Editor’s note: Jim’s column on gambling, The Nervous Light, which comes from the chapter title “The Nervous Light of Sunday” in Frederick Exley’s masterpiece of obsessive fandom, A Fan’s Notes, runs once a month.
I thought I was done with casinos.
When I left the Indian gaming business in 2012, I thought it would be a while before I’d darken the door of another casino, but if anything I’m more interested in them now than I was before.
I went to Las Vegas last month to meet up with my brother Emmett and our friend Pat, my co-conspirators in the high-roller fantasy baseball team we’re managing together. The plan was to bet on the NCAA championship, watch a little baseball, eat some overpriced meals and gamble. We didn’t deviate although we got a little fixated on video roulette.
Video roulette features an actual wheel with a digital video display. The wheel is operated mechanically and doesn’t require a human operator. The players all have individual screens on which to place bets. That speeds things up considerably. There’s no time to do anything but feed your machine and place your bets. You get a ton of action on these machines, which is another way of saying you can lose a lot of money in a hurry. But when you win, you win big, as long as you don’t spread yourself too thin. Some of us spent more time at this machine than in our beds. You sit down for a free beer and by the time the server takes your order and brings you your drink you’re down a hundy. In other words, the entertainment is free, but that beer just cost you $100.
And it is entertaining. Emmett and Pat stayed at the Palazzo so we spent a lot of time both there and at the Venetian, which is connected to the Palazzo and has a spectacular sports book. I was staying farther down the Strip at the Linq, and did a fair amount of gambling there and at Caesar’s Palace across the street. I stayed three nights and I loved it.
POST-RECESSION CASINO MANAGEMENT 101
The Linq stands in the spot previously occupied by The Imperial Palace and O’Shea’s, two paragons of downscale Las Vegas. The Imperial Palace, aka the I.P., was a dump with a Chinese theme that, rumor had it, turned over $1,000,000 a day profit per day so the owners kept upkeep to a minimum until they sold the property.
O’Shea’s was even worse. It was a Las Vegas Strip casino without a hotel which trafficked in leprechaun shtick and pandered to cheap tourists. I’ve had some of my worst experiences at these establishments:
- I was staying at the I.P. with Emmett for the weekend and didn’t sleep in the bed the entire weekend until a couple hours before checkout. I drove back to Los Angeles on two hours sleep feeling the after effects of MDMA, Red Bull and buckets of well vodka. Jesus the early aughts were a shit show.
- A drug-addled goon bought drinks for a bunch of us at the bar in the Southwest terminal at LAX. He kept the drinks coming on the plane and even hired a limo to take us all back to our hotels when we touched down at McCarran. I did not refuse his coke-fueled largesse. He was staying at the I.P., which meant I was stuck with him until the last passenger was dropped off, at which point he became enraged because no one wanted to hang out with him. The lunatic insisted I go out with him. I gave him the slip but he waited for me in the lobby for hours. I had to hide in my hotel room until he went away.
- Back in the mid-90s they used to close down part of the Las Vegas Strip on New Year’s Eve. Pandemonium broke lose when someone shimmied up a traffic light pole and the crowd tried to knock him down by chucking empty bottles and cans of silly string at him. This set off a terrifying fusillade of missiles that shattered the neon lights of O’Shea’s, which I happened to be standing directly underneath. It was a mob scene with bulbs popping and broken glass crunching underfoot. A real sick-to-your-stomach Day of Locust vibe. They don’t shut down Las Vegas Boulevard on New Year’s Eve any more.
But all that is history. The Linq is a nice mid-size casino hotel now. It’s not flashy or opulent but it’s got a wide promenade that runs the length of the casino that makes it easy to move around, which is important. There’s a bit of a bottleneck by the second set of elevators but otherwise you can get from your room to anywhere in the casino in about two minutes.
I was in the casino business during the recession and the plan was to cut personnel and ramp up marketing. After a couple of years of this it was pretty clear to me this was a losing strategy. There were times when I’d walk the floor and see a spill or a broken machine or a guest who needed help and I wouldn’t be able to find someone who could help. If I was in charge, I thought, I’d slash the advertising budget and hire more staff, which is saying something since I worked in the marketing department.
In my casino, I’d have people standing around saying hello, offering to help, until those people got on a first name basis with all of the regulars and high rollers. Not just the casino hosts, but everyone on the floor. If someone spilled a soda in my casino, I’d want three people there to clean it up.
People who go to casinos want to feel important. No one feels like a small timer, especially small timers. I know because I am one. I may not be spending real money but it’s real enough to me.
The key to winning guests over is to 1) acknowledge them, 2) welcome them, and 3) make them feel special. If you greet a returning guest by name you accomplish all three.
The Linq subscribes to this strategy. They’ve got people everywhere. In the reception area an attendant stands with a clipboard waiting to assist. She was the one I talked to when I locked myself out of my room, and with her help I was able to avoid the check-in line. When I asked where the rewards desk was located, I got a personal escort. Bartenders, cocktail servers, blackjack dealers, sports book staffers, everyone was super friendly and approachable. None of that jaded, I-haven’t-seen-actual-sunlight-since-the-Carter-administration old school Vegas vibe that used to mark employees of middle-of-the-road establishments.
Another example: I was playing blackjack on my last day at the casino, killing time before my flight home. I sat down at a table with a dealer that I’d spent time with the day before. Her name was Cookie and she had braces and a heavy Chinese accent. The day before I’d played for less than hour and left when I was up by about $175. Nothing special from the dealer’s point of view. Yet she remembered my name and that I was a writer.
That’s great guest service. But I can’t ignore the possibility she made me for a casino insider. I felt oddly at home at The Linq, so much so that when I was ordering coffee at the café the woman behind the counter asked me for my employee number so she could give me my discount.
I had a great time in Las Vegas. I finished the edits on a book that I’m working on. I sat poolside and read a novel. I ate two-dozen oysters for a buck a piece and paid $6 for an O’Doul’s. I ate a piece of cake the size of a milk carton and had the best fried chicken of my life. I saw a brand new bride in stripper heels and at the conclusion of the NCAA Finals I watched hundreds of men jump up and down in spontaneous joy. Every one of these things gave me great pleasure.
“Every day my wife and kids call. Is the weather nice? they ask. Oh, yeah. The sun is shining and it’s beautiful outside. I haven’t left the casino since Thursday!”
Final Four: Two team parlay: Syracuse and the Villanova. L
NCAA Championship: North Carolina and the under. We know how that one worked out, but it was still an incredible experience to witness. The sports book at the Venetian erupted when North Carolina tied the score on a three-pointer. And then it erupted again when Villanova dropped a three. Dagger city. L
Dodgers versus the Padres with Kershaw pitching: Didn’t bet it. I was working in my room all day—casino hotels are my favorite place to write—and thought it was an evening game. By the time I realized my error it was too late. Broke even but feels like an L
Dodgers versus the Padres with Kazmir on the mound. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice shame on me. Big W.
Blackjack. Won more than I lost and made a friend. W
Ridiculous four-team baseball parlay. L
Horseracing. When I’m making a transaction at the sports book, I always look to see if there’s a race running where there are two clear favorites, a bunch of long shots, and the seven horse somewhere in the middle. My daughter was born on 7/7 so it’s the number I play. (If I ever hit 7 on roulette I will let it ride.) I box the seven with the favorites for $2 if I’m placing bets, $5 if I’m cashing tickets. I did this three times and won twice, both on $5 bets, once during a harness race in the driving snow, which is something I’d never seen before. I mean who else but numbers players bet on harness racing in a snowstorm? The favorite came in first so I won but only got half my money back. The second time I didn’t see the race but the seven-horse won and I cashed a ticket for $150. I don’t believe in luck, but if cashing a ticket for a horse race I didn’t even bother to watch isn’t lucky then I don’t know what is.
NEXT: The Uplifting Gormandizers and the only book store on the Las Vegas Strip
HIGH-ROLLER HAIKUS 5-8
On the boulevard
two ladies stagger out of
the cool casino.
“I don’t even know
where my damn hotel is at!”
Realize I went
the wrong direction
and double back. Now the drunk
ladies are holding
steady with a pair
of pale shirtless English blokes
drinking in the sun.