Sunday, December 18, 2016

Trip Report: 21

My daughter turned 21 last month. The only time she's stayed in Vegas before, she was 8 years old. My wife and I took her to Vegas last week, hoping she catches the Vegas bug like I have (spoiler: she didn't). Here's the details, with her commentary in red italics.

Welcome to fabulous Las Vegas
Sunday, December 11: We're delayed two hours out of SeaTac due to some mechanical issues on an earlier leg of the flight, but that gives us extra time to watch the Seahawks' pitiful loss to Green Bay before we board. The flight is uneventful, but I've placed her on the right hand side, so she sees the lights of the strip as we land. At baggage claim, I surprise her with Presidential Limo. We stop by the "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign, drive up the strip (while I prattle off history and random facts about each of the properties we pass), and eventually finish at Elara, where I've gone overboard and booked a two-bedroom suite.

I try the $20 on the front desk clerk. "We don't have complimentary upgrades, sir, but let me see what I can do." I end up with a top floor suite, but no balcony, facing the south strip. The clerk describes the room as "slightly larger." It was certainly big enough for the three of us. Full kitchen, 6-seat dining table, projection TV, two bathrooms, jetted tub, and except for a few scuffs on the furniture and mis-aligned cabinetry doors, in perfect condition.

We ditch our bags and head over to Yong Kang Street at Paris. My daughter's a big fan of dim sum, and she declared that it was merely adequate. The dim sum she makes herself is a little better, and neither are as good as Din Tai Fung, but then again, what is?

Places like Paris are going to fail, because millennials don't appreciate the artificial themeing. It seems fake and insincere. Disney does it better and more classy.

On the way back out through Paris, she mentions how smoky it is. I didn't notice, but she's lived in a tobacco-free environment most of her life -- not at home, in restaurants, or in most public spaces -- so it's an unpleasant place for her. This revulsion continues throughout the week, especially at Flamingo, Mirage, and Planet Hollywood. Aria and Cosmo were OK, and Cromwell was well ventilated near the doors. I didn't even consider showing her Casino Royale, and threatened her with a trip to El Cortez's Home for Wayward Emphysema Patients.

Cigarette smoke is a huge turn-off for millennials, who grew up in a smoke-free environment. Weed, however, is somehow okay with us.

Monday, December 12: While my wife and daughter sleep in, I'm in Vegas mode (go! go! go!) so I head down to Planet Hollywood to play on the best 25¢ video poker machine in the Caesars empire: a 100-play Jacks or Better machine in the high limit room, on which I only play one hand at a time. About 20 minutes in, I hit quad 4's, which sadly ends up being the best hand of the trip.

French toast incoming
Once they're awake, we head over to Mon Ami Gabi for breakfast (tasty) and then to the Cosmopolitan for drinks and video poker at my happy place, Chandelier. My favorite bartender, Sone, is working, and she picks out a delicious wine for my daughter and makes an outstanding whiskey sour for me. Cosmo is on the drink ticket system now, and because my daughter is unemployed and frugal, she's betting small and not getting tickets. No matter; my wife and I are playing enough to hand some tickets off to her and keep a few extras for later.

My daughter heads back to Elara for a nap, and my wife and I head upstairs to China Poblano for a light lunch. It's one of my favorite restaurants in Vegas. Our waiter, Kevin, suggests the Tamal Roja, so we order that, a plate of lamb pot stickers, and a basket of chips and salsa. The chips are seasoned with a little black pepper, which somehow makes them seem a little crisper. I'm sure the lamb pot stickers were outstanding, but realized after my second meal of lamb in three months... I just don't care for lamb. However, the pot stickers' lacy coating had a surprising mild spiciness to them, which offset the earthy gaminess of the lamb a little bit. And the tamal roja? Wow. I know that chef José Andrés refuses to call this place a Chinese-Mexican fusion restaurant, but how else can I describe it? Pulverized pork, as one would find in a pot sticker or xing bao, is molded into a candy bar-sized loaf and cooked in a corn husk. It's served open-faced with a drizzle of salsa. It's so good.

arrive hungrier than I did
Back to Elara, my wife (tired) and daughter (refreshed) switch places. Daughter and I wander up to Cromwell, where she has what I think was her only winning video poker session. We've got reservations for three of us at Carbone, but only my daughter and I make it, and I wasn't that hungry. Oops. You're supposed to be hungry and carnivorous and pulling out the stops, but we order prosciutto with mozzarella, a side of meatballs, and split a mushroom fettuccine. No table-side flair, not to-die-for food, but it was good, elegant, and with excellent service. My daughter described the food as over-oily, and the fettuccine was a little watery, the cardinal sin of pasta preparation. Next time, I go in hungry and order a slab of meat.

We drop off the leftovers for my wife, and then head back out, catching an Lyft to Cromwell and then moseying back through Bellagio, Cosmo, Aria (with a stop for gelato and a macaroon at Jean Philippe Patisserie), The Park, and New York New York, Upon entering NYNY, my daughter points out one of the only millennials she's seen on our stroll. "What she doing here," she wonders out loud, then realizes, "Oh. There's her parents."

Wandering over the skybridge towards the Dismal Castle, I give her the option to check it out or head over to the Tropicana. She's got no interest in Excalibur, and the skybridge to Tropicana is still closed, so instead, we call it a night and Uber back to Elara.

I have negative interest in Excalibur after what I've seen. Another smoke-filled fake casino is not my idea of fun.

Drink tickets; boooo!
Tuesday, December 13: My new morning routine: while the family sleeps in, I play Jacks or Better in the Planet Hollywood high limit room. Once they've woken, I grab some water bottles from the ABC store and head up. It's late enough that we skip breakfast and catch a Lyft up to Lucky Dragon for lunch, which just opened 10 days earlier. Their food court is good, authentic Chinese food, but there's not much else there of interest. I knew going in that I wasn't the target audience, but I'm not sure I'll have a reason to come back. It's pretty, though.

We catch an Uber to Fashion Show Mall, check out a few stores, and then Uber back to Elara for wife and daughter to nap. I wander down to MGM, losing $20 on the Sigma Derby horses but winning double that back on slots. My daughter calls, and we meet back at Cosmo for more VP and drinks at Chandelier. I have a drink coupon left from yesterday, and use it without issue.

Down a little bit, we head out and pick up my wife, getting a Lyft to Battista's Hole in the Wall: classic Italian food, with photos on the walls and a roving accordion player and all-you-can-drink wine. So good. So filling. We wander back to Elara and tuck my wife in, and then we head back to Cosmo for drinks and video poker at Chandelier.

Pomegranate goodness, leading to hazy grins
I feel like it's a good idea to follow up my half carafe of Battista's wine with an old fashioned. My daughter has a Riesling. The bartender is hopping, making drinks non-stop and joking with the other staff. At one point, he pulls out a bottle of pomegranate liqueur and makes martinis for the cocktail waitress to deliver. My eyes widen; my daughter's jaw drops. "One of those, please," I request. "And a pomegranate Sprite for me," asks my daughter. The bartender makes them strong. I'm quite tipsy, maybe the second drunkest I've been in Vegas. "You're the best drinking buddy ever," I quip to my daughter. She grins back, through her intoxicated haze.

When we were there, another millennial ordering a drink leaned in to order a drink, and said to me "I don't know what I'd be doing playing video poker." I never saw anyone else my age playing any machines at all. I only really saw them playing craps and poker, and that was even rare.

Props to another Vegas photog for coming up
with the idea for this shot. I liked it enough to
try it for myself.
Wednesday, December 14: I'm up early, so video poker in PHo's high limit room. My wife wakes up, and we lose a big chunk of change on PHo's slot machines. Once my daughter wakes up, we catch an Uber downtown to Eat. Their pancakes are the best in town (sorry, DuPars lovers, but you're wrong). The cinnamon biscuits are as amazing as we remember. And my daughter's grilled cheese is a four-inch-thick block of gooey goodness. She's not feeling well, so instead of giving her a tour of Fremont Street, we Uber back to Elara for another round of "family naps while Travis plays." I mosey down to Excalibur and slowly whittle away my chip stack at the craps table until I get the call that they're awake. On a whim, I choose Uber Pool for the return trip. It's cheaper, and the app doesn't find any other customers on the way, so that's a great choice when it's not three of us in the car.

We stop by Urban Outfitters and Victorias Secret. I'd allocated a fund of daily "play money" to my daughter, thinking she'd use it for gambling, but shopping appeals to her more. I'm somewhat proud of that. Everybody does their own Vegas, and maybe shopping is her thing.

All you need is LOVE
The three of us are now in a happy rut: back to Cosmo for afternoon drinks and video poker at Chandelier. After a bit of play, we pocket our extra drink tickets and walk back to Elara to get ready for the evening. My wife's now feeling a little under the weather, so it's just my daughter and I catching a Lyft to see the dress rehearsal of Beatles LOVE. The show has a lot of new features since I last saw it, and its as amazing as ever.

As we exited the LOVE theatre, I couldn't stay in the Mirage. I nearly ran out -- the smoke made my throat feel as if it was filling with liquid and I couldn't catch my breath. 

My daughter and I wander back to Elara, checking out the Caesar's lobby and the Chihuly art in the Bellagio lobby.

Chihuly seems to be everywhere in Vegas, and it's unimpressive. We've got a ton of Chihuly works at home, too. It's like we can't walk down the street at home without tripping on a piece.

She's craving street tacos, my wife is, too, so we hop in a Lyft to Tacos El Gordo. Mind you, I know this is the slow time of year for Vegas, but I didn't expect to be one of the only customers in Tacos El Gordo. The line here is usually out the door. Our Lyft driver recommended the Abadabo fries, so that's what I ordered. They're really good, though quite sloppy. My wife and daughter have the steak tacos, and they're unimpressed (due to the amazing tacos at home). We hop in another Uber Pool back to Elara, with one brief stop at Morton's to pick up another passenger. Not too inconvenient for a super-low rate. Seriously: $6.37, Tacos El Gordo to Elara. Hope they didn't mind the taco smell.

Slow time of year
I tuck them in, and at midnight head out on my own, wandering up the strip, breaking even at the O'Shea's craps table, and coming out ahead at Casino Royale's slot machines. At Venetian, around 2 AM, I'm tired as well, and Uber Pool back to Elara. Again, no other passengers pop up, and the fare is $5.52. Cheap!

Thursday, December 15: It's our last day in Vegas, and although check-out time is 10 AM, our flight doesn't leave until 9:30 PM. Both wife and daughter are still showing signs of blah-ness, so I book a cheap $27 room at the Flamingo for the day ($66 with fees). We drag our bags over via Lyft, but know better than to eat breakfast at the Dirty Bird, so Uber back to the Miracle Mile Shops for a cheap breakfast at Blondies. We each order the $3.99 eggs, bacon, and hashbrown special. It's cheap and edible. Good enough. We then Uber back to Flamingo, where my wife naps, and my daughter and I head out to wander a bit. While I grab slices of pizza at Cosmo's Secret Pizza, she tries to redeem yesterday's video poker voucher for a drink. Sorry -- it's expired. They just started scanning the barcodes this week. Dang. After pizza, we head up to the pool to look at the somewhat unimpressive ice skating rink, then head over to play video poker at Cromwell. After an hour or so, my daughter she heads up to take a nap while I play craps, just about breaking even.

I wander a bit more, get a text from my family that they're awake, and head up to the room to see how they're doing. I pocket the soaps, pen, and notepad from the room, like I always do. My wife's still bleh, but my daughter's up to going out. I'd originally planned to catch the start of the Seahawks game at Westgate, but my daughter suggested we watch it at the Cosmo sportsbook bar. We play video poker through most of the first half of the game; I break even, she loses a little, but far less than she would have if the machine hadn't been offline for the first 10 minutes. Somebody stuffed pennies in the card reader. Who does that?

I love the Cosmopolitan because of its drinks and atmosphere. It doesn't feel like it's trying to be anything other than what it is, and I think people my age will appreciate it for that. The only other property close to feeling this way is Aria, but it feels more uptight and pretentious.

Another pomegranate and Sprite.
They won't take my expired drink ticket here, either.
I pointed out the nearby shuffleboard and pool tables, and joked to my daughter, "there's no cornhole. How do they expect to attract millennials?"

He jokes, but that's serious. Millennials want to game, but not lose money to games. We'd rather spend it on drinks. Games like cornhole and giant Jenga really do pull us in.

My Seahawks don't cover the first half spread, so I'm leaving town with a loss. We grab my wife and our bags from Flamingo, Uber to the airport, and watch the 'hawks cover the game spread. You couldn't have done that in the first half, guys?

The flight home is uneventful. All in all, a pretty good trip. Too bad my family wasn't feeling great, but there's always next time.

When we got home, I hated how the smoke seems to have clung to all my clothes. Everything, clean and dirty, goes in the wash.

If the casinos want to appeal to millennials, they'll need to improve their free wifi coverage. I only found it at Aria and Mirage. I'm more likely to go to a casino that has wifi than to one that doesn't.

Overall, I just don't think Vegas appeals to millennials. We're already looking at screens all day, and we vacation to escape that. We want what's real, and that usually involves getting outdoors, not staying inside with smokers.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Eight parts of my abandoned 18-part Vegas advice series

Nine months ago, I started writing what I anticipated would be an 18-part blog series on the basics of Vegas, alternating between general knowledge and gambling basics. After writing the first eight parts, I put it aside, and at this point, it looks like I’m going to be abandoning it. So, for what it’s worth, after a tiny bit of cleanup, here’s my abandoned draft.

1: Basic Vegas geography: The Strip and Fremont Street (“downtown” or “old Vegas”)

The Strip – Las Vegas Boulevard – is a four-mile long stretch of desert roadway fronted by 26 casinos with essentially four competing owners. The big two, Caesars Entertainment (mostly center strip, with 7 properties) and MGM Resorts (mainly south strip, with 10 properties), are frequently under fire for their tendency to nickel and dime you with fees being added and services being reduced several times a year. The next two, LV Sands (Venetian/Palazzo) and Wynn/Encore, tend to follow Caesars and MGM’s lead. A few more scattered independent properties exist (Stratosphere, SLS, Casino Royale, Cosmopolitan, Tropicana). The Great Recession hit Vegas hard, and several projects on the north end of the strip were delayed or cancelled (e.g., Fontainebleu), but some have started to show some activity (Resorts World, Alon).

A couple of miles north of The Strip, Fremont Street has seen a resurgence in the last decade, in no small part due to the arrival of’s headquarters and its CEO’s quirky philosophy about employees benefiting from community. The Fremont Street Experience light show at the west end of Fremont covers most of the tourist area, but East Fremont has really become less slummy and more hipster (or gentrified) since Zappos’ arrival. There are 11 casinos on or near west Fremont (13 if you count two tiny slot machine halls), and El Cortez on east Fremont.

The Strip is where you find the glitz, the luxury, the best restaurants, the fanciest bars, the most beautiful people, and the highest prices. Fremont Street is where you find the best gambling, the best deals, and the lowest table limits. Many years ago, someone told me that if you want to feel bad about how you look, hang out on the strip. If you want to feel good about how you look, hang out on Fremont.

A final category of casinos are considered off-strip: Palms, Rio, and the Hard Rock fall into this category. The Westgate (formerly the Las Vegas Hilton) could also be considered off-strip, but many categorize it as a north strip property. Unless you’re big into sports, you probably won’t go to any of these on your first Vegas trip.

2: Basics of gambling: Money Management I

No matter what you decide to gamble on or how good or bad the odds are, good money management will positively affect your gambling more than any other thing you do. I’ve heard that there’s few things worse than losing your entire bankroll on day one of a five-day trip (although compounding that by borrowing more money is still worse). Proper money management will allow you to have fun every day of your trip.

The most important rule of money management: never bet more than you’re willing to lose. I’d expand that further by saying that you shouldn’t bring more cash into the casino than you’re willing to lose. A bad session at the craps table can wipe you out quickly. A good session can turn bad as well. You should never put yourself in a situation where you look back and say, “if I hadn’t gone to the ATM, I’d be able to pay rent this month.” In the heat of the moment, you might be thinking, “I can withdraw a little more and get back to even.” That way lies madness and worse.

When you are winning – and it happens on occasion – some people bet larger: “I’m playing with the casino’s money.” Wrong. It’s not the casino’s money. It’s yours. You can pick it up, cash it in, and bring it home. It’s your money. If you’d walked into the casino with that money, would you be playing at a higher level? No? Then don’t do it.

3: Safety: Crimes and scams:

Vegas draws everyone, from high rollers with a big craving for action and very little sense, to convention attendees who disdainfully look upon the shenanigans, to college frat boys who are here to party until they pass out, to Mabel and Henry from Backwater Flats who arrive with big eyes and golly-gee attitude, to addicts with little self-control looking for their next hit. Vegas also draws the criminal element who preys on all of them.

The tourist areas of Vegas are exceedingly safe. The downtown streets back home are almost certainly more dangerous. Police are everywhere, and casinos have their own security staff (who work closely with police) to keep bad times to a minimum. After all, Vegas is dependent on bringing tourists in, and tourists quickly avoid areas where they don’t feel safe.

So, first, stay in the tourist areas. You could probably walk from The Strip to Fremont Street, but why risk it? You’re gambling enough in the casinos. Minimize your losses outside.

Secondly, realize that anybody you don’t know who talks to you is, most of the time, looking to get something from you. Costumed characters will demand tips if you take their photo. The guy handing you a “free” CD will demand payment. The guy offering free nightclub passes will also expect a tip, and the passes will probably get you in the same line to pay for admission as everyone else (if you’re a dude) or in the same expedited line you’d be put in without a pass (if you’re a hot female). You can get bottled water less expensively and probably less contaminated-ly from the drugstore on every corner than you can from the dirty cooler on the overpass.

Third, watch your stuff. Pickpockets work the crowds inside the casinos, on crowded sidewalks, and around the three-card-monte hucksters. If you set your purse down and look away, it could disappear. It happens.

Fourth, what happens in Vegas ends up on Facebook. What ends up on the internet lasts forever. Keep that in mind, Princess Selfie.

And finally, keep your wits. The people who wants to scam you in Vegas are some of the best in the world. Don’t give them an opening. Don’t engage in risky behavior. Don’t let the booze and the lights and the spectacle take control of you.

(Bonus tip: take Uber or Lyft, not a cab. Cabs are more expensive, and when going to or from the airport, they’re notorious for taking the longer route to increase their fares.)

4: Basics of gambling: House Edge

At the simplest level, the house edge is the price you pay to play a casino game. Imagine, if you will, a $1 bet on a coin tossing game using a perfectly fair coin. Heads you win $1, tails you lose $1. You have two possible results: you leave with $2 or you leave with $0. On average, you leave with $1. The difference between what you bet ($1) and your average expectation ($1) is the house edge: 0%. That means there’s no house edge. There’s no way a casino would actually offer this kind of game, because they have to pay for their employees, the free booze, and other overhead expenses.

So, say they offer a similar coin tossing game, but heads you win $0.95, tails you lose $1. You have two possible results: you leave with $1.95 or you leave with $0. On average, you leave with $0.975. The difference between what you bet ($1) and your expectation ($0.975) is the house edge: 2.5%. In other words, for every dollar you bet on this game, you can expect to lose 2.5¢.

Let’s look at a real casino game, roulette. There’s 38 spaces, you bet $1 on one space (go, lucky number 16!), and if it wins, you get $35 back (plus your original $1 bet). What’s the house edge? 37 times, you end up with $0. The 38th time, you end up with $36. On average ($36/38 spins), you end up with $0.947. If you bet $1 on one number, each spin costs you 5.26¢. There’s a 5.26% house edge to this roulette game.

Essentially, if you know the house edge to a bet (, and you play with proper strategy, you know how much it’s going to cost you in the long run. Interested in three card poker? The ante and play bets (two bets, $5 each) have a 3.37% house edge, and the Pair Plus bet (at $1) has a 7.28% house edge. Each hand will, in the long run, cost $0.337+$0.073, or 41¢ per hand. Interested in just playing the pass line in craps? A $5 bet has a 1.41% house edge, so each shooter will cost you 7¢.

So why play any of these games if it’s going to cost you in the long run? The same reason you buy movie tickets or a video game (a 100% house edge): you’re getting entertainment in exchange for your money. It’s fun. And, in Vegas, you’re also getting a little value from the free drinks being offered (but don’t forget to tip!).

There are three games and one other possibility where there can be a beneficial house edge (“player advantage,” or “+EV” as the cool kids say). Some video poker machines, when played with perfect strategy have a very minor +EV. If you play blackjack, and if keep a good count of what cards are left in the shoe, and if you bet big when it’s a +EV game, you can have an advantage (and then get backed off by casino management, and if you’re reading this, I guarantee you didn’t really count it right anyway). And if you’re a really good poker player, or at least a better poker player than 60% of the players at your table, poker can be a +EV game. Also, “free play” or “match play” coupons can make a single bet a +EV proposition.

House edge isn’t everything, though. Imagine a situation where you can bet $5 to have a 1-in-a-million chance to win a billion dollars. That’s got a 200% edge in your favor. You should bet every penny you have to win this bet, right? No. The variance will kill you, unless you’ve got millions of dollars to churn through until you hit the jackpot.  Many games with a small house edge have a large variance (like video poker).

5: Food

There are a lot of folks who come to Vegas to whom food is an afterthought – there’s a reason that the highest grossing Denny’s in the world is on The Strip – and I’ll admit that I’ve eaten a few meals from the Showcase Mall Wendy’s and the Fashion Show Mall food court. I propose, however, that food shouldn’t be an afterthought. Many of the best chefs in the world have signature restaurants on The Strip, as do many more well-known chefs. Sure, Jöel Robuchon and José Andrés’ Bazaar Meat are on many best-in-the-nation lists, but you’ve also got Gordon Ramsey Steak, deLaurentiis’ Giada, Todd English’s Olives, and more.

On the more casual side, Andrés’ China Poblano is one of my favorite meal stops at Cosmopolitan. Natalie Young’s eat. in east Fremont is one of the best breakfasts in town, and her Chow serves up a tasty blend of Chinese and American comfort foods. Top Chef Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken’s Border Grill has two delicious locations.

And getting super casual, Secret Pizza at Cosmopolitan serves up a great slice, if you can find it. Pizza Rock downtown does the same, and also has the best meatball I’ve ever vanquished. Also downtown, DuPars at the Golden Gate is somewhat overrated for breakfast, but that just means it’s really good, not super amazing.

Buffets are a Vegas staple, but I tend to avoid them. Wicked Spoon at Cosmopolitan is very good, and I’ve heard great things about Bacchanal at Caesars, but I always end up trying to eat my money’s worth, and they’re pretty pricey, meaning I eat one meal there, and I’m full for the next 24 hours. I’ve also eaten at Spice Market (Planet Hollywood), Bayside (Mandalay Bay), MGM Grand Buffet, and The Buffet at Bellagio, and while I don’t regret it, there are better choices if you plan ahead. Worth a consideration: the Chuck Buffet -- if you’re going to spend $X on a breakfast buffet, why not spend a third of $X on three different dining experiences: coffee here, a pastry there, scrambled eggs somewhere else? (Tip of the hat to the Trippies 2016 editors for this suggestion.)

Please, don’t eat at a major chain restaurant while in Vegas. I know there’s an In-n-Out over there, and there’s none of those at home, but you’re missing out on better choices. Also, don’t eat anywhere at Flamingo. Trust me on this one.

6: Basics of gambling: Money Management II, the envelope system

This doesn’t work for everyone, but it sure does for me. The basic envelope system works like this: before you leave home, allocate a portion of your bankroll for each day and place it in a sealed envelope labeled with the date it’s to be used. When you’re in Vegas, that’s the only money you have to gamble with that day, and when it’s gone, no gambling until the next day. If you have money left at the end of the day, it goes into a “bank” envelope that gets brought home. Never take money from the bank envelope.

I’ve modified this system a little bit. Depending on what I have planned for each day, an envelope will have varying amounts. Lots of meetups? Maybe a little less. Nothing planned? Maybe more. Arriving late that night? Maybe only a little bit. Also, money left at the end of the day doesn’t all go into the “bank” envelope – just half of it does. The other half gets placed in the next day’s envelope.  That way, if I have a big win, I can play a little more or a little bigger the next day while still banking a notable sum.

Others, more optimistic than I, have said they allocate $0 to the final day, but take half of each day’s leftovers and place it in the final day envelope. It seems to me that you’re risking having no funds for the final day, but it works for them, so that’s an option.

Obviously, self-control is needed for this system. But if you don’t have self-control, should you really be gambling in Vegas?

7: Comps

“Comps” are stuff the casino gives you in return for your gambling.  At my low-rolling levels, the only comps I ever see from Vegas casinos are a handful of points on my players card and discounted room offers (rarely, but sometimes at the low end joints, discounted to “free”).  A typical player’s card, the Caesars “Total Rewards” card, gives you one “reward credit” for every $5 you play on a slot machine. You can exchange 200 reward credits for $1. Thus, each reward credit is worth ½¢, so you’re getting 0.1% cash back.

Never play for comps. They’re a nice side benefit, and new players especially can get some nice “bounce back” offers the first few times, but playing a game with a -EV more than you normally would, just to get 0.1% of your bet back, is dumb.

At some places, playing a table game (blackjack, roulette, craps, but not poker) for a few hours might entitle you to a comped meal. Ask the pit boss. I’ve never played long enough in one place to ask. At the poker table, the best offer you’re going to find is $2 in food credit for every hour played.

8: Basics of gambling: Table games

It’s very, very rare to find a table game under $5. The most common table games are blackjack, roulette, craps, Ultimate Texas Hold ‘em, Three Card Poker, and Pai Gow Poker.

Cameras are everywhere in Vegas, and many of them are pointed at the table games. It’s where a lot of money changes hands, and where the opportunity for fraud is high. The casino is watching both you and the dealer. When you buy in to a table game, you can’t hand your money to the dealer. Leave it on the table instead. This prevents accusations of sleight-of-hand – passing something (like a chip or a high value bill) between the player and dealer out of view of the camera.           

Blackjack is everywhere in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, in the last decade, payoffs for a blackjack in most casinos have dropped from 3:2 ($15 on a $10 bet) to 6:5 ($12 on a $10 bet).  Basic strategy cards are available for free on the internet, and you’re allowed to print out and have a strategy card at the table with you.  Playing basic strategy keeps the house edge in blackjack well under 2%.
                [and that’s where I ended]

9: Etiquette: moseying, tipping, cameras, selfies,
10: Basics of gambling: Slot machines
11: Getting around
12: Basic of gambling: The long run
13: Shows
14: Basics of gambling: Superstition and betting systems
15: Nightclubs
16: Basics of gambling: Taxes
17: What to do besides gambling, eating, and shows

18: History

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Trip report: VIMFP 2016

The D is always so welcoming
to us Vegas nerds.
(Curious how this went at previous VIMFPs? See my 2014 and 2015 blog posts.)

I've told several folk that this was my 16th trip to Las Vegas, but I've mis-counted. This was my 18th trip, and I'm still trying to figure out if this was a great trip, or if it was the greatest trip. I thought people were friendly at VIMFP 2015, but this was even better.

Thursday, October 13: The flight is uneventful, although I made the financial decision to connect through San Diego instead of flying directly from Seattle to Las Vegas. It added about 90 minutes to the flight, and the connection was tight, but it worked out fine. I'd recently received a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, and this was the first time I'd used them. They worked great at minimizing the aircraft noise; they're now a must for all future flights.

A bar in Seattle served a bourbon/ginger beer drink to me a few weeks ago that was surprisingly good. I tried the same thing on the plane with Wild Turkey and ginger ale, and it was surprisingly bad.

My luggage arrived at McCarran's baggage claim quickly. Despite my knowing exactly where the Uber pickup area was, I still had a little trouble finding my way to it. Signage needs work. I didn't bother to ask my driver to avoid the freeway or the tunnel -- at 9 PM, I knew the Strip and roads close to it would be congested, and I was looking forward to getting checked in and heading out of my hotel ASAP. Airport to Golden Gate: $19.95. Still cheaper than a cab.

View of the Plaza from my "loud" room.
I checked in, and in what I'm sure was a bit unusual of a request, I asked for a loud room overlooking the Fremont Street stage. Really, I wanted to avoid the terrible "courtyard" view I had last time, of the side of an HVAC unit an arm's reach away. A little typing, a suggestion of an alley view (no. garbage truck noise at 5 AM is a deal-breaker), and she found me a corner room overlooking the Plaza's entryway. Good enough.

I unloaded my stuff, checked the Twitters, and found that partying had already started at The D's Long Bar. I moseyed my way through the freak show that is Fremont Street, met three of my favorite podcasters (two of whom remembered my name!), and proceeded to lose $70 on video poker. I re-met a few other listeners I'd bumped into before, socialized a bit, and decided to head back. Friday's going to be busy. I swing through Golden Nugget (slot win), Binions (slot loss), and the ABC Store (water water half dollar) before calling it a night.

Friday, October 14: I wake up, and I'm craving Spam, which is quickly cured by a walk over to the California and breakfast at Aloha Specialties. I then head across the skybridge to the best tourist video poker at Main Street Station. I end up ahead a little, and give it back to their slots.

I had mentioned to someone on Thursday night that the Fremont offers $3 craps, and decided to head over there to check it out and confirm that to be the case. It is, kinda. I played for about 90 minutes, almost doubled my buy-in, and then just after noon they raised the table limit to $5, with no grandfathering of players. Time to cash out.

The VIMFP shenanigans are due to start around 1:00, so I head back to Golden Gate. I'm a little early, so I put $20 in everybody's favorite Wonka machine, and soon hit the Wonka bonus. Taylor and Tara arrive as the Oompas are Loomping, and cheer on my $120 win. Nice. 

I watch Mark from the You Can Bet on That podcast teach craps for a short time (I hope to be half as good at teaching it as he is), then head over to Bar Prohibition to socialize and play video poker. I give my Fremont craps win to the Golden Gate's VP machine, but chat with several other attendees.Soon after, Chuck and Hunter give their opening remarks, and we literally parade from Golden Gate to the back of The D, where we reaffirm our our oath to call out any BS spouted from the Vegas media. I meet my good friend Lou from the UK who I've never actually met. I gift her a bottle of gin from Seattle; she later gives me a dozen packs of potato rings, a snack I haven't had in 20+ years, and which hasn't been available at home in 30+ years. Tastes like nostalgia.

Upstairs at The D, I sign up for tomorrow's slot tournament, pay Lou for my share of the Sigma Derby tournament, and hang out playing video poker with Scott, Taylor, Tara, and (if I remember correctly) Angie, who bequeathed me a panda sticker for my name tag and made me an honorary Asian. Yet again, the VP gods are cruel. The four of us plan to meet up for a late dinner at The Cal for Korean food, but those plans fail to materialize later.

Fremont Street Experience,
decked out for Halloween
Lou appoints me as the Sigma Derby jockey, and this year is my worst performance to date. Out of my 20 bets, only one hits. We're nowhere close to the finals. I skulk off to Oak & Ivy in the Container Park, were there's been chatter of a Vice Lounge Online cigar meet-up. I'm there at 6 on the dot, but only Mitzula is there. He says that he assumes the rest of the group is still at El Cortez getting cigars, so I tell him I'll be back in a bit, and head off in search of a light meal. 

Across the plaza, I climb the steps to Perch, where I have a tasty chicken sandwich and some iced tea. I'm feeling a little out-of-phase, perhaps from the drinks I've had throughout the day, so figure I should ratchet it back a little. The food is good, but not spectacular. I see the crowd has assembled at Oak & Ivy, and order a whisky smash once I arrive there. No cigars for me -- I'm a non-smoker, but still enjoy being around cigars. The drink was OK, with muddled mint, pineapple, and cucumber, but the mint was overpowering (and over-garnished), making it less of a fruity smash and more like a minty julep.

Back to The D for the World Series of Satin Casino Jackets at 8. I didn't participate this year, except as a cheering audience member. Good thing, too, since there were some amazing jackets from long-gone casinos, and several custom-made jackets for casinos that never existed.

From there, it was out to the event center to catch the Sublime concert. It was only 10 PM, but I was having trouble staying awake. Maybe it's the contact high from the potheads in the crowd below. Maybe it's that I'd had more drinks today than any other day in my life. Maybe it was just the excitement of VIMFPing again. Regardless, I left after the opening act, apologizing to Taylor and Tara for skipping out on dinner. I left as Angie was coming in, and apologized to her as well. She was so caring! "You OK? Anything I can help with? You sure? You gonna be OK?" *hugs* Yup. I headed back to the hotel and slept hard.

Saturday, October 15: A good night's sleep was all I needed. I'm up early and feeling good, and for breakfast I wander over to East Fremont to see what I can find. I'm saving Eat for my December trip, and end up at Glutton. They're apparently not usually a breakfast place, but they are on weekends. The open kitchen serves up some great eggs, bacon, and potatoes, and the cook chats with me briefly, trying to suss out whether I'm a local or not. I see a bartender from Atomic Liquors eating there as well, so even though this is only a block off of Fremont, I get the impression this is a local's joint. Good food.

I slowly mosey my way back to the Golden Gate, and stop at the Fremont Arcade for some pinball. It's the first time I've been inside of Neonopolis, and agree with everyone else who's mentioned it: there's so much wasted potential in this mall. The arcade is tucked away in a corner behind Denny's.

When I describe slot machine play to my non-gambling friends, I often point out that the house edge (5-10%) is the cost of entertainment. A 50¢ pull of the handle costs about 5¢ in the long run. Paying that nickel for the entertainment value of it is a fair trade to me.
Cannonball at the Beach Club Swap Meet
The pinball machines at the arcade? They have a 100% house edge. Still, the $5 I put into them is the cost of entertainment. I gradually make my way back to Golden Gate (stopping at Binion's Tasti Di Lite for a snack), grab a few things for the pool-side swap meet, and (thanks to a tip from Five Hundy By Midnight last year), take a shortcut through the back of the Golden Nugget.

The pool party is a lot of fun, though I got rid of nothing more than a Fitzgerald's player's club card and a Bill's Gamblin' Hall matchbook, in exchange for a Westward Ho matchbook and Hunter's lamps from the opening night at Aria. I'm still trying to figure out what I'm going to do with those.
Dark, Stormy, flaming at Golden Tiki

I'm done there a little too late to go out on the multiple tiki bar run with a group of super-fans, but I do catch up with them as our Ubers arrive simultaneously at the final stop: Golden Tiki. It was great to meet Cherise (origins unknown), talk with Alistair (London) and Danielle (Seattle) again, to catch up with Ryan and Rebecca (sorry, Ryan, but Seattle's Capitol Hill is a gayborhood), and to meet Jason (Vice Lounge Online) after failing to acknowledge him at last night's cigar meet up. In honor of the storm-of-the-century which is currently failing to materialize back home, I order a Dark & Stormy, which comes complete with a flaming lime. Tasty.

Drinks complete, five of us decide that we can make it to Tacos El Gordo and eat in time to make it to the 7 PM slot tournament. It's going to be close. The four seat Uber arrives, so Cherise reclines on the three back seat laps. The taco stand is packed, the lines move slowly, and if we wanted pork and beef, we'd have needed to get in separate lines. We split up, the steak line moves faster, so we end up with a bunch of steak tacos.

Yes, I acknowledge that here in the Seattle/Tacoma area, we're spoiled with the quality of our Mexican food. Tacos El Gordo is as good as a typical mid-range street taco place at home, which means for most tourists, it's amazing. To me, it was OK.

The five of us pile into a four-person Uber again, and by encouraging our driver to drive a little aggressively, make it just in time for the second heat of the slot tournament -- just in time for all but one of us. Unlike my previous slot tournament experiences, I do poorly in this one. I head over to Pizza Rock to console myself in a bubbling greasy slice of pepperoni.

The Main Event starts at 9, and Danielle, her husband, and I chat in line about the storm that's not happening back home. We're soon let in to The D showroom, and I take my traditional front row seat. The Vegas Gang conducted an entertaining interview of retired Las Vegas journalist Norm Clarke. Dr. Dave (UNLV Center for Gaming Research) talked about his oral history interviews of table game dealers (get his book! it's good!). Five Hundy By Midnight drank and ranted and had us laughing. And the VegasTripping Match Game's Trump-themed edition was incredibly hilarious. And then, just after midnight, the surprise event that had been teased for weeks was announced. "Go down to the Mannekin Pis statue, and find the guy in the grey suit."

I did. He handed me a slip of paper: "Ask the bartender at the Golden Gate 'Where is the nearest donut shop?'"

Prostitution: Unlawful.
Five-hour bar: Permitted
I did, He handed me a flyer for Admiral Donuts, "located in the heart of Glitter Gulch". The map on the flyer showed a side entrance. We followed the map. A pair of solid metal gates blocked the alley, but another VIMFPer found a button high to the left and pressed it. The gates swung open, and at the side entrance to the former strip club stood three bouncers and a velvet rope.

A bit of back story: Derek Stevens, the owner of The D and Golden Gate, has been a huge supporter of VIMFP for the last four years, not just hosting our shenanigans, but taking an active role in making our events as fun as possible. A little under two years ago, he bought and shut down the Las Vegas Club, and at last year's VIMFP, he gave us a tour of it, at which he said "if you see anything you want, take it." This last year, he purchased and closed Mermaids, La Bayou, and Glitter Gulch, which are adjacent to his other properties. La Bayou has already been demolished, and according to rumors I heard later in the trip, Glitter Gulch is due to be flattened within the next few weeks.

But tonight, the bouncer asks me for a password. I provide one, get wanded for metal, and the velvet rope drops to let me in. It's dark. I can hardly see. The 70s rock is subdued. But yeah, this is essentially a clean, abandoned strip club, with perhaps the most people in here in years. The sign on the bar announces that we've been welcomed to "Dark Bar", a five-hour pop-up bar which is the last event ever to be held in Glitter Gulch. We drink, we socialize, we just hang out. Some of the nerds, fully clothed, get up on stage and dare to touch the poles. I hope their shots were up to date. Fun, fun times.
Thump thump thump thump thump.

Sunday, October 16: Fifteen lucky VIMFPers, including myself, won the opportunity to go on a guided tour of the Mob Museum led by Dr. Dave, Vegas historian extraordinaire. The tour was educational, entertaining, and made me understand the world of some of my ancestors a little better (helped, in small part, by another tour participant who pointed to the photo of one low-level mobster and, noting my resemblance, asked, "a relative of yours?" It's certainly possible.)

Before the tour, I checked out of the Golden Gate and placed a few NFL bets, which overall broke a little less than even. After the tour, I stopped into the Fremont for a quick lunch, opting to stop at "Lanai Express," where I had a burger, fries, and what was perhaps my biggest gamble of the trip, a 99¢ shrimp cocktail. It was, somewhat surprisingly, edible.
And it was only 99¢!

As I'm eating, I get a text message from a Seattle friend of mine, Tim. When I booked this trip, Tim and two other non-VIMFP friends had planned to meet up tonight for me to guide a tour of the strip, and to go geocaching in the desert tomorrow. The two others backed out (with good reasons), and I hadn't heard from Tim, so I expected I'd spend the next two days on my own. "Hey, Travis, just got in ... are you up for a strip tour this evening or sometime tomorrow?" Tomorrow afternoon it is!

But today, at 2:00, I'm heading back to The D for the final official event, four more live podcasts. 88 Days to Macau recapped their trip and revealed an upcoming January trip; Vegas Fanboy explained what will help get millennials into the casinos (participation tickets when they lose on the slots); Denton Dallas and Beyond talked about Vegas food; and You Can Bet on That discussed Dr. Mike's encounter with a naked guy dining in the restroom.

And with that, the official part of VIMFP 2016 was over. You Can Bet on That announced a craps meet-up at Luxor at 8 PM tonight, I collect my bags, call an Uber, and climb into the car. I explain to the driver that this trip might be a little odd -- I need to stop by the drive-thru in the A Special Memory wedding chapel to drop off some trackable items into a geocache. "Oh, I understand," she says. "I'm a geocacher, too." I make the drop, give one of the trackables to her, and head south to Excalibur.
All/Tall/Small hits! 7.5% house edge,
but $246 back on a $3 bet.

Check-in is quick and efficient, and the desk clerk didn't hesitate when I asked if she might have some packaging tape to reinforce Hunter's lamp box. It's amazing to me how helpful and friendly and human MGM employees are when their management is actively taking steps to monetize the customer experience at every turn. This was reinforced at the craps meet up: 30 of us met for one $5 on a Sunday night, often an unheard of limit at a busy time. They opened a second table for us. They gave us free gift bags. And the crew was funny, talkative, skilled, and exuberant. Somehow, magically, both tables hit the all/tall/small bet, and I suspect everyone except the grumpy "don't pass" player to my left ended up way ahead for the night. 

Early morning, I bid Ryan, Rebecca, and Alistair good night, and headed up to my room in the Royal Tower. I've heard concerns about the room quality, but this was great, kind of an upper mid-range chain hotel, like a Hampton Inn. Nothing special, no complaints. 

Also, I forgot to eat dinner. I eyed a few food court stands in the Luxor/Excalibur walkway, but nothing sounded edible. No big.

Monday, October 17: I've been hearing about the breakfast wars in the Miracle Mile shops for a few years now, so this morning decided to check it out. In a short stretch, Blondies, Ketchup, and La Salsa Cantina each offer breakfasts ranging from $3.99 to $5.99. I opted for Blondies. Eggs, bacon, and hash browns for $4.99. I added toast ($2.99) and a screwdriver, and with tip, that upped the price to $17. I cringed a little, but then the waitress brought me a free mimosa "for the road" and all was right with the world.

I played a little video poker at Cosmopolitan, and a little more at MGM, then met SeattleTim for the start of our tour. Deep breath. OK. So we started at MGM, walked over to Tropicana, took the tram from Excalibur to Mandalay Bay, then walked Mandalay to Luxor to Excalibur to NYNY to Monte Carlo to Aria to Cosmo to Planet Hollywood to Paris to Bally's to Bellagio to Caesars to Flamingo to Cromwell to Linq to Harrah's to Mirage... and stopped for lunch at Carnegie Deli. The sandwiches were expensive, but piled several inches high with tasty meat.

After a breather for lunch, we continued on: Casino Royale, Venetian, Palazzo, Wynn, and Encore. Now six hours into the tour, we agree to end it, and Uber back to MGM for drinks at Whisky Down. 
Chandelier drink menu

We chat a bit more, then I head back over to Cosmopolitan for video poker at Chandelier. As happened frequently this trip, the VP gods frowned on me, but not for nothing: I have three tasty drinks (including Becky with the Good Hair, a blend of exotic citrusy liquors).

I finish up the night with a slice at Secret Pizza, where I'm mostly ignoring the couple next to me. "You did not eat just two slices. That would mean I had three." "I only had two." "Well I only had two. Why is there one left?" They turn to me.

"We've got an extra slice. Would you like it?" Free Secret Pizza? Jackpot.

Tuesday, October 18: My last day in town. I've been meaning to get some real poker in, and I've slept in a bit, so the 9 AM Excalibur tournament isn't a thing I can do. I fire up the PokerAtlas app and find the 10 AM $45 tournament at Mandalay Bay. I'm good for an hour, and make it to the final table. My M is about 3, and my first hand, in early position, is A9 suited. I make the ill-advised move of pushing, get called with AK, almost make my flush, but that heart is really a diamond, so I'm out after more than an hour of play.
I was craving key lime pie.
This tart did nicely.

I catch an Uber to Harrah's, and then mosey over to Casino Royale for some craps. Somehow, after four shooters, I'm already down $74. Bah. I head back towards the Dismal Castle, with stops at Cromwell (break even), Aria (key lime tart at Jean Phillipe Patisserie), NYNY (finally a win on that Empire not-King-Kong slot), and the Bellagio fountains (the Winter Olympics song plays). 

I grab my bags and Uber to the airport. The TSA PreCheck line is uneventful, except that I have to remove my shoes after they set off the metal detector three times. I've got about 45 minutes before boarding, so I have time for a few last video poker hands. I hit a royal with deuces, my best hand of the trip (yeah, it was that bad), and cash out, perhaps one of the only people to ever come out ahead gaming at the airport.

Only 360 or so days until VIMFP 2017. I can't wait.
Magic happened here Saturday night.
Not that kind.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Trip report: VZZZT 2016

Welcome, VZZZTers.
Unlike last October's VIMFP, this spring's VZZZT was a mini-VIMFP. No competitions, no official pre-arranged meet-ups, just three podcasts and a bit of history.

Thursday, March 31: I took Uber 10 times this weekend, the first of which was from the airport to the Golden Gate, where I'm staying. The rides were all uneventful, but because the Academy of Country Music awards were on Sunday following a three-day concert series, most drivers took the freeway to avoid the traffic. It cost a little more, but time is money when you're on vacation.

I checked into my room at about 9:30 PM, ditched my stuff, and within an hour, I was at The D, where I hit a $157.50 win on a 40¢ bet. Buffaloooo! I wandered down to the Container Park and had a chicken burrito at Pinches. The internet tells me that it has really good Mexican food. My taste buds told me that I'm lucky to live in an area with a lot of really good Mexican food – Pinches was OK, but not special.

Then it was on to El Cortez, where I played video poker and left up $30. I went to Binion's, where I hit another huge slot win: about $140 on a 75¢ bet on some weird Dracula-themed slot. And then I played craps at the Golden Gate and ended up ahead another $110. Scatter in a few slot losses at other properties, and it's still an amazing start!
What a view!

Friday, April 1: I woke up early, because Vegas. I threw open the curtains, and basked in the glorious view of... an air conditioning unit. I get it. I bought the cheapest clean, safe, and comfortable room on Fremont Street. I've stayed here before. I know not to expect much from Golden Gate's lowest tier rooms. I just kept the curtains closed for the rest of the trip.

Next, I headed over to Main Street Station for some of the best video poker in town. Down $100 after about an hour, I wandered around thinking about breakfast. Instead, I played some random "999.9 Gold" machine, got a wheel spin, hit the +1x multiplier five consecutive times, and walked away up $164. It just keeps happening! How about I go play craps at The D?
Wow. Time to take a break and go to the Mets/Cubs game. Charles A. was kind enough to arrange for tickets, and we walked from The D to Cashman Field. The distance isn't bad in 76° weather, and the neighborhood is OK in the daylight, but that pretty much means this isn't a walk I'd want to do any time between May and October.

Hey, batter batter batter
I don't have a horse in the race, but I like rooting for the underdogs, so I cheered for the Cubbies while baking in the sun. The stadium offered free sunscreen, which I took advantage of, but forgot to put it on my face. It didn't feel like a bad burn, but come Monday, it started to peel. The Cubs lost, 8-1, but I still had a great time. 

As the game ended, the YouCanBetOnThat podcasters tweeted that they were ready to start meeting listeners at the Bellagio craps table. Although the Bellagio table limits are usually more than I like to play ($5 is good; $10 is too rich for me), I figured I'd still play, but reduce my number of place bets.  I hopped into my room for a few seconds, freshened up, put on a brand new shirt (it's lucky!), and headed to the Bellagio.

Once there... things didn't go so well. Mark and Dr. Mike had some profitable morning play, but when I arrived, I think my "lucky" shirt was the kiss of death. I walked away only down $26. They lost a lot more. "Let's go play at the Cosmopolitan. Travis, do you know how to get there?" Yup. I suffer from a short attention span when I'm in Vegas; there's always something else to do, see, or consume. A good night in Vegas consists of me walking from one end of the strip to the other, stopping in all sorts of spots along the way (see, e.g., tomorrow night). Bellagio to Cosmo's a piece of cake. Go out of the hotel lobby. Turn soft right. Go up the escalator. Follow the path to the strip. Cosmo's on your right.

The new sportsbook at Cosmo looks sleek, sharp, and shiny, just like you'd expect. We didn't stop, but headed straight to the craps tables. It's Friday night. Not surprisingly, the table minimum is $15. Ouch. OK, a passline bet, no odds, and place the 6 or 8. Eight shooters later, not a single point has been hit, and I've hit my $200 loss limit. Stupid shirt.

My happy place
Mark and Dr. Mike head back to Harrah's, and I head to the Chandelier bar at Cosmopolitan. Tasty drinks. Overwhelmingly hip environment. Bad video poker. Lost $50. It's still my favorite place in Las Vegas.

As happens to me frequently on vacation, I realize that all I've had to eat today is a bag of Cracker Jack at the baseball game. So that's why these drinks seem so strong. Well, Cosmo's got lots of excellent food, but I'll be back later this weekend. Instead, I head across the street to Planet Hollywood, wander for a bit, and, unplanned, sit down at the bar at Gordon Ramsay's burger joint, BurGR. I have his Five Spice Chicken Sliders, his Uber Cheese Burger, and a beer. The sliders were meh, a little overfried, but the burger was one of the best I've had in town. I paid for it with Total Rewards points, so at free, it's even better.

Back out on The Strip, I head into Paris. The Britney Spears slot machines treated me well all weekend, starting here. But the slots at Bally's took that back and then some.

Listener Taylor tweeted that he was ready to do a midnight craps meetup at the Downtown Grand, so I head there. I'm still a bit tipsy, Taylor is, too, and he introduces me to Angie (also enjoying the booze) and Kim, our cocktail waitress and new best friend. 

The table limits are $10, which after the pain of Cosmo seems a bit much, so I sit down with Angie and Taylor at a bank of video poker machines. I pull out my wallet, get ready to play, my cocktail arrives, I tip the waitress, I turn back to the screen, and it says "Bill stacker error. Call attendant." Dang. Didn't like my money, I guess. I hit the "service" button, and while waiting for the attendant, insert my players card. This clears the error, but it's showing $0 credit on the machine. The attendant opens up the machine, checks the bill acceptor, and there's nothing sticking out of it or otherwise unusual. I begin to doubt myself. Did I really put $100 in there? I think I did, but the whole wallet/tip/error message/booze thing has me confused. Taylor thinks I might have, but his back was turned.

The attendant offers to have surveillance check the tapes and see if I put money in, but it'll take about 20 minutes. Sounds good to me! I play for a while, losing slowly, and the attendant returns. I hadn't put any money in the machine. The error was on-screen before I got there. I felt foolish, but the attendant handles it like it's no big deal. With all the management issues the Downtown Grand has had recently, good on them for handling this so professionally. 

It's time to call it a night.

Saturday, April 2: A tweet from YouCanBetOnThat gets me out of bed at around 8:30, and within the hour, downstairs playing craps with Mark, Dr. Mike, Brad, and others. The table is cold as ice, and I'm lucky to walk away up $5 after moving to the dark side. We agree to meet up later at Downtown Grand.

Let's all dine like the birdies dine,
Eat, eat eat, eat eat.
After last night, I know I really should pay attention to actually eating, so I am in search of breakfast. Dupar's is legendary for its pancakes, but Eat's are even better. I'd eaten at both of them on my previous trips, so as a third option, I opt for the Paradise Garden Café at the Fremont. It's serviceable, and felt like eating in the Enchanted Tiki Room, without the birds. 

After breakfast, I wander around Binions and The D, winning a little, losing a little more, and when the tweet comes in, I head to the Downtown Grand. Mark, Dr. Mike, SkyyOnTheRocks, and TwoWayHardEight are there, too.

The Grand is currently offering no-commission buy bets on the 4 and 10. In English, that means that a bet on the 4 or a bet on the 10 has no house edge whatsoever. This won't last long, I'm sure. Still, most of us lose a chunk of change there, and step away from the table to stop the bleeding.

Onto The D, and three hours of podcasting goodness. The VegasTripping guys asked and answered the question, "Hey Doritos-munching fat nerds: are we delusional when it comes to Vegas?" Dr. Dave talked about working security for Donald Trump's Taj Mahal. Vegas Gang interviewed ālon's CEO, Andrew Pascal, about his new casino project, the MyVegas app, and the challenges of leadership. And Tim and Michele detailed their experiences seeing Billy Idol, touring Wayne Newton’s Casa de Shenandoah, and eating multiple times at Therapy, an East Fremont joint.

I was so looking forward to this, and the podcasters did not disappoint. The crowd was subdued, mainly because it was so much smaller than VIMFP, about 20% of the size. Andrew Pascal was fascinating, and Tim and Michele were hilarious as ever.

Dinner was Pizza Rock, where I had the world's best meatball and a great slice of pizza. Shortly after, my phone's calendar buzzed me. Oh yeah! The Life Cube gets set ablaze at 8:00 tonight. I head over there.

There's not much to say about it. For several weeks, an open two-story wooden cube is in a parking lot. Art supplies are provided to write wishes on it. Today, 10,000 hipsters and curiosity seekers show up to see it set on fire. 
The blaze is set. 
We don't need no water.
All those wishes, now embers floating with a quadcopter.

OK, that's out of the way. Tonight's the night I plan to walk the strip. My daughter and her boyfriend will be 21 next year, and I plan on giving them a grand tour. The last time I gave a tour, my victims started at Mandalay Bay and, four hours later, had only made it to Cosmopolitan, from whence we rushed to the High Roller and then called it a night. I'll consider this a test run for next year. I started at the Tropicana just before 10 PM. I wandered through, played some slots and video poker (losses), and then headed onto the tram to Mandalay Bay. 

From there, I moseyed through Luxor and Excalibur, and then realized I should have started at MGM. I skipped the Lion, and instead continued my wandering through New York New York, Monte Carlo, Aria, and into Cosmopolitan. I stop in the gift shop – I want a pair of dice to teach my daughter craps with, but they don't have any. Back in my seat at Chandelier, I down two blackberry bourbon juleps, break even, check my watch, and it's just after midnight. I'm making good time, I think. Then, with a bit of a buzz, I completely lose track of time. 

I head across to Planet Hollywood, then to Paris and Bally's. "OK," I think to myself, "on the tour, I'll cross to Bellagio, head south to catch the fountain show, then head inside, and go onto Caesars. Today, I'm just going to cross over to The Cromwell." I play slots for a few minutes there (+$20) and then wander up through Flamingo/Margaritaville (is the Margaritaville restaurant closed? is it that late?), The Linq, and Harrah's, and stop in at Casino Royale to check out their new bar and sports kiosk. It's a bar. And a sports kiosk.
I lose a few bucks on the slots there (love that giant Wheel of Fortune), and then head next door to the Venetian. The money I win on slots here is lost – and then some – after I wander through Palazzo and Wynn and play slots at Encore. I never seem to do well there. I check the Wynn gift shop for dice: $12.99. I don't think so.

From here, if I was thinking clearly, I'd have decided to cross over to T.I. and Mirage to conclude my tour planning. Instead, I'm thinking that it's late, and I should be heading back to downtown. I don't check the time, though.

My Uber driver picks me up at Encore, and takes The Strip and Main Street back to the Golden Gate. He mentioned that he likes working late night, because the people are a lot more fun. None of this – the light Strip traffic and his comments – registered to me that it was really late. I arrive at Golden Gate, and am a little surprised that the podcasting crew aren't hanging out at Bar Prohibition. The craps table is open and only $5, so I play for a bit, lose a little, and enjoy the loud, thickly Baltic-accented birthday singers at the bar behind me.

Hey, the freaks gotta sleep sometime.
I'm a little tired, so I check my watch. 

It's 5:30 AM.

"Siri, what time is sunrise?" 

"Sunrise is at 6:23 AM."

Challenge accepted. I head out to Fremont, the sky is still dark, and the streets are almost empty. I head back inside, play slots for half an hour, and then head back outside. The sky is lighter. I head into Dupar's for pancakes, look at the other two parties there, and realize in the game of "just up or still up," I'm the only "still up" person here.

Sunday, March 6: I wake up around 11:30 AM, and decide I'm going to make today much less of a marathon and instead keep it easy. What to do? I check the list of poker tournaments in town, and nothing nearby starts soon or at a reasonable buy-in. Instead, I head over to the Plaza, play video poker for a bit, play slots for a bit, look for dice (reasonable price, but not from anywhere cool), and spotting a sign mentioning their 1 PM bingo session, decide to try it out. I haven't been upstairs here before. Just past the bingo hall is what looks like convention space remodeled to be a lobby for timeshare guests. Trudging along with tired looking couples are faux-upbeat timeshare salesmen, "offering a great discount today" of "40% off" and making me feel dirty just breathing the same air. 

I head into the bingo hall, buy a dobber from the vending machine, and pay $8 for 14 games. My cards never get close to winning, but it's still a good time, and now I know I've got a cheap option for fun if my daily gambling funds ever run low.

A little something to remember my losses by.
Back on Fremont Street, I check one of the $4 t-shirt stores for dice. $2.99 for Cosmopolitan dice? Jackpot! Time to celebrate by going to ... Mermaids? Yup. I've never actually been in there, and while the drink service was indeed fast, I think it's the closest I'll ever feel to playing slot machines in a Las Vegas WalMart. It's not the space, it's the other clientele. I leave with a 2¢ profit, plus a Captain and diet to go.

In a trip report on the Five Hundy Facebook group, Lori R. mentioned the Italian American Social Club as a great dining destination. I planned to give it a try. They're only open a few days a week, and only from 5-11 PM. I arrived just after 5, and the place was mostly empty. As I had dinner (a beautiful caprese salad, a great chicken parm, and a heavenly tartufo dessert), the room filled up, as did the volume level and my enjoyment.

I then headed to the Linq for their evening poker tournament. Grrr. The guy in seat 1 was such a noob, he constantly folded when he could have checked, and the dealer was placing chips from his stack into the table for his blinds and calls. I get dealt KK, he bets, I raise, we get a caller, and he calls. We get a low rainbow flop, he bets, I raise, caller folds, noob calls. Worthless turn. Noob checks. I bet. He shrugs and calls. The river isn't dangerous. He checks, I bet, he calls, and turns over AA. Really?

A few hands later, I go all in on a low flop with top pair/queen kicker. I'm called by AK. An ace falls on the river. I'm done. I wander a bit more, then catch a ride to El Cortez for some 50¢ roulette. I play for about an hour, and leave up $20. Around midnight, I decide it's time to call it a night.

Monday, April 4: I wake up around 9, and feel like yeah, it's time to head home. Five days may be a little bit too long. What am I going to do today? Nothing is striking my fancy. OK, maybe some video poker. Time to head to Main Street Station.

It's not going well, I'm down about $80, and then I hit quad 3's. That (plus a $2 scratch ticket!) brings me back above my starting point. I'm bored, and for some reason I'm craving a Hawaiian breakfast, so I head over to the California, where I get some very reasonably priced eggs, spam, and rice at the Aloha Specialties restaurant. It's too much food, but hits the spot. 

I wander across the street into the sad back room of Binions. What once was the most respected poker room in the world is now a whole lot of empty tables and 80% off shirts. Out to the street and over to the Fremont.

There's a spot open at the $3 craps table, and everyone is having a good roll. That is, until I get the dice my second time, make hardway bets for myself and the crew, and seven-out immediately. I cash out up $60, and bid farewell to downtown.

The $2/$4 limit game at the Flamingo seems to be pretty beatable. Play halfway decent hands for cheap, bail out if the flop doesn't hit, or hit the accelerator if it does. Two hours of play, +$66. Is my start-of-trip luck coming back? The slots at Linq disagree, but at Cosmo, the slots give a little back. I take a little break, and talk my way up to the Boulevard Pool to check it out. I'd been up there in a January, just after Cosmo opened, but I hardly remembered it. Still very nice.

Then down to Secret Pizza, which is the best pizza in town, even above Pizza Rock. It's the slightly crispy crust that does it for me.

At around 4 PM, I sit back down at my happy place, order a little muddled blackberry magic, and start playing video poker. About 45 minutes later, the bartender, Soni, asks how I'm doing. I'm down a little bit, but mostly staying steady. She makes me another, and instructs me, "you need to get four deuces." Thanks. That's what I've been trying. My phone buzzes. My flight's been delayed 30 minutes. No big deal. That'll give me a little time buffer that I was hoping for.

And then, soon after, I get this:
"You need to get four deuces." "OK."
Cash out. See you later. +$225. This morning's feeling that the trip might be a little to long? A distant, distant memory.

Always a great place to end a trip
Bellagio is my final stop. I play some video poker at the sportsbook, knowing that the final NCAA basketball game is on, but I know I won't be here long. This schedule shows that my favorite fountain show starts at 7:00. I head outside, grab a near-center spot at 6:50, and wait.

As before, the music stops, the nozzles rise, the strings swell, and "Quando sono solo sogno all'orizzonte," sings Brightman and Bocelli. I grin ear-to-ear, and drop a few joyful tears into the lake. See you in October, Vegas.