Vegas: What You Want It To Be

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Going by popular image, there are three Vegas stories, and at best only one of them is true: the beauty, the beast, and the weird. The beauty is what you see in movie Vegas and the commercials—beautiful bodies in pools, perfect smiling teeth at a craps table, fake greens shabbily stapled down to the desert, and worn out, smoky grandmas at slot machines.

The weird is believing you’re going to go there and recreate Hunter Thompson’s journey…although where are you getting your hands on authentic adrenochrome?

I’d heard all three stories from people. Probably the most immediate to my mind was the short stop-over my brother, Morgan, had made in Vegas during a West Coast road trip several years back. He and his friend had been pushing pretty hard through the night and pulled into Vegas at about 5 a.m. Five a.m., generally, is just about the best point to ensure you see the beast of Vegas. Anyone who was looking good at 10 p.m. has either gone to sleep or isn’t looking so good anymore. The city is on patrol, cleaning itself up to deal with every vacationer waking up in four or five hours and convincing them the last few drunken memories of the previous night maybe were just a bad dream. Sober and wide-eyed, though, Morgan pulled on to the Strip on a quiet spring morning. Swept into piles, as he described it, were postcards and matchbooks for every call girl service you could imagine—every depravity this side of Southeast Asia. The image so incensed him he had a bit of a meltdown right there. An elderly couple (out early? out late?) walked down the other side of the street, and Morgan began shouting, “Whore? Are you a whore? How much does it cost to have sex with you? It’s all for sale here!” His friend had to drag him back to the car.

I figured there was a pretty good chance I wouldn’t enjoy it, either.

A month ago I finished up my MBA, and a few classmates of mine decided to pull together a trip. Upon arriving, I saw the fascinating reality of Vegas, though, is that it’s always what you want it to be. It’s the perfect illusion, rearranging itself moment by moment for tens of thousands of tourists year-round. Vegas is in some sense a vast super-computer, out-thinking and out-stepping the NSA, NORAD, or even Deep Blue. Need Vegas to be the land of expensive tastes and beautiful women all just slightly in-reach? You’ll have it. Want a land of solitude where you can let yourself go to hell? You got it. For the right price, they’ll even feign shock at your antics and let you live the dream as the outsider who is too crazy even for this town.

The realization came on slowly for me, but it was figuring out blackjack that brought me to this conclusion. Understand, I’m not much of a gambler. I can lose money as fast as anyone, but that’s about it. Blackjack, especially, intimidated me. I stayed away from the tables and fast moving hands, mostly just watching my friend Dave hack through high-stakes tables in vengeance of a bad parking spot at Mandalay Bay.

My third day, though, I finally worked up the courage to sit at an empty $10 table. My first hand came out: 14 with the dealer showing a 5. I paused.

“You’d want to stand.”

I looked up, trying to not look like someone who never played before. The dealer cut right through it.

“Book odds. Stand on 14 with a 5 showing.”

I held. The dealer flipped her card, threw down another, and showed a 20. That was that. I lost. But she was right—it was the accepted move by the book.

I asked Dave about this. Apparently any dealer will tell you the book odds. No fussing over it. I thought about it. Vegas will surrender that sloppy little extra odds in their favor, just to make you comfortable playing. It makes sense for them in the long run—the odds still tip toward the house—but while you’re there they not only want you to feel welcome to sit at the tables, but they want you to feel like a man with an edge! Lightning fast decision making, sipping on a clear liquor? They’ll put it right there for you. And if that’s what you want, you’ll love it and keep coming back.

That feeling goes beyond the tables, though. My friend had tickets to a concert that weekend. Goo Goo Dolls and Matchbox 20 were touring and in town. Two bands that you think of as great teenage bands when you’re my age. Didn’t one of them do a song for a Nic Cage movie? My friend Chandler asked between songs, “Shouldn’t this guy be at home? Tucking in a nine-year-old or something?”

But with the magic of Vegas, you’re just as cool seeing that concert now as if it were 1997. A (presumably) pregnant girl twirled around in front of her seat like she was in standing room only. John Rzeznik said before a song, “This is for all the blondes out there,” and you would have thought that was the most amazing pickup line the world had to offer. If you spend money to feel cool in Vegas, you are going to feel cool.

And that’s the trick of it. Vegas can’t give you everything—they have to win to keep the town from being eaten by those Desert Gods. But a feeling is free if you know how to do it right.

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