06/27/2006 11:00PM

Vegas the new hot spot to catch your limit of fish

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LAS VEGAS - When I first started playing poker here 15 years ago, the choice of games and venues was pretty thin. You could play downtown at Binion's Horseshoe, the sawdusty joint that also hosted the 300 or so people who played in the World Series of Poker each year, or you could play on the Strip at the fabulous new Mirage, which had bigger games in a cavernous 20-table card room.

The choices widened over the last five years, especially with the opening of the Bellagio, which became the magnet for poker celebrities and the highest-limit players. A few other hotels began giving over some floor space to poker, and a year ago there were a dozen places to play, with growing crowds fueled by televised poker and the growth of the World Series of Poker. Some people are saying that the poker boom is starting to taper off, but that was not the impression I got during a brief visit here this week.

It seems that every major hotel has made a new and significant investment in poker in the last 12 months, and there are swanky new rooms at several major Strip properties, most notably the Venetian and Caesars Palace, where a new 39-table poker room was packed last weekend. Slot machines still generate more revenue per square foot than poker tables, but casino officials say that a booming number of visitors now expect to be able to play poker at whatever hotel they are visiting.

People have been talking for a decade now about how Las Vegas is changing, but that change now seems to be accelerating even more rapidly. There is an entirely new business model at work.

It used to be that the casinos didn't do much more than break even on the hotel and food sectors of their operation. The idea was to make rooms and meals as cheap as possible to attract customers who would then lose their money at the slots and table games, which accounted for as much as 90 percent of the profits.

Today the gambling revenues are stronger than ever but represent closer to only 50 percent of the business. The hotel and especially the nightclub, restaurant, and theatrical sectors have become massive profit centers in what is increasingly becoming a sort of virtual-reality theme park. Every big casino now has a variety of top-dollar gourmet restaurants, many of them branches of big-name eateries from major cities, as well as a roof-top club modeled on trendy New York and Los Angeles nightspots, complete with $300-a-liter "bottle service" behind velvet ropes.

Poker fits right in with this shift, yet another hot and glamorous as-seen-on-TV activity. Just as visitors from Anytown, USA, can pretend they're living the Manhattan high life by dining at a Le Cirque or dancing at a club where Jay-Z or the Hilton sisters just might show up, they can live out an ESPN or World Poker Tour fantasy by sitting down at the tables in an opulent new poker room.

This is nothing but good news for skilled poker players, whose main complaint used to be that there were too many sharks and not enough minnows in town. That has completely changed as well, with a steadily increasing fish-per-table count. The quality of play, frankly, is atrocious at many tables, especially the no-limit games, where newcomers are most likely to emulate their TV poker heroes and go all-in with mediocre holdings or on pure bluffs.

At the same time, there are also many more competent players among the poker population. Many of them are young, aspiring pros who have learned the game online, where a year of practice is equivalent to what once might have taken five years to learn in live games. The online game is much quicker, with more hands per hour, and many online players also play four or more tables at once.

Some regulars find the influx of inexperienced newcomers and aggressive online players to be a mixed blessing. Everyone loves a fish, but these new ones play more wildly than the timid home-game visitors of a previous generation. They can't be bullied or intimidated, and good players are likelier than ever to suffer horrendous beats for gigantic pots at the hands of inferior players.

This is hardly a cause for complaint, however. Playing smart, conservative poker - being very selective about which hands to play, getting your money in only when you've got the best of it - is the proper response to loose and wild play, and a few bad beats are a small price to pay for so much new money and action. A few years ago, it may have made sense to play aggressively in these games, but now a tighter strategy may be the way to go.

Think of it this way: If the handle on horse racing suddenly doubled, with an influx of money being bet virtually at random or predominantly on longshots, what would be the best way to react: By playing equally wildly, or by taking 4-1 on horses who should be, and used to be, only 2-1?