By Ashley Adams
Ashley Adams lives in Boston, Massachusetts and has been playing poker for decades. He is the author of two poker books and his specialty is 7-card stud and no-limit hold'em.
I travel a lot and I play a lot of poker. One of my favorite treats is to combine the two by going on a poker vacation. Over the past few years I’ve been to dozens of places where I’ve combined poker play and vacationing. I’ve also done a bit of research on the top places that I haven’t yet gotten around to visiting. I’d like to share my experiences and thoughts on these places – and on what makes a great poker vacation.
From my perspective, a great poker vacation combines great poker with a location that is also worthy of a visit. Great poker itself is a combination of different factors including variety of game, variety of stakes, good poker room management, a reasonable rake, good food, a convenient location, reasonable hotel rates, and lots of loose, easy action. That being said, as this list of 10 poker destinations reveals, some places are more worthy because of some qualities than others.
Here is my list of the top 10 poker vacation destinations:
This is my number one poker vacation spot. How could it not be? It has, without question, the world’s largest number and densest concentration of poker rooms. In the Greater Las Vegas area, there are currently 58 poker rooms. On any given day you can find between 50 and 100 tournaments – from $15 to $25 low limit events in places like Poker Palace in North Las Vegas and Joker’s Wild and Sam’s Town on the Boulder Highway, to $300 to $600 events at the Bellagio, The Wynn, and the Venetian. And there are mid-limit events costing $60 to $200 at the Orleans, The Golden Nugget, the Station casinos, and just about every other poker room in town.
Las Vegas is also home to the lowest hotel rates (I just stayed in Las Vegas for the low, low rate of $8.50 a night), the largest variety of restaurants (especially Mexican and Asian restaurants), not to mention all of the shows, concerts, and night clubs. For those who enjoy the outdoors there are also scenic hiking and biking trails in the mountains and in the desert, as well as water sports and fishing. And as my poker buddy Andrei regularly reminds me, there are some of the greatest golf courses in the world in Las Vegas.
Transportation to, from, and within Las Vegas is very inexpensive – with frequent discounted flights to the city and then the cheapest rental car rates around. All in all, if you don’t mind the distraction of 24/7 gambling action and entertainment, there is absolutely no better place in the world for a poker vacation. (And I didn’t even talk about day trips to poker destinations Mesquite to the northeast and Laughlin to the south).
I define this area as Los Angeles and its suburbs all the way down to San Diego and its suburbs. It encompasses an area that is about three hours north to south and an hour and half east to west (without traffic). All totaled, there are 26 poker rooms in that area, including some of the largest poker rooms in the world
Southern California (SoCal as it is called colloquially) is surpassed, in my opinion, only by Las Vegas as a destination for a poker vacation. While it loses points somewhat in the poker room diversity column, it still has the second largest number of poker rooms of any area in the world. And these poker rooms, unlike many of the tiny rooms in Las Vegas, are often cavernous – with 100 or more tables. There are also frequent major tournaments as well as many daily tournaments in SoCal rooms. When you combine all of this with the largest concentration of recreational poker players in the world, you have the juiciest, most action packed poker games on the planet. What’s not to love?
Southern California has a huge amount to offer away from the felt as well. While LA is not quite the 24 hour city that Las Vegas or New York are, it is an area loaded with night life, outdoor recreation, scenic beauty, and enormous cultural diversity. Think Hollywood, Santa Monica, Venice Beach, and Beverly Hills. LA and its surrounding environs have long been tourist and business destinations in their own right. Unlike Las Vegas, if any in your vacation group are non-gamblers, they can have the vacation of their dreams as well – even if you the addicted poker player are locked into constant poker action for the duration of the trip.
Transportation to and within SoCal is also very convenient, with inexpensive rental cars and flights. Hotel and motel rentals are surely more expensive than they are in Las Vegas. But given the huge number of rooms in the area, the careful traveler can still find reasonably priced ones.
All in all, SoCal is right at the top of any list of ideal poker vacation destinations.
At first glance you might leave this area off your top list of great poker destinations. There are, after all, only two poker rooms in the entire area. That’s a big comedown from Las Vegas, SoCal, or any of the top ten poker destinations for that matter. Even so, I include it in my top three list because of the wealth of poker games in these two Connecticut rooms. Between them, there are more poker games, at more limits, with more action that at any of the other poker rooms (with the exception of LA and Las Vegas). And with the extraordinary number and variety of other activities available within these two mega-casinos, they rise to the top of my poker vacation list.
Foxwoods, in Ledyard, CT, is the larger of the two casinos and poker rooms – with 98 poker tables downstairs and a new tournament area of 65 poker tables upstairs. It is an incredible room, superior in number and variety of games to just about any poker room in the world – rivaling even the mighty Commerce Casino in Los Angeles. It’s located in a huge, full-service casino, with regular shows, concerts, athletic competitions, movies, high-end shopping, and of course the full range of casino games like slots, craps, blackjack, baccarat, pai gow, sic bo, and roulette. It also has three full service hotels on the premises – with beautiful spas, gyms, pools, saunas, an entertainment center for kids, and the like. There are fifteen restaurants for guests and visitors, not to mention the buffet, two night clubs, snack bars, and the café inside the poker room. Foxwoods even has two golf courses (yep, poker and golf again!). It’s truly a destination casino resort – with more square footage, gaming, and bells and whistles than any casino in the world.
Mohegan Sun is a similarly spectacular, though smaller and somewhat better organized and more coherent version of Foxwoods. Many prefer it, with their top name restaurants and better coordinated floor plan. The poker is excellent too, though not nearly as large or as diverse at Foxwoods. Even so, it provides a nice change of pace, as well as a series of daily tournaments to compliment the full schedule of poker tournaments at Foxwoods
To be sure, the southeastern area does not have nearly as much to offer to the vacationer as SoCal or Las Vegas. There is the seaside town of Mystic, with a museum and shops about 30 miles away. There’s the natural beauty of the Connecticut woods – with hiking trails and nearby fishing. The revitalized and vibrant city of Providence is 50 minutes away; Boston is 90 minutes and Manhattan is two hours. But if you’re coming to Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun to play poker, it’s the attractions of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun that you’ll get. Fortunately, for me and nearly all who make the trip, what the casinos offer is more than enough to make a poker vacation here spectacular.
This has been described aptly as the Las Vegas of the East. It surely fits the bill to the extent that there is a very densely packed group of poker rooms to choose from. Though not as large and diverse as Las Vegas, the poker is still fantastic and varied. There’s the Borgata – perhaps the most luxurious poker room of them all. For big action, great tournaments, and the best stud action outside of Foxwoods there’s the Taj Majal, and then there are another eight rooms to round out the action. For your family members who don’t like gambling, there’s a great boardwalk for shopping and strolling, and of course you’re right on one of the most spectacular beaches in the world. The best source of information for poker in Atlantic City, NJ is ‘Poker in AC‘.
Though not quite as spectacular as the poker in and around the LA/SD area in the south, the poker in Northern California is nothing to sneeze at either. With a diverse group of 20 or so rooms to choose from (new ones open and old ones close regularly so it’s tough to give an accurate count), there’s almost as much variety as anywhere on earth. Lead by great rooms like Artichoke Joe’s in San Bruno, The Oaks in Emeryville, Lucky Chances just south of San Francisco in Colma, Bay 101 and Garden City Casino in San Jose, there’s great poker within an hour or so of San Francisco – one of the most beautiful tourist destinations in the United States.
There are now some 30 poker rooms in the state, clustered up and down the east and west coast, especially around the major metropolitan areas. There are even a few rooms thrown in to the panhandle and interior for good measure (though none yet in or near Orlando). Check out Ante Up Magazine for a complete list of places. They’ve just raised the cap on the no limit games – so there’s a plethora of great poker everywhere – with serious action spurred on by pent up demand for big games. And what’s not to like about all of the other vacation options in this the sunshine state – with beautiful beaches, great weather, and great restaurants in and around the major cities.
Mississippi started to catch poker fever back in the late ‘90s, when they legalized “Riverboat” gambling in the state. It allowed full scale casino gambling to develop on the Mississippi and in the gulf. Tunica in the north and Gulfport/Biloxi in the South were the principal beneficiaries of this change in the law – with Vicksburg and Philadelphia also getting in on the casino action. Today, Tunica is a mini-Las Vegas, with five active poker rooms within a few miles of each other. The Gulfport/Biloxi area isn’t too shabby either – with four poker rooms to choose from. There are decent big city things to do near both of these destinations: Memphis is less than an hour away from Tunica; New Orleans is less than an hour away from Gulfport/Biloxi. I made a week’s vacation out of a trip that started in Tunica, went south to the Civil War site of Vicksburg through some wonderfully interesting small southern cities, then across to historic Philadelphia, then down to Biloxi and Gulfport on the Gulf of Mexico. I played poker all along the way. I’d recommend it or even something less ambitious to anyone who likes poker, American history, and scenic beauty.
This might not be on most folk’s list of great destinations for poker. But that’s just because they haven’t kept up with the times. Oklahoma has been going poker crazy for a few years. Though the numbers change as new poker rooms open and old ones close, at last count there were 25 rooms in the state – including huge ones like the Hard Rock outside of Tulsa and the Winstar down by the Texas border. I’ve played in 11 of these on a trip a couple of years back, and the landscape has become even more crowded with rooms since then. Keep in mind that the chief industries of Oklahoma, oil and farming, are each historically gambling games. Oklahoma is also a decent place to visit even without the casinos, as I discovered during my poker-playing trip a couple of years back – with great restaurants and museums in both Tulsa and Oklahoma City. The Poker Atlas will help you find your way around the rooms in the state.
Seattle is a beautiful city with plenty of places to visit and enjoy – from nearby islands, to downtown markets, great museums, excellent shopping, and of course incredible coffee. What some don’t know is that there is also a great mix of poker rooms surrounding the city. Some date back to the middle part of the last century, when Washington was one of only three places with legal poker. Now, one can find relatively small poker rooms all across the state of Washington, with twenty or so grouped around the Seattle metropolitan area. Stakes tend to be relatively low (I couldn’t find any games bigger than $10/20 when I was there – but that was a while ago), but there’s regular $200+ tournament action in a few rooms.
New Hampshire is a great place for tournament poker. (They have cash games, but at 10% up to a $7 max – and with only low limit stakes – I wouldn’t recommend them). Consisting of ten rooms, primarily in the southern third of the state, New Hampshire spreads no limit hold’em tournaments sufficient to satisfy anyone who likes all but the biggest games. Ranging in stakes from small one table affairs that range from $40 to $120, up to huge mega-stacks that have hundreds of contestants for $200 or so, with prize pools reaching upwards of $50,000, New Hampshire also has a large percentage of amateurs. The rake generally isn’t bad at all – about the same as the lower-staked casino tournaments (15-25%). The two biggest places, Seabrook and Rockingham, are located right next to the Massachusetts border, making driving from Boston’s Logan airport, very easy. The other rooms, smaller to be sure, are scattered across the state, making for a great one-week vacation of driving through the scenic beauty of New Hampshire, from one room to the other – sampling lovely bed and breakfasts, motels, restaurants, and the like, along the way.
There are many other great places to play poker while on vacation. They didn’t make my top ten list, but for reasons of geography, cost, or curiosity they may be perfect for you. Here are some places with good poker and good vacation potential, listed in no especial order.
Pennsylvania – They just opened up poker rooms around Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. There’s nothing like new rooms for great easy action.
West Virginia – Three rooms just west of Pittsburgh and then south to Charleston. Beautiful country. Let’s hope that the nearby action in Pennsylvania doesn’t destroy these great rooms.
Arizona – Large number of rooms around Phoenix and Tucson. Great for a golf-poker twofer. And if you like visiting spring training games – what could be nicer?
New Mexico – Between and around Santa Fe and Albuquerque there are nine rooms with low limit action and tournaments. The high desert is a site to behold. And the poker ain’t too shabby either.
Minnesota – There’s the large Canterbury Park and a few other rooms in the greater Twin Cities area, and then half a dozen other rooms sprinkled about the state. If you like fishing, as I do, a great vacation could have you travelling to a lake for walleye fishing in the day, and poker at night…
Louisville, KY – Louisville is a great city in its own right – with museums, restaurant, nightlife, and the scenic beauty of the mighty Ohio running through it. Right across the river in Indiana is one of the best Midwest casinos, Caesar’s Indiana. And if you want some adventure you can head up the river to the northeast toward Cincinnati or into the interior of Indiana for some other poker room action.
Denver – A mile high and lots of small games nearby. I wouldn’t go just for the low limit action, but if you’re going to be in Denver, don’t forget that there’s some good poker nearby.
Outside the US – There’s surely great poker in countries other than the US. I haven’t listed them here because they’ll be the subject of another article. But if you can’t wait, you can start doing your own research on the following places that I can at least briefly recommend: Canada, Costa Rica, United Kingdom, Austria, France, Aruba, Sweden, and Germany.
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