Monday, July 24, 2006

Las Vegas 7/06: Landings, Lodgings, and First Blood

EACH TIME I HAVE visited Las Vegas, I have rented a car. It seemed like a given for the first trip, even though I was staying at the Flamingo, which is dead center on the Strip and accessible to many fine properties via foot or cab. I knew I was going to Hoover Dam, a trip I wanted to make on my own, not subject to the whims of a tour bus driver. It turned out I also made a couple of side trips into the depths of Vegas's non-Strip turf, at least once to take a break from the clanging slots and the vicissitudes of the blackjack tables.

This time was no different, and perhaps more essential, as I was staying Downtown again. My first three stays were at the Flamingo, then I gave the Golden Nugget a try Downtown. I gave them my business the next three times, only breaking the pattern this January when the Nugget's reservation system went kerflooie and I went a block away to the Plaza. Because this trip was planned with considerably less lead time than is typical for me, I didn't bother with the Nugget and went straight for the Plaza. I survived the last trip, why not try them again?

The plane landed on time — finding me with my eyes closed and my breath held. The only part of air travel I can't take is the landing. When the plane is taking off, if there's any sort of problem, I figure the plane can just wheel around and land. In the air, we have redundant systems, two to four engines, several alternate airports at which to land, and the ability to glide if all else fails. Coming in for a landing, however, I feel like I have the least control over anything. Granted, I have control over precisely nothing on the airplane at any time, but it feels most apparent at landing. Everything from the last five seconds above the ground, through that first shuddering touchdown, the throaty roar of the reversed engines, and the sway of the craft as it decelerates, finds me sitting stiff and straight and soaking my knees or the armrests with my sweating palms.

Thus far, this has passed quickly, and when we are merely rolling across the tarmac, with the unmatched skyline of the Las Vegas Strip gliding by the window, all the excitement of the destination rushes back and stomps my landing anxiety into the desert sands.

After the glitch last January with the rental car, I decided not to take chances and rented a Hertz vehicle straight out of the airport. It costs more to rent there, because of fees and taxes McCarran imposes on airport rentals, but with the flight out to Vegas in January free due to frequent flyer miles, I was $300 ahead of the game. The convenience was worth paying for. I had to wait for about 15 minutes for them to find me a car, because I used a AAA upgrade. I wondered how many travelers got sick of waiting, told the clerks to cancel the search, and took what they were initially assigned. I decided not to give the house any advantage. Many folks in the rental hut were not as lucky, having walked straight in from the planes that had gotten them there and tried to rent cars without reservations. Their waits were destined to be much longer than mine.

After that quarter hour, during which I tried not to listen to a high-talking man bray into his cellphone at full lisp about his business problems (the day they permit cell access on planes, expect a logarithmic rise in passenger fistfights and air-marshall weapon discharge reports), I hightailed it across the sizzling parking lot to a Toyota Solara, which was occupied by the Texas family that had just returned it. I evicted them, tossed my two bags into the trunk, and roared off toward the Strip.

As hungry as I might be upon arrival, as late as cross-country storms may have made my flight, as much as I might need caffeine or a bathroom to eliminate same, I always cruise up the Strip early in my trip. I watch the crowds milling from casino to casino in the late-morning sun. I scan the skyline for construction cranes to see if any of the megaresorts have suddenly added a tower or two in my absence. I ride along under the fringe of the Strip's palm trees, maybe even with the window down to hear the delight of the crowd and the carnival barkers outside the gamble palaces offering their alluring temptations. I soak up the heat and the sounds and the absurd architecture and feel at peace. At least, as peaceful as you can be with 50-foot depictions of acrobats, impersonators, and clowns screaming at you from every signboard.

A word here about the Toyota Solara. As rental cars go, this one rates near the bottom. Ergonomically everything felt off. It was probably more spacious inside than the Corolla, from which I had upgraded via AAA, but the positions of various buttons and levers was disquieting and just inconvenient enough to feel like I was wearing someone else's favorite sweater. Of particular vexation was the trunk door and release. The gas-door latch was above the trunk latch, which itself was recessed beneath the floor-line of the car. Time and again I was readying my gas tank for a good sugaring. Triggering the trunk release with the remote required me to press and hold the button for several wasted seconds. Worst of all, the trunk required a good slam to shut it properly. I didn't realize all this until near the end of the first full day, but by that time, I was too set on actually enjoying my vacation to sweat out another stretch in the rental office. The trunk almost cost me dearly, however, when I unthinkingly closed it in the parking garage of one of the casinos, and, upon returning later, noticed that it had not latched shut at all. I slowly opened the trunk, steeling myself to discover my backpack swollen with all manner of books and papers to be gone, but there it was. Call it goodwill, or maybe gambling-focused monomania on the part of the casino's patrons, but as Vegas luck goes, this was my peak.

As is my usual practice, I spent my arrival day checking in (which got me a fine, high, south-pointed view of the Strip), unwinding from the trip, unpacking, driving around a bit, walking to foot-accessible Downtown casinos to snoop about . . . everything but poker. I did gamble, however. Before I left in January, I bought $10 in $1 chips at the Plaza, because they had recently rebranded their casino with a cool new Googie-inspired logo, and I wanted a stack to shuffle next to my keyboard while I thought between sentences. (If you've watched a certain amount of poker TV, you've seen the players riffling two stacks of chips between the fingers of one hand into a single, taller stack. Generally, new players' ability to do this is inversely proportional to their actual poker skill. Yes, I'm including myself. Besides, all the cool kids were doing it!) These chips were now somewhat grotty from my constant nervous fiddling (I blame Full Tilt Poker), so I trucked them back to Las Vegas for redemption.

Or . . . perhaps . . . maybe I could make some small coin with them. I sat down at a $5 blackjack table and deployed my massive, two-bet's-worth stack. The dealer certainly didn't tell me to go somewhere else with it. This is Downtown, last refuge of the low-roller. I figured, the worst that happened was I rented these chips for a ten-spot over the past half year. As it turns out, I didn't really have to call on my wavering knowledge of basic blackjack strategy, because the deck hit me quite firmly. I managed to double up my stack to $22 after two shoes, which featured both a lucrative splitting opportunity, a good double down on 11, and a natural. I tipped the dealer one of my white checks and cashed out for an $11 profit. If only every investment yielded a 110% return so effortlessly!

Next up, my return to the fishy waters of no-limit hold'em in Vegas.

Read the start of this descent into poker madness at Escaping West and the Course Curriculum.

For the next chapters in this sordid saga, hit up this list:

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