Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Vegas Story

I have to preface this story by saying that the night before we drove to Vegas, Holler and I were discussing casino poker. He questioned my gambling credentials, things escalated, and eventually I laid down an ultimatum:

"Holler, I know I'm going to win money in Vegas, and I'm so sure of it that I'll bet you $5 that I win $200 or more."

He accepted. Disregarding the faulty logic of that bet for a second (if I made money, I'd probably be more than happy to part with $5, and if I lost money, I would probably just regard it as $5 more of gambling losses, which would be pretty accurate), it was probably a good bet for him. Unless I was overly risky, I would have to earn $200 over the course of the night, since I wasn't about to try to win $200 on one hand of blackjack or poker. In the morning, I didn't think much of it, I just figured that $5 wasn't much in the grand scheme of things. But as we rolled into Vegas, I remembered something Ernest Hemingway once said: "Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That'll teach you to keep your mouth shut." I set out to follow my idol's words and win at least $200 or going broke trying.

We had booked a room at the Motel 6 in Vegas, which is probably the only Motel 6 in the world with a glimmering animated digital billboard. It has the dubious distinction of being wedged between the MGM Grand, the Hooters hotel/casino, and the Las Vegas Airport. After checking in, we got our Vegas backstories straight: Stefan, the most foreign-looking of us, was given the deliberately vague title of "importer/exporter." John Holler was mysteriously involved in "logistics," and I (the best-dressed out of all of us) was the "legal consultant." We all put on our outfits and started mentally preparing to hit the town.

Fast forward to dinner at a nice little pizza place, where we got some Vegas advice from the chefs. They told us to go away from the Strip to a more affordable part of Vegas where the locals gambled. One of the chefs was pretty adamant that we do that--he said something along the lines of, "They've got midget strippers with one arm and no teeth over there! You HAVE to go, it's sooooo skeezy!"

We promptly decided to ignore his advice and do the touristy thing, which was to walk the entire length of the Strip and go to the Sahara, the only casino on the Strip with $1/$2 Hold 'Em and $1 blackjack. We sat down at a blackjack table and I lost $20 pretty quickly--we were all taking a beating from the dealer. It was impossible to count cards, those MIT kids must've been wicked smaht. Anyway, after I busted out of blackjack I wandered over to the poker room. I tried to buy in with $60, only to find out that the minimum buy-in was $100. I headed back to the ATM and withdrew some cash, got my chips, and rolled up to the table itching to play.

The table itself was pretty average--your typical low-stakes game. To my left was a kid who looked about 23 and talked more about poker than he knew--he would analyze each hand after it was played, which was a little unnerving. To my right was an older guy whose haircut looked a little ex-military. He barely spoke the entire time. I laid low, folded my hands, and stayed out of a few big pots as I tried to get a feel for the table.

On the fifth or sixth hand after I sat down, I got dealt the 10-Q of spades as hole cards. I called from the small blind and saw the flop: a jack of spades, a king of spades, and a blank. I was first to act and I was sitting on an open-ended straight flush, meaning I had about a 64% chance of hitting either the best possible straight or probably the best possible flush. I bet $5, and everyone folded down except a Mexican guy two seats to my left, who called.

The turn came, and it was the ace of spades. That gave me a royal straight flush, the absolute best hand in the game. I was a lock to win this hand, so I checked. I'd like to say I kept my poker face and was under control, but I was pretty excited when the Mexican guy bet $25 at me. I checked my cards two or three times to make sure that I wasn't hallucinating and then called. The river came, and I don't know what it was because it was irrelevant. He bet at me again, and this time I re-raised him $50, putting nearly all of the $100 I had just withdrawn in this one pot (this actually wasn't a gutsy move, because I knew I had won the pot, but it was still cool to see it sitting there). He smartly folded, and I flipped over my cards to reveal the royal flush. The entire table reacted like I had just walked on water--some people literally jumped back in amazement. The dealer, who I can only describe as an older man who looked kind of like Woodhouse from Archer, was the calmest of them, and just said something along the lines of, "Well, that's a pretty nice hand you got there. Let's see what kind of bonus that's going to pay out."

Fig. 1--The man who dealt me a royal flush.

The pit boss came over and verified my cards--I think they reviewed security footage of the table, because it took them a while to get back after that and the whole game had to stop. Finally, the pit boss came back over, congratulated me, and said that I had won the royal flush jackpot. [Aside: Casinos often have jackpots to encourage people to take insane risks by chasing the best hands--straight flushes, full houses, four of a kind, etc. The jackpot builds bigger and bigger until someone eventually gets that hand while playing, and then it resets. It's kind of like Megabucks, but more legit.] Nobody playing poker in the Sahara had hit a royal flush in nearly 2 years, so the jackpot I won had had plenty of time to grow. When the pit boss announced the size of the jackpot, I was astonished. Take a chance and guess how big it was, keeping in mind that I was happy to win $200 at the beginning of the night. Go ahead, I'll even put in a little spoiler alert.


Four hundred and seventy five dollars. $475. PBS should hire me, because not only did I meet my fundraising goal for the night inside of 10 minutes, I doubled it. I thanked the dealer profusely and gave him a $66 tip, explaining that we had traveled to Vegas on Route 66, and that we were staying in a Motel 6, and that I had worn number 6 in high school baseball and college soccer, and that 6 was my lucky number and that I wasn't some Satan-worshipper but I was pretty sure that the number 6 did hold some sort of special significance for me because wasn't that the sixth hand you dealt me? I think my little John Nash rant actually scared him a little, but whatever. That guy was awesome.

Anyway, I got $375 in cash and the rest in chips, so I was the alpha dog of the table with over $200 in chips. On the very next hand, I think everyone was hoping to get a few of those house chips for themselves. I eventually got into a betting war with the kid to my left. Unfortunately for him, I had a nut straight (the best possible straight, and in this case the best possible hand because there were no flushes or pairs on the board), and I took him down for another $50. Woodhouse was just handing me money--with him dealing, Simple Jack could've made $200 sitting in my chair.

Sportsmanship be damned; after that, I did what any lucky jackass would do, and called my buddies (who were still at the blackjack table) up on my phone:

Me: "Hey man, guess how much I'm up?"
Holler: "I dunno, 20 bucks?"
Me: "No, I'm up 500, still gonna keep playing though..."
Holler: "Wait, did you say five HUNDRED?"
Me: "Yeah, it's not a big deal or anything..."
Holler: [excited expletives]
Me: "Alright, I'll catch you later, gotta play this hand."

Or maybe I played it slightly less coolly and left my chips on the table, told the dealer I was going to the bathroom, and ran across the casino to find them and celebrate. I forget... ;)

From there, the night just went downhill--not in a bad way, just in the way that I knew I wasn't going to get that lucky again. Nobody at the table wanted to bet against me unless they had the absolute nuts, so I won a lot of blinds and lost some bigger pots. Woodhouse left the table and was replaced by a taciturn Asian woman (I don't mean to be racist when I describe people by their ethnicities alone; the fact is that in casinos, there's not a whole lot of talking or interaction so I can't really describe anyone beyond what they looked like. Unless you're wearing something really outlandish, even by the standards of Vegas, that's probably going to be your race or who you look like. The longest conversation I had with anyone at a table was about two minutes, with a former FBI field agent who sat down next to me and used his old badge as a card protector. He was the most intimidating man I've ever met and a major reason I left the table).

I made about $40 during the next hour of poker and as the table was winding down, I cashed out and headed over to the blackjack tables to rejoin Holler and Stefan. Big Stef had hit a nice little streak of his own and managed to pull in $25 over the course of the night. I lost $7 playing blackjack over a couple hours, but the experience alone was worth it. We played at the loudest table in the house--four Mexican guys (five, if you count Stefan), Holler, and me all shouting at the dealer to bust on every single hand. My "variable-risk" blackjack strategy--alternating $1 and $5 bets--actually paid off for a while, even when I did really stupid stuff like double down on 13s, 14s, and 15s.

When all was said and done, I left the Sahara with just under $500, which was more than enough to treat Holler and Stefan to a taxi ride back home and a $2.99 midnight-6 AM breakfast special at Hooters. Looking back on that meal, if Gandhi had ended one of his hunger strikes next to the Hooters restaurant and was on the verge of dying, I would probably tell him hike up the catwalk and at least try to make it to the MGM Grand. The food was that bad. It was about 5 AM at this point and the sun was starting to come up, so the walk back from Hooters to the hotel room was particularly epic. That thing they say about losing track of time in casinos is totally true--we spent about 5 hours in the Sahara, but it felt like 3, tops. We woke up and checked out at 11 AM. I counted my money at least three times between the time I woke up and the time I took a shower, just to make sure it all wasn't a dream.

It wasn't. And the best part is that I still made Holler pay me that $5.

P.S.--In case you're wondering what I did with the money, I spent it in the nerdiest way possible: at Best Buy, upgrading my Mac OS X from "Tiger" to "Snow Leopard" and getting a 2 terabyte external hard drive, Mac keyboard, and wireless mouse. I also built a mantel for my fireplace (yes, ladies, my room has a fireplace), added a custom platform for my old-school rear-projection TV, and stocked my fridge with plenty of Albertson's finest "groceries." Thanks, Vegas!

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