“How was dinner last night?”
“It was fun. Nana came over, Mom made some broiled chicken.”
“Yeah it was. We missed you.”
“I miss you guys. I miss Sunday dinner.”
“And I miss the city. I miss being around it, and tapped into it. The west coast is weird. All the games start early as hell.”
“That must be very difficult for you.”
“They didn’t consult me or anything.”
Dad laughs. “So, how’s Vegas?”
“How’s Vegas.” I think for a second, and then laugh. “Pop, I’ll tell ya. Vegas is like a giant pinball machine. And I’m the ball.”
Meghan and I are staying at the Rio tonight—a flashy, lit-up red and blue hotel and casino on the Strip—and we’re doing it for cheap thanks to a super discount that Meghan found by booking the room online. Meg booked two nights at the Rio, but then we decided that we’d leave Prescott a day early and just get on with things in Vegas. We got here at two in the afternoon yesterday, and after dinner at Margaritaville and a bit of exploring, we hopped on I-15 and went south about forty miles to Primm, Nevada, one of those little Vegas aftershock cities that sit around the Vegas radius. Meg looked online yesterday for a place nearby, settling on three within the limits of Primm. Our choices were Nevada Landing Hotel & Casino, Primm Valley Casino Resorts, and Whiskey Pete’s. We chose Whiskey Pete’s. Not hard. That kind of choice pretty much makes itself. Meg found us a room there for 18 bucks a night plus tax, and though we were pretty sure that Whiskey Pete himself was going to be in the parking lot selling smokes, it turned out to be a real classy joint with key cards and everything. Highly recommended.
Of course, most people probably make up the difference and then some out on the floor, so I’m guessing Pete isn’t sweating it…
We took off this morning and headed back on 15 towards Vegas, and I was brought back to the opening paragraph of Fear and Loathing, with Duke and Doctor Gonzo pushing it from L.A. to Vegas on 15 fighting off the bats. I hit the gas and aimed the SCMODS pod toward the Strip. Check-in at the Rio was supposed to be at three, but we got in around one, and so I asked the guy if we could check in early and he said it was cool. And then I handed him my ID, and he saw that I was from Illinois, and we started talking…
“Where are you from in Illinois?”
“Wilmette. Grew up in Evanston.”
“Oh cool. I grew up on the South Side.”
“Oh great. I’m Jack by the way.”
“Rich. Nice to meet you.”
“How long have you been in Vegas?”
“About six years. School. I’m doing graduate work right now in psychology. I miss Chicago, though. I feel disconnected.”
“I know what you mean. I’ve been feeling that lately.”
“It’ll happen. Yeah, so, back to this before we forget: one king or two queens?”
“Smoking or non-smoking?”
He looks around for a second, and then leans in, and gives me a serious look.
“Cubs or Sox?”
“No problem. Cubbies, man.”
“Hell yeah. My girlfriend and I are going to see them next week for Spring Training.”
“That’s awesome. I’m going to the final spring game with a couple of friends, one of the two against Seattle that they’re playing here.”
“That’ll be sweet.”
“Yeah. So, lemme ask you. What are people thinking about Sosa being in Baltimore? I mean, what’s the feeling around the city? I heard people are pretty much glad that he’s gone. Is that right?”
“Yeah, for the most part. I’m disappointed, but if he wanted to come back, he could have. He just needed to apologize.”
“Ego. His ego’s just too big. Too much pride.”
“Yup. And they didn’t depend on him like they used to, and that probably got frustrating for him.”
“Sure. It’s a pitcher’s team now.”
“Yes it is.”
“Well hey man, here are your room keys, and if you guys need anything just let us know.”
“Will do. Good talking to you Rich.”
“You too. Go Cubs.”
After checking in, Meghan and I take the elevator up to the 27th floor, walk down the hallway, and open the door to the nicest room I’ve ever seen. The place is huge, just a bit smaller than Meghan’s entire apartment, and the view of Vegas is amazing. We are sitting above a city of lights, a city of dreams, a city where anything seems possible. Then we go downstairs and I drop ninety bucks at the Blackjack table in less than a half an hour…
We went back to the room, very frustrated, and with my Vegas buzz partially shot due to my Blackjack experience just a wee bit ago, I follow Meghan to the nickel slots where she sits happily while chewing threw five or six bucks. When she finishes, she turns to me and asks me what I want to do now, but I just shrug, and so we begin wandering aimlessly, and while we wander it occurs to me that there are some people who get Vegas. There are people who come here, and as soon as they set foot-one into the casino they’ve got the place mapped. They’re like Neo at the end of The Matrix, seeing through all the lights and flash and feeling like beings of a higher life force. I’m sure these people come to Vegas and everything just makes sense to them, and I’m sure that even if they don’t do it out loud, a part of them is laughing at the newcomers as we scurry around the floor like wind-up puppies, or a bunch of ants who have just stumbled upon a giant mound of sugar.
We’re walking around as I’m thinking this, though it’s not even walking so much as it is filling in the spaces left by others, and as we weave between old women on their way to the slot machines and young guys on their way to the craps tables and cocktail waitresses and casino employees and families carrying their luggage towards the hotel elevators, and as we bounce off of machine after machine and as our eyes bounce around from a line of chorus girls doing a show to a traveling cigar cart to a Chippendales dancer entertaining guests, suddenly in this jumbled mess that is Las Vegas comes a light, a fabulous beacon of light that I am instantly drawn towards, and now I am in control and I take hold of Meghan’s hand and with the grace and vision of Walter Payton on his way to the endzone I lead her in and out of pathways that nobody else sees and I watch as people who used to be me wander around with a confused and awe-inspired look in their eye and I shoot straight past these people with a knowledge and foresight that only comes when a person knows in their heart what their purpose in life is and I walk fast but sure until I have reached the source of the light, and immediately my eyes grow large and I know that at last, I have found my niche in Vegas. The sports book.
Vegas is for a lot of people, and if you’ve ever been there then you know what I mean. Walk down the Strip for five minutes and it’s like you’ve walked into the census bureau. Old, young, kids, teenagers, babies, white, black, Mexican, Asian, Indian, Christian, Jewish, rich, poor, college students, tourists, foreigners, married couples, couples soon to be married, couples wishing they weren’t married…it never ends. Vegas attracts everybody, because it is a city where everyone has the chance to feel like royalty for at least a moment. And to obtain that feeling, you don’t really have to be smart or talented or rich. You just have to be lucky. Don’t know anything about cards but you know how to add to 21? Play the good odds of Blackjack, and just ask the dealer when to hit. Don’t know anything about dice but you know how to throw them? Play craps. Don’t know anything about anything but you know how to put coins into slots? Play the slot machines. Sure, if you want to win consistently, you have to be good. You’re not going to roll up to a Poker table and make money all day long. But you might get a lucky hand here or there, and that’s all people are looking for, an opportunity to leave town, return home, and tell somebody that they won.
That’s what makes the sports book special. It doesn’t attract just anybody. It attracts sports fans. That’s it. That’s the only people there. Whether a person’s main objective at the sports book is to gamble or watch sports, that’s a different story. But everybody here is focused on the games, and that’s a good feeling. It’s rare to be among such a high percentage of zoned-in sports fans. You go to a Super Bowl party, and you get a bunch of people who just want to see “the show.” You go to a ballgame, and you get a bunch of people who just want to see “the park.” But you go to the sports book, and there’s nothing extra to look at or experience. There’s a huge wall in front of you with about twenty screens of varying size showing different sporting events, there’s a big screen on the wall to your left that shows the odds for all of the games, matches, and races. And there’s a bunch of seats in the middle, half of which are the kinds of chair/half desks that you sat at in high school, the other half of which are long rows of booths to watch horse racing. And that’s it. That’s the whole deal. I wouldn’t want to watch a big game there, or any game that I am intensely passionate about—like a playoff game or a Bears-Packers game—but to just walk in and be immediately surrounded by sports, numbers related to sports, and people entirely focused on sports…it’s a great feeling.
Meghan and I sit down, and to my delight the Bulls-Bucks game is on. Meghan enjoys watching basketball, but as a former gymnast she is more excited for the TVs that are showing a Nebraska-Minnesota college gymnastics tournament. I look to my left, where they are listing the early World Series odds. The Cubs are at the top at 3 to 1.
“Cubs are 3 to 1.”
“For what?” she asks.
“To win the World Series.”
“Should I put some money on them?”
She looks at me. “You know better than to bet money on the Cubs.” She laughs. “Maybe you should put some one the Sox.”
The waitress comes by, and asks the two guys seated to our left if they want another drink, and they each order one, and then she asks Meghan and I, and we order ours. One of the guys gets up to go to the bathroom, and then the waitress comes back, sets our drinks down, and leaves without asking for money. This is curious.
“Excuse me,” I say, leaning towards the guy sitting two seats over, “what’s the drink situation here? I mean, when do you pay?”
“I don’t think you do.” He’s a college kid, about my age. “We’ve been here for a while and haven’t paid yet. I’ve just been tipping. If you do that, they keep coming back.”
We sit and drink our beers, Meghan oohing and ahhing at each impressive mat routine and me yelling excitedly at each key play by the Bulls. The kid next to us seems focused in on the Missouri Valley Conference championship game between Creighton and SMS. The room is filled with loud cheers and groans, most of which are driven by money rather than love, and at the sound of each one my eyes shoot away from the Bulls game to find the game that has provoked the yell. But the Bulls game always brings me back, each and every time.
Though indistinguishable to the average person, a real sports fan can always tell the difference between a money-driven reaction and a love-driven reaction. There’s not usually a difference in the sound of the groan, but watch the person’s body language and the look in their eyes. If a person groans and then looks like he is thinking really hard, it’s a money-driven reaction; he’s either figuring out how much he’s lost on that bet or figuring out how much he’s lost altogether or figuring out how many bets he’ll have to make to cover what he’s just lost. If a person groans and then looks like you’ve just run over his cat, that’s a love-driven reaction.
At a commercial, I take a glance over at the big screen which is showing the Creighton-SMS game. It’s the second half, and Creighton is threatening to extend their lead, and when they hit a three SMS calls timeout and the guys to our left groan. It looks like they’re thinking.
“Whadya got on this game?”
“Not much,” says the guy I was talking to first. His buddy is now back from the bathroom. “We just wanted to bet on something. It’s Vegas, ya know?”
“Do you have money on that game?” he asks, pointing to the Bulls.
“No. I just love the Bulls.”
“They’re doing pretty well this year. I’m surprised. They came out of nowhere.”
I laugh. “Yeah man, it’s great. Where are you from?”
“We’re both from Charlotte.”
“Oh yeah? Basketball fans?”
“Lemme ask you something,” I begin, as the waitress comes back with our next round. Meghan hands her two bucks for our two drinks, and hands me my beer. “Were you a Hornets fan?”
“Well, lemme ask you a question, if you don’t mind.”
“What’s that like, having a team move?”
“Oh man, it sucks. I mean, they’d only been around since ’88, but we had season tickets, so we were really into them. And plus they were really popular, and had some popular players—LJ, Zo, Muggsy, Dell Curry, those guys. So yeah, it sucks.”
“What about the Bobcats?”
“They’re OK. I mean I like ‘em, and I guess they’re my team now. So that’s cool. But it’s not the same. Not yet, anyway.”
We hang out there for a few hours, getting good and drunk on booze and sports. A night at the Sports Book. Mark it, Dude.