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.