Thursday February 20, 2020 at 4:19 pm

Poker returns to the historic Sahara Casino after a nine-year hiatus. The Sahara branding returned to the property in August 2019 after five years as the SLS. Six months after the Sahara reboot, the new seven-table poker room opened with a soft launch on February 14. The swanky poker room will cater to locals with a better overall poker experience, plus free parking with less than a five-minute walk to the newest room on the Strip in almost a decade.


The Sahara Casino is an integral part of Las Vegas history. The Sahara, with its African theme, became the sixth luxury casino built in Las Vegas after World War II. The Sahara constructed one of the first multi-towered properties and it became the first hotel/casino in Vegas with an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

For a brief point in time, the Sahara was the place to be in Vegas and it became an epicenter for high rollers. Heck, even the Beatles stayed there in 1964 when the casino paid the four mop-topped fellas from Liverpool to play a gig for $25,000. That seems like chump change these days (isn't that a big blind in Bobby's Room?)

During its peak, the Sahara was also the location of the first "Ocean's 11" movie featuring Frank Sinatra and his buddies in the Rat Pack. The Sahara was the perfect setting for that post-WWII and "Mad Men" era of boozing and gambling.

Once the 1970s hit, the Sahara began its decline. Caesar's Palace and MGM Grand became the hotspots in town as high rollers and pretty people flocked to the south-end of the Las Vegas Strip to gamble and party. By the time the Mirage opened its doors, the Sahara became old news.

I first visited the Sahara in the 1990s after it had swapped owners a couple of times. They had just renovated the casino with a Moroccan theme. In the 1990s, the north end of the Strip had become a focal point for lo-fi gamblers, which was fine for a kid in his 20s without a lot of disposable income. One of the first places I played Texas Hold'em in Las Vegas occurred at the Sahara in 1998 during a crazy trip to see Phish play a Halloween show.

By the time I moved to Las Vegas full time in 2005, the Sahara was stuck in no man's land at the north end of Las Vegas Blvd. At that point in time, all the cool kids hung out at the Bellagio and the newly-opened Wynn. In fact, anything north of the Wynn was legit no man's land with only the rundown versions of the Circus Circus, Riviera, and Sahara were clustered together. The only reason to head to that part of the Strip in the closing years of the 20th Century was to do a drug deal or play poker at the Sahara.

At the time in the early 2000s, poker was in the middle of their glorious boom and the poker room at the Sahara attracted an eclectic mix of locals and beginner tourists. For a while, I became a fixture at their daily 7pm tournament. My roommate at the time, Grubby, never passed up a free meal so he introduced me to the 7pm NL hold'em tournament at the Sahara which he loved because of their free sandwiches. Yes, it's true... the poker room folks would set out a gigantic deli sandwich, which players would nosh on smaller pieces at their first break.

Of course, several local homeless folks and other street people were aware of the freebies and would show up to get fed. Sahara security had a tough time determining who was actually playing in the tournament and who was homeless and destitute. After all, poker players could look a little rough around the edges and show up shabbily dressed. Yeah, late night in Vegas we'd play "Working or Not Working" when trying to sift out the prostitutes from the liquored up party chicks from flyover states raging it up in Sin City. But at the 7pm Sahara tourney, we used to play: "Homeless or Poker Player". And sometimes the correct answer was... both.

I always thought it was fun to play in the 7pm tournament. I final tabled that event many times but could never win the damn thing. I had friends ship Sahara tournaments a few times, including the late night tournament that usually featured a lot of shitfaced tourists and unsuspecting fish.

The Sahara shut down in May 2011 and everyone assumed they would implode it and rebuild on top of it like they usually do in Vegas. That summer, you could go over to the property and buy a piece of memorabilia for peanuts. I always wanted one of the poker tables but was too lazy to arrange a truck to haul it away for me.

Instead of knocking the property down, someone foolishly tried to rebrand it as a high-end hotel (hello, SLS), but it didn't really work out. Thankfully someone realized they needed to do the right thing and bring back the old name. It's always been the Sahara in my book. After all, it's been in that spot since the early 1950s. It's where Frank Sinatra banged showgirls and the Beatles toked up.

So, the new poker room...

Poker will be available from 10am to 2am during weekdays, but no games will ever be shutdown due to last call. If the game wants to run until sunrise or longer, it will.

The poker room has seven tables. I should add, seven spacious tables. Look everyone knows that a poker room will not generate the same revenue as if it were cluttered with slot machines, but kudos to the folks running the Sahara to pay tribute and respect poker players by giving them a spacious and well-lit spot that's less than a five-minute walk to the parking garage. With the addition of free parking, the Sahara poker room will become an instant favorite among locals.

The comps are juicy at $2 per hour and there's a poker room rate. They also have table-side food service with excellent grub. No more greasy pizza and cold fries.

For sportsbetting degens who love to sweat a little action while playing poker, the poker room has a gigantic wall with screens. Know your crowd, right?

The Sahara re-opened a room that might not be a spot for high rollers, but it's great for casual playing tourists and locals.

The official grand opening will be on February 21, but it's been open since then. Stop by and check it out. Visit their website for more details.

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