July 2011 – Las Vegas – Day 1
Everyone who comes to Vegas is chasing something. You have your tangibles – the money, the booze, the women; then you have your intangibles – the power, the hope, the fame. It’s too trite to say we’re chasing a dream. That goes without saying. In Vegas, everyone is chasing a dream. I’d say we’re actually chasing another version of ourselves that we can’t realize in our humdrum daily lives.
I’m not looking to reinvent myself. Rather, for those few days I spend in Vegas each year, I get to see who I could
be in a fantasy world made out of gaudy neon Lego blocks. I suspend reality and I get a brief glimpse of myself existing in an alternate universe where I spend my days chasing something impossible. Some people will chase their fantasies by throwing money around like worthless pieces of paper. Some will drown themselves in a big pair of fake tits. And some will fall prey to the delusion that they’re the greatest poker player in town. Doesn't matter which way you try it – when you touch down in Vegas, the chase is officially on.
Standing in line at U.S. Border Preclearance, I was nervous. I had a couple of Cuban cigars in my suitcase that I was attempting to smuggle into the States for personal consumption. America’s hatred for Cuba runs pretty deep and it’s expressly stated about a zillion times on the Department of Homeland Security website that Cuban cigars are a no-no in the U.S. (regardless of whether they’re for personal consumption). Goddamn Castro. Why can’t we just get along? Being the paranoid border-crosser that I am, I had read extensively online about the best way to bring in Cuban cigars undetected into the States. I had also read some horror stories about individuals being detained at the border after being caught with Cuban cigars. I figured it was worth the risk – the Cohibas I had purchased on a trip earlier this year to Havana were so damn smooth. They would make a lovely post-dinner smoke one night. The easy thing would be to forget the whole thing and buy a couple of shoddy Dominican cigars down in Vegas. But I wouldn’t get much of a sweat out of that, would I? No sir, this would be my first gamble of the trip.
Generally speaking, U.S. Border Preclearance is a great airport feature. You get all of the formalities out of the way before you board your flight and arrive in the U.S. as though you’re on a domestic flight. Sure beats the hell out of waiting to get to the States before finding out you’re going to get waterboarded in a backroom for violating a 50-year-old trade embargo. Of course, I was overreacting. My efforts at carefully removing the Cohiba bands and hiding them in my wallet while stowing the actual cigars in travel tubes at the bottom of my shaving kit were completely unnecessary. The x-ray of my luggage detected nothing and the crotchety border officer was more interested in whether I was carrying in excess of $10,000 in currency.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m meeting a friend down there.”
“What’s the occasion?”
“Uh, nothing really. It’s a vacation.”
“What do you plan on doing in Las Vegas?”
[what the fug do you think I’m going to do? Sing hymns and blow hobos?] “I suppose gamble and what-not.”
“What’s the what-not?”
“I’m not sure I understand the question.”
“You said gamble and ‘what-not’ – I’d like to know what you mean when you say ‘what-not’?”
[side note: at what point in their training do border guards learn to be such smug pricks?]
He stared at me for a beat with a look of distain before responding. “I see.”
“Do you have more than $10,000 in currency on your person?”
“Do you play poker?”
I assumed he had come across a few poker players making their way down to Vegas for the series.
“Some small stakes stuff.”
“Are you playing in the World Series of Poker?” [side note: he scornfully spit out this question as though he was asking whether I was participating in the ‘World Series of Raping Orphans with AIDS-ridden Dildos’]
Knowing he had nothing further to ask, he begrudgingly stated, “Welcome to the United States” while handing me my passport.
While I’ve never been denied entry into the U.S., it’s always I great feeling. It’s as though Willy Wonka just let me into his chocolate factory. I got the golden ticket! Physically I was still in an airport in Canada, but I was now one step closer to the destination I had been dreaming about for weeks. I went on my merry way towards the departure gate and began to count down the minutes before I would be on my way to Vegas.
What a clusterf*ck in Newark. I realize I’m probably breaking new ground by saying this but I had a negative airport experience. The time had arrived to board my connecting flight. Vegas was so close I could taste the yardstick booze slushies. The official announcement was made for first-class passengers. A line formed. The gate door opened and… “Attention ladies and gentlemen on Continental flight XXX to Las Vegas, there is some last minute maintenance they need to do to the aircraft which should take about 10 minutes and then we’ll get on our way. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
Alright, calm down. It’s just 10 minutes.
[15 minutes later]
“Attention ladies and gentlemen, right now the aircraft is too hot so we’re just running the air conditioner to cool it down before we load the passengers. It should be another 10 minutes or so. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
[15 minutes later]
“Attention ladies and gentlemen, it has come to our attention that we cannot use the aircraft because it is leaking fuel. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
[chorus of boos] Son of a bitch.
“At the moment we are trying to get a replacement aircraft. We are gathering information at this time and we will provide you with an update in exactly 10 minutes time. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
[at least 20 minutes later]
“Ladies and gentlemen, we still do not have any information on a replacement aircraft. We will be sure to update you with information as it arrives. In the meantime, we will give you an update in 10 minutes. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
[another 20-odd minutes later]
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have found a replacement aircraft. It is at another terminal of the airport and it will arrive in about 10 minutes. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
[plane arrives 20 minutes later]
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are making last minute preparations to board the aircraft. Please standby for instructions. “
[everyone lines up at the gate, 15 minutes pass]
Now a customer service rep with possibly the worst airplane-side manner in history gets on the P.A. and proceeds to deliver the following news:
“Ladies and gentlemen. As you can see, the replacement aircraft is now at the gate.”
[cheers from the crowd]
“Now, we have just been informed, that this plane…is NO GOOD.”
[brief pause, collective gasp, flurry of shouts and boos]
“Now listen to me, listen to me…” he pleaded. “We …[inaudible over noise of angry mob]… We apologize for the inconvenience.”
“F*ck your inconvenience,” shouted an angry man (which made me and a few others chuckle). “When are we getting another plane?!”
“I know you are upset, but you must understand that it’s better to be safe than sorry. You don’t want to be 20,000 feet in the air and have something go wrong…”
Angry man: “We understand how plane crashes occur. When does the next plane leave?” [I was now doubled-over in laughter]
“…you should be happy that we’re all safe and on the ground and that something bad doesn’t happen when…”
Angry man: [and note that this is the loudest I’ve ever heard anyone shout inside an airport] WE’RE NOT RETARDS WHEN DOES OUR PLANE LEAVE!!!!!!
“Sir, sir, sir, that is not appropriate.”
Now the crowd completely turned on the CSR and started backing the angry man. Almost in unison the crowd yelled, “Just tell us when we’re leaving!”
The CRS bumbled for a bit before being relieved by another employee. For the next couple hours it was a nightmare of lining up for new seating assignments, listening to announcements over the P.A. for passengers willing to be bumped from the smaller incoming replacement aircraft in exchange for a $200 flight voucher, and more than one gate change. It was mayhem.
Finally, it came time to board. However, there were still fewer seats available than passengers. Consequently, a pseudo-lottery was conducted in which about 30% of the passengers would be forcefully bumped to a later flight. Those whose names weren’t called were losers – forced to white-knuckle it a few more hours stuck in the dregs of the Newark airport while their comrades were well on their way to craps and free cocktails. It would be heartbreaking. As each name was called I felt like a character in Shirley Jackson’s novella “The Lottery.” Name after name after name and I was left standing amongst a rapidly thinning crop of passengers. Each passing name increased the chances that I would be destined for airport damnation. More and more people were boarding as I stood there – despondent, resigned to the fact that I would be stuck in this hell hole while I could be check-raising dullard hillbillies for stacks of red chips. Please call my name, for the love of God, please call my name…
And then…BOOM. They called my name. It was music to my ears. I triumphantly elbowed my way to the podium where I presented my passport as though I actually accomplished something and I was handed a beautiful boarding pass. Another golden ticket. I was on my way.
Las Vegas, Nevada. The plane touched down a mere 5 hours after it was scheduled to arrive. Well played, Continental Airlines.
Greeky was scheduled to meet me in a few hours so I had time to get settled at the hotel and start gambooling. My first port of call was downtown. The plan was to stay on Freemont for a couple of days and then move to the Strip for the final three days. I made the mistake of having Greeky book our accommodations and he’s always looking for a deal. I suspect he simply went on Expedia, searched for hotels downtown, ordered the results by price, and then chose the cheapest hotel. That hotel turned out to be The Gold Spike – a steal at $17 per night. My cab from the airport to get there was more than twice that price. I couldn’t even find a post on 2+2 in which someone actually copped to staying at the Gold Spike on 2+2. It seems to be the hotel that time (and housekeepers) forgot.
So when I tell the cabbie I’m going to the Gold Spike, she says, “You mean the Gold Coast?”
“Nope, Gold Spike.”
“Are you sure? That’s downtown, you know?”
“Must be the Golden Nugget.”
“Nope, I’m sure it’s the Gold Spike.”
“Not the Golden Gate?”
“Hmmm,” she eyed me suspiciously in the rear-view mirror.
“It’s definitely not the Golden Goose,” I quipped.
“You might be better off there,” she replied.
I laughed. She didn’t.
“Watch yourself at the Spike.”
“There are probably bed bugs there.” [turns out this cabbie was obsessed with bed bugs – she profiled about a dozen hotels in terms of their bed bug situation as well as how to find them and how hotels should go about ridding their rooms of bed bugs – you know, in case I ever happen to own and operate a hotel]
“If there are bed bugs, we’ll go somewhere else,” I asserted.
“It’s also dangerous. It’s a block off of Freemont. You know, those crackheads will kill you for a $20 rock.”
“I’ll be sure to leave my crack in the hotel room.”
“You be careful.”
“Will do, ma’am. Thank you.”
I arrived at the Gold Spike and, as predicted, it’s a bit of sh*thole. The rooms are clean enough and they have a minimalist charm about them but everything is old and ratty. I’m not even sure why they bothered with the “casino” on the main floor. A few slots and a smattering of blackjack tables does not a casino make. Surely, this is where gambling goes to die. But then again, $17 per night – you can’t go wrong.
Soon enough I was on Freemont Street, enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells. Old Vegas. Gotta love it. I checked in at Binion’s to see what was going on in the tournament area. I had originally planned to play the $200 H.O.R.S.E. tournament that day but of course I was super late. They were well into the fifth level and only 1 player out of about 100 had been eliminated. I could have registered with an average stack but it would have defeated my original purpose of getting in a couple hours of relaxed play at the beginning of the tournament when the blinds were low. I wandered over to the cash game podium where I was informed that they had one game of $2/$4 limit running. “Would you like to get on the list?” he asked.
There was a list?! Not only did I NOT want to wait, I definitely didn’t want to play $2/$4 limit. In fact, if they were running a game of “No Limit Razz with Hooks, Crooks, and One-Eyed Jacks Wild and the Loser Eats a Cyanide Pill” I think I’d rather sit in that game than $2/$4 limit hold’em. “I’ll pass, thanks,” I replied.
As I left I took another peek into the poker room and couldn’t help but shake my head. What a fall from grace. Across town, thousands of poker players were descending upon the Rio to compete in the Main Event of the World Series of Poker. Meanwhile Binion’s was a rundown poker mausoleum. Merely 8 years ago this was the center of the poker universe when the WSOP was underway. Binion’s (Horseshoe) was where the best players in the world congregated to compete for the elusive gold bracelets and gamble in the biggest cash games. Now look at this place – dilapidated, dank, depressing. Geriatric men betting and raising $2 dollars at a time. The “Wall of Champions” showcased the portraits of every main event winner up until Greg Raymer, the last champ to start and finish his title run at the Horseshoe. No reference was made to the actual World Series of Poker brand, a trademark bought out years ago by the sinister Harrah’s Corporation. Scanning the pictures I spotted the waifish Stu Ungar, the only legit 3-time champion (I don’t count Johnny Moss because he was voted champion for his first title and he only beat 5 other players for his second title, 15 for his third). Maybe it was better off that Ungar was gone, that he didn’t have to see Binion’s in this state. Stuey would puke at the sight of it all.
I skipped over to the Golden Nugget where the action was relatively impressive (if you’re a low limit donk like me). I was quickly seated in a $1-$2 NL game and bought in for $200. It turned out to be one of the juiciest tables I have ever sat at in my life. My first hint was that 8 players had at least $300 in their stacks. That just doesn’t happen in the games back home where people love to short-buy for $100. My second hint was that everyone had an alcoholic beverage in front of them. Everyone. Love it. My third hint was that in the first hand, there was a small raise to $8 in mid-position, followed by an all-in re-raise to about $340 in late position. The old “170 BB re-raise” eh? Nice. My fourth hint was that the original raiser called the all-in. My final hint was that the original raiser had 88 while the late position player had 9-10 suited. Okay, then. Strap yourselves in and let’s gambool.
I immediately started ordering beers. I needed to catch up. Obviously these people were professional wackos and I needed to get into a loose state where I was willing to commit hundreds of dollars with a single pair.
The lineup was quite interesting. Everyone seemed to be a tourist except the guy to my right who told me he had lived in Vegas for 15 years. An ex-carpenter and ex-Dead Head, he was retired and spent his days playing low-limit hold’em at various poker rooms in Vegas. He claimed to supplement his modest pension with approximately $1000 per week in poker winnings. Watching his solid play and listening to him explain his disciplined approach to bankroll management, it didn’t seem to be an outlandish claim. I asked him if he ever considered moving up in stakes or taking shots in tournaments. “Not interested,” he replied. “I’m very comfortable doing what I do. I don’t need any more money, I don’t need any accolades. I just like the game. As long as I have weed to smoke at night, and a bed to lie on, I’m happy.”
To me, it didn’t seem like the greatest existence – grinding it out at the lowest limits with no aspirations of aiming higher. I asked him if he was glad he moved to Vegas.
“I love it. I couldn’t be happier here,” he said before taking a swig of beer. “Most people can’t handle this city. You know, I see a lot of young guys come through here. They’re all going to be the greatest. Just ask them, they’ll tell you. Every single day – I meet a new one at the table. He just got into town. No plans. Makes a beeline to the nearest poker table and plops down a good portion of his bankroll and he expects that the money will multiply by sheer will. He figures it’s destiny. But it ain’t that easy. Poker don’t work that way. He’s usually digging around his pockets for more change within a couple of orbits, cursing his bad luck when it’s actually his ego that put him in that hole. This place will chew them up and spit them out. It’s only a matter of time.”
I love meeting people like this in Vegas. Their stories are so captivating. The guy was super chill too.
Speaking of young poker pro-wannabes, there appeared to be one at the other end of the table. He was sitting on a big stack of about $1000 and he was decked out in standard poker apparel – hoodie, sunglasses, ear phones. He was opening 100% of hands folded to him preflop and c-betting 100% of flops. He was also putting himself in a lot of sticky situations but was sucking out quite a bit to help him build his stack. To his right was the table maniac. He had about $500 and had no clue about bet-sizing and a rarely-used fold button. He had rebought about 4 times for $300 since I arrived at the table an hour earlier. There was also a gentleman two to my left from Missouri who was absolutely awful but didn’t hesitate to tell the table on multiple occasions that he was good pals with Greg Raymer (apparently his wife was Raymer’s wife’s bridesmaid or something along those lines). Unfortunately, being friends with a good poker player doesn’t make you a good poker player.
Finally, there was a Black guy to my left who was nursing a short stack since losing a large pot and had been demanding a set-up for about 30 minutes. This must be my number one pet peeve at the poker table. Unless you suspect that the deck is marked, players should not be allowed to ask for a set-up. It is absolutely the most ridiculous thing a poker player can do to ask for a set-up solely because they think that particular deck is “unlucky.” I asked him why he had such a hard-on for a set-up. He looked at me like I was crazy, “Deez cards ben spittin’ in ma face all day!”
“Why don’t you just get a lucky rock and use it as a card protector. It’d probably work a lot better and then the rest of us wouldn’t have to sit here for 10 minutes waiting for them to change the decks out,” I stated matter-of-factly. The local to my right elbowed me and I could see him stifling a bout of laughter.
Funnily enough, the dealers kept ignoring him when he made the set-up requests or they made half-assed calls to the brush for a set-up. One time, the Black guy even tossed the dealer a $1 chip after a hand and said, “Hey, that’s for you now get me a set-up.” The dealer tapped the chip on his tray, put it in his pocket, and in a whisper, said “Set up on P3.” The floorman might have heard him…if the casino had gone dead quiet for a few seconds while he said it…and if the floorman was an owl.
Three beers later I was starting to loosen up enough to play some big pots. The first significant pot I played was against the Table Maniac (TM). I started the hand with a little less than $300 and he was on about $500. A player opened in early position, TM raised to $25 in middle position, I called in the big blind with AQo, and the first raiser folded. Heads up, the flop was A-T-4 with 2 spades. I checked, TM bet $50, I check-raised to $100, he called. I know I’m good here. At best the TM had a weak ace. Turn was another 2, I bet $100, TM folded – which was shocking because he never folded. I assumed he had a mid-pocket pair because he wouldn’t have folded an ace.
I switched to bourbon and cokes and continued to enjoy myself. I especially enjoyed watching the poker-pro wannabe spew off his giant stack. There’s something about watching a cocky player get his comeuppance that I find wholly satisfying. He kept trying to bulldoze people off their hands post-flop which is tough to do when they have the nuts. Slowly but surely his $1000 stack dwindled below the $500 mark and you could tell he was getting super hot. A hand came up where he opened preflop to $14 (interestingly the standard opening raise for this table: 7BB), another player raised to $40, another player raised to $100, Raymer’s buddy raised all-in to about $300, everyone called, including the wannabe pro after some thought. The hands were: Player 1 – QQ, Player 2 – QQ, Raymer’s buddy – AJo, Wannabe Pro – JTss. That’s a tilt call if I ever saw one. Fortunately for him, the flop brought two tens. Unfortunately for him, the turn and river brought two aces. Binkety, binkety. The kid wasn’t happy. And of course, Raymer’s buddy thought he was a genius. “I ain’t much of an athlete,” he declared, taking a giant gulp of his cocktail, “but I can play some cards!” Hmmm. Bit of a non-sequitur there. No one really asked but thanks for letting us know your thoughts on your own poker playing ability relative to your athleticism.
Now poker pro wannabe was really steaming and it didn’t take much longer for him to blast off the rest of his stack. I finished him off when he went all-in preflop for about $150 and I called with pocket tens on the button. He held the mighty 5-4o and I faded the suckout. He stomped off like a petulant child who was told to go to his room.
I really got into the low-limit drunken poker zone. I couldn’t seem to make an incorrect move. Players continued to spew and the bustouts were replaced with equally bad fishies. I never wanted to leave. Greeky was due to arrive at around 11:00 PM which was still a couple of hours away. I messaged him to meet me at the Nugget – I intended to build my stack to the ceiling before he arrived.
The next interesting hand came up about an hour later. I was in the SB with a stack of about $500. TM opened to $14 in mid-position. A late position player re-raised to $30. I looked down at red Queens. I knew with 100% certainty that the TM would try to re-re-raise so I called with the intention of coming over top when he did so. A super passive guy (SPG) in the BB called (he had about $350). TM just called. Son of a… Late raiser called. So 4 to a flop with about $120 in the pot. Flop is K
. Nice. I led out for $50 hoping to entice a raise from TM. SPG calls. Interesting. TM folds. Very interesting. Late raiser folds. Okay. So now I put SPG on J-T or a flush draw. Turn is 6
. Rich creamy butter. I lead out again for $100. He calls. Please put out a spade, or ace, or 9. River is 6
. Board is K
. Shoot. That must’ve missed him. But if I check to him, he’s so passive I know he won’t try to bluff or value bet a K. I can’t see him having a 6 here. He would’ve raised on the turn. If I value bet he’ll only call with a K. I figured my best option would be to shove and hope he calls off with a worse full house (and pray he doesn’t actually show up with quads). Finally, I put it all in and he called relatively quickly with a lone K (he had A-K). He actually tried to argue that he had a better full house and I’m not sure he was fully convinced by the dealer’s explanation that Queens full of 6’s is better than 6’s full of Kings.
Anyways, I continued to fluctuate for a while around the $1000 mark when I was dealt pocket 8’s in late position. As always, TM opened to $14, I called, and Raymer’s buddy called in the BB. Flop is 6-7-9 rainbow. Raymer’s buddy led out for $25, TM raised to $50, and I called, knowing Raymer’s buddy was probably too weak to re-raise and TM was nutty enough to have A-K here. Raymer’s buddy called. Turn was a nice-looking 5. Just as the turn peeled off, someone tapped me on the shoulder – it was Greeky!
“Hey there squirt, looks like someone’s been doing a lot of sucky-sucky,” he joked, examining my healthy stack.
“What’s going on? I’ll be with you in a sec,” I said.
By now the action was back on me and both players had checked. I bet $75 with my made straight. Raymer’s buddy folded and the TM stubbornly called (he did that thing where frustrated players slam the chips they're calling with into the middle as though the loud noise will intimidate you). The river was an offsuit deuce. Again TM checked to me. I turned to Greeky, “I’m about to make this guy pay me off,” I stated loudly enough so that TM would hear.
“$100,” I declared, sliding a stack of reds in the pot.
He beat me in the pot. I turned over my 8’s and he helicoptered his cards across the room. I wish I could’ve stayed there and continue to torment this guy who seemed to have a never-ending supply of $300 buy-ins. However, Greeky was raring to get into action so I racked up. “Sorry to hit and run,” I apologized to the table. The TM shooed me away. All told, I cashed out for over $1000 profit. A very nice first session in Vegas.
We were both extremely hungry so we walked outside onto Freemont Street to find any sort of advertisement for a late night dinner special. The first thing we saw was $8.99 BBQ ribs at the 4 Queens. I loves me some ribs so it was perfect. The ribs weren’t great but for nine bucks at 11:30 PM you can’t go wrong. I was also fairly schnozzed at this point so I didn’t exactly have a discerning taste for quality BBQ.
After paying our bill we walked around Freemont for a while, watched the light show overhead, and stopped into various dives for some Pai Gow and free cocktails. Fresh off my big win at the Nugget, I was on top of the world. I was high-fiving strangers in the street, singing “Luck be a Lady” at the top of my lungs, and just generally being obnoxious. We passed by a group of people speaking French and I shouted at them, “La chance sourit aux audacieux
!” (“fortune smiles upon the bold”). They laughed and began speaking to me in French, asking me where I was from. Not being too proficient in French, but sufficiently drunk in that moment to come up with something equal parts nonsensical and profound, I declared, “Je suis de vos rêves, mes amis!” (“I’m from your dreams, my friends!”). They laughed and we continued on our way, immersing ourselves in the thick crowd of humanity. The previous 6 hours of boozing combined with the cacophony of sounds engulfing Freemont Street left my head spinning. But I could do no wrong on this night. It didn’t matter what happened the next day. Or the day after that. I could walk into Mermaids the following morning and blow it all on deep fried twinkies and slots. But for this night, everything was right in the gambling world. Fortune had truly smiled upon me. And I was a winner.