There is a world of play and beauty that is underappreciated by many of the millions of New Yorkers and New Englanders. It exists in the middle of New York State – roughly halfway between Lake Erie and the East Coast metro hubs. It includes the greatest sports museum in the United States, the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown; some of the best lake salmon fishing in the world in the Finger Lakes; the Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, great harness racing at Vernon Downs and one of the northeast's premier casinos and poker rooms, Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona.
Turning Stone is a grand casino resort in the style of Foxwoods. It is owned and operated by the Oneida Indian Nation. It is a self-contained, free-standing, full-service casino resort with a conference center, golf course, restaurants, entertainment center, gas station, hotel, and thousands of square feet of gaming space. It is truly a destination resort – the only casino within hundreds of miles. And, like Foxwoods, and unlike the many casinos in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, there is little of the public glitz and glamour surrounding it. You'll see no large blinking billboards on the New York Thruway as you approach Turning Stone. You won't see an enormous display screen touting the famous entertainment headliners. Turning Stone's glory is quietly stated.
But there is nothing sedate about the poker room. Officially, they offer all of the major casino poker games of 7-card Stud, Omaha, Hold'em, and Stud Hi/Low. But like nearly all poker rooms in the United States today, this is almost exclusively a hold'em room.
Turning Stone offers limit and no-limit hold'em, with stakes that range from $2/4 to $20/40 on the limit side and $1/2 blind with $100 maximum buy-in to $5/10 blind with a $300 minimum buy-in on the no-limit tables. They have a full range of weekly tournaments (check online or on the phone to find out the latest schedule) as well as the major annual Empire State Poker Championships in August. The games are reasonably raked (by public poker room standards, at least) at 10% up to a maximum of $4.00. There are no bad-beat or high-hand jackpots running at this time – so no additional monies come out of the pot.
The dealers and floor staff are, for the most part, competent and helpful. I rank them below the best poker rooms in California and Las Vegas, but better than some of the Atlantic City rooms. They are about on par with Foxwoods.
Turning Stone requires that all competitors in the room "join" the poker room by paying $2.00 for their playing session. It is a small price to pay for admission to the nicely appointed 31-table, 24-hour non-smoking room. You can earn a $4.00 meal comp after only a few hours of play.
The room has another significant feature. It is unique among the major United States casinos in that the legal gaming age is 18, rather than 21. This is especially significant in the poker world where all the online teenagers have only this place to legally compete.
I made the mistake of trying to take advantage of the relative youth in the room. It is a sobering tale I'll share with you (but please don't spread it to my regular poker buddies – it's very embarrassing).
I was visiting my uncle and his family in nearby Gloversville, New York in August – during the Empire State Championships. I woke up very early one morning and decided to catch some of the poker players who had been up all night playing at "the Stone". I arrived at 6:00 AM, ready for action.
Unfortunately, the scene was very quiet. I was told that the only game available was a somnambulant $1/2 no-limit game with a $100 maximum buy-in (at other times they offer this game with $200 or $300 maximum buy-ins – but none were going at this early hour). No matter. I just wanted action.
After playing for a couple of orbits, one of the players asked me if I was a poker writer – recognizing my face or my name or both. I modestly responded that yes, I was that Ashley Adams. He seemed appropriately impressed. But he asked me, "How come you're slumming with us? I figured you'd be playing much higher". I told him that I would play higher, normally, but that there were no bigger games going (This was not entirely true, but I didn't feel like explaining that I often play low-stakes no-limit games). "What do you mean?" he asked me "There's a $10/25 no-limit game right there in the corner!"
The brush had neglected to mention it to me. And I hadn't seen it, tucked away as it was on the fringes of the room. But, sure enough, when he and a couple of the other players pointed it out, I realized that there was indeed a very big game going on. I approached the floor. He confirmed that there were, in fact, two seats open – the game having been going since the end of one of the major tournaments the night before. He asked me if I'd like to lock up a seat.
Now you must realize something about my usual play. I play $20/40 stud wherever I can find it – sometimes even $30/60 if there's a good game (as there is at Caesars Indiana on the weekends). And I'm a winning $1/2 and $2/5 no-limit player. But $10/25 is typically way out of my wheelhouse. Much as I might like to think of myself as capable of going up against anyone at any limit, in reality I know my place in the poker world. And sitting in the typical rocking and rolling $10/25 game is not where I belong.
But here I was, with what I can only describe as "fans" encouraging me not to play with them – poker celebrity that I was. How could I let them down? How indeed.
So I told the dealer to lock me up a seat. I tried to hide the lack of confidence I was feeling. I'm not sure I succeeded.
I thanked the guy at the $1/2 game for pointing this out. I walked over with what I hoped would look like alacrity – or at least temerity.
I paused for a minute or so while I tried to figure out how big a stack I'd need. Concerned with my image, I didn't want to buy-in for the bare bones minimum of $500.00. Being the famous author and all, I surely didn't want some puny, pathetic little teeny weenie stack. I noticed that a couple of guys had around $3-5K, and a few had stacks in the $30-40K range. I decided to start with $5,000 – an amount that I figured would look respectable – though not so much money that I'd suffer horribly if I lost it all.
Oh, and it was also all the money I had.
(By the way, are you noticing a theme here? I am violating a few of the most important poker rules there are. I'm playing outside my comfort zone. I'm basing my decisions on my ego, not my better judgment. And I'm not evaluating the quality of the game itself at all before I decide whether or not to play in it.)
I noticed one other significant fact. The players were, with one exception, all children! I mean that literally. Three of them clearly hadn't even started to shave. They looked to be about 12. I expected college-aged players. But these guys looked like they were barely in high school.
How could I lose, I thought, playing against such youngsters. Of course I didn't pause long enough to think about how a few of these "children" managed to have stacks of thirty thousand dollars. If I did I might have started the game with a little more respect for my opponents.
As it was, I managed to hold my own – at least for a while. I played cautiously at first – folding my poor and mediocre hands. Then I hit K-Q suited on the button. One player called the big blind of $25. I figured that my image was fairly tight – and that I might pick up the pot. I raised to $100. The small blind folded, the big blind called, and the other player folded. We went to the flop heads-up.
I looked at my opponent carefully for the first time while the cards were being flopped. He looked to be maybe 16, wearing a slightly oversized Yankees baseball cap, and did not have sunglasses or headphones. He was pale with pink cheeks, and a faintest of downy peach fuzz maybe starting to grow. He had on a short-sleeve dress shirt and looked like the sweet non-athlete that I would have befriended in ninth grade. He seemed so innocent. Oh, and he had over $40,000 in chips.
The flop was A-K-x with one of my suit. The big blind checked.
I figured he would have been all over that flop if he had an ace. I figured to have the best hand with my pair of kings and queen kicker. So I bet — $250, figuring to take down the pot.
Not so fast.
Without hesitation, my young opponent crisply counted down some chips and raised me to $1,000. I swallowed hard, hoping I was the only one who heard the "gulp".
I folded. The lucky SOB must have hit A-K, I surmised.
I tightened up for a few orbits – getting no decent hands and being a bit gun shy about making any moves. The table was pretty quiet during that time – players generally winning the hand before or on the flop.
In early position I got a pair of queens. I raised to $100 and everyone folded. OK, it was only $35 but at least I won a pot.
A few hands later, in late position, I was dealt 10-10. It was folded to me and I raised to $100 again – happy to win $35 again. I got two callers – the button and the big blind – both very young players with big stacks.
I was blessed with a low flop – all cards under ten. The big blind bet $200. I figured he was just making a half-hearted stab at the pot. I raised to $500. The button folded. The big blind then came over the top for another $2,000.
I looked at this guy closely. Was he really 18? How did he even know how to hold his cards? What the hell was he doing raising me? Could he have hit trips? Was he stealing, reading me for being a timid soul who would fold unless I had top trips?
I put my tail between my legs and, begrudgingly conceded to this young gun. Though I wasn't at all sure that he was betting a higher pair, I wasn't sufficiently convinced that I had to boss hand to risk $2,000.
Fifteen or so hands later, I hit another quality hand. I was the big blind and was dealt jacks. A player in middle position, the guy I had first gone up against when I had K-Q suited, raised to $100. Everyone folded to me. I raised to $300. He called.
The flop was all little cards. I decided to get tricky. I checked. He bet $300. I had a stack of about $3,500. He had a stack of $50,000 or so. I raised him to $1,000. He paused, checked his down cards and thought a second.
He then said, very sweetly, I thought, "I'll put you all in".
What choice did I have? I sure didn't want to risk my remaining $2,500. But on the other hand, how could I lay down what appeared to me to be top pair. I thought long and hard. I realized that I had surely underestimated these guys – and that I really should never have sat down in the first place. I didn't want to burn through my precious stack on a mistaken read. I was terrified. I folded.
Was he extremely good and aggressive? Did he read me as the fearful soul that I was? It didn't matter. I learned a valuable lesson. I really have no business playing in a game of high stakes-skilled no-limit players – at least not for $5,000.
I've been back many times since. The low-stakes action is great. The games are filled with passive, inexperienced no limit players who can be intimidated by guys like me. Of course I may never make back the $2,500 I lost at the $10/25 game – winning a few hundred here and there in the easy $1/2 games. But at least my ego has been stroked a few times.
I recommend this room highly.
Turning Stone Resort and Casino
5218 Patrick Road
Verona, NY 13478
Exit 33 off of Interstate 90 (New York Thruway)