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Dealer Has 21

Bill and Jacqueline in Las Vegas: March 28-April 4, 2001

By Bill Walsh

At the blackjack table, there are two separate yet equally important groups: The dealers, who draw to 21, and the players, who give them their money. This is one of their stories.

On April Fool's Day, 2000, if only to ensure that our anniversaries will be easy to remember and count, my longtime companion, Jacqueline, and I got married in Las Vegas. We decided to make the trip every year at that time. I haven't, ahem, quite finished the trip report from the wedding visit, but here's the first-anniversary report. I'll finish the wedding report someday, but let's just say I've learned my lesson about writing when the recollections are fresh.

DAY 1 (Wednesday): Our City Was Gone

We call a cab to our Capitol Hill home for the 10-minute cab ride to Washington National Airport (I refuse to call it by its new name, Gipper National), which is actually right across the Potomac River in Arlington, Va. We usually have to fly out of Baltimore-Washington International or Dulles to get a decent fare and a nonstop, but a certain senator who represents the home of America West just changed all that by expanding the allowable range of flights out of National (thank you, John McCain).

Nearby airport, humane flight time (8:45 a.m.), first-class tickets -- this should be good. It's not that flying first class is all that great. It's just that flying second class is so horrible. First class isn't worth the money, but it's worth the frequent-flier miles, and thanks to our frequent Las Vegas and Phoenix trips and our America West Flight Fund Visa card we have plenty of those.

Oddly enough, the trip is as smooth in the air as it looked on paper. The coach-class breakfast selections sounds better than the bizarre pancake-and-grilled-chicken combo that we're served (and don't get me started on the fact that only they got a choice), but I'm not here for the food.

Since we're in first class, we don't think twice about becoming one of those people we've always hated, the ones with the "carry-on" bags that just barely squeeze into those overly generous bag sizers with the help of Ron Popeil's Food Dehydrator. So we're rolling through McCarran, past the posters of the restaurateur holding a lobster the size of the late Herve Villechaize, past the baggage claim, straight to the Bell Trans window. We're in luck: The downtown shuttle is just about to leave, and we're the last ones aboard.

One tiny hitch: This isn't strictly the downtown shuttle. So there are stops at the Las Vegas Hilton, the Sahara, Circus Circus. Pluses: I learn the whereabouts of Terrible's, Wet 'n' Wild and Club Paradise. Minus: The driver refuses to stop and let me buy some "liquor moccasins." We're the last ones off the shuttle. It turns out the girls sitting behind us are staying at the Golden Gate, which they're a little apprehensive about. We reassure them that it's our favorite place to play and that it can't be all that horrible to stay there. Can it? We, too, are trying a new place to stay. The old faithful Golden Nugget was booked up for that first night, and so we're trying the well-priced and well-thought-of Las Vegas Club, where we've also done our share of playing.

Check-in at the Club is a breeze, and the clerk tells us she's a big D.C. fan who will be visiting our nation's capital soon. We request a North Tower room, and that's granted without a problem. It's only 11-something a.m., but she finds us a room that's ready. We hop on an elevator (the North Tower of the Las Vegas Club will prove to have the fastest elevators we've seen anywhere in the city) and make our way to a room that, for 45 bucks, is pretty darn acceptable. We've heard descriptions like "equal to the Golden Nugget." That turns out to be a crock, unless you like cigarette-burned and who-knows-what-stained carpets and late-'70s-tract-house bathroom fixtures, but the room is bigger than those at the Nugget. It's almost huge, in fact. You've got your toilet-and-bathtub room, your separate sink, your demi-closet, your cubbyhole desk, your queenish/kingish bed -- and then a pretty comfortable-size sitting area with a sofa and coffee table and two comfy chairs. There's a view down Main Street to the Golden Gate, the Las Vegas Hilton, the Mirage, the Rio, the Orleans -- even Bellagio. More immediate, though, is the view of the Plaza, and the Plaza's rooftop, and the Plaza's sign: NAKED ANGELS, WITH SPECIAL GUEST STAR PETE BARBUTTI. Things are already hopping at the Plaza's pool. Those could be angels of the naked variety splashing about, but from here they look like naked ants.

We're not yet ready to start playing. In fact, arriving so early just feels wrong, and so we're not even convinced we've arrived yet, but we decide to stop in at the Golden Gate on the way to lunch and see how things look. Things don't look good. The place is packed at noon on a Wednesday, and there's a $5 minimum at most of the blackjack tables. We're used to open seats at $3 tables at prime time on Saturday night, and so this leaves us feeling even more out of place. If this is the trend, it's an alarming one. Those $3 tables and open seats are the main reason we stay downtown. If I have to spend $5 a hand, I'll do it at Bellagio.

In my try-something-new mood, I decide Magnolia's at the Four Queens might be a good place to eat. We beat the rush, just barely, and are seated at a big booth that couldn't be more prominent. Then everyone gets served except us. We sit. We almost leave. Finally, two people take our drink orders, and several minutes later one actually brings drinks. Cobb salad for me, taco salad for Jacqueline. Hers is pretty good; mine, so-so.

We still don't feel in the swing of things, so we decide on some video poker rather than blackjack, and we play at the Golden Nugget, each putting $20 in a quarter double-bonus machine. Of course, our year-old slot-club cards don't work. I hit a good streak, and my 80 quarters become 165. Jacqueline drops the first $20 pretty quickly and tries another. The results are no better, and my total is also dwindling. I battle back to even and leave five quarters ahead. Jacqueline is down the entire $40.

Now we're warmed up. The Golden Gate is still busy, so we try the Las Vegas Club. At both places, the shuffle-machine experiment is well under way. We sit down at an apparently double-deck $3 table at the Las Vegas Club only to find that there are five or six decks in the shuffler, from which the dealer pulls two from which to deal. Very sneaky ("handheld multi-deck" is the code phrase). We can't complain, though, as before long I'm far enough ahead to start pocketing red chips. This money-management technique goes into overdrive as the cards keep treating me well. After I empty my bulging pockets at the cashier's cage I find that my $40 became $169. Jacqueline also did well, up $30.

We find a calmer scene at the Golden Gate, finally, and sit down at a $3 shoe game with continuous reshuffling. This does not go well. Our dealer, Felicidad, deals out everything but happiness. We spy openings at a $3 double-deck table and shuffle over there. The cards still aren't friendly. I'm down to about $6 when a nice older man with a Minnesota (or is it Canadian?) accent joins Jacqueline and me. Suddenly, everyone's winning. I'm back to even and then some. Then a woman sits down to play, and everyone's losing. The upper-Midwest guy takes a break; we're still losing. The woman leaves; we're still losing. Upper-Midwest guy comes back for a spell, and everyone wins. When he leaves, we take our cue. I'm up $20; Jacqueline's down $12.50.

We stroll over to the Plaza to see what it might be offering. Nothing under $5 in the blackjack realm. (Who the hell do they think they are? If I'm risking $5 a hand at the Plaza, there had better be a naked fricken angel dealing those cards.) We halfheartedly stick $5 each in a bank of triple-play nickel poker machines, and that goes fast.

It's 6-ish, and as we begin the death march to decide where to eat dinner, we both feel as if we're way down, though that's not the case at all. As we grapple with this incongruity, I mention that I've been hoping to eat at the Fremont's Second Street Grill, and though we're not necessarily ready to eat yet, we decide it might at least be a good idea to make an 8 p.m. reservation. We get there and things are oddly quiet. Also, a glance at the menu draws an "ehh" from the seafood-averse Jacqueline. Let the death march begin. Around the corner in the Fremont, Tony Roma's is bustling, with dozens milling about and names being called. We walk over to Main Street Station in an attempt to eat at the Triple Seven Brewpub, but there's a long line. On the way back we peek at the menu at the California's Redwood Bar and Grille, a place we've always wanted to try, but the prices don't seem to square with the ones we've seen on its ads. We agree on one more peek at the Second Street Grill, and this time we see why things were so quiet: It's closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Who ever heard of such a thing?

We now decide the Redwood Bar and Grill might be our best bet after all. We make a point of passing the ad for the $12.95 porterhouse special and making sure there's no fine print. There isn't, and we're able to snag the only available table for two. The atmosphere is nice, aside from the table for 26 next to us, at which 24 of the seats seem to be occupied by children. One little boy announces several dozen times that he'll be having a shrimp cocktail. What the atmosphere doesn't do, though, is say "redwood." There is some reddish wood, but we were thinking "ski lodge." What the Redwood people came up with is a valiant attempt at elegance, with the kind of Official Art Paintings With Optional Frame Light that suburban ladies who had grown too classy for Tupperware used to hawk to their friends. Given the great job Sam Boyd's folks did with rustic coziness at the Pasta Pirate, they missed a great opportunity here. Don't get me wrong, though: In this joint, at these prices, on this night, we could have done a lot worse in the ambience department.

As it happens, neither of us orders the special that brought us here. With reservations at Andre's on Sunday and Delmonico on Monday, there's plenty of red meat in our future. Jacqueline orders the pork chops, and I go for veal Oscar. No, it's not served in a garbage can; it's topped with crabmeat, asparagus and bearnaise. It's quite good and quite big enough, though it's dwarfed by the two massive pork chops that are put in front of Jacqueline. We both got the phyllo-wrapped garlic mashed potatoes, but this very intriguing-sounding side dish disappoints. The presentation looks a little too factory-perfect -- the dough is the exact size and shape of a large bulb of garlic -- and the potatoes taste like the instant variety. I'm picturing boxes of 24 of these little morsels on sale at Costco.

Still, it was a good choice and a good meal. We'll be back for the special.

Try as we might, on recent trips we haven't been able to switch to a sleep-by-day, play-by-night lifestyle. So at 11 or so Las Vegas time (2 or so D.C. time) it's back to the Las Vegas Club and into bed. We make a point of getting bottled water ($1.50 a bottle) at the sundries shop, as we're both battling head colds. D'oh! We get off the elevator to find a machine on our floor -- $1 a bottle.

The light outside your window blinks "Hotel Hotel Hotel."

-- Pretenders, "Day After Day"

There it is: "Las Vegas Club," bright as day. The curtains do a good job of blocking all but a sliver, though, and our request for an extra pillow is granted with impressive speed for such a "minor" hotel. Minor hotel! Think about it: The Las Vegas Club has two huge towers. In almost any city, even big ones, this would be a major presence. In Vegas, this is a tiny little outpost. What percentage of visitors have even heard of it?

Looking around in the dark, we notice one more odd thing about this room: There's no clock. I know the old chestnut about clocks in casinos, but this is ridiculous!

NEXT: To the Nugget