Las Vegas is Infinite: My First Royal Flush

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I once had an oceanography professor who tried to convince the class that all coastlines are of an infinite length, as length is relative to the metric that is used to conduct the measurement.  No one really understood what the hell he was talking about, partly because he was a barrel chested Frenchman who sounded like a drunk Gerard Depardieu, and partly because he would never stop babbling about something called the Coriolis Effect.  It wasn’t until years later, during a trip to Las Vegas, that I finally understood what he meant by the infinite coastline.  Most people consider Las Vegas to be bi-modal by nature; the Las Vegas of residents and the Las Vegas of tourists.  In reality, Las Vegas is infinite – it just depends how you measure.

Downtown Las Vegas is a contrast of wealth and poverty.  Curiously, some of the casinos look to be more impoverished than the clientele.  Old ladies can be found with electronic keno pens in one hand, ketchup covered hot dogs in the other.  Between meals the hot dogs are replaced with cigarettes and stiff cocktails.  It is a gloomy scene to the uninitiated but to those who embrace the dynamic of Downtown, the casino floor is the manifestation of subconscious desires; a thrilling safe house in an environment of desperation.

Just kidding.  

Downtown Las Vegas is a party.  It is a place where a person can arrive on a Friday evening, drink 10-14 Coronas, feed a couple hundred worth of 20s into a video poker machine, and pass out face down on top of the comforter of a $35 a night hotel room.  There is the striking contrast I mentioned above but no one seems to think much of it.  There is an unspoken understanding between those who wander from casino to casino under the Fremont Street canopy – “I won’t judge you if you won’t judge me”.

Our second trip to Downtown Las Vegas, several years ago, brought us to the Main Street Station Hotel and Casino.  My wife and I arrived late in the evening, early the next morning by east coast time, and dragged our luggage through the casino toward the hotel lobby – a shameful occurrence. We passed a 40 seat marble bar with a giant bronze statue of a warthog that overlooked the casino. I made quick eye contact with the bartender to let him know that I’d be parked in front of him as soon as I was able to rid myself of the cumbersome luggage.  The bar top was studded with some of the best paying video poker machines downtown and I fully intended to drink myself into bankruptcy in search of a royal flush.

The hotel had an onsite brewery that churned out seasonal beers of a compelling quality.  The pale ale pints were $2 at the Hog Bar but free to anyone who was playing video poker.  In truth, the inexpensive beers diminished the value of the video poker.  A seasoned gambler should always include the value of comped drinks when calculating the return on his gambling investment. Regardless, the beer was fine and the bartender filled my glass with the frequency of an attentive diner waitress.

It was late Sunday, the early morning hours of Monday, and the casino was devoid of the typical weekend crowd.  The craps table, about 50 feet from our seats at the bar, was dead with the exception of a few Hawaiian men smoking and betting $5 a throw.  The cigarette smoke at the bar was thick despite the tenuous crowd.  

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Smoking, drinking and video poker come together to create a triangle of addiction that preys upon the tactile nature of gamblers.  A cigarette and a beer have never felt as necessary as the two do while sitting in front of a chirping video poker machine.

After about an hour, my wife and I were holding our own and making good conversation with the bartender when our first opportunity to draw to a royal flush emerged.  We held the ace of clubs, king of clubs, and jack of clubs.  A draw of the two cards to complete the royal flush would be a statistical long shot.

Few things enter the minds of gamblers before a big win.  Gambling can be reduced to a series of rote calculations and hand movements to those who know the specific odds and strategies of a particular game.  “Rote calculations and hand movements” is unlikely to make an appearance in the next Las Vegas marketing campaign, but that does not mean there is no truth in the statement. The alcohol, the cigarettes, the flashing lights, the beeps and bells of the machines, the scantily clad cocktail waitresses, and the manufactured opulence of Las Vegas casinos all exist to mask the statistical certainties of the games.  No one goes on vacation to do math problems.

It amounted to what would be considered a modest win for a lot of gamblers, but the $1000 royal flush was a windfall for us.  The win would ensure that we’d be returning home ahead, or at least not behind.  The fact that our win occurred within the first hour of our trip only added to the euphoria.  It was the exact moment Las Vegas caught me.

The rest of the evening was a blur.  I remember celebratory tequila shots with the bartender and some late night food that would call my lower intestine home for the next several days – “Vegas gut” as it is known by those who have experienced it.

The next morning I was up at an unnatural hour.  The casino was dead except for a few revellers from the night before who had yet to return to their rooms.  I walked down to the Golden Nugget, ordered a coffee and drank it on the outdoor patio.  As my blood sugar returned to normal and my hands stopped shaking, the cleanup crew assembled in the center of the pedestrian walkway.  One by one the men were dispatched to collect the debris from the previous evening.  Beer cans, beaded necklaces, oversized drink containers shaped like footballs, and cigarette butts, thousands of cigarette butts, were all swept away into giant bins.  A short time later a street sweeper came by and scrubbed the remaining grime from the pavement.  The experience of Fremont Street in the early waking hours was a welcome respite to the otherwise frenetic nature of Las Vegas.

As I thumbed through a copy of USA Today I found on a nearby table, a man approached the small fence that separated the patio from the pedestrian zone.

“Can you spare a couple bucks?  I need some money for bus fare,” he asked.

He caught me at a good moment.  I couldn’t, in good conscience at least, deny the man a few dollars after the good fortune I had the night before.  I handed the man a five and he shuffled off in the direction of the bus station.  I doubt he made it onto a Greyhound that day.

In the years since that first royal flush I am sure I have given back all of my winnings plus a substantial amount of interest in the quest for a second.  Downtown has seen a recent era of investment and resurgence but the core group of miscreants and social outcasts still call Fremont Street home thankfully.

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