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No room for novices at poker table

| Friday, Aug. 6, 2010

Poker players who have done well at home games or local tournaments should realize they'll need more than luck when they sit at a casino table.

Poker differs from other casino games because players win money from each other instead of the house. The casino's profit comes from a "rake" of from each pot — in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, it's 10 percent, to a maximum of $5 per hand. The house takes an additional dollar from each pot to fund a "bad beat" jackpot, which can give huge payouts to everyone at the table in the unlikely case of four-of-a-kind or a straight flush getting beat.

In contrast with a blackjack player who roots for the dealer to bust, a poker player must size up as many as nine potential adversaries.

A major difference between a casino game and a home game is that it's not your friends and relatives gathered around the table for a casual game and good times.

"The big thing is that you're going to run into people who are doing this for a living," said Mark Barr of Derry, a computer consultant who plays poker once or twice a week and runs .

Barr said these "grinders" are at low-stakes and high-stakes tables. New players should be aware of them but not intimidated, he said.

Pro player Jon Stein of Washington, Pa., who won a seat in the 2008 World Series of Poker Main Event, said "home gamers" should learn nuances of the game before heading to the casino.

"Learn the proper way to play, especially if you want to make money," said Stein, who oversees and blogs about poker at .

The dominant poker game in casinos is Texas Hold 'Em, popularized by seemingly nonstop TV broadcasts of tournaments and high stakes games. Casinos offer two versions: "limit," in which the betting is structured and the amount of your win/loss is easier to control, and "no limit," in which a player's entire stack of chips can go into the pot in one hand.

Limit poker generally has less aggressive players and offers "more of a safety net," said Mike Chapman, table games shift manager at Rivers on the North Shore. His casino deals a 4-8 game, while The Meadows in Washington County offers 2-4 and 3-6 games.

The first number refers to the amount players may bet or raise pre- and post-flop; in a 4-8 game, for example, players may bet or raise $4 after seeing their hole cards and again after the first three community cards (the "flop") are dealt. Bets and raises increase to $8 after the turn (the fourth community card) and river (last community card). No more than three raises per betting cycle are allowed.

"The limit game is a more controlled, more structured game. You can pace yourself," said Peter Lau, poker manager at The Meadows. "You can only lose so much (in a hand)."

Many no-limit players deride limit games, especially 2-4, as "No Fold 'Em Hold 'Em" because players stay with marginal starting hands in hopes of hitting the flop. Players holding two high cards or a high pair have difficulty chasing others out of the hand with a raise.

"There's not a lot of disciplined players playing low-limit," Barr said. "You can flop bottom pair and get sucked into betting more when you're never ahead (in the hand)."

Stein said he plays mostly no-limit games and tournaments because it's difficult to double or triple your money in limit games.

No-limit games offer bigger pots — and more risk. These games are described by the size of their blinds: a 1-2 game means the small blind, the player immediately left of the dealer button, must bet at least $1 and the player two seats from the button must bet at least $2.

Whichever game a player picks, Barr, Chapman, Lau and Stein offered these for those making a smooth transition to casino poker:

· Protect your cards. Don't let others see them, and don't tell anyone what you threw away. Protect your cards from hands tossed toward the "muck." If a mucked (discarded) card lands on your hand, your pocket aces could be declared dead. Get a card protector or "cap" your cards with a chip.

· Act only when it's your turn. Pay attention to the player ahead of you. If in doubt, ask the dealer if it's your turn. Acting early could cost you money.

· Don't criticize other people's play.

· Don't "slow roll" an opponent by letting him think he's won when you know you hold the best hand. That disses your opponent and can make you a target for other players.

· Have fun. "If you're not having fun, you're not going to win money," Barr said.

Tournament time

The Meadows casino in Washington County is the first in Pennsylvania to get state approval for poker tournaments. Tournaments with $40 or $65 buy-ins are scheduled through the weekend, with a full slate starting Monday.

Mike Chapman, table games shift manager at Rivers casino on the North Shore, said tournaments will begin there by the end of the month.

Meadows also added high-limit slots and table games in the Adios Lounge on the main floor of the casino. The lounge has four blackjack tables offering betting limits as high as $10,000 per hand, and eight multi-denomination slot machines that allow players to bet up to $75 per spin.

The lounge includes a full-service bar, hors d'ourves, private cage, exclusive rest-rooms and large-screen TV viewing. It previously was open only to holders of platinum players cards but now is open to anyone playing the high-limit games, casino officials said.

Money trail

For the week ending Aug. 1, the state's nine casinos reported gross slot machine revenue of $46.9 million on bets of $606.2 million. Gross slot machine revenue for Western Pennsylvania casinos:

$4.98M — Rivers, on bets totaling $63.8 million

$5.27M — The Meadows, on bets totaling $61.4 million

$3.69M — Presque Isle in Erie, on bets totaling $56.3 million

How do you get a seat at a casino poker table?

Check in at the entrance to the poker room and tell the attendant what type of game you want to play — limit or no-limit Texas Hold 'Em. Casinos deal any type of game if enough players are interested. Omaha and Seven-Card Stud are common alternatives. You might have to wait for a seat, especially on weekends. When your name is called, a host will show you to your seat. Buy chips from the poker room cashier.

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