It was time.
We started exchanging "Vegas?" e-mails last November: Bish, Hopper, Mikey, Butz, Gallo and me. Just the six of us. The core group. Everyone else has been whittled away -- we're like the remaining troops at the end of "Saving Private Ryan." We even recount fond stories about the dead soldiers, the ones who stopped coming years ago, the ones we don't even think to ask anymore. If only Vegas had mock graveyards for them.
Back in the glory years, when we were single and barely employed, Vegas trips came together in four weeks. Now we spend months negotiating a weekend, eventually settling on a date for the lamest of reasons. This time around, we chose the last weekend of March because Bish's wife had a girls weekend and was bringing their new baby along. That meant he was available for three days, but only THAT weekend. You won't exactly see this scenario leading off the festivities in "Swingers 2."
But at least that kicked us into motion. And I don't care how old you get ... there isn't a better internet moment then receiving that first e-mail with "Vegas?" in the subject heading. It's right up there with "Calvin Murphy had 14 kids?!?!?!?!?!?!?!" and "Paris Hilton MPEG -- not safe for work!" Puts a hop in your step for the rest of the day.
For me, it isn't even about Vegas as much anymore. When you hit your 30s, your friends settle in different cities, get hitched, pump out a kid, start working 50-to-60 hours a week ... you look up one day and realize you haven't seen three of your closest buddies in 15 months. Vegas becomes the great equalizer. There's always that first glorious stretch with everyone sitting at the same blackjack table, throwing down drinks, cracking worn-out jokes and busting chops, when you realize that nothing has changed. Thank God.
This isn't to pretend that Vegas is perfect. Once upon a time, those first two March Madness weekends were like "Fight Club" -- only a fortunate few knew about them, and we weren't too anxious to spread the word. Now the secret is out. Everyone knows. Everyone goes. You have a better chance of seeing a clock in a casino than getting a seat at a sports book. Some casinos even double their room rates for those weekends.
And that's the danger with Vegas: If everyone loves Vegas, and everyone goes there ... well, what's fun about that?
The other problem is less serious and infinitely more annoying: Those "Whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" ads, maybe the biggest head-scratcher in advertising history. Why would anyone ever inflict that much needless tension on their demographic? Were they appealing to adulterers? Druggies? Strip joint stalkers? Snuff film producers? Were we supposed to think to ourselves, "You know, I wasn't gonna go, but I didn't realize I could do morally destructive things with no repercussions -- book me a plane ticket!"
And don't get me started on the ramifications of these ads with wives and girlfriends across the country, many of whom were already insane to begin with. For instance, right as I was leaving for my latest trip -- staying at the Hard Rock this time, on the way to the airport, plane ticket in my hands -- the Sports Gal smiled and told me, "And don't think I don't know that the Paradise (a strip club) is right across the street from the Hard Rock."
She slipped that sucker in like a Tommy Hearns right cross. And while I was hemming and hawing, she followed with this uppercut:
"Hey, whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, right?"
Great ad campaign. Thanks, guys.
Here's the point: You can't stereotype Vegas with a slogan, especially a misleading one. The little nuances make Vegas special. Like climbing into a cab and having the driver tell you, "They call me the Catwoman." Gambling at a $15 table, looking up and seeing a random celeb like Cobi Jones walking by. Wincing as your friend says, "I just banged the UConn women," then realizing he was talking about a sports wager. Hearing the roars from a sports book that's been split in half -- one side for Oklahoma State, the other for St. Joe's, with the lead changing on every basket.
Best of all, there are days like Saturday, March 27, 2004.
Without further ado ...
Saturday morning, 9:45 a.m.
We're coming off a late-night gambling binge at the Hard Rock, one of those scary nights where you wake up in the same clothes -- on top of the covers, spooning the "Late Night Food" menu, reeking of cigarettes and spilled beer, praying your wallet is sitting on the nightstand.
Maybe you've been there. Your tongue feels like a piece of dry steak. You can see your breath. Your complimentary $7 bottled water has been mysteriously polished off; and you don't know whether to blame your roommate or yourself. You blink a few times to make sure your contacts aren't still in your eyes, then you say another prayer that they made it into their case.
That's me. All of it.
Now Bish and I are laying in our respective beds, searching for a stray SportsCenter on TV. Back in the days of four-to-a-room, Bish and I mastered the art of "sleeping in the same bed without touching one another." These days, we can afford our own beds. Trust me, it's a big thing.
"You make any money last night?" Bish asks.
"I dunno. I don't think so."
Curious, I reach into my front jeans pocket ... and pull out four $100 chips. Good times. I started out with $300. This much I remember.
"Somehow I made a hundred bucks," I tell Bish.
He makes the DeNiro Face, turning his mouth upside down, nodding up and down, mildy impressed.
"Vegas," he says.
"Vegas," I reply.
Saturday morning, 11:30 a.m.
On the Unintentional Comedy Scale, few things can top Saturday morning breakfasts in Vegas -- just tables and tables of hungover guys looking like holy hell, throwing down food and telling inane gambling stories from the previous night. If the "World Series of Poker" can be televised, then this should be its own show -- "Breakfasts In Vegas" -- with waitresses wearing HelmetCams, sideline reporters and everything else. Like you wouldn't watch.
As we recapped Friday night's events, we realized that everything -- and by "everything," I mean "the debilitating drunkenness" -- was Hopper's fault. He kept ordering a made-up drink called the "Diver Down" (Corona topped off with a shot of Bacardi Limon). We all followed suit, and that damned drink became the main reason we could barely remember our 10:15 p.m. dinner at A.J.'s Steakhouse.
Why eat dinner so late? Because they wouldn't seat us right away, thanks to Geoff, who was wearing a Vikings t-shirt with khaki shorts. This is one of the rules of Vegas -- at any and all times, someone in your group should remain under-dressed to cut your options in half. Geoff has been filling this role beautifully for more than a decade, consistently dressing like a tourist from Eastern Europe.
Upon further review, the whole night was a debacle; everyone lost money but me ... and I was in the roughest shape. Two Red Bull and Vodkas = fine. Four Red Bull and Vodkas = not fine. Four Red Bull and Vodkas, multiple Diver Downs and a half-pack of cigarettes = genuinely unhappy, possibly life-threatening. My heart was pounding all night. Terrible times. I was an extra 100 pounds and one hooker away from re-enacting the last 15 minutes of Chris Farley's "E! True Hollywood Story."
"Here's my game plan for today," I announce. "A few Bloody Marys early. Maybe a mixed drink or two. And then beer for the rest of the night. No Red Bull, no Diver Downs, and DEFINITELY no cigarettes."
Hopper stares me down. It's tough to take him seriously with his beard -- he looks like Harrison Ford at the beginning of "The Fugitive, to the point that we were screaming "You find that man!" at him for most of Friday night -- but it seems like he has something important to say. His eyes narrow.
"You'll be smoking by two," he predicts. "Guaranteed."
"Thanks for your confidence, Dr. Kimble," I tell him.
Saturday afternoon, 12:30 p.m.
We finish breakfast, make some ill-advised NCAA bets, grab two cabs and head to the Strip -- our annual tradition where we walk around and gamble in as many casinos as possible. It's a crucial time of the day. Build a nest egg here and you're playing with house money for the rest of the weekend. Take an early beating and you're the "Third Man In the Porn Scene" by nightfall. (I'll explain later.)
As always, there are rules for Saturday gambling. These rules unfold over time, always from experience, almost like recipes in a cookbook. You gamble, you make mistakes, you learn. If you fail to obey the rules, in the words of Ivan Drago, you vill lose. And I've mentioned some of them before in this space, but they're worth mentioning again:
1. Know exactly how much you're prepared to lose when you sit down. I mean, exactly. It's your "Worst-case Scenario" figure. You don't even have to tell anyone what it is.
2. If you're getting killed at one casino, leave treadmarks and head to another.
3. If you don't like the way other people are playing at the table, or if you're getting a bad vibe from the dealer, just find another table. It's that easy.
4. Pace yourself. You know the old saying, "It's a marathon, not a sprint"? Well, Saturday gambling is like a triathlon. Just make sure you don't pull a Julie Moss.
Our first stop: The Venetian. Happy place. Pleasant dealers. Very few automatic shuffling machines (the root of all evil in Vegas). And just as we arrive, they're opening up a group of four $15 tables, which means we have a table all to ourselves.
There's only one catch ... they already have their bullpen of closers warming up.
See, we like friendly dealers, people who interact with us and want us to win, people with a vested interest in keeping the right table happy. We tip these people and everything works out just dandy. But casinos don't like friendly dealers as much -- they want us to lose money. So they find dealers who barely speak English, deal cards at staggering paces, and are typically as friendly as a heart attack. If you're feeling courageous, you take them on ... and then you leave the batter's box 15 minutes later, muttering to yourself.
We call them "closers." I mention this only because the Venetian has Mariano Rivera, Troy Percival, Keith Foulke and Billy Wagner warming up. There isn't a Heathcliff Slocumb to be seen.
"What do we do?" Geoff asks. He's terrified.
"Let's give it a whirl," Hopper suggests. "At least we'll all be at the same table."
(Note: When "At least we'll all be at the same table" is the deciding reason to sit down at a blackjack table, this is NEVER a good sign.)
We sit down at a $15 table with a female dealer from Hong Kong. We watch her shuffle six decks of cards as we order Bloody Marys. Life is good. And then the cards come ...
And she deals herself blackjack on the first hand ...
And she wins the first six hands ...
(For God's sake, get the hell out of there!)
And then the Venetian makes a pitching change -- inexplicable! -- as Mikey announces, "Wow, they're going lefty-righty on us." Our luck doesn't change. I'm sitting at 0-7-1 after eight hands. The righty-lefty combo haven't busted yet -- two 21s, three 20s, two 19s and a 17. It's like watching a combined no-hitter -- I keep waiting for Rollie Fingers and Blue Moon Odom to show up.
On my last hurrah, I double down on "11" against her "6," then jump from my seat and walk away from the table. Everyone looks confused.
"I'm stepping out of the batter's box on her," I explain.
That gets a good laugh. Of course, she doesn't crack a smile. She ends up dealing me a seven. Eighteen.
And if you don't know what happens next ... well, you've obviously never been to Vegas.
Saturday afternoon, 1:45 p.m.
We're fleeing the Venetian like it's on fire. It turned into a financial bloodbath of Chuck Wepner proportions. Everybody lost; two people even reached into the wallet for seconds. Now we're walking down the Strip to the Monte Carlo -- an old standby -- and trying to regroup. I'm down $200 for the day and feel like I just got run over by Halle Berry. At least until I notice the Siegfried and Roy billboard in front of the Mirage.
You may remember this story: Back in the mid-'90s during a similar walk, I jokingly asked, "Are those guys gay?" and Bish replied, "Actually, I think they are."
He was dead serious. It may have been the greatest moment in Vegas history. Bish could be 95 and we would still remind him about it. And since that billboard was funny to begin with -- I mean, have you SEEN that thing? -- just seeing it always turns into one of the highlights of every Vegas trip. Never fails to make us laugh.
Now we're making fun of Bish. Again. We aren't officially in Vegas until we see the Siegfred and Roy sign, as Bish stands there with a dumb smile saying, "Come on, let's hear it." It's tradition. We're refueled and ready to gamble again ... thanks to two gay magicians.
(Sad note: Little did we know, it was our last glimpse of the billboard. Just three days later, the Mirage took it down for good. True story. I haven't felt this depressed since they knocked down the Boston Garden. Who knew that a simple billboard could mean so much?)
Saturday afternoon, 2:45 p.m.
As Hopper predicted, I'm already puffing on a cigarette. Just shoot me. The six of us are battling at different tables at the Monte Carlo, a place that always brought luck in the past. Not today. Everything feels wrong. After losing another $50 -- bringing me to minus-$250 for the day -- Geoff and I take one of those "killing time" strolls around the casino.
And then we see it ...
A "Rocky" slot machine.
"Come on, we have to," Geoff says.
Twist my arm. We put two dollars in. Every time we play a five-cent hand, the Rocky music starts. We can't buy a win. Suddenly we're down to our last few pulls. I'm reeling. Not even Rocky can get me going.
"Should we put more money in?" I ask Geoff.
He does his best Adrian impression: "You can't win!"
"I never asked you to stop being a woman," I fire back. "Don't ask me to stop being a gambler."
"You can't win!"
And I couldn't. Two more dollars down the drain. Sadly, I couldn't climb into my Lamborghini and drive 100 miles an hour while shifting 40 times.
There's no easy way out ...there's no shortcut home ...
Saturday afternoon, 4:30 p.m.
We limp back to the rejuvenated Hard Rock, a place that literally oozes Vegas: Jovial dealers, random celebrities, pounding music, those special moments when two bimbos strut back from the pool as even the dealers stare them down in disbelief. Did I mention the outdoor blackjack tables by the pool? Can you play blackjack surrounded by scantily-clad women and shirtless meatheads? It's like a science experiment.
We stay inside. As our friends descend on the tables, Geoff and I break to monitor some hoop wagers. Within an hour, I'm down another $100 ($350 for the afternoon), one more blackjack beating from reaching my Worst-Case Scenario Limit for the day.
Now I'm killing time and cheering my buddies, carefully observing the "No running commentaries if you're not playing," "Stay at least four feet away" and "Don't touch anyone's chair" rules. Ever see a porn scene when an actress works with multiple partners, and she ends up settling on two of them while the third guy basically stands next to the action and keeps busy, hoping for a call that never comes? And you have no idea why he's there in the first place?
Well, that's me. I'm the proverbial "Third guy in the porn scene." And I'm watching the table catch fire. Two beefy, tattooed lookalikes are winning practically every hand. Hopper is cruising along, stacking banks of $100 chips like he's playing poker. Butz and Mikey are cleaning up. Only Bish seems to be treading water.
Meanwhile, dealer Luis is cracking jokes, shelling out advice and having a grand old time. We keep glancing to the Hard Rock bullpen ... no action. It's inexplicable. The beefy guy on third base (Lumpy) keeps pulling off blackjacks and double downs every other hand. He isn't even reacting -- he's either hammered, brain-dead or in shock. Two of his friends stand behind him, holding Hard Rock shopping bags, waiting to head back to their casino. But Lumpy can't lose. Nobody can lose.
Finally, Lumpy cashes in. At least three grand. Doesn't phase him. As he and his friend budge from their chairs, Geoff and I leapfrog across the table like Kurt Thomas in "Gymkata." You always want to take over a hot seat in Vegas. Always.
Luis waits for them to leave, then springs this one on us: "That guy never played blackjack before."
"Lumpy? The guy who won all the money?"
"Never played before in his life. Ever."
You couldn't make this stuff up.
Now the drinks are flying. So are the wisecracks. I'm making back money at an alarming rate. With five stacks of $100 chips in front of him, Hopper looks like a kid in a candy store, only if that kid had Dr. Kimble's beard. Mikey and Butz are still cruising along. There's still no action in the Hard Rock bullpen, even with everyone winning and laughing. Luis and Geoff are even trading "Scarface" lines, with Geoff following every blackjack by screaming things like, "I can't even have a baby with you, Luis, your WOMB is so POLLUTED ..."
Only Bish is losing at first base -- he can't buy a break. During one hand, Luis forgets to deal him in ... then promptly busts as everyone wins money. It's uncanny.
"I think I'm getting up," Bish mutters.
"No!" Hopper screams. "You can't! Table karma!"
Bish stays. You know why? Because he should. In Vegas, what comes around goes around. And maybe Bish got smoked this time around -- to the point that he had a giant salad fork sticking out of him by 11:30, done for the weekend -- but the next time, the Gambling Gods will reward him.
And if that doesn't make sense to you ... well, you've never been to Vegas.
Saturday night, 9:15 p.m.
We just realized something: the Hard Rock is being managed by Grady Little.
That has to be the case, right? Why wouldn't they use their bullpen to stop our rally? Not that we're complaining. It's been an unprecedented, historic run -- when was the last time five friends won huge at the same table? Sure, poor Bish is standing four feet away, waiting for the fluffer to come by. Doesn't matter. Five out of six ... you'll take those odds any day. Bish understands. Even if he's currently catatonic.
I'm up $550 at the table, $200 for the day. And I'm doing the worst out of anyone. Two pit bosses stand near our table, sending evil vibes and trying to cool us off. Doesn't work. We're openly mocking them. We make such a dent in their chip rack that they have to bring in a whole new stack of $25s and $100s (always a moral victory). We're making "Uh-oh, they just turned the overhead camera on!" and "What time do we have to be back at MIT?" jokes. It's a party.
And then it happens.
During a shuffle, the Hard Rock's gaming host introduces himself to Hopper, sweet-talks him, hands him a card. These are the things that happen when you're gambling $100 and $200 a hand for five straight hours -- Hopper even had a passing hooker rub her crotch against his right elbow. At least we think she was a hooker. You never know at the Hard Rock.
Anyway, at the rate he's going, Hopper has already gotten his room comped, as well as Saturday's breakfast and Friday's dinner. Nobody looks happier than Mike, who just happens to be staying in Hopper's room. We immediately decide to hold a lottery draft for roommates next time around. Winner gets to stay with Hopper.
Meanwhile, Hopper and the gaming host are deep in conversation. They shake hands and the guy disappears.
"We're going to Nobu for dinner," Hopper says. "10 o'clock."
Only one of the most famous sushi places in the country. You don't just get in to Nobu. This is virgin territory. As recently as four years ago, we were sleeping four to a room. Now we're about to dine with the big boys.
We gamble for another 45 minutes, then head over to Nobu, where we promptly have one of the 10 best meals of anyone's life. The food keeps coming and coming -- sushi, kobe beef, lobster salad ... it's a murderer's row. We toast Hopper at least 1,200 times. It's like a scene from one of those action movies where everything's going great for the first 30 minutes, and then bad things start happening to the good guys ... but before it happens, they throw in the happy dinner montage. That was us.
Eventually, we head back to the tables for more blackjack. The numbers dwindle over time. We lose Bish first. He's a shell. None of us can even make eye contact with him. "He'll be back," I tell the others, one of those Larry Merchant comments, like I'm talking about a boxer who just got pummelled.
Geoff is next. Then Hopper, who sees no point in staying in the game when he's already hit five home runs. He takes himself out to a standing O.
By the end of the night, it's just me, Mikey and Butz. I'm betting $25 a hand, my fortunes rising and falling from shuffle to shuffle. Butz can barely see. I'm right there with him -- my contacts are covering my eyes like Ty Law. I'm drinking whiskey and smoking two cigs at a time, like I turned into Marge Schott. Only Mikey seems relatively coherent.
"Dude, it's 4:15," he tells us.
Butz groans: "I have a 6 a.m. wakeup call."
He's taking a 7:30 a.m. flight back to San Fran. Just over three hours away. We wait for him to make the call. Hey, we've all made money tonight. There's no reason to keep gambling. None.
"Screw it," Butz says. "Let's keep going."
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine, as well as one of the writers for "Jimmy Kimmel Live" on ABC