Canada is the second largest country, by area, in the world. Only Russia is larger in size. It’s known for many things, including enormous scenic beauty, a welcoming attitude toward immigrants, extraordinary energy resources, Wayne Gretzky, and great hunting and fishing.
What might not be so well known about Canada is that it is also a great place for poker.
There are poker rooms across this mighty northern nation – from Vancouver, British Columbia and Dawson City, Yukon Territory in the west, to Moncton, New Brunswick, and Halifax, Nova Scotia on the east coast – and in all of the provinces in between. I’ve played in many of those rooms. But the province with the richest concentration of poker is surely Alberta, where I’d never been. So I planned a poker trip there. I’ve just returned home after staying and playing for six days. Let me tell you, the poker in Alberta is great!
Alberta is the province just to the east of British Columbia. It is bordered to the east by Saskatchewan, to the north by the Northwest Territories, and to the south by Montana. It includes the famously beautiful Banff and Jasper National Parks. It is known for its ranching, farming, and for its enormous deposits of natural gas and petroleum. It has two principal (and rival) cities: Edmonton and Calgary.
Though I had never been to Alberta, I had surely heard about it – especially its great hockey teams, the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames. I also knew about one of the largest rodeos in the world, the Calgary Stampede. But other than that, Alberta was a tabula rasa.
But First, Poker in Ottawa
I found a great airfare online from Ottawa, Ontario to Edmonton, driving the seven hours from my home in Boston to take advantage of it. It gave me an opportunity to play poker at Lac-Leamy Casino, just across the river from Ottawa in Gatineau (formerly Hull), Quebec.
I arrived in Ottawa early on a Saturday morning, and made my way over the river to the casino. The 9-table poker room opens at 10 in the morning. But if you want to play, I suggest signing up at 8:45, when they start taking names on the phone. I was lucky to get in the game. Though I arrived at 9, and the game started at 10, there was already a list of eight players There was only the one $1/2 game going during my two hours, with no seats opening up. So I got in the game by the skin of my teeth!
The venue is a beautiful building of glass and steel – looking more like a modern art museum than a casino. The room itself was nothing fancy, but a neatly kept room with well used chips, comfortable chairs, and experienced dealers. My game was populated by a full table of friendly local players, playing tightly and timidly. They seemed chiefly interested in hitting the enormous $1.2 million bad beat jackpot, bucking a $8 + $2 rake to do so. The bad beat took beating Quad 10s and hadn’t been hit in a century or so. Good luck, guys!
I managed a $250 win in my two hours of play, thanks to stacking a couple of short stacked calling stations. I’d gladly return, even though the rake was a bit daunting.
Poker in Alberta Awaits
The Edmonton Poker Scene
I eventually went back to the airport to catch my late flight to Edmonton. I arrived in this northern Canadian city at 10:45 PM. And it was still light! I rented a car and drove to my spectacular base of operation for three days – the beautiful, luxurious and spacious River Cree Casino and Convention Center. This is an amazing place, well worth a trip in and of itself.
The River Cree, as it is known, is more than just a full-service casino – though, with many table games, slots, restaurants, and a beautiful hotel, it is surely that. It is also a convention center and hub for big Las Vegas acts. I noticed they had scheduled adult-oriented comedian Anthony Jeselnik, musicians Bret Michaels and Ricky Skaggs, an Elton John tribute band, and a stage version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. While I was there, they also had the nationally famous Enoch Powwow. The lobby and elevator were regularly filled with people in native attire. I never made it to any of the performances, but I heard they were excellent.
This convention center is also used by First Nations across Canada for their legislative meetings, conferences, votes and the like. I noticed many meetings going on while I was there.
But not to be distracted, I was there for the poker – which was plentiful and constant, with a 24/7 room on weekends (11 am to 2:45 am during the week). The River Cree is known for wild action, especially late at night. I witnessed it. Weary though I was, I twice played late into the wee hours – and there were never fewer than five games going – one $2/5 no limit hold’em game, three $1/2 games., and at least one $4/8 limit dealer’s choice game. The rake here is the standard for the Edmonton and Calgary rooms – 10% up to $7 plus $2 for the player-funded promotions. Their bad beat, requiring Quad 9s beaten, was up to over $500,000.
The room also hosts many tournaments throughout the week. Their schedule changes regularly, so you should check it out on Poker Atlas. They currently spread $100 tournaments during the day and at night, and host large tournaments quarterly.
I enjoyed the poker immensely, and recommend the room to serious players and gamblers alike. As it turned out, there were many inebriated, young, gambling players in my game (and in others I observed). With my typically tight aggressive play I was able to score a $250 profit in a couple of hours.
There are multiple food options near the poker room, from fast food to fine dining, including Italian, seafood, and steak – that will be brought into the room upon request. I left to have a terrific, inexpensive but ample prime rib dinner.
I could easily have enjoyed three great days of poker and dining without leaving the premises. But leave I did, to sample the other two rooms in Edmonton. There are two, both run by the Pure Poker Casino.
I played first at Pure Casino Edmonton. It’s a clean, well-run, 12-table room, with $1/3 and $5/5 no limit hold’em games. They also have daily $80 tournaments, one of which I entered and won on my first day in town. It lasted seven hours and awarded a $1500 first prize. It was a nice way to start my trip!
I returned later in my stay, but did not do as well in my cash game. I found the players of mixed ability, with two who claimed to make most of their living from their play. I’d think it would be a tough job, with a stiff rake of $7 + $2, but who knows. I’m sure of this though: the wonton noodle soup with extra wontons was excellent and a bargain!
I also played at 13-table Pure Casino Yellowhead, on the north end of the city. As it turns out, this is now a Pot Limit Omaha only room. And what a PLO room it has turned out to be! When I visited, there were four, count them, FOUR PLO games (as well as the no limit hold’em tournament that I had entered – and busted out of in an hour). Their structure may be unique. I have never seen it before. Players may buy in for anywhere from $50 to $500. There is a single $5 blind. Though I didn’t play in the game, I did watch it for about 50 minutes, as I waited for the tournament to start, and then again after I busted out. During the Wednesday evening that I was there, I watched three different tables. All had a similar type of game. Two or three players at the table were hyper-aggressive. It was not atypical for at least one player to be all in pre-flop. The river often had four players all in. Stacks were mighty for this size game – with multiple players per table with $2k or more in chips. If I knew how to play this game I might make a regular trip from Boston there, just to participate in the sick action.
According to the shift supervisor, the PLO has cannibalized all of the NLHE action – killing it and leaving the room as a PLO-only haven (except for daily NLHE tournaments). Players interested in NLHE cash games now go either to the sister Pure Edmonton property or to the River Cree.
The Calgary Poker Scene
I spent the last two and a half days of my journey playing poker in Calgary. It’s about three hours south of Edmonton. I happened to be there during their huge annual event, the Calgary Stampede. It is one of the largest rodeos anywhere – and it takes over the city for a week or so. I had to stay about 30 minutes away at the airport, not able to find a reasonably priced room anywhere in the city itself.
The Stampede is to Calgary what the Kentucky Derby is to Louisville, Kentucky or the Rose Bowl is to Pasadena, California – only larger. It describes itself as the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth. It may well be. The city’s population swells from 1.3 million to nearly 3 million, with rodeo fans and participants coming from all over North America. It also produces spinoff events like the Stampede Concert Series, filling four stages with headliners during the 10 days of the Stampede.
The poker action is at its sickest during this time.
I had planned on visiting the room at the hub of the action, the Cowboys Casino, figuring I’d get my fill of stampeding fish to fillet.
I did everything right, sleeping late into the day, and going over well-rested for the 10 PM to 3AM shift, when I figured wild, gambling and drinking players would be at their loosest and most profitable (for me).
Alas, such was not to be, as I proceeded to drop money to the local sharks who were there for the same reason as I. This turned out to be no easy aquarium! Considerably poorer, I left for gentler waters. I scored first at the more sedate Aces Casino near the airport. I slept for a few hours then enjoyed a free breakfast and soft morning action at the Pure Casino Calgary, followed by a profitably tight and timid table at the Deerfoot, and finally some excellent $4/8 with a kill limit hold’em at the grand old Elbow River poker room. All were perfectly acceptable rooms, well run, with a line-up of regulars, similar promotions, food, rake, and promotional drops. I missed only one Calgary room in the area during my stay, the Grey Eagle, as it only opened on the weekend.
I ended my trip to Calgary with a visit to a very late-night eatery, the U & Me Restaurant in Chinatown, where I celebrated my victories with some delicious and inexpensive noodle soup.
I drove back to Edmonton, but not without stopping halfway in Red Deer at the Cash Casino for their 2PM tournament. I did not enjoy the Asian beef I ate before the event, but can’t speak to the rest of the food there. I did enjoy the tournament, however, though I didn’t fare well in it. The players at the table were regulars, mainly seniors, and had a refreshing dry sense of humor. I realized, as they told me of their pre-retirement professions, that Calgary and Edmonton were, despite their relatively conservative reputations, a land of gamblers. Oil, gas, farming, ranching, insurance, and other financial services are all gambling professions, the locals assured me. It’s no wonder that this area is the heart of Canada’s poker scene.
I highly recommend a poker trip to Alberta, Canada. It’s scenically beautiful, filled with many things other than poker to see and do, and rich in poker rooms and beatable players. I’m eager to return.