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Las Vegas – Gateway to the black country

I’d heard – although not really believed – that the new British Airways route from Heathrow to Las Vegas was not just to get British tourists to Sin City. Apparently it also gave Americans a whole new way to travel to Europe.

People fly to Las Vegas to transfer onto another flight? I thought I’d believe that when I saw it. And then I saw it.

The girl sitting next to us on the transfer from San Francisco clocked our accents and asked for some advice.

“Do you know how I can get from the airport to Birmingham New Street?”

She did indeed pronounce the “h” in the name of the city, which to be fair is the way that it’s written.

My first reaction was what a nightmare it would be having to do that on the train on your first trip to England and particularly when there’s a little bit of snow on the ground which is often enough to grind the whole country to a standstill.

Apparently it’s because of the snow that she was having to do this. Originally her English friends were coming down to meet her at Heathrow but a dusting of snow mean that it would be “easier for everyone” if she got the train instead.

That’s the kind of friends I know I would fly around the world to spend Christmas with.

I tried my best to help including launching Tube Deluxe on my iPhone as a visual aid. Having no idea whether there was a way to avoid central London (maybe you can get to Watford Junction or Milton Keynes) I showed her how the Picadilly Line almost went to Euston station (but not quite) and said that I thought that would probably be easier than having to get underground at Victoria with a lot of luggage if she took the Heathrow express. Then I wished her good luck.

“Are you staying in Birmingham for Christmas?” I asked.

“Actually they’re taking me to Willenhall”. Which she also pronounced with an “h”. I could hardly contain my excitement.

“Is it quite a small town?” she asked.

“It’s got a market”, I offered.

I’m sure there’s a Christmas tree somewhere too.

The first class experience in pictures

I am not sure how much of this will work and how much I’ll have time to upload before we take off. If I only have GPRS then it takes about 5 minutes an 10% of he phone’s battery to post one picture.

But below should be a gallery from Flickr of my photos from the lounge and plane as I fly first class with United.

If it fails, search for “theluckydonut” on Flickr.com.

Day 36: One last gamble

Although our flight from LA wasn’t until 9.15pm, we weren’t taking any chances with getting there in time and left before lunch for a leisurely drive through the endless desert.

I thought the gambling was behind us, until we stopped for a toilet break in Barstow, CA.

A vending machine selling lottery scratchcard tickets.  That’s almost as good as a slot machine!  How could I resist?

With a car full of all our worldly posessions, we played tag team toilet.  I went first and came back with two scratchcards.  Then when we didn’t win, Claire got two more.

These two are simple “match the numbers” games.  You’ll see that we didn’t even bother scratching off the prize boxes, so we’ll never know just how much we could have won – if only the cards had been a winning ones.

The next was a crossword game where you had to take a letter at a time from the list at the top and scratch them off the crossword grid and see if you made a word.

We made one three-letter word (“age”) and you need two or more to get paid.

Whereas it took only a few seconds to find out that the other cards were losers, this one kept us going for a good ten minutes.

Finally, there was a poker-themed game, where your hand had to beat the dealer’s to win a prize.  So as not to alienate anyone not familiar with the rules of poker, there was a hand ranking guide on the back of the card.

Our dealer had trips, so it wasn’t going to be easy.

The first four cards making a flush draw for twenty five grand could have been an exciting bit of a wind up, except that inexplicably I was scratching from right to left.

I still don’t know why, but it meant that we never really saw anything come close to a win, except for a gutshot straight draw for $75.  Yes, we did both shout for the deuce.

My scratchcard experience is pretty limited but I was fairly impressed with this range of gameplay options - from the quick gambling fix to the chilled out game that you actually have to think about.

We were offered one final chance to gamble, at the airport.  In a terminal dogged by construction, the baggage scanners were just plonked on the floor in a busy area quite close to the doors, with a bit of that stretchy barrier stuff they use in Post Office queues around them.

“You can just leave them there, I’ll take care of it from here”, said someone who apparently worked for the airport, as we approached the barrier.

Upside: not having to stand and wait for thirty seconds.

Downside: could be quite severe.

After careful consideration, I decided not to take that bet.

Day 35: The Lance Burton parade

Not one, not two, but three mobile billboards with Lance Burton’s mugshot on, all waiting at the same set of traffic lights.

I just thought it was a bit weird is all.

Day 34: Day of the jackpots

In case it wasn’t obvious from the gaps that have started to appear in the blog, I’m now back from Vegas and have to catch up on writing the trip report alongside catching up on other almost-as-important things, like earning a living.  There’s still a couple of back-dated entries to come.

Just like last year, our most winningest day came right near the end so bragging about it will have lost some of it’s edge now I’m back at home.  But I’m still going to have a good go.

It started off at Red Rock, where we had a magic coupon to get $120 in “non-negotiable chips” for table game play for $100.

Usually the chips you get with this sort of offer are worth their face value for a bet, but when you win the promotional chip stays in play after you get paid off with real money.  To work your way through the bonus, you have to lose all the original chips.

At Red Rock, that they didn’t just give us $120 in promotional chips - $100 of it was in regular red $5s chips!  So to complete the bonus, you only have to lose $20 in bets.  The other $100 (of your own money) is completely risk free!

Still, this time we’d come to play and as there weren’t two adjacent seats free at a $5 blackjack table we sat down at Let It Ride, where I proceeded to hit an unholy run of great hands.

It kicked off with 334 in my hand I pulled one bet back before the dealer flipped the third 3.  Since I now had a wining hand, I let it ride, called for another 3 and it was almost as good… a 4!  Boat!

A full house pays 11-1 on every bet you have out there, so I won 22 x $5 = $110, and the $1 bonus sucker bet (hey, I was playing with their money) was worth another $150.

Then I hit a flush with two bets out there.  I’d already noted that the 8-1 payoff made it worth leaving your last bet in play on a flush draw when you are 39-9 (just over 4-1) to hit it.  That was $40 x 2 and a $50 sucker bonus for another $130.

What I hadn’t worked out is how much being able to see another player’s cards affects the draw.  You’re not meant to look at what everyone else has, but as there’s no disadvantage to letting someone else see your card, you generally don’t get players who pull up their hoodie and press their face into the felt just to grab the smalest peek in Let It Ride.

If fact, Claire and I openly show each other what we have so we can cheer for each other, or whinge about what a con those computerised shuffling machines are when we both have virtually identical hands with almost no chance of hitting a win.  Nobody cares.

When I found myself staring at four hearts just a couple of hands later, but saw that Claire already had two cards of my suit, I completely choked.  Partly thinking that the odds of hitting were much worse now than they really were, but also at the back of my mind that surely I couldn’t hit another flush so soon, I pulled a bet back.

Way to save five bucks.  Of course, the heart came on the river, and although I won $90 it would have been $130 if I’d let it ride, like I was meant to.

I should have taken a little more time to work out that even with only 7 hearts left in the deck out of 45 unknown cards I was still only slightly worse than 5-1 to hit it and so I should take the 8-1 odds they were offering me on that extra bet.

Still, any win on Let It Ride is worthy of a fanfare, and there was me with three of them!

Claire also won a bit and, for novelty value, we coloured up together and for the first time ever I got to hold one of these.

But there’s more.

We’d been to the Palms for dinner – which in itself was a win.  For the past two weeks they’ve been doing a daily giveaway that almost always awarded one or both of us $10 food credit.  For a while it looked like we’d have loads left over, but fortunately you can combine as many as you like when paying for one meal, rather than just getting a $10 discount each time you eat.  So we took a handful of them to Gardunos and had a very good Mexican meal.

On the way out, Claire said she wanted to play Loose Deuces Wild as we almost always hit jackpots on that game at the end of a trip.  See this and this for proof, and just accept that three or four times out of twenty something trips is “almost always”.

Horror of horrors – the Loose Deuces machines had gone!  It wasn’t the best game in the casino, but they are technically positive expectation machines (albeit a highly marginal 100.02% payback with perfect play) so hopefully this isn’t a sign of things to come.

Instead she decided to take a punt on $1-coin ($5 per game) Double Double Bonus Poker, which is an extremely volatile game, way beyond our bankroll, except for taking the occasional silly shot like this.  The paytable means you receive less for all the winning hands except for four of a kind, which can produce some very juicy payoffs much more often than the 40,000-1 royal flush.

“Just four spins”, she said.  It took three.

Hold a pair of aces.  Draw.  Deuce.  Ace.  Ace.

Jackpot! Two thousand dollars!

The machine locked up and went mental well before we’d actually realised what was going on.  Having held only one pair of aces for the other three perfect cards to drop in, it took a while to catch up.

I’d barely taken any notice of the upper end of the paytable and how that related to the $1 denomination.  I knew most quads were going to be $250, but aces, 2s, 3s and 4s were worth more.  But four aces with a 2, 3 or 4 kicker is an awesome win.  It pays 2,000 coins – half as much as a Royal Flush!

On a $1 machine, that’s $2,000 – which means a human has to pay you – and complete some tax paperwork.  I’m pleased to say that, once again, this was a painless experience and we got all the money without any problems.

It was impossible to get a photo of the jackpot screen without some kind of reflection spoiling it, so I made the best of it and lined up this one.

Yes, it’s four aces, and a kicker, and Kylie.

Day 33: Hold yer horses

I spent a few minutes taking photographs from the far side of the Excalibur’s garage this evening.

The side closest to the strip I’d already done.  You get a pretty good view of Mandalay Bay and Luxor.

Over the other side, you can see the bronze lion outside MGM Grand, or you can watch the NY-NY roller coaster go round.

You can also look away from the Strip and get an almost unobstructed view of the fabulous In-N-Out Burger neon sign.  If only that pesky freeway ramp wasn’t in the way…

After a few minutes of shooting, a security guard came up to me and asked what I was taking pictures of.

“Just buildings and signs and stuff”, I said.

“Uh huh”, he replied, in a “that’s what they all say” kind of tone.

“Well the girls down in the stables are getting excited”.

Stables?  Apparently, yes.  Stables.

With horses?  Apparently, yes.  With horses.

I really wanted a bit more of an explanation, but I didn’t get one.  I peered down over the wall where he had vaguely motioned his head and indeed there was a bit of a yard but I still didn’t exactly buy it.  More research was required.

True enough, the Excalibur has a dinner show that uses live horses, and I guess those animals would have to live on the property or close by.  But really, who keeps horses in a sandpit in the city, sandwiched between a car park and a freeway.

That’s Interstate 15 along the bottom of the picture with the funky exit ramp onto Tropicana Ave, leading up to the World’s Busiest Intersection.  Apparently the brown bit, bordered by these two busy roads and large surface-level parking lots as well as the three-level garage, is the World’s Smoggiest Stable.

Never mind the air quality though, the aerial photo evidence shows that those lucky horses do actually get to walk around in circles too.

Looks to me a bit like Horse prison.

I was hoping for a bit more of an insight into exactly what I was doing to raise the alarm.

Did “the girls” refer to the horses themselves, and if so why were they getting excited about me leaning on a wall, being quite still and not really making any noise?

Or if he meant the stable hands, were they really anxious that a guy in a distinctly unstealthy Hawaiian shirt who was clearly pointing his camera over their heads towards distant landmarks could have been casing the joint for a horse heist?

Of all the robberies to carry out in Las Vegas, rustling horses doesn’t exactly seem like an obvious one.  Maybe I’m underestimating the black market for animals trained to pretend to joust, but it just seems like there are many more desirable targets.

But whatever.  Either I was inadvertently causing trouble, or I’d met a guard who was quite loopy.  Either way I figured my best move was to get the hell out of there.

Day 32: Not a poker story

I always thought I’d write more about poker than I do.

Specifically right now, relative to how much I’ve been  playing in Las Vegas the past month, the volume of poker content in this trip report is really very low.

The thing is, unless I play a hand or a session that’s particularly out of the ordinary, or something eventful happens in or around the game, or someone says something clever or interesting, I probably won’t remember much and probably won’t bother to write anything down.

Today I played a hand and at the time I thought "that was quite interesting" so I typed some notes into my phone. Then when I came to write it up and wanted to slit my wrists out of boredom, I realised just how lame the story was.

In a nutshell, I made another player fold a better hand than mine.

Wow, stop the press.  That almost never happens in a poker game.

Now, I know I’m probably underestimating the wider appeal of a dry re-telling of a hand that made it all the way to a showdown.

There’s enough of it about that somebody has to actually enjoy reading "So I had two cards… and the flop brought three cards… I decided to [fold/call/raise]… of course he had [pick some garbage] for the [pick some suckout]".

Poker is not chess – there are only a few possible ways any given hand can play out.  You might make four or five decisions on a hand (but it’s usually less) and although the next card to be dealt could be one of forty-something left in the deck, those cards can be grouped together into just a few logical outcomes.  Completed a draw; paired the board; it’s a complete brick… 

Nothing is ever that surprising.

What makes poker exciting is having to make decisions based on the limited information that you have as a player at any given point in time.  Once it becomes a story, the very fact that somebody thinks it’s worth telling gives you more information than the player ever had at the time.

You can be fairly certain that it’s not going to end up with the hero making a pot-sized bet on the turn to take it down.

But you never know… perhaps, if I spin it the right way to make it sound like I had an awesome read and knew the other guy’s exact cards (including suits of course) and pretend that I did actually think I was beaten but also knew that I could get him to lay it down with a precisely sized bet, my story could single-handedly change the way the game is played.

At the very least, it would probably be enough to get a sponsorship deal from Ultimate Bet. 

Anyway, instead of today’s scheduled installment of poker snooze, here’s a picture of my new favourite street sign in Las Vegas, which just happens to be named after a poker hand.

Day 31: Is this you?

I don’t know why carrying a large camera along the Las Vegas Strip actually looks like a sign around your neck that says "Ask me to take your picture".

Actually I don’t mind at all, but if people think that just because it looks like I might know what I’m doing I can somehow produce stunning night portraits on the first attempt by hand-holding a compact camera I’ve never seen before and using its harsh built-in flash in wildly polluted Vegas lighting conditions, they’re probably going to be disappointed.

Tonight, in just a short walk between Caesars Palace and The Mirage, I was asked to take three pictures.

First, two English girls wanted to throw a quick pose by one of the Caesars statues.  I snapped them, and offered the screen so they could make sure it was OK, but really they just seemed happy that I’d had a go and didn’t want to bother me with nit-picking when I’d already done them a favour.  How very English.

Then there was a guy of unknown foreign origin who wanted a little more input into the creative direction of my work, albeit in broken English.  He knew where he wanted to stand and what to get in the background and gestured like a pro.  I understood every hand-wave.

He let me fire off a couple of shots and then broke pose for my personal appraisal and to initiate a brainstorming session.

"Can you …" was all he said, and his arms did the rest.  I knew immediately that he just wanted to be taken from the waist up.  I made the correction, shot, showed him and he gave me a thumbs up.  Another happy customer. 

And then there was this couple:

I was trying to do something with the big neon McDonald’s arch outside Harrah’s when the guy approached me.  The exchange went like this:

Him: "Hey, can you take our picture?"

Me: "Sure"

(They pose)

Me (confused): "Do you have a camera?"

Him: "No, but you do" (pointing, in case I’d forgotten where it was).

I took the picture and showed them how it turned out on the screen.

"Wow, we look good together", said the girl.

And that was that.  A quick thankyou and before I could even suggest giving me an email address so I could send them a copy they were off. 

It’s a bit of a long shot (although the person I saw hit a staight flush against quads at Bill’s last Christmas read my blog and went "woah that’s me") but if this is you – or one of them is your husband or wife – and you want a copy of the picture, leave a comment. 

Day 30: Two pair

I’ve only found two more new pairs of socks since my last report, but they’re both from the Rio and I’ve never found any Rio socks before so I guess it’s quality over quantity at the minute.

Day 29: Welcome to shagadelic Las Vegas

This weekend, Downtown Las Vegas is hosting Woodstock-Palooza, which features loads of different tribute bands playing on the two stages under the canopy as well as the usual "Summer of ’69" theming that’s smothering the area this summer.

We were Downtown for quite a while this evening, dotting between casinos on a craps crawl that was significantly more successful than usual (in other words, we left with money!) but I didn’t really see much of the musical entertainment.

When I heard a woman start singing, I turned to Claire and said "What really? Tina Turner was at Woodstock?".  She told me she thought it was probably meant to be Janis Joplin but I didn’t buy it.

I guess it was a bit of work on the side for one lucky Dealertainer.

A lot of the folks there were well into it.  Peace and love were all around and there was plenty of organised dancing (which this video captured much better than anything I got myself).

And, really, what better statement of flower power is there than wearing a balloon hat shaped like a daisy while you get drunk and gamble?

We did get to see an awesomely groovy show on the big screen canopy.  I don’t know if this one is just on this weekend for the Woodstock thing or it’s been there the whole summer alongside the less-appropriately themed shows featuring the music of Queen and Kiss.

It’s taken them nearly fifteen years to figure this out, but trippy psychedelic graphics are clearly what the massive Fremont Street Experience was made for.  It was extremely cool.

If you click through to YouTube you can watch the video in stunning high definition.  Although, really, it’s still no comparison to seeing it on a 1500 foot long screen…