The pilot has changed course to avoid the thunderstorm in the west and passengers on that side are crowding the windows. The black bank of clouds is randomly lit from within by strokes of lightning that burst and fade. It's a rich, gold light, wonderfully illuminating the edges and convolutions of the fat clouds and the faces profiled against the windows.
The plane circles and eases into the long descent for McCarran airport. We drop below the bottom of the clouds and for the first time the lightning — a shapeless muted fire inside the clouds — has form. Spectacular chains, double forks, and jagged spears stab into the round hills to the southwest. A particularly violent pair of spears, dueling across 5000 feet of sky, provokes gasps and "My Gods" from that side of the plane. My seatmate, who has studied a copy of Scarne on Dice since he boarded, looks up and over at the windows.
"Amazing!" I say.
He smiles and puts it in Nevada perspective. "Nature's neon," he says. "But wait until you see Fremont Street. You stand on the corner by the Golden Nugget and the lights roll over you like a flood. There's nothing like it in the world, not even Times Square."
This is my first visit to Las Vegas. I'm here to cover a sporting event for a magazine. When the assignment was offered, I didn't think it over for long, but I did think it over. Once you reach a certain age, you not only take credit for what you've done but for what you've avoided. Taking the assignment meant that I would be denied the pleasure of saying, "Las Vegas? Never been there!"
In the airport, awaiting the shuttle to the to the rental car agency, I do what the chamber of commerce hopes I would do. I head for the double row of slots. The dollar machines are at the ends. Between, on the left row are quarter machines and on the right — my speed — stand the nickel slots.
Now, even though I've never been to Las Vegas, I know better. Slots are a sucker bet. No skill involved, cheap entertainment at best. The only odds that are worse are in keno, faro, and roulette. Smart money plays craps and blackjack and poker. Against this certain knowledge is the time I have to kill and the three stray nickels in my pocket. What else can you get for a nickel?
The first pull is a seven, a bar, and a lemon. The light flashes, "Try Again!! Insert Coin;' which I do, and the light says: "Coin Accepted. Good Luck!!" Pull. A bell, a bar, and a purple ovoid that could be either a plum or a grape. Last coin. Another bell, another seven, and, on the left reel, a cherry. Two nickels clatter down into the metal trough.
Okay. That's acceptable. Maintenance. I feed in the first of the machine's nickels, flick the handle down, everything reels around and comes up plums. Plum. Plum. Plum. And twenty nickels clatter down into the trough. Yes!
I take that second lucky nickel, slap it in, yank that baby down, and the worst possible kind of encouragement takes place. Two cherries and a bar. Eight more nickels rattle onto the first layer and that first true shot of adrenaline rushes through me. I pick up a paper change cup from the table, scoop the coins in, and think unavoidably of destinies. The gods must be both awake and amenable, which means it could be one of the rare times in a life when you are rewarded for who you are rather than what you do.
I double up, two nickels each pull.
The roll continues. No jackpots, but steady four-to-one, eight-to-one payoffs, and the pile of coins in the trough mounts and spreads.
Some time has passed. Down at the end is an enquiring voice, "Thrifty Rent-A-Car?" A young man, twenty perhaps, with a cowlick, a tan, and an ingratiating manner, is walking the row and asking each slot-machine patron, "Thrifty Rent-A-Car?" Between patrons, at each empty machine, he pauses long enough to sl ip in a nickel and pull the handle. He hasn't won yet.
"Over here," I say. He looks first for my bags and then at the pile of coins. "You're doing all right," he says. The sense of destiny is deflated; what's left is this embarrassing pile of nickels. I scoop up a handful of coins and give them to him. "Let's get rid of some of these," I say, "and then we'll go."
"There's no hurry, sir," he says. "I've got time."
I start putting in three nickels at a pull. Slowly the pile shrinks. When it is a manageable size, we scoop it into cups and take it to the cashier. I've won a little more than ten dollars.
Once inside the small shuttle bus, left double-parked outside with the air conditioner going, we pull away from the terminal. "Sometimes," the driver tells me, "I think the airport slots pay better than anywhere else. It's like they want to get you started when you come in or make you feel better when you leave."
"Check-out time around here is 2:00 a.m. That's when folks in the casinos decide they've won enough or lost enough and will call it a night. Or, they look at the clock and decide to go head-on. Win back what they've lost or go for the whole megillah. The whole ball of wax. Hee, hee, hee. They're going to break the bank or go home broke."
— Gambler at the Tropicana Hotel bar
I'm in my room on the fifteenth floor of the Tropicana with the lights of the city laid out below me. Directly north on Las Vegas Avenue is the start of the Strip, The Marina, Aladdin, the Dunes, MGM Grand, Caesar's Palace. Most of these shrines are the height of midrange office buildings, but in this absolutely flat, two-story town, they tower over and dominate the skyline. Farther to the northwest is the red and yellow glow of Fremont Street, Casino Center ("Cowboy Center," a PR type at a blackjack table will later tell me, "locals, pensioners. Low rollers. High rollers stick to the Strip.").