Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Fortunes Won and Lost on Every Deal

AROUND THIS TIME NEXT month, I will be deeply sick. Sick of mind, not of body, though the physical side effects of the mental trauma are usually fatigue, loss of muscle tone, and weight gain. My condition will not be unique. Millions of people suffer it yearly. They learn too late that the cure of the malady is, tragically, further exposure to its cause.

I speak, of course, of LVWS: Las Vegas Withdrawal Syndrome.

Just before the NFL Conference Championship playoffs in January, I will make my eighth trip to Las Vegas. I've stayed at two hotels in the previous seven trips: the fabulous mid-Strip Flamingo for the first three, and the venerable yet dazzling Golden Nugget in the Downtown area of the city. The Nugget will be my home away from home again this time.

I was unprepared for what I would encounter on my first trip in June of 2001. Friends of mine had been out there earlier that year, and I knew one or two former coworkers who had gotten married or had family there. My own interest in gambling developed locally. I had made my first gambling trip to a casino (Foxwoods, in Connecticut) in September 2000. Though I didn't know how to play most of the games, I was still fascinated by the whole operation: the dealers throwing out cards or counting chips with accurate flair; the players crowding around the roulette wheels or craps tables and by turns celebrating or scowling; the massive wall of TV screens and LED horse listings in the race book, and the hordes of hard-bitten men squinting at Daily Racing Forms; and over everything, the electronic warbling of thousands of slot machines. I played a few games, lost, and headed back home, lighter in wallet but intrigued.

By next March, I had taught myself the basics of blackjack. This was just before the current poker boom, when blackjack was still the most well-known casino game. I returned to Foxwoods, found a relatively inexpensive blackjack table, and with the help of a matronly dealer who must have had a soft spot for newbies, I won $362.50. (Yes, I remember the exact number. As you will learn in this blog, I have a memory like a fly strip: adhesive and incriminating.)

It was a fateful day. A crushing loss that afternoon might have sent me home with a sour taste for any wagering more significant than a box on a Super Bowl grid, never to set foot in a casino again. Instead, I returned home exultant and already planning my next outing . . . on which, a month later, as if to rub things in, I won another $125.

Hell, I was a goddamn expert, now.

By now, my thoughts were turning to Las Vegas. Though on my third trip gravity and probability had reasserted themselves and I had made a donation to the kindly Mashantucket Pequot tribe, I felt pulled to give Sin City a try. Not just for blackjack — if anything, I went into the plan figuring I would leave a good chunk of my money out there — but for the entire experience. The neon . . . the Elvises . . . the wild gaming action . . . the Rat Pack . . . I figured I had to do it at least once before I died. And it had been nearly 6 years since my last significant out-of-town vacation. I was due.

In the waning weeks of winter 2001, I resarched my Vegas options. I snagged the latest Fodor's guide and read up on the newsgroup alt.vacation.las-vegas (which was a lot less choked with spam than it is nowadays), but by far my most useful and hilarious resource was Cheapo Vegas. From all of this — and from a sense of history — I decided on the Flamingo Hotel and Casino. It offered a huge amount of reasonably priced rooms, one of the best pool areas in Vegas, a real-live zoo with penguins, and two historical bullet points:

1. The modern Las Vegas Strip was founded here by Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, and
2. Part of Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas transpired here.

The Mafia and the Good Doctor. How could I miss?

And so it was that in June of 2001, I stepped off a Continental jet into the vaulting expanse of the terminal at McCarran International Airport and found myself surrounded by two groups of travelers: those gloomily waiting to depart, and those plopped down in front of the scores of slot machines in the terminal.

Yes, slots in the actual terminal.


I made a fine first effort to blend tourism and gambling that first trip. I played blackjack up and down the Strip. I floated idly in the Flamingo's gorgeous pool complex. I assaulted the town's buffets like a wall of angry Mongols shattering a city gate. I drove my rental car out to Hoover Dam and joined a tour group in burrowing deep into its concrete recesses. And more than anything, I confronted the simple brutality of Vegas heat in June as I trod the roasting sidewalks from one hotel to another.

The contact high lasted for at least 2 weeks following my return. The addiction? Still going strong.

The $350 I lost while in town was of little consequence compared to the fun I had. When George Clooney refers to Las Vegas as "America's Playground" in Ocean's Eleven, he is not merely bullshitting Matt Damon. Though the free food and rooms are not as liberally dispensed as they were when the Mob openly ran the town, you can still sit back and be pampered in more refined ways: spa service, gourmet restaurants, artfully designed casinos, hot cocktail waitresses (oh, damn, I did say refined, didn't I?), and increasingly plush accommodations as the town's hoteliers try to outdo one another. These days, you can go to a property like Wynn Las Vegas or Mandalay Bay or the Venetian and have a diverse Las Vegas weekend without ever leaving the joint.

I always rent a car, though, because I like to get out and drive around the town. Last time, I snagged the car at the airport, which allowed me a glory roll down the Las Vegas Strip. Even in the daylight, it's stunning. Of course, I made the same trip once night fell, to recharge my batteries by digging the millions of feet of neon signage glowing in the hot desert night.

When someone says the word vacation to me, I automatically think Las Vegas. When a coworker mentions that he or she has plans to visit the city, I immediately feel envious, then ask where he or she will stay, so I can follow up when they return and learn what that hotel is like. When the first snow falls in New Jersey, I begin thinking of my western escape route to the city in the desert. I have made reservations during snowstorms before. As if it really takes that much.

I will undoubtedly have more to share as the day draws near for departure. I know I won't be sleeping that night, so where better to listen to the minutes tick away?

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