As I stated in part one of this series, I have been gambling, to some extent, for a large portion of my life. I played my first hand of 7-card stud when I was 16, and would play that game almost exclusively for years until I first went to a casino in 1991. (Back then, the gambling/drinking age in Louisiana was 18, so it was normal for Texas teens to travel there as a "rite of passage" and lose money in the casinos.)
Prior to that first casino visit in Lake Charles, Louisiana, I really hadn't paid much attention to casinos. They offer negative expectation games (which I didn't like) and, to be honest, I was a little intimidated with blackjack, poker in a casino, etc. Plus, I was broke through most of the late Nineties, early Aughts which precluded me dumping a ton of money into entertainment. Most days I was just trying to scrape together enough money to pay the bills and possibly buy some Totino's party pizzas.
Also, I drank, a little too much back in those days, something that I now write off to the ignorance of youth. I still do, occasionally, partake in alcohol, but it's far less often these days and the quality of drink is much, much higher.
That catalyst for that change was meeting, and marrying, my wife. My wife is a woman who always found challenges in healthy exercise. She wanted to lift weights and work out and, secondarily, to compete. So we found ourselves training her to compete in NPC Figure (think of it as bodybuilding 'light') competitions. Prior to her first competition in November 2007, the IFBB was holding their annual Mr. Olympia contest in late September.
Of course, we HAD to go. So, we went.
Now you might think, as a poker player (albeit a home game player exclusively) that I would have been to Las Vegas before I was 34, but you would be wrong. I've never been much for bachelor parties (I've attended only 5 in my life, none in Vegas and only one that involved a strip-club), and I was not, then, much of a traveler. Prior to 2007 I had only been on a plane three times in my life.
So, off to Las Vegas we went. The wife to watch the bodybuilding and attend the product exposition (and event in and of itself) myself to gamble in a Vegas casino for the first time. I still remember getting off the plane to this day. To my mind, McCarron is one of the great airports in the country, and not because of the slot-machines (although those help) but because of the baggage claim area in what is now Terminal 1. It's a gaudy, glitzy, campy, totally Las Vegas place that advertises magic, burlesque and big-name stars all surrounded by the normal trappings of an airport. In short: It's still my favorite place to de-plane in the world.
One of my least favorite things to do in the world is walk outside of those airport doors for the first time. Even in September it was hot, and dry. It's like stepping out of a wonder land straight into the waiting mouth of the Devil's largest kiln.
On our first taxi ride we got long-hauled. Of course, back then I didn't know what that was. Today I always get a car from a limo service so that's not a concern. On the upside, they'll always let us stop by a CVS or Walgreen's to pick up water, energy drinks and other sundries that we can get for 1/3 of the price off the Strip.
The Strip, when you see it for the first time, even 10 years ago, unless you are dead it almost takes your breath away. The lights combined with the size of the resorts is staggering, it almost belies belief. You've seen Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold at the beginning of Vegas Vacation in the limo? That was me, but in a cab. It was one of the best cab rides I've ever had up until that point in my life.
We were deposited at Treasure Island (not yet TI, and they still had the ship) which was where I found the cheapest rooms at the time. Unfortunately for us, the Mr. Olympia was being held at the Mandalay Bay, and we didn't realize just how far that was down the Strip from where we were staying. Still, TI was, and remains, one of my favorite properties on the Strip, probably because I have (mostly) good memories there.
We checked in, got to our room, and my wife took a nap while I hit the casino. I walked up to a .25 cent Wheel of Fortune slot, put in $20 and won $200 on the third spin. In retrospect this was one of the worst things to happen to me because I still feel a need to play the old, classic, 3-coin per play Wheel machines whenever I can find them.
Being conservative, I quit. Cashed out the ticket (it was actually $236.50, an amount I'll never forget) and went up to the room to take a nap myself before heading to the show. Friday night at the Mr. Olympia was "ladies night" back then. So we watched the show and then went to an after-party being put on by Craig Titus and Kelly Ryan, two competitors who are now both in jail for killing their live-in associate some years later. Great crowd those bodybuilders, and that's the biggest reason my wife quit competing a little over a year later.
To be fair though, some of them were pretty nice. But all of them were, how to say this....sexually "liberated" and for my wife it just came down to one to many times being propositioned by men (and women) in order to improve her placings etc.
So after the after party my wife went back to the hotel and went to bed, and I went over to the old Steamboat hotel and casino to get my revenge on blackjack.
Some revenge. I got destroyed. First, (remember, this was in my younger, much, MUCH, wilder days) I drank too much bourbon and coke. Second, I still was just a hunch player in blackjack. I tried to act all suave and cool as my $200 winnings went away and then started cutting into my $500 bank roll for the trip and, to be honest, I really should have stopped. But I was drunk and having fun and, 4 hours later, at 5:30AM, I had blown through my entire bank-roll and one additional trip to the ATM to "get it back".
I was also way, way too drunk, out of cigarettes (something else that I used to do but don't any more) and over 3/4 of the way down the Strip from my hotel. The only option was walking, so...walk I did. Somehow I made it to my room and made it to the bad. The next day, at noon, when I woke up, my wife was ready to go to the Expo but I was too hungover. I had blown it. I spent most of the day in bed, only emerging at 5PM to grab something light to eat before heading to the evening show.
I was clearly done gambling for this trip and, to be honest, I didn't want to ever play blackjack again. I was sick, defeated, and utterly beaten down. Worst of all I cost my wife a day at the exposition, something she didn't let me live down until it was her turn to get sick in Vegas.
But that's a story for another part of this tale.