Ten top tips for Las Vegas poker virgins

by Julia Cons

Don't chuck your hard-earned cash away. Avoid over-priced meals, find free drinks, and save your money for your buy-ins

You’re a Pokerstars regular, you’ve played your way to the top of the local pub poker league, and now you’ve progressed to your first trip to Las Vegas – city of heat-hazed pavements and neon rainbows. The poker capital of the world.

Unfathomable amounts of money can slip through your fingers in this city of superlatives, but with a little forward planning and my top ten tips under your belt, you’ll find it is possible to stay for peanuts, eat for cheap and drink for free, leaving your hard-earned cash available for buy-ins.

Getting there

1. Not exactly a short hop across the ocean, Las Vegas is a long-distance destination. Make sure you choose an airline that flies direct, especially if you can only squeeze in a short break. At the time of writing both Virgin and British Airways will get you there from London in less than 11 hours.

 2. You’ll probably be able to see your hotel as the plane touches down. The airport is within spitting distance of the Strip, and a cab will cost about $15. Make out you’re a regular punter - there’s a long way round to the Strip and the odd unscrupulous driver sees the dollar signs flashing before his eyes when an excited and slightly naïve tourist slides into his back seat. It’s hard though, on your first visit to Las Vegas, not to bounce up and down on the leatherette squealing, ‘oooohh, The Luxor…there’s Caesars…Bellagio…’

At least, it was for me.

Where to stay...

...On a budget

3. I met a party of three blokes form Grimsby at a $45 no-limit tournament who were sharing a room at Circus Circus for the week. ‘It cost us £150 all in,’ they enthused. I asked if it was nice. ‘God, no,’ they exclaimed, ‘but it’s clean, and we only go back there to sleep.’
Bill's Gamblin Hall and saloon is cheap (from about £20 a night!), cheerful and located alongside Caesars and Bellagio on the Center Strip, which just feels a bit classier than the lower reaches of the street. Bill’s doesn’t have its own swimming pool, but guests are welcome to use the Flamingo’s pool next door. 

...Splashing out

4. At the other end of the spectrum, the Bellagio is unquestionably the best, and undoubtedly the most expensive, hotel on the Strip. If you compare the price of the Bellagio to the other top-end hotels, though, you’ll find that you might pay just a few more pounds per night for one hell of a lot more luxury!

If you really only want a bed for a few nights, ignore this advice. But Las Vegas is a busy, bustling metropolis that overloads your senses with its multitude of sounds and smells and sights, and - for me - a haven of tranquil swimming pools with tinkling fountains, peaceful piano bars, and general luxury provides a little welcome relief. Bellagio beds are the most comfortable, the showers the most tropical rainstorm-like, and the service the most spectacular.

Where to play poker

5. Most casinos in Las Vegas boast a poker room, with cash games going on around the clock and tournaments scheduled for various times of the day and night. But finding out what’s going on where is not always as easy as it sounds. One way is to pop into each casino’s poker room and ask for a tournament schedule – but you could spend the entire first half of your holiday trailing around in temperatures of 40 degrees gathering this information. A good start is to pop into any of the Harrah’s venues

Imperial Palace
Planet Hollywood

which are situated quite close together on the Center Strip (though be warned, the hotels are so huge, the pavements so crowded, and the temperatures so high that a destination you think of as being ‘next door but one’ might actually be a hefty walk away). In any of these poker rooms you can pick up a card listing all the tournaments held in these casinos.

The cheapest No Limit Texas Hold’em games I've found on the Center Strip are held at Bill’s and O’Sheas, with buy-ins of $30. The atmosphere in both is relaxed and friendly, with the poker areas set off to one side. The Flamingo hosts a $65 game, and Planet Hollywood a $70 buy-in tournament – be aware that the poker tables at Planet Hollywood are right in the thick of the gambling action, which provides a lively atmosphere but can be distracting at times.

Tournaments at Caesars Palace start at around $70 and really are a ‘must do.’ You enter the huge poker room via a quiet corridor, and the atmosphere is calm and, it has to be said, slightly serious. But when you make the final table - and then hopefully the cash - in Caesars, you feel as if you’ve really arrived!

At all venues, you're apt to find yourself face to face with a mixture of tourists, pros, and seasoned Las Vegas locals.

Finding sustenance

6. Never buy a drink in Vegas. All the casinos offer free refreshments while you are playing - even just the slots. It’s amazing how slowly you can feed coins to the machines while you wait for the hostess to come round! And in a $30 buy-in game, even if you don’t cash, you can probably drink that value unless you’re first out! Tip the hostess $1 each time she brings you a drink.

7. Bill’s Gamblin Hall and Saloon has a hot dog stand right by the poker room. Hot dogs aren’t my thing, but I’ve heard other players swear that the $2 dog is delicious and the best value you’ll find on the Strip. For $4.50 you can wash it down with a beer.

8. for a greater choice of food at less than $10 a head, search out the 24-hour Augustus Café in Caesars Palace. It has the feel of your local high street café, but with great coffee, super American-style breakfasts, a huge range of dishes from pasta to grills, and superb, friendly service.

A change of scenery

9. When you’re on a winning streak and you feel like spending a little of your hard gotten gains, head for the Las Vegas Premium Outlets mall at 875 South Grand Central Parkway. You’ll find many familiar shops like Diesel and Ted Baker offering hefty discounts of up to 65 percent. Two things though…the shops shut at 8pm, and don’t head there imagining an indoors air-conditioned shopping centre where you’ll get some relief from the desert heat – that isn’t what you’ll find. Expect to pay about $20 for a cab.

10. Book a trip to The Grand Canyon before you leave home. Numerous companies are prepared to bundle you into their helicopters and fly you down to the Canyon, but Internet only offers mean that it can cost you substantially more to book a trip once in the resort.
If you want to go for free, and you have plenty of time, stop and chat to one of the many timeshare sales reps on the Strip. In exchange for a morning examining their accommodation and facilities, and a touch of the hard sell, they’ll provide you with lunch and offer you a range of goodies including restaurant vouchers, show tickets, and Grand Canyon trips.

And finally, if you find you just don’t have time to do everything, don’t panic. Surely no-one visits Las Vegas just the once?

Julia Cons

I'm a freelance journalist. I thrive on a chaotic house full of rapidly growing kids, a hungry husband, and an ever-increasing array of two and four-footed friends. I'd like to think I love a holiday or weekend break as a way to temporarily leave day-to-day life behind, but my camera and notebook always seem to sneak along too...likewise husband, kids and sometimes the dog. I wouldn't have it any other way.