Ultimately, the point of a poker room review is to get you into a great card game. So the centerpiece of this review is a great poker game – specifically a $2/3/6 no-limit hold’em game in which I spent exactly eight hours. But we need to set the scene…
The first thing I did to get to the poker game was go into the wrong casino. The Gila (say “HEE-la”) River Indian Community runs three casinos in Chandler, Arizona, near Phoenix. One of them, Wild Horse Pass, has a luxury hotel, so I got a room there, looking forward to walking downstairs and playing poker. Only to find out that they’d moved the poker room over to the casino at Lone Butte, a ten-minute drive away.
I went to the front desk, and asked them to move my reservation over to the hotel at Lone Butte. You Gila River veterans can start giggling now – I was politely and gently informed that Lone Butte doesn’t have a hotel. And there really aren’t any other hotels nearby. So you stay at Wild Horse Pass and commute down AZ 202 to get to the poker room at Lone Butte.
Ironically, you cannot play HORSE here.
But the hotel is comfy, and has all the amenities you’d want. The Wild Horse Pass casino has regular table games, a billion slots, and a handful of restaurants, including a Shula Group steak house and an Asian fusion place called Ling and Louie’s. So it’s a great place to stay, modulo the commute to poker.
There was one interesting feature of my hotel room. There is a room safe, but it was apparently added as an afterthought, bolted to the shelf in the clothes closet. If you were much shorter than I am (5’11”) you’d have difficulty getting in and out of it.
Heightened security measures
Let’s get over to the poker, ten minutes from the hotel. The 30-table poker room at Lone Butte is on its own down a corridor in the non-smoking building. It’s elegant, generously spaced and well-appointed. There are even plenty of roll-up side tables.
I could spend a few hours here.
Arizona has a long tradition of fixed limit games, so $4/8 and $8/16 are popular. The unlimited hold-them variety is mostly $1/2 and $2/3, with the occasional $3/5 game going. I initially got into the $1/2, which was a typical loose and passive $1/2 NLHE affair. Nothing wrong with that – they called my small flop bets and folded to my big turn bets, so everything was going swimmingly. I even won a nice pot with pocket aces, which is a bit of a freeroll, since you get $100 if your aces get cracked. Then I was called for the $2/3 game, which turned into one of the best games I’ve ever been in.
5:30pm Table 26 $2/3
Whenever a room spreads both $2 and $3 big-blind games, the $3 blind game immediately becomes the first, most important, step up the stakes ladder. All the beginners and weakest players will congregate in the lowest stakes pool, so if $3 is one step up, there will be plenty of serious play at that level (think “The Lodge“). I certainly sensed a tougher level of opposition as I sat down. Also, Lone Butte permits buy-ins of up to $1,000 in their $2/3 game, which further inclines the table to punch above its weight class in pot sizes.
I immediately noticed that this table was more convivial. I can’t put my finger on it, but even though the stakes were substantially higher, the game felt more relaxed, more – dare I say it? – fun.
I played for 90 minutes without any huge results in either direction. Which was perfectly fine with me, because I was enjoying myself so much. Pots of $1,000 or $1,500 were being pushed, yet somehow the assembled multitude implicitly agreed that we weren’t going to let the money get in the way of our party. Some of the impetus for that came from our self-appointed table captain/cruise director,1 who had been stranded in Phoenix by a cancelled flight back to Louisiana, and decided to while away the evening at a poker table. Well, if he was going to be stuck at a poker table, he was going to ensure that a decent time was had by all.
7:00pm – Y’all wanna bump it up?
Our Louisianan table captain, whose name I regrettably don’t know, suggested a round of $6 UTG straddles. I’m often leery of such things, especially if stacks and/or buy-in caps are short. But given a $1k buy-in cap, and almost everybody well over $500 deep, I thought the game would play fine as a $2/3/6.
Which it did, until it broke, six and a half hours later, at 1:30am.
Guess my bet size
With big pots and large bets the order of the day, this is an opportunity for me to rant about a procedure at Lone Butte that would have tilted a less mature version of me out of my good mood: dealer’s don’t announce bet sizes. I know that, back in the day – by which I mean Johnny Moss and Sailor Roberts’ day – the grizzled old pros told the dealers not to announce bet sizes unless they were asked. Why, I don’t know, but I’m sure they felt there was some edge for them in that, simply because that was the only reason they did anything.2 But then, oh, a quarter century ago, with the dawn of online poker, players got used to instantly seeing bet sizes. This is a fine thing because it makes the game go faster. And Mr/Ms Poker Room Manager, I’m speaking to you about this. If the game goes faster, you drop more rake. Deep stuff, I know, but follow me here…
#2 seat slides out a stack of nickels, somewhere between $55-$85.
70-year-old in the #7 seat looks at the stack. Pauses. Checks their cards. And then…
“How much is that?”
Rest of table sighs, and picks up their phones.
Imagine, if you will, the moment at which the stack is slid out. The dealer reaches over, breaks down the stack, and says, “$70.” We still have to wait for #7 to check their cards, and ponder. But we can make the bet size announcement and the pondering parallel processes.
I asked one of the dealers about this, and they said they are instructed not to announce bet sizes unless asked by an active player. The dealer told me that the rationale is that the players don’t want the dealer touching their chips. I pray that isn’t really the correct answer. Part of me wanted to silently slide out a bet, and then ask the dealer how much it was, but I try hard not to troll.
9:20pm Emotional eating
I was stuck about $500, which is no big deal in a game this size. But it’s still a nuisance, and I was getting peckish. Unfortunately, the restaurant situation at Lone Butte is minimal – all the nice places are back over at Wild Horse Pass. They do have a poker menu, and I have to say, even as a semi-committed vegetarian, I was impressed with the burger nearby.
Jimmy Buffet would approve
Instead, I ordered a Caesar salad, which was fine, but the fruit plate I ordered was a thing of beauty.
Folding two marginal hands in the small blind buys you this
I have a special fondness for fruit plates in poker rooms, as they used to be a unit by which one measured the cost or profit of a bet in a limit hold’em game: “If I fold this river, even getting 8:1, I get a free fruit plate.”
10:00pm Well and truly stuck
Between my fruit plate and 10:00pm I managed to get stuck over $1400. Again, in a $3/6 NLHE game, this is not a humongous amount, but it’s kind of depressing, because, with a max buy-in of $1k (which I’d done), even doubling up doesn’t get you unstuck.
Yet despite that, I was still having a blast. Louisiana Man was keeping the conversation light, and a couple of women dealers (it’s always the women) were singing along with the soundtrack. Which included Mmmm Bop, Safety Dance, and the Talking Heads. It doesn’t matter how much I’m stuck, if I can’t smile when I’m singing along with Hanson, or when that exquisite Leslie-enhanced B3 comes growling in at the end of Once in a Lifetime, then I need to examine my life priorities.
11:00pm The darkest hour is always just before the dawn3
It was two pots that got me unstuck. In the first, I piled my chips in with top pair and a good kicker on a very drawy board, against a player who I felt might be bullying me because I play so tight. When the top card paired on the river, I showed my hand and said, “Trips.” He walked away muttering something about a nice river card, but it didn’t sound like his heart was in it. I may have been leading the whole way.
The second was a monster pot against Boston Ball-cap Braden. I call him that because his name is, actually, Braden. I remember the hand quite clearly, but in case Braden is reading this, I want to leave a little mystery in our relationship. Anyway, Braden bet $300 into a $450 pot on the river, and I ripped it for about $1k. There were four to a flush on the board, which was paired. Braden tossed trips (no full house, no flush) onto the table and walked away to cool off, which is always a wise thing.
Then he came back and had a discussion with a couple of others about what I had. I always find it weird to be talked about as if I weren’t at the table. However, it always involves me winning a large pot, usually without showing my hand, so I’ll deal with it.
12:30am Financial dawn
At some point I did a chip inventory, and discovered that I was literally $20 in the black. This coincided with our dealer, a young woman, lip-sync’ing Hey Mickey as she dealt. It was so great that I had to toss her 25% of my current profit.
This is what “even” looks like
The next hour proved relatively uneventful. We were down to five-handed, our cruise director had left, and I got re-stuck about $425 from mixing it up with a new arrival. This kid would call preflop raises in the blinds, then just come barreling out of the gate, leading multiple streets. I finally figured out what he was up to, and let him bet into me for three streets when I had solid holdings. He did the same thing to a couple of other folks, and ended up leaving.
I discovered that I was now up $45. It was time to bid Lone Butte good night. It would have been a cool time for breakfast, but the food service situation there is pretty dicey, and I wasn’t in a mood to wait 45 minutes for a breakfast sandwich.
When you walk out of the casino at 2:00am, $45 richer, thinking you’re God’s gift to poker
So I thanked my remaining table-mates for a great game, and made my way back up AZ 202 to the hotel. At lunch the next day with my poker buddy Larry, we reflected on the utility of such sessions.
Me: “It’s much more rewarding to get stuck infinite, then climb back, and book a small profit, than to have a drama-free session where you make a modest profit, right?”
Larry: “Oh, absolutely.”
This is poker success, right here.
Gila River Lone Butte by the numbers
Poker room: 7/10 (one point debited for usurious preflop rake policy, see below)
Entire property is non-smoking. Whoo-hoo
Casino soundtrack: Awesome. Take On Me, Safety Dance, Once in a Lifetime, Signed Sealed Delivered. And (wait for this…) Rapper’s Delight.
Casino chaos coefficient: Non-existant.
Minimum age: 21
Restrooms: very convenient, and uncrowded. Exit the poker room, they’re at 10:00.
Table management: Bravo. No online waitlist, but the app seems to correctly reflect game status.
Mask usage: 5% of patrons, 5% of staff. But no notice or shaming of masked patrons.
No-limit hold’em buy-in caps: $1/2 – $100-$300; $2/3 – $200-$1000.
Rake: 10% to $4 plus $2 promotion. There is a predatory rake feature that had me up and out of my chair shortly before midnight. There was a raise, a bunch of callers, I dropped a monster 3bet on the entire situation, and everybody folded. I don’t know why it took me hours to notice, but I saw that the dealer had pulled $2 for promotion plus $3 for regular drop. I was sure that was a mistake and said so. When the smoke cleared, I learned that they base the rake on the pot size, even if the pot ends preflop. This is inexcusable.
Straddle: UTG or button. If button straddle, then SB acts first. Fortunately, when we turned the $2/3 game into a $2/3/6 game, it was with a UTG straddle, and things ran like a Swiss railroad.
Bomb pots: Rarely. Always NLHE single board. To protect jackpot eligibility, which seems to be the only thing many players worry about, regular poker action has to take place preflop. So UTG raises to $15, everybody calls blind, and the dealer puts out a flop. It’s a lot of hoops to jump through for a bomb pot, so they’re rare.
Cards: Kem bridge size, large index. I really appreciated the large indices, particularly after going over to Talking Stick, which has small index cards.
Tables have USB chargers. Unfortunately, I’d say that only 15% of them work. This is basic maintenance stuff, and there’s no reason not to get those fixed.
WiFi works great.
Hero-spotting coefficient: Ah, no.
Cocktail service, and there is a poker room menu. Unfortunately, the food delivery service is spotty. I was starving around midnight and ordered a breakfast sandwich. Only after multiple appeals to various people, dealers getting involved, etc., did it finally appear 45 minutes later. To her credit, the server was beyond apologetic, though I doubted she was responsible for preparing the hash browns. Do people not realize that poker rooms run on their stomachs?
Those of you who immediately said, “Wait, it’s not you?” are welcome to find reading material elsewhere.
On reflection, I bet I know why ol’ Johnny and Sailor didn’t want bet sizes announced. That allows them to slide out six $100 chips, with maybe a $500 chip or two down at the bottom of the stack, or conveniently hidden behind the stack of $100’s. Now the mark, thinking it’s a $600 bet, and not being told the actual amount, says, “Call.” Of course, now they called a $1600 bet. Note that this angle still works just as well today.
I later learned that Talking Stick has the same policy, but more of the dealers there do the sane thing and immediately announce bet sizes, or at least break down the bet for easy reading. WTAF, Arizona?
That’s for you, David Crosby. Thank you, and go in peace.