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Six days in Sin City

As his trip begins, Page 2’s Bill Simmons lays down the rules for surviving six days in Sin City.

LAS VEGAS — The good folks in Bristol have decided to send me to Vegas. In fact, I’m here right now. I’m in Vegas. Hey, I’m in Vegas! Have I mentioned that I’m in Vegas right now?

Here’s how it happened: Two months ago, as soon as the date for the heavyweight championship rematch between Lennox Lewis and Hasim Rahman was announced, I started sending feelers to my bosses. Hey, what about sending me to the fight? Me in Vegas? Me at ringside? Me capturing the action at the Mandalay Bay casino? Me battling the sports books? Me fending off hookers, porn stars and strippers? Me searching for celebrities? Best of all, me gambling for an extended stretch — practically a week straight — with so many potential repercussions and ramifications that it simply boggles the mind?

I sent an e-mail proposal which bounced around the appropriate circles at ESPN, finally landing in the mailbox of a Very Important Man, the guy in Bristol who makes dozens and dozens of “Should we send that dope Simmons to Vegas for a week?” decisions over the course of any given week.

A few hours passed … and I checked my e-mail and noticed that he sent me a reply.

(Deep breath.)

(Heart pounding.)

(I open the e-mail.)

Reads something like this:

“Sounds good. Let’s coordinate with other coverage.”

VEHHHHHHH-GASSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

You remember a handful of crucial moments in your life: Your first kiss, graduating from college, getting married, getting your first important job, and so on. And I’m not saying that the aforementioned sequence of events could compare to any of those momentous occasions … but for some reason, I think I’m always going to remember, “Sounds good. Let’s coordinate with other coverage.”

On the plane coming from Boston yesterday, I felt like Red at the end of “The Shawshank Redemption,” staring out the window on the bus to Mexico. It was the excitement only a free journalist could feel, a journalist starting out on a long journey, with a conclusion that’s uncertain.

I hope to win lots of money. I hope to enjoy my first live boxing match. I hope to gamble until I drop. I hope to capture everything well enough that my bosses keep sending me on these field trips. I hope to see my buddy Hopper and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it is in my dreams. I hope.

Vegas, baby. Vegas.

***** ***** *****

Everyone has the same reaction: Six days? SIX? On the surface, it sounds like the latest installment of that SNL “Bad Idea Jeans” commercial. Few people can handle Vegas for three full days, much less six. Even fewer can handle this place when you’re supposed to be working, too. And since I’m planning on sending these “Postcards” for today, tomorrow and Friday, followed by a straight-forward “fight column” for the website on Saturday night and a mammoth “The Weekend That Was” piece for Monday, I need to budget my time and stick to a game plan … or the City of Sin will swallow me whole.

So here are my “Rules of Thumb” for the week, in no particular order:

bill simmons

  • Play as much poker as possible on Tuesday and Wednesday. I love poker, I’m pretty good at it … and best of all, it’s pretty difficult to get hammered at the poker tables if you know what you’re doing. And since I’m going to be on my own for the first part of the week, poker makes the most sense — it’s a solitary game that doesn’t need to be accentuated by the presence of friends (and mine aren’t showing up until Thursday). As an added bonus I can pretend I’m Mike McD from “Rounders” for two straight days. This is a monster hand, Teddy. I’m gonna lay this down, it’s a monster.

  • Don’t go overboard on the sports bets. The NFL won’t be a problem because I mysteriously lost the ability to pick games this season (the Curse of Bailey?). But the NBA … now there’s a potential problem. It’s the only sport that I truly know and understand; it’s also the only sport I follow to “Staying up at 1 a.m. to watch the end of a Clippers-Grizzlies game” proportions. Sometimes you can know too much and become a little too confident … and that’s when Vegas treats you like a mare in a stud farm. Anyway, I’m limiting myself to three sports bets per day. At least that’s the plan.

  • Drink lots of water, avoid junk food and get at least 6-7 hours of sleep every night. Again, that’s the plan.

  • No cigarettes. I’m not a smoker, but even after all these years, I have a tendency to occasionally fall into a few Marlboro Lights after the requisite amount of drinks, especially when I’m gambling (blackjack and nicotine go hand in hand — damn them both). Smoking always sounds like a great idea until the next morning, when you’re hung over, you have enough excess phlegm to fill a bathtub, you’re coughing like Brett Somers during any episode of “Match Game ’77” and you can actually see your own breath. Not good times. Bad times.

  • Don’t get too much sun during the day. As Muhammad Ali once said, “Sun saps your strength.” It’s true. You end up feeling sleepy and you’re not as sharp at night.

  • No $25 blackjack or craps tables. Again, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

  • If you happen to visit a gentleman’s club (ahem!), don’t give your credit card to start a tab. Ever. Bring cash. Not that I’m, uh, going to a strip club, um …

  • Consume only one Red Bull and one coffee per day. Too much caffeine plus all the stimuli at a casino will eventually turn you into Dennis Hopper’s character from “Apocalyspe Now” — hyperventilating, ranting, raving and accusing your friends of crazy things. You’ll be completely useless.

      Never tell a cab driver, “Hey, I just won (fill in the amount) of money!!!” You’ll end up getting driven out to the desert, stripped, robbed and tied to a cactus… and that would be a best-case scenario. 
      

    (Red Bull is especially evil. I was drinking 2-3 a day last spring, until my prostate gland sent me a letter of resignation last June. It’s the crack cocaine of soft drinks. Some day I’m going to snap, polish off six coffee cake muffins from Dunkin’ Donuts with three Red Bulls, and end up pulling a Beavis from “Beavis and Butthead”: I’ll be stalking the streets of Boston with my shirt pulled over my head, telling people I’m the Great Cornholio and saying things like “Are you threatening me?” It’s only a matter of time.)

  • Walk The Strip at least once. The most memorable part of any Vegas trip. There’s only one Strip. I’ll have more details on this in another column.

  • Don’t get too drunk when you’re gambling. There’s a reason they keep pouring free drinks down your throat.

  • Don’t answer “Yes” to any of the following questions: “Have you ever considered appearing in an X-rated movie?” … “Would you like to come back to the Champagne Room with me?” … “My girlfriends and I are having an Amateur Lap Dance Contest — would you like to be a judge?”

  • Don’t make any “futures” bets until the final day of the trip (picking a team to win the Super Bowl or the NBA Finals, etc.). Wait and see how the rest of the week unfolds first.

  • Try to gamble at as many casinos as possible. Things can turn stale at the same casino — a new environment keeps you fresh. Plus, casinos are like baseball parks; not only is it always enjoyable to add another notch to your belt, but you can recount the experience like you’re discussing old girlfriends. Yeah, I gambled there. I had Mandalay … right after I had the MGM.

  • Don’t bet on any Boston teams. Not only is it impossible to think rationally when your favorite team is involved, it’s the dreaded Double Whammy if they lose. For me, an absolute worst-case scenario would be betting on tonight’s Celts-Indiana game and having Antoine Walker (the star of my roto team and the star of my favorite team) get injured, which would result in the first-ever Triple Whammy: My roto team, favorite team and sports betting career would take hits at the same time. Yikes.

    (Please remind me of the “Don’t bet on Boston teams” rule on Sunday night, when the Tom Brady-led, Ewing Theory-charged Patriots are getting eight at home against Warner and the Rams. I’m getting the shakes just thinking about this one. Remember, the New England defense knocked out Chris Chandler and Rob Johnson in consecutive weeks … you can almost see Kurt Warner crumpled on the ground on Sunday, can’t you? Let’s just move on before I run down to the Sports Book and bang this game right now.)

  • Never tell a cab driver, “Hey, I just won (fill in the amount) of money!!!” You’ll end up getting driven out to the desert, stripped, robbed and tied to a cactus … and that would be a best-case scenario. At least that’s a Vegas legend.

  • Along those same lines, always keep your wallet in your front pocket. Pickpockets thrive in Vegas.

  • Get up from any cold blackjack table. It’s not worth it. If you’re not feeling any table karma, walk away. Same goes for craps. And if you’re not feeling it in poker, give it a few more hands, then call it quits if you keep getting boned over on Sixth Street and Seventh Street. Sometimes it’s not your day. Experienced gamblers realize this and act accordingly.

  • Keep smiling. Vegas = fun. Don’t forget this. It’s the greatest place on the planet.

  • Set “loss limits,” not just for each day but for the entire trip. Every quality gambler does this; you have to do this. If you’re gambling and you can’t accept the very reasonable chance that, “Hey, this might not be my night or my trip and I might lose some dough-ray-me,” it might take you months to shake off the Troy Aikman Face if you don’t get any breaks. Every so often, you’re going to lose. That’s just the way it is.

    This doesn’t mean you have to discuss those limits or even think about them … you just have to remember that they exist, just in case.

    (It’s like how every professional sports league has contingency plans in place for plane crashes — they won’t discuss it, they won’t print them in the media guide … but they exist. And the exist for a reason. You never know.)

    So those are my rules of thumb for Vegas, at least for this trip. Can I follow them for six agonizing days and cover a heavyweight championship fight to boot? Stay tuned.

    ***** ***** *****

    Time for one final thought. It’s a little somber … but I need to mention it.

    One of my favorite parts of any Vegas trip happens during that final hour before the airplane lands in Nevada. People roam the aisles, giddy as schoolkids. The pilot sounds like he just washed down an ecstacy tablet with a Dunkin’ Donuts “Big One” coffee. You find yourself babbling to complete strangers, swapping magazines and splitting a ginger ale with somebody who looks a cross between Yassir Arafat and Sam Elliott. When the plane lands, some passengers actually applaud with that “Here we go, guys!” clap. It’s a surreal experience.

    Yesterday felt different. Everything felt different. The events of Sept. 11, the subsequent war on terrorism, and the mysterious, horrifying crash of Flight 587 on Monday collectively affected this country like nothing we’ve ever seen, but I wasn’t fully prepared for the effects until I spent yesterday travelling from Boston to Vegas. Everyone seemed on edge. Army officers patrolled the gates and terminals. At the various checkpoints, I could feel the suspicious looks of people paid to determine if I was a potential threat. The passengers seemed grim and joyless. We all looked a little rattled. Even scared.

    Once I boarded the plane, I found myself gazing at the faces of the other passengers and searching for potential terrorists. I hated myself for it … but I did it. You couldn’t help it. We took off and you could feel people bracing for the worst. It was surreal. Even the flight attendants seemed more serious than usual. Maybe we were all crazy for boarding that plane in the first place. One of the only times in my life where I honestly didn’t feel safe.

    Needless to say, a seven-hour flight (including a stopover) felt like it lasted about 30 hours. Usually, I break out my laptop and write something on the plane; not yesterday. I was a little freaked out. I even tossed on the complimentary headphones and tried to throw myself into the ghastly “America’s Sweethearts” to take my mind off things. No dice. I ended up skimming some magazines, halfheartedly reading the new “Best American Sports Writing” book and taking one of those awful half-naps (when you’re asleep but not really asleep). It was a long day.

    During the last portion of the flight, people weren’t starting random conversations, or babbling about casinos and card games, or clapping and whooping it up. That suffocating “We’re going to Vegas!” tension wasn’t palpable; it wasn’t even there. We just wanted to land safely. And we did. Usually when you land in Vegas, you feel like you could bench-press 600 pounds or run the 40-yard dash in 3.2 seconds. This time? Relief. Maybe nobody said it out loud, but we were all thinking the same thing. We made it.

    It’s a different world than the one we lived in two months ago, that’s for sure.

    Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2. He’ll be sending “Postcards From Vegas” on Thursday and Friday.