Swimming With The Sharks: The Vegas Poker Ecosystem

The best introduction to thinking about the Vegas poker ecosystem is the scene from Rounders where all the sharks from New York City are playing together in Atlantic City when a couple of fish sit down. From that point on the sharks stay out of each others way and prey on the fish. The exact same thing happens in Vegas where Local Sharks feed on Tourist Fish.

In the Bay Area – where I’m from – it’s enough to be a solid fundamental player to make money. Many of the players are undisciplined and make fundamental mistakes. All you have to do is wait for premium hands and rake in the pots.

Vegas is entirely different. The Vegas poker scene is populated with bloodthirsty sharks who make their livelihood by taking your money. Let me give you a couple of examples from a short $1/$3 session I just played at Aria.

Less than half an hour into the session there was a raised multiway pot. One short stacked player was All In so I was assured of seeing the winning hand. The flop came down Q65 and got checked around. The turn was a 2 and a local shark made a medium sized bet. Another player called. The river was an 8 and the local shark made a big bet when the other player checked to him. I knew from the size of the bet that the shark had a set of 6s, 5s or 2s and was putting his opponent on a Q. Had he had a Q he would only have bet with an A or K kicker and his bet size would have been smaller. His opponent folded and the shark flipped over 55 and scooped the pot.

Later in the same session a Tourist Fish sat down and made a $6 straddle. A few players saw a flop of 763. The shark who won the hand above with a set of 5s made a small bet of $10, the tourist fish raised to $30 and another local shark re-raised to $60. The initial shark folded and the tourist fish went All In. At this point the local shark agonized asking the other player: “Did you flop a straight?” I knew he had a set and was going to call but these Vegas cash game sharks are so tight they only like to get all the money in with the absolute nuts. Eventually he made the call with 33 and the tourist fish turned over 76 for two pair. In the Bay Area top two is a shove to a raise because the players are looser and more undisciplined but in Vegas it’s just a call because top two is the absolute bottom of the local sharks range for getting it in.

Those are the cash game sharks that populate the $1/$3 and especially $2/$5 games around Vegas. Then there are the tournament sharks. These sharks are even more dangerous than the cash game ones because in addition to playing solid fundamental poker they utilize exploitative play. In the cash games -without the pressure of rising blinds – the local sharks just sit back and wait for the nuts. In tournaments the sharks won’t get it All In without a premium hand but they will probe you relentlessly with bets large and small to try and steal pots without made hands.

For example, let’s say you raise with KQ, a shark 3-bets you in position and you call. Say the pot is 1000 chips and the flop comes down 1074. When you check to the shark because you missed the shark will bet regardless of his hand. He may bet very small. If you call and he deems the turn unlikely to have hit you he will bet again regardless of his hand. At that point you will have to give up. If you show resistance he will slow down which is a sure sign that he has nothing and is putting you on a strong hand. If he continues to bet aggressively on the river that means he has a monster.

In the Bay Area and elsewhere around the country it’s easy to make money playing poker because there are so many bad players. But in Vegas it is extremely difficult because the games are populated by highly skilled sharks who utilize solid fundamentals as well as exploitative play. The bottom line is that it’s very hard to outplay these players but it can be done – or you can at least hold your own – if you understand what they’re up to.

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