The Casino at the End of the Universe

Blackjack for Dummies

I have a friend who gambles. She puts money into slot machines and plays games at tables. She refers to Las Vegas as “Vegas” and seems to go there every other month.

I was amazed at this until I found out that these trips cost her nothing. To encourage gamblers to come, the casinos have programs that let you accumulate points for everything you do there, for every breathless bet. You can redeem the points for charter flights out of Oakland, for hotel rooms, meals, show tickets, all kinds of things.

Aileen has attained diamond status in one of these schemes, which means that she gets even more for her points. It also means that she has to keep going on these trips in order to maintain her status. And so it came to be that I was invited on an all-expenses paid jaunt to a casino in the middle of the desert in Laughlin, Nevada, USA.

Elite Airways

The flight was a charter out of Oakland on a Monday afternoon. In a remote corner of the airport, a tall guy with a curly mustache was yelling something about a gate change. I looked around and noticed that all the passengers for this  excursion appeared to be collecting social security. It was the midweek senior special to Harrah’s in the desert.

And so, our merry old group took off on holiday. The staff on the plane did their best to feed the festive atmosphere with free drinks and organized games. We played bag o bucks, a lottery game with twenty dollar bills. Wow, there are big spenders on this flight, I thought to myself, intimidated. I was appalled at the thought of betting twenty dollars at such odds. The other passengers looked like retirees who saved coupons and counted nickels at home, but on vacation in their comped luxury rooms they were prepared to be high rollers, it seemed.

Pretty soon, everyone was ordering a second round. The flight was starting to get raucus, laughter and conversation shouted above the engine noise. The senior citizen version of spring break in Cabo was on its way to Laughlin.

***

Across the aisle from me sat a guy named Tony, in his late fifties, basketball beer belly, black t-shirt and baggy shorts. He was loudly introducing himself to a guy two rows back while the stewardess helped him with a seatbelt extender. A large round watch with a complicated dial was on a plastic band around his wrist. He let everyone know he was a tile contractor from Marin. The quiet guy next to him was his partner, but Tony was the boss.

The guy in back was Buzz, balding with a bushy grey mustache. He was in a grey t-shirt and jeans held up by black suspenders. He had a gold watch and a drooping wife with freckles. We learned from his shouted response that he was a retired fireman from San Bruno.

Tony ordered a Jack and Coke and took charge of the conversation. He let Buzz know about his corner lot house, his SUV, his wife and dog. He tipped both stewardesses $5. When we landed, he stepped back to let us deplane first. Charming man.

Harrah’s House of Horrors

An old woman with hennaed hair was chewing gum on the bus that took us to Harrah’s from the airport. In the hotel lobby, she looked unhappily at a long line of Japanese tourists waiting to check in. But our group’s check-in had been handled by the airline and we were able to go straight to our rooms. A view of ducks swimming on the Colorado River nine flights down, and the Arizona mountains in the distance. Every day a cornucopia of brownies, cookies, and chocolate was left on the counter. Abstinence is not encouraged at Harrah’s.

Like the flight, the hotel was filled with senior citizens, and seemed to be set up to cater to them — while separating them in the friendliest way possible from any excess cash. Wide aisles facilitated the passage of walkers and wheelchairs, and Lipton tea was served at the Fresh Market Square Buffet. The ATM machines dispensed only hundred dollar bills, with a $6 fee.

Slots and Blackjack

Next to the lobby was the main casino, an enormous emporium of fifties gilt and  neon, slightly yellowed with cigarette smoke. A large, inimical room with flickering lights and  incessant  klaxons, it contained rows of noisy slot machines and quieter tables of green felt manned by friendly dealers. Baleful money men lurked in the space behind them and cameras watched from above. There were ashtrays everywhere.

Slot machine bets starSlot Machinet at thirty cents. Each machine has a slot where you insert a twenty dollar bill for credits, and another slot for your frequent-gambler points card. People carry the cards on chains, clipped to their belts or collars. Chaining themselves to the machines, they engage in Pavlovian button-pressing behavior and are rewarded with flashing lights and snatches of TV situation comedy footage.

And occasionally with money. I lost a few dollars, but Aileen made a few, so I figured we were even.

***

After that, we went to play blackjack.

We sat down at a table with a sign reading “$5 minimum bet”, the cheapest table they had. Aileen bought 20 red chips for $100 from the dealer, a young woman dressed like an usher, and made two little piles on the table.

Now, before going into this gambling thing, I had decided to set a strict limit on the amount of money I could lose. Should I reach that limit, I would immediately stop gambling and just enjoy the free drinks.

The $5 minimum was, in fact, a bit more than I had anticipated. But I knew that you have to be firm in these situations, so I decided I had to stick to my original plan. I peeled a twenty out of my wallet and handed it to the dealer. She seemed to hesitate for a moment before giving me four red chips.

My plan was to bet these one at a time, making them last as long as possible before being forced to quit. Aileen was betting two chips at a time, but she was Diamond level. I suppose it was expected of her.

Unfortunately, my stake did not last very long. I agonized over every decision to hit or stand, the dealer cheerfully encouraging me to make up my mind.  But even though Aileen was helping me with strategy and arithmetic, my chips lasted less than an hour. Much less, actually.

I realized it was time to quit, but then I looked over and saw that Aileen had now arranged her chips into a little model of the Great Wall, flanked by two big towers, with some green ones piled on the side like an outpost.  It turned out that she was doing well and was less than eager to leave.

Reluctantly, I reached for my wallet, wondering if I had another ten. But then Aileen pushed one of her towers over to me and told me I could gamble with that.

Things went better after that. I even won some hands, but the game moved fast and it was hard to keep up.

***

After a while a guy sat down on my right. His name was Bill and he was from Houston, tall guy in a plaid shirt and jeans. He was betting piles of 4 chips.

Seeing that I was a novice, Bill volunteered to give me advice. He told me that he gave Blackjack lessons back home, and I pictured an after-school program for card enthusiasts or maybe a church group. Bill was kind enough to help me through several hands.

After a while, though, he got a little frustrated at my performance. When he got up to leave, he told me, “I don’t think you’re stupid. You’re just unlucky.” I’m not really sure if he was right.

***

Despite Bill’s coaching I ended up losing half of Aileen’s tower. I was upset about this until I saw that she had managed to accumulate another one. And another green outpost.

But now one of the ceiling cameras had swiveled around toward her, and at last she looked ready to leave.

Distractions

Fortunately, we didn’t gamble all the time. There were other things to do. Things that points could be applied to.

One night, there was a concert with three country singers (a trucker and two cowboys — you could tell by the hats). Two of these minstrels carried acoustic guitars but did not play them. One of them encouraged the old people to get up and dance, and finally one couple did get up, but no one else joined them. Boy, did they look dumb.

Another day we went for a boat ride to Lake Havasu, 60 miles down the Colorado River. At the hotel dock, passengers embarked on a 60-foot speedboat powered by two nuclear reactors. We were welcomed on board by Denny, our blonde, crewcut captain, an erstwhile surfer from Modesto who had moved here to enjoy the quiet desert life, the small town charm of Laughlin and its ten casinos.

“Your life vests are under your seats. They may still be damp from the incident on Monday.” Denny was a comedian, in addition to being a captain.

But you could see that he savored the serenity of his idyllic riverine life: roaring downriver in the boat at top speed, slamming over the wakes of other vessels to give his elderly passengers a bouncing thrill.

He was particularly fond of cutting suddenly across the channel to attack groups of resting ducks. The innocent birds thrashed frantically, trying to get airborne and out of the way, but some just weren’t fast enough. Every hull-to-duck slam of mallardicide made Denny whoop with excitement, booming along downriver without pause as a red patina spread gradually across the windshield.

At Lake Havasu City we got to see the London Bridge, which was moved there brick by brick to provide an attraction for tourists who don’t like deserts or gambling. Then we had lunch in a diner and came back. It was a fun day if you weren’t a duck.London Bridge

The International Fun Place

It was 7:30 in the morning when we piled off the bus at Laughlin International Airport for the flight home. I thought about Howard Hughes, as the ramshackle aluminum terminal brought to mind the early days of commercial flight. There were four ground-level gates in one big room, and a sort of café where you could buy shrink-wrapped sandwiches from a woman whose name badge read “Kate”.

Our flight was delayed. The passengers milling about were the same group we had come out with. They seemed somewhat more subdued, this time, maybe because of the early hour. Several people carried shopping bags filled with brownies, room booty for their grandchildren. A bouffant octogenarian with a honey drawl was lobbying the other passengers to support her idea for reorganizing future trips to allow for a proper breakfast at the casino. It wasn’t clear what she wanted us to do about it.

It was true that there weren’t very many breakfast options at the café. I bought a bottle of water for $2.96. At the counter, Kate asked me if I had anything smaller than a twenty. I dug around and found a five. “You’re a nice guy,” she said to me. “I don’t care what other people tell me.” Another comedian. “Do you want your 4 pennies?” They ended up in the tip jar.

In the next half hour, she waited on a few customers at the counter, helped an old man with a walker to a table and brought him his coffee, interceded to calm a boisterous three-year-old, kept cleaning the tables and counter. After a while, I tried to buy a sandwich, but she told me the casino was sending over free lunches because of the delay. When the plane finally arrived, she stashed the tip jar under the counter, put on a reflective jacket, and ran out to help guide passengers across the tarmac.

Kate told us that the airport code for Laughlin is IFP. It stands for International Fun Place. She thought the name was ridiculous.

See more photos of Laughlin at http://www.pillarpointposter.com/p102380383