The drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas is long and arduous, whether from the driver’s seat or the lowly backseat. Four hours of nothing, really. Pitiful excuses for cities like Baker and Victorville roll by, with Barstow serving as a kind of poor man’s paradise in this desert hell. The sight of winding curves into nothingness, 18-wheelers everywhere, and the occasional town you would otherwise see only in movies like Erin Brockovich. The nearly 300-mile drive back sucks even more when you lose. Believe me, I’ve been there. In fact, hardly have I made a return trip from any casino or gaming establishment tasting the sweet nectar of success. The results were not pretty. And when you’re talking about gambling, the Mendoza line simply doesn’t cut it.
It was the Vegas trip to end all Vegas trips, the excursion that would test how long a person could withstand all the smoke and porno fliers and Danny Gans billboards until he would finally explode. Practically everyone I knew not named Andrew was prominently involved. I’d ride in with two cars on Monday, watch one leave Wednesday, the other Thursday, and await the arrival of another which would be my ride home on Friday. That’s right. Five days, four nights. Las Vegas, Nevada. And the only thing on the docket was the 2004 Las Vegas Bowl between UCLA and Wyoming on Thursday night. It was on.
1. Know when to walk away.
2. Don’t play anything you don’t understand (e.g. Craps).
3. Don’t play anything with a negative connotation (e.g. Craps).
I repeated these rules over and over. I had already decided to limit myself severely that first day: no table play, regardless of circumstance. Thus, I began with slots… where naturally, I broke two of my rules. I lost $2 with nickels, then $20 more in quarters within minutes. Too much, right? Walk away, right? Of course not. Instead, I moved one machine over and inserted another $10. It was a machine this guy had inserted one coin into earlier (called Top Dollar) and then left. Watching him at the time, I thought to myself that you couldn’t expect to win without having some patience. Of course, I’m a hypocrite. Either way, I was now on Top Dollar without a clue of how it worked. All I knew was that if you got lucky, some shit would happen and you’d be made an offer at the top – of coins you’d win. You would then accept or reject the maximum of three offers one at a time, obviously without an idea of the amounts of the offers to follow.
Five dollars in, I hit my first Top Dollar symbol. I looked to the top of the machine, where three things lit up: 5, 10, and 10. First offer? 25 quarters. I’d recoup my losses, at least for this machine… not bad. Then I looked more carefully. The 5, 10, and 10 were the lowest denominations on the board. In other words, any subsequent offers were already guaranteed to be better than what I got. Still not fully understanding the machine, I tenuously pressed the “try again” button for a second offer. This time, the 1000 coin top prize lit up. I kind of stared for a little while, then hesitantly moved to press the “accept offer” button. The siren went off, the payout read 1000, and suddenly quarters flowed. A couple of people stopped and looked, murmuring. Taken aback, I called my friend Ken to come over. We went to work transferring my small fortune to two coin cups. After a visit to the cashier, I had myself $255 in bills.
I hate to sound like a bitch, because I’m about to… but if there was ever a downside to winning money early, it’s that it makes you a hell of a lot more reluctant to gamble. I stayed away from the tables the next two days, instead just making some NBA bets at the sports book. Four, to be exact. A two-team parlay which I lost when the Wolves couldn’t beat the Cavaliers, and an over/under between the Celtics and Heat that I missed by three points. Then, a three-team parlay I dropped when the Grizzlies inexplicably lost to the Warriors and the Cavaliers fell to the Nets (on a last-second alley-oop inbounds play that I would see a billion times that night on SportsCenter), and another over/under between the Nuggets and Sonics I lost by 24 points. If you don’t understand the terminology, the point is, it was ugly. I was 0 for 4, minus $46, and heard muttering obscenities about the city of Cleveland. On Wednesday night, I finally sat down for blackjack.
As usual, I experienced a terrible start at the table… but I settled in. It was the perfect atmosphere. There’s nothing more enjoyable than watching an elderly black gentleman shake hands with an elderly Asian gentleman after every good hand for the table. As classy as you can get playing $5 blackjack at the Imperial Palace. I couldn’t help but smile. I was reduced to about $30 of my original Franklin before I made a rebound. I went all the way back to $115, coinciding with the end of the shoe. And lo and behold, I walked away. The black gentleman, who earlier claimed that I was the one making him money, was sad to see me go. I wished him continued luck, pulled my chair out, and even tipped the dealer (which I had neglected to do last trip at Excalibur… perhaps explaining my horrible train wreck that next day). It might have only been $10 extra I walked away with, but it was an important symbolic victory. I had done what I set out to accomplish. And naturally, I started wondering if I had walked away too soon. Stupid gambling.
Two Keno games marked the extent of my gambling for the rest of the trip. The sight of Lindsey, the hot Keno girl, offset the two bucks I contributed in our fruitless group effort. Speaking of hot Lindsays, how about the new redhead on The O.C. (Shannon Lucio)? Good times. Anyway, I spent Thursday homelessly traversing the Strip with bag in hand, stopping to watch Flight of the Phoenix while waiting the arrival of Todd, Roger, and Maany. A few hours later, we were in Sam Boyd Stadium, our $12 general admission tickets not deterring us from sitting in the very front row on the half-empty UCLA sideline. We sat, screaming our lungs out and freezing our asses off – it was definitely not the 85 degrees the stadium claimed. As Maany put it, “Fucking scoreboard!” But the highlight of the game was easily the crazy guy sitting to Roger’s right. With kid in tow, he offered Rog alcohol and peanuts, all the while trying to sell it by slurring something like “Come on, do it for your school!” Hilarious. UCLA blew the game, but it was a great experience. The same cannot be said of jamming seven people in Todd’s car for the ride back to the hotel.
And that was that. On Friday, we headed home. The trip ended the same way it began, at the Tommy’s a few miles south of Barstow. I had ordered the cheeseburger combo with regular fries on the pit stop there, and now a cheeseburger combo with chili cheese fries on the way back. The taste of victory.