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Dealer Has 21

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

By Bill Walsh

DAY 4 (Saturday): Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulez!

As I sleep in after the previous night's wife-free gambling, the wife, rested and ready, heads out for some solo action of her own. And she hits the jackpot. Figuratively, of course. There, at the pricey Golden Nugget, is a $3 double-deck table. Not only that, but a non-smoking $3 double-deck table. To underscore the rarity of such a find, almost immediately after she sits down they up the minimum -- not to $5, but to $10. But she sticks around, grandfathered in under the old minimum.

While she's gone, room service calls to say they have a gift they're ready to bring up whenever we're ready. "Room service, as in food?" I ask, a little groggy. I suppose the surprise has to be spoiled at some point, but the messenger probably blurts out "Champagne, orange juice and chocolate-covered strawberries, from Shirley" a little too quickly. Shirley is Jacqueline's mom. While our anniversary is still a day off, this is the 52-week equivalent, as April 1 was a Saturday last year. Good timing, too -- once Jacqueline returns we decide to combine the treat with breakfast. We wouldn't be able to do so tomorrow, as we're primed to hit the Main Street Station's Sunday brunch buffet.

Jacqueline orders the "Nugget french toast" -- made with Hawaiian sweet bread and topped with brown sugar, bananas and walnuts. I have two eggs over easy with crisp bacon, hash browns and sourdough toast. Then there are the mimosas and chocolate-covered strawberries. Delivery is quick, everything is perfect, and we eat as we watch an instant sports classic, the thrilling Ericsson Open women's final between Venus Williams and Jennifer Capriati. Capriati has eight match points, all on her serve, but Williams battles to victory. We're rooting for the resurgent Capriati, but what really spoils things is CBS's mangled tape-delayed coverage. Games skipped, tiebreaker points skipped, commercials at weird times. Thankfully, we miss the biggest goof, an announcement about the upcoming tiebreaker that spoils a very suspenseful game. You'd think TV would have figured out how to broadcast a tennis match by now.

At some point we call my sister and make plans for the whole gang to meet at the Orleans, where they're staying, at 4:30 or so this afternoon.

It turns out the Golden Nugget is running a shuttle to the Strip (something, ahem, it should always be doing, but that's an old sore spot) to let guests use the Mirage pool. We decide to use it to get to the Monte Carlo, where the gift certificate (a wedding gift from my friend Paul) that we'll be using for our anniversary dinner tomorrow at Andre's expires "a year from date of issue." It was issued last April 1, and we don't want to take a chance on it being refused this April 1.

If the shuttle police challenge my lack of a swimsuit, so help me, I will throw a major fit about how not having the Nugget pool open has ruined my vacation, and how this shuttle run is the least they could be doing to compensate me.

All this becomes moot, however, as we get downstairs a few minutes too late to catch the shuttle. So we take a cab to Bellagio, where we got married, so we can visit the scene of the crime and then take the tram to Monte Carlo.

It sounds corny, but something magical happens to us when we enter Bellagio. There's a feeling of calm, time slows down, and I feel like a rich person. We make our way to the wedding chapels, but a wedding is in progress and so we can't go in. We head to the tram and ride to Monte Carlo, where the cashier cashes our gift certificate. On the way to the window, a new video-poker machine caught our eye: fifty play! We find another bank near the cashier and start playing.

Choose your denomination (nickels, dimes or quarters), your bet per hand (as low as one) and your number of hands (one to 50). As with regular video poker, you're dealt five cards and you choose how many to hold, then you deal again. Here, however, you get to see that hand played out 50 times. It's a quick lesson in probabilities, it's fascinating, and it's addictive. In fact, I think it's safe to say this is the crack cocaine of casino gambling.

As you might expect, the more hands you play, the more the vicissitudes tend to flatten out. Hold a jack or better and you won't get your entire bet back, but you won't lose your entire bet either. You'll see jacks or better several times, maybe three of a kind or two pair or even a flush or straight once or twice. So with any luck at all you'll be able to make your money last a while, but your big scores will tend to be diluted unless you're dealt great hands the first time around.

So I've found that double bonus is the way to go. This way, you can capitalize on three-of-a-kinds in hopes of getting fours, preferably four aces. Since two pair pays the same as jacks or better (a push), you might discard your other pair if you get a two pair that includes two aces, shooting for the longshot four of a kind. I lose $10 or $20 playing jacks or better but get lucky on double bonus, turning $5 in nickels into $39.65.

Have you ever been blissfully unaware of a background noise only to suddenly notice it and then be unable to stand it? That's how I feel today about the Monte Carlo's piped-in music. Whoever's at the controls has decided to play every single stupid, pretentious, overrated '80s song that I detest, one after the other. Now, I love '80s music in general, even the '80s music that most would consider really bad. The Cure, Dexy's Midnight Runners, even A Flock of Seagulls -- bring 'em on. But now I'm being subjected to the other side of the coin, stuff not even cheesy enough to be fun. I wish I could remember all the titles, but the one I can remember, Peter Gabriel's "Your Eyes," tells the story pretty well. (Yes, I know: In a very real sense Peter Gabriel is a heck of a lot more talented than A Flock of Seagulls. If only he'd used that talent for good and not the smarmiest, sneakiest evil. I'm not a huge Bryan Ferry fan, but Ferry comes to mind as the apotheosis of Gabriel-style talent done right.)

We're supposed to meet Terence at the Barbary Coast at 4 to catch the shuttle to the Orleans, and so we hop on the tram back to Bellagio. We're five minutes early, and so we drop by the sports book to see how my Arizona Wildcats are doing against defending NCAA champions Michigan State. The answer: Just fine. The lead hovers around 20 points. My lousy $20 bet won't be lost in this round. (Why didn't I bet more than that lousy $20?)

We realize we didn't discuss how Terence would be getting from New York-New York (his home for the second half of his trip) to Barbary Coast. We hope he didn't walk. As it gets closer to 4:30, we realize he must have walked. Out on the sidewalk a Britney Spears look-alike makes some Very Important cell-phone calls. Britney hangs out at the Barbary Coast, right?

Terence arrives a little after 4:30 (he walked), and we see the Orleans shuttle leaving that instant. So we'll be starting a new line. It's an informal, backs-along-the-side-of-the-building kind of line, but it's a line nonetheless and gets pretty long pretty fast. An older man and his wife march to the front and stand next to us, whereupon Jacqueline informs them where the line actually ends. The guy says he doesn't think anyone will mind and flashes a police badge. Woo! Finally a chance to see some big-time shuttle-line cutting, just like on "Cops." As things get even more unruly, Jacqueline muses aloud, "If only there were a policeman to sort this out!" Finally a shuttle arrives but it's a false alarm: This one is going to the Gold Coast. The Gold Coast? Maybe people take it and walk to the Rio? Quite a few people do get on, but there's still a pretty big crowd by the time I make darn sure I'm first to get on the other shuttle for a ride to the Orleans. Oddly, there aren't that many takers, and the bus leaves half empty. Apparently a whole new crop of Gold Coasters has filled the line.

On the ride over we see the site of the Palms, the new off-Strip mega-casino slated to open late this year. We get to the Orleans and find it a lot bigger than we thought it would be (though it sort of evens out, when you consider how small the cocktail waitresses' uniforms are). I guess the farthest we'd previously been off the Strip/Downtown axis was the Rio. The place is pretty crowded already, but we figured we'd fare better here on a Saturday night than on the Strip or downtown. We know there's a good restaurant selection and a huge bowling alley and we spy a lot of 50-play poker machines, so we're pretty sure our needs for the evening will be taken care of. We find a house phone and call Jenn and Anthony; Anthony meets us at the elevators to escort us to the room. It's a nice room, similar to those at the Barbary Coast but brighter. And that view! The Orleans is far enough off the Strip that if you get a window high enough and facing in the right direction you get a panoramic view from the Stratosphere to Mandalay Bay. Awesome.

Even more awesome, Jenn has marked our first (paper) anniversary with a meticulously crafted set of paper dolls re-creating our wedding trip. There are the wedding clothes and the gambling clothes and a selection of backdrops. My sister is one creative and thoughtful chick.

We decide bowling might be a cool way to start the evening. We head to the 70-lane bowling center (remarkably, it's above the casino) to find plenty of open lanes, but they inform us that most of them will be filled by leagues in a half-hour, so the five of us have to share a single lane. Once we get to that lane, however, we see the people next door packing to leave, so after a little prodding of the staff (they also have to remove the children's gutter blockers) we have a fully functioning two-lane setup. I'm a decent-enough bowler, but the stickiness of the rental shoes throws me off and I start miserably. I believe my first frame was 0 plus 1. Even after I try the old shuffle-the-soles-in-the-cigarette-ashes trick, I still suck. Jacqueline, like me, comes from a bowling family, only she appears to have retained something from that, and she shows us all up. Anthony, with his power game, comes in second, and Jenn, Terence and I flounder. If not for my 10th-frame strike, Jenn would have beaten me. I've blocked out the scores as a defense mechanism. I don't do all that well in the second game either, but I do better than everybody but Jacqueline.

All that heavy lifting builds up some kind of hunger, and I decide the Mexican place is the only of the restaurants likely to please everybody. There's a brief wait, but we settle in at Don Miguel's for good conversation and acceptable food. I'm delighted to be able to order a green-chili burrito, but there's little evidence of chile verde in what I'm served.

There's a $3 blackjack table or two, much to our surprise, but we find plenty of empty seats at a $5 table (double-deck!) and we decide to play together. Before too long, though, Jenn, Anthony and Terence are tapped out, and we lose track of them as we continue to play. We're doing OK when a young and basically good-natured but extremely obnoxious young man sits down with his wife and a female friend of theirs. The dealer by now is Mary Kay, a fun and feisty 40-something who resembles another Mary ____, the actress Mary Beth Hurt. Track down the film adaptation of the classic Ann Beattie novel "Chilly Scenes of Winter" (also released as "Head Over Heels") to get the full Mary Beth Hurt experience. Anyway, Mr. Obnoxious Guy delivers a tour de force of obnoxiousness, never shutting up, refusing to follow blackjack etiquette (let alone basic strategy) and calling women he's never met "babe." Mary Kay will have none of it, at one point tactfully suggesting that this trio might prefer a shoe-dealt game if they can't master the subtleties of scratching and tucking their cards. By the end the guy's wife would be apologizing for his behavior. I'm amused by the whole scene, but Jacqueline is steaming from the start. When Mr. Obnoxious announces that he's psychic, she invites him to guess what she's thinking at that moment. I end up about $15 ahead, but Jacqueline only breaks even.

I sit down at a machine and find that my Orleans slot-club card, obtained via Web and mail and never before used, is the only one that will work at all on this trip. The well-used Golden Nugget and Monte Carlo ones were spit right back at me. I have a down-and-up run at 50-play poker that somehow necessitates the help of a change attendant as the machine jams when I try to cash out. We wait forever for this attendant, who "fixes" the machine and walks away so it can jam up again. We wait forever a second time, and she doesn't dare leave until I have all of my friggin' nickels.

Time to get back downtown. Great. Another cab.

We're tired, but we decide on one more blackjack session and settle in at a $5 double-deck game at the Golden Gate. We're reminded once again of the fact that sometimes they give money to you. Starting with $50 each, I walk away with $127 and Jacqueline with $100.

NEXT: Happy Anniversary, Baby