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Big balls

Leading up to New Year’s eve there was a temporary "Party Store" on the Strip, just outside one of the strip malls that sells tacky souvenirs and cheap t-shirts.  For those that navigate by fast food, it was near Fatburger.

As well as the big balls – which they were clearly proud of - they sold an awesome range of hats.  Those balls were quite shiny though.  Note that I did not use a flash to take this picture.

The way God intended gambling to sound

There aren’t many slots or video poker machines left in Las Vegas that pay out using actual coins.

Most of the time, I love the ticket-in-ticket-out system.  But when you hit a big win, you just can’t beat hearing that clank of metal on metal several hundred times.

Oh, and I miss the incessant dinging.  It’s never annoying if it means you’re getting paid.

The brief recorded "kerching" noise you get while your ticket prints – the same sound whether you won a jackpot or just cashed out your last few cents – just can’t compete.

This is a snippet of a 600 coin payout by a vintage machine in the Fremont casino after Claire hit quads on Pick’em Poker for $150 in quarters.

They’re an endangered species – this could be the last time I ever see a significant coin payout in person.

Driving in to 2009

Happy New Year!  OK, I’m just about a full week late posting this, but I can backdate it a bit so nobody will really know.  Sshhh.

My top priority for New Year’s Eve in Las Vegas was avoiding the zoo on the Strip.  Sure, I was going to miss some dude jumping his motorcycle onto the fake Arc de Triomphe, but I figured I’d cope.

So instead of bouncing into 2009 with a drink shaped like Bette Midler in my hand, I stepped back 40 years to go to the movies. 

For a long time, I didn’t even know there was a drive-in in Las Vegas.  It’s certainly not new though, as you can tell from the awesome sign.

I must have driven past it several times without realising it’s there, but unless you know what you’re looking for it’s quite easy to miss.

What you’re looking for is a large screen by the roadside.  Easy when you know how.

It’s an amazingly cheap operation, and I think that’s part of the charm.  Basically a large slab of tarmac just off a major road with five screens made out of pallets, some projectors and a shed that sells popcorn.  I could have had a free refill on my one-size-fits-all barrel of popcorn, but I just couldn’t face any more.

There was one girl on the gate and two staff in the shed.  If there was ever a business model to survive tough economic times, this must be it.

And I’m always a sucker for a distressed letterboard sign.

All the films start at 7.30, you just turn up and park at the one you want to see.  In fact, every night that it’s not New Year’s Eve, you get to see a double bill for one price.

We parked facing Jim Carey to watch "Yes Man".

To be fair, it’s not the greatest cinematic experience in the world.  The projector didn’t quite line up right (where’s the top of Jim’s head?) and the contrast was pretty poor.  The brightly lit casino right behind the screen means it’s never really going to be dark enough to make out what’s going on in the scenes filmed in low light.

At the bottom left of the photo, you can make out the top of Fiesta’s neon sign.  It’s quite animated, and always there flickering away in the background.  Forget about surround sound too, unless you have a really good car stereo.

But a cool way to spend an evening chilling out away from the hustle and bustle of the casinos?  Absolutely.  I wouldn’t want to see anything I particularly cared about this way, but at $6.25 to let (normally) 2 brand new movies wash over you, how can you go wrong?  I would definitely do it again.

I got back to the Rio in time to see the fireworks.  The display seemed to be toned down this year, but that’s probably an effect of the significantly reduced height.  Fireworks were launched from 8-story parking garages rather than the usual 40-story hotels and an 1,149 ft tall tower, thanks to the Monte Carlo roof fire earlier in the year.

Even though that was caused by molten metal as the result of a blowtorch mishap, and not by controlled aerial pyrotechnics.

It was pretty underwhelming.  We couldn’t see much, but it turned out to be more than you could see on the Strip and on TV.  If you spin the second video to 5:05 you can compare it to last year and see what a difference it made.

 

I lived lodge

We couldn’t let the trip go by without spending an evening with Silverton Jim - at The Silverton of course.  I think it’s actually the law.

It’s a long time since I’ve been there, and it was just once several years ago.  As far as I remember it was only for long enough to burn a matchplay coupon and check if they had socks in the gift shop.  They didn’t, but there were plenty of Hootie and the Blowfish shirts.

The Hootie endorsement has now gone, and the band’s name has been removed from the Shady Grove Lounge as well as their mugshots from the pool table.  The lounge is still pretty cool though, and we had some fun in the skittle caravan.  I want one of these!

I couldn’t tell you who won because the scores disappeared off the screen within 1/20th of a second after the last ball was thrown.  But I know it wasn’t me.  There was never any danger of that.

The casino recently expanded and opened, among other things, a fabulous new parking garage.  You can tell its brand new from the carpets in the elevator lobby.  Given the huge amount of land they have at the rear, it’s not really necessary but it saves a bit of a walk and gives you a slightly elevated view of the strip from a distance.

I really can’t remember what’s new from last time I visited but it felt much more modern than I remembered.

That was probably down to the mood lighting and the loud music.  I’m a big fan of having music to slap the "deal" button in time with when playing video poker, but the ambiance was a bit on the dingy side in parts.

While the pumping tunes went some way to satisfying the goal of "keep ’em alert and keep ‘em gambling", staring at a bright screen in a dimly lit, slightly smokey room made me feel a little woozy.

I’m assuming there’s been some renovations along with the expansion, and lately they have been going all out promoting the updated property with their new "Livin’ Lodge" campaign.

I heard tons of commercials on the radio, saw a few on TV and one day the local paper had a Silverton sticker slapped on the front drawing attention to their advertisements, which you couldn’t miss anyway as they were on almost every page.  Two on some pages, for recession-beating deals like "free Starbucks for all players" and "two-for-one on all food".

It was working - the place was heaving!  So much so that we had to join a waiting list to get on the waiting list to eat.  "Come back in 20 minutes", they said, "and we’ll give you a pager".  It was decent food, it just took way too long.

The players club was my biggest gripe though.  They were swamped as it was the first day of a prize drawing (59 cars in 27.5 days, or some such random numbers) and rather than just have the computer pick a player’s number to determine the winner, everyone was being given actual paper tickets to put into a giant drum.

Sounds like fun, until you realise that you have to write your name and players card number on every one, and Claire and I both got 35 tickets each just for showing up.  God alone knows how long it takes someone with some gaming history to complete all their bonus tickets.

I don’t really get this.  It felt like I was writing lines for being a naughty boy.  I guess that’s the price you pay for a free shot at a car, but even so they’re encouraging players to spend a lot of time doing something other than gambling while they are in the casino.

Anyway, I speak a funny brand of English that nobody at the Silverton could understand.  Tourists obviously never stray so far from the Strip, so they don’t need to worry about those darn foreigners.  What I wanted was one players card in my name with $10 promotional free play for a new signup, and a second card that Claire could play on so we could pool comps.

I think they were ok with the words "card" and "her".

What we got was two separate cards, one with Claire’s name spelt wrong and that appeared to be linked to /dev/null rather than my account.  After she pulled the card from her machine, the points total just vanished and never reappeared all night.  Not only that, but they had unwittingly screwed up our cunning plan to be able to sign Claire up again as a new player another time to get that magic $10 free slot play again.

If you understand the lengths I’ll go to for a free $10, you’ll know why this is a big deal.

A real bad beat story

Some casinos in Las Vegas have a bad beat jackpot which pays silly money whenever two massive hands appear at the same time.

To win the jackpot, the losing hand usually has to be quads or better.  It’s pretty rare, as you can imagine.  When any four of a kind can be beat, the odds of this happening on any given hand are in the region of 92,000-1 and it’s much more difficult if only certain hands qualify.

That’s also assuming nobody ever folds a pair or suited connectors in a ten-handed game while they still have a chance to make something huge.  Not everyone folds a pair of 6s on a high, suited flop but it does happen.

A week ago the jackpot at The Orleans got so large that it could be won by any aces full hand losing to quads (the odds of this are more like 2,000-1) and the room went crazy trying to hit it.  Poker Grump wrote a great account of all the madness here.

There are also casinos that don’t have a jackpot.  Like Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall.

I’d completely forgotten they even had poker when I passed through, but there was a no-limit game running right by the door.  I’d already tried Imperial Palace and Flamingo and neither had a no-limit game running so I sat down before I’d even realised that this was the smallest game in town.

There’s one $1 blind, and that’s it.  You can buy in for as little as $20 if you like and you get $2/hr comps – almost as much as you’ll pay in blinds!  I know they sell hot dogs in the sports book, but beyond that don’t ask me what you can spend the comp on.

The game was only running 6-handed but soon after I sat down there was a massive pot, which must have surpassed the $100 mark, after JcQc flopped a straight with Td 9h Kc - only for 9s 9d to come back to take the lead when Tc paired the board on the turn.

Only one card left in the deck could change things.  This one:

Straight flush wins.  Quads loses.

Well to be fair, they actually paid a $50 bonus for the quads, which just about covered his loss on the hand.  The straight flush received a $250 bonus.

But anywhere with a BBJ this would be worth considerably more.

Usually the jackpot is divided up with about half of it to the loser of the hand, a smaller chunk to the winner and the rest distributed to everyone else playing in the room at the time.

And with just 6 of us at Bill’s, I would have done pretty well out of that!

Four play

I was beginning to wonder whether I’d actually find anything of note to write about poker after seeing nothing at all out of the ordinary in my first 3 sessions.

Then tonight in the first 15 minutes of playing at the Rio I have the most surreal poker experience I can remember.

When good things happen early on, I just don’t seem to be prepared for them.  I’m much happier to sit for a while folding hands, or limp in and missing the flop until I’ve settled in the game.

Today, when I end up flopping a pair of kings, turning trips and rivering quads with my mighty king-jack suited on only the second hand I’d been dealt, I was caught somewhat on the back foot.

One player bet $15 into a pot of about $60 and I raised to $50.  The third player in the hand showed his cards to everyone who wasn’t still involved (I later learned he had flopped the nut flush and played it way too slowly) and the initial bettor folded.

I dragged in a modest pot and mucked my hand.  As you do.

It was only a few minutes later that it hit me that there’s probably a high hand jackpot.

I turned round and saw something written on a whiteboard on the wall: "Quad 8s or better: $900".

Oh. Did I win?  Well, no, because I didn’t show my hand and nobody would believe me if I suddenly started piped up "oh wait, I had four kings the last hand". 

Why would I just muck my hand though?  I knew I had quads, obviously.  I’d also seen they were dropping a dollar every hand for a jackpot.  And I knew that many casinos offered high hand jackpots.

But two cards have to play for a high hand, right?  They do at most places, but I don’t know about here.  Also the dealer would have said something after I raised with three kings on board, right?  She’d want her cut.

I really REALLY didn’t want to ask now.  Effectively spewing off $900 in a single hand at a $300 maximum buy-in game was definitely going to make me tilt, and letting everyone at the table know that’s what I’d done would be even worse.

I had to try to convince myself that I hadn’t won anything, but I wasn’t doing a very good job.  "Right then, never mind", I thought, trying to compose myself.  "I’ll just have to hit it again".

I still wasn’t convinced, but someone up there must like me.

Before the button had moved all the way round the table I was dealt 88 and the flop was a magical 788.  I re-checked my cards about 30 times.  Yes, I definitely had quads again.  This time I was definitely showing it.

I couldn’t have written the script any better myself.  Quad eights was the lowest possible hand that was just high enough to qualify for the jackpot I thought I’d missed.

If I had actually been paid on the quad kings, chances are either the prize amount would have been reset to a smaller prize, or the qualifying hand would have gone up so that four eights didn’t win anything at all.

Either way, I’d no longer lost $900 and I could breathe normally again.

First, I needed to get some value from the hand and that happened fairly easily.

The player to my right had been catatonic since I arrived at the table.  I’d already had to tap him on the arm when the waitress turned up with his beer, to which his head rotated like the girl in The Exorcist until he realised what was going on.

He had managed to order the drink without speaking and almost without moving.  He lifted up the bottle a few inches, the beer lady said "turn it around for me honey" and he eventually figured out that only he could see the label when it was facing him.

He bet all the way and I just called until the river, keeping one other player in the hand for a couple of bets.  The turn was a jack of hearts and the river 9 of hearts giving a possible straight flush against my quads, but that would have made an even better story so I wasn’t worried.

I moved all in on the river and he called, slowly turning over a pair of nines for a rivered full house.  It took him a while to count all four of my eights and then suddenly there was movement.

He’s alive.  Alive I tell you.

The dude stood up, said "so sick" about a hundred times, started to leave the room, came back to whinge a bit more and eventually stormed off for good.

So, ship me $900?

Apparently not.  That jackpot is only good between 3am and 3pm, and I was playing at a time when the games were actually running.

They still take $1 from every pot towards the jackpot during normal hours, but not a penny is paid back until stupid o’clock.

False alarms and near-heart attacks aside, I’m really not a fan of this "promotion", and I’m probably not going to play at the Rio again.

Anyway, what are the odds?  I might work it out some time, but it’s pretty slim.

I checked back through my records and it’s almost exactly two years since I last hit quads.  In total it’s more than 200 hours of play.

The really strange thing though is the last time I also hit two in the same session.  There was no jackpot then either, but at least I got a t-shirt and a cap.

Sarcasm is +EV

I don’t very often get to be a passenger on a drive through the desert, so I took the opportunity to grab some shots of the scenery today as we drove out to Primm for some bargain shopping.

In particular, the Wrangler and Lee outlet store there is a regular source of awesome bargains.  Really, how can you go wrong with five dollar jeans?

Claire and I were cooing at the prices ringing up even cheaper than the label said.  It’s not the first time that’s happened – there often seems to be some random discount taken off at the register on top of the stupidly low prices.

But one pair still showed up as a whopping $18 so we were like "oh no, that’s so expensive".  The cashier had never heard of sarcasm before so he pressed a couple of buttons and knocked another $3 off that too and asked us "is it cheap enough now?" while looking genuinely concerned that he might lose the sale.

Anyway, there’s no snow left in the valley after last week’s freak weather and it’s getting noticably warmer, but the mountains still make it look like winter in the desert.

Merry Britmas

It’s not just the dartboards and the Hull City banner that make the Crown and Anchor an authentic British pub.  It actually smells and sounds like a British pub too, although the latter is probably due to almost everyone who was there for Christmas dinner actually being British.

They serve beer in pints too.  And just tell me where in Britain you could get a full Christmas dinner – on Christmas Day – for about 12 quid…

On the other hand, their British food supplies are not quite such good value.  They’ll sell you a jar of Branston Pickle for $5.50 or a bottle of Ribena for $8.00.  Still, I guess if you really miss this stuff, at least there’s an easy way to get hold of it.

Winning doesn’t stop for Christmas

I just got back from a poker session at Caesars Palace.

To give you some idea of how quiet Las Vegas is right now, the 9pm bounty tournament ran with 5 players.

I stuck to $1/$3 No Limit Hold’em and literally couldn’t win a hand for 2 hours.  Then a set of deuces held up for a $460 pot to put me (just) back into the black.

"Be happy", said the only girl at the table to nobody in particular.  "It’s Jesus’s birthday".  She later revealed herself to be Catholic.

"But I’m a Jew", piped up another player, followed by a reverberating "me too" that seemed to come from every other seat at the table except mine and an Iranian bloke to my right.

I guess it makes sense that the majority of people out playing poker in Las Vegas on Christmas Eve don’t actually celebrate Christmas.

When asked why she was at the table and not at midnight mass, the Catholic girl explained that she was fed up with Christmas and had decided to not bother with it at all this year.

Honestly, I didn’t realise that was an option.  But I guess if you’re going to blow off a major religious holiday, Sin City is the perfect place to go to ensure maximum value at your next confession.

Personally, I’m going for a traditional turkey lunch at a British pub and hoping that by the time I roll back to the hotel some kind soul will have uploaded a copy of Christmas Top of the Pops to the internet.

Also, for ’tis the season, there are plenty of 6x slot point promotions to be had all over town.

Happy holidays everyone!

Encore: been there, done that, didn’t buy $95 t-shirt

I took advantage of my jet lag and visited the newly opened Encore at Wynn Las Vegas early this morning.

I may not have been the first blogger inside the property as the rest of the world creamed themselves to get through the door the minute it opened at 8pm last night, but I was probably the first to take a picture of the much-hyped "natural daylight inside a casino" feature, as Encore saw its first sunrise.

Wow, through the window you can see… Wynn’s other casino.

I didn’t get chance to take many pictures as my mere presence was extremely conspicuous – and not just because my kind had no business hanging out in this kind of resort.

The casino had an absurdly high staff-to-visitor ratio.  In an amazing display of frivolity, every single table game in the casino was open.  At 6.30am.  On a Tuesday morning.  And didn’t I hear something about the economy not quite being what it was?

As you’d expect, about 3 games out of 50 or so actually had players.

Every other table had an extremely bored dealer, most of whom were trying to make eye contact, longing somebody to keep them company.

There isn’t a single pit area inside Encore, it’s scattered around with four games here, half a dozen there.  So wherever I walked, I felt I was under scrutiny.

It wasn’t just the dealers.  Driving into the garage I was stopped by two separate stewards asking if I was trying to park, and then telling me where to go.

Aren’t the signposts good enough?  Well, actually no.

One sign labelled "Encore Resort ->" had fooled me into thinking I needed to take the right turn it pointed at.  Apparently it meant the next one, and I realised this after I drove the wrong way into the limo and taxi exit.

Oops.  At least it was quiet.