ROAD TRIP: Nevada’s poker secret

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By Scott Long

Vegas has the glitz and glamour, but if you only think of Sin City when you think of “Nevada” and “poker,” you’re missing a whole other world. And plenty of great poker to boot. To the north, Reno is known as the “Biggest Little City in the World,” but nothing is little about the poker being played there and the neighboring playground of Lake Tahoe. To the south, you’ll find a peaceful oasis away from the hustle and bustle of Vegas called Laughlin — and plenty of places to play some cards.

Reno/Lake Tahoe

If you’re looking to play right after you land — or play right up until your flight takes off — it’s hard to beat the convenience of Reno. Three of the largest rooms in the area — Atlantis, Peppermill and Grand Sierra — appear to be almost walkable from Reno-Tahoe International Airport.

And they are rooms worth the walk.

South Virginia Street boasts the two biggest, both run by personable veterans of the poker world with owners who “get” poker. Don’t underestimate what that last part means as more and more poker rooms in the country are being managed out of the pits, forced to fight their more profitable table-game siblings. Both offer a variety of games and limits, yet another refreshing feature rare these days in many poker rooms.

Mike Gainey this summer oversaw a multimillion-dollar renovation of his room at Peppermill, making him the envy of poker room managers everywhere (see story in the August issue of Ante Up). Finished in rich colors and even richer fixtures, the room offers a comfortable place to play during a blistering series of tournament events throughout the year, including the wildly unique and recently concluded Mike Gainey’s Chop Pot Poker Classic.

Bee Estis, no stranger to innovation, continues his creativity down the road under orders from the top to put the Atlantis on the poker map. A new deal with the World Poker Tour highlights his tournament offerings, but the room takes loyalty to a new level with a rewards card so exclusive you can’t ask for it. Estis gives it to you after you’ve established a record of play in the room. And membership has its privileges.

The Grand Sierra to the north is known to many as the Reno Hilton, but the resort that has gone through numerous ownership and name changes continues to evolve again as it’s aggressively marketing its seasonal tournament series. Those events play out conveniently in a large space just in front of the poker room.

The Eldorado anchors casino strip proper — the area made famous with pictures of the city’s historic curved sign. Margie Heintz, recently inducted into the Women in Poker Hall of Fame, puts her personality on the resort that towers literally and figuratively over downtown with a loyal base of players that ensures there’s always a variety of games, including stud. About a half-dozen smaller rooms keep each other on their toes in the shadow of the Eldorado, and the Silver Legacy is the latest to try the all-electronic route with a new room outfitted exclusively with PokerPro tables.

A handful of other rooms can found on the outskirts of town, the largest of which is John Ascuaga’s Nugget in the town of Sparks. But head south on Highway 395, and you’ll pass a couple of small rooms north of Lake Tahoe and a few more small rooms in Carson City before heading west to the playground of northern Nevada — South Lake Tahoe.

The bustling resort town offers plenty of recreation regardless of the season, but its small cadre of poker rooms is highlighted by the busy Harveys Lake Tahoe, a Caesars Entertainment property that hosts a World Series of Poker Circuit event each November. More than capably run by Vince Contaxis, the 20-table room is party central for the young weekend crowd in town.

Laughlin

About a two-hour drive south of Las Vegas sits a resort town carved by Don Laughlin on the southernmost tip of Nevada. It offers a laid-back and wildly inexpensive respite from the neon rush of the Strip, where outdoor recreation rivals casino gaming for attention.

Casino row sits on the rushing waters of the Colorado River, with many of the town’s poker rooms offering a picturesque view of the water — a welcome change from the scenery in most poker rooms.

Many of the town’s rooms are walkable from each other, some connected by a pedestrian-friendly riverwalk, and the only room truly requiring a car is Avi, which holds the distinction of being the only tribal-owned casino in Nevada. The full-featured resort is worth a drive, especially if you want to hit the charming, burro-dominated tourist trap of Oatman.

But most visitors will find it relaxing enough to stay in Laughlin proper, where the standard is $2-$6 spread-limit. Many a Laughlin poker room manager has tried to steer the mostly older clientele into no-limit hold’em, but the friendly town likes its friendly game.

Harrah’s, however, gets no-limit going, and Colorado Belle, the largest room in town, offers a bit more variety, including Omaha. The Belle, which also runs the nearby Edgewater, features plenty of character, extending its riverboat feel to the poker room with period-piece artwork.

Jim Vincent, a veteran of Laughlin, can now be found helming the room at Don Laughlin’s Riverside Resort, and the Golden Nugget is the new kid on the block, opening a room after having success with occasional tournaments that are the hallmark of the Nugget brand in Las Vegas. And the River Palms offers what many poker players wish for — a room set way aside from the dinging of slot machines.

Nevada’s ‘other’ poker rooms

Reno
Atlantis
Circus Circus
Eldorado
Grand Sierra
Harrah’s
Peppermill
Sands Regency
Silver Legacy
Reno area
Alamo
Boomtown
John Ascauaga’s Nugget
Rail City
North Tahoe
Crystal Bay
Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe
South Tahoe
Harveys Lake Tahoe
Lakeside Inn
MontBleu
Carson City area
Carson Nugget
Casino Valley Inn
Casino Fandango
Laughlin
Avi
Colorado Belle
Don Laughlin’s Riverside
Edgewater
Golden Nugget
Harrah’s
Pioneer
River Palms