Big Empire Industries has spent millions of dollars developing tests and conducting evaluations of empirical casino data. You don't spend millions without being very thorough and knowing what you're looking for. You establish the hypotheses you want to prove through a positive response, define the testing criteria, have adequate means of documenting the data and a proper model for evaluating said data. The basic breakdown of how those millions were spent is $7 on a lab beaker, $3 on some litmus paper because it's cool, $14 on black markers and $1.99998 million on tips to cocktail waitresses. The largest single expenditure was $150 to an Olympic Gardens lab assistant with a nice rack during a lost weekend of extremely thorough research. Our hypotheses focus on a small range of scientific discovery, but include: "We can get seriously shitfaced playing nickel slots," "That stripper really likes me," "Dude, seriously, I swear to God I am going to roll a seven." and "Oh, man, I feel kind of dizzy."

With the hours of careful planning we do before every research trip to Las Vegas, you can imagine how annoying we find it when a bunch of unprepared amateurs are already there making a mockery of science. They don't carry a beaker or litmus paper. They haven't spent the hours at or under craps tables, both in a conscious or unconscious data collection mode. What bothers us is that our carefully crafted research gets mixed in with information that seems to be pulled out of someone's ass. I mean, really, where else could a recommendation to pay $100 to see Siegfried and Roy possibly come from?

In early 2001, Stinky and I began our most ambitious and pure research project to date. We started constructing an algorithm of such complexity that it would take us two years to complete.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we give you the Pleasure-o-meter Six Billion, the world's most thorough way to measure the pleasure of Las Vegas experiences as a function of their actual cost. It is Six Billion because that way in 5.999 billion years, it'll still sound futuristic. It is adjustable so that it can be reconfigured "on the fly" to adapt to unpredictable environmental conditions, such as rain, a bad shrimping season in Nova Scotia or Stinky vomiting into his cocktail.

Of course, as all good scientists know--and as we learned when we put $10,000 on the Super Bowl based on where the dog shit--a mathematical model is only as good as the numbers you put into it. In January, we packed up our scientific duffel bags and headed to Las Vegas to calibrate the Pleasure-o-meter Six Billion. Such a sensitive device as our highly-tuned model required the most precise test data we could find.

We chose the Las Vegas Advisor's "Top Ten Values" for the month of January to compare our results to. Every month, this skimpy and expensive periodical publishes what they deem to be the best values in Las Vegas. After all these years, they most definitely have had the money, and probably the time to perfect their mathematical model. If our model could produce the same results, we knew we were on the right track.

The top ten values for January 2003, according to LVA:

  1. Ellis Island's Steak Dinner - $4.95
  2. Golden Gate's 99-cent Shrimp Cocktail
  3. Gold Coast's SuperBuffet - $4.45-9.95
  4. Mac King Comedy Magic Show - $6.95
  5. Wild Wild West 1/2 pound Hamburger - $1.99
  6. Binion's Horseshoe Snack Bar - $3-$4.50
  7. Key Largo Happy Hour - $0.50-$2.50
  8. El Cortez's Roberta's Dinner Specials - $11.50-$20.95
  9. Westward Ho Java Nick's Coffee - $0.05
  10. Coast Casino's Hot Dogs - $0.99

Here are our findings. Note, all scores are one out of ten, but then the Pleasure-o-Meter does something magical to them to come up with the final score.

1. ELLIS ISLAND STEAK DINNER - This is a full steak dinner served 24 hours a day in the coffee shop for $4.95. It comes with salad, your choice of potatoes and green beans.

Nominal Cost: $9.90 for two steak dinners
Actual Cost: $16 including tip and tax.
How Much We Would Have Willingly Paid: $15.90
Value (what we would have willingly paid divided by actual cost): 1.0 The value score dropped somewhat because the service from Augustin, our waiter, was so good that we were forced to leave a big tip. We had expected to be treated like we normally are with the hand gestures suggesting we stink, or be told "Look, you've done enough damage. Why don't you just leave?"
Minutes of Enjoyment: 20
Coolness: 5 out of 10
Ambience: 7 out of 10
Item quality: 8 out 10. This is a tender piece of steak actually cooked to order with a quality side of your choice, potatoes and green beans.
Fulfillment: 4 out of 10. We had it for lunch, and who wants a heavy steak dinner for lunch? Are they crazy?
Quantity (actual quantity divided by expected quantity): 1.0. It was exactly as much as we expected.

INSTEAD, WE SUGGEST: Nothing. Unless you'd rather have four pieces of pie at the Gold Spike. Whatever you do, don't eat the shoe-leather special at the Horseshoe's coffee shop.

2. GOLDEN GATE SHRIMP COCKTAIL ‚ They've been serving these 99-cent shrimp cocktails forever in the back of the casino. Frankly, we've never understood why people think they're so great. I mean, it's pretty easy to get sick of them after eight or nine.

Nominal Cost: $1.98 for two shrimp cocktails.
Actual Cost: $2.12 after tax. (Screw tax-free dividends, Bush! How about tax-free shrimp cocktails?)
How Much We Would Have Willingly Paid: $0.98
Value (what we would have willingly paid divided by actual cost): 0.46.
Minutes of Enjoyment: 0.5, about as long as it took Matt to crumble his free crackers and slip them into the hood of Stinky's sweatshirt.
Coolness: 3 out of 10. They lost a lot of points here because it was late and the piano player was done for the night. If we're up late enough to wolf down barely-edible shrimp, the least they can do is keep a little entertainment on hand.
Ambience: 3 out of 10. See "Coolness." Also, our friends Bill and Jacqueline were getting pretty sick of us and so they just kept saying "Shut up and eat already" rather than really listening to Stinky's story about the mice in his apartment.
Item quality: 5 out 10. These are the same shrimp you can eat all you want of at Sizzler, and according to Newton's third law of buffet-style consumption: Bad food is always better when you eat enough to stretch the lining of your stomach to the breaking point.
Fulfillment: 1 out of 10. We were still stuffed from our huge crab leg dinner at Roberta's (see below). If the Golden Gate wants to boost their score, they're going to have to lure us in here BEFORE dinner. Anybody with a degree from Phoenix University knows this is just basic marketing.
Quantity (actual quantity divided by expected quantity): 1.0. It was exactly as much as we expected and more than we wanted.

INSTEAD, WE SUGGEST: A $1.50 piece of pie at the Gold Spike diner.

3. GOLD COAST PORTS-O-CALL BUFFET ‚ The Gold Coast's buffet isn't super, like the Las Vegas Advisor promotes. But maybe those folks have lived in Las Vegas too long and the hyperbole's gotten to them. When they say "super," they mean average. When they say "super-duper-duper" they mean pretty good. This one is nothing special compared to the truly superbuffets offered on the south Strip. We had the lunch advertised at $6.95.

Nominal Cost: $13.90
Actual Cost: $16.90 after tip and tax.
How Much We Would Have Willingly Paid: $13.90
Value (what we would have willingly paid divided by actual cost): 0.82.
Minutes of Enjoyment: 2.2. Exactly as long as it took us to get from the cashier to our first view of the steam trays. It would have been much shorter, but we had to spend over a minute arguing over who got the "cool" side of the booth.
Coolness: 2 out of 10. This might have scored higher if we weren't the youngest kids in the room by 30 years.
Ambience: 4 out of 10. We got a wall booth, and we always feel safer when our enemies can't surround us. Heaven help the poor suckers at the tables.
Item quality: 5 out 10. Really average food gets a really average score. The selection was pretty disappointing.
Fulfillment: 4 out of 10. I could have gone for a big, tasty lunch, but this is mostly heavy, greasy fatty foods. The desserts are bleh.
Quantity (actual quantity divided by expected quantity): 1.0. It's all-you-can-eat, so we'd have to pretty dang stupid not to eat as much as we expected.

INSTEAD, WE SUGGEST: Live a little. For the same price or a few more cents you can eat way better buffets at Orleans, Main Street Station and Texas Station.

4. HARRAH'S MAC KING COMEDY SHOW ‚ Comedy, magic and a drink. Mac King plays the down-homesy guy who has goldfish in his cheeks and does lots of tricks where he cuts up rope. With the easily-available coupon the show is free, but you buy a drink for $6.95. That's one way to look at it. A more logical one is that you pay $6.95 for the show and get a free drink. That is, unless you often pay $7 for one drink served assembly-line style.

Nominal Cost: $13.90
Actual Cost: $18.30 after tip and "entertainment" tax.
How Much We Would Have Willingly Paid: $3.00, for the drink.
Value (what we would have willingly paid divided by actual cost): 0.15.
Minutes of Enjoyment: 1, while we could read the e-mail the two lawyers sitting in front of us wrote on their laptops before the show started (and of course they billed the time).
Coolness: 1 out of 10. It ain't cool.
Ambience: 2 out of 10. You're packed in like sardines on the cheapest seats Harrah's could find.
Item quality: 2 out 10. And those two points go to the audience participation girl with the very nice tummy and jeans.
Fulfillment: 2 out of 10. Neither of us had been sitting around going "Man, I sure could go for some corny comedy-magic." But we got it anyway. In spades.
Quantity (actual quantity divided by expected quantity): 1.0. We had no expectations, and this met them.

INSTEAD, WE SUGGEST: A free Checkmates show at Arizona Charlie's (which really is free), or the Sunspots at the Plaza's Omaha Lounge.

5. HALF-POUND HAMBURGER AT THE WILD WILD WEST'S GAMBLER'S GRILL ‚ The coffee shop serves a half-pound burger with fries 24 hours a day for $1.99 at this dumpy little casino to the west of I-15 on Tropicana.

Nominal Cost: $3.98
Actual Cost: $8.27 after tip and the jerk waiter upsold us cheese that he didn't say cost extra.
How Much We Would Have Willingly Paid: $11.79.
Value (what we would have willingly paid divided by actual cost): 1.43.
Minutes of Enjoyment: 1, because we had already eaten a big dinner at Garduno's. What the hell are they thinking serving us half-pound hamburgers on a full stomach?
Coolness: 3 out of 10.
Ambience: 5 out of 10. The room gets loads of ambience credit for the old western movie posters on the walls. The best is for "The Hellions" which says "Hide your whiskey and your womenΦ Here comes Matt and Stinky, the guys who are known to spill whiskey on ladies." The coffee shop loses points for calling itself "Gamblers" Grill when you can look just outside the entrance and see some chain-smoking old lady with an oxygen tank at a Double Diamonds slot and understand what they mean by gambler.
Item quality: 6 out 10. It's a good burger. Probably wonderful if you're actually hungry.
Fulfillment: 2 out of 10. We just weren't looking for a big burger right after a full meal.
Quantity (actual quantity divided by expected quantity): 1.0. It was more burger than we wanted.

INSTEAD, WE SUGGEST: Once you tack on tip, cheese and a soda, you'll find an In-n-Out Double-Double meal better and more convenient for the money.

6. BINION'S HORSESHOE SNACK BAR ‚ The Horseshoe's snack bars are surviving the gutting that owner Becky Behnen is putting the casino through. They still serve good food grilled right up in front of you, so you can make sure nobody spits in your burger like Stinky used to do when he worked at Kirk's Steakburgers.

Nominal Cost: $11 for a Philly Cheesesteak and barbecue beef sandwich.
Actual Cost: $12.50 including a soda and tip
How Much We Would Have Willingly Paid: $12.50.
Value (what we would have willingly paid divided by actual cost): 1.0.
Minutes of Enjoyment: 15 because that's how long it took to eat and it was really good.
Coolness: 8 out of 10. We ate at the snack bar right there next to the poker room, so people walking by might think we're Johnny Chan taking a break from our WSOP training.
Ambience: 9 out of 10. This is old school. You can watch the old war birds chucking chips, or you may be accompanied by a player who gets a little too close to you and your sandwich and asks if it's as good as it looks.
Item quality: 7 out 10. Even though they put mushrooms on the cheesesteak sandwich, despite the fact that we're clearly not mushroom-eaters, the melted cheese, thin steak, grilled onions and slightly toasted bun were fantastic. The barbecue sauce is a little sweet, but there's plenty of it, and the beef ain't half bad.
Fulfillment: 9 out of 10. Finally, someone fed us when we were hungry. When you think you're going to pass out from low blood sugar, a sandwich is almost as fulfilling as Jesus showing up and saying "Here's your free ticket to heaven. You can be as big a jerk as you want from now on."

INSTEAD, WE SUGGEST: What, are you kidding? This is the best snack bar around. Although, a slice of Gold Spike pie is delicious.

7. KEY LARGO HAPPY HOUR - The Key Largo is a small, smoky casino connected to a Quality Inn the way a cyst is connected to an obese woman who never leaves her sofa. Happy hour never stops in the casino's "Kickin' Back" Lounge. During the non-stop fun bar food and drinks are half-price. What a load of hooey. First, nobody is happy 24 hours a day, unless they're high on crack. We're lucky if we can get one good hour in before the bill collectors start calling. Second, if the food and drinks are the same price 24/7, then that's the regular price, no matter how many menus they printed up saying they're supposed to be twice as much. Greasy finger foods like nachos, onion rings and anything else they can stick in a deep fryer are less than $2.50. Well drinks are $0.75, draft beers are a half buck.

Nominal Cost: $1.50 for two cocktails
Actual Cost: $2.50 including a tip
How Much We Would Have Willingly Paid: $3 (but that's before we knew they sucked).
Value (what we would have willingly paid divided by actual cost): 1.17.
Minutes of Enjoyment: 0. It would help if the cocktails were potable.
Ambience: 4 out of 10. The crummy little bar gets some bonus points because of the cheesy sunset mural on the wall that make it feel like you're getting liquored up in a third-grade classroom. Overall, though, it's a drunken, unpleasant and loutish crowd that seems not to understand what happy hour is all about.
Item quality: 3 out 10. Some of the worst cocktails ever made.
Fulfillment: 0 out of 10. First we weren't in the mood for cocktails because it was still early. Hey, they're the jerks offering them 24 hours a day. Second, if we didn't want drinks, we especially didn't want really shitty ones.
Quantity (actual quantity divided by expected quantity): 1.0. It was all the crappy cocktail we wanted.

INSTEAD, WE SUGGEST: Strong, real mixed drinks at the Plaza for $1. Or you-call-it drinks at the much more pleasant Ellis Island for a buck. Either of those will get you happy way faster.

8. ROBERTA'S DINNER SPECIALS AT THE EL CORTEZ ‚ Roberta's is the El Cortez's "gourmet" room, but it wouldn't even qualify as a coffee shop at the snooty Strip casinos. It's a little frayed around the edges and they serve your beer in a can. But the specials are still sort of special and the prices are consistent with Jackie's promise to give the gamblers value. We went on Tuesday night for Two-for-One King Crab Legs.

Nominal Cost: $20.95 for two King Crab Leg meals
Actual Cost: $40.00 including tip and drink
How Much We Would Have Willingly Paid: $40.
Value (what we would have willingly paid divided by actual cost): 1.0.
Minutes of Enjoyment: 120. Our friends Bill Walsh and Jacqueline Dupree joined us for dinner and that greatly extended the minutes of enjoyment. The El Cortez should have them sit down whenever a dinner special is ordered.
Coolness: 7 out of 10. Jackie's place has old school class out the ass.
Ambience: 9 out of 10. You can almost smell the sweat of the gangsters who have eaten here before. Ambience was enhanced by the greaseballs at the table next to us who sent their grasshoppers back for being "too strong." Where else are people going to complain that they're putting too much booze in the cocktails?
Item quality: 6 out 10. The crab legs were massive and cooked satisfactorily. They forgot to give us our relish plate before the meal, and that hurt the score. Man oh man, do we ever love relish plates.
Fulfillment: 5 out of 10. Actually, the score was like 9, but there were still more crab legs and we kept eating until we got sick to our stomachs. Roberta's should have anticipated our uncontrollable gluttony and given us less food.
Quantity (actual quantity divided by expected quantity): 1.8. It was way more than we could have possibly eaten. In fact, our waitress said the portions are twice as large when they have a two-for-one special, so it's more like four-for-one.

INSTEAD, WE SUGGEST: A quick kick in the mouth. Don't turn down Jackie's largess.

9. THE WESTWARD HO'S NICKEL NICK'S COFFEE ‚ The Westward Ho tries harder to draw in the low roller, and this place's nickel cup of coffee is about as cheap as you can get.

Nominal Cost: $0.10 for two cups of coffee
Actual Cost: $0.35 with tip
How Much We Would Have Willingly Paid: $1.18.
Value (what we would have willingly paid divided by actual cost): 3.37.
Minutes of Enjoyment: 7. It's not a big cup of coffee, but it's hot enough that we can't just down it like we would a bottle of Jagermeister.
Coolness: 3 out of 10. It's just coffee.
Ambience: 6 out of 10. You can watch the craps table from the cheap benches in here.
Item quality: 5 out 10. Hell if we know. We don't drink coffee because we rarely have a reason to need to stay awake. But, it didn't make us throw up or anything.
Fulfillment: 4 out of 10. Like we said, we don't like coffee, so we were only drinking this because the Las Vegas Advisor made such a big deal out of it.
Quantity (actual quantity divided by expected quantity): 0.75. A cup of coffee is supposed to be eight ounces, not six.

INSTEAD, WE SUGGEST: Well, whatever you do, don't waste your nickel on those stupid "Winning Slots for Dummies."

10. THE BARBARY COAST'S HOT DOG CART ‚ Seventy-five cents buys you a standard-sized hot dog with the typical toppings from the little cart next to the sports book. There are similar carts at the other Coast properties.

Nominal Cost: $1.50 for two hot dogs with mustard and onions
Actual Cost: $1.50
How Much We Would Have Willingly Paid: $2.00.
Value (what we would have willingly paid divided by actual cost): 1.33.
Minutes of Enjoyment: 2. Hot dogs don't take long to hit your gut.
Coolness: 3 out of 10. You're eating a hot dog, for Pete's sake. You think some girls gonna go, "Hmmm, who's that cute guy with the mustard on his lips?"
Ambience: 7 out of 10. Sports books give you plenty to look at. Plus, the Barbary Coast is a great room.
Item quality: 4 out 10. This ain't filet mignon, it's just an average wiener.
Fulfillment: 6 out of 10. They had the common good sense to serve these to us at lunch, when we were hungry.
Quantity (actual quantity divided by expected quantity): 0.6. You got to eat about three of these things to fill up, unless you're the kind of guy who likes a frankfurter for a mid-morning snack.

INSTEAD, WE SUGGEST: The Binion's Horseshoe Deli is one option, or as long as you're going to ruin your health with a hot dog, go all the way and eat the awful 3/4 lb. hot dog at the Westward Ho for $1.49. That's a lot more than 2 times the wiener for just twice the price.

Running these numbers through the Pleasure-o-Meter Six Billion, we generated our own ranking of the Las Vegas Advisor's Top Ten.

  1. Binion's Horseshoe Snack Bar
  2. Westward Ho Coffee
  3. El Cortez's Roberta's Specials
  4. Ellis Island Steak Dinner
  5. Wild Wild West Hamburger
  6. Barbary Coast Hot Dog
  7. SuperBuffet at the Gold Coast
  8. Golden Gate Shrimp Cocktail
  9. Key Largo Happy Hour
  10. Mac King Comedy Show

According to our objective and scientific process, we can deduce that the lowest six of the top ten don't belong on any special value list. This means that the Las Vegas Advisor algorithm is either mis-calibrated or those guys just pull their choices out of their asses. We guess the latter. But in that case, where is all the money going?

Considering that this is Vegas, it's ridiculous that the Las Vegas Advisor doesn't have gambling on the list. We'd rather spend $9 at the Joker's Wild or Railroad Pass quarter craps games than at Mac King. The single-deck $2 blackjack at the El Cortez is way more fun than the Golden Gate's shrimp cocktail.

The Plaza has always served good cocktails for a buck, and the Gold Spike used to have 50-cent cocktails, but neither of them made the list. Both are far more pleasant than the Key Largo's creepy bar. The Main Street Station weekend brunch is a hell of a deal. And don't forget the cheese sandwich at the Gold Spike for $1.10.

The Pleasure-o-Meter Six Billion was built in Mathematica with the support of the University of California, Irvine ITS Program. A simplified version is available for your use.

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