Part 1 - Poker and Booze Should Mix Better Than This


I landed in Vegas at 6:45 on Thursday night and managed to work my way through the crowd of giddy tourists who were just damn sure they would win this trip. I packed everything in one backpack, including a big bottle of asparagus-tinged piss to sprinkle around in front of Binion's Friday night. Got my mid-size rental car from Thrifty and headed for the glitz. Glitter and vomit of downtown.

One group of friends were arriving from Southern California, a 280 mile drive that I have managed in 3 hours and 36 minutes. They left at 11 AM and still hadn't arrived when I checked into the California hotel. I got hoodwinked by the Cal. Everyone does. Before you can say, "I'm a strong boy!" the front desk hands your room key to a bellhop who takes you to your room and shows you how to turn the water on, and how to flush the toilet, complete with a demonstration of how to pee first. I handed him three bucks and finally got to learn my secret room number.

The room was just fine: newish furnishings, clean bathroom, nice blankets, an alarm clock with the correct time. The showerhead was at navel level which meant getting on your knees to wash you hair. The room view was out over the railroad tracks where the bums in most cities would live. Not in Vegas, though. They live in the radiant warmth of the porte cocheres of the major resorts.

Once my friends, Stevie Fine Print, Flanders and Mikey, arrived, we went downstairs to the Pasta Pirate. This place isn't a hidden gem like Lotus of Siam or Lindo Michoacan, but it is a great value. The food is okay, but huge, cheap pasta meals come with a salad, bread and a free glass of either wine or vinegar; I couldn't tell for sure. I had the steak and lobster with pasta for $12. The steak was tough, the lobster was fine, the butter was clear and the marinara was a little sweet. Still, a fine deal. The waiters at the Cal are always confused by customers paying with cash. The vast majority of its customers are Hawaiians on junkets that include vouchers for all meals. So, we waited a while for the check, and then, with our bellies sloshing full of meat and starch, we wandered around downtown looking for a cheap game.

The Lady Luck is about to die, but for now it's more like an 82-year-old emphysemic on life support and oxygen. It wheezes, stinks and has an ashen pall over it. A few stragglers banged away at slots, the ding-ding-ding of which sounded depressing in the cavernous vacancy. Two table games were open with a few players slinging red chips. I can't say for sure, but I swear the dealers stopped the deal occasionally to mix drinks. "You want a cherry in it?" "Yeah, and I want to double down." "Okay, I'll be right back to the table after I find the crushed ice."

Next door, the Gold Spike is not closing no matter how hard it tries. It's more like an 82-year-old emphysemic on life support and oxygen at the Bingo Parlor: secretly hopeful and determined to survive, at least until the $1000 "Blackout" game. The stench has never lifted, and a friend once described it as "an ashtray filled with rotten sausage stuffed into the pocket of a dead man." The smoke is heavy enough that you can clear a path by windmilling a hand in front of you.

The Spike has reduced its inventory of table games from four to three, with two crowded good-rules $2 blackjack tables, and an empty $5. No wonder. Hell, you can play with vagabonds in an alley on the Strip for five bucks, so why settle on the Spike? The alcove called the Copper Mine is the last place in the city with slots that accept real pennies, the metal kind. Usually, it's packed with hopefuls, but tonight only a few homeless plug away.

The once glorious Plaza continues to decline.

There are four of us and not four open blackjack seats, so we keep moving, past the condemned Crest Motel, surrounded by a chain link fence and with stenciling on the walls that reads "Closed by LVMPD." Can't imagine what a seedy, scary motel around here would be doing to get the cops to close it, but I'm sorry I never got any of it when I could. Beyond the shuttered Crest is a rubble pit the size of an entire city block. There were once shiny billboards surrounding the site that advertised luxury condos in a modern skyrise. But the billboards are defaced and shambly, giving a glimpse inside of the absolutely nothing that has been done. I suppose that no matter how much the promoters dressed up the locale, off-downtown next to a failing shopping mall was not attractive to the wealthy. Even if you call the area something fancy like Skid Row Heights, it's still sort of like an armpit.

We walk into the El Cortez, our trusted home, and where they know us by name. Patty, the septugenarian cocktail waitress retired on our tips, and not before she got cable so she could see us on the Discovery Channel. But the pit crew is surprisingly loyal. The dealers are a revolving mix of break-ins, but the managers and supervisors know us. The El Co has spiffed up something remarkable. The story I heard was that owner Jackie Gaughan had been taking tax deductions for capital improvements for decades, and the IRS finally visited and noticed they'd been had. So, he sunk a bundle into the casino floor and rooms. The rooms are quite nice now, and it's harder than ever to find cigarette burns in the blankets. The casino is downright fancy, with digital table minimum signs, new chandeliers, marble on the floor and clean carpets. No more Big Mouth Bill yBass on the wall by the craps pit, or "Win a Ford 500" casino promotion buttons used as buttons in the poker area.

The craps, which had been 25 cents only a few years ago, jumped to a dollar recently, and now up to $5. Jesus, for that I can get my hair cut, and you won't see me doing that. The pit boss promised that if our whole group came in, he'd drop it to $3, still with wonderful 10x odds. Good, single-deck blackjack with 3:2 payoffs was $3. My friends settled in at a table and I hightailed it to the airport to pick up Stinky.

Stinky arrived from Chicago on Southwest without having eaten. He said he wasn't hungry, and that came back to bite him in the ass. Downtown, we returned to the El Co and grabbed a couple of seats in the two 1-3-6 spread hold-em games. I had been watching earlier as a Vietnamese woman in a Green Valley Security blouse bet every pot, almost always with nothing, and kept dipping into her purse for more cash. Her pattern became very clear: bet pre-flop with any face; bet any flop regardless; check the turn if she hadn't hit yet; bet the river if the other player checked the turn as well. I got in a seat at her table. Stinky moved into the other table, with a scary-looking biker and a crazy non-stop talker.

The security guard Loosey was as sour as grapefruit out of season. She flung her unimproved cards when called on the river. She snapped at other players and the dealer and rarely tipped when she won. Her arms were as thin as a sapling branch, and her long creepy fingers were capped with long, curled finger nails.

After a half hour my $100 buy-in was down to $97 from two blinds and a tip for a Heineken. I don't think I had seen a better hand than 9-3. My first pot was a limp with A-J that hit on the flop. I bet out and it was folded around for a $3 profit. Ten minutes later I realized I was playing too tight when I couldn't get a single caller out of the limpers with my pocket kings on the button. I lost when I raised with A-Q and Loosey called. Flop came K high and I check-raised her. She called. Turn was a king, and rather than check, she bet, so I got the hell out and she scolded me for folding her powerful K5. A-J held up a littler later for another small pot. I then called a raise from the Vietnamese woman with A7 suited. The flop came blank and she bet, I called. She checked the turn, so did I. River, she bet $6 and I called with my A high. It held up. She threw her cards, said something not very nice in Vietnamese, and left the game.

It was now after two a.m. and I had about three Heinekens in me. I was spending an unusual amount of time thinking about how little I needed to piss. The beers and fatigue were working their charm on me, though, and my game was getting looser and more reckless. An Internet dandy in his late 20s sat down. At first he pretended he didn't know how to play poker, but did a horrible job of acting. The joke was, though, that he didnít. Only, he was the only guy who didn't realize it. He played aggressive, raising pots and re-raising with what I was sure was trash. He smoked Camel Lights, cradling them between his fingers like they were rubies. I don't know that he ever actually inhaled. How could he when he wouldn't shut up?

Stinky, the Golf Maniac, lines up another imaginary birdie.

He jabbered incessantly, with the most unwanted advice for me when I checked down a pot out of the blind with 2-6 offsuit, and won because the only other person called with 2-5. He kept telling the other players how much he loved the El Cortez. What he meant was not that he loved it, but that he loved that he pretended he loved it. He thought he was a character in a John Waters movie, surrounded by actors hamming it up. But these are real, hard, dirty people trying to have fun. His insincerity and frequent comments about what a dump the El Co is didn't land too softly on the ears of players who come here often because it's the place they like and can afford. Slumming it by pseudo-hipsters is pretty fucking unwelcome.

I tangled with the Dandy Fop once, when he raised from the cutoff and I had K-J in the blind. I called and the flop came K-J-3. I checked, he bet. I pretended to think and do a little calculation, then raised. He re-reraised and I re-raised again. $29 in the pot and $3 more for him to call. He folded. I should have just called and hoped for a brick so he'd think I didn't hit whatever I was drawing for.

Things get fuzzy for me after that. I played horribly and started losing. The only thing coming my way were more Heinekens, and they were catching up with my bladder. I had an urgent need to pee every ten minutes, and I pissed a lot every time. A few players left and we combined the two tables. Stinky sat across from me and gave me a few notes on his fellow tablemates. He told me one short Mexican fellow would call down to the river with anything.

My next big hand was AQ, which I raised from the button. The Mexican called and I was in heaven. The flop came Q-high rainbow and I bet. The Mexican raised. I re-raised and he called. On the turn I checked, he bet and I re-raised. I looked at my friend and asked, "Does he raise all the time, too?" Stinky shook his head. Fuck. He flopped a set of sixes and I was sunk.

My skull now had enough Heineken sloshing around inside to make every bathroom run an adventure in navigation. I don't know how the maintenance staff move the slot machines around so quickly, but they did. My buy-in was dwindling, I was getting bored and I was losing. So I played looser and looser, limping in with any A or gapers and never getting rewarded. Everyone else got paid on middle pairs, but not me. Of course, I was far enough into the bag that my focus had narrowed to nothing more than the two cards in front of me and what was in the middle. I was too tired and buzzed to think about the other players.

After 5 a.m. I saw the first good cards in a while: JJ. I raised and it folded around to a mountain of a man who re-raised. I called. By mountain of a man, I mean he had approximately the same total mass as a huge granite outcropping, and his thundering man-boobies could have provided shelter for eagles. The flop came J-K-3 and the other man bet. I re-raised and he called. It wasn't until the turn, when I had put the remainder of my small stack in that I even considered he may have KK. He did, and my set lost to his.

I immediately stood up, ripped my jacket off the back of my chair, and made a dash for the bathroom. Man, I had to pee. Returning to the table to wait for my friend, I got plenty of advice from strangers about how they knew he had kings and I had jacks. I smiled as politely as I could and just said as graciously as possible, "I'll cut you open from your ass to your mouth if you don't shut the fuck up." Really, I was mad at myself for playing so loose and badly. But why beat yourself up when there are others around?

Stinky cashed out with a nice profit after pockets Ks turned into set for him twice and his pocket Qs turned a full house against another player's trip nines. I thought his ability to make a profit while I lost $100 was rather rude and called his mother a name.

We walked back to the California around six a.m. Well, mostly we walked; sometimes I crawled. The sun wasn't up, which pissed me off. The least that stupid thing could do is start rising if I make the effort to stay up this late. Stinky was now drunk, starving and on his 26th hour without sleep, so he didn't say much when I kept punching him and asking for some money.

On to Part 2

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