Friday, June 25, 2010

Americans and Soccer

If you watch sports at all, or for that matter just turned on a TV, in the past two weeks, you’ve seen something about the World Cup. There have been all manner of issues surrounding a bunch of the teams. There’s been the implosion and nearly self-imposed boycott by the French. There was the 7-0 rout that Portugal hung on North Korea. There was the phantom call made against the Americans calling back what would have been a winning goal. And there has been article after article written about weather or not America will ever fully embrace soccer as a major sport?

For the record, the answer is “no”.

Historically, I never really liked soccer that much. I played when I was a kid, then took a brief hiatus from about 10 years old until I was about 25. I was always able to appreciate it. These guys have ball skills at a dead run that I couldn’t put together if you let me use my hands. They’re in great shape. They’re revered the world over. Yet, if you ask your average sports-loving American in a bar “What do you think about soccer?,” you’re going to get something sarcastic, rude, possibly offensive or all three for your inquiry. Why? Here’s why…

American culture is competitive. Maybe it’s competitive to a fault? Maybe it’s that competitive nature that makes this country great? Actually, it’s probably some of each. But the bottom-line is that we’re competitive. We want to win. We want to win everything…all the time. So how likely is it that a nation with that type of drive and nature is going to accept and openly embrace a competitive event where the outcome can be a tie? A few years ago, the Bengals and the Eagles ended an NFL game in a tie, neither team scoring in the sudden-death OT period. I was at that game, and fans were incensed. I was ready for Eagles fans to collaborate with Bengals fans to burn the stadium to the ground. Either team would have sooner taken a loss then a tie.

The second reason is the exceeding amount of flopping that goes on. It always cracks me up when soccer players walk past one another, exchange words, touch in passing, and then one of them mercilessly flings himself to the ground as though he just stepped on a landmine. Better still is when there is incidental contact in the lower body and the guy grabs his head like he just took a right cross from Tyson. Even being a fan of the sport, I want to tell these guys to man up and get serious.

The final reason comes down to heart. Do soccer players have it? Yes. Do them demonstrate it? Sometimes. Do you ever hear about it? No.

This year Didier Drogba, striker for the Ivory Coast, broke his forearm in a tune-up game leading up to the World Cup. He missed the opening match due to the injury. Hey then had his arm cast in a low-profile support, approved by his team, the World Cup governing body, and the opposing team to allow him to play with it on. Now keep in mind, the World Cup is like the Olympics. It’s only played once every four years. And when his coach came to him after practice the night before their second match, asking if he wanted to play the next day, what was his response? “I’d rather be on the bench.” GET FOR REAL!

A few years ago, a fella named Curt Schilling was slated to pitch in the World Series with an ankle injury that required surgery. What did he do? He had the training staff stitch the injured tendon in place and went out to do work. Missing his start wasn’t even an option. He basically had the equivalent over OTC surgery, and went out to write his place into history, while the stitches pulled with every pitch, causing him to bleed through his sock.

How about Terrell Owens playing for the Eagles a few years ago? A major knee injury after a tackle by Roy Williams not only required him to have surgery, but also led to a shift in the rules of the game of football, prohibiting horse collar tackles from then on. What did he do? He spent two weeks in a hospital bed with his leg under compression and ice to ensure that he would be able to play in the Super Bowl that same month. THAT SAME MONTH! This was an injury that comes with a 6-8 month recovery period.

Drew Brees played an AFC Championship game on a torn ACL. Steve Nash had his nose broken in a game and only came out long enough to stop the bleeding, and only that long because the refs made him. John Isner just played the longest match in tennis history through blood and cramps.

And a soccer player wants to sit the bench with a broken forearm in a cast? Umm…you do realize you’re not even allowed to use your hands, right?

Unfortunately, Drogba’s response made news all over ESPN and other sports outlets. That’s what people have heard. And while that’s not the mentality of every soccer player out there, that is what has been represented. And that’s just a level of heart and commitment that isn’t acceptable in the competitive nature of this country.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Next Day...

I woke up a little nervous. I had roughly consumed my bodyweight in alcohol the night before, and just knew that every single part of my body was going to exact it’s revenge simultaneous. I was pleasantly surprised to find that after sitting up slowly, gently moving my head back and forth to survey my competence, and finally mustering the courage to stand, that staying up as late as I could to metabolize the booze and a long cold shower helped my cause. Don’t get it twisted, I didn’t feel great, per se. But on a scale of 1-10, 1 being spritely and jovial and a 10 being millimeters away from certain death, I was hovering around a 3.

After meeting up with Cindy, Jay, Karrie, and Josh, we started slowly migrating and milling around, deciding what the day’s plan of action should be? Cindy and Jay wanted breakfast…a real one and an Egg Mc-whatever wasn’t going to do it, so we parted ways and walked slowly north to see the new City Center.

This place is amazing. Well, the City Center proper is pretty cool with it’s shops and high-end stuff that make the average person feel rather inferior. But the new accommodations at Vdara, Mandarin, and all the time-shares they have are beautiful. The property is so large that it has it’s own monorail running through it, and it’s so encompassing that once you reach the front doors, you can look up, down, wherever and have no idea that you’re still in Vegas. There are amazing restaurants, reasonably priced gambling, and overall just an amazingly manicured place to be.

After moving through the City Center, Cindy and Jay were done eating, and the rest of our group was rousing. So why not meet at the Forum Shoppes at Caeser’s? Well, the best reason is because the Forum is about three million square feet of retail space, that’s why. We would have been better served meeting up anywhere else at all. It ran akin to finding a needle in a haystack, but harder. And I have to say, for all the retail shopping you can find in Vegas, I just don’t think the Forum is worth the hype. It’s huge, overwhelming, hard to navigate, and just not all that worth it with the exception of maybe three or four stores. My particular favorite is the one that only sells high-end watches. Walking past, I felt like Odysseus being called by the Sirens. It wasn’t until I poked my head inside and saw that all employees were wearing white gloves for the handling of merchandise. Yeah, I’ll be sticking with my Fossil, thank you.

We wandered for a while, in and out of this, that, and the other, when it occurred to me that we hadn’t yet had a seat at a table…anywhere. As timing would have it, Trina and Karrie had massage appointments, so isn’t it mandatory that we sit and gamble? We certainly thought so. The dealer at O’Shea’s had other ideas. She was apparently still pissed off that someone at a Three-Card Poker table she was dealing at the night before didn’t tip after winning and decided to take out her frustrations on us. Doesn’t seem fair, but such is Vegas. At least we spent enough time between our rout and the walk back to the hotel to meet the girls as they finished their girl time, and got ready for dinner.

Ah Craft. Been there three times now, and I love it every single time. Though I have to say, I have been just a tad disappointed with their risotto the last two times. The beef ribs we unbelievable though, the potato puree was amazing, and for the first time in three visits, I saved room for dessert. It was homemade monkey bread with homemade banana-cinnamon ice cream…and it was heavenly.

I’d love to say that since we were all dressed to the 9’s that we went out and lived it up, enjoyed the casino floor in swanky fashion, gambled into the wee hours, and so on…but I was actual so tired that I was physically uncomfortable. Walking all day long in Vegas heat with a mild hangover with do that to you. So with an utter lack of gusto, we took our leave, and went to bed.

Friday, 5/7/10
Ah, Friday. Friday, historically, has been the day we go home. Not this time. We had one more full day of insanity to deal with. It was, however, the day that Josh and Karrie as well as Cindy and Jay were headed home. We’d have liked one more day with Cindy and Jay, but we knew we’d see them when we got home. Josh and Karrie, on the other hand, were going home to finish their move to Pittsburgh. Since Trina and Josh are particularly close, not to mention he’s one of my best friends, we felt we needed to get in all the time we could before they left. So at 8:30 that morning, we were headed down to the Flamingo.

The Flamingo is a place on the strip that just oozes old-school Vegas. I can’t explain exactly why, but if you’ve ever been there or go there, it’ll just make sense. But the reason we went there, specifically, was a small kiosk that we found on our last trip out called “The Pearl Factory”. As you might guess, they sell pearls and pearl jewelry. But they also have a little spot where you can pick an oyster, and open your own pearl. The last time we were there, the girl we watched open one had twin pearls in her oyster. Pretty cool, all in all. The staff “ooh-ed” and “ahh-ed” about the rarity of twins, and they also said that people who open twins either are a twin, have twins in their family, gave birth to twins, are expecting twins, or something to that effect. And while all twins don’t get twin pearls, people who aren’t, never get them. Sure enough, this girl was a twin. Of course, being a twin, we had to make Karrie do it.

Damn…just got one in there. However, it was an amazing grey pearl almost eight millimeters in diameter. As luck would have it, Trina’s was also grey and nearly as large. Apparently this was a significant phenomenon as only 7 out of 800 oysters produce grey pearls. In any event, they were lovely, and we had such a good time that the cooky lady that ran the place gave them a free oyster with another beautiful pearl. But time drew short, and we needed to get them back to the hotel to gather their things and catch their flight.

The short cab ride back to the hotel was quiet and kind of uncomfortable. We all knew that we were going to be parting ways for a while, and after years of being best friends, we knew that person wasn’t going to be there when we got home the next day. Now don’t get me wrong, Pittsburgh is an easy drive from Cincinnati. Four hours if traffic is good. But for years we’d seen each other once a week. Maybe even more often then that. To go two weeks not seeing each other was so rare it was almost regarded as something being wrong. But when we got home, they’d be gone. We all stood at the taxi stand looking at one another with reverent silence, not knowing what to do or say next? So fighting tears, we all hugged and said our good byes, not sure when we’d next see each other, but knowing the last time we got together, we lived it up in Vegas.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Middle Leg...

Wednesday, 5/5/10: D-Day
I woke up around 6 a.m. staring at the ceiling. Well, woke up implies that at one time, I actually fell asleep, which I don’t think I did. Half a Monster late in the evening before really kept me from achieving a true level of sleep. I think it’s more accurate to say I snapped out of my sense of grogginess. In any event, I found myself looking at the ceiling. I was looking around the room and testing motor functions in all my limbs like a spy that just came off the high of being drugged and found himself in a room, not knowing where he is. What did I expect? Wake up and be blind in one eye? One leg gone? Can’t speak? Nope. I was 29 the day before, now I was 30. Screw it…let’s go play.

Of course mom and Pat weren’t up yet. Pat was awake for about 36 hours the day before, so I didn’t expect him to see this side of consciousness for a few hours. What to do…what to do? Then I had my first “ah-ha” moment of the day. Go wake up Josh and Karrie and make them go play! Yes, that’ll do nicely. So after a little coaxing, and by coaxing I mean irritating Josh until he was awake, we all made our way to the monorail to go way north on the strip to indulge several other Vegas traditions.

We got off the monorail at the Sahara, and slowly started our walk back towards the bulk of the strip. The Sahara is kind of a depressing place. Along with the Stratosphere, it’s as far north as you can currently stay on the strip, and being all the way down there is a lot like being on the Island of Misfit Toys. Or maybe the Land that Time Forgot? Or maybe The Island of Misfit Toys that Time Forgot With Drunken Kind of Scary People That You Don’t Really Want to be Around. Yeah…it’s the last one. Nevertheless, it was just a staging point to head down to what would be one of the most important stops of the day.

The Big Hotdog is a spectacle unto itself and not to be missed. Problem was, while our stomachs were telling us it was 12:00, the clocks said 9:00, and therefore, not open yet. So we occupied ourselves next door at Circus Circus. Now, if the Sahara and Stratosphere were on the Island of Misfit toys, Circus Circus probably ranks somewhere around the bastard step-child of the strip. You gotta see it because you’re there, like buying the obligatory Christmas gift, but you’re not all that happy about it. Talk about another depressing place. However, it did offer us the opportunity to convince Karrie to have her first try at playing Blackjack. It didn’t take, and 20 minutes late she walked out pissed and muttering that she just lost $50.

At 12:01 we were standing in line like vultures waiting for our hot dogs. Now, to recap, this thing is a quarter-pound monster with whatever condiments you want on it. I suggest the chili and cheese. Josh was the first to order, getting one for himself and Karrie. I was right behind him, right behind him, ordering Trina’s and mine. How long does it take to eat one of these you ask? About as long as it took for the guy to put two in buns and hand me a rootbeer. By the time I sat down, Josh had finished his and was thinking very seriously about getting another. Did I mention that they’re a quarter-pound and I was right behind him? What’s a guy to do? Eat another one, apparently. Oh well. Put a check in the box for tradition.

On to the Wynn, via Encore. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, and I’m sure I’ll say it after this; these two places impress me every single time I’m in them. They’re immaculately clean, smell lovely, offer impressive décor, they’re just great. The only problem is, I’m not really rich enough to gamble there. No big deal, really. We were only there for drinks at Parasol Down, another tradition that earns a check in the box.

It was at this point that I was starting to get a little confused and honestly, a little annoyed. I’m a bit of a planner, so when things go awry, I get a little jumpy. Parasol Down in a favorite destination of my mom’s which is rare considering Vegas isn’t really her scene. Tired of waiting with empty glasses, we decided to head back to MGM and hit the pool. Come to find out upon our return that they were late because they were orchestrating arrivals of my friend, Aaron, and then my Aunt Cindy and her husband, Jay, all of whom made the trip to celebrate (and celebrate here having the meaning of party…hard) with us. As flattered as I was that they made the trip, it occurred to me that I actually might die tonight. I estimated a 47.2% chance.

We decided to pass the bulk of the afternoon at the pool, drinking, not eating, and sitting in the sun…all afternoon. Perhaps a bit of a rookie mistake, because the result ended up as several people in the party being sick through the rest of the afternoon and into the evening. Of course, should that stop us from drinking martinis at Red Square (Vegas tradition #3 for the day)? Of course not. In fact, let’s have four! And about quarter after the third was when I realized “hmm…I haven’t eaten in a solid four hours. Guess I’m drinking my dinner tonight!” Never a good realization in Vegas.

People argue that having a slight buzz loosens you up for big runs on the Blackjack tables. Two Ruskies, fine. Four Ruskies, not fine. Four Ruskies, several Bloody Mary’s, and a cheap cigar, way not fine, genuinely unhappy, walking a fine line to be a violent puking threat. Of course this is all in hindsight, which I would argue with anyone is far better then 20/20. But screw it. It’s my 30th birthday, and I’m in one of my favorite places in the known universe with a huge contingent of my favorite people. Let’s play cards-es! By the way, when you decide it’s time to play “card-es” , you’re already making poor decisions. Mandalay Bay is, in my opinion, regularly too expensive to gamble at. But next door at the Luxor, tables are cheaper and they have a pit totally designated for single-deck Blackjack. So we worked our way over to the pyramid.

This place was, for a time, one of the most impressive places on the strip. That was in the early 90’s. Then it fell into a bit of a lull, almost qualifying it for the Island of Misfit Toys. In the past few years, they have had an impressive overhaul to bring in some new blood and offer something other then just being gimmicky. Now, I can say I am honestly impressed with it again. Also, if that wasn’t enough, they offered us an impressive show of customer service. With no $10 tables to be found that would accommodate five people at once, and a $15 table sitting empty, a pit boss waved us over, making the usual casual banter common with tourists. We explained that we were all there for my birthday, and were trying to find a table where we could all sit together. Without a second thought, he took us to the empty $15 table, flipped it to $10, invited us to sit, play, and enjoy. Good form. Good form I say!

There’s a new trend sweeping Vegas lately. That trend is to put Go-Go Dancers on little stages or platforms right behind the dealers in Blackjack pits. This serves several functions; first, men most often dominate Blackjack tables, so it attracts them to those tables where the stakes are a little higher. Second, it’s a fabulous marketing tool to get those players to pay less, little, or even no attention to their cards. Casino visionaries clearly had my friend Aaron in mind when they hatched this idea. Third, it would seem their goal is to get everyone in the casino divorced. Wives can get irritated enough when their husbands are losing money. But losing it because they’re not paying attention to what they’re doing due to a girl shaking her bon-bon? Not good.

I have absolutely no idea how long we were there? None. Everyone sat down and bought in for right around $100, and shockingly, Pat was the first to reach back into his wallet for seconds. They rotated dealers in typical fashion, each one being as fun as the last. We were all drinking gambling, winning more then not, and having a grand old time. Well, everyone except Josh.

Josh has a bit of an affinity for Blackjack. He’s fundamentally sound in his play. He doesn’t offer advice without a request. He’s aggressive, but smart. He knows when to pocket winnings and leave, and he wins more often then he loses. So to be at first base, playing exactly the way you should, and having Pat just to your left betting foolish amounts of money and basically playing like a retard and winning while you lose will make anyone want to kill the guy next to him. So after getting hammered for his buy-in, then losing another $50 or so that I spotted him to keep him at the table for general table karma, I couldn’t get a word out of him when we all decided to pack it in and Pat cashed in for a pretty, lavender chip worth $500. Oh, and by the way, that chip and his change no sooner hit the table then my mother snatched it away from Pat, insuring that he didn’t play “just one more big hand”.

It was a loooooooong walk back to MGM. Ironic, I realize because it’s only caddie-corner from Luxor. I guess a lot of booze will inhibit the speed at which you walk? I read that somewhere once. I’m pretty sure I ran into some walls, stumbled into a men’s room…maybe two, thanked God there was an overpass across the strip from New York, New York to MGM, and eventually made it safely (safely having the meaning of not vomiting) and into our room. My wife, realizing that I was a puking risk, did everything she could to keep me awake enough to get to the bathroom in case such execution came to pass. A cold shower, bottle of water, and 45 minutes of sitting straight up in bed to to prohibit spinning later, I finally drifted off to sleep.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

What's Better Then Being in Vegas for Your 30th?

Nothing!

Well, that’s not all together true. There is absolutely no one that’s going to card you at this point, and that hurts a little bit. But if that’s as bad as it gets, then you had (are having or will have) a great trip. Here’s how mine went.

Monday, 5/3/10
After working all day, and by working I mean counting the minutes until I could leave, I was relaxing at home, casually packing my bags, thinking about what we would do and how grand it would be. Josh (franchise player for team Vegas Rules) and Karrie (unrestricted free-agent on her first trip to Sin City…hoping to sign to a long-term deal) made it in from Pennsylvania and to our place a little after 8. The idea of getting up at 4 a.m. to make a flight out of Dayton by 6 would have compelled most people to take it easy, maybe have an early nightcap, and turn in early. Not this squad. We stayed up chatting like tweenage girls about what we were going to do first, second, third….32nd, whatever.

Historically, the night before a Vegas trip has a very specific ritual; pack, eat pizza, tidy up the house, watch the movie Casino, not necessarily in that order. We broke with tradition a bit eating beef stew, relaxing on the couch, and trying to teach Karrie the ins and outs of playing Blackjack. It didn’t seem to take. Lack of interest may have played a role there. No interest in Blackjack? Hmm…well that won’t get you “franchise player” status, but a long-term deal could still be on the table.

Tuesday, 5/4/10
Up with the sun. Actually, a little before the sun. Stupid nature calling. But it occurred to me as I stumbled to the bathroom that it was a little after 5, and I never heard Josh and Karrie get up. So in a panic, I tear into the spare bedroom to get them up in what would be a vain attempt to make their flight, only to realize that they were long gone, I slept through the whole thing, and I’m an idiot. Oh well.

A quick layover in Chicago led to what felt like the longest flight to Vegas I’ve ever made. I’ve flown direct, I’ve had layovers, I’ve had lousy layovers, and this one seemed to hurt the worse. The travel time is all generally, barring a major stop somewhere, but 45 minutes at the beginning then almost four hours on the second leg just sucked. I’ll have to remember that for next time out.

We arrived in Vegas and got checked in just in time to make a quick run through ‘wichcraft for a sandwich to get some juice for the rest of the evening. It was only about 4 in Vegas when we arrived, so the whole city was just getting warmed up. So a quick roast beef sandwich was the ideal rejuvenation to head across the street to kickoff the trip in a traditional fashion…a drink at Nine Fine Irishmen. I dutifully choked down a pint of Guinness, wishing I hadn’t, but knowing that it was requisite for the trip, then headed out to the casino floor to see what there was to see. And by see what there was to see, I mean gamble.

Over the course of my last trip west, I started to learn craps. Since there were no Blackjack tables that would accommodate us, why not find a table and throw some dice? Only problem was neither Pat nor Josh had a great deal of experience, if any at all, with the game. Solution to the problem? Just do what I tell you and you’ll learn on the fly. Ordinarily, this is a TERRIBLE method of gambling. But unlike other games, what you do or don’t do playing craps won’t affect anyone else’s bets. Perfect. The ladies took their leave to walk around the casino while Pat, Josh, and I settled in to play.

We played for probably 45 minutes or so, Pat and Josh trying to absorb whatever they could. Pat, God bless his Irish soul, lost just about everything he bought in for, by outkicking his coverage and making bets he didn’t understand which were all low-percentage with a high payoff. Josh won a little, making his first craps experience a positive one, particularly when he made passes on three different point numbers. I won about $75 or so, suggesting positive mojo for the rest of the trip, and discovered that playing the come line doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you could just as easily, and more quickly make place bets. Gonna have to put that piece of knowledge to work later in the trip.

Now a choice had to be made; call it an early night and party hard tomorrow, or walk the strip, take in some sights, do some more gambling, and rely on energy drinks to party hard tomorrow? If you can’t figure out what the right choice is, you’ve never been to Vegas.

Walking the strip at sunset it a really cool time to be out. The sky fades from reddish to purplish to black, and the lights on everything surrounding you just get more and more prominent as time wears on. We made our way north walking as though we had purpose, but not really knowing where we were going. Of course, in the back of our minds, we knew we were heading for O’Shea’s, another staple of every single Vegas trip.

There are a number of reasons I like gambling at O’Shea’s. First, historically, I’ve had very good luck there. Second, they don’t have continuous shuffle machines. Third, they mix good drinks. (Sidenote: Vegas is the only place in the world where my drink of choice automatically becomes Bloody Mary’s. No idea why?) Fourth, they have a lot of Blackjack tables. Fifth, it’s cheap to play there. As I’ve always said in blogs passed, I don’t mind betting $15+ a hand, but I don’t want to have to. Ultimately, it’s just very user-friendly. So all things considered, after playing for a good solid hour, drinking their booze, buying three totally overpriced cigars, and still walking out $60 to the good, that makes a good night so far as I’m concerned. Also, this particular gambling session cemented why my stepfather is quite possibly the worst gambler I’ve ever seen. In the middle of a run of cards that was mediocre at best, mom decided she was done for the night, and gave Pat the signal that it was time to pack it in. A day of traveling will take it out of anyone. But down about $40 for the session with $60 left in front of him, upon hearing it was time to go, Pat feels it’s in his best interests to just bet the rest of what he has on the next hand. Did I mention the cards were only barely mediocre at this point? And what happens? Of course he lost. While Josh and I, the resident gamblers on scene where confused as to why he didn’t just cash out and leave, Mom was confounded by this decision and let him know about it.

We didn’t stay much longer, cashing out for a small profit. The four of us took our time walking back to MGM, which isn’t exactly close to O’Shea’s. But it gave us time to laugh and joke and talk about what we wanted to do over the rest of the trip. Also, it gave us the opportunity to stop and watch a few shows, courtesy of the Bellagio fountains as well as watch Josh pretend he wasn’t drunk as he tripped over a trash can while walking in a straight line. Good times. Tomorrow would be better.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Run...

Sunday morning, we figured we were going to do something else that we’d never done before. We were going to have breakfast at the buffet in Bellagio. This was undiscovered country, and something that The Travel Channel will hype anytime you see something about Vegas. Make no mistake about it, it was an impressive spread and the quality of the food was pretty high. But if you were to ask me to put together a list of things to see and do in Vegas, this isn’t cracking my top 10.

Sunday was also the first time in the trip that Trina was going to have to be present for the conference (the real reason we even made it out there) and I was going to have to fly solo for a little while. Now, I’ve made this point before and I know I’ll make it again. Being by yourself in Vegas, assuming you’re not a raging alcoholic and/or have a huge bankroll, can be kind of boring. Why? Playing blackjack at a table with a bunch of strangers can be hit or miss. Maybe they know a little about the game, like to B.S. between hands, and are jovial? Maybe they’re a-holes with Forrest Gump-ian I.Q.’s who don’t care about being there? Or maybe you even feel compelled to sit at a table alone and play cards. This is maybe one of the most dangerous situations of all. Blackjack is a game of streaks. If you sit down and the table is instantly hot (unlikely to the point that I question this event ever happening) you’re fine. If the table’s cold, you getting your clock cleaned and can’t tread water long enough to wait for it to heat up. Glad I found an interest in craps.

Here’s the other key reason it’s not a whole lot of fun to be by yourself in Vegas; the people watching. People dressed at Rick James, a Storm Trooper, someone who painted himself silver and it walking around with a construction cone on his head, a 350 pounder squeezed into an extra-medium shirt with a Pomeranian on a leash who keeps introducing himself as Catwoman, and more folks on a never ending list populate the streets of Vegas. What are you going to do, make insightfully sarcastic comments to yourself?

Wild Bill’s Gambling hall is tucked on a corner opposite Caesar’s and Bellagio. Also, it’s cheap. And, is that the sound of a rowdy and happy craps table? I figured I got my legs the day before, so why not try again? Up a little, down a little, so on and so forth, and round and round it went, until a little old lady, clearly the oldest person in the building, took the dice, and proceeded to tear it up. This woman put on a clinic of how to make your points. Over and over again she threw those dice, until what must have been easily a half hour later, she finally seven-ed out. I’ve never seen a table of any kind, anywhere, ever clear out so fast. Still being novice to the game, I figured it would probably be best to take my leave as well, and so I did…about $100 to the good. That was, at least until I went back to Bellagio and got torched for $110. But what the hell, I played for almost two hours, drank the casino’s booze, had a good time, and it only cost me $10, bringing me to -$90 for the whole trip.

Trina was done with work and the conversation moved quickly to where we were going to eat dinner. Actually, it was an impressively short conversation, as we both wanted to go to Craft in MGM. Problem was, it was a busy weekend, and we had no reservations. Hmmm…worth a try? So we got there around 4:30, about a half hour before seating began just to see what our chances were. Without thinking twice, they offered us a table for two at 5:30. Well thank you very much! We’ll be back right after I walk through the shopping promenade and try on a $12,000 watch. What’s that? 30% off? Oh, so it’s only $8,400? Well that’s a steal. I’ll take two.

If the buffet at Bellagio doesn’t crack the top 10 things do to in Vegas, then by contrast, eating at Craft is probably in the top 5. I can still remember the debate I had the first time I was there; surf and turf, or beef ribs braised for 24 hours? I went surf and turf that time, so beef ribs it was. Incidentally, how low do you have cook something, anything for that matter, at to cook it for 24 hours? About 90 degrees? But now I had a new problem. How does one eat ribs in a fine dining establishment? It was a moot point really, since they had removed the bone prior to serving. I don’t think I’ve ever had anything as tender, tasty, and overall as pleasing anywhere else at any other time in my life.

Monday came too soon. Trina had to be up and going by 8:30 to be set for the conference by 9. My flight wasn’t out until a little after 11. What to do, what to do? Time to make a run…

Here’s what I’ve found to be true of runs; first, they don’t happen very often. Actually, that’s not totally true. They happen intermittently, but you usually don’t notice at the time. They don’t usually last long. They make you greedy. They make your feel invulnerable, like you can make it happen whenever you want. The key to capitalizing on runs is that you have to be able to get your money off the table and back into your pocket before you feel the need to test weather or not the run is over. By the time you do that, you’ve given it back, and maybe reached into your pocket for seconds.

There was only one craps table open at 9 a.m. on Monday morning so needless to say, it wasn’t crowded. There were only a few guys playing, and after playing at crowded tables the past few days, I was appreciative that there was elbowroom. So I put my money down, got chips, and laid some money on the pass line. Winning on the come out roll just seems to inspire good mojo. So I played on, up a little then down a little and keeping an eye on my watch so as not to screw up my travel plans.

Here’s the other thing I learned about craps; it doesn’t have to be expensive. You can just bet the table minimum on the pass or come lines, never back your bet, and keep your losses pretty minimal. If someone’s making passes over and over again, you could have your money on the pass line for several minutes pretty easily without winning or losing anything. But if you enjoy gambling, all that waiting will start to make you antsy. So you put a bet on the come line too. Then maybe you back that come point. Still nothing? Okay, so maybe you throw a place bet out there too. All of a sudden, you’ve done what I did; you have $70 in various bets out on the table before you’ve realized it and you’re hoping like all hell that a seven does come up and wipe out every single bet you have out. And, maybe like me, you backed a ten point harder then you backed an eight, and ended up kicking yourself for making that choice.

Then something really cool happened. The shooter made his ten point. So the little mathematical ballet that occurs when points are made took place, and there were more chips in front of me. All of a sudden the heavily backed ten didn’t seem so bad when it paid off at 3/2 odds. And then, why not throw an eight and pay me on my come bet? Well thank you very much. And before I could get another come bet down, sure, go ahead and throw a six and pay my place bet. Wouldn’t it figure the next roll was a seven? Lesson learned; pay attention to how much you have out on the table.

Time passed that way. Someone made a point, them a come point, won them both, then seven-ed out. I didn’t know how much I’d won. I just knew that I had more chips then when I got started, so I figured I had to be up. But time grew short, and there was a flight to catch, so I pushed everything to the middle to color up. Apparently, I paid no attention at all to what they were paying me because there were a few green chips at $25 a pop hiding under the red $5’s and white $1’s. A little quick math and the boxman pushes me two black chips (the ones that make me feel really important) for $100 each, three greens (which I’m getting more accustomed to), a red one (nothing new about those), and a white one (which generally become souvenirs). $281 for the morning, minus the $80 pounding I took the first night, minus the $80 I bought in for, minus the $1 chip souvenir, and minus $10 or so that I’m sure I lost on some stupid bet in the past few days, and I ended up a little more then $100 to the good for the trip. Works for me, now get me a cab to the airport before I do something stupid.

The ride to the airport was quiet. The driver barely spoke English, and I was all by myself. Turns out, all things considered, I don’t really like traveling alone. It’s quicker, no doubt, but just not as much fun. There was no one to talk with about the run I just had, the meal we ate the night before, the impressive features of the new City Center. There was no one to talk about what we would do the next time we made it out there. Of course, we wouldn’t have to wait long. We’d be going back again in about six weeks.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Turns Out I Like Craps...

Ever been in the Wynn? How about Encore? They’re ultimately the same property, connected by a long, beautifully decorated corridor that runs between the two buildings. I’ve been in both buildings several times now, and I’m still impressed every single time I walk it. However, they both smack of money. If you want to see successful men in the mid-50’s named Hoyt and Lleyton talking about how they dominated the Yale-ies when they used to crew, then Wynn is probably the place for you. Need more proof? On a Saturday morning a little after 10 a.m. they had blackjack tables (not in a high roller salon mind you) with minimum bets at $100 a pop. My point is, this is NOT the place you’d expect two people, dressed very casually in shorts, with a nominal buy-in to be made to feel welcome gambling. And if you made that assessment, like I did, you’d be dead wrong, like I was.

We were happily welcomed to the table, greeted with smiles, and immediately set at ease. Craps is an intimidating game to walk up on when you’ve never played. There’s a lot going on, and a lot you can bet on. The dealers and stickmen took every ounce of anxiety away instantly. I could write about the rules, bets, odds, and so on for a stupid amount of time. How you play is up to you. Just know this; when you win, they pay you. When you lose, they take your money away. Unlike blackjack, your play doesn’t influence anyone else’s outcome. And considering it’s a very social game, everyone is happy when the shooter is rolling well. What’s funny is that people encourage you to “stay hot” or “shoot this” or “roll that” as if you have a choice.

Here’s what I learned about craps: unless you “seven out” you do NOT surrender your roll. It’s your choice to up and leave whenever you want. However, to do something like quit rolling because the outdoor patio that you and your wife enjoy having cocktails at is opening up will probably cause a riot. Think I’m kidding? Ask the table I nearly walked away from after making 20 minutes worth of points in a row. Everyone was making money, apparently a fair amount of it, as long as I didn’t seven out. And in retrospect, so long as you don’t seven out, you, as the shooter, are at least breaking even. So there’s really no point in stopping.

After a nice rally that earned me a few handshakes, we headed for Parasol Down. This place might be one of the better-kept secrets in Vegas. I’d never heard of acai until this particular trip, when we ordered drinks called “Kiwi Acai Smash”-es. Now, I see it everywhere as the newest all-natural weight loss facilitator. And since we were at the north end of the strip, what better thing to stop and have then a big hotdog? Nothing! That’s what.

Now for the moment of truth. We had decided in advance that we were going to do something that we had said we wanted to do since our first trip out, and never have managed to get around to doing. We were going to visit one of the big-time casinos off the strip. But where to go? The Hard Rock was a straight shot down the street that Planet Hollywood sat on. But the cabbie we had on the way in said that The Palms was cooler. Not to mention, Rio is over by The Palms as well. So we walked, and walked…and walked some more, finally finding ourselves at the southwest corner of Caesar’s Palace. We looked to our right, and it was right there. But for some reason, we decided we didn’t feel like walking it, even though we had ample time and no where to be. Probably a good call, because it ended up being about a two-mile cab ride.

The Palms was a remarkably underwhelming place. All the cool stuff you see on Vegas insiders shows or The Real World is either not available to the general public, doesn’t open until at least 9 (it was about 2), and has a ridiculous cover charge, not to mention a strictly uncomfortable dress code. Not waiting, not paying, not dressing.

Rio was more of the same. It wasn’t a bad place, but all things considered, if you’re going somewhere off the strip to party, you’re probably not going there. The nice thing about the Rio, however, was that they had a free shuttle that ran to Paris, which was right next to Planet Hollywood.

We had dinner out on the patio at Mon Ami Gabi that night in Paris, right across from the Bellagio fountains. I’ve always wondered why there’s so little outdoor seating facing the majesty of the strip in Vegas. Now I know. People gun their engines, rev a bullet bike, yell, shout, get drunk and fall down, all a bunch of things that you don’t want to deal with when you’re sitting at a nice restaurant. If you look around, nearly any hotel that has outdoor seating has all of it built internally to the property to avoid things like that.

God love my wife who was winding down for the night, not to mention had to work the next morning, sensed my jitters, and was nice enough to go with me to the casino floor, as long as we didn’t have to walk too far and weren’t there too long. I was taken by the desire to play at Bellagio. Why? Because it was right across the street, and I’d never gambled there before. So we went and found room at a craps table.

The dice came to me, I made a point, and started rolling. It was a pretty nice little run. I wasn’t throwing everything for strikes, but people we making money, karma was high, and all was well. Then this guy comes to the table and stands just to my right with two guys that were there before me. He puts down his player’s card, looks as the box man, and says “$2,500 please”. And just like that, no ID, no conversation, no nothing, they hand him over an assload of chips. He then looks at his friends and says “So, is this guy hot?” They nod, indicating that I’d been lucky so far, and he proceeds to reach down and put $100 on the come line. I rolled an 8, and he backed his $100 with $300 more. Thank God I made a point. He might have killed me…swear to God.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

It's RIGHT THERE!

It’s right there! We knew better. We’ve been to Vegas before. We know nothing is ever right there. It looks like it’s right there, but it’s actually in a galaxy far, far away. Okay, so that’s not true either. But saying that it’s right there became the tagline for this trip.

Trina was fortunate enough to go to a conference in the City of Sin for work, so we figured if flights were reasonable, why not fly out and spend a long weekend? Well, that was the first problem; flights were not at all reasonable. Thankfully, my dad had some SkyMiles to spare, so for a $20 processing fee, I was all set for a flight direct from Cincy to Vegas and back.

Poor Trina had to be up around 4 a.m. to get to the Dayton airport, while I got an extra two hours of sleep to fly out of Cincinnati at 9. Of course, I would just so happen to leave my phone, and subsequently my alarm clock, in the living room, and just happened to wake up a half-hour later then I planned to. So in a whirlwind of activity, I got myself together and bolted to the airport. Turns out one person carrying everything on can blaze through security and get to a gate in no time flat. But I was concerned that this was fate suggesting that I tread lightly and not press my luck too hard gambling.

A few hours later, we were on final approach to land at McCarren, and I just didn’t have quite the same rush that I tend to have when landing in Vegas. Maybe it’s because this was going to be a different kind of Vegas experience? It was just the two of us, with no one else to entertain or anyone else’s needs to satisfy. Maybe it was because we were going to be coming back again in about five weeks for my birthday? Or maybe it was the fates telling me again to be very, very careful about where I lay my money down.

I found Trina at the baggage carousel and we made our way to the taxi stand where we were immediately greeted by people packed into lines for cabs like cattle, immediately reminding me why we avoid doing Vegas on the weekends whenever possible. But this weekend was particularly tough as it was the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, hence the exorbitant prices. But with a remarkable level of efficiency, the staff moved people through the line and we found ourselves in a cab on the way to Planet Hollywood. Oh, by the way, not only was it the first weekend of the tournament, it was also Spring Break. No wonder the place was so mobbed.

After getting checked in and freshening up, we made our way down the strip to Mandalay Bay for lunch at the Burger Bar, a staple for all of our Vegas excursions. We were greeted by two prissy little hostesses who thought they were miles more attractive then they actually were, who told us we were looking at a 30-minute wait to be seated. Did I mention that it was 11:30 a.m.? Anyway, we waited, and waited, and waited, and just when we were about to tap out, the called for us. Now, two things to mention about this place; first, I’ve never waited more then about two minutes to be seated. Second, while the food is good, the service is usually pretty slow. Thankfully our waitress hustled her tail off and not only was the food excellent, it was very quick.

We milled around a bit, eventually finding out way back to our hotel, which was impressively equipped to handle the massive influx of both conventioneers, and the may lay of drunken basketball enthusiasts who’s goal in life was to watch as many games as they possibly could, all at one time. But time, travel, and lack of sleep caught up to Trina, and she was ready to cash it in by about 8. Not a problem. I was feeling antsy anyways, so why not capitalize on the opportunity to hit the tables?

After getting the lay of the land, I had a seat at a $10 table with a bunch of guys that were apparently irritated about the day’s upsets in the bracket. They were surly, irritable, didn’t want to talk to anyone, including each other, and just generally bad for table karma. And as soon as the first hand was dealt, the pit boss flips a switch to make the table $15 a hand to all new players. (Get up! Get out of there! Nothing good can come from this!) Six hands, $80 gone, didn’t so much as push a single hand. Screw it. You can’t force these things. Time to call it a night.

There are not many things that are so cool and so cheap to do in Vegas as watch the sunrise. And if you’re from the Eastern Time zone, it’s very easy. Just wake up and crack your blinds. And Saturday morning looking clear and sunny, why not break out the shorts and a polo shirt? Because walking down the strip with massive monolith hotels putting mass between you and sun while casting massive shadows will make you cold! That’s why not. Oh well. Pressing on…

We stopped in Paris to grab some breakfast to go, and kept heading north. The plan was to have a Big Hot Dog (Slots of Fun) and drinks at Parasol Down (Wynn), both Vegas vacation staples. We arrived at the Wynn a bit early and had some time to kill, so we toured the small shops that were opening and stopped in Belts, Bags, and Baubles in the Wynn lobby. What better way to kill time then to try on hats that cost $1200? But where else can you do things like that without people looking at you like you have no business being in the store? Nowhere! That’s where.

his was the first time the “it’s right there” joke started kicking in. We decided to walk through the connecting halls from Wynn to Encore. Now, to look at them from the outside, you’d say they were adjacent. 15 minutes of walking the internal structure of that place would beg to differ. It turned out to be totally worth it though, when we made it to Encore’s casino floor, and for the first time ever, I made my way to a craps table.