Vegas seemed like the cool place to learn the game, like visiting Hershey to learn about candy. Several casinos offer free lessons, and after your tutorial you can scoot over to a table and play for money.
Most people I found are smart enough to come with some working knowledge of the game. It seemed everyone had seen poker on TV. Except me. What little I knew of flushes and full houses I learned from Yahtzee.
But poker is not Yahtzee, baby.
I took two of the daily lessons at the Imperial Palace Hotel & Casino. I just walked up at 11 a.m. and took a seat at the "beginner's table" in front of the giant-screen TV in the poker room.
The Imperial Palace may not be the fanciest casino on the Strip, but it's so-o-o-o Vegas. In the blackjack pit, "Dealertainers" in heavy wigs and even heavier makeup impersonate old-schoolers like Dolly and Elvis and Cher. The cocktail waitresses, in black tights and short black blazers, look as if they're walking around without skirts.
Oh wait, they are.
The poker dealers wear black shirts, shiny white ties, and white garters around their upper arms, a rare retro look among today's poker dealers.
The poker room, right outside the Emperor's Buffet, is cozy with 10 tables. Cozy works well for the beginner. So do the free doughnuts and coffee, the nonsmoking rule, and a complimentary "ranking" card to remind you that a straight flush beats three of a kind.
Vegas casinos began closing their poker rooms in the mid-1990s because there wasn't a lot of money in it for them. "You can put 10 slot machines in the same space as a poker table," said Gary Thompson, director of operations for the World Series of Poker owned by Harrah's, which also owns the Imperial Palace.
Then suddenly the public wanted to play poker. For one thing, poker Web sites made it easy to learn. Then the tiny "lipstick" camera mounted along the edge of the table came along, letting us see the players' cards on TV. Finally we could watch and learn how strategies unfold. Now poker rooms are booming here.
Poker isn't like any other casino game because people play against one another, not the "house." How does the casino make money, then? It takes a commission, or "rake," from each pot.
A minimum buy-in is required for each type of poker game; it will be posted. You can play as many or as few hands as you like.
My fellow students were a sampling of poker mania - an Italian medical student celebrating her 21st birthday, two middle-aged couples from the Midwest, a 20ish dude in a ball cap, and an older guy from Omaha in Vegas on business. (Don't take my picture, he begged.)
"People come to the classes because they watch it on TV," said dealer/teacher Robert Chertok, 34, a burned-out bill collector who came to Vegas to be a dealer. "As far as the game itself, by taking an hour class you can't really get the gist of it. But sitting down and playing an hour. . . ."
That made me feel better, since I was too distracted to learn much. I was just off the plane and, despite a free doughnut, hungry as a dog.
That morning I learned, from the instructor, three important things about poker.
Never pick up your cards, which was the first thing I did. Yup, raised them right in front of my face like Grandma trying to read a restaurant menu. Instead, I should have just peeled back the top edges of the cards from the table for a peek.
Tip the dealer. Tip the dealer. Tip the dealer.
I need a poker face. I wince, grin, sigh and roll my eyes way too much for poker. ("I'd find another game," Thompson, the Harrah's poker guy, suggested kindly.)
A good player can read an opponent's body language for so-called "tells," or clues to what's in the hand. Does a player's hand shake while making a bet? Does a player rub his or her head in worry? The pros "sit there and try to play the people," said Chertok, the dealer.
Wayne and Chris Lucas, husband and wife of 30 years from Pittsburgh, come often to Vegas to see the shows, but this was their first time at a poker table.
Hard to believe of Chris, an operating room nurse wearing seersucker and a white sun hat with little red lobsters on it. She said the game "is just confusion, the betting and everything," but then went on to win $45 playing at the for-real game table.
One thing I learned right off: A casino poker room can intimidate the amateur. Here's my take on some I visited.
Bellagio. Don't even think about it if you're a beginner. The very look of the room screams money, and if you don't have much, good luck. An elaborate glass chandelier hanging over the entrance and comfy chairs that serious players adjust to just-right heights before they play are enough to scare off the shaky beginner. If you stand too close to watch, these players will give you a dirty look.
Bally's Las Vegas. When you sign up to play, they post your name on a big electronic billboard, so if you want what happens in Vegas to stay here, you might want to use a pseudonym. The best part? Right across the casino you can meet and pose with the pretty chorus girls and boys after the Jubilee show.
MGM Grand. This huge, 4,000-square-foot room with 23 poker tables seems to attract lots of cute, college-age guys, and the cocktail waitresses are even cuter. A perk: chairside massages.
Thompson, the exec at the World Series of Poker owned by Harrah's, offers these tips to beginner poker players visiting Vegas:
Be disciplined. Set a budget on how much you're willing to play with and stick to it. "As a casual player, look at it as entertainment."
Play in low-limit games, which tend to have players with the same level of experience. "I would not sit down in the bigger games. If you come to a place like Las Vegas, you'll see people who have played a long time; they play on a daily basis. There are a lot of people who are retired and they come and play every day. Know that you'll get up against experienced players."
Don't expect to win a lot of money. "The only way you're going to get rich is if you get lucky and win a big tournament."
Check out free poker Web sites before you come to Vegas. That will help you get a feel for the game.