Poker road trip of a lifetime

November 22, 2011, Chris  

Ante Up Reno Ambassador Cordell Howard recently set out on a long and winding cross-country trek with one goal in mind: visit as many poker rooms in America (and even a few in Canada) as possible in three weeks and win enough money to cover his costs. This is a look at that voyage, in his words.

When I first discovered poker I remember thinking what a perfect job playing for a living would be: to be your own boss, make your own hours and travel anywhere there was a poker game. After five years of studying and dealing, I had developed my game, built a bankroll and still fantasized about making poker my job. If I were to play for a living, I should know where the best games are across the country, right? On my days off I traveled to Sacramento, then the Bay Area, and eventually every room in California. I also started collecting $1 chips from each room as a way of remembering where I’d been. A year later I had covered the West Coast, plus Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, Montana, South Dakota and parts of Florida. My chip collection had grown tremendously, but was far from complete.
After plenty of research I figured the most cost efficient way to visit the rooms in the rest of the country would be to make one long poker road trip. I tuned up the car and set the date. I wanted to complete my chip collection and win enough cash to pay for the trip.

I felt a $2,000 bankroll would be enough to grind my way through America, and to save money I would live the life of a truck driver, sleeping in my car and showering at truck stops. I bought some groceries and supplies for the car and planned to put the gas on my credit card. I also would use my comps for meals and hotels along the way.

The route I chose was designed to hit every uncharted room within reason, driving through smaller rooms during the days and spending my nights in the optimal places to play. I packed the car and headed east on Interstate 80 into the Nevada desert. The first few days I traveled through familiar territory, playing $1-$2 no-limit hold’em games at Montego Bay in Wendover, Nev., and Ameristar in Black Hawk, Colo. Colorado’s maximum $100 bet makes for some action games including a $30-$60 that runs regularly.

After a long drive and a few chip stops through Kansas I arrived in Kansas City where I played at Ameristar and Harrah’s. I thought Harrah’s had the best action, including a $2-$5 PLO game with two tables running. I played it safe with some $4-$8 Omaha and $1-$2 NLHE and won a little. The next day in Council Bluffs, Iowa, I played $4-$8 Omaha at the Horseshoe and then zigzagged my way through Iowa. In Illinois I discovered the highest rake in the country, 10 percent up to $8 with a $1 jackpot. What are they thinking?

The games were pretty scarce until I made it to the Horseshoe Hammond in northern Indiana, one of the best rooms in the country. They had all the best games going, including $5-$10 PLO and $10-$20 NLHE on a Monday. The walls were lined with pictures of old-school pros and the high-limit area featured Benny’s room. I played $1-$2, $2-$5 NLHE and heads-up $1-$2 PLO, booking a small loss after a roller-coaster session. I found the players to be tough, but I consider the Horseshoe a top poker destination.

My next stop was Detroit, playing $2-$5 NLHE at Motor City Casino and losing a buy-in. I was impressed with the quality of the casinos in Detroit, all three were close to one another and the action was great. Motor City had a $5-$10 NLHE game going daily that I would like to revisit someday.

I pulled out my passport and headed through Ontario to make a Canadian straight. I visited Niagara Falls and played $2-$5 NLHE at the Fallsview Resort Casino. It was the smallest game spread, and with the legal gambling age at 19 the games were pretty good. I couldn’t beat them, however, and found myself stuck $1,200. Things weren’t going as well as I had hoped.

I made my way through New York, visiting Seneca Niagara and Turning Stone, both great rooms. I drove through some amazing country in Vermont and explored New Hampshire where the maximum bet is $4. I ventured through the social gaming rooms and participated in a dealer’s choice game reminiscent of my father’s home game.

After lying with the lambs I made my way to Foxwoods in Connecticut, one of the highlights of my trip. The downstairs poker room is isolated from the casino. It had all of the best games with tables going back in all directions. The room delivered in every way, providing the perfect atmosphere for poker players. I felt right at home and jumped into a $1-$2 PLO/8 game, playing into the early morning.

During this session I noticed the pace of the action had increased and the conversation at the table also had changed color. I was like a kid in a candy store soaking up the whole experience; this was poker on the East Coast.

My next stop came just a few miles down I-95 at Mohegan Sun, which reminded me of an Indian wonderland. A maze of elaborate sculptures and an indoor waterfall makes this one of the best-looking casinos in the country. I won a little playing $1-$2 NLHE and headed to Pennsylvania.

Since poker was only recently legalized in Pennsylvania I was optimistic about the games. By nightfall I made it to the Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs where I played the most chaotic session of the trip. I started playing $1-$2 but moved to $2-$5 NLHE feeling good about the action. I soon found myself all-in getting called down by A-J high when I attempted to three-barrel bluff the guy with too much money. Down to my last $400, I only knew one way to get it back. I got it all-in with the second-nut straight running into a set and another player’s flush draw. After fading the world I left the game with $1,300 in my pocket and went to sleep in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

The next day I drove through Eastern Pennsylvania collecting chips and scouting for games. I liked the Sands, but Parx was the best, spreading all games, including a $10-$10 NLHE. I jumped on the Atlantic City Expressway and made my way to the Taj Mahal, “where the sand turns to gold.” I didn’t find the Taj to be in its prime, but booked a win in $5-$10 Omaha/8 and explored the Boardwalk, thinking about Phil Ivey grinding it out back in the day.

The Borgata was the biggest and, in my opinion, the best of all poker rooms in the United States. It offers every game imaginable and the highest stakes in the country, not to mention the luxurious design and professional staff on hand. The high-limit room alone was bigger than most poker rooms. I played $1-$2 PLO and knew I had found a special place in the poker world.

I carried on through Delaware finding mostly small-stakes games with friendly people. After a brief visit to Washington, D.C., I stopped at the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town. The money was flowing and the action was as good as it gets. I played $1-$3 and $2-$5 NLHE, watching oversized pots pushed every direction but mine.

The next few days I ventured through Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri only to find smaller games typical of most casinos. I found a $5-$10 no-limit Omaha game at the Mardi Gras in Charleston, West Va. The Hollywood Casino and Horseshoe in Southern Indiana had nice rooms, but little action on the weekdays. I played in a $10-$20 O/8 game at Casino Aztar that got me even for the trip. St. Louis also had four nice casinos, but most of the action was at Harrah’s.

I headed south to Tunica and played $1-$3 NLHE at the Horseshoe and the next day at Ameristar in Vicksburg. Players here are allowed to match the biggest stacks at the table, which makes games play bigger. The Mississippi games were OK, the people were all friendly, but my hands per hour went way down and I started to miss the East Coast.

I drove into Florida, where poker is still booming. I played $10-$20 O/8 at Orange Park Kennel Club and $5-$10 O/8 at the Daytona Beach Kennel Club. Near Miami, I played $2-$5 NLHE at the Isle Pompano Park and $2-$5 PLO/PLO8 at the Hard Rock Hollywood. After a $1-$2 PLO session at the Hard Rock in Tampa, I sadly started the drive back home. In case you don’t already know, the games in Florida are the best in the country. In three days I made $1,300 toward my goal and experienced a poker paradise.

I explored the rest of Mississippi and Louisiana. In Biloxi I played $1-$3 NLHE at the Beau Rivage, unable to get into the $2-$5-$10 game. In New Orleans I played $1-$2 NLHE at Harrah’s where everyone is there to party and the games were crazy loose. I saw a $287K bad-beat jackpot at the Coushatta Casino and played $2-$5 NLHE at L’Auberge, a new room in Lake Charles that pulls gamblers from Texas.

I spent the final days of my trip driving through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, revisiting places I had seen. After a painful $8-$16 O/8 session at Casino Arizona, I arrived in Laughlin, Nev. I stumbled into a $2-$5 NLHE game that helped me recover some of my losses. The games in Laughlin were typically small; I even saw a 50 cent-$1 NLHE game at the Golden Nugget.

After a stop at the Golden West in Bakersfield, Calif., for some $2-$2 NLHE, I made the drive to Bay 101 in San Jose. I took it easy, playing $4-$8 O/8, and reflected on all of the places I had visited. The last day I enjoyed a concert with friends, afterward playing one last session at the California Grand. Three weeks on the road and I didn’t want it to end.

After 12,000 miles, 30 states and 125 poker rooms my life had changed. My expenses were $1,700, but the experience and the memories were priceless. I won $1,400 playing poker, falling just short of my goal, but was satisfied with my results. My chip collection had grown beyond my expectations. I had seen the country and lived my dream, making it all possible with the game I love. The people I met and the places I saw will stay with me forever. I tasted the freedom that only poker players know, living each day on my terms, going wherever the road took me. I encourage every player to explore your options, because you won’t know what you’re missing until you go out and experience it.