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Saturday, January 14, 2006

Making an Entrance

Countdown to Vegas, Episode 2. Mrs. Jackmama suggested that I do some kind of countdown to my trip, and I decided to write a story per day from one of my previous visits.

March 2003

I didn't make my first trip to Las Vegas until I was 30 years old. For whatever reason, I had suppressed the inner gamble and hadn't yet felt the pull. I think a large part of that stems from traveling in a circle of friends that never arranged a bachelor party in Las Vegas. Everyone else in my family seems to have done that, but the planets never aligned for me. I am holding out for a friend of mine to get married again, if only so I can convince him to have the wedding in Las Vegas. I selflessly offered to make the trip, and to attend the wedding between sessions at the craps table.

It happened that one year, my parents and aunt and uncle were planning a spring trip to Vegas, and asked Mrs. Jackmama and I if we would be interested. Well, yes. Aside from being our first trip to the Happiest Place on Earth, this was also the first time I'd been invited to go on vacation with my parents, and accorded the same adult status as everyone else (i.e., they weren't going to pick up the check). I've always been a largely independent sort of kid, but something about going on a vacation with your parents as an adult gives you pause for thought. Like having to stop thinking of yourself as a kid. Which I apparently haven't done yet, almost three years later.

We stayed at the New Frontier, which now holds the distinction of being Next Rat-trap to Be Torn Down, I think. The last time I strolled through the Frontier, I felt an almost palpable sense of desperation, exhaustion and fatalism. Unlike other casinos, where some craps table or roulette table is crowded with a cackling bachelorette party, the Frontier is like walking into a library. A library with rows of slot machines and no prohibition on smoking, that is. The entire gambling population seems to be retirees bent on putting their last fifty bucks into a slot machine so the ungrateful wretches that sold their houses and put them in retirement communities can't take the last of it. I wanted to play some blackjack, for old time's sake, but I just couldn't get out of there fast enough.

My parents and aunt and uncle have made many, many pilgrimages to the Mecca. For our first trip, they wanted to make sure we saw all the sights we'd need to see, and to make sure that we signed up for player's cards at every casino. They each produced lanyards with a dozen cards attached, that they carried along with them to every casino. In order to get rated for your play, the casinos require that you sign up for one of their cards and present it at every game you play. I initially scoffed at the idea, but using the card at the Frontier, combined with my mom's characteristic persistence, resulted in a Sunday - Saturday stay of $246. At that rate, I can forgive many shortcomings in a hotel.

After checking in, we went on a walking tour of the north end of the Strip. We strolled through the Stardust, which is somewhat less dead than the Frontier, but Boyd Gaming's recent announcement of plans to tear it down can't have come too soon. All the bargain-rate travelers, and families staying at Circus Circus have destroyed everything north of the Wynn. All of this went unnoticed by me in 2003, in part because I was seeing everything through new eyes, and partly because the Wynn was a vast construction project directly outside my window at the Frontier, and was populated by loud machines which woke me up at promptly 6:05 each morning. I was told that a new resort was going up, and that it was by Steve Wynn. In my Vegas innocence, that meant very little to me. I actually imagined it was some sort of waterpark going in.

Our next stop was the Westward Ho, which was Next Rat-trap to Be Torn Down a couple of months ago. I believe it has realized that potential. I remember being in middle school when my parents made their first trip to Vegas, and that they stayed at the Westward Ho. They even brought back some decks of cards, and the Westward Ho was one of my favorite decks. It seemed like an adventurous name for an exciting place. Jeez louise. I can't imagine a less adventurous or exciting place. I read recently about parents who take advantage of in-store daycares at places like Ikea, and drop their kids off to go get their hair cut or shop elsewhere, and then return after several hours to collect their kids. I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that people did the same thing with their elderly parents at Westward Ho. If those people were any older or more sedentary, they'd be under glass. *rim-shot*

The Westward Ho earned its place in the pantheon of my gambling memory by being the very first casino I ever played blackjack in, outside of Indian casinos. Indian casinos don't count because, as one man I met so accurately described them, "They're just bingo halls that deal cards." So I made my grand entrance at a $3 table.

It wasn't my first time playing blackjack, so I had a decent handle on basic strategy and could play without looking like an idiot. Well, I thought so, anyway.

I played a couple of easy hands before a waitress came along. "Can I get you something, hun?"

"Sure, could I get a Corona?"

She favored me with a pitying glance and then explained, "I'm sorry, dear, but since you're only betting 3 dollars, I can only get you something from the tap."

Ouch. Way to look like you've been there before.

"A glass of Bud Light would be fine," I said, trying to maintain some dignity.

The next hand was dealt and I was so flustered by the waitress that I made a really stupid play. Hit 4 against a 6 or something. I don't remember what the cards were, but it set the old biddies at the other end of the table into a grumbling festival. Never show weakness in front of bitter old women waiting to die. I played a few more hands and then moved on.

As the week wore on, I realized how ridiculous the situation at the Westward Ho was. I had no reason to feel flustered because the cheap bastards that run the casino wouldn't offer bottled beer at the table. Hell, they advertise 99 cent bottles of Heineken! Can they really expect people to believe that they lose money on beer at a $3 blackjack table?

Further, the people that bitch and complain about other players at a blackjack table almost never understand the game. They learned how to play from some uncle that picked up what he knew from a strategy card, and don't know how to react to unorthodox plays. I've been known to split 9s against an 8, knowing that it's a risk to try to hit two 10s, but sometimes I haven't seen many 10s and know that they must be coming. Big deal. The biggest mistake people make at a blackjack table is believing that someone else's play affects them. Those people irritate me.

Clearly, I am a lot more confident in the casinos now, with several more Vegas trips under my belt. I'm also more comfortable allowing the Inner Gambler to shine through sometimes, especially if it's going to piss off some old biddy that learned how to play blackjack in a bingo parlor. I will go out of my way to help new people that ask for help, and I'll defend people that play foolishly, because it's their damned money. Mostly though, I don't play a lot of blackjack any more. If I'm going to gamble at something with a house advantage, I'll play craps. There's just something about a game where everyone wins and loses together.

Except for those Don't Pass bettors who don't know to keep their traps shut when they're winning. They can go straight to Hell with those old biddies that welcomed me to the Westward Ho.


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