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.