Bye Bye Las Vegas

The last day… so depressing.

Helaine had arranged for a 6:00 PM check out. We knew we had to return our car by 9:00 PM. We spent the vast majority of the day close to home at Mirage.

Helaine had awful luck at blackjack. I was doing better at poker, up another $200+.

By mid-afternoon she was looking for something to do and I invited her to play Hold’em at the same table I was at.

Bad move.

Listen, I love having my wife there, but we both started getting awful cards… fractions… suits that were green. In Hold’em, 2-7 off suit is the worst hand you can get. I had more 2-7’s than I can believe. Helaine too.

And we started losing.

I think, between the two of us, we gave back around $150 before finally getting up and walking away.

Whenever Helaine and I fly somewhere, we always comment on how happy the people look arriving, and how sad the departees are. No different here. And, we would have all day to think about it.

Because of the time difference, you don’t have many choices when flying west-to-east. You can leave midday, and waste the whole day, or leave late at night and try to sleep on the plane (good luck).

Since we had first class tickets, with room to relax, we thought the redeye would be acceptable, even with a nearly 2 hour layover in the formerly crowded Pittsburgh International Airport (USAir, in financial trouble, has cut traffic back heavily to its Pittsburgh hub, favoring Charlotte instead for most East Coast north-south trips).

Returning the car at Dollar was no problem. For some reason the area where you drop the car, and where the shuttle bus arrives are separated, and that meant bag carrying.

The airport itself was quiet. Helaine, once again, went without a shoe inspection (something that had become a family joke and Helaine tradition). The federal agent did notice I had a small set of diagonal wire cutters in my carry-on. I had brought them to cut the cable ties I used to ‘secure’ our luggage against baggage handlers posing as thieves.

The official rules say these wire cutters should be OK because they had blunt ends, but that wasn’t the interpretation at the airport. I’m not exactly the threatening type, but no matter. These cutters, called dykes by electricians, are now part of some huge federal stash.

The flight was uneventful. Sleeping was the order of the day. They didn’t even lower the TV screen in the First Class cabin.

We made Pittsburgh on-time, Hartford too.

While Helaine got the bags, I took the shuttle and picked up the car. By the time I got back to the terminal, Helaine was at the curb waiting.

And there you have it. Every year, in July… when it’s really hot. Every year, same hotel, Mirage. Every year, it’s a ball. And I’m looking forward to going again ASAP.

Saturday… time’s running out.

First things first. This was another really good day at the poker tables. Somewhere north of $250 won playing $6-12 Hold’em. I am definitely getting better… and the cards are running my way.

OK – now to the real events of the day.

Earlier, we had played in the ‘No risk slot tournament’ at Aladdin. It’s actually pretty cool. You play in the tournament… and lose and then you get $10 in free slot play and a $20 comp for food. So, for $30 you get the chance to win and you get your money back.

And, Aladdin’s not stupid, because the food brought us back.

I have always been a huge fan of the buffets at Mirage and Bellagio (Bellagio with cracked King Crab legs). However, I could easily be won over by Aladdin. This is also an excellent buffet with pretty much everything you’d want. The quality seems excellent. There are a half dozen (or more) separate stations with individual specialties.

One thing I don’t like about Aladdin (and Bellagio and a few others) is where you retrieve your car from valet parking. It is under cover and stiflingly hot!

Helaine wanted to try and get some beads and maybe a Chippendale’s shirt for Steffie, so we headed to the Rio. Here’s another hotel I can take or leave. We tried their buffet years ago and I found it very un-special. There’s no poker for me, and the casino is ho-hum. But, they do have the Masquerade in the Sky.

The show this year was different from what we had seen in the past… but they’re all pretty similar. I was somewhat surprised at the number of beads thrown, which I remember as being more in years past.

All week I had been asking Helaine to go downtown. Downtown is where Vegas used to be, before the Strip cam into being. It has been a difficult journey for the hotels there. They’re older, more cramped, without good parking. Many of the older ones like Binions have very low ceilings and, when last I entered, were quite smoky.

We pulled into the valet stand at the Golden Nugget. Valet was full, but I said I was staying at Mirage (same owner) and after looking at my key, they let me in. It is very convenient to park at the GN valet. You’re less than a block from Fremont Street.

Before the hourly Fremont Street Experience started, Helaine took me to the Golden Gate Hotel. This is a Las Vegas tradition… actually more like a legend. You can go to the Golden Gate and get 99 cent shrimp cocktails!

They were very good. The sauce is strong and tangy. The tiny shrimp are more texture than taste. But, it’s amazing that it’s still 99 cents.

The Fremont Street experience, with thousands (maybe millions) of lights projected above your head and set to music, was very good. Fremont Street itself is a little bit like New Years Eve in Times Square or Mardis Gras in the French Quarter. And, there are every type of person you would and wouldn’t want to meet.

It’s a shame we’ll have to leave tomorrow. Helaine is starting to get melancholy. It will be nice to get back to Steffie and my folks, but this has been a really great vacation, and as always, we’ve done a lot.

Friday, and my luck changes

All week long I had played poker and lost. It was getting a little distressing. After all, I had told everyone who would listen that poker was a game of skill, and though I didn’t have the skill of the locals, I wasn’t bad. There would be enough money more ‘stupid’ than mine for me to win.

I was going to keep a detailed running tab. But after getting to Friday, down as I was between $500 and 600, I gave up. Of course Friday was the day I started winning. Not much a first, but I had gotten back around $100 by the end of the day.

Meanwhile, Friday started with breakfast at the Paris buffet. It’s excellent. The buffet dining room is made to resemeble a small French town. There are omlet and crepe stations. Everything is fattening.

Though we’ve eaten at Paris a bunch of times over the past few years, I don’t believe I’d played dollar one. It’s a nice looking casino and certanily a striking hotel with the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, outdoor cafes and beautiful fountains. And, unlike the ‘real’ French I never felt I was being treated with hostility. I’m not sure why I hadn’t played, I just hadn’t.

So, Helaine and I sat down and played blackjack and I won $100. But I was as bored at blackjack as she claims to be at poker. We left.

I spent the rest of the afternoon playing poker at Mirage, making back the money I wrote about earlier. The Mirage poker room is large by anything but Connecticut standards. In the lower area there are normally $1-5 and $5-10 Stud and $3-6 and $6-12 Hold’em games. I played mostly $6-12 on this trip.

Upstairs are higher limit games like $10-20 and $20-40. I’m not sure how someone gets into a game like that, but there’s too much money won and (more importantly) lost to allow me to play. If you have to think about the money when you make a bet, you shouldn’t be there. It will affect your game.

For dinner we went to the Mirage buffet. This has been a staple of ours since we’ve been going to Las Vegas. Helaine had read that the buffet had deteriorated over the past year. Still, it was Friday, the night they serve fried shrimp. Everything seemed as we remembered with no degradation. However, Helaine took one bite of the shrimp and realized there was cocoanut in the breading (as a child she had swelled up after eating coconut and has avoided it ever since).

She had been looking forward to the shrimp, so this was a major disappointment.

The evening’s entertainment was across the street at Harrahs at the Improv. Three comedians. Pretty good, not great. Unlike Carrot Top and Rita Rudner, this was not close to being sold out. Of course, the economics of a comedy club with three young (aka – cheap) comdeians means you can get away with this sort of thing… even on Friday nght.

On the way to and from Harrahs we got a look at Casino Royale. Here’s a place that’s an anachronism on the 21st century Las Vegas Strip. The lights are beautiful, but inside it’s an old, small, low ceilinged casino. Considering the competition nearby, it’s probably a faciility that makes too much money to sell or close, but not enough to improve or expand.


I have had such a tough time staying connected from The Mirage that I’m holding off and will post a synopsis when I return to Connecticut on Tuesday.

Still poker obsessed on Thursday

Thursday, I managed to get up early and head to Luxor for their low stakes poker tournament. It’s a noon tourney, but I got there early because it does fill up. Four tables of nine limits it to 36 players. I believe the buy-in was $25… and I won $37, netting me $12.

As poker tournaments go, this one has players of limited skill. There were a bunch of players who needed instruction on what to do next.

Meanwhile, before playing, I had enough time to take the tram from Luxor to Mandalay Bay. There was plenty of sunshine and hot temperatures. Sunshine is good for picture taking, so I shot off some more photos before heading to play.

Some casino hotels have beautiful design. Everything seems to be properly placed. I like Mirage for that reason. On the other hand, when I was in The Aladin, there were casino areas that seemed to be afterthoughts at best. Excalibur looks good from the outside, but like a dump from the inside (as if they decided ‘no maintenance’ after it was built). Luxor is another properly designed hotel. And, the theme nature is really reinforced with the Egyptian ‘artifacts’ that frame the public areas.

This was going to be our walking day. so, as the temperature climbed to the mid-teens, we walked the Strip. You know what? As much as I enjoy the heat in Las Vegas, you can find days that are incredibly stressful. Yes, carrying a bottle of water helps, but 110+ (and in the sun it’s even hotter) is everything you’d expect it to be and should be respected.

Thursday evening, we went to see Rita Rudner. She’s now the house act at NY, NY. I had seen her in an astoundingly small, and hazardously overcrowded room at The MGM Grand a few years ago. Helaine had seen her more recently, when she and steffie went to Las Vegas. She is very funny and works clean!

She says, now that she and her husband have adopted a baby, working in Las Vegas allows her to have a ‘normal’ family life without all the traveling. A few years ago I heard Danny Gans say the same thing.

Finishing the night

Went back downstairs and played some poker. Didn’t do well.

Helaine played blackjack. She did very well.

While I was visiting Helaine’s table the talk turned to food available in the high stakes Baccarat room, which we weren’t in. I guess it’s quite the feast. And, we also talked about the hookers around the bar which is in the core of the casino. I went and looked. You know what, they’re there… or there are a lot of single female guests dressed like hookers.

Went to bed around 3:00 am

Our night with Carrot Top

A few months ago, while we were still in Connecticut, Helaine ordered our tickets to see Carrot Top. With the alignment of the MGM, Mirage, Treasure Island, etc., it’s now easier to physically get show tickets without leaving your hotel. So, we got our tickets for tonight’s show yesterday.

This is unusual but Helaine was willing to pose for pictures… twice.

Helaine had also received a pretty good invitation from MGM Grand. Come and stay, get $75 in chips and $75 in food credit. But, the trick was, you had to stay. Tonight, she convinced the person in charge of the chips that staying at Mirage was good enough. The food folks didn’t agree. Still, we were at MGM with $75 in chips… and I quickly turned that into $100 in cash.

Dinner was at their coffee shop. Very nice. Helaine had a grilled ham and cheese. I had a cheeseburger. $23 for the two of us, plus $5 for Ignacio.

The MGM is immense, and to me, a little confusing and impersonal. I’m sure it gets a little more understandable if you stay there. And, it being MGM, there are lions.

Helaine wanted to see what had happened to the theater that had housed Rick Springfield in EFX. The entrance is now hidden by one of the false walls they use to hide empty stores at the mall. The EFX slot machines are still there. I wonder if anyone has realized?

Driving around MGM, it has always seemed to me that this complex was designed by people who did architecture at studios. It has that kind of feel. A bit inappropriate and sterile. And, there are speed bumps everywhere. I hate speed bumps.

Carrot Top was great. He is very funny. Works almost entirely with props and sound cues. He has to be very precise and tight to really hit the sound properly and preserve his comedic timing. He carries it off well. Helaine said he appeared shirtless at the end of the act to show off his body, which he obviously works hard to get in shape. I know he looks like a skinny dweeb on TV, but he is really cut.

On the way back to Mirage, Helaine suggested I take a photo of the Harmon street sign, because Steffie has some sort of affection for Harmon. Fine. I’ve photographed everything else. Why not?

Finally, from the what are they thinking department… there just isn’t enough sub-$5 prime rib in the world to get me into the San Remo. Honest.

Finally, a win

While Helaine went shopping at The Venetian (not as nice as Caesers she says), I sat and played poker. It was $6-12 Hold’em. A fun, nice table. Nice people. And, I won $41.

We played a few slot machines earlier. Everything is based on a pre-existing concept. A TV show, a movie, a star. They’re all similar but different.

It should be noted, considering the slot machines now in use in casinos, it’s nerds, geeks and code smiths who are changing the way Las Vegas runs. Everything’s as much a video game or video presentation as a slot machine.

Red Rock Canyon – It’s Tuesday

Considering this is Las Vegas, we got up early… before 9:00 am. Helaine had read about Red Rock Canyon and, since it would get close to 110f today, we figured that was an early outdoor trip (being that we’d leave Las Vegas and head to where it was a little warmer, with no shade).

There’s a coffee stand downstairs at The Mirage, and while I took a shower, Helaine got me coffee and a muffin large enough to have been baked at a nuclear storage facility… and the NY Times. It’s a shame about the reporter there who scammed the paper recently. In spite of that, access to the NY Times is a very good start to my day. It is the paper of record.

We went down to valet parking to get our vehicle, a small SUV. Helaine already had directions to go but she wanted me to double check with the valet, and he said we weren’t going the best way. He was wrong, but we followed his directions (and came home the right way). It should be noted, since we’re not on a schedule, and we like looking around, going out of our way is fine.

Driving down Las Vegas Blvd to Charleston allowed me to see “the cloud” going up in front of The Fashion Show Mall. Very, very weird to say the least.

It’s difficult to explain Red Rock Canyon except it’s a bit under 20 miles from the city, desolate and beautiful. From some of my classes at MSU I should have a better understanding of how it got to be the way it is. I’m pondering that.

You pass through all sorts of civilization and then… nothing. You’re in the desert. A few signs and you’re on BLM land. Past a cattle grate (an area of the road set up to prevent animals from getting out) and you’re ready to turn off onto the scenic loop.

It’s a one way road, through the canyon. It looks like it used to be two way and since it’s narrow and winds, I can imagine the accidents they must have had.

On the way back we stopped at The Palms. In a masterstroke of marketing, this off-Strip hotel allowed itself to be used as the setting for MTV’s Real World. The rest, as they say, is history. It is considered hip and cool. The daytime crowd was not young by any means. We stopped to get a little something (which I can’t mention here) for Steffie. I played slots and lost a few bucks.

Back to Mirage and while Helaine played, I tried to do tech support for my friend Farrell, who has just installed a cable modem. No go, yet.

Tonight, we see Carrott Top. If you’ve only seen his 1-800-DialATT commercials, you don’t know what he’s about.

Las Vegas Weather

Almost forgot that this link gets you current Las Vegas weather conditions. It’s midnight and we’re at 92 degrees!

You can’t lose if you don’t play!

Today’s poker tournament at The Mirage paid $3,009! I know that because I heard it over the PA system. I was long gone very early.

First, let’s go back to the afternoon. I spent a decent part of the afternoon taking and looking at photos, reading my book and napping. Napping is a good thing. I am a proficient napper and can easily recharge with 15 minutes or a half hour. I know I’m lucky in that regard.

We took an early dinner and went to California Pizza Kitchen. CPK is in a very interesting location, right in the middle of the casino with the Sports Book on one side and slot machines all around. Between the TV’s at CPK and those in the Sports Book there were at least a half dozen ways to watch the “wheels come of the wagon” as the Phillies got shelled by the Expos.

Helaine had a pasta dish and I had Jamaican Jerk Chicken Pizza. Very good. Very spicy. Desert wasn’t bad either. A chocolate souffle for me and Key Lime Pie for Helaine (her favorite).

While we were waiting for the meal to come, I walked over to the Poker Room and registered (paid) to enter the Hold’em poker tournament, scheduled for 7:00 pm. It cost $60 to enter with a $40 re-buy and $40 add in. You spend $140, of which $120 goes to the prize pool. With 72 players 9 would come home with cash.

I drew table 1 seat 9, on the edge (my least favorite spot). The dealer gave everyone $500 in no value tourney chips. It looked like 6 of the 10 at my table were locals. They live off fish like me coming in for a week or two and playing like tourists. I know that going in. I’m good, but not as good as they are. But, I am also good enough to feed off some of the other fish.

Poker is a game of luck and skill. Over the short term, luck is power. Over the long term, skill wins out. This is not like playing slots or blackjack. You can’t play stupid and win over the long term. But, I’d rather be lucky than skillful

A tounament is a short term event and luck plays a large factor early on. I went over an hour before I won a hand, and then it was only $15… the minimum possible. I had 2-7 off suit (the poorest hand you can get) more than once. When I saw an ace, it was accompanied by a 6 or 7 of a different color.

I was the third tapped out at my table. Very, very early.

I didn’t play poorly. I just didn’t play. I slowly bled to death, killed by blinds or hands I limped in on.

Helaine and I decided to take a walk toward Bellagio. Even after 9:00 pm it’s hot (100+ degrees), but it’s comfortably hot. The only time it gets to you is when you’re close to the street and feel the heat from the stopped cars.

Monday in Las Vegas. No clouds. No humidity.

Helaine was up early for Vegas, late for her. She took a shower and got dressed first. I am much less driven and much more leisurely.

She headed down to play “I Dream of Jeannie” slots while I dressed. It is a nickle slot machine in much the same way that you can fill your gas tank for $1.59.

Here’s what I found out about my Cingular Preferred Nation plan (and what I had already known). Niether the caller ID nor the voicemail indicator work in Las Vegas. What I already knew was, when Cingular is using AT&T’s towers, as they do for my TDMA type service here in Las Vegas, the phone incorrectly reads Cingular Extened which should mean $.79/min, but doesn’t).

The fact that they continue to advertise this plan but can’t in reality supply what they promise, and what their brochures tell you to look for, is wrong. This is not a recent occurence. I’ve had this plan the better part of a year, and it just doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do.

We had some weird problems with our room safe. We locked it, checked it, and came back to find it open! I think something we had in there was getting in the way of the bolt. Who know. It seems OK now.

There are probably more photos taken on the walkway between The Mirage lobby and casino than any other 100 foot strip of land in the world. It’s because of views like this.

Helaine went to get a Player’s Club card for me and mistakenly left her credit card. By the time it was discovered, Mirage had sent it to “Security” for safe keeping. When Helaine went to retireve it, she got a ‘tour’ of the security area, including watching what looked like the duplicating of “wanted” posters.

We had breakfast at The Caribe Cafe. Very nice, as always. Helaine had gotten a week long line pass and we went right in. It looked like the regular line was 20 minutes or so. Pancakes and coffe for me, eggs for her. This is a Vegas coffee shop, which like a Jersey diner is a well defined and normally dependably good thing.

After breakfast, while Helaine retrieved her credit card, I went to double check the room safe. We met outside, next to the tigers. Then as Helaine went to The Forum Shops (yes Steffie, you already have something coming home) I sat and played poker.

Last night is was a $3/6 table. Today I tried $6/12. Mostly I was satisfied with my play but lost two big and difficult hands, ending up losing around $90. At a table of ten, I would suppose 5 were locals, playing to kill time or make a living.

Playing for a few hours, or more, and the difference between winning and losing is often just one hand. Poker players remember their lost hands… their bad beats… much more than their big wins.

Later tonight I plan on entering The Mirage Hold’em Poker Tournament. Last night the big winner walked away with $6,000+

Getting to Las Vegas

OK. A little breathing room and time to write. Considering this is a luxury hotel in the year 2003, I am astounded The Mirage (nor almost any other hotel in Las Vegas) doesn’t have high speed Internet access. I understand the reasoning, but can’t understand how no one has tried to gain this competitive advantage. As soon as one hotel gets high speed access, it will open a flood gate. So, I’m composing this off line and then will upload it. It’s not a big deal.

I can’t remember how many years we’ve been taking a summer vacation in Las Vegas. It’s more than 5 less than 10. We have stayed at The Mirage almost exclusively (early on we had stayed at Harrahs, last year a few days at Bellagio). The hot temperatures, averaging around 110F aren’t too bad. We do most of our real walking at night.

We’ve been saving USAirways miles to do this, charging everything from groceries to Steffie’s tuition! We had enough miles to fly First Class. This will probably be the last time because we’ve switched our credit card allegiance to Southwest, which has no first class, but gives trips with with less restrictions and lower mileage requirements.

The flights were fine. Helaine got us to the airport a few hours early and there was no hassle at security. She didn’t even have to remove her shoes (a recent history first).

Our first flight was Hartford to Philadelphia. As the plane approached the highest deck of clouds, there was a layer of haze. Probably an upper inversion there trapping some pollutants. Other than that, the sky was very nice and it was hot without haze at ground level.

The flight attendant announced our gate and the gates for continuing flights and we were literally across the hall. Of course we didn’t land at the gate that had been announced. We weren’t even on the same concourse! It was a schlep.

The flight to Las Vegas, on a 757, boarded on-time but left a half hour late. Lots of runway congestion and thunderstorms in the area. The back of the plane was full, First Class was nearly empty. That’s unusual in this day and age.

We briefly met a Connecticut couple, Darren and Michele, who were on their way to Vegas to get married (Bellagio, at the “Julia Roberts” stairs, reception in the Penthouse, 33 guests). We asked Gillian, the flight attendant (whose husband was the captain on the flight… how weird), if they were moving people up to first, would they move the pre-newlyweds? She said that had already been aranged, and a few minutes later they walked up.

We got to Las Vegas a bit after sunset. I had always wanted to fly in after dark and we sat on the right side of the plane hoping for a view. The hotels were there, but it wasn’t what I had pictured the view would be. Disappointment.

Bags came quickly on Carousel 13 and we were off to Dollar Car Rental. I have their Fast Pass, which costs nothing and really speeds up rentals, even if you only do it once or twice a year. Unfortunately, the price on the contract was not the price Helaine had printed from the confirmation. This happens every time and it’s never in our favor. It’s dificult to believe this is just bad luck. Though the rep wanted us to walk in and fix it, I figured it would happen quicker if we sat in the car blocking everyone else from getting out… and I was right. It was solved in 2-3 minutes.

As I mentioned earlier, we drove down Las Vegas Boulevard through pretty stiff traffic. But, how can you come to Las Vegas and not make that trip. Helaine said MGM looked bare without the Rick Springfield/EFX sign. She is a major Springfield fan. Maybe major doesn’t really capture her fervor.

There’s contruction going on at Caesers and it spoils the view as you approach The Mirage. It certainly isn’t very pretty as you walk by Caesers. I amamazed there is still room in front of the hotel to build. It boggles the mind to think how far set back this hotel originally was, back when I first came in 1975.

Traffic was bad enough that we saw two cops stop a car… and the cops were riding bikes!

Helaine had been comped to our week here, so she went to reception and the nice young (pretty) woman behind he counter said she had upgraded the room. We were on a floor without a number, just a letter, “B.” Truth is, it’s a very nice, though regular room. By naming a few floors by letter instead of number they have been given a special cache. They seem more special. But, they’re just like ther rooms below (which again, is very nice).

Our view is directly across the strip toward Harrahs, The Venetian and the new Steve Wynn hotel. We can see the volcano. Helaine watched a plane fly ‘through’ The Venetian.

I went downstairs to play poker.

I have been practicing using a computer program. Unlike the other games, poker pits you against others, and so you hope there are enough drugged out, drunk, out-of-towners, who think this is like the game they used to play in college. I played a fwe hours and lost three bucks. OK, I tipped the waitress and the dealer, so my gross was positive, but it was a net loss in my pocket.

I’m feeling more confident as a player. Poker is a game is restraint and reserve. These are not my strongest points. But, I’m practicing and trying hard.

Helaine played blackjack. She was with a nice Asian woman and a somewhat obnoxious man. He was bleeding money and playing stupid. Helaine thinks what other players do affect her… but she’s wrong. Mathematically each new card is just another random chance. But, I can’t convince her of that, hard as I try.

By 4:00 AM EDT (1:00 AM PDT) I was bushed and we went to bed.

By the way – – – I started “Live From New York” on the plane. It’s a really well done compilation of interviews with people involved with Saturday Night Live. Fascinating. A really compelling read and tough to put down. It might be over before the trip home begins.

Las Vegas – the journey

Just got in, so this will be brief (more details later). Flights were fine. Got into LAS about 20 minutes late and there was another plane using our gate (bastards). Dollar Car Rental screwed up our reservation… wrong price. Unbelievable how these random errors are NEVER in my favor. Got it fixed and drove through awful traffic to the Mirage. Could have taken Koval but we wanted to take in the Strip.

I love this place.