I peel up the corners of my cards to take a peek. Two aces. I look again. Still two aces. My arms shake like I’m about to roll dice − so much for inscrutability. The best possible starting hand demands an aggressive bet. I take a deep breath and consider my wager.
A day ago, I didn’t know how to join a round of casino poker, and yet here I am playing a no-limit Texas hold’em cash game at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. I have yesterday’s master class with two-time World Series of Poker winner Mark Seif (pronounced “safe”) to thank for my newfound know-how. Seif’s aggressive play has earned him the nickname Un, as in “Unsafe.” It’s also earned him US$3-million from poker tournaments alone. I’m betting he can help me stop always being the first one out when I play with friends.
“The number-one mistake most players make is that they play too many hands,” he tells me in the casino’s beige and generally hushed (except for the frat boys at the next table) poker room. His tip: If you’re in an early position, i.e. if you’re dealt before most of the other players, only play ace-king, ace-queen and pairs greater than sixes. If you’re in a middle position and the first to enter the pot, play those hands as well as sixes and fives. And if you’re in a late position, i.e. one of the last players dealt, analyze how your opponents have wagered. Betting for fun and gabbing instead of studying your opponents − my style to date − is a terrible strategy.
To know whether you should stay in a game, Seif suggests comparing your chances of completing a hand with the size of the payout and the amount you need to bet. “To play great poker, sometimes you’ve got to go broke,” he says. If the situation demands it, bet it all.
But sitting on those pocket aces, that approach gives me jitters. I swallow hard and follow Seif’s advice: I bet about three times the big blind (a wager the player two seats to the dealer’s left must make). In this case, it’s $10. Only one of the nine players at the table doesn’t fold. The dealer flops three cards face up. I probably still have the best hand, so I raise the betting by two-thirds of the pot, which Seif says novice players with good cards should do to “conceal the strength of your hand.” I count out $60 in chips, trying to look casual as I make the largest bet of my life. My remaining opponent looks at his cards again… and folds. I collect the pot, about $95, and myself.
After three hours, I cash out, having increased my starting fund of $300 to a whopping $355. A quick lunch, and I’m back in Caesars’ poker room. And I spend my flight home playing poker on my iPhone. Seif never did cover when to walk away.
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Where to Stay
After learning the ropes at the Caesars Palace poker room – the only venue in Las Vegas to host a World Series of Poker Circuit Event – book a suite in the Forum Tower for the view of the Strip. Spend the afternoon at Qua Baths & Spa, where the Roman Baths experience involves a soak in mineral-filled waters followed by dips in hot and cold pools. (Perfect to calm your mind before your next big game.)
3570 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 866-227-5938, caesarspalace.com
Where to Eat
Expect to rub shoulders with a microcosm of Vegas, from high-rolling regulars to folks on a once-a-year splurge, as you try the five-course chef’s tasting menu with pairings at Bradley Ogden, in Caesars Palace. The Bay Area chef famous for being a pioneer of the organic movement makes a ground steak burger with homemade pickles that’s sinfully juicy, and we’re still dreaming of his banana foster cake.