May 17, 2011
During IMOP-VI in March, our intrepid crew heard some disturbing news—the venerable "old school" Sahara casino was closing its doors. Now the Sahara has long played a minor supporting role in my Vegas experience. During my first Vegas trip—only 2006, though it feels like it was two decades ago—I stayed two nights at a friend's timeshare at the Hilton (when it still had a poker room), and two nights at the MGM Grand in a then-new and swanky West Wing room (conveniently a minute's walk from the poker room). On that trip, I pretty much walked through every casino from MGM to the Wynn, and Sahara to Stratosphere (cutting out the wasteland between Wynn and Sahara was an easy call). The first meal I ate in Vegas was at some seedy cafe in Sahara, where we chewed third-rate steak and egg specials while playing cheap keno. Let's just say I was thrilled with my move out of the junkie-hooker-thug war zone of the Sahara-Stratosphere corridor to the relatively posh casinos on the main portion of the Strip. To put things in historical perspective, the Wynn was barely a year old, and the Venetian poker room was big, fancy, and mostly empty, still trying to find its niche after less than two months of operations. Strange how time flies.
During our IMOP outings, the Sahara late night tournament was a standard group outing for our crew. This tournament had a hideous structure, used chips whose denominations were worn off from use, and attracted every nit over the age of 50 within a 20 mile radius. The room would serve a six-foot (or more) long sub sandwich during a break, but I always passed, assuming the sandwich tasted as sketchy as it looked. Other than one cash game session where several regulars—how bad must your life suck to make the Sahara your home poker base?—donated over a grand to me as I waited for the other Ironmen to bust out, the Sahara poker room offered nothing of value or interest to me.
The rest of the Sahara was equally pointless. In a town where new, modern, and glitzy rules the day, the Sahara was a dirty, smelly, smoky dump filled with ancient slot junkies riding their rascals and sucking on oxygen tanks. While some "dive" casinos on the Strip revel in a certain "everyman slumming it up party" atmosphere—think Imperial Palace, O'Shea's, Bill's Gamblin' Hall, Casino Royale—the Sahara never seemed to embrace a sense of irony and refused to imbue a sense of fun into its squalor. Even the Sahara's restaurants found ways to pass along the corporate message of despair; on one IMOP pre-tournament dinner at "Paco's", our waiter morosely informed us that the Mexican restaurant was out of tortillas.
The only redeeming trait of the Sahara was how its repulsive character gave birth to the best nickname of all time. One of our IMOP crew happens to be a big shot attorney from Milwaukee who enjoys the finer things in life. After IMOP-II, this gentleman begged our crew to ditch the Sahara tournament with the first of many of his famed emails that all began, "I have only two requests ..." The first request was invariably a plea to ditch the Sahara as an official IMOP poker tournament venue. Of course, this whining only made the Sahara a required stop in future IMOP outings, and also led to us nicknaming this gent "Sahara". One of my favorite moments of IMOP history was when I walked into the Venetian poker room on IMOP-III, spotted our resident elitist, yelled out, "Yo, Sahara!" and actually had him turn around and shake his head like a good puppy.
Ah yes, good times, Sahara.