Though I’ve made my living writing about the great game of poker for the last seven years, I don’t get to play as much as I’d really like. That’s because I live in Tennessee, one of the 13 U.S. states that has completely outlawed poker in every form. My state government thinks it’s perfectly acceptable for me to buy high-dollar WSOP-themed lottery tickets to win a seat in the Main Event, but it doesn’t think I should be allowed to exercise my hard-earned skills in a satellite tournament to win the same seat.
I can play underground but the associated risks – arrest, cheating, robbery, or worse – aren’t very appealing to me (or to my wife). I can play in home games – which are also technically illegal in my home state – but most of my friends can go years without playing a game of poker and never think twice about it. My alternative had always been online poker, but since Black Friday that’s been almost completely inaccessible to me. My one other choice is to hit the road and go to places where poker’s legal footing is surer. Unfortunately for me, the associated costs (lodging, food, buy-ins, and the cost of travel itself) are simply too high to make traveling to play a regular habit, given the stakes I can afford without a regular bankroll.
But as Jack Torrance taught me, all work and no play makes Jason a dull boy. You have to make time for the things you enjoy in this life, so I’ve embarked on a one-week trip to five of the nearest poker destinations to my home. By the time I return home I’ll have made a circuit encompassing three places where I’ve played in the past (southern Indiana, Tunica, and Biloxi) and two markets that are new to me (St. Louis and Florida). My editor is calling it the No Passport Required Tour.
My first stop, on Monday, was the nearest poker room to my home: the Horseshoe in southern Indiana, just over three hours away by car.
Gambling has been legal in Indiana since 1996. That was the year when the federal Johnson Act, which forbade the use of gambling devices on voyages on the Great Lakes, was amended to allow gambling on boats embarking from the state and staying within its jurisdiction. Two years later Caesars Indiana opened in a mostly empty stretch of riverside land across the Ohio river from Louisville, the largest city in Kentucky. A few years back the casino’s name was changed to Horseshoe Southern Indiana, tying it in with all the history of the Horseshoe brand. Given that it has become the area’s center for all things poker, the Horseshoe name is fitting.
When I arrived a little before noon, I found that the Horseshoe was much as I remembered it from my last visit in 2006. For starters, I had to step over water to enter the casino, since it’s technically located on a riverboat. (It was once required to leave the dock in order to spread games, but the state legislature nixed that requirement in 2002.) It’s a somewhat clunky way of going about things for someone used to the more standard approach in places like Las Vegas – i.e. building casinos on land – but at the end of the day it’s just another quirk that gives the place character.
Also as I remembered it: elbow room. Since upgrading its poker room to 33 tables back in 2006, there’s been more than enough space at the Horseshoe for hundreds of players to get their game on at once. Since I was playing at noon on a Monday there were only a handful of those tables going, but the locals I talked to told me that the action picks up in the evenings and on the weekends.
The number of games on offer while I was at the Horseshoe was thin, mostly consisting of $1-$2 no-limit hold’em, though there was a $3-$6 limit hold’em game (the game that helped me learn to play poker) running. Higher-stakes games run when there’s a demand, and games like Omaha and Stud are sometimes spread, but the lower-level hold’em games dominate the proceedings. If you’re planning to visit for anything else, it would be worth your while to call ahead and see what the prospective action looks like.
That’s not surprising given some of the room’s promotions. “Splash The Pot” day was going on while I was there; every two hours during the day a table is picked at random and up to $300 is placed into the pot, adding some sweet EV to the proceedings. (The week before I arrived, I was told, one player had won an extra $300 playing $3-$6 LHE when her table was picked twice during Splash The Pot day.) There’s also one bad beat jackpot for cash games and another for twice-weekly “bad beat” tournaments, the latter being a completely new variation to me.
Speaking of tournaments: it might be overstating the case a bit to say they’re the Horseshoe’s bread and butter, but the room has certainly gained a reputation as a center of tournament activity. Its WSOP Circuit events have drawn solid crowds since 2005, with the fields increasing in size over the last few years as the Circuit has made changes. The Horseshoe also hosts three other tournament series during the year: the Midwest Regional Poker Championship, the Horseshoe Poker Classic, and the Denny Crum Poker Open, named for the former University of Louisville basketball coach who serves as the Horseshoe’s poker ambassador.
Aside from those big events, the room runs a regular tournament schedule every week. Daily tourneys all feature buy-ins under $100 and regularly draw dozens of players, especially if the jackpot hasn’t hit recently. (The tourney I played during my visit drew 45 players; with a $51 buy-in, it paid over $760 to first place.) The structures are fast, so there’s definitely a sizable luck factor involved, but with relatively decent chip stacks there’s a fair amount of play in the early going. The player types span the spectrum, though the truly solid players are heavily outnumbered by rocks and draw-chasers; you should have an edge as long as you play straightforward, aggressive poker.
Though I didn’t stay for too long – I had to get on the road again once I busted from my tournament – I found my short stay in the Horseshoe poker room to be an enjoyable one. The dealers all performed their jobs in a most professional manner, and the players were chatty and courteous. It’s just a shame it’s more than three hours from home; I’d almost certainly spend more time there if it were closer. I might not get back to the Horseshoe very soon, but I definitely won’t wait six years before my next visit.