Friday, July 31, 2009

Vegas: February 2006 I

The next trip out to Vegas came a lot sooner then expected. As a treat to himself for working with the relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina, my stepfather, Pat decided that he wanted to undertake the pilgrimage. It also coincided with his birthday, so it all worked well. This time would be Mom, Pat, their friend Melanie and her husband Don, and then Trina and me. And while we’re at it, why mess with what works? Fly in early Monday and out Thursday afternoon. It was beautiful, particularly because I didn’t have to be the one to drive before the crack of dawn.

We arrived early in the day on Monday in February. Make no mistake about it, even though you’re in the desert, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be warm. Obviously, it was warmer then Cincinnati in the middle of the winter, but there would be no talk of pools or shorts. And this time, we would move one hotel farther south on the strip to stay at Mandalay Bay. Nice place to be sure. The lobby was beautiful and the whole thing felt tropical from the look to the smells. The rooms were impressive too, and Trina would be the first to tell you that the bathrooms were amazing. Quite possibly the highlight of the trip, so far as she was concerned.

The pace of the trip was different from the beginning. Not bad, just different. See, what I’ve noticed is that depending on the diversity of age in the people around you, gambling takes on different levels of enjoyment as well as ways to reach that enjoyment. Personally, I want to sit at a $5 table. I’ll sit at a $10, but I always seem to be tentative about my play, which doesn’t help anything or anyone. It’s not that I won’t bet $10 a hand or more, but I don’t want to have to. So my thoughts are always to gamble in the morning or afternoon when the tables are cheap, and do the tourist-y stuff at night when there is rarely a $5 table to be found. Well, that philosophy doesn’t work when you’re with a group of people whose household incomes are between $150-200k.

It was becoming more and more apparent that something about this trip was different then our trip just five short months ago. Maybe it was the fact that there weren’t ten months of anticipation leading up to it? Maybe it was the fact that we didn’t take the time and effort to pay for this trip ourselves? Maybe it was the dichotomy of having six personalities ranging from one end of the spectrum to the other. Actually, I think it was probably all three.

The first day was spent walking up and down the strip with the usual ooh’s and ahh’s that first-timers experience. By the time we went as far north as we dared go, and made our way most of the way back, the crew thought it would be fun to walk over to Rio and see Penn and Teller. Incidentally, we were right at the corner between Caesar’s Palace and Bellagio. Their intentions were good enough, but they had no idea how far we really were from Rio. I mean, it’s right there! Can’t take that long to walk to it right? Trina and I took our leave to relax the rest of the night.

The next morning, the first thing we heard at breakfast was “do you have any idea how far off the strip Rio is?” Yeah, I do. Why do you think we didn’t walk to hoof it all the way over there?

We walked a little, looked a little, gambled a little, and decided that night was going to be our go-somewhere-nice-for-dinner-and-splurge night. The plan was to go to Aureole. If you don’t know, Aureole is a Michelin-rated restaurant that houses a three-story wine tower. Within the tower are “wine angels”; women in climbing harnesses that can ascend the entire height of the tower to get what ever bottle is chosen, then deliver it to the table. Very cool. But upon looking that the menu, it was just a little too off the wall for our unrefined palates.

Enter: The Russkie.

Just around the corner from Aureole is a place called Red Square. As you may have guessed, it’s all-Russian themed to include some amazing vodkas. At the bar, there is a strip in the middle that’s a frozen block of ice, ideal for keeping your drink cold while you take in the scenery and wait for dinner. Their menu is nice, but with no question about it, their attraction is the martinis and other vodka-based delights. I started with a White Russian while Trina has Persephone’s Pomme, which was pomegranate flavored. But the drink that likely won the night was the Russkie. This beast was a super-smooth banana martini that you would suck right down asking for another one and reminding them to put some booze in it next time. Of course, it was all booze, and so cold and smooth that you didn’t realize it until you were too drunk to pronounce the name and ask for another.

We could have stayed all night enjoying everything that was going on around us. But we decided to take our leave and head north up the strip to Harrah’s. Harrah’s is a huge place, but doesn’t have quite the glitz, glamour, or theme of some of the megacasinos in the city. For that reason, it’s often overlooked. I don’t know why? It’s got a killer location, reasonably priced gambling, nice rooms, and what drew us there that night, an out of the way comedy club. They’ve hosted a ton of celebs, but on this night, we saw Adam Ferrara.

Adam Ferrara has been working in stand-up comedy for years. Until the past few years he’s been lesser known in the shadows of comics like Dennis Leary and Andrew Dice Clay. Now, you might have seen him in “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” or as a regular on “Rescue Me”. But now I can saw “I saw him when…” and he was amazing. Fantastically gifted, great presence, and took time to meet the audience at the end of the night. Total entertainer, totally worth it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Vegas II

The man who would end up being my brother-in-law took me upstairs and got me to my room. I couldn’t see straight, and I hadn’t had so much as a sip to drink. Probably a good thing as I would have gone face-down asleep right there on my chips.

Babies don’t sleep this well.

The next day yielded a wealth of options. The only problem is when you’re from the Midwest, and you’re up and going two time zones away, NOTHING is open yet. Undaunted, we took to the planning phase of the day. It would go something like this; eat, take the monorail as far north as we could, from there, cab it downtown, play around on historic Fremont Street, cab back to the north end of the strip, eat the biggest hotdog known to man, then spend the rest of the day walking back from the Circus Circus area, to the Luxor. For the record, if you’ve never been to Vegas, the place if full of optical illusions. More specifically, things look really close that are a country mile away because everything’s so damn big. If you were to walk the length of Caesar’s Palace, you’ll cross three, maybe four streets and still be in front of it. So to start at one end of the strip, put your head down, don’t take time to see anything, oooh or ahhh (which is impossible by the way), and just walk, you’re still looking at probably 25 minutes.

Then the damndest thing happened, starting at Binions Horseshoe…we won. We didn’t win a lot. We weren’t breaking the bank or anything. But Josh, Sarah and I would sit down, buy in for $40 as was the trip custom, and then all cast a look to one another when it was time to get up, generally between $60-100 richer then when we sat. If you’ve been to Vegas, or any casino for that matter, you know how rarely it is that you win, let alone a party of three. Oh well…what a fluke. Then Four Queens, and we won. Then some other small place on Fremont Street, and won.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. We’re clearly being punked by some hidden camera. Let’s all time out, head back to the strip, get a hot dog, have a Coke and a smile. And away we went.

Another Vegas destination is Slots-of-Fun casino at the north end of the strip. It’s a tiny, stand-alone place right in front of Circus Circus, and, as you may have guessed, it’s got a few tables, but mainly a ton of slots. But nestled up in the front corner of the place, is a little snack stand, where you can get a hot dog that’s roughly 16 inches long, and at least the diameter of a quarter. Easy big spender, it’ll cost you about $1.39. Want chili on that? $1.49. Chili and cheese? $1.59. Add a large coke, and you’re totally stuffed for about three bucks. It’s amazing. Now that we were refueled, the tour was to recommence.

We picked up right where we left off. Sit down, win. Go somewhere else, sit down, win. Freaky. The gambling gods looked upon us with favor, and nothing must be said that would seek their wrath, for they are fickle, and easily offended. So tips were paid to dealers, bets made on their behalf, if a deck was cut and profitable, the same person would cut again, good lucks and table bumps offered when someone had an ace dealt first, cheers when it was followed with a 10.

Then we stopped at O’Shea’s. This small haunt is right next to Harrah’s. It’s mostly open air, with a great view just to the south of Bellagio. After cab rides, lunch, and gambling from place to place, we were all ahead of the game, up for the day. Trina sought out some penny slots to get free drinks, and again, Josh, Sarah and I took to a table with our standard $40 buy-in. It was a $5 minimum double-deck game, the kind where they still let you touch the cards, and we were flanked at first and third base by 2 friends from Utah, I think. They seemed to be holding their own just fine before we got there, but once we sat, the gods saw fit to reward us all once more, as we won, and won, and won.

It was the kind of runs people dream about (or write blog entries about four years later). Of course, they usually dream about making these runs with black chips at $100 a pop, as opposed to the red $5 chips that occasionally totaled up to as much as $15 when we were feeling REALLY saucy. Nevertheless, the time passed, shuffle, cut, shuffle, cut, and on and on with everyone continuing to win. Before it was over, I’m pretty sure we tallied up around $600 between the three in our group. Hell with the buffet…it was time to go somewhere nice for dinner! Fat Burger or bust, baby! Actually, we were so spent that we barely made it through a late-night sandwich at the café in the Luxor and packed it in.

The bulk of our last full day there was a bit of a blur. We never spent a day at the pool, nor did we take much time to see attractions and do the tourist-y stuff we all planned on doing, mostly because we just kept winning. I figured we’d all be flat broke by 3 p.m. on day two. Instead, everything became a question of bets.

“Wanna see Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay?”
“Well we could, but at $20 a person, that’s like, four bets each!”
“Alright, let’s go find the tables.”
“Cab ride?”
“$15 bucks? Hell no. That’s as many as three bets!”
“Good God you’re right! Let’s walk five miles in 90 degrees!”

Under the auspices of the rationale “if some is good, more is better” we walked north again to find a seat at O’Shea’s. Somehow, Josh’s bankroll had dwindled down to about $50 or so. Not bad for someone who managed to gamble the whole trip on $200, but somehow managed to lose the previous day’s winnings. We found a table, and the cards hadn’t cooled down in the least.

I have no idea how long we were there? It had to be a couple hours. I was feeling pretty good about my whole state of being. I had cash in front of me, we were all winning well more then we were losing, and the unconventional play of doubling on a soft 18 was paying off in spades.

At $5-10 a crack, I was flirting with the $200 mark in pure profit for the day when I catch an elbow from Josh.

“Dude, I just tallied my money, and I’ve got $260 in front of me.”
“What? Are you serious? And you’ve already pocketed back your buy-in?”
“Yeah! What do we do now?”
“You push all your chips in the middle, ask him to color you up, and we get the hell out of here…immediately!”

Again, if some is good, more is better. Undaunted, he decided to press on, as I colored up my chips, and stood back to watch. The next four hands he was dealt natural 20’s…and lost all four time to four and five-card 21’s. Now it was really time to leave.

We spent the night modestly. We had a nice dinner in the Luxor. We walked down to see the pirate battle at Treasure Island, which has really gone downhill by the way. We didn’t sit and gamble so much as a dollar the rest of the trip.

Thursday came. Time to go home. Time to pack up and leave the glitz and glamour and rush all behind us. We sat in the terminal eating $7 Big Macs and talking about how soon we could get back. Spring? Summer? Next fall at the latest. See, that’s the thing about that whole town. You win, and you feel this level of invincibility. You feel like you were able to make it happen for yourself. You spend three days getting your ass kicked and you can’t leave the city fast enough. Ah hell, who am I kidding? I’d be fighting to get back either way.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Vegas '05 Part I

When I have spare time, I like to read Bill Simmons articles on Page 2 of ESPN. I love his writings, and it doesn’t really matter what his topic is. They’re all good. But in particular, I really, really enjoy the ones he writes about his trips, nay, pilgrimages to Las Vegas. That said my inspiration was motivated to recount and recollect my own Vegas experiences in kind. One of them I touched on in my very first blog entry ever, and another was when I was a mere lad of 14 and went out for a wedding, not being of age to do anything worth talking about anyway. But I’ll touch on highlights of what would turn out to be the second, just for continuity.

August, 2001: In the works for years, literally, my grandmother took me to Vegas for my 21st birthday, which was actually that May. My dad and roommate, Andy, went with us. The majority of the trip was spent with Grandma Karen doing things with another friend of hers who happened to be there too, while the three of us crammed into a room and played blackjack at $3 a hand. To sum up, we all got our butts kicked and came home broke.

February, 2005: Katrina and I get the bright idea that in several months time, we are going to take Josh and a friend to Vegas for his 21st birthday. Brilliant!
October, 2005: A routine is born. Teeming with excitement and overwhelmed by our preponderance of procrastination, of course we aren’t yet packed. So hot pizza and cold coke became the dinner of choice while we taking turns packing and cleaning our house, all while talking about what we would do if we won a stupid amount of money, and watching the movie Casino for the umpteenth time.

At 0-dark-30 the following morning, I arose to rally the troops, get them dressed, pack their stuff in the car, brush their teeth, put in their contacts and all other manner of early rituals, just to drop them into the car and watch them all fall right back to sleep as I have to drive us to the Dayton airport, roughly 40 or so miles from our apartment to catch a 6 am flight. It’s an odd set of circumstances to deal with, driving before dawn with a bunch of people sleeping, trying not to wake them, but playing music loud enough and keeping the cabin temperature cool enough to keep them asleep but you awake. A delicate dance. A ballet, if you will.

After being hassled and searched just short of requiring a dinner for my time and services, we work our way on to the plane to be greeted by none other then a shoulder to shoulder packed flight and scattered seats to the point that we couldn’t even negotiate with a near-by passenger to swap with us. The only available seat on the whole plane is right next to me. Not a week before, Trina flew to New York for work, and was totally freaked out, no thanks to me, about flying to New York, near the anniversary of 9/11, and on the Ramadan. Now was time for payback as a lone middle-eastern gentleman with a turban was making his was to what was the only open seat left on the plane. I’m sorry to stereotype, but you came thought security, were “randomly” searched, then sniffed by bomb dogs, right? Glancing back and catching Trina’s eye as if to telepathically convey my fear, she just grins and nods as if to say “paybacks a bitch!” Yeah, if the plane explodes at 30,000 feet, you’ll live. All in all, I was fine until we started to taxi to the runway, and this guy puts his head down and starts to pray in Hindi. Dude, reach for your shoes, and I’m taking you out. I’ve never gotten off a plane so fast in my life.

After a quick jaunt through Dallas, we find ourselves on final approach to the aeronautic gateway to the majesty that is Las Vegas, Nevada. All I can hear in my head is Elvis signing “A Little More Conversation” as the early morning sun reflects off the Mandalay Bay hotel blinding all those who dare to look right at it. If you haven’t ever been to McCarren airport, it’s a trip. The excitement of the city swallows you immediately as you are greeted by clanging slot machines, and chain smokers fighting to the death to get a spot in the smokers lounge in each terminal. And thinking we would be smart and beat the rush, we just packed light, carrying everything on. Fat chance as we hit the sidewalk and find ourselves 30 people deep in line for a taxi. It’s 9:37 a.m. local time on a Monday in September. Don’t you people have jobs?

A short time later, the cousin of the guy that I sat next to on the first leg of the trip drops us of at the Luxor, we check in, and then review the plan of attack; gamble, drink, gamble, eat something, gamble, and gamble. Josh, God love him, comes strong with his $200 to gamble on for the week thinks he’s going to sit down at a poker table and pull a Mike McD, parlaying all that jack into several grand. Ah Hollywood. So on the fly, while walking the strip and seeing what all there is to see, I start briefing him on the rules and etiquette of the illustrious game that is Black Jack.

Our first experience at the table went up and down, but ultimately we came out with more then we sat down with, all in all netting probably $60 or so a piece. A little more walking found us back at the Luxor with all of us retiring to our rooms to rejuvenate a bit, not that I slept. I was wired. I was bitten by the bug. The sights, sounds, smells, all of it; I just wanted more.

I guess it was just a little while later, probably 7 or so, that Josh knocked on our door, and it was time to hit the trough again. Sarah was still asleep, so Josh, Trina, and I went down to enjoy the Burger Bar in Mandalay Bay. Then, like the Sirens beckoning Ulysses to the rocks, the tables called. Trina took her leave, went up to bed, and still riding the high of where we were, Josh and I took our seats at a $10 double-deck table.

Then, as if ripped from the pages of the “You know you should go to bed when…” manual, Josh quickly lost his buy in, while I couldn’t lose a hand. Ordinarily, I hate being the only one at the table, but when you’re winning four out of every five hands, you don’t leave. About the time the four wannabe high-rollers, a.k.a. IT guys at a conference away from their wives, sat down and immediately started complaining about my play. “What? You’re doubling down? Oh man! Split those. No not those. Why would you- ugh.” Hey, I’m all for table mojo, and these guys were doing their best to screw it up. So with my eyes crossing, I’m pretty sure I said something snarky about how I was the only one at the table winning, when Josh helped me to understand that it would be in my best interests to go to bed. Probably a good idea since it was a little after midnight local time, and I had now been up for 24 hours straight.