to five players. He expresses thanks that the games are not four-handed, as originally mandated, but would much prefer six. There is just not enough action, he says.

A few minutes later, he loses the biggest pot of the session so far (about $80) when his opponent makes a full house to beat his straight.

Review-Journal reporter Jim Barnes was up more than $400 in a poker game after winning a big ha ...
Review-Journal reporter Jim Barnes was up more than $400 in a poker game after winning a big hand Friday afternoon at the South Point. (Jim Barnes/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

3:05 p.m.: A new dealer is ready to come in, and the current dealer wipes down the shuffler and dealer tray before standing up.

A player asks the dealer, Jen, if she’s glad to be back at work. She said that she is, but at the last few tables, “the players have been grumpy, so grumpy.”

3:56 p.m.: I am not grumpy. We finally have some action, and I am in the middle of it. First, I take the last $75 from the player who had been complaining about small pots with a pair of queens against his unimproved ace-queen.

His replacement sits down, and the fireworks start. He raises, and I call with a pair of sixes. The flop comes a beautiful 6-4-2, giving me three of a kind. He bets $20 confidently, and I raise to $60. He quickly raises to $150, half his stack, and says, “I like my hand.”

Well, that makes two of us, buddy. Unless he has 5-3 for a straight — and he doesn’t — then I can’t possibly be beaten. I raise him all-in for his whole $300, he calls and sighs when I show my hand. Suddenly I’m up more than $400.

“First hand I played,” my opponent mutters.

4:35 p.m.: I cash out for $795, good for a profit of $495, and head for my next stop.

6 p.m.: The list at The Orleans is daunting. There are 16 tables in action and more than 70 players waiting.

7:15 p.m.: I want to hit different levels of the poker economy, so after a worker wipes down the area, I’m seated in a 4-8 Omaha High-Low game. This is a small game with bet sizes limited to $4 and $8. These are recreational players who just like to play and pass the time.

My four opponents are all at least 50 years old, and maybe 60. Only one is wearing a mask. They don’t have anything to say about the pandemic, protests or anything else going on in the world. Conversation revolves only around the pots and what cards did or did not come to help or hurt them.

Poker shift manager Kenneth Davis deliver a new bottle of Gand sanitizer to a table in the poke ...
Poker shift manager Kenneth Davis deliver a new bottle of Gand sanitizer to a table in the poker room at The Orleans hotel-casino in Las Vegas, Thursday, June 4, 2020. (Erik Verduzco / Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Erik_Verduzco

8:16 p.m.: An hour passes with not much going on. I lose $20, and it’s off to the next destination.

9:01 p.m.: Casinos are not running traditional multitable tournaments, but The Venetian is offering the single-table variety. Five players put up $100 each, the winner takes $425, and $75 goes to the house and staff.

The tournaments are in their own area of the room, and we have to wait for another table to finish to free up a dealer.

9:44 p.m.: We are finally underway. One player, Keith, the only one wearing a mask, says, “Man, I’ve missed live poker. Online just isn’t the same.”

10:40 p.m.: It’s down to the two of us. Keith is pesky. I never lose the chip lead, but I can’t put him away.

10:57 p.m.: Keith and I are almost dead even. I’m tired, and I offer to split the $425 with him and call it a day. He reluctantly agrees.

I tip $13 and put $200 in my pocket for a $100 profit, giving me a final total of $575 for the day.

“I’ll see you around,” Keith says.

Yeah, you probably will.

The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson. Las Vegas Sands Corp. operates The Venetian and Palazzo.

Contact Jim Barnes at jbarnes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0277. Follow @JimBarnesLV on Twitter.

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