This is part 2 of the story of my first trip to Las Vegas during Christmas week, 1988. Read part 1 here.
The Riviera casino was just like the places I’d played in Atlantic City, so I didn’t waste my time there. My plan was to walk down the strip and walk through as many other casinos as possible, starting with Circus Circus, which was across the street. This may have been one of the first Vegas destinations to target families. True to its name, it had performers working the trapeze or high-wire or juggling or tumbling way above the casino floor. An act would come out, do their stuff for ten minutes, get some applause from a small crowd watching from the ramps leading upstairs, and then things would quiet down until the next act appeared 20 minutes later. It was clear the circus aspect was just a gimmick to get you in the door, and when the performers weren’t doing their thing, the casino wanted your attention — and money.
After the first act, I wandered through a large arcade nearby, a place for families with young kids to spend their money on pinball and video games before they were old enough for the adult games downstairs. It had the same cheesiness as a traveling carnival, without the tattooed Tilt-A-Whirl operators.
As I made my way back downstairs, I walked over to the poker area, where there were a few low-limit stud games. The floor man told me he had an open seat in a $1-2 game, so I sat down to see what Vegas poker was like. As with most daytime games in Atlantic City, the average age of the players was 60 or so. I was half that age so, of course, the dealer welcomed me with, “How much do you want, kid?” I gave him five $20 bills. He gave me eighteen red $5 chips, five white $1 chips, and a roll of dimes.
A roll of dimes? The only time I’d seen actual coins in play at a poker table was at a home game, when the stakes were literally nickels and dimes. I looked around the table and realized everyone had dimes in front of them. “That’s for your ante, kid. Put a dime out there,” the dealer explained. Half of the players shook their heads, while the other half took a drag on their cigarettes.
That was one of the bad things about playing poker in those days — the smoke. If your seat happened to be between two smokers, you were doomed to suck secondhand smoke for as long as you sat there. There were ashtrays on the table and, quite often, a player would have one cigarette dangling from his lips while another one was burning in the ashtray. Years later, when I’d moved to St. Louis, I discovered a little $5 plastic fan I could bring with me and place on the table to keep the smoke away while playing. Sometimes, I’d point it right at another player’s cigarette in the ashtray to make it burn faster. One of the many ways poker has improved in the last quarter-century has been forcing the smokers to leave the room to light up.
I only played that stud game at Circus Circus for about an hour — I don’t remember if I won or lost, but it wasn’t much of a swing either way — because I wanted to do more exploring. Since those two bites of runny eggs at the Riviera buffet hadn’t satisfied me, my next stop was Slots Of Fun, right next to Circus Circus. I wasn’t going to drop a single coin in a slot machine, but they had a sign offering a giant foot-long hot dog and a beer for $1.99. Sounded good to me — the right price, and they tasted pretty good, too.
As I walked down the strip, I hit the classic venues with names I knew from afar — the Desert Inn, the Stardust, Caesar’s Palace, the Tropicana, and the Sands (where all of my comps and goodwill from Atlantic City meant nothing because they were run by two different companies). I noted the places I wanted to play later, but for now I was happy to be a tourist. After a couple of hours on my feet, I grabbed a cab to downtown Las Vegas, home of Binion’s Horseshoe, the then-home of the World Series Of Poker, where legend said the best players gathered every day.
I’ll tell you that part of the story tomorrow in part 3.