Think of Las Vegas, what springs to mind? The legendary Strip lined with casinos and huge hotels, high rollers playing big stakes in the gambling capital of the world, where the casinos never close – and most definitely never lose – except in Ocean’s Eleven, of course. If you’ve been, you’ll know exactly what it’s like; if you haven’t been, it’s everything you think it is, but … more.
Las Vegas is one of the most surreal places you will ever visit. Intoxicatingly brash, unashamedly extravagant; everything in Vegas is striving to be bigger, brighter, more luxurious, more enticing, full of promise, dripping with opportunity, drenched in possibility. The shiny floors and sumptuous carpets frame row upon row of mesmerising green velvet tables and smiling dealers, ‘Welcome, welcome, come and play.’
And you want to play, because that’s why you’re there, and you want to be one of those people, sitting at the table with stacks of chips, casting bets on top of bets and winning big, raising your hands in ecstasy as the roulette ball drops into red one more time. It looks like so much fun.
Honestly, I suppose Hels and I didn’t quite have the budget to do Vegas justice. You have to go expecting to have fun, and spend money – not ‘lose’, as such, because, hey, you’re in a casino, having a good time, playing a game, enjoying a drink, where else in the world would you expect to do that for free? And yet, somehow, in Vegas, you always want to come out on top, feel like you’ve beaten the casino, even if it is out of only ten dollars.
When we were looking for accommodation for Vegas, I was amazed to see the Bellagio pop up on booking.com! I though that such an exclusive hotel would have no need to be listed on a booking website. However, there are so many hotels in Vegas that the accommodation is relatively cheap, for what you’re getting so we decided to splash out (a little bit) and get a room in the famous hotel. Initially, we were only going to go for one night, but then we figured that we wouldn’t get the most out of it on that short a stay, so we thought maybe we should stretch it to two. In the sixty seconds that passed while I was inputting our details to the site, we’d convinced ourselves that, in fact, three nights was best, and before you knew it, our booking was confirmed. Well, you have to have a little luxury once in a while, right?
The Bellagio itself is an icon on the Las Vegas strip. It’s famous dancing fountains are watched by thousands as they perform every night. Just the fact that the Bellagio has a lake in front of it – bearing in mind that Vegas is in the middle of the Nevada desert – is testament to the insanity of the Vegas architecture.
The interior is incredible – as are most of the hotels in Vegas to be honest. It’s a sort of a cross between a vast casino, a luxury resort, an art museum and a high end shopping centre. It’s actually very hard to distinguish where and when you enter it, as it sprawls its tentacle corridors in every direction linking up with the hotels around it on the strip.
The heart of the hotel is, of course, the casino. Hels and I spent quite a lot of time voyeuristically observing games; partially trying to get our heads around them before parting with any money, but often in awe at the vast sums of money that were being splashed around. Each hotel tends to have a sort of theme, to which some pay more attention than others. The Bellagio, to its credit, appeared to want to simply portray a classic, high end, gambling experience. That did mean that a lot of the tables had very high minimum bets, though. At least $10 on each table and more often than not we saw $15, $25, $50 and even $100 minimums. It was at one of the $100 tables that we witnessed the most insane piece of betting we’d ever seen, but I’ll save that story for the end of the blog.
Our room, which was very lovely, had a view overlooking the strip and the fountains (if you ignored the huge car park and craned your neck around to the left a bit!). I was gutted to find that they didn’t provide tea and coffee, though. I know it sounds like a stupid and insignificant thing, but seriously – what kind of 5* hotel doesn’t provide a kettle? You’d get that in a Travelodge in the UK!
The gym was good though. Half way through our run on the treadmill, a lady came round bearing a tray full of neatly folded, cooled and scented face cloths. ‘Would you like an iced towel,’ she asked. ‘Why, thank you. That would be lovely,’ I said as I took one and dabbed gently at the sweat on my brow. Now that was a first! And going to the ‘pool’ was another voyage into the imagination. You enter into an open air complex of fountains – which are in fact swimming pools – interspersed with manicured trees; the whole thing wouldn’t look out of place in an Italian piazza.
Our other main activity was meandering up and down the strip, marvelling at the no-holds-barred approach to buildings. A short stroll takes you from the sublime to the ridiculous, and then marches you headlong into the downright insane! Quite apart from the gargantuan scale of some of the hotels, Vegas seems to have a thing for building replicas of other famous structures, notably the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty (including full scale New York skyline backdrop), and an Egyptian pyramid, complete with Sphynx, to name but a few.
Playing my hand
Having played poker regularly for the last ten years with friends I met through teaching, I was keen to try my hand in a poker tournament. The Bellagio and Venetian are two of the most famous venues for Texas Hold’Em, but their tournaments are $115 to enter, tend to last at least five hours and are renowned as being filled with the toughest players on the strip. As I was more into having a bit of fun rather than lining the pockets of a Vegas shark, I opted for the $45 tournament at Excalibur.
It turned out to be a good choice: there were only 17 players, but I felt like I was in a proper tournament with heavy chips, machine shuffled cards and a dealer who runs the game.
Note: A poker jargon warning is in place for the next few paragraphs. My intention at the start was to keep my head down, figure out what was going on, and get a feel for the table. Three hands in, though, I was dealt pocket queens and found myself looking at a nondescript flop with a rather loud, extravagant player to my right throwing chips into the pot. I felt in pretty good shape so matched him up and hit a third queen on the turn.
He threw in more chips, and I couldn’t see what he might have that would beat my queens so I called the bet. The river card came and it was another low numbered card offering seemingly no help to anybody. He checked his cards then upped his bet once more. I was convinced I had him, but my heart was pumping and I was wondering what had happened to my original strategy.
I called his bet though, and he turned over a partial straight. ‘I was chasin’ it,’ he said, ‘but you hit that one.’ You’re damn right I did, I thought – but said nothing.
That put me in a pretty decent position but then my lack of proper tournament experience began to shine through I suppose. As the blinds went up, people started to go out and I found myself on the final table playing a super tight strategy. Players were dropping left right and centre and despite surviving, I wasn’t gaining much ground. The thing about poker is that as your chips dwindle (as they often inevitably do) you find yourself with increasingly little to lose, so your strategy can loosen up a bit.
From 10 players on the final table, we were now down to five. Not bad, I thought, but I didn’t have many chips left, a couple of rounds of big blinds at best. And then came another pocket pair; this time however it was threes and not queens. Well, I considered, not much to lose as I said, ‘All in.’ I wasn’t expecting to win that pot, it’s the last ditch effort of every player about to go out… but the risk for the players keen to eliminate you is that they may call your bet with even less in their hand – which is what happened. Two guys called the all in, both just playing on a high card, one had an ace, the other a jack. All five cards came down; there was a king and a queen amongst them, but no ace or jack, so my threes stood strong and gave me a little more life.
It was relatively short lived though – we were now down to four players, two big stacks and two tiny ones and soon enough I was all in once more but this time my luck had run out. Gutted. I was happy to have come fourth in the tournament, pleased not to have embarrassed myself, but the tournament pays prizes to the top three. If I’d managed to hold on for a few more hands, I’d have walked away with a $120 third place. Never mind.
So, did we win any money? Well I didn’t, but Helena did a little better. We found a $5 minimum roulette table in Excalibur and decided to have a go. Taking a seat, she bought $40 worth of $1 chips and started playing. Going with a strategy of $5 on red (and occasionally black) plus five more chips spread around the numbers, there weren’t many hands where she didn’t hit anything at all. You only really get big money in roulette if you hit the number exactly, whereas your chances of getting something are increased if you split your chips over two or more numbers. If you do this, though, you get much lower odds, so you may feel like your winning but you are in reality staying pretty stable.
Hels did manage to build her stack to $63 though, at which point she turned to me and said, ‘Shall we call it done?’ ‘Nah, put it all on red,’ I said jokingly, although having clearly been mildly infected with the Vegas curse. ‘I’m joking,’ I followed up, ‘but why not have one more bet; spread $13 dollars around, go for some single numbers. That way, if you lose, you’ll still be ten dollars up from where you started, but if you win, you’ll have even more.’ So that’s what she did, but didn’t hit anything. It shows she should never take my advice when it comes to gambling!
Managing to avoid the nagging voice in our heads, ‘Just one more bet. You’re sure to win on the next one,’ we cashed in our chips and we’re happy with our evening’s play.
The Grand Canyon
The other reason (excuse?) for staying three nights at the Bellagio was that we could take a day trip to the Grand Canyon. We managed to find a reasonably priced trip online and were picked up at 6am – it was going to be a long day! Our bus driver, Larry, had a very dry sense of humour and had clearly been in the business a long time. Within minutes of getting on the coach, he had the microphone in hand and started a non-stop announcement that lasted for the next hour including gems such as: ‘The coach is equipped with air-con. For some of you it will be too warm, for some too cold. What am I going to do about it! Nothing.’ I had to chuckle at his no-nonsense approach to customer satisfaction. I did enjoy his super drawn out vowel sounds though as he repeatedly welcomed us to the ‘Graaaaaand Caaaanyon, the greeeaaaaatest show on Earth.’
It was indeed a spectacular show; indescribable really in proportion, be it depth or width, and the layering effect of the rocks, mixed with the geological shapes carved over millennia by the Colorado River were so intricate that they would easily hold your gaze indefinitely. Our only regret was that we didn’t have more time. Although the tour offered us two different points from which to view the canyon, we were all too soon ushered back onto the bus for the long ride back to Vegas. We would have loved to have brought the camper van here and gone hiking into the canyon itself, to get a real sense of the place.
I just have to recount one final story from the Bellagio casino before I draw this entry to a close. On our final night, we were taking a last wander through the casino maze when we paused at a roulette table. There was a $100 minimum bet, and one lady sat playing, spreading out chips, sometimes winning big, other times not so much, but running pretty steady on her overall stack.
Then another gentleman approached the table, reached into his pocket for a wad of $100 bills which he dropped onto the table. The dealer counted out $1700 and exchanged it for chips. Wow, we thought, this guy is in for the long haul.
But he clearly had other ideas as he nonchalantly clutched at stacks of chips and dropped them onto individual numbers on the table; no splits, and nothing on red or black. This meant that his chances of winning were much reduced, but if he hit one of the numbers, he’d get paid out at 35-1, swelling his overall stack to an immense $30000 plus.
The dealer span the wheel, sent the ball in the opposite direction and signalled for no more bets. The ball dropped into a slot and the man had missed on all of his bets. As the dealer swept away the chips (and paid a small win to the lady who was still playing), the man sort of twitched a little, almost literally scratched his head, and counted out his remaining stack into $100 piles. He had ten left; that last bet had cost him $700.
What next? we wondered.
Well, out of all of the remaining possibilities, we weren’t expecting what happened. Rather than playing more conservatively, or spreading the bets over multiple numbers, he proceeded to take all ten of his $100 stacks and place each one on an individual number. The roulette wheel span once more, and the ball sailed round before dropping into its final destination. The dealer dropped her shiny silver marker onto the winning number…which was none of the ones the man had bet on.
He then paused, cocked his head, watched his $1000 bet get swept off the table, and left, walking slowly away. The whole sequence of events had taken less than five minutes.
‘What the hell just happened?’ I said to Hels. It was the most incredible and insane thing we saw in Vegas – $1700 evaporating in two spins of the roulette wheel – and neither the player nor the dealer barely blinked.
Absolutely aghast at what we had witnessed, we knew it was time for us to go. There was just one last picture we had to take…
Oh, and here’s a couple more for you: