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Close look at Las Vegas gambling

From the 15th floor of the Tropicana, I see the Strip, The Marina, Aladdin, the Dunes, MGM Grand, Caesar's Palace

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.").

The decorating scheme of the Tropicana is Bordello-Moderne: flocked wallpaper, dark rugs, and embossed Formica walnut, with massive brass rails and gray antiqued mirrors in the elevator. On the bureau is one of those table-tent signs that says, both sides, "Did we treat you like a winner?"

The casino is on the ground floor.

The first banks of slot machines ($$$1,000,000 Progression $$$) are within stumbling distance of the front door. The casino is not overwhelmingly impressive. When I checked in, I even asked where the main casino room was. I misunderstood. The casino, unlike the rest of the hotel, is not a display. You're not supposed to stand back and look at it. You're supposed to" dive in, with no transition, no formality, no feeling of awe. Your hand should be reaching for your wallet before you pass the bell captain's desk.

Lights flash, buzzers go off, and bells ring in the aisles of the slot machines. In the pit, at the crap tables, the crowd's voice rises and falls like an auctioneer's, building to a plea as the dice are rattled, exploding as they are thrown. It's like the moment when, after building the bidding to a gabble, the auctioneer slams the gavel down and yells, "Sold."

The heart of the pit are the blackjack tables — with minimum bets ranging from two dollars to one hundred dollars. There are even some nonsmoking blackjack tables, the only ones I find in Las Vegas.

A startling number of the. dealers are women. The pit bosses, supervisors, and midlevel executives are overwhelmingly male, but on this shift more than half the dealers are women. Even more noticeable is the surprising disparity in business at the tables. The women dealers do far more business. It's a week night, a slack time, but every woman dealer seems to have two or three players while some of the men stand with their arms folded, waiting for customers.

The next day, talking with a chamber of commerce rep, I asked if the numbers of women dealers owed anything to equal opportunity legislation. He thought not. He thought it was just something that worked out gradually, and there were two reasons for it, both discovered after the fact. First, he thought, gamblers prefer women dealers. They prefer to win from them and, more important, they don't mind losing to women as much. And second, women turned out to be better dealers on average, more dexterous, their fingers more nimble, their hands better suited to the deck.

Waiting for the elevator, I stand beside two hefty men in maroon leisure suits. They each carry two drinks, which they will apparently take to their rooms. Suddenly a lot Of shrieking comes from the casino and we all lean around the corner to see what's happening. People are rushing toward a far crap table. A woman's voice, boozy, broken, and hoarse, ascends from the crush of bodies. She is apparently screaming at the dice, "Come on, you bastards. Oh, you sonsabitches." There's a pause as the dice are thrown and then she shrieks, "Yeah! Oh yeah! Babies!" This goes on, with the crowd stacking deeper around that table, and her voice becomes more penetrating, rising to a grating screech.

One of the maroon hefties winces each time, exaggeratedly, and I understand that he is drunk. "Jeezus," he says to his friend, "I sure hope somebody shuts that broad up." His friend reacts with an expression I can only describe as slurred shock, his mouth is a wobbling indignant line and his eyes bulge. "Not as long as she's winning!" he says.

Seven a.m. at the buffet breakfast. It's $2.95, all you can eat, and that seems to be a direct order for most patrons. In the booth beside me are three immense women. Two wear pastel pantsuits, the third wears a vertically striped dress, with a sweater over her shoulders. They are working through their third course now, platters of meat. Each plate once held a stack of ham slices, a mound of sausages, a crosshatch pile of bacon. The woman in the dress and sweater smears a dab of butter on each sausage and then pours a little pancake syrup on it before she cuts it up.

Earlier, their first-course plates held croissants, pastries, sweet rolls, sliced bagels, soft rolls, hard rolls, and three kinds of muffins, and on the side of each plate, one thoughtful bit of fruit. Two of them chose melon, one selected a cluster of grapes. They left the fruit for last, which is when one of the pantsuit ladies looked at her cantaloupe with dismay. "I thought I wanted that," she said, "but I don't believe I can finish it." She offered it to her friend, who obliged, and then they all got up together to rejoin the buffet line.

There, they waited politely, not cutting in like so many others - skipping ahead for specific seconds - but just waiting for the line to move along. Past the pastries and rolls, past the fruit, to the steam table. Here they assembled second courses: half plates of hard-scrambled eggs and half plates of potatoes O'Brien.

In the restaurant around me are about a hundred eaters, at least eighty of them are overeaters - mildly to enthusiastically overweight. First postulate: Some people come to Las Vegas to gamble. Second postulate: A lot of people come to Las Vegas to eat. Over the next few days, at every meal and every time I swing wide in a hallway or sidewalk to pass yet another mountainous body, the second postulate is hammered into a firm belief. Every casino, motel, bar, and hotel offers a caloric incentive on its signboard: 49c Breakfast 49c (Eggs, biscuits & gravy). Prime Rib, King Size Cuts, $4.95. Complete Steak Dinners — Under $5.

The ladies light fresh cigarettes.

Their smoke rolls and joins the layer from this level of booths and tables. Looking down through the levels of smoke to the line of buffet tables is a little like squinting to see freeway taillights on a very foggy night. Postulate I: Some people come to Las Vegas to gamble. Postulate II: A lot of people come to Las Vegas to eat. Postulate III: Generations come here to smoke.

There is a twenty-four-hour concentration and intensity to smokers in Las Vegas. It's like a giant airport waiting room. In the restaurants people smoke between courses, sometimes between bites. They smoke constantly at the gambling tables and between dives at pools ide. The magician in one lounge act I saw went through three packs in the course of his act, and the only things that differentiated him from the audience was that he brought his cigarettes out from handkerchiefs and fists ready lit, stamped them out only ten percent smoked. and admitted afterward that he did not inhale.

The waitress totters by my table and in passing tilts the coffeepot sideways and spills me a refill. Not a drop spatters or washes over the brim. She circles merrily along the row of booths, spilling without looking, a perfect refill every time. She is about sixty years of age and quite mad.

When the hostess brought me to this booth, I sat and waited for the waitress and for coffee. I don't do well without coffee. I need coffee in the morning. The coffee didn't come. After about five minutes, I stumbled down to the buffet, collected juice, more juice, and a muffin. When I got back the coffee still wasn't there. I think I may have sat for a while, gazing hope full y at my cup the way my cat meditates on her bowl.

None of the other waitresses knew where she was. Finally she stepped out from the back and walked between the booths of her station, head tilted, wagging a finger at all the pleading faces. "I'll be right with you. Right with you." She returned with a coffeepot, holding it up beside her ear. Her honey-blonde curly wig was slightly askew, a tilt opposite to the tilt of her head and the angle of her smile which is a crimson smear. Her rouge was the same color as her lipstick, bright round spots of color on her cheeks to match her round china blue eyes. At my table she smiled into a space

"More coffee, sir?" poured half a cup, and again retired to the back. It was five minutes before she returned to pour another cup, but after that it was like the Sorcerer's Apprentice; she was at my side and pouring every other minute, just one stop on a continual circle route of her station.

Later in the day, when the caffeine had made me human, I thought about the waitress and decided that she was fine and maybe even her employment represented a display of loyalty on the part of the management. The more I thought about that, the more it seemed that maybe this was one good thing about Las Vegas.

"It's a company town, they take care of their own, and loyalty - both ways - matters to them." That was what I thought and it would certainly explain the dotty waitress, and the cackling parking attendant I saw at another hotel. He was going off shift and had taken all the keys off the board and tossed them into a wastebasket. While I watched, he was shaking the can to mix the keys and talking to himself. "Know what I say? Fuck , em." He tossed the keys and caught them. "If you ask me, fuck 'em." Loyalty would also go a long way toward explaining the number of bad lounge acts. Why else would management keep hiring all that live Muzak and approximate jukebox? They had to be family.

I tested this theory on a faultless cowboy from Fremont Street who may have been playing for the house. Mostly he laughed. "Loyalty? Mah ass and saddle sores, 's not loyalty. It's union. That lady is in the union and they're not about to touch her."

His sympathies were certainly with the house. He thought what problems Las Vegas had (he didn't think there were many and he liked almost all the lounge acts) were union-related. "They interfere with proper bidness," he explained. Look here. How many beautiful women you see working in the casinos? There used to be hundreds of them. Look around now, how many beautiful women you see working here? I looked. Shrugged. Deciided that "Beauty is in the beholder" was not the answer sought. "Not many," he said. "There's about two working here and they're both cigarette girls. Know why? girls ain't union."

He tipped his hat back emphatically and leaned closer, his voice dropping. "You look at the cocktail waitresses here. 'Specially around the pit. Most of them, they're fifty or sixty years old. That's union for you. They got seniority so they get the best spots and you can't get rid of them, no matter how old nor ugly they get. Now that's not not right. It's not proper bidness.

"I'll tell you something else. You look at these old gals and some of them can barely walk." He shook his head. "But they never miss a day."

"Why is that?"

"Would you? If it cost you three to four hundred bucks every time?"

"Do they make that much?"

"Hell, yes! This is something the general public don't understand. It's all tips. Gamblers the best tippers in the world, win or lose. Some of them in the hotels make unbelievable money. We're talking eighty to a hundred thousand bucks a year. Now mind, that's not what it says on tax returns, but that's what some of them make. And half the time they can't keep your order straight."

When you vIsit Las Vegas with any quasi-official status, you get a lot of help from the chamber of commerce. Or at Ieast you are offered a lot of help. They are there to serve. This kind of willingness is, of course, regarded with some suspicion by members of the press, particularly those from small-town or small-time publications, who can't imagine why anyone would help. Unless they wanted something. The small-timers tend to refer to chamber of commerce press aides as f1acks and' hacks. In fact, they are not. They are very good at what they do. They know the territory.

They know whom to call, which buttons to push, they try to smooth the way, and they don't really expect a return. What you write is your business. Occasionally they hope. What they hoped for in my case, was that I would attend the Tropicana's show: Le Folies Bergere. Of which they, and the Tropicana. were very proud.

The job of the assistant maitre d' — the Tropicana seems to have about twelve of them — is to pick up a party at the maitre d's desk and conduct people to their seats, a maximum journey of perhaps fifty yards.

It amazes me that grown men make a good living by preceding people through a semi darkened room. There are nuances, of course. There is a certain pacing - nipping ahead and then slowing at the first step to confide, "I have a very good table for you tonight, Mr. Mathews." Assistant maitre d's must wear formal dress in a crowd that mainly wears shorts, pantsuits, and sweat shirts. A few affect accents. They must maintain a certain thick-skinned dignity, a certain nimbleness and discretion in accepting tips. (The basic move is a quarter turn of the body as the left hand slides back to accept the tip. The thank you is always a mellifluous murmur.)

A lot of the Continental ooze and affectation is, however, wasted on this crowd. A bass fishing tournament is taking place at Lake Mead, with a number of fishermen and some wives here for this evening's show. A good number of these good and bad old boys, like me, don't feel they'd have much problem finding their own seats, and show it. They treat the assistant maitre d's about the way they would a movie theater usher and, as the fisherman who made that comparison said later, "at least a usher would . carry a flashlight so you'd know what the hell he was there for."

As I watch them gliding back and forth, I begin to understand. Their job is not ushering. Most of their living is made by showing the right people to the wrong seats. This produces flurries of disappointment, unmet expectations are expressed, a cash transaction occurs, and the move to better seats follows.

Sometimes it doesn't work out. They guess wrong - not hard to do with this crowd. The tall blond assistant maitre d' who brought me to my table has a new couple in tow. She is redheaded, in a genuine evening gown. He wears a three-piece tan suit with a red paisley handkerchief that actually matches his tie. They are seriously dressed by Vegas standards, and the a.m. d ', who has been gauging them all the way down the stairs, is nearly purring by the time he closes on our table. He assists the lady at the bottom stairs, tenderly gripping her elbow so she may safely negotiate the final step.

He tosses a hand at the table he's chosen and says, "Will this table be satisfactory, sir?" It's actually a good table. Center, right in front of the stage. Except that I'm sitting there, along with about eight fishermen or wives and two overweight chain smokers. None of us is what you would call seriously dressed, except possibly the overweight chain smokers, who have matching blue sweat, shirts and sweat pants.

The redhead looks at the stage and at us and says, "What do you think, John?" Before John can answer, the a.m. d' tosses a hand backward, indicating the adjacent row of half-circle heavily upholstered booths (apparently the hot ticket) and says, "Orrrrr, Would m'sieur prefer a banquette?"

''A whut?" John says.

"A banquette, sir," and again the a.m. d' flings a hand.

John points at what the a.m. d' is flinging his hand toward. "You mean them booths?"

The redhead nods her head vigorously. The a.m. d', teetering gracefully toward a dip or a bow, says, "Perhaps I can arrange it, sir," and streaks up the stairs.

John looks about them, and at the table. "This looks fine," he says, and tugs out two chairs. The redhead sits down with sort of a bump and says, "Whatever you think, John." As John sits, the a.m. d' breathlessly returns to announce that, with some shifting, some adjustment, he has indeed secured a banquette.

John says, "Nah. This's fine.

Thanks." The a.m. d' can only reel back and grit out, "Very good, sir," before sprinting back up the stairs.

"Ladies and gentlemen," the announcer intones, in the plummy, confiding manner much favored among Las Vegas emcees. "Welcome to this, the sixteenth edition of Le Folies Bergere. " His voice booms; he's overmiked, another Las Vegas tradition.

The curtain ascends. According to the program, we are in "Le Music Hall de Paris: 1900's." Featured performers include "Les Danseuses and Les Danseurs and Les Aero Dancers." The program and the emcee insist on this kind of addled French. Frenglish, I suppose. Velveeta, under this regime, would be described as "Le Cheese."

With yelps and high-pitched squeals, the dancers wheel out and bounce across the stage, tossing their heads, fluffing their elaborate costumes. All very French, all very turnof-the-century. Except for the dancing, which is absolutely American, choreographed with a lot of bounce, weave, and acrobatics. Except for the faces, again pure American. The women look like Florida high school cheerleaders who went to State U to major in "Aerobotics/Dancing" with a minor in heavy make-up. The men look like drum-major majors from non-ag colleges with minors in advertising enthusiasm and fixed smile.

Later we will sit through the performance of Le Magician Lance Burton, who does the standard European act - producing doves, cigarettes, and handkerchiefs. We will sit through Le Marionette Master and Ventriloquist, a cadaverous, goateed man named Barclay Shaw. His chief marionette, a huge hen named Madam Clara Cluck, is a poultry version of Wayland Flowers's Madam. We will sit through Le Tumbling, Le Fart Jokes, Le Singing, and Le Potty Jokes because periodically we get to see the reason for the show: Le Tits.

"Statuesque" is the obligatory word in every article written about showgirls. They are all five feet, nine inches or taller, well over six feet in spike heels. Statuesque is also the appropriate word. Statues are what they try to resemble. In the program, these dozen or so showgirls are referred to as "Les Mannequins."

They first appear toward the middle of scene one. The stage darkens. There is a hush. They glide out of the dark in two lines and descend the stairs. The expectant hush has become a reverential one, and continues. Their faces are masklike, as identical as make-up and firm composure can make them. They hold their arms well out, fingers delicately splayed, like tightrope walkers. Their costumes are spangled and beaded, but beneath the gaudy upholstery is something very close to Rudy Geinrich's first topless bathing suit: shoulder straps that end around the waist.

Their breasts are indeed beautiful.

And in contrast to the near-identical faces above, each pair of breasts is unique - slightly different in shape, cant, size, aureole, and nipple. Some are alert, some are not.

The two lines march close to the edge of the stage and cross, so you get the range: full front, quarter, and side view. Their long legs scissor in precision step and their breasts follow in precision bobble. Except that some don't. A few don't seem to move at all. Not now, as they are walking, or later, when Les Mannequins lie down flat on their backs. These few remain standing, straight up, while the others settle pneumatically.

The show is fast-paced and undemanding. Rapid scene changes, much motion, glitter. Les Mannequins appear periodically. They march back and forth. It seems to be enough. It satisfies something in this crowd. At times, I think it must mean something. Then I think, no. Doesn't have to. This is America. The just are. Like the assistant maitre d's, and that's enough.

In my second year of college, when I only wanted to be left along with my journalism and literature classes, I was forced to sample other fields to meet "breadth requirements." One of those courses was "Probability and Statistics." It turned out to be one of the most valuable classes I ever had.

The statistics part was dry (mean, median, mode) but useful. The probability portion was largely gambling theory. The single concept that Dr. Hardison tried hardest to stick in our thick skulls was the concept of independent trials. Each throw of the dice, each toss of the coin, each spin of the wheel (unless the equipment is faulty) is an independent trial. A simpler way of putting it is: The dice have no memory.

This is a relatively simple and immutable truth, but an amazing number of people don't know it or refuse to believe it. Las Vegas was built on these people.

Example: The odds of a coin coming up heads on a fair toss is even, or 1 to I, expressed 2/1. The odds of a coin coming up heads twice is 2/1 X 2/1 = 4/1. The odds of it coming up heads nine times in a row is 512/1. But, if it has already come up heads eight times, the odds that it will come up heads again is: I to I. Even.

What many people will read into those circumstances, however, is that tails is due. That somehow, the odds have shifted, that the previous eight heads work against another heads and for tails. The casinos thrive on the idea of dueness.

I was walking through the keno room when Dr. Hardison's class came to mind. On the electronic signboard that displays the keno numbers is a separate section showing the numbers that haven't come up lately. For example, 37 had not been picked in sixteen games. And 9 had not shown in twenty-three games. The implication was that these numbers were "due." Same goes for the crap tables - three straight passes and half the table starts to bet against the shooter. Five reds in roulette, and there's a rush to bet black.

It's my last night in town. It's after midnight, and I've been gambling about three hours, mainly poker. I'm about ten dollars ahead and ready to switch to blackjack. So far, the night feels like a break-even proposition. That's assuming my time isn't worth anything.

I've got a morning flight out tomorrow. I'm prepared to quit at 1 a.m. Check-out time, as the man told me the first day.

I walk through the tables, looking for the right dealer. A Eurasian woman is working, four players at her table, and she watches me go by as she shuffles. I find the table I'm looking for: two-dollar minimum. The only player is a white-haired woman who is yawning. The dealer is about 50 and crew-cut, with triple chins. He seems grateful to see me.

The game warms up slowly. He wins. I win. Minimum bets. No real snap or spark. Then, two hands in a row, things start to perk up. For no good reason, boredom perhaps, or a hunch, we both double our bets. I stand on seventeen. She takes one card, holds on what turns out to be nineteen. Dealer busts. The next hand is a virtual mirror. We look at each other, and let it ride.

I get a seven and a three and double down. She stands, on thirteen it turns out. It doesn't matter. Dealer busts, the third straight time. We smile at each other. The dealer, sensing a roll, starts to sweat. His reaction seems a little extreme -- it's not much of a streak -- but it may have started before us. He doesn't act like he's having a good day. He acts like a man in the middle of a bad year, possibly a bad decade.

Two cocktail waitresses, the sensitive early warning systems for the casinos, appear at our elbows. One takes our orders, one remains to watch. A pit boss, on his rounds, glances over the dealer's shoulder, watching the next hand.

I stand on fifteen. The white-haired woman, whose name is Elsie - in the middle of the deal she decided we were probably partners in the conspiracy, introduced herself, and shook my hand - turns over a blackjack. The dealer rolls a jack to go with his five, then busts himself with an eight. He blinks and pays off. The sweat is trickling down his sideburns as the pit boss taps him on the shoulder and tells him it's time for his break. The new dealer is a small neat man with delicate wrists. "Nguyen," his nameplate says.

I sit out a hand and think things over. I'm up about 90 dollars. Ahead. It occurs to me that if I quit now, if I don't gamble anymore, get on the plane, and never come back, then I've won. Score — Me: 1, Las Vegas: 0. For life.

I waver for about ten seconds. Intuition wins, of course. Smiling, convinced I'm in the service of something larger than logic, I tell the dealer, Nguyen, "I'll play." It takes almost an hour for my small pile to dribble away. I've kept a rough count, and when it gets close to the pivot point, I stop and figure it exactly. "I'm even," I say, "time to go."

"It was nice meeting you," Elsie says, yawning again. But she's still winning and plans to play as long as her luck holds.

I have one obligation left. I've held aside twenty bucks for four promised long-distance roulette bets, two for loved ones, two for friends. The loved ones picked numbers, 7 and 8, the friends made color bets, red. Four spins — loved ones lose. Red wins.

It's 2:00 a.m. Check-out time. I cash in and make one last circuit of the casino, looking into the faces of the players and dealers. Hieronymous Bosch would have loved some of these faces. So would Brueghel.

At McCarran airport, my seatmate from the flight in slumps in a plastic bucket seat in the waiting room. He looks stunned. Wasted. His tie is gone. His book is gone. His jacket is crumpled on the seat beside him. His unshaven gray face and his red eyes have that look of self-loathing peculiar to Las Vegas, the look of a man who went outside logic, trusted his luck, and now feels reduced and stupid for believing.

"You were right about Fremont Street," I tell him. He looks up, trying to establish who I might be. Some time passes before the pain leaves his eyes and I come into focus. "About the neon," I say.

"Oh," he says.

I know better, but I have to ask. The standard question, among corporate strangers in the rest of America, is: What do you do? The Las Vegas question is: "How did you do?

"How did you do?" I ask.

He winces and the pain flicks through his eyes again. "Not too well," he says.

After a moment he continues the liturgy. "How did you do?"

"Even," I say.

"Even?"

"Yep. Even. But I'm even for life."

He think about that. He smiles wanly and with some sympathy. "Yeah, I know," he says. "I do that too. I always swear I'm never coming back."

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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.").

The decorating scheme of the Tropicana is Bordello-Moderne: flocked wallpaper, dark rugs, and embossed Formica walnut, with massive brass rails and gray antiqued mirrors in the elevator. On the bureau is one of those table-tent signs that says, both sides, "Did we treat you like a winner?"

The casino is on the ground floor.

The first banks of slot machines ($$$1,000,000 Progression $$$) are within stumbling distance of the front door. The casino is not overwhelmingly impressive. When I checked in, I even asked where the main casino room was. I misunderstood. The casino, unlike the rest of the hotel, is not a display. You're not supposed to stand back and look at it. You're supposed to" dive in, with no transition, no formality, no feeling of awe. Your hand should be reaching for your wallet before you pass the bell captain's desk.

Lights flash, buzzers go off, and bells ring in the aisles of the slot machines. In the pit, at the crap tables, the crowd's voice rises and falls like an auctioneer's, building to a plea as the dice are rattled, exploding as they are thrown. It's like the moment when, after building the bidding to a gabble, the auctioneer slams the gavel down and yells, "Sold."

The heart of the pit are the blackjack tables — with minimum bets ranging from two dollars to one hundred dollars. There are even some nonsmoking blackjack tables, the only ones I find in Las Vegas.

A startling number of the. dealers are women. The pit bosses, supervisors, and midlevel executives are overwhelmingly male, but on this shift more than half the dealers are women. Even more noticeable is the surprising disparity in business at the tables. The women dealers do far more business. It's a week night, a slack time, but every woman dealer seems to have two or three players while some of the men stand with their arms folded, waiting for customers.

The next day, talking with a chamber of commerce rep, I asked if the numbers of women dealers owed anything to equal opportunity legislation. He thought not. He thought it was just something that worked out gradually, and there were two reasons for it, both discovered after the fact. First, he thought, gamblers prefer women dealers. They prefer to win from them and, more important, they don't mind losing to women as much. And second, women turned out to be better dealers on average, more dexterous, their fingers more nimble, their hands better suited to the deck.

Waiting for the elevator, I stand beside two hefty men in maroon leisure suits. They each carry two drinks, which they will apparently take to their rooms. Suddenly a lot Of shrieking comes from the casino and we all lean around the corner to see what's happening. People are rushing toward a far crap table. A woman's voice, boozy, broken, and hoarse, ascends from the crush of bodies. She is apparently screaming at the dice, "Come on, you bastards. Oh, you sonsabitches." There's a pause as the dice are thrown and then she shrieks, "Yeah! Oh yeah! Babies!" This goes on, with the crowd stacking deeper around that table, and her voice becomes more penetrating, rising to a grating screech.

One of the maroon hefties winces each time, exaggeratedly, and I understand that he is drunk. "Jeezus," he says to his friend, "I sure hope somebody shuts that broad up." His friend reacts with an expression I can only describe as slurred shock, his mouth is a wobbling indignant line and his eyes bulge. "Not as long as she's winning!" he says.

Seven a.m. at the buffet breakfast. It's $2.95, all you can eat, and that seems to be a direct order for most patrons. In the booth beside me are three immense women. Two wear pastel pantsuits, the third wears a vertically striped dress, with a sweater over her shoulders. They are working through their third course now, platters of meat. Each plate once held a stack of ham slices, a mound of sausages, a crosshatch pile of bacon. The woman in the dress and sweater smears a dab of butter on each sausage and then pours a little pancake syrup on it before she cuts it up.

Earlier, their first-course plates held croissants, pastries, sweet rolls, sliced bagels, soft rolls, hard rolls, and three kinds of muffins, and on the side of each plate, one thoughtful bit of fruit. Two of them chose melon, one selected a cluster of grapes. They left the fruit for last, which is when one of the pantsuit ladies looked at her cantaloupe with dismay. "I thought I wanted that," she said, "but I don't believe I can finish it." She offered it to her friend, who obliged, and then they all got up together to rejoin the buffet line.

There, they waited politely, not cutting in like so many others - skipping ahead for specific seconds - but just waiting for the line to move along. Past the pastries and rolls, past the fruit, to the steam table. Here they assembled second courses: half plates of hard-scrambled eggs and half plates of potatoes O'Brien.

In the restaurant around me are about a hundred eaters, at least eighty of them are overeaters - mildly to enthusiastically overweight. First postulate: Some people come to Las Vegas to gamble. Second postulate: A lot of people come to Las Vegas to eat. Over the next few days, at every meal and every time I swing wide in a hallway or sidewalk to pass yet another mountainous body, the second postulate is hammered into a firm belief. Every casino, motel, bar, and hotel offers a caloric incentive on its signboard: 49c Breakfast 49c (Eggs, biscuits & gravy). Prime Rib, King Size Cuts, $4.95. Complete Steak Dinners — Under $5.

The ladies light fresh cigarettes.

Their smoke rolls and joins the layer from this level of booths and tables. Looking down through the levels of smoke to the line of buffet tables is a little like squinting to see freeway taillights on a very foggy night. Postulate I: Some people come to Las Vegas to gamble. Postulate II: A lot of people come to Las Vegas to eat. Postulate III: Generations come here to smoke.

There is a twenty-four-hour concentration and intensity to smokers in Las Vegas. It's like a giant airport waiting room. In the restaurants people smoke between courses, sometimes between bites. They smoke constantly at the gambling tables and between dives at pools ide. The magician in one lounge act I saw went through three packs in the course of his act, and the only things that differentiated him from the audience was that he brought his cigarettes out from handkerchiefs and fists ready lit, stamped them out only ten percent smoked. and admitted afterward that he did not inhale.

The waitress totters by my table and in passing tilts the coffeepot sideways and spills me a refill. Not a drop spatters or washes over the brim. She circles merrily along the row of booths, spilling without looking, a perfect refill every time. She is about sixty years of age and quite mad.

When the hostess brought me to this booth, I sat and waited for the waitress and for coffee. I don't do well without coffee. I need coffee in the morning. The coffee didn't come. After about five minutes, I stumbled down to the buffet, collected juice, more juice, and a muffin. When I got back the coffee still wasn't there. I think I may have sat for a while, gazing hope full y at my cup the way my cat meditates on her bowl.

None of the other waitresses knew where she was. Finally she stepped out from the back and walked between the booths of her station, head tilted, wagging a finger at all the pleading faces. "I'll be right with you. Right with you." She returned with a coffeepot, holding it up beside her ear. Her honey-blonde curly wig was slightly askew, a tilt opposite to the tilt of her head and the angle of her smile which is a crimson smear. Her rouge was the same color as her lipstick, bright round spots of color on her cheeks to match her round china blue eyes. At my table she smiled into a space

"More coffee, sir?" poured half a cup, and again retired to the back. It was five minutes before she returned to pour another cup, but after that it was like the Sorcerer's Apprentice; she was at my side and pouring every other minute, just one stop on a continual circle route of her station.

Later in the day, when the caffeine had made me human, I thought about the waitress and decided that she was fine and maybe even her employment represented a display of loyalty on the part of the management. The more I thought about that, the more it seemed that maybe this was one good thing about Las Vegas.

"It's a company town, they take care of their own, and loyalty - both ways - matters to them." That was what I thought and it would certainly explain the dotty waitress, and the cackling parking attendant I saw at another hotel. He was going off shift and had taken all the keys off the board and tossed them into a wastebasket. While I watched, he was shaking the can to mix the keys and talking to himself. "Know what I say? Fuck , em." He tossed the keys and caught them. "If you ask me, fuck 'em." Loyalty would also go a long way toward explaining the number of bad lounge acts. Why else would management keep hiring all that live Muzak and approximate jukebox? They had to be family.

I tested this theory on a faultless cowboy from Fremont Street who may have been playing for the house. Mostly he laughed. "Loyalty? Mah ass and saddle sores, 's not loyalty. It's union. That lady is in the union and they're not about to touch her."

His sympathies were certainly with the house. He thought what problems Las Vegas had (he didn't think there were many and he liked almost all the lounge acts) were union-related. "They interfere with proper bidness," he explained. Look here. How many beautiful women you see working in the casinos? There used to be hundreds of them. Look around now, how many beautiful women you see working here? I looked. Shrugged. Deciided that "Beauty is in the beholder" was not the answer sought. "Not many," he said. "There's about two working here and they're both cigarette girls. Know why? girls ain't union."

He tipped his hat back emphatically and leaned closer, his voice dropping. "You look at the cocktail waitresses here. 'Specially around the pit. Most of them, they're fifty or sixty years old. That's union for you. They got seniority so they get the best spots and you can't get rid of them, no matter how old nor ugly they get. Now that's not not right. It's not proper bidness.

"I'll tell you something else. You look at these old gals and some of them can barely walk." He shook his head. "But they never miss a day."

"Why is that?"

"Would you? If it cost you three to four hundred bucks every time?"

"Do they make that much?"

"Hell, yes! This is something the general public don't understand. It's all tips. Gamblers the best tippers in the world, win or lose. Some of them in the hotels make unbelievable money. We're talking eighty to a hundred thousand bucks a year. Now mind, that's not what it says on tax returns, but that's what some of them make. And half the time they can't keep your order straight."

When you vIsit Las Vegas with any quasi-official status, you get a lot of help from the chamber of commerce. Or at Ieast you are offered a lot of help. They are there to serve. This kind of willingness is, of course, regarded with some suspicion by members of the press, particularly those from small-town or small-time publications, who can't imagine why anyone would help. Unless they wanted something. The small-timers tend to refer to chamber of commerce press aides as f1acks and' hacks. In fact, they are not. They are very good at what they do. They know the territory.

They know whom to call, which buttons to push, they try to smooth the way, and they don't really expect a return. What you write is your business. Occasionally they hope. What they hoped for in my case, was that I would attend the Tropicana's show: Le Folies Bergere. Of which they, and the Tropicana. were very proud.

The job of the assistant maitre d' — the Tropicana seems to have about twelve of them — is to pick up a party at the maitre d's desk and conduct people to their seats, a maximum journey of perhaps fifty yards.

It amazes me that grown men make a good living by preceding people through a semi darkened room. There are nuances, of course. There is a certain pacing - nipping ahead and then slowing at the first step to confide, "I have a very good table for you tonight, Mr. Mathews." Assistant maitre d's must wear formal dress in a crowd that mainly wears shorts, pantsuits, and sweat shirts. A few affect accents. They must maintain a certain thick-skinned dignity, a certain nimbleness and discretion in accepting tips. (The basic move is a quarter turn of the body as the left hand slides back to accept the tip. The thank you is always a mellifluous murmur.)

A lot of the Continental ooze and affectation is, however, wasted on this crowd. A bass fishing tournament is taking place at Lake Mead, with a number of fishermen and some wives here for this evening's show. A good number of these good and bad old boys, like me, don't feel they'd have much problem finding their own seats, and show it. They treat the assistant maitre d's about the way they would a movie theater usher and, as the fisherman who made that comparison said later, "at least a usher would . carry a flashlight so you'd know what the hell he was there for."

As I watch them gliding back and forth, I begin to understand. Their job is not ushering. Most of their living is made by showing the right people to the wrong seats. This produces flurries of disappointment, unmet expectations are expressed, a cash transaction occurs, and the move to better seats follows.

Sometimes it doesn't work out. They guess wrong - not hard to do with this crowd. The tall blond assistant maitre d' who brought me to my table has a new couple in tow. She is redheaded, in a genuine evening gown. He wears a three-piece tan suit with a red paisley handkerchief that actually matches his tie. They are seriously dressed by Vegas standards, and the a.m. d ', who has been gauging them all the way down the stairs, is nearly purring by the time he closes on our table. He assists the lady at the bottom stairs, tenderly gripping her elbow so she may safely negotiate the final step.

He tosses a hand at the table he's chosen and says, "Will this table be satisfactory, sir?" It's actually a good table. Center, right in front of the stage. Except that I'm sitting there, along with about eight fishermen or wives and two overweight chain smokers. None of us is what you would call seriously dressed, except possibly the overweight chain smokers, who have matching blue sweat, shirts and sweat pants.

The redhead looks at the stage and at us and says, "What do you think, John?" Before John can answer, the a.m. d' tosses a hand backward, indicating the adjacent row of half-circle heavily upholstered booths (apparently the hot ticket) and says, "Orrrrr, Would m'sieur prefer a banquette?"

''A whut?" John says.

"A banquette, sir," and again the a.m. d' flings a hand.

John points at what the a.m. d' is flinging his hand toward. "You mean them booths?"

The redhead nods her head vigorously. The a.m. d', teetering gracefully toward a dip or a bow, says, "Perhaps I can arrange it, sir," and streaks up the stairs.

John looks about them, and at the table. "This looks fine," he says, and tugs out two chairs. The redhead sits down with sort of a bump and says, "Whatever you think, John." As John sits, the a.m. d' breathlessly returns to announce that, with some shifting, some adjustment, he has indeed secured a banquette.

John says, "Nah. This's fine.

Thanks." The a.m. d' can only reel back and grit out, "Very good, sir," before sprinting back up the stairs.

"Ladies and gentlemen," the announcer intones, in the plummy, confiding manner much favored among Las Vegas emcees. "Welcome to this, the sixteenth edition of Le Folies Bergere. " His voice booms; he's overmiked, another Las Vegas tradition.

The curtain ascends. According to the program, we are in "Le Music Hall de Paris: 1900's." Featured performers include "Les Danseuses and Les Danseurs and Les Aero Dancers." The program and the emcee insist on this kind of addled French. Frenglish, I suppose. Velveeta, under this regime, would be described as "Le Cheese."

With yelps and high-pitched squeals, the dancers wheel out and bounce across the stage, tossing their heads, fluffing their elaborate costumes. All very French, all very turnof-the-century. Except for the dancing, which is absolutely American, choreographed with a lot of bounce, weave, and acrobatics. Except for the faces, again pure American. The women look like Florida high school cheerleaders who went to State U to major in "Aerobotics/Dancing" with a minor in heavy make-up. The men look like drum-major majors from non-ag colleges with minors in advertising enthusiasm and fixed smile.

Later we will sit through the performance of Le Magician Lance Burton, who does the standard European act - producing doves, cigarettes, and handkerchiefs. We will sit through Le Marionette Master and Ventriloquist, a cadaverous, goateed man named Barclay Shaw. His chief marionette, a huge hen named Madam Clara Cluck, is a poultry version of Wayland Flowers's Madam. We will sit through Le Tumbling, Le Fart Jokes, Le Singing, and Le Potty Jokes because periodically we get to see the reason for the show: Le Tits.

"Statuesque" is the obligatory word in every article written about showgirls. They are all five feet, nine inches or taller, well over six feet in spike heels. Statuesque is also the appropriate word. Statues are what they try to resemble. In the program, these dozen or so showgirls are referred to as "Les Mannequins."

They first appear toward the middle of scene one. The stage darkens. There is a hush. They glide out of the dark in two lines and descend the stairs. The expectant hush has become a reverential one, and continues. Their faces are masklike, as identical as make-up and firm composure can make them. They hold their arms well out, fingers delicately splayed, like tightrope walkers. Their costumes are spangled and beaded, but beneath the gaudy upholstery is something very close to Rudy Geinrich's first topless bathing suit: shoulder straps that end around the waist.

Their breasts are indeed beautiful.

And in contrast to the near-identical faces above, each pair of breasts is unique - slightly different in shape, cant, size, aureole, and nipple. Some are alert, some are not.

The two lines march close to the edge of the stage and cross, so you get the range: full front, quarter, and side view. Their long legs scissor in precision step and their breasts follow in precision bobble. Except that some don't. A few don't seem to move at all. Not now, as they are walking, or later, when Les Mannequins lie down flat on their backs. These few remain standing, straight up, while the others settle pneumatically.

The show is fast-paced and undemanding. Rapid scene changes, much motion, glitter. Les Mannequins appear periodically. They march back and forth. It seems to be enough. It satisfies something in this crowd. At times, I think it must mean something. Then I think, no. Doesn't have to. This is America. The just are. Like the assistant maitre d's, and that's enough.

In my second year of college, when I only wanted to be left along with my journalism and literature classes, I was forced to sample other fields to meet "breadth requirements." One of those courses was "Probability and Statistics." It turned out to be one of the most valuable classes I ever had.

The statistics part was dry (mean, median, mode) but useful. The probability portion was largely gambling theory. The single concept that Dr. Hardison tried hardest to stick in our thick skulls was the concept of independent trials. Each throw of the dice, each toss of the coin, each spin of the wheel (unless the equipment is faulty) is an independent trial. A simpler way of putting it is: The dice have no memory.

This is a relatively simple and immutable truth, but an amazing number of people don't know it or refuse to believe it. Las Vegas was built on these people.

Example: The odds of a coin coming up heads on a fair toss is even, or 1 to I, expressed 2/1. The odds of a coin coming up heads twice is 2/1 X 2/1 = 4/1. The odds of it coming up heads nine times in a row is 512/1. But, if it has already come up heads eight times, the odds that it will come up heads again is: I to I. Even.

What many people will read into those circumstances, however, is that tails is due. That somehow, the odds have shifted, that the previous eight heads work against another heads and for tails. The casinos thrive on the idea of dueness.

I was walking through the keno room when Dr. Hardison's class came to mind. On the electronic signboard that displays the keno numbers is a separate section showing the numbers that haven't come up lately. For example, 37 had not been picked in sixteen games. And 9 had not shown in twenty-three games. The implication was that these numbers were "due." Same goes for the crap tables - three straight passes and half the table starts to bet against the shooter. Five reds in roulette, and there's a rush to bet black.

It's my last night in town. It's after midnight, and I've been gambling about three hours, mainly poker. I'm about ten dollars ahead and ready to switch to blackjack. So far, the night feels like a break-even proposition. That's assuming my time isn't worth anything.

I've got a morning flight out tomorrow. I'm prepared to quit at 1 a.m. Check-out time, as the man told me the first day.

I walk through the tables, looking for the right dealer. A Eurasian woman is working, four players at her table, and she watches me go by as she shuffles. I find the table I'm looking for: two-dollar minimum. The only player is a white-haired woman who is yawning. The dealer is about 50 and crew-cut, with triple chins. He seems grateful to see me.

The game warms up slowly. He wins. I win. Minimum bets. No real snap or spark. Then, two hands in a row, things start to perk up. For no good reason, boredom perhaps, or a hunch, we both double our bets. I stand on seventeen. She takes one card, holds on what turns out to be nineteen. Dealer busts. The next hand is a virtual mirror. We look at each other, and let it ride.

I get a seven and a three and double down. She stands, on thirteen it turns out. It doesn't matter. Dealer busts, the third straight time. We smile at each other. The dealer, sensing a roll, starts to sweat. His reaction seems a little extreme -- it's not much of a streak -- but it may have started before us. He doesn't act like he's having a good day. He acts like a man in the middle of a bad year, possibly a bad decade.

Two cocktail waitresses, the sensitive early warning systems for the casinos, appear at our elbows. One takes our orders, one remains to watch. A pit boss, on his rounds, glances over the dealer's shoulder, watching the next hand.

I stand on fifteen. The white-haired woman, whose name is Elsie - in the middle of the deal she decided we were probably partners in the conspiracy, introduced herself, and shook my hand - turns over a blackjack. The dealer rolls a jack to go with his five, then busts himself with an eight. He blinks and pays off. The sweat is trickling down his sideburns as the pit boss taps him on the shoulder and tells him it's time for his break. The new dealer is a small neat man with delicate wrists. "Nguyen," his nameplate says.

I sit out a hand and think things over. I'm up about 90 dollars. Ahead. It occurs to me that if I quit now, if I don't gamble anymore, get on the plane, and never come back, then I've won. Score — Me: 1, Las Vegas: 0. For life.

I waver for about ten seconds. Intuition wins, of course. Smiling, convinced I'm in the service of something larger than logic, I tell the dealer, Nguyen, "I'll play." It takes almost an hour for my small pile to dribble away. I've kept a rough count, and when it gets close to the pivot point, I stop and figure it exactly. "I'm even," I say, "time to go."

"It was nice meeting you," Elsie says, yawning again. But she's still winning and plans to play as long as her luck holds.

I have one obligation left. I've held aside twenty bucks for four promised long-distance roulette bets, two for loved ones, two for friends. The loved ones picked numbers, 7 and 8, the friends made color bets, red. Four spins — loved ones lose. Red wins.

It's 2:00 a.m. Check-out time. I cash in and make one last circuit of the casino, looking into the faces of the players and dealers. Hieronymous Bosch would have loved some of these faces. So would Brueghel.

At McCarran airport, my seatmate from the flight in slumps in a plastic bucket seat in the waiting room. He looks stunned. Wasted. His tie is gone. His book is gone. His jacket is crumpled on the seat beside him. His unshaven gray face and his red eyes have that look of self-loathing peculiar to Las Vegas, the look of a man who went outside logic, trusted his luck, and now feels reduced and stupid for believing.

"You were right about Fremont Street," I tell him. He looks up, trying to establish who I might be. Some time passes before the pain leaves his eyes and I come into focus. "About the neon," I say.

"Oh," he says.

I know better, but I have to ask. The standard question, among corporate strangers in the rest of America, is: What do you do? The Las Vegas question is: "How did you do?

"How did you do?" I ask.

He winces and the pain flicks through his eyes again. "Not too well," he says.

After a moment he continues the liturgy. "How did you do?"

"Even," I say.

"Even?"

"Yep. Even. But I'm even for life."

He think about that. He smiles wanly and with some sympathy. "Yeah, I know," he says. "I do that too. I always swear I'm never coming back."

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