Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Viva Las Vegas

Prescott Valley, AZ to Las Vegas, NV –  331miles (June 22-25) 

Day 1 - 
Friday morning, Mom, Dad, and I piled into the 2011 Nissan Versa that is my chariot for this grand journey around the Western USA.  The car was filled to capacity with one large suitcase, two carry-on size suitcases, a backpack, a cooler filled with cold drinks, a bag of snacks, two pillows and three adults.  Not all of this stuff was mine.

The desert mountains of northern Arizona and Nevada are like nothing I’ve seen anywhere else in the country.  Desolate and majestic, these mountains are nothing like the snow-capped peaks of the Rockies, the dense forest of the Appalachians, or the jungles of Hawaii.  Large barren rocky peaks jut into the desert sky and then plunge to desert valleys below.  

Arriving in Las Vegas is always amazing, no matter how or when you arrive.  At night, you see the dazzling neon of the strip spread out before you.  A night landing at the airport is sure to give anyone goosebumps.  You land so close to the strip that the climactic finale in Con Air almost seems plausible (and when was the last time someone said that about a Nic Cage action movie).  But, I think I prefer driving in from the Hoover Dam.  Suddenly, as you crest one of those desolate mountain peaks, Sin City spreads out before you like an oasis - a mirage on the desert floor below.  Breathtaking.

The clear highlight of my first day in Las Vegas was dinner.  About a year ago, I was watching the live coverage of the World Series of Poker when they started featuring Bob, a player from Belize (He eventually finished 7th).  According to the broadcast, he owned a poker room in Belize City – which was great news for me because I didn’t know there WAS a poker room in Belize.  I began playing there regularly and became friends with Bob.  As we were both headed for Vegas at the same time, we exchanged phone numbers and agreed to meet up.
Soon after we checked into our hotel, Bob called and offered to buy us dinner over at the steak house in the Bellagio.  I warned him that there were six of us (me, Mom, Dad,  Katie, Katie's fiancée Paul and Paul's sister, Rochelle – Shelley wasn’t in town yet), but he told us to come on over.  I had the filet mignon and it may have been the best steak I have ever eaten (sorry, Dad).  It was so tender, perfectly cooked and seasoned.  The lobster mashed potatoes were just as delectable.  My first meal on my road trip will most likely end up as the best meal of the month.   Thank you, Bob.
The rest of the day – and early morning – was all gambling.  I didn’t do too well in the casino, losing a couple hundred of dollars.  On the bright side, I played craps with three Elvises, hit a straight flush at Pai Gow poker for the first time ever, and helped Godzilla destroy shit in a slot machine bonus round.  (Foreshadowing - this turned out to be my best day gambling).

Day 2- 
My mom and I have always connected through music.  She grew up as a teenager in the 60s and 70s and loved the Eagles, Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, and the other rock and roll greats.  But unlike most parents, she didn’t freeze her taste in music.  Although she thought the 80s music sucked, she LOVED 90s music – Counting Crows, Dave Matthews Band, Pete Yorn, Matchbox 20, Sheryl Crow, U2, Wallflowers.  She loved them all.

She loves going to concerts.  As kids, my parents took us to Jackson Browne and the Eagles and she instilled the same deep love of music in me.  When I was a teenager, we started going to more and more concerts together.  Inevitably, we’d be at a classic rock show like Don Henley and I’d be the youngest person in the audience or we’d be at popular rock group like Counting Crows and she’d be the oldest person in the concert.  But,  regardless of the band we always had a great time and bonded as mother and son.  So, over the last decade, I started buying concert tickets for us as a present for Mother’s Day or her birthday.  We’ve seen Counting Crows (both our favorite band) a half dozen times, Dave Matthews Band, Eric Clapton, and others.  We made up dream lists of who we wanted to see and at the top of this list was Garth Brooks (I went through a country phase in middle school and NO ONE was bigger  than Garth in the 90s).
So, when I saw that Garth Brooks was playing in Las Vegas a week after I started home leave I had to buy tickets for my Mom and me.  I asked my sisters if they wanted to go and Shelley decided to join us.  In the end, the whole family (plus Paul and Rochelle) joined in for the trip to Vegas.

BEST. CONCERT. EVER.  When we got to the concert hall, there was nothing on the stage but a bar stool, a few bottles of water and a guitar.  When the show started, out came Garth and no one else.  It was just him and a guitar.  He said he wanted to start at the beginning and played his first single, “Much too young to feel this damn old.”  “But”, he said, “now let’s go back to the true beginning.”  And he proceeded to take us on a musical journey through the 60s, 70s, 80s and into the 90s. 
He started off with the great country legends of Merle Haggard and George Jones – his father’s music.  He followed that up with all of the biggest rock and roll hits of the 60s and 70s.  These songs influenced him when he was growing up.  But not only did he sing his way through these songs (and boy can he sing), but he told the stories of what these songs meant to him – sitting in his dad’s piece of shit Chevy truck, stealing his brother’s James Taylor LP, and his mom listening to “Heard it on the Grape Vine” on repeat on a 45 (the old people in the audience seemed to understand what these “45s” were. I think it is some kind of record).
He would also show how these songs influenced his own records.  After playing some chords from a Bob Segar song, he said “If you grew up in Detroit, this music sounded like the means streets of Detroit, but out in central Oklahoma, it sounded like thunder.”  The crowd roared as he launched into “The Thunder Rolls.” 
About two-thirds of the way through the show, he brought out his wife Trisha Yearwood.  They sang their duet together and then she launched into “She’s in love with the boy” which was a huge hit back in my country phase (although I always thought Faith Hill sang it).  She finished with “Walkaway Joe” before she ceded the rest of the show to Garth.  At this point, we had reached the 90s and as Garth said, “The 90s were very good to me.”
From that point on, he hit basically every hit that he ever had.  These were the great songs like “Papa Loved Mama”, “Unanswered Prayers”, “The Summer”, “The Dance”, “Rodeo”, and of course, “Friends in Low Places.”  It was awesome.  I have been to dozens of concerts in my lifetime and it was the best one I have ever been to. 

Day 3 - 
Besides the Garth Brooks concert, the other reason I wanted to go to Vegas was to play in the World Series of Poker.  I have been watching the WSOP on ESPN since Robert Varkonyi won the Main Event (the year before Moneymaker).  Over the last few years, I have gotten more serious about poker.  I began to play more often, read a few poker books, and even won a few tournaments (two online tournaments, a school tournament in Ireland, plus my big win in Belize last December).  In cash games, I am generally winning more than I am losing.  But I was never sure if this was because I was good or because I was playing against weak competition.  So, I looked over the events and decided to play in the $1,000 buy-in no limit hold 'em event on Sunday.

Admittedly, I was a bit nervous when I started the event.  My insides were doing flip-flops as I found my seat.  There were almost 300 tables in three different conference rooms filled with ten players each trying to take my chips.  My biggest worry was going out on the first hand, but fortunately I looked down and saw a 4-7 offsuit and mucked my cards.  (Warning: the next few paragraphs will have nothing but boring crap about the tournament.  I didn't play with anyone famous and none of this is interesting to anyone but me.  But, since it is my blog, I am writing whatever fucking boring poker stuff I want).

The first big hand I got involved in had me in the small blind (25-25) with a Q-6 offsuit.  The free flop came out Q-6-7 giving me two pairs.  I checked in first position and the cutoff (one before the button) bet 300, which both me and the big blind called.  A 10 came on the turn and I bet out 400 chips.  The big blind called and the cutoff raised to 1800.  We started with only 3000 chips, so a call was out of the question.  I either move all-in or fold.  I didn't have much information about this player yet, but he seemed like an aggressive player.  My best hope was that he had pocket Aces or pocket Kings, which explained his big raise but left me leading.  Pocket 10s would have me crushed (drawing to just two Queens).  A set of 6s was unlikely, but a set of 7s was very possible.  Plus, I still had to worry about the Big Blind who would act after me.  Ultimately, I folded because I wasn't willing to be knocked out of the tournament so quickly.  The Big Blind also folded (he later told me that he had Q-7 for a higher two pair).  In the end, I think that the raiser had pocket 10s and I made a good fold, but I lost 25% of my chips in the first 30 mins.

I didn't win a single hand during the first level and ended with 1725 chips (start with 3000).  Level 2 was much better as I won a couple of pots to move up to 3725 in chips.  We also lost the first player from our table.  Two tight players went all-in with the exact same stack (neither had played a pot yet).  The A-Q beat the A-K with a Q on the river - providing the first of several bad beats I would see at the table.  More importantly for me, I began to feel more comfortable playing.  Many of the players now getting knocked out were experienced WSOP players and I was beating them (or at least outlasting them).

Over the next two levels, I moved tables twice and won nothing more than small pots.  By the end of level 4, I was back down to 2225 in chips and struggling to stay in the tournament.  My family had come over to watch for a bit (it is not exciting to watch at all).  I told them to stay around for a bit because there was a good chance I would soon be out of the tournament.  At this point, I basically needed to double up or lose as I didn't have enough chips to lose a hand and not be crippled.  I called a limped pot from the button with pocket 4s and was rewarded with a 4 on the flop.  One player bet and I moved all-in.  Unfortunately, I did not get any callers, but I did win the small pot to get to 3650 by the end of level 5.

During level 5, I tried to get cute with a suited 3-4.  I raised from the button into a limped pot and both blinds called.  It checked to me after a missed flop and I made a continuation bet to take down the pot.  The small blind cooperated, but the big blind raised me all-in and I folded my shitty cards.  I was back to survival mode and only playing if I was willing to move all-in.  Just before the end of the level, I bet all-in with a suited A-J and was called by QQ.  I hit two Aces on the flop and doubled up to get to 4500 at the dinner break.  

Making the dinner break was one of my main goals of the tournament (along with not being the first one out, making the money, and winning the whole thing).  Around this time, they started posting how many players were left and there were 860 players who made it to dinner (out of about 3000 total).  The average chip stack was close to 10,000 so I was well below average.  BUT, I was still playing.

After dinner, I patiently waited for my spots to move all-in.  I am actually very good at playing a short stack, so I was comfortable.  I moved all-in several times without getting any callers - although I generally wanted someone to call, winning the blinds and antes was important.  Each win gave me about an extra half-hour to play and get the hand that would double me up.  By the time we ended level 7, I was back down to 3700 in chips.  After just a single rotation without playing a hand, I was down to 2600.  I could not last long and soon doubled up with AK vs. 10-10 (hit the A on the turn).

Now, I had around 5,000 in chips and a quick double up would get me up to the average stack and allow me to play real poker (not just all-in poker like I had played for the past 3 hours).  The first player to act raised to a suspiciously high 3,000 chips (the normal starting raise was around 1,200 at this level).  I looked down and saw pocket 9s and felt I had no choice but to move all-in with 4,800.  If I had had anymore chips or he had led out with any fewer chips, I think he would have folded his A-J offsuit.  Unfortunately, he was pot committed and called me.  A jack hit on the flop and sent me home.

They were breaking our table just as I was knocked out.  That left approximately 560 players remaining in the field of 2949.  I outlasted 2389 players and finished in the top 19%.  297 players would make the money.  I honestly feel that if I had doubled up there, I could have made the money.  Although I didn't win, I am still proud that I played and I could see myself going back to play again.  I am capable of playing with these players and could win a bracelet with the right circumstances.

Day 4 - 

I slept in on my last full day in Vegas.  As everyone but Shelley was going home that day, we went to a few casinos before seeing them off.  Shelley and I then went over to the Mirage to play poker (cash game).  You may recall from the movie "Rounders" that the poker room in the Mirage is the center of the poker world.  Even though that is no longer remotely true, I wanted to play poker there anyway.  Shelley and I sat down at a $1-$2 no limit hold 'em cash game.  We played there for about four hours until Shelley busted out of her original $100.  I cashed out about $300 up for the table.  I had so many good hands, it wasn't really fair to everyone else.  Three hands in a row, I three-bet (re-raise before the flop) with A-Q or better.  If I had these cards the day before, I would have won the damn tournament.  I spent the rest of the night losing my winnings to various other casinos.

Overall, Vegas was a fantastic trip despite the fact that I lost money in basically every casino I visited.  I had a great time with my family.  The dinner on Friday was great and the Garth Brooks concert made the trip all worth it.  I enjoyed playing the WSOP and hope to do it again in the future (maybe home leave 2015?).

(note - pictures to follow)

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