Friday, January 30, 2015

21 wins in six days: A Vegas trip report

In mid December, work tells me, "We'll need you to go to L.A. and Las Vegas for the [redacted] case." Yes, please. I check with the people I'm meeting, and check with my wife to see if she can join me in Vegas, and decide that the third week of January would work best.

Room booked, her airfare purchased, I'm working out the details. Plans change at work. "Nope, just L.A.," they say. I don't care. I'm going to Vegas anyway. I arrive in L.A. on Tuesday, having booked my own airfare from L.A. to Vegas for Wednesday night.

Tuesday night, January 20:
I head over to Hollywood Park to play $3/$6 limit poker. I've played there before. It's huge, it's targeted at low rollers, and is the same somewhat sketchy melting pot of humanity that I remember from previous trips. The Yelp reviews are dead on. ("Most amazing place to people watch. The players are a unique breed over there lol." That's the tamest description.) They stopped racing horses there this year, but the poker room is still busy as heck.

At my table, the woman in the seat to my right is watching music videos on her phone, silently dancing in her seat, frequently missing the action in the game. She's also a little shaky, and has the gaunt look of a 35-year-old who's seen 70 years of life pass her by. Heroin junkie, I suspect. To my left is a frail Asian man who fell asleep twice.  Two seats to my left, a jolly Hispanic guy who reminds me of the "good potato" farmer in the McDonald's commercials from last year. Also at the table were a skinny Hispanic guy with gang tattoos, an overly happy guy who looks like Kevin Hart, an white guy who thinks he's a pro in his mirrored shades and hoodie, a well-tanned middle-aged goomba with a Russian accent and a tweed sport coat, and me. Early on, the Russian asks to see Junkie's had after show down, and the dealer shows it to him. Junkie gets all upset, calls the floor, and rants about how she's a pro, has one of those "World Poker Tour thingies", and might just... Ooh! New video!

An hour into the game, which is going plenty slow due to junkie's distracted play, I'm dealt Kd Td on the button. With five of us in the pot, the flop comes Jd Qd Ad for a royal flush.

I get a little panicky. I've seen the dealer making jackpot drops, so I know there's some kind of jackpot to be won. There's no signage or big board, and the text crawling across the bottom of the monitor only mentions some kind of win $75 of $150 for getting your aces cracked.  How big does the pot need to be for me to win a prize? How many players have to stay in? Does it get nullified if I tip my hand by asking about it? I've got no idea.  With $15 in the pot, two players check, Hoodie bets $5, one guy folds, and I call. The last two players fold. $21 in the pot should be enough to qualify for the jackpot, I think, but I have to make it to showdown. I call Hoodies turn and river bets, and then show my hand.

No, there's no jackpot. I net $27 for my monster hand. In several local card rooms, it'd have been at least $600, and maybe several thousand. Dagnabbit. Still, let's call this Win #1.

A few hands later, the Potato Farmer's $3 call bet rolls across the table to Junkie. She gets irate. "Why are you throwing chips at me!" she accuses. She calls the floor, and gets even more upset when the floor and Potato Farmer start talking in Spanish.  She grabs a couple of racks, puts her chips in them... and keeps playing, ranting to nobody in particular, still dancing to music nobody can hear.

Another hour or two passes, and I'm dealt pocket aces in early position. Knowing there's a jackpot for getting them cracked, I bet hard, and with several people in on the flop, and a few on the river, one caller takes it to showdown. I win the hand, bringing in a decent sized pot. A few hands later, I decide it's time to cash out and call it a night. Win #2.

Wednesday, January 21:
Thanks to some super efficient help from our IT guy in L.A., my work is done at around 10:30 AM on Wednesday. Win #3. My flight isn't scheduled to leave until 8:45 PM. It's on Southwest, so it's fully refundable. I check rental car prices, and find a two-day one-way rental to Vegas for $38. Road trip! The GPS says 4½ hours, so after shuffling rental cars at LAX (I get a Ford Fusion with 16 miles on the odometer -- Win #4!), I'm on the road at 1 PM, with an ETA of sunset.

The road trip from L.A. to Vegas is, in theory, the stuff of Hollywood legend. Last Vegas, The Hangover, Swingers, Rain Man, and countless other films depict this drive. None of them mentioned the elevation change or the relative dullness. Driving Moses Lake to Spokane is more interesting, but still, it's a new road and something to check off my list of life experiences. I stop at the In-n-Out in San Dimas for lunch (San Dimas High School football rules!), at the Target in Hesperia for a package of water, and in the wide spot of Baker for a bathroom stop and to check out the World's Tallest Thermometer.

The stops have made the trip closer to a six-hour drive, and as much as I'd have liked to stop in the Fallout: New Vegas towns of Primm, Searchlight, Goodsprings, and Nipton, my priority was Vegas.

I went straight to The D, and while checking in, wondered if my 0.3 Bitcoin would be enough to cover the room charge. It would have been just a little short, but there was no need, because I'd already paid for the cheap room the week before (I've got no idea how I forgot this, having the printed receipt on me, but I count this as Win #5). I went upstairs and ditched my bags. The room, the hallways, and the elevators are a big improvement over the last time I stayed at The D. The rooms had been renovated in late 2012 after the change from Fitzgerald's, but I suspect I got a room that hadn't been completed. This time, the room was in great shape. I'm glad I gave it a second chance.

I went back downstairs and played some craps (losing), some slots (losing), and some Sigma Derby (those plastic horses always take my money). I then wandered over to the Golden Gate where I turned my $10 promo money in to $11 real money, and won a little more on the slots. Craving video poker, I went to Main Street Station, and lost a good sized chunk of change. When you get 4-of-a-kind, they'll give you a scratch ticket, which I hear is mainly worth $2, but could be up to $5000. I don't know -- I didn't hit any quads today.

Giving up -- for now! -- I lost another $20 on slots. With the 11 PM Chinese oxtail soup special coming up at the California, I headed across the skybridge, and while waiting, made my losses back and more with some luck at their craps table and slot machines.

The oxtail soup was delicious; I see why it gets its reputation. I didn't figure it would have real bovine tail parts in it, but sure enough, it had segmented bone with tasty, fatty, stew-like meat falling off of it.  More than anything, it reminded me of a really good beef phở, but with the need to peel meat off the bone. Win #6; I'm craving it again.

It was getting late, so I aimed myself back towards The D. I stopped in at Four Queens and played the Silver Strike machine. I bought in for $30, won three $10 Silver Strike tokens, and lost the rest. I turned the tokens in at the cage, so I broke even. A good day; time for bed. I fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow.

Thursday, January 22: 
I wake up at around 9 AM and I'm craving pancakes. The best pancakes downtown are at Eat, but I'm planning on having that with my wife tomorrow, so the clear choice is the second-best at Du-Par's at Golden Gate. I check out of my hotel and stick my bags in the trunk, and drive a few blocks to find somewhere to park. $3? It's amusing how I can drop several times that at a craps table, and can spend even more on a meal, but spending $3 on parking chafes me. I drive a bit more, and see that the Main Street Station parking is free with validation, so I park there. Still, it's $3 out of pocket. In any other town, a $3 parking fee for a downtown lot would be dirt cheap, but here, it's frustrating.

I've got a $15 food credit from Golden Gate, Plus, I win a little bit from the Golden Gate slots, which just makes the pancakes that much tastier. Win #7.

Yes, technically it's also 5-of-a-kind, but quad deuces pays more.
After breakfast, I'm determined to get me a 4-of-a-kind scratch ticket from Main Street Station, so walk back over there and start playing. I'm playing Loose Deuces Wild, and while I suspect that getting a 4-of-a-kind using wild cards doesn't count, I'm not sure.  Soon enough, I get 3-of-a-kind plus a deuce, so I stop and Google the promotion's rules. Yup -- wild cards don't count.  I play some more, time passes, and the person to my left hits 4-of-a-kind. As the slot attendant gives her a scratch ticket, I hit 2-2-2-2-4 for a $625 win (#8). That's great and all, but with deuces wild, does this count as 4-of-a-kind? The attendant says yes, and I get a $2 win on the scratch ticket. I then validate my parking and get my $3 back for an even $5. I then win $45 from their craps table (#9) and decide I've taken enough of their money. To the strip!

I get to the Riviera to check in to my free room, and the line is nearly to the door. Fortunately, I remembered that last time I was here on a comped room, the VIP desk said I could use their line. The VIP desk has moved into the former Bingo hall, but there was only one person in front of me. Win #10! Check-in was quick, and in addition to three free nights, I got a $50 food credit at the R Steakhouse (ick) or the Wicked Vicky Tavern (ick), an extra slot tournament entry, 50 entries into some kind of a freeplay prize drawing, and a coupon book with a $10 and an $25 match play. Combined, we'll call that Win #11.

As I'd hoped, I got a room near the top of the Monaco tower, which is their most recently remodeled one (in 2008!). The room was in good shape, had a view of the pool and the strip, and decent wi-fi.  It also had no mold, clean sheets, and a clean bathroom. I ditched my bags and headed back downstairs. I quickly lost a chunk of change on slots, and lost the $10 match lay coupon on roulette, but still hit enough numbers to only be down a little bit.

I'd called Alamo to see about extending the car rental, but another two nights would have been another $98, so I figured cab fare the next few days would be cheaper. I headed to the airport to drop off the car, almost running over a pair of AVN porn stars on Paradise Road, and at the last minute, remembered I needed to fill the tank. With plenty of time, I also stopped at Silver Sevens, where I pocketed a nice craps win (#12), broke even on slots, lost a little on video poker, and offset the VP loss with some freeplay.

I still arrived at the airport a little early -- my wife's flight was delayed about 20 minutes -- so I wandered around baggage claim and the security checkpoint looking at the "History of Flight" exhibits and playing Ingress (the exhibits are all portals).

"So what's the deal with neon trees?"
My wife's flight arrived, and -- surprise, dear! -- I've booked Presidential Limo to take us to the hotel. It wasn't super expensive, and I'm feeling flush with my winnings so far. The driver is professional, friendly, and quick, and my wife and I shared a bottle of champagne on the way. She's satisfied with the room, and we need a light dinner, so we head across the parking lot to the Peppermill. From the Vegas discussions I've read, it's like the place to go on the north strip. Heck, Jerry Seinfeld and George Wallace hung out here for an episode. But, no, it's like a 1971 Denny's trying to be a tiki room and a Rainforest Cafe, and failing at both. We order drinks and nachos, and I try to buy into the theme by ordering a Mai Tai. It takes three waitresses to figure out how to get me my drink. While satisfying and inexpensive, the food and drinks are nothing special.

Friday, January 23:
Breakfast at Eat. We direct the cabbie to 7th and Carson (no long haul; Win #13) and get seated immediately. I order Vegas' best pancakes (how could I not?), my wife orders the eggs, and we share the deceptively named "Cinnamon Biscuits". These are no cinnamon biscuits. No, as my wife said, "this is the best strawberry shortcake I've had in my life." Strawberry shortcake is her favorite dessert, so this is extremely high praise.

Over breakfast, we discuss which show we want to see this night. My wife wants to see a comedy show.  I'd printed the previous Friday list from Tix4Tonight, and after a bit of back and forth, we agree to take a chance on Carrot Top. I've got a buy-one-get-one monorail MyVegas monorail pass, so we try to catch a cab to Westgate to redeem it. I didn't think it through all the way -- where does one catch a cab at Eat? -- so we wander through the container Park (which my wife is enthralled with!) and then to El Cortez to catch a cab there. No cabs are available, so we go inside to ask the front desk to call one. "This place isn't nearly as bad as I remember," my wife says. Another baby step towards getting her to visit downtown. Someday.

If Kearse catches the first pass of the game
for a long touchdown, I'm a rich man.
We head to Westgate, and while I'm there, I make my first ever sportsbook prop bets, quintupling down on Jermaine Kearse to have an amazing Superbowl. My first time at the window, I didn't realize that some bets I had to pick the over/under (others had just one bet number for yes and one for no), so I had to regroup and try again, but got it figured out. Go Hawks.

We catch the monorail to MGM to get tickets from the Tix4Tonight at the Coke store. Bad choice -- what a hike from the station. We do it, though, and my wife grabs a Coke while I get the tickets.

We then hop across the street to Monte Carlo looking for a Game of Life slot machine, which we really enjoyed on our last trip. No luck there, so we lose money on some other slots. Next door at Aria, also no luck finding Life. I pull up Caesars slot finder. I don't think it's anywhere in Vegas.  I suggest the Deal or No Deal community slots as an acceptable substitute. We win back most of our Monte Carlo losses, with her doing much better than me. This will happen several times this weekend, with Howie taking my money and awarding big wins to her.

We cross the skybridge to Cosmopolitan, and as I'm taking the escalator down past Chandelier, I point out to my wife that of all the places in the world, this escalator is my happy place. She points out that it's likely because of our mutual adoration of sparkly crystalline things early in our relationship. I'd never considered that, but that may be exactly what it is. Happy sigh. Win #14.

We walk through the casino, hoping to find a pair of video poker machines side-by-side at Book & Stage, but the machines are down, going through a software update. On the way, however, we find what may be Vegas' only remaining Game of Life slot machine. It takes a lot of our money, but it's still Win #15.

Taking a break from gambling, we cross the street and wander through the Miracle Mile shops. We never buy anything, but it keeps us from losing more. Then into Planet Hollywood, where I try to teach my wife craps on the pop-o-matic craps table. She's bored quickly, and we walk away with a $16 loss.

Goodnight Vegas. Goodnight air.
Goodnight neon everywhere.
She asked me to surprise her for dinner, so on the recommendation of the Vegas interneterati, I decide on Mandarin Bar. It's a challenge to find the pedestrian entrance to Mandarin Oriental (pro-tip: at the bottom of the Aria escalator, make a U turn), but we walk in through the car entrance. Up to the 23rd floor, we arrive a few minutes before the food menu is available, but as I sip my lemongrass mojito and my wife tries her Daywalker (Jameson, cinnamon syrup, hard cider, lemon juice, ginger ale), that gives us time to figure out what we want. We decide on the Italian Board (porchetta, sopressata, salami finocchietta, cabra romero, robiola mosina, gorgonzola dolce, Mario, Luigi, Pantoliano, and other italian stuff my ancestors would love but my spellchecker and I have no idea) and chicken satay skewers. It was all outstanding, except for the robiola, which Wikipedia tells me shouldn't have been nearly as oozy as it was. We left it on the board, and scarfed down the rest, plus a cone of quince (it's a fruit). We watch the strip light up as the sun goes down. Very nice. Win #16.

Over to Luxor, where we lose money to slots before the show. While we're being seated, the Carrot Top show starts with the kind of internet videos I avoid: dumb people hurting themselves or others in ways too edgy or risqué for America's Funniest Videos. My expectations are being lowered by the minute. The guy opening for him (some Sirius XM guy whose name I don't remember) was good, though, and when Carrot Top was on stage, I found myself laughing quite a few times. The show seemed to go quickly, so yeah, I guess I enjoyed it. Would I go again? Probably not. But if Carrot Top is the best prop comic out there, it may just be that I'm not a big fan of prop comedy.

After the show, we head back to the Riviera. The room hasn't been cleaned yet. No matter. My wife's exhausted, so she turns in Vegas-early, but it's a Friday night in Vegas, so I'm still energized. I head downstairs, lose a little bit at the slots, and then head across the street to Circus Circus. Someone on the FHBM Facebook group had asked if the carousel of slots still rotates, so I went in to investigate. It does, but I think someone already answered the question before I got to it.

Circus Circus may have a lot of things wrong with it (like kids, and kids, and the buffet), but I always seem to leave there with more money than I came in with. Several good hands of video poker did it for me again this time. Win #17.

Back across the street to the Riv, I buy in to the craps table. The shooter is hot, and with the $25 match play coupon winning, and the rest of my bets hitting on most rolls, I double up my money before I even get a chance to roll the dice. Win #18. I cash out and stop by the front desk to ask for towels, pointing out that housekeeping overlooked our room. "What room number?" I give it to them. "Hmm. What name?" I tell them. "Oh, here it is." Was the room missing from the system? Never mind. I head upstairs, and towels arrive shortly thereafter. It's just after midnight, and I'm tired.  So much for me being energized on a Friday night.

Saturday, January 24: 
The third best breakfast spot in Vegas is Mon Ami Gabi. My wife was really craving Eat's cinnamon biscuits again, but I need to give her a reason to come back on the next trip. The wait is 20-30 minutes for a patio seat, but there's slots to lose money at, so we do. We then wander, losing money at Planet Hollywood video poker and Cosmopolitan slots, and winning at Bellagio slots. We wander through the conservatory, which is decked out for the Year of the Goat.

Goats? On my hobbit house?
It's more likely than you think.
My wife's feeling a little icky, so we head back to the Riv. We arrive just after 3:00, and the room still hasn't been cleaned. I leave the full trash can outside the door. While she naps, I play craps downstairs (coming out ahead), video poker (coming out ahead), and slots (losing it all back). I also enter the Saturday slot tournament, scoring around 18,000 points. When the results came out later that night, I see that of the 20 spots that awarded prizes, the cutoff seemed to be around 19,500. So close!

My wife wakes up for dinner at around 5, and we try to get in to the R Steakhouse to use our $50 credit. Nothing available until 9 PM. We head over to Wicked Vicky, and the wait is 45 minutes. I think the combination of us people on comped offers plus the Antique Gun Show going on at the hotel has overwhelmed their staff. While we wait, she plays Deal or No Deal, and I play other slots, sick of Howie taking my money. I head back to the room for a second to pick up something, and see that the trash can is empty but the room is still unmade. I catch the maid in the room next door, and she tells me that our room is next on her list. Whew.

About 30 minutes have passed, and I see that our name on the dinner list is alone among a bunch of scratched out names. I'm guessing they called us and we weren't around. One guy in line is complaining that he's been waiting three hours for a take out order. I ask, and they say it's just a few minutes. 15 minutes later, yeah, still a few minutes. 15 minutes after that, my wife -- who is more assertive in these situations -- asks "can we have that empty table there?". We're seated immediately.

Oh, Vegas, I miss you already.
I order a burger, my wife has fried shrimp. It's edible, a step above bowling alley food. Definitely not a fine Vegas meal. It met my low expectations. If you're hungry, and there's no wait, go for it. Or try the Peppermill next door. There's nothing else reasonably close that's edible in that price range.

Saturday night in Vegas, my wife heads back to sleep, and I head out. Poker Atlas says the 9 PM Flamingo tournament is starting in about 45 minutes, so I catch a cab down there. While waiting, I lose some money at video poker. I am doing well in the tournament, but just before the first break, I'm holding AK with a board of AK72, and the guy to my right goes all in. It's an easy call, and he turns over QQ. The river is a third Q, crippling my stack. I lose it all three hands after the break (at that point, my M was less than 3, so pretty much any two high cards are an all-in situation).

In a real Times Square bar, there'd be more fighting.
I wander the strip in search of a $5 craps table. My expectations are low, because it's Saturday night. Nothing at Cromwell (though I lose at video poker and pop-a-matic craps but win most of it back on slots), nothing at Cosmopolitan (but a slots win), nothing at Aria (another slots win), nothing at Monte Carlo (giving back my slot wins), and nothing at Tropicana (slots loss). Why do I never stop at New York New York? It's a property I always pass through multiple times, but never stop. No idea.

I wander up through the same properties (I despise the MGM-to-Planet Hollywood walk through the gauntlet of low end retail/porn slappers/costumed characters/club promoters), and then cross over to Cromwell, Flamingo, Linq, O'Shea's, and Harrah's. No $5 craps. Finally, at Casino Royale, I find two $5 tables, but they're packed. I wander further north, through Wynn and Encore. It's Saturday night, and as always, the drunk spotting is epic. As I'm in the cab line at 3 AM to head back to Riviera, I see one guy placing his buddy in a cab and tells the driver "take him to Planet Hollywood. That's where he needs to go." The guy in the back seat has no idea what planet he's on. Meanwhile, the drunk woman in front of me is teetering on her heels and looks ready to fall down at any second. I get back to the Riv, and call it a night.

Sunday, January 25:
I'm told there's a plate under there somewhere.
I've heard good things from the Vegas interneterati about Griddle Café at SLS, and my wife's never been to SLS, so I tell her all about how the place was remodeled from the Sahara, how naysayers said that the location was terrible and that it'd never open, and how the naysayers are almost right: it opened, but it's got nobody playing there. The Griddle has some decent reviews, but internet rumor is that it'll be closing soon, even though it just opened a few months ago (spoiler: closure was confirmed on January 29).  She's up for it, and sure enough, when we arrive at around 11 AM on a Sunday, we're the only ones in the driveway, the only ones in the casino, and ... the Griddle has every table filled and a waiting line. The line moves quickly, and I order the largest pancake I've ever encountered. I eat maybe a third of it, but it's really good, despite the not-so-appealing combination of walnuts and syrup. My wife's French toast is equally gargantuan. Win #19.

We leave there and head for The Linq retail strip, which, unlike SLS, has been surprisingly successful. The retail is kind of "meh" this time around, so we hop into Flamingo. We sit at Bugsy's Bar and play video poker, and the bartender, who is was telling another barstool about great things that Harbaugh has done for the 49ers, asks where we're from. "Seattle." "Oh, I'm not talking to you," she jokes. We quickly lose enough money, and my wife hits the slots while I hit the pop-o-matic craps. I win about as much as she loses, and we discuss dinner. "House of Blues," says my wife. Sounds good to me.

We've got plenty of time, so we wander through Bellagio, and grab a snack at the Jean Philippe chocolate fountain. We catch the tram to Monte Carlo, then the tram from Excalibur to Mandalay Bay, where I make reservations for an early dinner. We've got about two hours before dinner, so wander to Luxor and she finally loses some money to Deal or No Deal, while I make it back playing some other machine.

Dinner at House of Blues is great, although my grilled chicken sandwich was so slippery I had to resort to a knife and fork. My wife's jambalaya was equally good. I had the Elwood's Caribbean Tea (gin, rum, triple sec). She had the Blues House Cider (Jack Daniels, hard cider, raspberry). Both were dangerously tasty.

With two hours left before we had to be at the airport, we headed back to The Linq. My wife played slots while I hit the craps table. We both came out way ahead. Win #20.

Off to the airport. The inside line to check bags was fairly long, but the curbside baggage check was empty.  Saving that time was well worth the tip to the redcap. We made it through security quickly, and our plane was on time. While we were waiting, charging my phone under my seat, the Seattle Mustachios Women's Hockey team sits next to us. They seemed excited about placing second out of 20 in the Las Vegas tournament. I didn't even know that was a thing. Good for them.

On the plane, I attempt to use a set of free drink coupons that I got from a member of the Five Hundy Facebook group, but the flight attendant didn't want it. Free drink, regardless. Win #21. I offered extra coupons to my seatmate, but he said he'd drank enough in Vegas. His wife declined, too.

It was a really great trip. I didn't get longhauled the entire time, I came home with more gambling funds than I left with, and had some great food. Even the mediocre food was decent.

My next trip is looking like a training class in mid-September. I'm hoping I can get another trip in sometime before then. Fingers crossed.

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