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Leaving Las Vegas

After a year in Sin City, our intrepid football guru is packing up and moving out

Amid all the stuff I’ve written this week about bets for the upcoming NFL season in Vegas, now seems like a good time to mention that I’m going to wrap up my Vegas adventure and move back to the East Coast at the end of August. Today marks exactly one year since I moved into the Veer Towers in the center of the Strip, so I’ll finish my run in Sin City at just under 13 months. And you know, it’s be—

You went broke, didn’t you?

What? Who are you?

Doesn’t matter. But why would you move out of Vegas?!? You can live wherever you want and you’re choosing to move out? You definitely went broke. I wouldn’t have gone broke.

I didn’t go broke.

I should have been writing that column for you. I knew the 49ers were gonna be great before last season. And then I knew that the Giants were going to make that late-season run to the Super Bowl. They always succeed when their backs are against the wall. I bet on them every week here at home.

You should move to Vegas! Sounds like you would be making Billy Walters run errands for you in no time. You must be great at this. I wasn’t.

So you did go broke.

Nope. I lost a bit, but I wasn’t anywhere near destitute.

How much did you lose?

Altogether, I’d estimate that I lost a little more than $4,000, roughly split 50-50 between sports betting and poker. I’m not too thrilled about it in hindsight, but over the course of hundreds of bets and sessions at the poker tables, it wasn’t a big deal.

You should have been betting more. Vegas isn’t any fun unless you have your rent money on the line.

Maybe. I guess I just don’t have that level of degen in me.

Oh, I get it. Grantland was paying for your bets and your rent, so who cares, right?

Common misconception. Aside from paying me my salary, Grantland wasn’t involved in funding this adventure; the only thing I didn’t directly pay for out of my own pocket was the Hilton Supercontest, which I was staked into. Every bet I made and resulting risk/position I took was mine alone.

Well, at least you must have some good gambling stories, right?

I thought you would never ask!

What was the best bet you made? No — better — what was the worst bet you made?

Let me go through it in terms of my much-beloved process-outcome matrix. Since a bet can emanate from a good process or a bad one while producing a positive or negative outcome, there are four different types of bets to consider. Over the course of my year in Vegas, I went through each type.

Good Process–Good Outcome: These are the dream bets, in which you use sound logic and act on it with a properly sized wager. It’s how everything’s supposed to go. Naturally, I didn’t have many of these. One that felt really good was my bet on the Broncos money line at home against the Steelers during the wild-card round at +290 or so. I liked this winner because one of the few places I think I actually have a decent grasp on as a handicapper is factoring injuries into player performance, and that game was the perfect example. The Steelers were without a number of players and had a very gimpy Ben Roethlisberger, who I very strongly felt wasn’t going to be healthy after suffering a high ankle sprain against the Browns a month earlier. I used the same logic in going under on a lot of the Rob Gronkowski–related player props during the Super Bowl and had some success there, too. That kept my Super Bowl week from being disastrous, because …

Good Process–Bad Outcome: … I bet that a safety wouldn’t occur during the Super Bowl. The odds are prohibitive on that bet, coming in at around -1300, but they’re stacked in favor of the “no safety” side because nobody ever goes to the window during Super Bowl week to bet on a huge favorite like that. The true odds for the bet are closer to -2500 or so, so I perceived some value and joined the books in crossing our fingers that chalk would come through. Instead, I sat in the auxiliary press box in Indianapolis and watched as Tom Brady’s brain fart guaranteed that I’d end up a loser before the first quarter was halfway through.

My other, truly painful bad-bet story came in Week 17, during which I made my biggest play of the year on the Tennessee Titans. That week, the Titans headed to Houston with a slim hope of reaching the postseason by virtue of winning and getting some help. The Texans, meanwhile, had nothing to play for. Their primary goal was to stay healthy. To me, that screamed a comfortable Titans victory, but Houston took action during the week and the Titans were only 2.5-point favorites at kickoff.

While the Titans didn’t dominate the game, my read was pretty sound. The Texans started bringing in backups and special teamers to get key snaps as the game wore on, even playing tight end Garrett Graham at linebacker during the second half and using Jake freaking Delhomme at quarterback for most of the game. The Titans took a seven-point lead with five minutes to go, forced the Texans to punt, and then ran for a first down while using all three of Houston’s time-outs. With 2:45 left, the Texans could have ran virtually all of the clock down before punting and forcing Delhomme to drive 90 yards with no time left.

Instead, they handed the ball to fullback Ahmard Hall, probably out of some motivation to give the blocking back a little bit of glory. On his sixth and final carry of the season, Hall coughed up the football. The Texans naturally recovered, and Delhomme, naturally,1 drove them 36 yards in 95 seconds for a touchdown. The true salt on the wound was what the Texans did after they scored. With the score 23-22 and the extra point pending, I had to root for Houston to kick the extra point and go to overtime, where the Titans could still cover by kicking a field goal or scoring a touchdown. Instead, the Texans showed how (rightfully) little they cared about the outcome of the game by going for two to end the game then and there. The Texans promptly botched the snap, but by then, I was already looking for things to throw around the room.

Oh, you want one more? OK. When the Bengals traveled to Jacksonville in October, I assumed that neither team would win by a significant margin. Thanks to some line movements during the week, I put that to the test with a 6.5-point teaser that produced a ticket with Bengals +7.5 and Jaguars +7.5. In other words, I would lose my bet if either team won by more than a touchdown.

The first 59 minutes and 59 seconds of this game were played under conditions where my bet was a winner. At no point during that time did either team lead by more than a touchdown. When the Bengals turned the ball over on downs with 12 seconds left and a three-point lead, the Jaguars decided to run a laterals play to try to gain the 85 yards they needed for a touchdown. It’s not surprising that they didn’t pick up the score, but what did happen was stunning: The Jaguars fumbled the ball, and despite the ball seemingly resting under a pile of downed players on the sideline after possibly being tossed forward, the Bengals picked up the fumble and returned it for a touchdown. That gave them a nine-point lead and killed my teaser. Football is stupid, you guys.

Bad Process–Good Outcome: The classic example of this bad bet gone good, according to some people,2 would be my bet on the Bears under from before last season. That’s probably fair. I have a better example, though, during one of my rare forays into a table game.

About 99 percent of my trips to play table games3 in Vegas came when I had friends in town who wanted to gamble; the locals know better, and even though I’ve spent this year living on the Strip, I’ve become a local. So this was a rare exception. I have a supremely nerdy habit of collecting a chip from every casino I’ve gambled at, and after a long night of poker at the Rio during the World Series of Poker in June, I decided to grab dinner and a chip from the nearby Gold Coast casino. I grabbed $40 in chips at what looked like a hot craps table, put $35 on the felt, and lost it when the shooter established the point and then immediately crapped out. I put the dollar chip I’d come for in my pocket and walked toward the cashier’s cage to get $4 in cash for my four remaining $1 chips, but the cage had a long line and I was in no mood to wait. After all, I’d just lost $35 to get a stupid dollar chip.

Next to the casino cage just happened to be an empty roulette table with a bored dealer. For some reason, I decided that it was a better idea to put the remaining $4 on a number at the empty roulette table than to wait in line for the cash from the cage. Of course, you know what happens from here. I put the four bucks on eight, the dealer rolls her eyes, spins the wheel, and … I spike the eight for $140. I swear, the dealer nearly fainted. I haven’t put even one penny on roulette since then and will never, ever play the game again. How can I top that?

Bad Process–Bad Outcome: Unsurprisingly, there were a fair number of these. I’ll throw you a bone, Bears fans: When the Bears announced that Julius Peppers was doubtful with a sprained MCL before their Week 6 game against the Vikings, I couldn’t resist the urge to run downstairs to the Aria and get a big bet down on Minnesota. I was already leaning toward betting on the Vikings, but the absence of Chicago’s best player was enough to inspire one of my biggest bets of the year. And since doubtful players only suit up about 2 percent of the time, I felt confident that those aforementioned injury jones would get me ahead of the curve.

In my haste, though, I didn’t do my homework. Sure, Peppers had missed a series during the previous game after tweaking his knee, but why did it take till Friday for such a notable diagnosis to come out? Were there extenuating circumstances? As it turned out, there were: The Vikings had listed Brett Favre as doubtful on the injury report against the Bears in 2010 and ended up having him start at quarterback anyway, something Lovie Smith hadn’t forgotten. Of course, that night, Peppers miraculously recovered and sacked the Vikings quarterbacks twice, looking little worse for the wear. His sprained MCL never came up again over the rest of the season. The Vikings lost by, um, a lot.

Yeah, yeah. Give me something more Vegas-y.

Hmm. OK. I watched the 49ers-Saints playoff game in the massive book at Caesars Palace with some buddies. As you can imagine, the drastic twists and turns in that game led to sheer craziness in the book, with people winning and losing their bets every few minutes.4 The Caesars book has a bar about 200 feet away, and for some reason, the televisions at the bar were a second or so ahead of the televisions at the book. Whenever we heard sustained screaming from the bar, we knew that a big play was about to happen.

Think about that in context of the huge plays in that game,5 especially the ones involving Alex Smith. I’m naturally a pessimist, so when the 49ers snapped the ball to Smith and he began to roll left amid raucous cheering from the bar, I assumed that he fumbled and that the Saints had recovered. Once he started running forward into open space for what ended up being the most unlikely rushing touchdown of the season, it took him getting all the way into the end zone for me to believe my eyes. Then, on the game-winning touchdown pass to Vernon Davis, I was sure that Smith had thrown a season-ending interception by forcing a pass into tight coverage. Sure, you know Davis catches it now, but watch it again and pretend that you don’t know Davis comes up with it. Isn’t it possible that Roman Harper could have come up with the pick, or that the ball could have been tipped in the air at impact and fallen into the lap of a Saints defensive back? I was about halfway through shouting something particularly inappropriate before I saw Davis get up with the ball. That was a fun swing.

No, something more quintessentially Vegas. And preferably something that makes you look dumb.

Hmm. I went to a club with a few friends one night and we wanted to get a table, so it occurred to me to be smooth and tip one of the security guys $20 to make that happen. I walked up to him, pulled the bill out of my wallet, handed it discreetly to him, and asked him whether or not he could help find us find a place to sit down for a bit.

He glanced down and gave me a look of confusion and disgust before handing the bill back to me while very calmly noting a simple truth: “If you want to get anything done in Vegas, bro, make sure you’re tipping people enough to at least get a Happy Meal.” I peeked at the rejected cash and realized, to my chagrin, that I had accidentally handed this beefy gentleman a $1 bill.

That’s better. You’ve gotta have something sleazier than that, though.

Well, a couple of strange things happened in my apartment building.

Like?

I got in the elevator once at the parking level and when the elevator stopped at the street level, where the Aria entrance is, I was joined in the elevator by a chummy party of four: A man in a sweatsuit, a girl in a stunning dress, and two little people. On a Saturday night, I might not think anything of that, but this was a Tuesday afternoon at 2 p.m. or so. Were they about to go shoot porn? I sorta hope that they weren’t, if only because coming up with an alternate explanation for what was happening actually requires more work. When the Occam’s razor for a group of people coming together is porn, something truly astounding is afoot.

The other one wasn’t quite as sinister. A few weeks after I wrote about my move to Vegas, I got an unaddressed envelope in my mailbox with a note inside. In a handwriting style that I can only compare to that of the anthrax note, I was offered the opportunity to bet on games with a nearby bookie without any vig on the bets. There were, however, two conditions: The bookie was allowed to move half of my bets by half a point in the direction of his choosing, and I was not allowed to bet against Notre Dame. Suffice to say that I didn’t take him up on his offer, but I was wildly perplexed as to why I couldn’t make any bets against the Fighting Irish. Was he a big fan of the school who didn’t want to pay out when they lost? Did he have a big client who was already vehemently against Notre Dame? I still don’t know what the case was.

You do realize that the bookie you just mentioned is going to kill you now.

Well, yeah. Please don’t kill me, maybe–Notre Dame fan.

Celebrity sightings.

My friends and I were going to have a late dinner at the STK in the Cosmopolitan when, just after we sat down, Floyd Mayweather stopped in front of our table and attracted about 25 people to come hang out around him. I was pretty sure that his initial idea was to eventually keep walking to some table that was waiting for him, but after he stood there for a few minutes and showed no signs of moving, we realized it was probably just best if we left.

Oh, and a couple of weeks ago, I had to sneak into the roped-off Aria sportsbook at 3 a.m. to grab an odds sheet. On my walk back, I passed by the Big Buck Hunter slot machine6 and saw Flavor Flav. Those two sentences are the most Vegas.

Flavor Flav has a fried chicken restaurant in Vegas, doesn’t he?

I haven’t heard good things.

Well, where should people go to eat when they’re in Vegas then?

The best restaurant in the city right now is Cut, at the Palazzo. That became my go-to place for visiting friends as the year went along, and I think there were five or six times when someone said the food they were eating was the best example of said food they had ever tasted. The best relatively cheap place to eat on the Strip is the Secret7 Pizza place at the Cosmopolitan, which also has the benefit of being open till 2 or even 4 a.m. on most days.

The best thing I ate in Vegas, though, was off the Strip. The pork belly at the unassuming Asian BBQ & Noodles in Chinatown might be the best thing I’ve ever tasted in my whole life. Granted, it’s partly driven by the white-guy-on-Yelp fantasy of walking into an ethnic restaurant where nobody else is speaking English, but just look at it. You see how good the roast duck looks, too? The roast duck isn’t even in the same universe as the pork belly. Forget In-N-Out. Take a cab here instead.

And what about cheap gambling?

Depends on when you go and what you want to do. Finding cheap tables on a weekday afternoon is easy; on a Friday or Saturday night, it’s a lot harder. The Riviera has great odds on table games, but it’s a depressing place to be. The Tropicana’s become sort of a hidden gem since they rebuilt it a couple of years ago; it’s still new enough to be clean and airy, but the lack of interest from tourists has kept the table limits pretty low. Downtown, the Plaza and El Cortez are in similar straits.

Should I go downtown?

It’s a good day trip, even if the cab ride will run you 20 bucks or so each way. If you do go, stop in the Vegas Club and admire the 2006-07 San Antonio Spurs NBA Championship T-shirt and pennant hanging up for no reason whatsoever. Then go around the corner and look at the group of baseballs autographed by obscure players from the ’50s. That is my personal choice for the most depressing spot in all of Vegas — in between those two totally unrelated, terrifyingly cheap shrines to random sports things from the past.

Don’t pick on downtown.

I love downtown! The Plaza is great. El Cortez is great. Main Street Station is great. The Las Vegas Club? Not so much. This is the same casino where my friend was playing electronic blackjack and a guy cautioned him against hitting with 14 against a 10 because the game of blackjack had changed over the past few years and a lot of eights and nines had been coming out of the deck. Where the second floor has been sealed off for the entire year I’ve been around. Where dozens of penny slots sit unplugged and blank like un-flight-worthy aircraft, waiting to be stripped for parts. It’s gross.

Now the Las Vegas Club is going to kill you.

Only if they beat the bookie to it.

OK. So we never got a straight answer. Why are you leaving Las Vegas again?

Because it’s just not sustainable. Sure, it’s a lot of fun when you go out partying until three or four in the morning on the Strip. Other people have told me that it’s fun when you get on a hot gambling streak, whatever that is. But eventually, even though I was living on the Strip, I had to start living a normal lifestyle. And when you’re not spending your time in Vegas like you’re on vacation, well, it can be a very boring place. Once you get about two blocks off the Strip, Vegas becomes an endless parade of Walmarts, mini-malls, and chain restaurants. It reminds me of going to high school on Long Island. My college admissions essay was about escaping Long Island to go to school in a city; it was so full of vitriol that I showed it to my guidance counselor and she literally didn’t speak to me for the rest of the year. It’s a great place to retire to, but I was spending way too much time in Walmart for a 27-year-old single person.

Also, I got in a pretty bad car wreck in April, thanks to a drunk driver who fell asleep behind the wheel of his truck. I didn’t have my license or own a car until I moved out here, and while it’s irrational of me to take one incident and extrapolate that out to what it’s like to drive around all day, the idea of living somewhere with public transportation is rather appealing these days.

I’ve gotta go. Off to go bet all my savings on this year’s guaranteed Super Bowl winner. I’ll tell you about them in February. But one more question: What did you learn from living in Vegas?

I think the one thing I’ll take away is just how different the perspective can be when you’re watching games with a point-spread involved. There have been so many moments this year where I’ve sat through an hour or two of a game whose outcome had already been decided long before, exclusively because the point spread was still in play. I was aware of what that was like before I moved out here, but I had no concept of just how pervasive it was. I can remember a half dozen games where some last-second score that the players in question forgot five minutes later sparked raucous celebrations in sportsbooks. That was surreal and compelling, and even when I haven’t had money on games, I’ve found myself wondering what the line and the total are. I don’t think that’ll go away for a while, even if I’m hours away from the nearest sportsbook.

Oh, and something I thought for a long time was confirmed by my time in Vegas: Everything is more fun when you have money riding on it. That’s not a sign of a potentially crippling addiction, is it? Please tell me it’s not.

Filed Under: Las Vegas, Teams

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell

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