Uh, I Like What You’ve Done With the Place

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009, 2:14 pm

As I stepped off the elevator and onto the floor of Pittsburgh’s new Rivers Casino, this is the first thought that went through my head:

“Man, this is pretty (deleted) weird”.

Because the Rivers Casino is a…casino. Looks like a casino, sounds like a casino. Got the flashing lights and the slot machine toodle-oodling and the Munchian carpeting.  And it’s in Pittsburgh, about a quarter-mile down the river from where I used to work. As I said the other day the opening of the casino snuck up on me, though I followed it’s progress in the news I’d never actually seen the structure until just a week or so ago. And after the grand opening Sunday (when I was away) I decided to head down Monday afternoon to check it out. And it was really, really weird. Because to me it feels like it sprung up overnight, as if the aliens slung it under one of their saucers and dropped it on the North Shore. And then opened the doors the following day.

Here’s my brief review–it’s pretty nice. The decor is cool and sleek and modern. I read that all the slots in the casino are of the latest design and they look it. I didn’t get many good shots of the floor (think I had the camera on the wrong setting) but this should give you an idea:

There are some Bellagioesque touches when you walk in from valet parking, they have these streaming-water pillars and lots of Chihuly glass. What with the natural light that pours in throughout the casino it’s quite nice:

Facing the river is the Drum Bar, which has a long circular bar with many flatscreens and little tables and couches where you can sit. No video poker machines, alas, but a nice bar. And there’s glass and an open ceiling and this…I guess you’d call it a chandelier rising 40 feet into the air:

All this sightseeing made me thirsty, so I grabbed a stool at the Spiral Bar and, yes, played some video poker! I inserted my Rivers Club card (after waiting in a line that was 75 deep on a Monday afternoon) and asked for a Yuengling. It quickly appeared, along with a request for five dollars. And here we run into a serious problem–comping drinks is not permitted. I’m not sure what sort of bonuses you get as a card-carrying patron (can’t find any info online) but without free drinks I find it much more difficult to justify indulging my video poker addiction. I should say that the machines were brand-new, glossy, and even a bit coy–I was dealt three to a diamond royal flush and caught the ten of diamonds…and the King of hearts (the red paint card made my heart go ka-THUMP). My first hand I was dealt three sixes but couldn’t quad up. But I made two full houses and when I cashed out I was up ten bucks.

Which I took upstairs, to the Grand View Buffet. I was hungry and figured I’d try out the casino’s mass cuisine. And it was pretty good, better to my mind that the MGM Grand’s buffet. You do get a grand view from the dining room…well, it’s pretty good. I got a view of a coal barge and the tail end of Mt. Washington, though if I’d turned around this is what I would’ve seen:

Most of the food was good–I especially liked the carving station ham, which was fantastic. I didn’t try the Mongolion station, where you pick your meat and veggies and the chef does his Mongolian thing to it, but I did get request a bowl of pho from the Asian station. At first it looked just like the setup they had in our hotel in Saigon, two big pots of broth and a variety of protein and vegetation to add to the mix. Alas, appearances were a bit deceiving. In Vietnam they put the noodles and meat in first then filled the bowl with scalding-hot broth, which cooked the meat and noodles by the time you finally dug in. Here the noodles were already limp and the broth was lukewarm at best. It tasted OK, in fact that first cilantro-laden spoonful transported me back to Saigon’s Majestic Hotel, where I also ate pho outdoors on an extremely humid day. But the rest didn’t even rise to OK, and I actually abandoned it halfway through, something I thought I would never, ever do with pho. Tho it looked pretty:

I wandered around a bit after my meal then headed for home. Didn’t feel like playing more video poker, I’m not much of a slots guy, and they don’t have table games in Pennsylvania. Yet. There will be, someday, it’s inevitable. I read that there’s 30,000 square feet of space set aside at the Rivers for the day when table games are legalized, and that’s a lot of bare carpet for a casino where much of the money goes to the state. I also read today about a trial where a guy is accused of running an illegal gambling enterprise, namely a poker game. The defense is relying on the ‘ol “poker is a game of skill, not chance” chestnut, an argument that, while valid, hasn’t exactly wowed the courts over the years.

One odd bit in the piece is I think deserving of attention:

Pennsylvania State Trooper Rebecca R. Fabich, who was involved in the investigation, testified she had participated in Mr. Burns’ tournaments four times. She said her grandfather and uncle taught her to play poker when she was 10 and she’s been playing for the past 25 years, including 12 to 15 times a year at casinos.

“I know how to fold ‘em,” she said.

Trooper Fabich said that Texas holdem is a game of chance.

“I believe the outcome of the game is determined by your cards,” she testified.

Over the course of the four times she played at Mr. Burns’ location, she estimated she lost $300 to $400.

So you have an undercover cop infiltrating a poker game…it’s not exactly Donnie Brasco but stay with me. She says that she learned how to play poker from her grandfather and uncle. In her own words she says, “I know how to fold ‘em”. Doesn’t this imply that poker is a skill, that can be learned? Folding is one of the ways skillful poker players display their ability, by playing tight and throwing away good hands when they’re beaten by better hands. If I was the defense attorney and a witness for the prosecution made a slip like that I’d pull out a fork and knife and tie a napkin around my neck before I began my cross-examination.

Trooper Fabich provided another avenue for the defense to explore when she said that she believed that the outcome is determined by the cards…and that she lost between three- and four-hundred bucks. I’d turn to the jury with a triumphant “A-ha!”  Could it be that the trooper is a bit biased, perhaps? That her ego won’t let her even CONSIDER that poker is a game of skill because she LOST!!! I’d shake my head at her and say that her grandfather and uncle, who taught her the game, must be shaking their heads in dismay right now. God it’d be great to be a defense attorney, to be a total prick as part of your job description.

The skill vs. chance debate is, of course, largely pointless. If you’re arguing with someone who truly believes poker is purely a game of chance then you’re screwed from the get-go. Seriously, how are we to explain poker players who have great success over a long period of time–either they have more talent and ability than most, or they’re just luckier. What do you find more reassuring, that the guy winning the money year after year is good at the game, or that God or the cosmos or whatever has decided that this player is anointed while the rest of you are damned?

Then again, denying that chance has a role in poker is also pointless. Of course there’s luck. Of course there’s skill. That’s what makes the game fun, that’s what draws players from around the world to the Rio in July to play the Main Event. The real question is whether responsible adults should be able to play the game when they want, where they want, without worrying about the law stepping on their throat. I walked around the Rivers Casino yesterday and watched hundreds of responsible (well, maybe some are) people happily playing games of pure chance–slot machines–with nary a district attorney in sight. Of course the state gets a whopping big percentage of the take at the new casino, and to paraphrase that great philosopher Homer Simpson, “Thou shalt not horn in on thy government’s racket”. I think before too long you’ll be able to play poker (and blackjack, craps, roulette) at the Rivers with no worries. Whether you’ll be legally allowed to play poker outside it’s state-licensed walls is another story.

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2 Responses to “Uh, I Like What You’ve Done With the Place”

  1. OY Says:

    Based on the 1st pic, do you have to show an AARP card to enter?

  2. Jason Phillips Says:

    I just wanted to let you know that the glass in the Rivers Casino is actually done by a Pittsburgh Artist. His name is Drew Hine. He runs a small gallery on the South Side called Vessel Studio.

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