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My (Almost) Free Trip To Vegas

August 27, 2003

"This is what I wanted: to be in a drunken, sleepy haze."
-Gary Graham, at a Roulette table in Bally's Casino, in the early morning hours of August 22, 2003

"There are a lot of holes in the desert, and a lot of problems are buried in those holes."
-Nicky Santoro in Casino

Las Vegas is a city wrapped in mystique, a desert oasis that thrives on the gambling dollar and brings in tourists from around the world on a daily basis. Twenty-something blondes from L.A. share the same elevators with elderly chain smokers ready to cast another portion of their life's savings away into the abyss of the slot machines. It's a place that doesn't even need a full name: Vegas. There's no other spot like it in the world.

My adventure to that magic city began early on Thursday morning. 4:45 a.m. EDT, to be precise. In Las Vegas, the late-night partiers were hitting their full stride. I, however, was preparing for a journey out west.

Accompanying me to Las Vegas were my friends Gary Graham and Rod Vivallo. Gary I've known for years, since we by chance began corresponding via the Wrestling Observer newsletter nearly one decade ago. I met Rod through Gary, as the two of them work together in Orlando.

The flight out west was a breeze. Aided by Dramamine and Xanax, the 4 1/2 hour flight passed quickly. And then there we were -- Las Vegas.

Waiting outside for the shuttle bus, I noticed how unmercifully hot it felt. Yes, I knew going into it that it was August in the desert, but I'd been told that it was a "dry heat". That may be the case, but it felt no less intense than most other hot conditions I've faced. Remember, I live in Tampa. But Vegas was a whole different level of hot. You know how it feels when you open an oven and the hot air inside starts to pour out around you? That's Vegas, only that heat surrounds you at all times outside. Even late at night, with the sun down and the night sky above, there was a searing heat that proved to be most uncomfortable.

Luckily, there's air conditioning. And the casino owners keep their gambling halls comfortably cold. With good reason, I might add.

Lance Burton and Bob Odenkirk
Lance Burton (left) looked like a spoof character being played by Mr. Show's Bob Odenkirk (right).

The ride to the hotel gave me a chance to see some of the Las Vegas billboards. You know how, in most places, billboards advertise everything from newspapers to orange juice. But in Vegas, the billboards (especially from the airport) are almost entirely bought by hotels and promoters working to get the word out about their shows. Huge signs promoted David Copperfield, the Blue Man Group, Rita Rudner and all of the other performances being offered in Vegas. The ads for magician Lance Burton made me laugh, as it appeared to me that Burton looked very similar to Mr. Show's Bob Odenkirk. In a way, it almost appeared like it was a Mr. Show style spoof. But, sadly, it wasn't. In particular I noticed the jovial excitement of a 2-year-old responding to the video ads at the baggage pickup area. There were disturbingly too many ads for male stripper type shows -- in a related note, I think this news will be enough to get Chris Combs to book an immediate trip out there (ha ha Chris).

Checking into the MGM Grand proved quite easy. They were kind enough to allow us up to our room early (10 a.m.), and the clerk even waived the extra charge on that because Gary was "in the business." And while Gary lined up things with his credit card, I took in even more of the advertising blitz, as huge monitors behind the main counter promoted everything from La Femme to Toby Keith. Vegas is an absolute must-visit for people who enjoy looking at first-rate advertising campaigns.

Roulette sucks you in... and then takes your money again and again.

Once we were settled, it was time to hit the casino. And, for me, that meant a visit with my old friend Roulette. I capitalize it because I think Roulette may actually be a supernatural force. It's such a fun game, yet at the same time it's so very cruel. Roulette has made me its bitch almost every time I've played it, yet I keep coming back for more. It's a simple game to play -- pick a number, or a color, or a row of numbers, and then watch the ball bounce around and fall into place in a slot on the wheel.

It sounds simple, right? Oh, but Roulette is cruel. You might think that after five reds in a row it would surely land on black, but in reality there's the same probability on every spin of the big wheel.

For Gary and Rod, their experience with Roulette was limited, but they quickly caught on... and found themselves called by Roulette's siren song. When you hit on a 2-to-1, that's some sweet action. Those chips can stack up in a hurry.

But, just as quickly, those chips can disappear. Keep in mind that the house makes its money off of 0 and 00. If by some miracle you can find a European-style Roulette table with only a single 0, then stick with that. I saw my first-ever table with a single 0 in Vegas, in the lobby area of the Stratosphere. But, it's the only single 0 table I found in all of Vegas. Reason: with 00, the house makes more, usually twice as much (since every 0 or 00 creates a loss on all non 0 or 00 bets).

Roulette took me for about $80 on that first day. But what helped to make up for that sting was the constant supply of free drinks. This is a unique Las Vegas treat, where the casinos give you freebie drinks to keep you gambling. And you can pick anything. Red Bull and Jägermeister, Heineken bottles, Crown-and-Coke, whatever. It's expected that you give the waitress a tip (usually $1), but the drink is on the house. That, incidentally, never gets old.

Also, I discovered that the MGM Grand has video blackjack. I like that, because you can play for 25 cents a hand (as opposed to the typical $5 a hand with the real-life version). Plus it's helpful in showing when you should double down (on a 10 or 11 combined first two cards, depending on what the dealer has showing) and the chance to split (always split 8s and Aces). The only downside to the video blackjack is that those machines are located close to a bar, which in turn lead to them not being particularly well staffed by the waitresses.

In one maddening sequence, I ordered a Diet Coke-and-Crown, only to wait 20 minutes... and then have the incompetent waitress give my drink to the Japanese woman at the end of the row (who took a sip and found out that her Coca-Cola was both sugar-free and unexpectedly laced with whisky). The waitress promised to come right out with another drink, but an additional 10 minute wait passed with no such action. Arrrgh.

New York, New York hotel
New York, New York sports an impressive skyscraper exterior.

We spent some of Thursday afternoon checking out the various casinos in walking distance from the MGM Grand. New York, New York has a spectacular exterior facade of the Big Apple, and the inside is likewise decorated well. We hit the Luxor, and we took in the medieval theme of Excalibur. Every place had its own special design and layout, though all possessed a common link with the endless rows of one-armed bandits and video poker machines and blackjack tables.

One interesting aspect of Vegas is the volume of buffets available. We sampled one during our time there, and the selection and quality was outstanding. Which, for $10, it had better be. Ironically, we never ate at the MGM Grand Buffet, in part due to the steep prices but also because of the ridiculously long lines that were usually amassed there.

On Thursday evening, Gary, Rod and I watched the Steelers beat the Cowboys (but not cover the spread, which cost me $20). From there we checked out an episode of the Jamie Kennedy Experiment. Scott Massey had told me about that show before, but I hadn't checked it out until then. The skits and pranks were hilarious, and what made it all the better was that it was a show shot in Las Vegas! The "Indecent Proposal" double-swerve sketches were a trip. "I'll give you a six pack of Heineken for one night with me." To see it executed, with Kennedy staying in character without laughing, was incredibly funny.

On Thursday night Gary, Rod and I hopped in a cab to check out some of the other casinos. Every hotel is different, with a unique twist or gimmick worth checking out. Hotel individuality is more pronounced in Vegas than in any other place I've ever seen.

If you've never been to Vegas, you've probably at least seen some pictures or video of "The Strip", a row of hotels and casinos with bigger-than-life images and huge signs that light up the night sky. Video is one thing, but when you see it in person it really takes your breath away. It's a tremendous sight to behold.

Paris... in Las Vegas
The Paris casino looks very impressive at night (and notice the Bellagio looming in the distance).

By night, the Paris casino is exceptionally impressive. The mock Eiffel Tower actually cuts into the casino, surrounded on the inside by a faux ceiling that makes it appear to be a daytime sky. Even at 12:30 AM. Though, it's important to note that time does not exist in Vegas. As the movie Swingers notes, there are no clocks in Las Vegas. If you go to Vegas, bring some sort of watch or time keeping device (unless that's the sort of thing you want a vacation from).

We briefly visited the Bellagio, which was the newest and most upscale casino that we saw in our time in Vegas. Unfortunately, with that upscale status came a little bit of snootiness. Rod asked a worker where the $5 Roulette tables were located, and she indignantly replied, "We don't have five dollar tables here." Well excuuuuuse me. I'll always enjoy the fact that I beat the Bellagio for $10 on a slot machine. It was one of the few casinos that I walked out of in Vegas on the upside of the ledger.

It's worth noting that on the cab ride to the Bellagio, we pulled next to a party limo filled with drunk British chicks. We both rolled down our windows and began spitting game back and forth (remember, I've been down this road before with British women). They appeared to be absolutely hammered. But then, to my amazement, our cab driver began spouting off some lines of his own, asking the girls to show off their goods (using much more crude language than that). When they didn't comply, he started cussing at them. As Rod and I said to one another at many points during the trip: Vegas. 'Nuff said.

Bally's Casino (not to be confused with the Bally's fitness center chain) had the first penny slots that I'd ever seen in person. The motorized walkway that takes you in goes through a series of lit circular lights, much like the mid-90s WWF Wrestling Challenge entrance area. Once inside, we managed to find a waitress to get us drinks (once I assured her that I was there to gamble -- albeit on the nickel "Texas Tea" slot game). I actually did well on Texas Tea, which was a real rarity for me in the video slot attempts that I tried.

On Friday, I woke up with my back teeth hurting. I think I might have gingivitis. It hurt like a bitch trying to eat the BBQ flatbread pizza that I ordered for lunch. Bad times on that.

Gary pushed for us to go check out the Stratosphere, which at 1149 ft. is the tallest observation tower in the United States. I've already mentioned the single zero Roulette table in the downstairs area. For $8 each, Gary, Rod and I rode up the elevator to the top, which is equipped with a sky-high roller coaster (which actually appears to be extremely tame, but the thrill of the ride is the ability to ride around so high in the air). The view from up there is amazing. Spectacular. You can see the strip and the surrounding area, with the hotels and casinos looking majestic even from so high in the air. UNLV is in sight, as is the mostly residential area surrounding the main casino run. Extended into the distance are miles and miles of desert. And finally, far in the background are the mountains of the Sierra Nevada range. It's quite a sight. I'm glad that Gary encouraged us to check it out.

The Las Vegas Stratosphere
The Stratosphere provides a sky-high view of Las Vegas.

There was a bit of a scare for us as we overlooked the city from the observation deck. A commercial airplane flew over, looking much closer to us than we would've liked. After what happened on September 11, 2001, that sort of thing will never look or feel the same again. And talk about trapped -- had that plane hit, our odds of survival would've been about zero. But luckily the plane passed comfortably overhead, probably looking much closer than it was in reality. The moment of concern passed, and we went back to taking in the landscape of Las Vegas.

We checked out some of the casino/hotels in the area, including Circus Circus and Stardust. It's impressive to see the live performers putting on a free circus show at Circus Circus -- Vegas is all about theming, and Circus Circus plays its carnival theme to a tee.

On Friday I mentioned to Rod an idea I had that was a bit outlandish, but nonetheless enticing. I'd discovered that the Tennessee Titans were favored by only 1½ points over the Cincinnati Bengals in that Saturday's pre-season game between the two teams. Even with it being pre-season, I was shocked. The Titans had looked very impressive in beating the Buffalo Bills on ESPN the past weekend, and meanwhile Cincy's QB core consisted of Jon Kitna, Shane Matthews, and Carson Palmer. Palmer will likely have a strong career, but he's a rookie. And the way I saw it, I'd take Steve McNair and Neil O'Donnell over Kitna and Matthews any day of the week. And even with the Bengals having new fire under head coach Marvin Lewis, change takes time. I told Rod that I was contemplating betting $500 on the Titans.

Now, I'm not one to advise high stakes gambling. The house always wins in the long run. But on this one, I felt pretty good. But I also recognized that I was rather alcohol-fueled at that point, and decided to put off making any wagers until the morning. There's no law against drunk gambling, but it's certainly not the most sensible thing to do when major money is on the line.

Blue Man Group
You never know who you'll run into in Las Vegas.

One unique thing about Vegas is the random celebrity factor. We didn't run into the Blue Man Group, but we did see a disheveled-looking David Copperfield (who was performing at our hotel) and NBA veteran Byron Russell while we were there. I heard from my friend Josh Tenisci about a run-in he and his friends had with the singer Pink at a blackjack table (where she was less than friendly, from what Josh told me).

Friday night was party time. We planned ahead and were in line for Studio 54 at about 10 PM. The popular club is located at the MGM Grand, so we were in-house for the fun. Despite our early arrival, we had to wait in line for about 15 minutes to get inside. The old nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd mentality.

The cover was $20 for guys (and free for girls) -- Vegas prices. And at $6.50 a Heineken, the beer was expensive. But no matter. Inside, Studio 54 has a great layout. It's a two-story club, with an expansive dance floor and a great bird's eye view from up top. Gary, Rod and I quickly split up to do a little divide-and-conquer action.

There were a bevy of bachelorette parties being held there, much like you'd see in Tampa's Ybor City. One thing that's always struck me as ridiculous with bachelorette parties is the sexually overt nature of what women come up with. I saw a girl with a veil that had eight plastic penises glued to it, and she was drinking out of a penis-shaped beverage container. You'd never see men dress up with a crown of vaginas -- yet we're the gender labeled as being more offensive. Go figure.

I ended up talking with one of the bachelorette party girls and helping her fill out one of the things on her "checklist" shirt. She had me sign it, which was kind of funny, but whatever.

Two women in particular stood out that night. One was Lisa, who was in from Macon, Georgia to go to a wedding (surprise surprise, yet another bachelorette party). The other was Stacia from Wisconsin, a gorgeous blonde who I struck up a conversation with. I found myself holding hands with her right away, and I thought, hey, this has potential. Felt like the tide was going my way... until she mentioned that she was waiting for her boyfriend to come back from the bathroom. Bummer. She tried to get me to go in there to look for him, but I steadfastly refused. How much of a jabrone would I have looked like doing that? So that was it for Stacia.

At the end of the night, Gary, Rod and I went through the casino in the surreal, drunken early morning adventures that don't feel quite like early morning adventures anywhere else -- mainly because time doesn't exist in Vegas. Ended up blowing a couple of bucks on the electronic slot game called "She's A Rich Girl". That in turn lead to me speculating that the game was actually a rib on the casino patrons, whose money helped to make her a rich girl. Okay, so it sounds strange now, but at the time it seemed rather insightful.

Saturday morning rolled around, and while I avoided a hangover during the entire trip, I wasn't in any hurry to get up. Rod flipped the TV remote and ran across a gambling infomercial called "Mastering The Flow". It was so ridiculous that it was entertaining (including the young Bobby Knight look-alike with the salt-and-pepper mullet).

Dream Homes For Rent
This infomercial provided us with a number of laughs.

Once that ended, Rod found another informercial, this one called Dream Homes For Rent. The host was an older gentleman with an accent that I couldn't quite place, who was seated in front of a wood panel background that was anything but impressive. He incredibly opened the show by mentioning that his voice might go out during the program and that "my life has been a disaster for the last three weeks, but let's not dwell on that." Other memorable quotes included "this house is brand new... err, almost brand new" and "we had a problem tenant there." I've since discovered that you can watch the show online, if you feel so inclined. It's almost worth watching for the unintentional comedy factor.

Rod and I discussed the possibility of laying some major action down on the Titans. I was on the fence, but thanks to his prodding, I decided to go for it. I withdrew $500 and laid my wager down on Tennessee. Rod decided to one-up me, and he bet $600 on the Titans. We walked away from the sports book feeling suddenly uneasy and nervous.

Gary didn't help things in that regard. "Didn't one of the Titans get Bells Palsy?" he asked, not one minute after we let the book. Not exactly good vibes on that. We had lunch at the Studio Café, with Rod and I still feeling uneasy.

To kill time before the Titans game, we did what came naturally in Vegas -- yet more gambling. Roulette took me for a few more bucks, then I broke even on some video blackjack. Finally, feeling butterflies in my stomach and far too sober for the circumstances, I headed upstairs to shower and get ready.

As it turned out, I had packed a Tennessee Titans shirt that my parents had given me as a Christmas gift two years ago, so I wore that. Rod, Gary and I had hoped to watch the Titans game from the MGM Grand, but the book there didn't have the game on. So we headed over to the ESPN Zone.

ESPN Zone Las Vegas
Sports betting is welcomed and encouraged at the Las Vegas ESPN Zone.

I had wondered if the ESPN Zone would have gambling, or if ESPN might decide to hold itself to some silly higher standard against gambling, being affiliated with Disney and all. No worries there. The sports book inside was bustling, with the spreads and over/unders for the games all posted. And, more importantly, they had several NFL pre-season games on, including the Bengals/Titans tilt.

We snagged a spot upstairs that gave us a window-front view of the screen. Unfortunately we had no sound to go with it, which was exasperated by the fact that the Bengals TV network decided to put advertiser names in the spot where the down/yardage info should go. Consequently, it made it tough to follow the action at times.

Tennessee hit a pair of field goals to go up 6-0. All we needed was them to win by two or more. Two points. So we were cautiously happy.

Then Cincinnati struck. Jon Kitna found the end zone on a TD pass to Peter Warrick, and the Bengals lead 7-6. Bad times. Rod and I were suddenly both very quiet.

The Titans responded, driving down the field and scoring on a Steve McNair TD pass to Shad Meier right before halftime. Tennessee 13, Cincy 7 at the break.

Halftime was spent nervously speculating on what would happen as we ate our nachos and drank our beer. Gary had nothing to lose, but I'm sure that he could tell how edgy it was for Rod and me. Quite a bit was riding on the line, after all.

In the second half, Tennessee began to pull away. With less than eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Neil O'Donnell connected on a touchdown pass to Darrell Hill and it was 23-7 Tennessee. That lead Gary to start saying "It's over!", which earned him a sharp rebuke from me. Properly aided by two large mugs of Killian's Red, I literally was yelling at Gary to not say that and not jinx it. The guys sitting at the table behind us holding their fantasy football draft might've been questioning my sanity at that point. But no matter, I didn't want Gary to jinx it.

Too late. Cincinnati got the ball, and former Florida Gators and Chicago Bears QB Shane Matthews lead the Bengals down the field. He threw a TD pass to Lawrence Hamilton, and then tossed a 2-point conversion to Matt Schoebel (who are these guys?!?) to make it an eight point game. More than five minutes remained on the clock. My heart was in my stomach.

Tennessee received the subsequent kickoff, and Rod and I were watching every tick of the clock like a kid counting down the days until Christmas... only with the nervousness that doesn't accompany that Christmas anticipation.

Steve McNair
Steve McNair and the Tennessee Titans beat the Cincinnati Bengals... and the point spread.

The time ticked down... Third-string QB Jason Gesser held up his end of the bargain, going 2-for-2 and getting the first downs needed. The two minute warning rolled around, and the end game was on. The Titans took a knee on four straight downs, and that was the ballgame. Victory!!

Rod and I wasted no time in heading over to the MGM Grand sports book. While we didn't want to rub it in to Gary, who had nothing riding on the game, Rod and I were ecstatic. The smile on my face was as bright as you could imagine. That big bet paid for the bulk of the expense of my trip to Vegas.

We collected our winnings and prepared to go out and celebrate. My friend Katt had insisted that I go to at least one strip club while I was out there so I could tell her about it. So, that's what we did.

Thanks to advice from one of the workers at the ESPN Zone, we headed to the Crazy Horse Too. Not a bad way to celebrate the night of my 26th birthday.

Crazy Horse Too
The Crazy Horse Too is a popular Las Vegas strip club.

The exterior of the club has a Roman theme, complete with granite columns. We paid our cover charge and headed inside.

Living in Tampa has given me a pretty demanding standard when it comes to judging strip clubs, but the Crazy Horse Too held its own. The women were for the most part hot, as you might expect. There were anywhere from 40-50 strippers working that night, and they were hustling. Rod paid for a cute brunette named Katie (since when do strippers use a real sounding name?!?) from Philadelphia to give me a lap dance. Her body actually reminded me a lot of one particular ex-girlfriend of mine. And then there was Allison, a cute blonde who gave what I have to say was the best lap dance I've ever had. She knew exactly what to do and what to say, and she had her A-game going. Very very nice.

There were a couple of downsides... I got snookered into going to the VIP room (by a girl who claimed to be from Brazil), where outside a rude older guy who could've been played by Philip Baker Hall gruffly spouted off the room costs like he was reading a radio station legal ID. He didn't care much for me asking him to clarify the costs. And, for the record, there was nothing shady or below board about the VIP room, just three lap dances for $100 as opposed to the $20 for a dance outside. D'oh!

Then there was the incident that really pissed me off and lead to us finally making our departure from the club. A stripper came up behind me and started giving me a neck massage. It was nice and all, but unsolicited. I then went to give her $5 as a thank you... only for the Asian-American dancer to get pissed off that she wasn't getting $20. I felt myself begin turning into Drunk Angry Lou, like the Incredible Hulk. So I gave her some smartass retort and then lead Gary and Rod out of there. The cab driver had to hear me cut a vicious promo about it on the drive back to the hotel.

But I wasn't going to let some stripper whore ruin my birthday. Carousing the massive MGM Grand Casino area, we ran across various hot chicks and what not. In a surreal moment, I spotted the Playboy Girlfriends issue with Katt on the cover at the hotel newsstand, which I very loudly pointed out to Rod (which in turn also earned the attention of every male patron in the newsstand). We reflected on the events of the day, including the amazing talents of Allison the dancer. For some reason, her perfume to me seemed to smell a little like celery (Rod and Gary thought I was absolutely insane on that observation). Exhaustion and alcohol finally lead to lights out.

On Sunday I played it close to the vest on the gambling. Roulette was out, with me instead sticking to the slots and video blackjack.

Then came the long plane ride home. Waiting in line for security at the Las Vegas airport was an exercise in patience. The line snaked around like we were waiting to ride Space Mountain at Disneyworld. Gary had wanted to buy a couple of adult magazines and then have me stash them in my bag (since he had no carry-on item), but I steadfastly refused. No sense giving any sort of red flag to the security screeners.

Overall, I left Vegas with overwhelmingly positive thoughts. It's certainly not a city for everyone, and I think it's a place I'd much rather visit than live. But, with that said, it's a city with magic and energy and a unique spirit. And there's something to be said for that. I can't wait to return there someday...

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