This summer, I kept a diary of my trip across the US with my daughter to start her freshman year at college in New York — and my return trip, too. At this point, I’m still in Ohio…

After last night’s disappointment (a losing session in a game that didn’t even last four hours), I resolve not to go back to the Horseshoe until late in the afternoon, when I presume the weekend players will roll in and the games will be better.  So, I stay in my hotel room writing, reading, and returning phone calls.

When I finally walk over to the casino and ride up two flights to the poker room, there are plenty of people, but to my utter disappointment, the games are all small-stakes. There are several tables of $3-6 limit hold’em and $1-3 no limit hold’em, where the players don’t realize that they can’t possibly beat the house’s rake.

The Horseshoe takes $6 out of every pot, plus another dollar for the bad beat jackpot (in the very unlikely event that you lose with four of a kind to a better hand, you get part of that prize). If you tip the dealer a buck every time you win a hand (as most players do, at a minimum), that’s a total of $8 coming out of pots that are rarely over $100 — a percentage that’s too high for even good players to overcome. For comparison, the games I play in St. Louis are capped at a $4 rake and aren’t eligible for the bad beat, so they don’t take a dollar for it.  It may not seem like much, but those few extra dollars out of the pot add up. If ten people buy into a game for an average of $100 each, at these rates, after an hour, they’ll each have an average of $76 and no idea that the house took the rest.

You’d think that for the money they’re taking out of the game, the casino would give the players some good comp value, but no. While other rooms add 75¢ to $2 to your account for each hour you play (which can then be used for food, hotel rooms, etc.), the Horseshoe offers a measly 25¢/hour.

The only PLO table is a $1-3 game, but I figure that I have nothing better to do, so I sit down anyway. It’s apparent immediately that this is an inexperienced group, which I hope to exploit, but most of the players have only bought in for $100, so there’s not a lot of profit potential. It’s also clear that the dealers have even less idea what’s going on than the players do.

At one point, there are five players in pre-flop for $3 each (in other words, no one raised, but four of them called the big blind). On the flop, the first player says “pot,” meaning he’s betting the maximum, which is the amount that’s in the pot already, fifteen dollars. The second player folds, and the third player says “re-pot.” At that point, everything stops, because no one knows how much the bet should be, including the dealer. She sees that there’s $15 in the middle, plus $15 the first guy bet, so she announces that the raise is to $30 — and another player, who’s not in the hand, tells her she’s right. I’m not in the hand, either, but I have to speak up and tell her the correct amount is $60 (he calls for $15, then raises the total of all the bets so far, which is $45, for a total of $60).

Now the other player not in the hand starts arguing with me while the dealer looks confused. She decides to call over a floor supervisor, who listens and then agrees with me on the correct bet size.

I’m willing to cut dealers some slack because the numbers in PLO can get confusing, but I’m usually not the only player at the table who understands the math. Fortunately, this dealer’s half-hour at our table is up, and another one slides in. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know how to deal PLO, either. Nor does that next one.

I have encountered some rookie dealers making mistakes at the World Series Of Poker, where they have to hire so much staff that everyone can’t be an all-star, but I’ve never seen three incompetent dealers in a row. I learn that there are at least two reasons for this problem.

One is that, when Ohio approved casino gambling, the law required that a very high percentage of the employees be residents of the state. That’s a noble idea to create jobs for Ohioans, but because there had never been casinos there, there weren’t a lot of experienced people to take those jobs. So there’s a learning curve in play, considering the Horseshoe has only been open for 3 months. The other reason is that the dealers share their tips — not just with other poker dealers, but with every dealer in the building, including those on table games like blackjack, roulette, craps, etc.

That reduces the incentive for any dealer to get better at their job. If you keep all your own tips, as in most other poker rooms, you can make a lot more money if you’re accurate, pleasant, and fast. That last one, the speed at which you deal, is the biggest factor, because the more hands you get out, the more tips you’ll take in.  But if the slow dealers benefit just as much from the fast dealers because tips are pooled and shared, there’s no impetus to go faster, count the pot, and run the game properly. The slack will be made up by the good dealers, whose tip rate will be dragged down conversely.

After witnessing this extravaganza of incompetence, I decide I’m gonna keep my mouth shut unless I’m involved in a hand. And with the stacks of chips on the table too small to make the game worth my time, I resolve to win a few pots and get out of here, which is exactly what I do.

After cashing out, I take the escalator down to the first floor and emerge into downtown Cleveland. It’s a Friday night, so the area is bustling, but I feel uneasy. Not only was the experience inside not so good, but I feel nervous walking around with a bunch of money in my pocket in this area. The ask-a-security-guard-for-an-escort option that I used in Philadelphia isn’t available, so I keep my eyes peeled as I walk very quickly back to the Marriott.

Once there, I try to figure out where I’ll go next. This was going to be the last stop on my road trip before returning to St. Louis, but I don’t want to end it with this sour taste in my mouth. I know I’m only five hours from Chicago, where the Horseshoe Hammond always has good games, lots of action — and a staff that knows what it’s doing.  I call my wife to ask if she minds if I head there tomorrow. She doesn’t object at all, so I watch some TV before calling it a day, looking forward to putting Cleveland in my rear-view mirror in the morning.

Mileage thus far: 1,881.