Friday, October 14 @ 12:00 PM PDT - We arrive in Las Vegas with no issues with travel, and we get to the car rental center. I had reserved a full-sized car for the five of us for about $110 from Alamo, and we get to the parking garage and there is exactly one full sized car there... and it has a purse in the front seat and the door is locked. I find an attendant, who points at a row of minivans and says "Take one of these". Gladly... five people fit in a minivan way better than an Impala. Better yet, there was a red one! (Because as we know, red cars get better parking spots).
1:15 PM - For years, on my Vegas Food Bucket List has been In-N-Out Burger. I know it is a chain of fast food restaurants out west, but there are none in the Midwest so (same as Waffle House, Del Taco and Whataburger) it counts as a restaurant I can enjoy on vacation. I had mentioned to the group (if you remember from past trips, the older one will be called Pat, the younger one will be Ben, Ben's stepfather will be known as Scott, and Pat's +1 buddy will be called Phil) that I wanted to try In-N-Out for a quick lunch, and it took two circles around the parking lot to find a parking spot. Quick may be relative. I tried to warn everybody (but nobody listened) that there is no real menu, so order from their secret menu - a 2 x 3 Animal Style with Animal Style fries.
Well, we all get to the front of our line, and they all look for a menu... and without one they ask for a burger and fries. My burger has three slices of cheese and two burgers, slathered in grilled onions and "special" (their version of Thousand Island) sauce. They get a cheeseburger and a piece of lettuce. My fries also have grilled onions and special sauce, they get (maybe) salt. You think they'll listen to me next time and order from the secret menu?
2:00 PM - We get to the newly remodeled Tropicana for our first poker tournament of the weekend. The Tropicana went through an extensive remodeling over the past year, which included branding their pool as Nikki Beach (and since has ended that branding) and adding the Mob Experience Museum (which has been gutted of the interactive parts that didn't work properly, and everybody is suing everybody else). The extra "stuff" may not be working out, but the casino looks way better than the last time I was there. I am not sure they had a poker room before, but there is a really nice one right near the new sports book. The tournament had about 20 players at $45 each, and I did nothing remarkable. Once I got bounced, and being the first time for real gambling in Las Vegas, I get to it. When you sign up for Tropicana's players club, they reimburse 50% of up to $200 in losses the same day.
I took them up on that offer by heading towards the $1 video poker machines in the High Limit room. Didn't take me long at all to earn the prescribed amount of losses, so I went to the kiosk and got my free play loaded. By this time, however, my buddies were pretty much ready to leave so I plugged my free play into a $5 slot and determined that at two credits per spin, I would take my ten spins and be ready to leave. And ten spins on a $5 slot netted me cherries, once. $10. Not exactly the way I envisioned it. Turns out that Ben cashed in the Tropicana's tournament, so he was riding high into our next adventure.
5:00 PM - This baseball thing was really cramping my style. Those nutty Milwaukee Brewers, with their playoff run and all... Ben and I decided that instead of playing another poker tournament that day, we would go to one of the biggest sports books in town (the Las Vegas Hilton) to watch the Brewers play the Cardinals in Game 5 of the NLCS. But first, I needed to drive the other three downtown to check into their hotels and allow them to get into another poker tournament.
In avoiding the Strip during rush hour, I drove up Paradise to Sahara, where I would catch up with Las Vegas Boulevard. For the better part of the past year, Ben and Pat had discussed jumping off of the Stratosphere... until we watched a free-faller while waiting for a stoplight to change. A jump was never really mentioned again. Chickens.
5:45 PM - Ben and I get to the Las Vegas Hilton in about the bottom of the second inning... just in time to see St. Louis score three runs. We find a couple of comfy seats in the sports book amongst about 300 people that are also watching the game. I would say 40% Brewers fans, 40% Cardinals fans (you could tell who they were because they were ugly and smelly) and the other 20% were divided amongst those watching a college football game, a Canadian Football League game or hockey games.
6:25 PM - After St. Louis scores a run in the bottom of the 4th inning to make in 4-0, the sports book announces an in-game bet... the Brewers odds on winning would be 15-1. I run up to make a $10 bet. Almost immediately, the Brewers start a rally and score one run, and have two on with Ryan Braun up. He gets paid approximately a zillion dollars to drive in runs in a big game (and to make me 150 smackers). This is my shot. Braun homers, the game is tied, and I've got five innings to make my bet a winner....
6:30 PM - Braun strikes out. There may be half a game to play, but the game is effectively over.
8:00 PM - After St. Louis scores twice in the 8th, Ben and I bail on the game and retire to the casino floor for awhile. I buy in for $100 in a craps game, and after one shooter I am up $55. I take my money and give it back playing other games. I feel a real craps heater coming on, I just need to be patient and wait for it.
9:00 PM - Ben and I drive downtown so that I can check into the Golden Gate (my Friday night being comped and with a dirt cheap rate on Saturday night). I get up to my room and it is on the fourth floor (the highest floor of the hotel) and on the corner, with this view over Fremont Street. Nice. Except for my private band below (my room is on the corner, next to the "A"). "No matter", I said to myself. I will be up way past the time they quit playing.
10:00 PM - As the five of us gather at Binion's ($60) to enter our last tournament of the night, Ben and I learn that the other three guys had played a tournament at the Golden Nugget, and Phil won that tournament. Two tournaments, two cashes for our group. Already better than last year.
11:30 PM - I fall out of the tournament and realize I hadn't eaten dinner yet. I find Scott (who was eliminated earlier) and while the other three still play we chat about what to do next. Scott says that he's tired, and likely going to bed. We part, and I go to Mermaids and decide that three $.99 Nathan's Famous hot dogs would be the perfect dinner. I eat them as I walk back to Golden Gate and run into Scott... who never got past the slots at the Golden Gate.
Saturday, October 15 @ 1:30 AM - Scott and I are playing Go-go blackjack and are both holding our own. We never actually see the other three guys again (Pat and Phil are staying at Fitzgeralds, so if they went to bed after the tournament, we wouldn't have seen them anyway) and Scott decides to go to bed. I play a few more hands and decide to turn in myself.
1:58 AM - I am listening to the band (hopefully) finish up their set... basically a hair band, covering Poison, Guns and Roses, Aerosmith, etc. I am figuring 2:00 will be the cut off time... and what do I hear? "Thank you very much, you've been great!". Cool. Now I can go to sleep.
2:01 AM - Encore. Dammit.
2:15 AM - The encore is complete, the noise stops, and I can't fall asleep. I toss, I turn, I consider going back into the casino... and getting frustrated with just hearing the fading din of Fremont Street below.
Sometime AM - I must have fallen asleep.
8:45 AM - Pat is buying breakfast at Binion's, which is weird because the group rule is that tournament winners buy the next meal, and he didn't cash in Binion's tournament (Ben did, again). But a free meal is a free meal. Pat does mention that as Phil was on his way to bed, he put a $20 into a $1 Wheel of Fortune slot machine, and won $1000. Clearly, Phil had a good Friday. While at breakfast, we decided to go play the poker tournament at Mandalay Bay.
10:00 AM - I've had time to bet on the Badgers, and I've also included them in a parley with the Packers and Steelers for the next day. Wisconsin is laying 41 to Indiana with an over/under of 61. Almost unheard of to lay that many points and bet a total that high, but I did. We are now settled into the poker tournament at the Mandalay Bay ($40). The poker room is right next to their huge sports book, and there are dozens of big TVs, showing just about every imaginable game. Every few minutes, a huge cheer goes up, likely from somebody that has a large bet on one game or another.
12:00 PM - I have made the final table, but Pat and Phil have been knocked out. They say that they are going over to the Excalibur to get into their 1:00 PM game. I get knocked out of the tournament in 7th place, the first of my "Oh, so close" finishes. The top five spots paid, and I went all-in with 10-10, called by a guy with more chips and a 77. I survived until the river (the final card) which was a 7. If I would have won that hand, I would have been at or near the chip lead and could have coasted to a cash. Instead, I get to check my voice mail.
12:30 PM - One of the messages in my voice mail is from my credit card company's fraud division. Apparently, my card was used to rent a car and a hotel room in Las Vegas (I thought I had mentioned to my wife that I was going...) I call them back and state that yes, I really was in Las Vegas (Side note; Casinos these days seem to think that continuous and incessant noise is required for one to dump his/her mortgage payment. Try returning a phone call in a casino. If you can find a quiet place to talk, those areas are usually large and echoey). I am sure that the credit card folks could tell I was in a casino. How could they not?
12:45 PM - The stuffed shark incident.
1:00 PM - I sign up for the Excalibur tournament ($50), and I am completely out of sorts. I am upset about my exit from the Mandalay Bay tournament, the stuffed shark incident, and the fact that the Excalibur poker room is surrounded by some of the loudest slot machines in the MGM Resorts empire. I get bumped out very early, and when I do, Scott and Ben were there to tell me that they split 1st/2nd place at the Mandalay Bay. Not what I really wanted to hear, but good for them.
2:00 PM - While Phil and Pat go through the poker tournament, Ben, Scott and I sit down at a 100-play 1-cent video poker machine. We each put $20 in the machine and all sit next to each other. We all play almost 40 minutes on that $20, and all lose our money within a couple of minutes of each other. For some reason, the 40 minutes of mindless chatter and screen touching was almost as enjoyable as anything else we did. Oddly relaxing.
3:30 PM - Phil has cashed in this tournament (making five tournaments that the group has played in, and someone has cashed in each) and has indicated that he is buying dinner for everybody. We've got it narrowed down to two... The Flame Steakhouse at the El Cortez downtown, or "this Italian place behind the Flamingo". Since Phil is buying, we let Phil choose, and we're eating Italian.
4:30 PM - We arrive at Battista's Hole in the Wall, and though dinner seating doesn't start until 5:00, we sit at the bar and have a beer and some appetizers.
5:00 PM - This is the type of restaurant with a limited menu, about two dozen items and the menu is written on the walls (kinda like Buca di Beppo, but a little cooler). All dinners come with soup or salad, garlic bread that would make Capri and Mama Mia's jealous, unlimited house red and white wine, and a cappuccino at the end. I had the veal parm, everyone else had steak-related stuff.
6:00 PM - Some of the ambience is a wandering accordion player, playing (natch) for tips. This guy looks like he sat next to Jesus Christ in grade school, and it looks like the weight of the accordion could tip him over with the help of the air conditioning vent. But he comes to our table, sees Scott wearing his Badgers shirt and cap, and points out that he has a Badgers decal on his accordion. He then rips "On Wisconsin!" and earns a healthy fin for his efforts.
6:15 PM - The dinner was fantastic. Since I've been back home, I've read some reviews on Battista's and people either love it or hate it. Chalk the five of us up in the Love It category. The only downer (and this is not much at all) the cappuccino is powdered, and tastes like all hot chocolate. The bill, including tip and appetizers is about $250, which is not horrible for five guys on vacation.
6:30 PM - Luckily we aren't too far away, but we are racing towards the Silverton to play in their 6:00 tournament ($65). They allow entries up to one-hour in, and though we don't like to join late, the tournament itself has a hook that intrigues us... they guarantee $2000 into the prize pool regardless of number of entries, and everybody at the last table cashes. It was a nice room, towards the back of the casino and set off from the din of the slot machines.
9:00 PM - I never had a big chip stack, but I managed to grind to the final table (with both Pat and Ben). Once there, though, my goal is to finish strong. Even though all spots cash, 8th through 10th place earn the money back, and 7th place not much more. Ben goes out early, Pat in 7th and I finish in 5th for $140. The Silverton has kind of a lodge theme to it, but on the other hand, their main attraction is a huge exotic fish tank in the main entrance, and I was able to snap a photo of a mermaid in the tank with two stingrays.
10:00 PM - We are in the minivan, circling the lot aimlessly. Nobody will tell me where we're going. Poker tournaments that start at 11:00 PM are considered at the Monte Carlo and the Stratosphere, as is just going back downtown and gambling. Downtown eventually wins.
Sunday, October 16 @ 12:00 AM - After gambling at Binion's for awhile (it is too bad they closed their hotel, as we spend an whole lot of time gambling there) Scott suggests that we walk up to the El Cortez. At one point in the trip planning, Scott found some really cheap hotel rates there, but there was some concern about walking outside of the Fremont Street Experience canopy. But the walk was not a problem, and in between the end of the canopy and the El Cortez was the Heart Attack Grill.
For those of you non-obese foodies, Heart Attack Grill glorifies fat. Waitresses dressed as scantily clad nurses check your pulse as you enter the restaurant. Diners are required to don a hospital gown. They cook everything in lard (including the burgers), and their butterfat shake includes a big dollop of butter on top. A big neon sign out front states "Over 350 lbs eats free". Damn, who knew I wasn't fat enough.
We pass the grill and enter the El Cortez and the place is absolutely lifeless on a Saturday night. Maybe MGM is onto something with the omnipresent noise, but this was silly. We walk around, looking for a blackjack or Pai Gow Poker table for five, but don't find any. I do find a Mini Baccarat table in which the previous seven hands all went to the player. Knowing that past results do not predict future outcomes (as cards nor dice have memories, plus when it comes to cards, the played ones are already gone so they can't possibly affect the rest of the shoe) I put $10 on the banker. Lose (now eight in a row to the player). So I put another $10 on the banker. Now nine in a row. I didn't wait to find out about hand #10. As a group, we all gamble on our own for a little while, then head back to our hotels.
1:30 AM - I am getting so tired that I am developing a headache, so what do I do? Right. Lay down in my hotel bed next to a rock concert. The funny thing, though, is that the music itself didn't bother me. It was in between songs, when the crowd would whoop and holler and yell, then the lead singer would mumble something incoherently until they started playing again. I am sure I was asleep before the concert ended.
8:30 AM - With four sports books downtown, I decided to hit all four and write down the lines for the games I lined so that I could make the bets with the best odds. I ended up at Binion's sports book, and made winning bets on the Packers -14 (the biggest single sports bet I ever made) and the Packers first half -9, and losing bets on the Steelers -12 and the Bengals/Colts under 40-1/2.
But Binion's has "Pleaser" bets, and those caught my attention. "Teaser" bets have been around for awhile... you bet three or more teams with point spreads lower than normal. For example, the Packers on the teaser was -8-1/2. The teasers also pay less than a proper parley (because the lower point spreads theoretically make it easier to win). But pleasers go the other way... the Packers were -22 over St. Louis. It was the payouts I couldn't shake... a 4-team pleaser paid 80:1. My $10 could win $800 if the four obvious teams (GB -21-1/2, Pitt -20-1/2, Det -12-1/2, NO -10-1/2) would win.
9:30 AM - A disjointed start to the day. Phil has decided that Las Vegas has been too much fun, so he sleeps in. Pat and Scott had considered joining Ben and I, but instead are going back to the Mandalay Bay for their poker tournament. That leaves Ben and I alone at Rum Runners to watch the Packers slap-up on the Rams and to wait out as one (or both?) of my 4-team pleasers come in.
1:00 PM - Well, the Packers won, but on both of my pleaser tickets, I did not get one bet correct. Not one. Now I see why they pay 80:1...
2:30 PM - Pat has cashed in the Mandalay Bay tournament (meaning that someone in our group has cashed every tournament that has been played), and all five of us are back together and we are at O'Sheas for their 3:00 tournament. O'Sheas is closing next summer, making way for Ceasers Entertainment's Linq project (yet another promenade for shops, bands and bars/restaurants. The hook with Linq will be the largest Ferris wheel on the face of the planet).
We try to sign-up for O'Sheas tournament, but it is a Sit-N-Go (a one-table tournament limited to 10 players). This doesn't work for us, as we would be half the tournament. We could go back to our hotel and play cards for that, so we quickly audible to Harrah's ($60), which is two casinos over and also has a 3:00 PM game.
5:30 PM - Again, I don't ever have a big chip stack, but I do have enough to keep alive as other players are knocking each other out. Ben is also alive at the other remaining table. However I am feeling implied pressure (which I am later told was unfounded) to finish up, as the Brewers have started Game 6 of the NLCS (and I had wanted to sit in a sports book and watch) and also because the rest of the guys wanted to get to Red Rock for their 6:30 tournament. But the Brewers are down early, and I survive to the final table when Ben's ouster is the one that gets the two tables combined.
6:30 PM - The tournament has taken another break, and it occurs to me that it is up to me to keep the streak of tournament cashes alive. I am trying to play very conservatively, waiting for the time to make my move, and hoping that other stacks knock each other out. But it is funny... small stacks that go "all in" seem to win, giving them more chips and short-stacking someone else. Then that person goes "all in", wins, and now someone else is short-stacked. And so on, and so on. Finally, I am in the big blind with a K3 of spades, and there is no pre-flop raise, so I get to see a flop. 9JQ, two of them spades. I've got four cards to a flush and a shot at an inside straight. The turn is nothing, and I make a big bet, which is called by only the chip leader. The river is the fifth spade. I go in, he calls. There is only seven possible combinations of cards that can beat me - the ace of spades and one including one other spade - which of course, he has. I've played for 3-1/2 hours, the Brewers are getting killed, and I've got nothing to show for it.
7:30 PM - The Hard Rock Casino has an evening tournament ($60) which only drew 22 players, but all five of us agree that it is the best tournament we'd played. You start with $10,000 in chips (double anything else we had played), and the levels don't increase too drastically. It allowed me to survive the same guy going all in against me (and beating me) twice in five hands, and still make the finals. (Side note; the first of two double-ups hurt. He went all in with a 73, and I called with AQ, and he miracle-flopped a 723. The second time he went all in with 95 and went runner-runner flush. What can you do?)
10:30 PM - At the final table, the almost identical thing happens (a short stack doubles up on me with a crappy hand) leaving me in trouble. I get dealt an AJ and go all in, and that same guy calls me with 99. His pocket pair holds up and I get knocked out without cashing. Ben is the only one of us to cash in that tournament, making it an impressive five cashes in his first six tournaments.
Monday, October 17 @ 12:00 AM - Months ago, I had received a mailer from the Plaza (another older property that had undergone a renovation, with furnishings bought for pennies on the dollar thanks to the never-to-be-finished Fontainebleau project) for a comped room and some free slot play. This is my first opportunity to check in, but I don't take any time to relax as the guys want to get in that one last evening gamble.
1:00 AM - We convene at the craps table at the Golden Gate. This late-Sunday game has become sort of a tradition, and this year it starts with Pat and Scott in on the action. Unfortunately it is bad action, and the sevenouts are coming fast and furious. Scott has had enough, so he leaves the table just as Ben and Phil arrive. They buy in, and the luck turns. I had bought in for $200 and only had about $50 left when the dice got in Ben's hands. He has a nice big run, then Phil does the same, and suddenly I have at least $400 in my chip rack. Do I stop?
Hell no, the dice are in my hands!
I should have stopped. My roll, Ben's roll, Phil's roll, and my roll again cost me a whole bunch of money, but I decide to cash out with a $25 profit.
2:00 AM - Pat and I head over to Binion's to play some Pai Gow Poker, and in a few minutes Ben joins me... then Pat goes to bed leaving me and Ben and some loudmouth from Boston.
2:30 AM - I am getting killed, going through money like a sailor on leave (on Pai Gow Poker? Yep). I decide that I am almost done, so I order a Long Island Iced Tea... just to make sure I fall asleep. It was so good, I had another one, too.
3:00 AM - Those $35 (each) Long Island Iced Teas have done their job, and I tuck myself into the brand new bed at the Plaza and fall asleep instantly.
9:00 AM - Ben and Phil and I arrange to go to the Golden Gate for breakfast at Du-par's, which is a chain of cafes on the west coast, that claims the best pancakes in the history of man. As I try to collect them, I run into Scott, who is hyped over a $2200 slot machine win (and make no mistake, it puts him "a little" ahead for the weekend). The three of get in the cafe and Pat and Scott join us to discuss what the day's plans are. This, my friends, is an issue of having five guys that are too agreeable. We decide that we will only have time for one game before our 6:00 flight. Ben mentions staying another night.
For that five minute period, it looks like we might be able to pull it off. The car was rented until Tuesday morning, three of us were ahead for the weekend, and my room at the Plaza was a two day comp even though I was planning on staying for only one night. I went up to my room where I had my laptop to check the flights. There was a 9:00 AM flight on Tuesday, only $60 more than we had paid. Since Southwest has no change fees, I was kinda pumped to get a cheap extra day's vacation. I run back to the Golden Gate where everybody else was gathered and told them the good news, and then they told me their good news... nobody really wanted to stay, so we were still leaving that evening. I was kinda bummed, but I was taking a beating on the gambling, so I didn't protest too much.
12:00 PM - We are all checked out and at the Rio for the beginning of their tournament ($45). But I think we are all pokered-out, as with only 24 entries, we don't get anywhere near the spots to cash.
2:00 PM - Phil had been talking all weekend that with as many hotel rooms as there are in Las Vegas, they've got generally crappy pizza. So every time Pat would walk past a pizza place, he would joke about "See, here's more pizza. There is pizza all over Las Vegas." I kept out of it, but I know where good pizza was. Needing to eat before we leave, we go over to the Cosmopolitan and head for the secret pizza.
2:30 PM - Because all slices are $4, we buy a whole pie for $24 instead... half pepperoni and sausage and the other half with garlic cream sauce and ricotta cheese. While we wait, we take turns playing the pinball machine that is in the middle of the room. Phil and Scott, the big winners on the trip, have the highest scores playing pinball, too.
3:00 PM - We've finished the best pizza in Las Vegas, and have a piece of New York Cheesecake, too (don't try to eat one yourself, please share). But now we are stuck. Our plane leaves in 3 hours, we don't have enough time to do anything, but have too much time to get to the airport. So I suggest walking "across the street" to Aria, just to see it.
3:30 PM - It took a half hour to walk across the street because, you see, you can't get there from here. I concierge at Cosmopolitan pointed us out the west exit and said "you can see Aria from here", we walk across the street in which I don't think we were supposed to, and end up walking around the Harmon disaster, up the stairs, through Crystals, out this door, into another, and so on. By the time we get there, Scott makes the astute observation that by the time we walk back, we would only have two hours to get gasoline, return the rental and get to our gate. Although I didn't suggest Aria just to get a $1 chip for my collection (really... there were closer casinos if I just wanted another chip), I didn't want to walk that far and NOT get one, so I played a (winning) had of blackjack so that I met the conditions of buying a chip.
3:50 PM - Knowing where we were going knocked 10 minutes off the return walk.
6:00 PM - We've gotten all of the "end of vacation" stuff and made it to our gate without incident. Somehow (I am not quite sure how) I've gotten A17 as my boarding position, so when we board I am able to get one of those exit row seats next to a window with no seat in front of me. This is possibly the best win of the trip... a chance to stretch my legs for the next four hours. Ben (who had something like B30) was able to grab the seat next to mine and later in the boarding process, a little hottie sits next to Ben. Ben had been planning on being asleep before we even left the gate, but instead, these two do the mating dance for the better part of three hours.
11:30 PM CDT - And he didn't even get her number. Sigh. Children.
And so goes another poker trip. Having done this three times, I think next year, instead of experimenting with tournaments, we consider our favorites that we've hit, and concentrate on them. Work around a specific schedule and not have as much "where are we going now?". But even if next year plays out the same as this year....