Beer and Boozing in Las Vegas: A Cautionary Tale

Everyone’s had that fantasy, right? I know I have—the one where you’re crossing the hotel lobby in Las Vegas and pass by a row of slot machines. You haven’t had the time (or maybe even the inclination) to gamble in earnest, but it’s Vegas, and you feel like it’s an experience worth checking off your bucket list. So, you drop a quarter into the closest machine, pull the lever, shift your weight to walk away…and then the lights start flashing, bells start ringing, and coins come pouring out the tray like the Hoover Dam just broke.

About ten years ago, I was at a bar in Odessa, Texas, at about 1:30 a.m. We were sitting in a large, loose circle around the patio table out back. Eventually, the talk turned to Las Vegas. My friends Marshall and Crosby were talking about taking a trip there sometime in the fall when they could both use a couple vacation days. I’ve gambled plenty, mostly during guys’ poker nights, and I can’t help but see money I’ve traded in for chips as money I’ve spent to have a good time. If I win, that’s an added bonus. But if I lose, I just tell myself I spent ten bucks the way I’d have spent ten bucks at a movie or at dinner or at a bar. No Saturday night out is really free, after all.

But Vegas talk was getting one of their other friends, Scott, excited. I’d never met Scott before. “Have I told y’all about my first trip there?” he asked us.

“I don’t think so,” Marshall said. “Please, sir. The floor’s yours.”

Scott took a sip of his whiskey and Coke. “I can’t tell you a lot about it, to be honest. I was out on the floor of some casino or another. Once you’ve been to three or four, they all start to look the same.” He pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. He was easily twice the age of anyone else there.

“Sure,” Crosby said.

Scott continued. “I was back at the hotel I was staying at, and I was drinking a lot. A lot. They just keep serving you, bringing these free drinks by, and I was going nuts. I was at the blackjack table. I was playing every hand, good or bad, because you can’t win if you don’t play, right? Anyway, I must have been there for a while, because this bouncer came up to me and told me it was time to call it a night.

“‘You’re screwin’ up, guy,’ is what he told me. ‘You’re screwin’ up big.’ And this whole time, I’m looking up at him, and I’m saying, ‘No. Not me, no.’” Scott grabbed the collar of his shirt between his thumb and index fingers, tweaked it as he grinned broadly at all of us. “I’m telling him, ‘No. I’m a winner!’”

“I’m gonna guess you weren’t a winner,” Marshall said.

“I don’t remember leaving the floor,” said Scott. “All I remember is getting back into my room and digging through my pockets. I found $80 cash—”

“That’s not too bad,” said Crosby.

“—and two ATM receipts, one for $900, one for $1800,” Scott finished.

The circle exploded.

“Oh, that’s not even the best part,” he said. “The best part was calling my wife—my first wife, of course—” he added with a sly grin, “to wire me enough cash to get home.” He took a drink, shook his head. “That was a fun conversation.”

It's a central tenet of the city’s mythical appeal, the idea of winning big on one lucky play. And the key word there is “luck.” No amount of preparation or experience can make the next card that the dealer flips over the one you need. It’s all up to the luck of the draw. And the harder you try, the more money you end up pouring in—to the point where, by the time you “win big,” you’re lucky just to break even.

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