Monday, October 30, 2006

The New Adventures of Captain Marbles: Welcome to the Matrix

You can see the changes on the street. A drunken man asleep next to Slots-a-Fun, blocking the sidewalk. A huge, fenced vacant lot where the Westward Ho used to be. Pieces of conversations started by seniors, mentioning casinos that no longer exist, like the Thunderbird.

I checked into the 48-year old Stardust on Thursday night, knowing that the casino/hotel only had a few more days before it, too, was demolished. My brother Marvin, aka Captain Marbles (a nickname from the same era), had comped me a huge suite at the old hotel.

The room was larger than my living room, my office, my den, and my two bathrooms combined. When I told him that, the Captain said to himself, “I never got anything like that,” and insisted on coming up to take a look.

We spent the last World Series game in that room, watching LaRussa’s Cardinals take it all. During one break, he started looking for the second bathroom. “There is only one bathroom,” I said, “but it’s humongous.” He replied that their suite at the Rincon had two bathrooms, and was at least 1800 square feet. It was terrifically humongous.

As we left to go back downstairs to the casino, he told me to take all the samples of shampoo and soap before I checked out the next day. And Kleenex.

The point of this trip was to fly in to Vegas to see my brother. He had just recovered from a bout with colon cancer, and pronounced himself cured after an experimental treatment with a new powerful drug. However, it wasn’t the treatment that left him weak on Las Vegas Boulevard this October evening. It was advancing age, a number of health problems that had taken its toll, and the fact that his sedentary lifestyle doesn’t easily accommodate walking on the Strip from casino to casino, like we used to.

So, we only stuck to a few places. He and his wife stayed at the Riviera (in a slot tournament package), I stayed at the Stardust.

When I met them at the Stardust, we immediately crossed the street and went back to their casino, the Riviera. I think the Captain likes the Riviera because it evokes memories of Dean Martin and the Rat Pack. It has that feel to it. It’s a lot larger than the Westward Ho used to be, however, and so we kept getting lost in it.

We talked about dinner that night. Marbles informed me that I couldn’t have dinner with them, though, because they got a big, free steak dinner and a show with their package. However, what he didn’t realize was that the suite he comped me came with $100 in free meals….a day. So I ate my steak dinner in the Stardust cafĂ©.

I watched him play Texas Hold ‘Em at the Riviera poker tables, right in front of the elevator to their room. The buy-in was only $45. He suggested I join him, but I really don’t know how to play. He replied that he had learned everything there was to know about Texas Hold ‘Em from video poker and from internet gambling sites, so he felt confident. He had to wait, however, for someone else to show up at the table before they could get started. He won the first few hands, but grew frustrated with the table rules. The rules on raises were quite stifling, he complained to the Asian woman dealing the cards. Can’t you change them? He wanted a higher limit. Apparently the Riviera insists that the first raise is $2, the second and further raises are $4. The Captain couldn’t fake or scare anybody out that way. He eventually lost his buy-in, but went on to tournament Texas Hold ‘Em. The rules, apparently, were different there; I think he longed for the limited raises of the previous game. He only lasted an hour in the tournament.

In the meantime, I found several penny slots that I enjoyed playing. And I found some Reel ‘Em In games – the fishie game is my favorite. I discovered this game in the early ‘90’s, I think it was – the first slot machine that enticed me. The first video-game-type slot machine. The first bonus round I had ever seen. But these slots were nickel machines, which was okay, but they were ticketless, which meant I had to either put buckets of nickels into play, or wait until I won over 1,000 coins to cash out (so that I wouldn’t have to handle the dirty coins).

On the first night, when I said goodbye to the Cap’n and his wife and wandered back to the Stardust, I discovered an entire bank of gold: five Reel ‘Em In Slot machines in the Stardust! These machines had the latest technology, and featured FOUR different bonus rounds. The only complaint I have of these machines is the music. It’s not as catchy as the earlier versions. But the earlier bonus rounds had no variation. So these new machines were slot heaven. And they were penny slots! Which means I could play 15 lines at 1 cent each (although usually I went up to 2 cents).

When I’m playing those games, I have no idea what time it is. I don’t even care if I lose. I just enjoy playing them.

I also discovered Cops and Donuts, a slot game I played sparingly before. But when Leon pulled me over for speeding, told me “Hold on there, Starship Captain!” and asked for my excuse, I was hooked. I also liked it when Chip ate all the donuts at the donut shop during the other bonus round. Fantastic.

Las Vegas with Captain Marbles is like The Matrix. On the one hand, there’s reality. Ooh, we don’t like that so much. Our conversation takes us to the casinos of old, when Sammy, Frank and Dean played to packed houses and might join us at the tables at midnight for a little gambling of their own. We look around and there are few of those old casinos left. The cab driver told us that young people like the new ones best. “But those kids don’t have any money!” exclaimed the Captain. You tell ‘em. So, the seniors, the ones with money and the ones without so much, gather at the older casinos still, huddle together, waiting for the end of their favorite places to play.

The Matrix of Las Vegas is also where Captain Marbles is the high roller, and where the casinos treat him with the proper respect for being so. They comp his rooms. Invite him to slot and poker tournaments. Give him free steak dinners. Even give his sister free steak dinners.

The good side of the Matrix for me lies within these slot machines. Where I can dip my fishing pole into another lake, if I’m lucky, and fish for that whopper with the Canadian mounted police hat on. Or hope Chip can eat enough donuts to take me to a higher plane. Or wait for Frank the dog in Men in Black to lead me to where those aliens are in the MIB game.

In the meantime, the cocktail waitresses would bring me whipped cream-frothed pina coladas as my fingers hit the “play again” key. They didn’t show any emotion about being out of a job in two days, on Monday. I wondered how they were going to cope. But wondering took me out of the Matrix, an unpleasant place to be, and Las Vegas is more about delivering the magic trick than telling us how it’s done, or how the magician will pay his or her bills tomorrow.

The Stardust closed down a day after I checked out. All of its furnishings, everything – except for its slot machines – will go up for public auction on Wednesday. One more gone. Many more are scheduled for demolition. The Captain finds out the gossip from the casino operators he befriends as he plays his high-stake games. After all, many of the workers from the closed Westward Ho went to the Riviera. And, I suppose, many of the Stardust people will do likewise.

I’ve come back to the other side of the Matrix. To reality. To be honest, it’s easier living here. Until I make another trip back to see Captain Marbles. It really is his home.

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