Good Karma in Sin City

A summary of our trip to Las Vegas last weekend, with pictures!

So as I said, Debbi and I went to Las Vegas for a long weekend. We left Saturday afternoon and got to Las Vegas without a hitch.

No, the hitches only started after we landed.

First, the shuttle bus we took (Showtime) had a very grumpy driver, who took forever to load all the passengers, and took forever to get us to our hotel. It took us an hour after getting our bags to get to our hotel. Not cool. We stayed at the Excalibur, which is not the flashiest hotel, but its rates are cheap. Unfortunately, for the third consecutive time they didn’t have a king-sized bed that Debbi had requested, so we ended up with two queens instead. This isn’t a horrible thing, but it does make you feel like they’re pulling a fast one on you.

And on top of that, I realized after we were nicely ensconced in our hotel room that I’d left one of my poker books on the plane. Argh.

Fortunately, things mostly got better from here on out. Starting with dinner. I did some research on restaurants on the Strip (for instance, at Vegas.com) and found some places we hadn’t been, at least not there. So Friday night we went to Il Fornaio at New York New York, which was quite tasty.

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The Hoover Dam

The main reason we made this trip a 4-night stay was to visit the Hoover Dam. We took this tour, which was actually quite good: A chatty bus driver who provided perspective on the trip and some funny commentary (often using the word “dam”, of course), a 2-hour stay at the Dam, lunch at the buffet of a nearby Casino, and a trip to the Ethel M chocolate factory and cactus garden. All things considered, the lunch and Ethel M stops are probably not essential, so if you decide to go you might want to skip the Deluxe tour, but it wasn’t bad.

The Dam, however, was cool. The thing is really huge, and the tour takes you down into the Dam to see the turbines, and further down to see one of the huge metal spillways built into the canyon walls. There’s also a lot of fascinating historical info on the Dam, which was built during the Great Depression and was a cutting-edge engineering feat then, and would probably still be a pretty impressive effort even today.

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The Hoover Dam
(click on an image to view it full size)

The views from the Dam are stunning: Lake Mead on one side, the continuation of the Colorado River on the other, the walls of the Black Canyon, and the highway running right over the top of the Dam. Meanwhile, a new superhighway is being built to run over the Canyon a few hundred feet downriver from the Dam, to help with traffic and to provide some redundancy in case the Dam ever comes to harm (natural or otherwise) and has to have its roadway closed.

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The Dam Turbines

Plus, each side of the Dam are in different time zones, which means you can walk across into another time zone. And beyond that, I added a new state – Arizona – to the list of those I’ve visited.

The Hoover Dam: A very cool visit. I recommend it.

In the evening we made our usual trip to the Bally’s steak house. It’s really quite good, as I’m sure I’ve said before, and well worth the price. Casual dress is fine, and the wait staff treats everyone promptly and well. Someday we may try another steak house in Vegas, but we’re in no rush; we like this one.

Penn & Teller

Monday I played in my first-ever poker tournament (about which more later), and then had lunch at the Rainforest Cafe in the MGM Grand (mainly because I wanted the chicken-fried steak). Then in mid-afternoon we headed over to the Rio in order to see Penn & Teller.

Now, I should mention this up front: The Rio is not on the strip, and is in fact about a half-hour walk from the nearest point on the strip, through an area which – while not dangerous – is in fact extremely boring (you walk over a freeway, for instance). I highly recommend not doing this walk, and instead catching the Rio shuttle from one of several strip hotels (such as Bally’s, which is also on the Las Vegas Monorail). Unless you really need the exercise, which – after eating a chicken-fried steak – I arguably did.

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The Rio as Seen From Our Walk Over

The Rio is also the home of the World Series of Poker, so I was curious to play in their poker room. However, it turned out to be rather small, and the whole time they were there they only had 2-3 games going, so I never did. Oh, well!

Penn & Teller themselves were quite cool. Although the show was on the short side (about 75 minutes), the hour before the show features Penn on bass and Mike Jones on piano. I liked Jones’ style a lot, and may need to pick up some of his work on CD.

Now, I’ve seen Penn & Teller on TV a couple of times, including their turn on Babylon 5, but that’s only a few appearances, so their act was basically new to me. I think what I enjoyed most were Penn’s feats of dexterity, by which I mean juggling, as well as his witty banter throughout the show (it wouldn’t be the same show without it). I found the magic tricks to be uneven: I enjoyed the tricks where they revealed how they did it, although it mostly seems to rely on sleight-of-hand, much the way that Richard Feynman described lockpicking as mainly using some heuristics that work in many common cases, but not all. I was also intrigued by Penn’s demonstration of psychic scams such as cold reading, hot reading, and a third whose name I can’t remember. I was disappointed that he didn’t discuss how these tricks worked (which made me wonder whether they actually did employ a very sophisticated mechanism for using plants in the audience, despite the pains they took to show that they weren’t), but at least I can read up on them on-line.

(If anyone knows their act and can remember the third method Penn used, please let me know so I can read up on it!)

Honestly, even knowing how they do it, it’s still pretty impressive.

My biggest disappointment was their closing trick, the “magic bullet” trick, which despite the large build-up just isn’t a real impressive trick, I thought, mainly because bullets are so small that there’s not a real big “wow!” moment.

Despite that, it was a cool show, and I’d go see them again, since I guess they change up their act on a regular basis.

Gambling

Most of the rest of our trip was spent gambling.

Now, I get ribbed a bit by some of my cow-orkers about this: In general, you have a negative expectation when gambling. But the whole point of gambling is to win money, yet overall you can expect to lose money. So am I just paying a math tax, or what?

Well, some of both. I don’t find slot machines very compelling, since there’s no skill at all involved. While the bright lights can be entertaining, I don’t want to spend a lot of money on them. So these days I only play the penny slots, where my losses can be minimized. I’ll also play some video poker, where you can win money. And then I play “real” poker, because I figure with some practice I will eventually actually be better than most of the poker players in Vegas (who tend to be tourists), and I can actually win money. Plus, in poker there is skill involved, so it’s a real game, and therefore interesting to me, because I like games.

But I also enjoy gambling because I get to spend time with Debbi while we’re in Vegas. In fact, I tend to repeatedly confirm with her that it’s okay that I play poker, because since she doesn’t play, that means we’ll be doing separate things while I play. But she doesn’t mind. So we do some things together, and other times I play poker. So it works out.

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Sometimes we just go watch the Bellagio Fountains

Anyway, our first night there I played some poker for a couple of hours and went up to cash in my chips. The woman behind the desk said, “So that’s… six hundred and ten dollars.”

“Uh,” I said, “those are ones.”

She smacked her head and gave me my one hundred and two dollars, and thanked me for being honest. “So many people around here just try to get anything they can, even if they have to lie about it,” she said. Well, while an extra $500 isn’t nothing, it’s not going to change my life, either, so I figured why not be honest about it? (As people have pointed out to me since, the $500 probably means a lot more to her than it does to me.)

Debbi points to this bit of honesty as the moment of good karma which explains my good luck for the rest of the trip, to wit:

I won $220 playing penny slots!

I mean, geez, have you ever heard of anyone winning this much at penny slots?

When playing a slot machine, I usually look for one with several “controls” to make the game slightly more interesting, even though I know it doesn’t make a lick of difference in whether you actually win. At the Rio, I noticed a new (to me), Mardi Gras-themed slot called Carnival of Mystery, so I played that. After figuring out how it worked, I started making some $1.25 bets on it, and soon found myself regularly winning $10 or $20 every few spins, and was soon up over $60 from my original $20. This seemed deeply peculiar, and though I would usually cash out with that amount of profit, I kept playing. And eventually got up over $150. Then the machine finally went cold (another concept which makes no mathematical sense since the machine presumably uses a true pseudorandom computer algorithm to perform the spins) and I cashed out at $100.

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This was the silliest thing I saw at the Rio
Part of the Masquerade Show in the Sky

Then, the next day at Bally’s, I found another of the same machines, put in my $20 and played for a bit. I got down to $5 and figured the end was nigh.

And then on one spin I won $144.00.

Since the machine pays out in credits, I had to do the math multiple times just to convince myself that I’d really won $144.00 and not $14.40. But no, I really did. After a few more small wins, I cashed out at $150.

I had some more wins on an old standby, Hexbreaker, and ended up about +$220.00 on the penny slots for the trip. Which is really just amazing. It paid for (basically) my losses at the poker tables and our Penn & Teller tickets. I’ll say it again: Geez!

Like I said, it’s not life-changing money, but it doesn’t hurt, and I came by it honestly, so I have no regrets about it at all.

My poker exploits were less impressive. I stuck to low-limit games an lost about $80 during the weekend. Plus the entry fee for the tournament, since I did well, but not well enough to cash. I’m going to write a separate entry for all the geeky poker goodness of the trip. I had a good time and learned some stuff, but I’m still not a winning poker player.

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Lion Cubs at the MGM Grand

Going Home

We ate a lot of good food on the trip. Besides what I mentioned above, we also had lunch at the Cafe Bellagio (which turns out to border the hotel’s conservatory, not its famous outside pool as I’d thought) and at Kahunaville at Treasure Island. While Kahunaville had good food, it was its mixed drinks that really stood out: I got a White Chocotini, which consisted of white chocolate liqueur, Bailey’s Irish Creme, and vodka, in a martini glass lined with a veneer of chocolate syrup. Wow. Debbi got a Rum Runner, an extremely tasty fruity drink. They were really, really good.

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View from our table at Cafe Bellagio

But finally on Wednesday it was time to go home. Actually, I was feeling like the trip was a day longer than it needed to be, and coming home was not such a bad thing. We certainly had a good time, but next time we’ll probably stick to just 3 nights in Vegas.

Getting through security at the Vegas airport took forever, but we finally made it back home, and were greeted by happy kitties on our arrival. Coming home was marred a bit by dropping my stone turtle which I use as card protector when playing poker, and breaking two extremities. I might be able to glue it back together, but I was really angry, since it’s a really nice little carving that I picked up at WisCon last year. Grrr. Thinking about it still makes me upset, but I have no one but myself to blame.

But, we’re home now, and we’re one big happy (mostly furry) family again. It was a good trip, but it’s good to be home.

Return to Disneyland

This past weekend was time for our annual trip to Disneyland. It’s “annual” in the sense that Debbi and her friends really love Disneyland and the Disney characters, but while I enjoy the rides I don’t enjoy them so much to go more than once an year, whereas they, well, do. So I guess it’s really my “annual” trip to Disneyland.

Anyway. If you’re new to reading about this whole thing in my journal, you can find last year’s accounts and links to earlier ones here.

This year’s trip didn’t start off auspiciously. Debbi and I went to dinner Wednesday night, and when we came out of the restaurant I turned the key to my car and – well, the lights on the dash come on, sort of, and the starter clicked, and not much else happened.

Yes, my car’s battery had died.

The AAA guy who came to jump my car said I should have my battery framed, since it was the original battery from 1999, and he says most people are lucky to get 5 years out of a battery like this, not 7. Fortunately, we always rent a minivan or something for these multi-person trips to Disneyland, so my car could just sit in the garage until Monday. Which it was destined to do, since it got home without a hitch, but as soon as I turned off the engine it refused to start again. The battery’s so dead it won’t even work the door locks with the remote clicker.

We were scheduled to meet Lisa and Michel to get the aforementioned minivan at the airport, but of course we were late, since we drove home to drop off my car and switch to Debbi’s. It turns out it wouldn’t have been much faster had my car worked properly since there was a hitch in picking up the van, so by the time we got there everything had just gotten smoothed out.

All-in-all, we ended up not getting home until around 9:30, which meant we were up until close to midnight packing and otherwise getting ready. A bit of a pain since Lisa and Michel picked us up at 8 am on Thursday morning. Fortunately the rest of our long weekend was pretty smooth. By leaving early, we managed to avoid the worst of the traffic in LA.

Disneyland was pretty good this time around, although usually we’re there on Sunday and Monday, and it seems that the park is just insanely full on Saturday. Sheeesh! I think we were a little disappointed that we weren’t able to ride some of the major rides as much as we usually do because of the long lines.

On the bright side, we did get to ride the big roller coaster in California Adventure several times, which ain’t bad since it’s probably my favorite ride in the whole park. I also got in a good zinger on the Jungle Cruise, for which the “guides” are known for their bad puns. It went something like this:

Guide: This… is a boat. Spelled B… O… uh… T… E.

(Objections from a few patrons.)

Guide: Well, how do you smell “tote”?

(A little confused muttering.)

Guide: T-O-T-E. So if you replaced the ‘T’ with a ‘B’, then you have ‘boat’!”

Me: Or you have “tobe”.

Guide: No… uh…. yes, you do.

It’s good to be a smartass.

We got a little rain Friday night, and a bunch of rain Saturday night (right while we were sitting down to dinner, naturally), but otherwise the weather was warm and mostly sunny. Thanks to that, I even was able to ride the Grizzy River Run – one of my favorites – even though everyone else in our party-of-six wimped out! (Lisa’s friend Yvonne and her boyfriend Wender were also with us.) I managed to avoid getting soaked, even though a woman on my raft had a big wave come right up over her lap and purse!

(I guess we missed a whole bunch of rain that got dumped on the Bay Area over the weekend, too.)

Debbi and Lisa push themselves pretty hard to have as much fun as possible at the park while we’re there, and my feet just give out after a certain number of hours. I went back to the hotel a little early on Friday night, and happened to stumble across a concert called Celtic Woman on PBS, which featured some orchestral arrangements of celtic music and a few contemporary songs, sung by a quintet of ladies (and one fiddler) backed by orchestra and a small chorus. It was pretty neat. I might need to buy their CD, seeing as I’m a sucker for:

  1. Celtic music;
  2. Lush orchestral arrangements, and
  3. Lovely female vocals (as opposed to lovely female vocalists, whom I appreciate as much as the next guy, but whose appeal doesn’t come through in an audio medium).

Debbi enjoyed it too, as we watched some of it when re-run on Saturday night. It turns out she has a fondness for productions like that, which I hadn’t known!

So now we’re home, and we picked up Chinese take-out for dinner, I finished reading Tim Powers’ new novel (review coming soon!), and I made a fire so we could have a lazy and warm evening at home. Mission accomplished, I say!

Tomorrow I get to find out if Michel’s car-jumper works, and I’ll find some place to get my battery replaced. I figure if the dealer can’t take me, I’ll either go to Sears, or to a repair place a few blocks away (or maybe I’ll try the last place first). It’s just a battery (I hope), so I bet it doesn’t matter much.

Wish me luck!