What You Need to Know When Preparing for the World Series of Poker

  • Book as much as you can from home before you fly so you can focus on the poker
  • Accommodation is personal preference but only share with people you will get on with
  • No need to declare cash under $10k when traveling, UK and Ireland avoid tax on winnings
  • You can bust multiple times in one day during the WSOP, so prepare for set backs
WSOP bracelet
Irish poker pro Dara O’Kearney has provided his top tips for surviving the WSOP in Las Vegas. [Image: PokerGO]

The World Series of Preparation

It’s that time of year when the thoughts of poker players turns towards Mecca, or our version of it in the Mojave Desert: the World Series of Poker (WSOP) in Las Vegas. The event will take place from May 30 to July 18 this year, and registration is now open.

I just booked my flights (or rather my personal Valet did, as our mutual friend Niels insists on calling David Lappin). It’s also that time of the year many players going for the first time contact 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.

The first thing I would say is it’s a good idea to sort out as much as you can from home before you fly. Yes, you don’t HAVE to book all your hotels and the rest of it before you get there, but it makes it a lot easier to just focus on the poker if you do.

Getting there

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 $21.

If you fly from Dublin to the US direct, you clear immigration in Dublin before your flight. That sounds like a big plus, but in truth it’s a bit of a mixed blessing because the staff there tend to be a lot more fastidious than the ones in the US itself. I’ve never heard of a poker friend turned away on arrival in the US, but a couple have been refused in Dublin airport. So if you’re the type of person who tends to run bad in these things, you might be better flying via Manchester, London, or any of the other options.

do not get in a taxi unless forced to at gunpoint

In regards to transport when you get there, 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 cheaper, but the drivers are also way friendlier and more interesting (to the point I’ve written several blogs on my Uber trips).


There are lots of different options, 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 now that it’s in the Horseshoe (Bally’s new name) 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 stayed in Bally’s last year and will again this year), but some people find it oppressive being in the same spot all the time.

I’ve seen 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. Shacking up with someone you don’t know that well is a very high variance line.


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 one flight because of this.

I used my card for most tourney buyins last time. There’s a fee (just under 3%) 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. Other options include wiring money over, or registering online.

They’re all detailed here:



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 ($5,000 more than buyin last time I checked, which apparently is why the WSOP main min cash is exactly $15,000). 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).

they won’t withhold 40% of your cash as tax

The wonderful people at the WSOP used to handle this all automatically for you if you’re lucky enough to have your first cash in the US with them (once you have an ITIN it’s for life).

While some casinos such as the Wynn have a license to get you an ITIN and can pay you in full if you cash there, it appears that Bally’s/Horseshoe doesn’t (or at least didn’t as of last year.) UK player Nick Ramsey elaborates:

“I cashed in the main event last year and, in advance of travel, assumed they would sort my ITIN number should I cash. I was in for big suprise. I was told by several WSOP cashiers they had not got the license in time or applied for it. I was left with two options. I pay $18,900 tax or leave 100% of my winnings there and fly back to collect in 2/3 months when I had my ITIN number. In the end, I found a tax specialist in the lobby that charged me $1,500 to obtain ITIN for me and do a U.S tax return. The tax return was only just filed in February this year and can take between 2-6 months to get the cheque. Anyone going to Vegas, I recommend if you don’t already then make sure you apply well in advance for your ITIN number!!!!”

Update: Kevin Mathers (Kevmath), WSOP Czar, informs me that the WSOP expects to have approval to issue ITINs this year.

If you do wait til you get there to get one, 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 $10,000. 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.

Poker preparation

Between now and the WSOP I’ll be increasing my study (and trying to improve my personal fitness: you can get run down pretty quickly in Vegas if you’re not in good shape). I strongly recommend you try to do the same even if you’re recreational: a little poker study at this point can go a long way. The trick is small and steady is better than big and binge: ten minutes a day with DTO, GTOWizar, reading a book, or watching training videos is a lot better than a couple of hours all at once every couple of weeks.

By the end, most are so stuck that only a very deep run in the Main can get them out

Mental preparation is also vital. This is something I think most people get completely backwards. They think it’s all about getting yourself into a positive frame of mind and visualizing winning a bracelet. 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.

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.

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