Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Undeserved Reputation of the Bellagio Poker Room

The Bellagio Poker Room in Las Vegas is seriously overrated. It coasts on accolades like these year after year, without any real critical scrutiny. Yes, Bellagio hosts the biggest games. Yes, Bobby's room is cool. Yes, it's the place to go for poker celebrity sightings, and yes the Bellagio has made a big commitment to poker. But....

Have any of you actually tried to play there? At any given time there's 25 games going. Most of those games are not high limit, they're the same 4-8, 5-10, 1-2 and 2-5 games that you see everywhere else. They're the bread and butter of the poker room. And Bellagio's service is terrible. Let me outline what we commoners have to put up with:

1. The Tables Suck

One of the most irritating things a poker room can do is play ten handed holdem on a stud table. None of the Bellagio tables are big enough. No cup holders or wood border either.

2. And There's No Space Between Them

Good luck getting to one of those tables in the corner.

3. Drink Service Disappears When the Room Gets Crowded

4. The Brushes are Surly

5. They Use a Retarded Clipboard System for Lists.

Look, you can make an argument that the electronic lists are buggy and problematic and maybe there's a certain nostalgia factor for keeping an old-timey chalkboard list, but a pencil-and-clipboard list just doesn't work.

First, no electronic list, no remote monitoring of the list. That means you can't get it on your hotel room TV. Second, if you can't see the list, you can't decide what you want to do unless you're already talking to the brush. At Caesars, or the Venetian, or anywhere else, I can view the list at a distance, and I don't need to actually talk to the host until I know which lists I want to be on. The clipboard system means I always have to be crowded around the front desk craning my neck to see what's going on.

6. There's No Technology on the Tables.

There's no "seat open" button that the dealer can press, which means that Bellagio is one of the last houses in town where little old lady dealers still have to shout "I've got 2 on 15!!!" at the top of their lungs.

7. "You're going to table 8. Go and purchase chips first over there."

Thanks friend. Where's table 8? Oh, it's the one under the TV in the general direction where you're waving? That's helpful. And I'll go wait on the cashier's line first, I get it. Can I pick up some trash on the way?

Other poker rooms actually seat you and get your chips for you, but hey - this is the Bellagio.

8. They Won't Page You.

So what are you supposed to do if you're on a list that's a mile long? Just stand there awkwardly for an hour? Which leads directly to:

9. Where are Players Supposed to Wait?

Seriously. If you stand more than 10 feet from the brush, you will miss your call. If you stand in front of his face you clog the tiny space that people use to circulate in and out of the room. There is nowhere to sit. There is no alcove. The magazine rack is mysteriously on the other side of the room. If you wander even as far as the sportsbook bar, you will be out of earshot. This system of having players bottleneck the entrance by standing awkwardly against the wall is so poorly thought out that I'm surprised anyone puts up with it.

10. There are no Loyalty Rewards of Any Kind.

No swiping in, no points, no jackpots, no bad beats, no high hands, no drawings, no deli coupon, no monday night football square... there's bubkus. Absolutely nothing. Nada.

Although... it needs to be said: #10 is the reason why I do still play there. Not that I don't want a bad beat jackpot, but the lack of any kind of loyalty rewards keeps the poker zombies far away. The cranky, savage, nitpicky, liver spotted retirees that clog poker tables in Vegas like cholesterol. You know these guys. They're the ones who play one hand and then take an hour break. The ones fighting over who gets the next seat change button. The ones requesting setups. The ones more interested in enforcing obscure rules than in actually playing poker. At Bellagio they earn nothing for their play, and so they withdraw like Dracula from sunlight and actually make the games more playable.

But I digress. Have I painted a clear enough picture of what to expect at Bellagio at the lower limits? A sardine-packed space with crappy service? Even for all that, it's not a terrible experience. They have lots of games going all the time, which is a crucial plus. The quality of the opponents is a little lower than average (counter to conventional wisdom and due, I think, to the loyalty reward factor I noted above). And they make a good orange julius.

But let's be honest. Wynn has the best room in town, and Venetian isn't far behind. It's time for Bellagio to take inventory and sort a few things out. And it's time for the poker media to stop giving them a free pass.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I Hate the "Clock Manipulation" Portion of the Football Game

In my opinion there's just something unsportmanlike about it and it diminishes the game. That's probably an extreme position to take on it, but come on. There's something lawyerly, something unfriendly about those last two minutes where people are spiking balls, calling time-outs, running out of bounds, taking a knee, doing goofy things on the field for no other reason than to manage the clock.

I've said this before and I'll say it again. The rules of a sport exist to serve the sport. It's not the other way around. Football is an athletic contest. It's offense versus defense, broken down into discrete plays. The rules should be structured to promote the finest and fairest possible contest, so that pure athleticism is the deciding factor. If a running play is called for, but clock considerations force you to run a passing play instead, then you've got some flawed rules. The rules should always promote best play, all the time.

I don't think this is a hard line position. I've been complaining for years that I think there's something ugly about a basketball team running out the clock, and I've always faulted the rules of bridge for arbitrarily penalizing a 4 contract in the minors and a 5 contract in the majors. But football just takes it to a whole other level. Now, I come to football as a really casual fan. I don't watch a lot of it. I didn't grow up with it. When I sit through a game, there are always a few questions that come up for me about penalties and technicalities. I don't know all the rules.

But I know enough of the game to see that there are really 5 quarters. There's quarters 1-4, and then there's the really unfornutate final 2 minutes which can often last longer than a full quarter. Now, I don't fault the players or the coaches. They're just doing the best they can under the given rules. It's the governing body that's at fault. They've created a game which is doomed to always conclude with 10 or 20 minutes of pointless micromanagement. They've created time-outs for one purpose: extra time to confer about the next play, only to have coaches use it for a different purpose: stopping the clock. They've created distinctions about which plays cause the clock to stop and which kinds of plays cause the clock to keep going, that end up determining which plays players have to run.

As a spectator those last two minutes of gametime offer a completely different football experience, one that's not so much about great athleticism as it is about efficient coaching and a creative expoiting of the rules. Longtime, passionate football fans don't see this. To them, the whole micromanaged, litigous conclusion to the game is just part of the fun. To me, it's just kind of crass and it doesn't have anything good to show about the sport.

Do I have an alternative? Well, I don't have any well thought out plan - but clearly you need to rethink the clock, and some of the ways it can be cleverly manipulated. Baseball has no time limit. Other games like hockey and soccer manage to have time limits without the game turning into molasses at the end. Maybe you need to need to have a "last possession" rule when time expires. The clock ticks down to zero, at which point it's officially the last possession. Then you could see some real football because the team with the ball wouldn't be burdened with a time limit.

I don't know how many great, historic football coaches are now spinning in their graves, but I stand by my heresy - these rules are no good. I've got other suggestions as well: why should the winner of the overtime coin-toss get such a huge advantage? but that's an argument for another day.