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Dealer Has 21

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

By Bill Walsh

DAY 3 (Friday): Slumming and Bumming

Another minor complaint about the Nugget, though it applies to many hotels: Why can't they use fitted sheets on the beds? As usual, the bottom sheet (and this time the mattress pad as well) is untucked and halfway off by the time I awaken.

We have Terence meet us in line for the Golden Nugget breakfast buffet. It's good, but I'm disappointed to see that the wonderful hash browns have been replaced by something more along the lines of home fries.

Full of everything but plans, we wander over to the sports book, where small screens are showing Andre Agassi playing his doppelganger, Ivan Ljubcic, at the Ericsson Open in Miami. Big screens are showing some stupid motorcycle race. Andre should get more respect in his hometown. While we're there I bet $20 at 3-to-1 odds that the University of Arizona, my alma mater, will win the NCAA basketball championship.

We head back to the Las Vegas Club and find seats at the "liberal" $5 table, where there's a shuffler shoe but you're allowed to do all sorts of wacky things -- double on three cards, claim a victory with any non-busting six-card total, surrender, etc. Terence is the big winner, turning his $40 into $97.50, and Jacqueline wins $25.

I'm a tiny bit ahead, but a little incident has my blood boiling. That's a cliche, but it's an apt one, because that's exactly how it feels. The young slacker-hipster-moron-fuckhead guy at first base makes a rude crack when Jacqueline hits on 12 against a dealer 2 and ends up taking the dealer's bust card. You do so hit on 12 against 2, Jacqueline and I inform him, and he smugly mutters something about how that's not true with multiple decks on a Friday. I'm pretty darn sure there are no circumstances under which basic strategy calls for standing on 12 against a 2, and so I'm reasonably confident when I blurt out something along the lines of "Even IF you knew what you were talking about, which you DON'T, you are WAY off base." As in: (1) This asshole doesn't know basic strategy (I would later confirm by checking all the strategy charts at the Mathematics of Blackjack site that I was right no matter how many decks or what rules were in effect). (2) Even if Jacqueline had made the wrong move, everyone with a brain knows that the order of the cards is random, and thus a deviation from basic strategy is just as likely to help the table as it is to hurt it. (We, too, have trouble living by this principle when, as we often are, we're surrounded by clueless "hunch" players, but it's undeniably true.) (3) Even if this move somehow made it more likely that you would lose the hand, people who weren't raised by wolves do not publicly berate strangers. (Friends and family, of course, we berate all the time. Right, Terence and Jenn and Anthony and Paul?) I always warn new players that they might get yelled at by fellow gamblers even if they make the right moves, but I don't think I've ever experienced two such flagrant examples in such a short time frame.

Fuckhead doesn't press the matter, which is a good thing, because I'm pretty close to doing something foolish. Actually, I do do something foolish, though not of the quixotic-attempted-ass-kicking variety. A few hands later I signal for a hit when I have every intention of standing. The dealer makes a big show of consulting the pit boss, but I know I have no ground to stand on and I understand when they take my money. I'm happy to get away from that table, and my blood doesn't stop boiling for quite a while after the session. OK, I announce as Jacqueline rolls her eyes, we're going slumming.

First stop: the El Cortez. Terence loves old-time barbershops, where they clean the back of your neck with a straight razor, and I've been teasing him about taking advantage of the one at the ElCo. It isn't easy to find, this barbershop, as it's at the end of one of the hotel's old-room hallways, the kind in which you always see Joe Friday and Bill Gannon kicking down doors on "Dragnet." The shop itself is disappointing, unless you like the rifle rack, and so we take a quick peek and get out.

Several trips ago, Jacqueline and I discovered the Gold Spike quite by accident after being driven away from Fremont Street by crowds and high table minimums. Not knowing what to expect, we were simultaneously appalled and fascinated by the homeless guy who appeared to be the official greeter. Since then I've discovered Cheapo Vegas, which celebrates the Spike as a place to stay, if not necessarily to play. So we have high hopes of shocking Terence as we stroll over to the Spike, but it doesn't live up (down?) to expectations. There's no bad smell, the characters aren't especially scary, and we settle in to find good machines and very good drink service in the Copper Mine, the Spike's penny-slot area. (One caution about penny slots: Before you hit the PLAY MAXIMUM COINS button, make sure the machine doesn't say something like PLAY ONE TO ONE MILLION COINS. Those pennies can add up.) The Spike's bloody Mary isn't the best I've ever had, but it's an actual bloody Mary, with tomato juice and black pepper, as opposed to Snap-E-Tom (TM) brand mix. If $3 tables get any scarcer at the Gate and the Club, we might be seeing a lot more of the Spike. Or maybe we'll take our $5 action to Bellagio. Jacqueline pronounces the Copper Mine a satisfying and cheap way to get her slot-machine fix.

Back on Fremont Street, we make another pass through the Four Queens. The comfy chairs and pleasant atmosphere have been beckoning, but the always-full $2 table advertised on the marquee has driven us away. This time we find an empty $5 double-deck table and decide to sit down. This is one of those side-bet tables. The theme is "Lucky Ladies," referring to the ultimate payoff: 125-to-1 if your first two cards are both the queen of hearts (remember, this is double-deck). You get 4-to-1 if your first two cards total 20, which isn't bad as sucker bets go. It sure beats the "royal match" bet, where you must be dealt a blackjack to win. So we sit down and watch our money, gradually and then suddenly, fall into the hands of a succession of humorless, robotic dealers. At least the cocktail waitresses show signs of life. At one point Jacqueline is dealt the lucky ladies themselves -- yep, two queens of hearts. Unfortunately, she didn't place the sucker bet. Our fortunes improve a little and we stay afloat (after I'm down to my last bet at one point), and over the next hour Jacqueline places the sucker bet a couple of times, with no success. And then, when the bet isn't out there, she is again dealt a matched pair: queen of hearts, queen of hearts. Unbelievable.

A moral victory: I quit when I'm ahead -- a whole dollar ahead -- and Jacqueline is about $25 up. Terence loses all of his $40 buy-in but discovers he likes vodka tonics. We go our separate ways for naps and/or dinner in preparation for a rendezvous with my sister, Jennifer, and her husband, Anthony, under the Vegas Vic sign at 9. Back at our Nugget room the message light is flashing and there's some troubling news: Jacqueline's grandmother in Wyoming has had a heart attack. She's OK, the message from Jacqueline's mom says, and Jacqueline phones home. Unfortunately, this means Grandma will miss the wedding of Jacqueline's brother, Jamie, back in Washington on April 7.

For once dinner is simple: We decide to go to Tony Roma's in the Fremont, and we head over there about 7, figuring we can get seated by 7:30. We lose a little in the video poker machines while we wait, but the timing works out well. We start with the onion loaf (very good). I've long had a philosophical objection to eating ribs (I picture people gnawing on bones as their hands and faces become covered with barbecue sauce), but I liked Tony Roma's when we went there for steaks last year and I decide to give the ribs a chance this time. I'm happy to discover that the meat falls right off the baby-backs with the aid of a knife and a fork, and that it tastes like the "pulled" pork on a barbecue sandwich. (Well, duh, where did I think that pork was pulled from?) Jacqueline has a good, big hamburger.

With or without my seal of approval on the food, by the way, having a big old Tony Roma's inside a downtown casino is a stroke of genius.

We meet Terence under Vegas Vic, catching the tail end of the silly, overrated light show, and wait. Plenty of Jenn and Anthony look-alikes, but the real thing doesn't show up. I use Jacqueline's cell phone to call Anthony's cell phone, and it turns out Jenn wasn't feeling well. We make tentative plans to get together the next day. Things are bustling on this Friday night, and we all decide it might be better to meet at midnight or so, when it might be easier to find a table. We return to our rooms and nap.

When the alarm goes off, Jacqueline can't answer the bell. So I meet Terence again at Vegas Vic, and we head to the Golden Gate in search of blackjack. We sit down at a $5 "royal match" table (speaking of sucker bets . . .), and the rout continues. At one point a gaudily attired old lady sits down and plays a hand, complete with royal-match bet. Blackjack! She then gets to push a button that sends a "Wheel of Fortune"-style contraption in motion, and it stops on a number. It's 12 or 13, meaning she gets 12- or 13-to-1 on her royal-match bet. It could have been much higher, but here we have a sucker bet within a sucker bet.

This lady plays her second hand, again with royal-match bet. Blackjack again! What are the chances? Again the wheel produces a relatively modest return, and on the next hand her streak ends and she walks off.

So it's back to the rout, and I manage to turn $100 into $1. Terence, I believe, also loses most or all of his buy-in. I return to the Golden Nugget and notice the Foster's Lager and Widmer Hefeweizen taps at the video-poker bar. I consider buying a draft and taking it upstairs, but I decide to invest $20 in some poker and get the beer free. It's not the best $20 glass of beer I've ever had. I move to a double-bonus machine and do even worse, dropping $25. Then I spot an open seat at a $5 blackjack table and I can't pass it up. I like playing at the Nugget, especially at quieter times. Bedtime beckons as I find myself about $15 ahead. I'm not quite ready to turn in, but I do want to "color up" and pocket a black chip. The dealer, for some reason, will have none of it. I consider that a bad omen, and I'm outta there.

NEXT: Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulez!