The Ultimate Guide to Surviving the WSOP

  • Accommodation is mainly down to personal preference but commuting can be a pain
  • Most European travelers won’t need to get a visa or declare any cash under $10,000
  • Avoid cab drivers like the plague in Las Vegas but Uber provides a good alternative
  • UK and Ireland players will need an ITIN to avoid paying tax on winnings by mistake
  • Mentally prepare for failure so that you can handle setbacks when they come
The WSOP gaming hall
The World Series of Poker is back for another year, and VSO News writer Dara O’Kearney has provided his tips for surviving the event.

Another year, another WSOP

The World Series of Poker (WSOP) has officially started, and I and many others will be making the pilgrimage to chase the false god of a bracelet in the desert.

you can’t take bucket list items for granted

The pandemic has reminded people that you can’t take bucket list items for granted and so a large number of this year’s attendees are taking the trip for the first time. I know because many have contacted me with specific questions or looking for tips.

With these people in mind, I have written this article summing up my top tips for attending the prestigious poker event, from the best places to stay to mental preparation.

Accommodation

This is a category in which there are lots of different approaches, all with different positives and negatives. Basically, it’s kind of personal which one works best for you. House, condo, or hotel? Strip, adjacent to WSOP, or out in the burbs? Alone or sharing? I’ve pretty much tried them all so here are my thoughts…

I personally enjoyed the house experience more than the hotel one, you feel more like a normal person. However, the flip side is a house usually means commuting, and any saving in cost quickly disappears in Uber or cab fares. Being able to cook for yourself is both cheaper and more pleasurable than eating every meal in a restaurant (or God help us, a buffet). The commute can be a pain, or a welcome slice of downtime depending on how you look at it.

One year I combined the best of both worlds sharing a condo across the road from the Rio with Mrs. Doke and some other Irish lads. Overall my thinking is that hotel is fine and more convenient for anything up to two weeks (three weeks tops) but if you are there for longer you’re better in a house or a condo. When the Rio was the venue, the Gold Coast right beside it was the best and cheapest option with very good (and reasonably priced by Vegas standards) restaurant options, but this is the first year in Bally’s so the Gold Coast doesn’t make a lot of sense as an option anymore.

Where you want to stay is largely a matter of personal taste. Preferably I prefer being near to avoid commuting (which is why I’m staying in Bally’s this year), but some people find it oppressive being in the same spot all the time.

many close friendships disappear faster than a puddle in the Vegas heat

Sharing with someone is less costly and lonely, but you need to make sure it’s someone you won’t want to kill if you’re spending 24/7 in their company. Vegas and the WSOP are high-stress experiences that end in disappointment most of the time, a recipe for disaster if you’re sharing with someone who gets on your nerves. I’ve seen many close friendships disappear faster than a puddle in the Vegas heat.

Visas, money, and taxis

If, like me, you’re making the journey from Ireland then there is no visa requirement. The same goes for most European countries but you do need an ESTA which you can apply for online. It lasts for two years and will set you back around $50.

If you’re bringing in less than $10,000 you don’t have to declare it. I generally bring just under the limit in cash to avoid hassle at the airport, but this doesn’t always work out. Sometimes they get suspicious if you’re just below the limit and insist on counting it to be sure. I almost missed my last flight because of this.

I used my card for most tourney buyins last time. There’s a fee (4% I think) but it also saves hassle and queueing time. The queues for the smaller buyin events can be insane. I once spent three hours in the queue to register, then another four hours in the queue to get my late registration seat assignment. I then bust the tournament within 20 minutes.

In regards to transport, do not get in a taxi unless forced to at gunpoint. Before Uber, pretty much the most unpleasant part of all my Vegas trips was having to deal with Vegas cab drivers. Not only is Uber an order of magnitude cheaper, but the drivers are also way friendlier and more interesting (to the point I’ve written several blogs on my Uber trips). The average Uber trip comes in at around ten bucks, about three times less than comparable taxi rides.

Tax matters

At one of my tables last year, hearing I was from Ireland, one of the American players said:

“So if you win this you’ll have to pay it all in tax, right?”
“Um no.”
“But most of it?”
“No.”
“How much?”
“Zero.”
“That can’t be right. You have taxes, right?”
“Yes but not on poker winnings.”

Looking dubious my interrogator asked:

“So who am I thinking of?”

At which point one of the others at the table, who it turned out was an actual taxation consultant, said:

America, buddy. We are the ones that pay.”

There then followed a lengthy discussion of federal, state and city taxes which made it abundantly clear that Americans pay a lot of tax on their poker winnings. So, of course, do many European countries, but not the UK or Ireland, something the WSOP knows but many of the other casinos in Vegas don’t. This is deducted at source on all cashes over the threshold (5k more than buyin last time I checked, which apparently is why the WSOP main min cash is exactly 15k). To avoid it, you need an ITIN number. Incidentally, if you are a non-American and buy a piece of an American, your piece of any cash is exempt from US taxes (but they do require you to sign a form confirming your piece).

The wonderful people at the WSOP will handle this all automatically for you if you’re lucky enough to have your first cash in the US with them. They’ll need your passport and proof of residence (so bring a bank statement or utility bill), but they’ll do all the necessary paperwork to get you an ITIN. More importantly, they won’t withhold 40% of your cash as tax, and as an added bonus they’ll keep it on file so you don’t need to go through the same procedure every time.

Other casinos and series are not as helpful. Some of them won’t even know you’re exempt from tax. Even if they are, they will withhold tax anyway unless you provide them with an ITIN. A few years ago, one Irish player who cashed big in the Venetian cornered me in the Rio saying they’d withheld 40% as he had no ITIN. He was flying out in a few hours so couldn’t get one in time, but we were reliably informed he could claim the money back from Ireland. I’m not sure how cumbersome this process is, but it’s one you’ll want to avoid if at all possible.

The one upside to all this is that American taxation law has inadvertently led to many a favorable chop for those of us from less-taxed countries. On one of my first trips to Vegas, I heard about an Irish player who despite being the shortie by a long way secured the lion’s share in a five-way chop with four Americans all motivated to keep their payout below 10k. So if you find yourself in such a situation, it’s worth educating the American players you’d like to chop with on taxation matters. Similarly, if you’re one of the Americans reading this, be aware that chops in which the Euro nominally takes first prize (and possibly disburses some of it to his more taxed American buddies in the parking lot, something which I’d obviously never condone but know for sure happens) can have very beneficial effects on your bottom line.

Mental preparation

I’ve often said that if you want to see the biggest change in a group of people in a short period of time, go to the WSOP in the first week, then come back for the last week. At the start, everyone is buzzing and bouncing around, happy to see all their poker friends from all over the world, and convinced that this is their year. By the end, most are so stuck that only a very deep run in the Main can get them out, as they shuffle like zombies through the corridors, desperately waiting for their flight home.

The problem with positivity is it doesn’t prepare you for setbacks

A WSOP/Vegas campaign is essentially the equivalent of a Sunday online, stretched out over six weeks. Online players wake up every Sunday feeling great and ready to go, hoping this is the Sunday they bink a major. Usually, they end the day wanting to cry into their keyboard, having bust their last shot at 4am. In Vegas, you can very easily bust six tournaments in a day without making dinner break. Obviously that’s not the aspiration, but you have to be prepared for it, because losing trips are far more common than winning ones if you’re a tournament player. It might seem defeatist to anticipate failure, but it’s a far more useful approach than just assuming everything will be great. The problem with positivity is it doesn’t prepare you for setbacks when they come, as they almost inevitably will.

The Stockdale Paradox states that pessimists respond to adversity better than optimists. So be pessimistic, and if it turns out great, be pleasantly surprised.