I’m spending the weekend playing poker at the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, Indiana, just outside Chicago.  There’s a World Series Of Poker Circuit tournament going on here, a series of events over 12 days that began Thursday.  I played in that first event (in a record field of 3,001 players) and had enough chips to make it to Day 2, which starts at 4pm today. 

Since I’ve been tweeting updates on how I’m doing in the tournament, several friends who have never been here have asked for some details about the venue.  So, here’s what you need to know.

First, there’s no hotel at the Horseshoe.  It’s a shame, because the place would be packed all the time.  There are a Super 8 and a Ramada a few miles away, but I’ve heard bad things about both places and would never stay at either.  Instead, I always stay at one of the Marriott properties off I-80.  I’m at the cheapest of the 3, the Fairfield Inn, which offers a discount for Horseshoe players.  The Courtyard By Marriott and Residence Inn are right next door if you want to spend a little more and get the same amenities.

All of them have free wi-fi, free parking, a small pool and workout room, and your basic free breakfast including the now-standard Lobby Waffles.  If you sleep past 9am and want another breakfast choice, there’s a Cracker Barrel nearby, but they always have a line.  I prefer to spend my money in a diner-like place owned and operated by the locals, and found one a couple miles south on Highway Avenue called Les Brothers Pancake House.  Nice people, good food, quick — and you don’t have to walk through a store full of potpourri to eat.

I mentioned the free parking because that’s one of the reasons I don’t stay in downtown Chicago, which is about 25 minutes north of the Horseshoe.  Not only is it difficult to get a room there at a rate competitive with these, but you’ll have to pay for parking, sometimes as much as $30/day.  If you do stay downtown and don’t have a car, there’s a free shuttle from the Hyatt on Wacker (and a few other places) to the Horseshoe, which includes a food voucher, but make sure you know the schedule, especially late at night.

The 20-minute drive from the Marriotts to the Horseshoe is not particularly scenic, unless you enjoy driving along city streets at 30mph, but there are no other options.  The Horseshoe is in an industrial part of town — not far from a BP refinery — on the shore of Lake Michigan, and to get there you have to drive through some beaten-up towns and businesses and a lot of traffic lights.

The casino itself is huge, the largest in the Chicago area.  If you’re going to play poker and want to save some time, park in the main valet or garage, because that will put you closer to the poker room.  The tournament area is upstairs in The Venue, a space big enough for 100 tables, and it’s always well-run by the WSOPC crew.  If you want to play cash games, the poker room is in a back corner with 34 tables.  They run single-table satellites in the adjacent bar.

During tournaments, the waiting list gets ridiculous.  Yesterday, one of the $2-5 games had over 175 people signed up, but I only had to wait about a half-hour to get into a $5-10 PLO game.  When they have a turnout as big as for this first event, they put tournament players in the poker room, too, which means there are no cash games until players bust out and the tables are broken down, which takes several hours. Jason Newman, the poker room manager, has a solid group of dealers — they can all calculate the pot-sized raises in PLO with no problem, a skill you won’t find everywhere — and there are A Touch Of Luck massage therapists for your aching back, too ($2/minute).

As for the action, the no-limit Hold’em and pot-limit Omaha games run from $1-2 up to $10-20, plus limit Hold’em from $3-6 to $20-40, and a $40-80 Horse game that goes regularly.  The rake is timed in the raised section ($8/half-hour/player) and 10% of the pot in the lower section (up to $5).  Of course, the higher you go, the tougher the competition, but there are always a couple of soft spots at every table.  Unlike St. Louis, Chicago gets enough tourists to supplement the locals and grinders who drive the poker business, but it won’t take you long to figure out how they play.

Finally, here’s a little food secret.  If you play in one of the higher-limit games ($5-10 or higher) in the raised area, you can order sandwiches and salads to your table, but there’s no food allowed in the rest of the poker room.  For that, you can go to the buffet, steakhouse, or sandwich place — or the hidden-away Chinese/Vietnamese restaurant, Foo Noodle Bar.  There are no signs for it, and you won’t find it unless you go to the back of the Asian gaming area and turn a corner.  Foo only fits about 40 people and serves about a dozen items (soups, rice dishes, congee, and a couple of dim sum appetizers), but it’s quick and pretty good.  Most of the other customers will have comp coupons from playing (and losing at) Pai Gow or Baccarat, but your cash works, too.

So that’s the basics.  I’m headed over there to try to make a deep run in this Circuit Event — and gather a few stories to tell on my Final Table poker show this Tuesday.