Mystic at Night

Magical Mystic Connecticut

This time of year we are always looking for a quick post-holiday get away to celebrate the fact that we’ve made it through another festive season alive. Between holiday preparations for our four kids, end of the year work demands, and celebration with our respective families, by the end of December we really need a vacation. We are fortunate enough most years to fit in a brief three or four day getaway before the new year rolls around.

We have three requirements for our December destinations. They must: 1) lie within a short drive of our home in the Boston area, 2) sport plenty of winter scenery, and 3) be in the general vicinity of at least one poker venue (of course). For example, later this month we will be heading up to Montreal (and will supply a full report after that trip!).

For at least three of the past six years we have taken our New Year’s break in Mystic Connecticut. Mystic meets all three of our criteria. It is only 3 hours from home, decorates for the holidays in style, and lies near not one, but two poker venues (Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods). We have thoroughly enjoyed each of our trips to this classic New England town. In fact, we enjoy it so much that we are certain that we will be drawn back again.

What do we love so much about Mystic? Let us show you:

Historic Mystic is appropriately Magical

The downtown is a joy to traverse, even when cold. Like many small towns, Mystic lights it up for the holidays and walking along the streets is a wonderful experience, especially at night when all of the holiday lights make the town sparkle. An added fun moment while strolling downtown is when the Bascule drawbridge that spans the Mystic River goes up to let a boat pass through. Always quite the sight up close.

Mystic at Night
Mystic at Night

There are a variety of great shops to check out along the main drag, from bookstores, to artisans, toy stores, to spice shops. In fact, one of our favorite shops is The Spice and Tea Exchange which is, of course,  filled with exotic teas and spices! We have become addicted to their Tuscan Spice mix, which makes a mean olive oil dip for a crusty french bread.

 

The Mystic Aquarium is Lots of Fun

Especially in Winter when they have plenty of special events to draw you out on a cold winter’s day. The aquarium is well-designed and very interactive. It offers penguins, rays and skates that you can touch, and even Beluga whales. There is a marine theater which hosts sea lion shows and a 4D theater which is currently playing a remastered version of the classic Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

Mystic Ice Sculptures!
Ice Sculptures!

The aquarium hosts a variety of winter activities, including ice sculptures, visits from Santa, and even a New Year’s party.

 

The Real Mystic Pizza

Remember that great 80s movie Mystic Pizza? Well, it was based on a real restaurant, which is alive and well in downtown Mystic. And it really serves great pizza!

Mystic Pizza
Mystic Pizza

We make it a point to visit Mystic Pizza whenever we’re in town, and we are never disappointed. There are, of course, many other great restaurants in Mystic as well.  Some of our favorites include Bravo Bravo on Main Street and Kitchen Little on the waterfront. Kitchen Little serves possibly the best breakfast I’ve had this side of Paris. It is definitely not to be missed.

So if you live in New England (or if you don’t, but want to visit a real small town Winter Wonderland) consider a visit to Mystic for your next mid-winter break.

 

Like this post? Head on over to the sidebar and subscribe. We’ll let you know whenever a new Poker Pilgrims blog post goes live!

Seabrook Poker Room Review

New Hampshire, for such a small state, boasts a remarkable number of bustling poker rooms. While it does not have a single large casino, there are multiple vibrant charity card rooms. Poker is the primary focus of these rooms, although each has a few table games as well. Even more striking: two of the largest poker rooms in New Hampshire are a mere two miles from one another! I have reviewed the Hampton Falls room already, now I’ll take on its bookend, the Seabrook Poker Room.

Our Life as Seabrook Poker Room Regulars

Seabrook poker room was our go-to poker room for about 3 years. Mostly because it has a weekend tournament that fit our schedule and budget. The $50 tournament starts at 4pm on Saturdays and Sundays. For such a cheap buy-in, 20 minute blinds with a starting stack of 15,000 chips is a bargain. Or, at least it seemed so. The 4:00 tournaments generally last about 6 hours, although they devolve quickly at the end to shove fests resulting in multi-way chops. But what could you expect for $50?!

Seabrook

Seabrook hosts more tournament than cash action. A few cash tables are usually going in the late afternoon and evening on weekends. However, the cash game volume pales in comparison to Hampton Falls every day of the week. As I write this on a Tuesday evening, there is 1 table running at Seabrook with no waiting list while Hampton Falls has 5 tables and waiting lists for both $1/$2 NL and $2/$4 limit games.

When we first started playing, there were also a number of excellent floors and dealers at Seabrook. Although there were a few weak spots, personnel were generally friendly and skilled and created a laid back environment. A wide range of personalities play at Seabrook, and the staff there made all feel welcome. Another plus is that the food is remarkably good. Nothing fancy, but Seabrook offers really good pizza and chicken quesadillas, and a number of other solid options.

The Times, They Are a-Changin’

In addition to poker and table games, Seabook hosts simulcast racing. Go there on a Triple Crown event afternoon, and you’ll wade through hundreds of eager folks playing the ponies. Rockingham Park in Salem, which also hosted poker and simulcast racing, closed in 2016. Seabrook then became the only option for those who want to bet the ponies or dogs in the state.

The poker players from Rockingham also needed to find new a new home. Salem is about half an hour from  card rooms in Nashua, Manchester, and Hampton Falls/Seabrook. Nashua had recently added the Boston Billiards Club and Casino cardroom into an existing pool hall and The River poker room moved to Nashua. Players from Rockingham gravitated towarad rooms based on convenience or the type of atmosphere and play they preferred.

And that was the beginning of the end for Seabrook.

Seabrook Poker Room Review

Leaking Roofs and Poker Quality

Seabrook always had quirks. During a heavy rain, trash cans caught water that would drip through the porous roof, although the cardroom proper stayed dry. Suffice it to say, a stroll around the facility with stained and missing ceiling tiles and a trash can obstacle course was not scenic.  But for a time, that seemed part of the rugged charm of the site.

Seabrook also has one of the widest ranges of poker player quality I have seen. There are a few good skilled players, a fair number of rocks who would never bet unless they had a monster, and a wealth of bad players. The bad players range from loose aggressive maniacs to loose passive players who see gold in every gut shot draw. For a time the balance was good, with plenty of players to take advantage of, but enough stability to feel you weren’t just playing bingo.

New Hampshire boasts a remarkable number of bustling poker roomsClick To Tweet

However, Rockingham’s closure fed many more wild players into Seabrook. In fact, some of the new players put the old maniacs to shame. Suddenly at the 50/100 blind level players would open for 3,000…blind…UTG. This had the dual effect of goading the existing maniacs to greater heights and pissing off the rocks and solid players. Tournaments became free-for-alls. Seabrook always hosted a set of cranky older players and a few explosive young men. With this new dynamic it felt like Seabrook needed more security guards at the ready. Although I don’t play a lot of cash, those games seemed to follow suit and became crazy, loose games of raw machismo.

APT

Competition from other sites continues to burgeon. In Salem, a new room, Chasers, recently opened and another, Cheers, is scheduled to debut shortly, filling the vacuum left by Rockingham. Of course, there are only so many experienced dealers and floors to go around. All these rooms have drained some of the best talent from Seabrook. During our waning days as regulars, the ratio of poor to good dealers just got too high. There were too many slow and mistake-filled blind levels. Pair that with conflicts between the old and new guard of players, and it just become unpleasant.

Seabrook Poker Room became less a fun, laid back venue with good value tournaments and more a repository of bad play, poor dealer skills, and physical deterioration. Quaint gave way to rundown and kitschy to past its prime. A shame, as we still have an affection for the place and some of the people. But Seabrook’s best days as a poker room are, I fear, behind it.

stumbling toward optimism

Stumbling Toward Optimism

Heather and I naturally gravitate toward the bleak. Optimism has traditionally been anathema to our shared world view.

We’re not proud of our glass half empty –  more like glass-broke-and-hope-leaked-all-over-the-counter – outlook. But it’s become ingrained. Brush teeth, shower, think about how we are going to die one day and how it has all been for naught.

Twenty-five years ago in a single weekend I went to see Glengarry Glen Ross and Waterland, and rented the John Cassavettes’ classic A Woman Under the Influence. If you’ve never seen those films, don’t. At least not without a bottle of Prozac and the local suicide hotline on speed dial. These are three of the most depressing films ever made. Yet, a quarter century later, I still refer to this as the most enjoyable film viewing weekend of my life.

Our version of Optimism
Our version of optimism. Image by Kurt Bauschardt

Heather, in turn, would dominate a game show called “What’s the Worst that Can Happen?”. No one can identify how everything might go to hell better than Heather. When an ambiguous situation arises with a range of possible outcomes, it’s like watching Jimi Hendrix play guitar.  She’s a virtuoso of pessimism. WebMD is bookmarked on her laptop. “I think it’s a tumor” is her most common utterance following a symptom search.

I understand this description of our personalities has assured none of you will be messaging us to grab a beer. However, despite our dearth of optimism, we do know how to laugh and have fun. We poke fun at ourselves and everyone else that lives and breathes, and laugh more than most couples I know.

Herein lies our goal for life in general and for our poker pilgrimage specifically. We need to spend more time dawdling in the land of optimism and less doing the dance macabre in the bottomless void of nihilism. Life has much to offer. We each have two children from previous marriages, and all four are healthy, great kids. Although parenting teenagers is a daily spin on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, we always count ourselves fortunate that these are the kids we got.

Yeah, we have each other, feel like soul mates, deserve each other (our exes might agree with that as well), etc. No one wants to hear that loving, mushy stuff. But, at minimum, it appears that “mutual restraining order” is not in our future.

glass-broke-and-hope-leaked-all-over-the-counter outlookClick To Tweet

Nonetheless, we want to infuse our lives with more meaning and enjoyment. Our pilgrimage is as much about our individual and collective soul searching as it is about travelling around the country enjoying poker venues. Poker may seem an odd mechanism on the path to enlightenment: the Dalai Lama probably isn’t bluff 4-betting the other monks at the monastery. But for two people who love games, enjoy the interpersonal, strategy, and math skills that poker requires, are stimulated by creativity and competition, and are compelled by the personalities that inhabit card rooms, poker feeds much of what drives us.

This journey will hopefully serve to actualize our poker avocation while offering the opportunity to find new ways to experience and view the world. A change in perspective is in order. We want to see what the people of Oklahoma, Florida, California, and Indiana can show us about how they live and think. Hopefully the journey will add new dimensions to the way we interact with the world at large and those close to us.

But mostly, it’s optimism we hope to cull from these travels; a future outlook that sees more good than bad in the world. When it is all over we hope to have found a path that takes us by the former more often than the latter.

Perhaps someday one of us will even see that glass as half full!

 

Like this post? Head on over to the sidebar and subscribe. We’ll let you know whenever a new Poker Pilgrims blog post goes live!

Save Money on Groceries

Tips We Use to Save Money on Groceries

In trying to carve out savings for our poker pilgrimage, one of the first areas Heather and I attacked was how to save money on groceries. We wondered how we could spend $700 a month on groceries when we did not have extravagant tastes. Well sure, there was that weekly run to the tony local farm stand which carries a range of goodies on top of those fresh vegetables – expensive cheese and chocolates, nasty good breakfast items like cider donuts and chocolate croissants, and, sometimes, maybe a bottle of wine falls into the basket as well. Additionally, our grocery shopping often left us losing too much to freezer burn and watching forgotten fruit and vegetables morph into science experiments.

To use a poker term: we had leaks in our grocery shopping strategy!

 

How to save money on groceries

What We Did to Save Money on Groceries

We combed through our receipts at the start of 2016 to nail down where the fat was hiding in our grocery budget. Changes were clearly in order. Below are the strategies that made the biggest impact on our grocery bill:

  • Identify the Cheapest Local Grocery Store for Stocking Up on Non-Perishables: Our go-to grocery store has great quality food but the prices are a bit on the high side. By switching to a low cost chain (Market Basket for us) for brand name and generic non-perishables, we realized significant savings. We also increased our efficiency by stocking up so we never run out of key items. No more last minute runs to the even higher priced convenience store at 10pm.
  • Restraint and Flexibility with Weekly Perishables: Although we don’t want to resort to daily shopping, we did restrict ourselves to purchasing only the fruit and vegetables we would actually eat over the next 3-4 days. By leaning on fruit with some legs, like mandarin oranges and apples, we could make it through the week. We also bought fruit when it was on sale; grapes and raspberries, for example, can be quite expensive full price but can also be bought at a bargain.
  • Scan Weekly Fliers Before Recycling:  Flipping through the fliers of the four grocery stores within 10-15 minutes of our house allowed us to see what sales were available at which stores. Our favorite cheapest grocery store is not always the cheapest when sales are taken into consideration.
  • Meal Planning: This is a concept that two people straddling a half century on the planet probably should have mastered by now. Sadly, our meal planning was spotty at best and frequently resulted in discovering we were short an ingredient just as we settled in to cook (Hello convenience store!) By actually planning the week’s meals before we shopped, we aligned our dining plan with our grocery list. Less waste, fewer emergency purchases.
To use a poker term: we had leaks in our shopping strategy!Click To Tweet
  • Use that Freezer: Chicken, steak, pork roasts, etc. all go on sale periodically at enormous discounts. Buy large quantities when on sale, wrap in aluminum foil and freeze, and you can have meat for weeks.  Stocking the freezer helps with the efficiency of meal planning as well, as you just need to add accompaniments to your already purchased main course.
  • Make It Yourself: Neither of us is naturally skilled in the kitchen, but we have expanded our skills over time. We decided earlier this year to start making our own chicken salad and baking our own bread. We found it not only reduced the grocery bill, but tasted better than the alternatives as well. Now we’re also throwing together our own trail mix for snacks, which has trimmed our budget and our waistlines.
  • Avoid high-priced specialty markets: Sniff, sniff! Oh how we love that tony farm stand. But $14 for a small box of chocolates – albeit the best chocolates I have ever tasted! – kills the budget quickly. The first step of healing addiction is recognizing you have a problem: I have an expensive farm stand problem. Goodbye overpriced crackers, perfect looking red peppers, fancy frozen appetizers. I can quit you (I may need to find a good 12-step program for this one)!

How We’ve Done

Our approach to save money on groceries has yielded decent results so far. Our average monthly grocery bill in 2015 was $591, in 2016 it was $511, and over the past 6 months, $472. That translates to a net savings of $119 per month (20%) versus 2 years ago. We are now saving a total of $1,428 annually compared to our 2015 spending. While we can definitely do more, we are well on our way to a more sustainable grocery bill.

Anything we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments.

Next up: How we are saving money on gas!

Save money on groceries

 

Like this post? Head on over to the sidebar and subscribe. We’ll let you know whenever a new Poker Pilgrims blog post goes live!

Venetian Poker Room Review

The Venetian Poker Room Review

The Palazzo/Venetian Resort Casino

First, I must couch this review within my general affection for the Venetian/Palazzo complex at large.  My wife and I started our annual poker jaunts to Las Vegas three years ago. I was uncertain whether I would like Las Vegas at all. As much as I love poker, I do not necessarily groove to the full casino experience. An entire city  of that environment might prove to be too much for me.

Choosing the Palazzo as our hotel was the critical and fortunate first step to loving Vegas.  The rooms have a large, multi-level design complete with a desk, dinette set, square coffee table and huge wrap around couch. The bathroom is bigger than some hotel rooms I’ve rented in New York City! Our room at the Palazzo always feels more like a small, beautifully appointed apartment. Whenever I stay there, I never want to leave.

The Venetian Poker Room
by Prab Bhatia

Although the room is certainly the star of my Palazzo/Venetian experience, the whole complex is wonderful.  It is pleasant to walk through the faux canal area that connects the two casinos. There are great restaurants everywhere and good quick food options in the St. Mark’s square area. There seem to be nice shopping choices for those into such things. The gaming areas themselves are at the high end in terms of the look and feel among the major Las Vegas casinos. While not as expensive or elegant as the Wynn right next door, I realize the Palazzo charges higher than the median price for rooms on the strip. I promise you it is well worth it.

OK, enough of the general resort experience.  Let’s get to the poker room.

 

The Venetian Poker Room

Heather and I have played tournaments at the Venetian Poker Room during each of our three annual visits. The Venetian poker room appears to have gone through a significant renovation from 2016 to 2017.  They have lost several tables by shrinking the room space significantly.  The room also seemed a bit dimmer than I remember, but that could just be my rapidly aging eyesight. Because they were a bit washed out, discerning chip denominations from one another across the table was a challenge. However, the tables remain nicely spread out with comfortable elbow room and comfortable chairs.

In April of this year, we played in a Sunday evening DeepStacks Extravaganza tournament. Special tournaments happen so regularly at the Venetian that they might as well be daily tournaments. This was a $200 rebuy tournament (15,000 chips, 20 minute blinds, antes start at level 4.  Players were stronger overall than those we played against at Caesar’s the night before. Meanwhile, the Aria offered stiffer competition the following evening.

The Venetian's highly skilled and efficient dealers kept good control of tableClick To Tweet

The Venetian’s highly skilled and efficient dealers kept good control of table, if not always consistent about announcing raises. The floors actively managed the action and no major issues developed. The tournament was professionally run (as you’d expect at a large Vegas cardroom). Service was prompt, although we did not order anything other than water. Wait times did not seem inordinately long for those around us.

Fifty-six players bought in (including rebuys) and the top prize was over $3,000 with an overall guarantee of $9,000. Heather chopped the top 5 spots for a $1,400 take. I had a top 6 equity chop in 2016 in a similar tournament format. Tipping was low stress and convenient, as you just put what you want in a box away from the table. There is a dealer hold out from your entry, so large tips are not expected.

Obviously, there are a lot of poker options in Las Vegas. We particularly enjoy the Aria poker room, as well. The Venetian poker room, however, is one of the best in terms aesthetics, comfort, and professionalism.

APT

Related Recommendation

As I said earlier the Venetian/Palazzo complex is filled with great dining options.  One of our favorites is Yardbird.   Close to the Venetian poker room, Yardbird offers great Southern-style food featuring a fabulous fried chicken. Most plates are meant to be shared; the fried chicken is certainly enough for two as a main course.  Side dishes of biscuits and grits with cheddar cheese are also very good.