Ed. note: Ashley is working on a book of his poker travels entitled Poker in 50 States (and 26 countries). He has agreed to publish a few of his chapters here first. This is the third in what will be a six-part series. Be sure to also check out his first installment, Poker in Aruba, and second installment, the Southern California Poker Scene.
I have a friend who plays a lot of poker all over the world. He was flying to Las Vegas to play in a few large tournaments during the WSOP. When he went through security, a TSA officer confiscated the $100,000 in cash he was carrying, telling him that he would have to discover if this money was legitimate or being used for an illegal activity (like drugs I guess). Though he eventually recovered his money, the wait and the uncertainty were serious stresses for a few weeks.
I have another poker buddy. He went out to the World Series of Poker back when it was at the Rio in Las Vegas. He had planned on playing for a month in the cash games, renting an apartment half a block away. One night, walking back from the Rio to his room, he was held up at knifepoint, and made to surrender his entire $50,000 bankroll.
These are cautionary tales that caused me to find out about all of the ways to avoid carrying large sums of cash when on a poker trip. This article is the product of that discovery.
You are allowed to travel with an unlimited amount of cash domestically – in the United States. (If your country of origin is other than the United States, please check local laws about carrying currency out of the country). When you travel internationally, you are not limited in what you carry, but you must declare the amount if it is over $10,000. Security always has the right to seize your cash temporarily if they suspect that you are transporting it for criminal purposes. If you are stopped and your money seized, you have a dilemma. On the one hand, you can attempt to argue for the immediate return of your money. But the argument, even if successful, may result in you missing your flight. On the other hand, you may decide to fight it out later, after you return from your trip. But then you are without the cash you sought to bring with you on your trip. What to do?
To avoid this possibility, you may want to try and fully conceal the cash you’re carrying, to avoid having anyone see it and confiscate it. Bear in mind that 100 new bills are about half an inch in thickness. Thus, 200 bills ($20,000 in hundreds) or fewer can usually fit in a breast pocket of a blazer or an interior pocket of a windbreaker without it bulging. You can fit about $5,000 in hundreds (50 bills) in an empty wallet or billfold and still fold it into your pants pocket. I’ve carried this much through an airport and through security dozens of times and never had anyone notice it.
For larger amounts, you may want to just put it in carry-on luggage (You don’t want to use checked luggage, an easy target of theft.) A wad of 500 bills ($50,000 in hundred-dollar bills) looks like a brick – and may be noticed by security screeners, as in the example above. I’ve done this a couple of times without detection; but I wouldn’t want to make a habit of it.
Even if you’re completely successful in bringing cash to the casino, you may not want to have it on your person for the entire time during your stay, as you run the risk of being robbed. Though Las Vegas is generally a very safe city for travelers, you may become a target by playing in big cash games. Thieves may be watching the cashier and following you. Why tempt fate? Below are seven ways to get money to a casino besides carrying cash.
Money Orders and Bank Checks
A money order is a financial instrument, paid for in advance, available at the post office, that is generally treated much like cash by the casino. Bank checks are purchased from your bank. Unlike a personal check, you have to pay for it up front, so it cannot bounce. Accordingly, they too are treated much like cash at the casino.
The advantages of money orders or bank checks are obvious. They are the size of a single piece of paper. You don’t have to worry about any overzealous security officer stopping you and confiscating them. Similarly, they are much less likely to be stolen. And if they are stolen, they are registered and may be recoverable.
But the disadvantage is that your ability to convert them to casino currency is limited by banking hours. If, for example, you arrive at a casino on a Friday night with your bank check or money order, you will have to wait until sometime on Monday, after the banks open and can verify them, to be able to use them. If you want to play in a cash game or buy in to a tournament on Saturday or Sunday, you will be out of luck.
There is also usually a small fee for money orders and bank checks. Money orders sold by the US Postal Service, and limited to $1,000 in denomination, sell for $1.95 each. If you wanted $100,000 in Money Orders that would cost you nearly $200. For bank checks, banks may charge you a quarter or half percent (usually up to a $20 or $30 maximum). Some banks may offer elite or premium account holders free bank checks. I encourage you to ask them to waive their charges. I got my $25,000 bank check gratis after I asked them to waive the fee.
The most efficient way of moving money is to wire it from your bank directly to the casino. This avoids any risk of theft or loss. Typically, banks charge between $10 and $50 for the transfer, depending on the transfer amount, the type of account you have, and the bank. Banks and other financial institutions, like Western Union, may also waive the fee if you ask. A possible downside is that, like using a bank check or money order, you won’t have access to your funds until the banks are open and can verify the transfer. However, significantly, unlike using bank checks or money orders, you can wire your funds ahead of time. If, for example, you wanted to play in a $10,000 tournament on a Saturday, and wanted another $40,000 for big cash games, you could wire $50,000 on the Thursday before you arrived. This would give the casino time to verify the transfer and have your funds available for you when you arrived on Saturday – even though the banks would be closed at that time.
Safety Deposit Boxes
Safety deposit boxes won’t help you with the transport of money to and from the casino. But they will obviate the need to bring money into and out of the casino more than once. There may be a charge for a safety deposit box at the casino. Check and see. At the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas they were charging a non-refundable $100 fee for the use of a box.
Line of Credit
You may be able to open up a line of credit with the casino. This would allow you to go to the cage and withdraw money that you would then pay back, getting markers that you could use for poker chips or tournament buy-ins. These arrangements are made for rated gamblers on a case-by-case basis – and often depend on your status as a customer of the casino. If you are only a poker player, and don’t play any other casino games, you are unlikely to be allowed this perquisite of other high rollers. But if, in addition to your poker play, you also shoot craps, play baccarat, blackjack, video poker, or some other house-banked game, you might be able to have a line of credit extended to you.
Bank Account in Casino Destination City
You may be able to increase the ease of accessing your money by opening an account in a bank that has a branch in the city of your casino destination. This would obviate the need to travel through airports with large sums of cash. For example, Bank of America has branches all over the US. You might want to open an account in your home city, and then access the money in Las Vegas. There is no charge for opening an account, though accessing your money may require a few days or a week from the day you open your account. Check with your local branch to find out.
High denomination chips are much more compact than cash. You can carry $50,000 with just five $10,000 casino chips. Some casinos may allow you to exchange high denomination chips from one casino for their casino chips. This is especially likely if the casinos are of the same company – Encore in Massachusetts and Wynn in Las Vegas or Macau, for example.
This may seem ludicrous, but one way of transporting a lot of cash out of a country and into another country, without notifying authorities, is to purchase extremely high-end jewelry you can wear on your person, like a Rolex watch, and then pawning it for cash at your destination. Typically, travelers are not asked about the value of items that they are wearing. This allows gamblers, looking to gamble for six, seven, or eight figures, to move their money by wearing extremely expensive jewelry like watches, pawn them when they arrive, gamble with this money, and then, with any money they have at the end of their gambling trip, to redeem their pawned objects (or purchase others), wear them, and return to their country of origin. This is an expensive option, as they do not get full value either when they pawn or redeem their jewelry. But it is a popular method of moving money – as is revealed by the numerous high-end pawnshops in gambling destinations like Las Vegas and Macau.
Most of the time, for most of us, there’s no need to think about alternative means of transporting money to play poker. We just travel with a few thousand bucks or less in our wallets or purses, and no one is the wiser. But sometimes, for some of us, the amount of cash we need for poker games exceeds that which we typically and comfortably carry on our person. For those occasions, you might want to consider the alternative means that I’ve outlined above.