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Wednesday, July 26, 2006
Thrown to the mat in Vegas

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

Editor's note: This article originally ran on October 17, 2002.

There isn't anything on the planet quite like the sensation of "I'm getting my butt handed to me in Vegas," which feels like getting pulled over for a speeding ticket, but for an entire weekend. Voyage to Vegas enough times and it's bound to happen. Law of averages. With six trips on my résumé and only one semi-thrashing, I knew another one was coming. Eventually.

That didn't stop me from fighting it. I tinkered with my "winning" Vegas formula like Bill Walsh honing his West Coast offense, improving it over the years, fixing the kinks, installing new plays, gaining confidence and eventually coming up with these guidelines:

(Wait, there's more!)

Eventually, I figured Vegas out. Maybe I wouldn't win every time, but I wouldn't get shellacked, either. And that was my mindset at my friend Mikey's bachelor party last weekend ... right until Vegas gave me the off-and-on Ralphie Treatment for four consecutive days. Yes, it was that bad.

At least I weaseled a column idea from it. On Monday's airplane back to Boston, as I fought off the urge to slit my wrists with the October issue of Ebony En Espanol, it dawned on me that a losing Vegas weekend mirrors every WWF TV match from the '80s -- one of their recognizable jobbers (like SD "Special Delivery" Jones or Koko B. Ware) would get pinned by a more established superstar (like Cowboy Bob Orton or Big John Studd), the same match unfolded every week, and it almost felt like "Groundhog Day." Same with Vegas. When your weekend goes up in flames, it always unfolds the same way.

VIVA THE SPORTS GUY
When The Sports Guy says he's a Vegas veteran, he really means it. Last November, he spent six days in Vegas, covering the Rahman-Lewis heavyweight title bout. If you missed any of Bill Simmons' original week in Vegas, check out all those archived columns here.

So without further ado, here's the SD Jones Memorial "Stages of Getting Your Butt Whupped In Vegas" Theory, using last weekend's Vegas trip as a template:

Stage No. 1: The overconfident introduction
You're at the mercy of the Gambling Gods in Vegas. If they don't want you to win, you're not going to win. Period. So when you enter Vegas like a wrestler strutting into the ring before a match -- jiving to the music, pointing to the crowd, pounding your chest, talking trash to your opponent -- you're basically digging your own grave. It's like speaking during a no-hitter -- the less you say and think, the better off you'll be.

In my case, there were five problems: A) I hadn't been to Vegas in nearly a year, B) I hadn't lost big in Vegas in five years, C) my sterling 47-27 record in my NFL picks pool had boosted my self-confidence to Terrell Owens-level proportions, D) I was carrying $1,100 dollars in my pocket (bigggggg mistake), and E) I spent my last hour on my plane thinking things like "When I double this $1,100 to $2,200, I'll have the casino write me a cashier's check so I won't have to carry all the cash on the way home."

One other warning sign: For the first time in my life, I landed in Vegas and didn't feel a rush. Getting my suitcase, seeing the Strip for the first time, strolling into Mandalay Bay (our casino), hearing the constant chatter from the slot machines ... nothing. I felt like I had been there a million times. And if you're gambling without that "I'm in Vegas" rush, it's like playing a playoff game and not being pumped up. You just can't win.

(Can you see where this is going? I thought so.)

Stage No. 2: The Eye Gouge
You know when two wrestlers lock horns and push each other around, then one of them sticks two fingers in his opponent's eyes, sending him reeling into the ropes? That's the Eye Gouge. It works for all forms of life -- getting passed over for a job promotion, losing an NBA bet on a 3-pointer at the buzzer, finding out that you left a drunken answering machine message for your ex-girlfriend at 4 a.m. the previous night. Eye Gouge, Eye Gouge, Eye Gouge. Not quite a Stomach Punch, but it still smarts.

In Vegas, the Eye Gouge usually arrives Friday night, when you least expect it. Our swollen 22-man group gathered after dinner, including my key Vegas running mates (you might remember them from last year's Vegas columns: Mikey, Hopper and Bish, although Geoff couldn't make it). I had an inkling that it wasn't my night when Hopper and I sat down at a $10 table, joined by someone else from our group who we didn't know too well. After this guy lost a few hands, he hopped up from the table and stood behind us, his hands resting on our chairs, watching us lose hand after hand.

Now ...

There are many rules in Vegas during a male bonding trip, and we don't need to delve into all of them. But here are two, and you need to know them, and you need to pass them along, and we all need to band together collectively and ensure the world is a safer place:

  • If you're watching friends play blackjack and don't partake, stand about 5 feet behind them. Don't stand too close, don't hover over them, and definitely don't rest your hands on their chairs. I mean, ever. You might as well throw chicken blood and a black cat on the table.

  • If these same friends lose more than two hands in a row, quickly say something like, "All right, I'm gonna go look for the other guys" or "I'm gonna go find another table" and get the hell out of there. Don't look back. Don't wait for a response. Flee the premises. Leave treadmarks.

    And if you continue to stand there with your hands on their chairs, and you're making comments like "I can't believe she got another 21" and "Hey, there's another five for you!" ... well, you might as well fly in one of the guys' sisters and start making out with her. It's one of the Hall of Fame Vegas No-No's. You can't recover. Everyone losing at that table will remember it for the rest of their lives. And you think I'm kidding.

    Anyway, that didn't get the night off to a good start. Hopper and I fled to a $25 table (dodging the seat-toucher), as I made the decision, "Screw it, I have tons of 20s in my pocket, and I'm ready to play with the big boys." After an hour of treading water, Malena The Bulgarian came out of the dealer bullpen -- stone-faced and sullen, throwing everything for strikes -- and within five minutes I had already cracked the first "I'm getting more 14s and 15s than R. Kelly" joke.

    Ten minutes later, I was down $340, holding my eyes and reeling against the ropes ... and it wasn't even 9 yet. Uh-oh.

    Stage No. 3: Over the ropes
    In wrestling, the Eye Gouge sets the tone for the next few minutes: The jobber's opponent executes a few moves and throws him over the ropes, and the poor jobber writhes in agony on the concrete floor (as his opponent mocks him and makes obscene gestures to the crowd). Same with Vegas. After the early Eye Gouge, it's too early to stop gambling, so you convince yourself that you can come back ... and you end up getting worked over even more.

    Trista Rehn
    There was no sign of the women from "Real World: Las Vegas," but "The Bachelorette" did make an appearance.
    In my case, we headed over to the Palms -- where "Real World: Las Vegas" was filmed -- because we figured it would be easier to hire cast members Brynn and Trishelle as strippers than to pay a cover charge at Olympic Gardens. Unfortunately, the cast had long since fled the premises, but we did glimpse another reality-TV star ... that's right, it was Trista from "The Bachelor," filming her spinoff show, "The Bachelorette." She was playing craps on a group date with five cheesy guys, prompting my best joke of the trip: "I bet she's playing the 'Don't come' line."

    Anyway, we ended up waiting in a maddeningly long line to get into Rain, one of those 21st century clubs where you can freak dance, pop Ecstacy pills like Pez and order rohypnol daiquiris. Why couldn't they have had these places when I was in my early-20s? Why did I miss out on the whole "Girls dress like hookers and act like them, too" era? Somehow my prime was sandwiched between the late-'70s (Disco Era, drugs and free love) and the early-'00s (no clothes, designer drugs, tons of sex). I had the late-'80s and early-'90s, when girls wore baggy sweaters to cover their rear ends, drugs were evil and everyone was terrified of AIDS. Really, really, really bad times. Ten years either way and I could have been prominently involved. It's haunting.

    I'll shorten this part of the story: Bish and I became bored, mainly because there isn't a club on the planet worth waiting in line for 45 freaking minutes. Please. Unless they're handing out massages, free drinks and happy endings, no club could be that good. So we found a $15 blackjack table and settled there for the next two hours, just me and Bish. He wins, I lose. He wins, I lose. We're sitting right next to each other. WE'RE SITTING RIGHT NEXT TO EACH OTHER!!!!!!! He ends up winning about $200; I end up losing $220. Also, I hated Bish and wanted him to die.

    By 1 a.m., we were buzzed and wandering around a half-empty Luxor casino -- one of the most depressing places on the planet -- looking for a pizza place that some senile Mandalay security guard had recommended. Turned out to be a Little Caesar's. Great ending to a lousy day: soggy pizza. And I'm hammered and jet-lagged, reeling from the fact that I somehow lost 560 bucks, trying to ignore the fact that there were still 60 hours left in my trip. Just like writhing on the concrete floor outside a wrestling ring.

    Stage No. 4: The rally
    You know how it works in wrestling: The wrestling jobber climbs back into the ring, blocks a few punches, lands a few dropkicks and overhand rights, gets the crowd excited and turns the match around.

    The Vegas equivalent? Simply waking up. In Vegas, every day is a new day. A giddy Bish and I ordered room service for breakfast, titillated by the fact that we weren't sharing a bed all weekend. That's a watershed moment in life, isn't it? The "I can afford my own bed and I don't have to worry about sharing a bed with someone else and making sure we stay as far apart as possible while we're sleeping" feeling? Good times. We both ordered $13 ham-and-cheese omelettes, toast, a $10 giant pot of coffee and two $5.25 orange juices, which turned out to be the size of two urine samples.

    Total cost with the room service charge? $53. Not including tip.

    (Note: I think this was the point when I officially turned on Mandalay Bay. As if that place already isn't enough of a ripoff ... the dealers and waitresses are mostly unfriendly, the rooms aren't that nice, the sports book is consistently overcrowded, and they're slowly sneaking in automatic shuffle machines on their blackjack tables, which is only the single-worst invention since the designated hitter. Now we're shelling out $30 apiece for an omelette, some white toast, two drops of juice and some lukewarm coffee? An absolute outrage. Do yourself a favor ... if you're spending the money, stay at the Venetian. Bigger rooms, nicer dealers, better accomodations. Just trust me.)

    Matt Damon
    Never hit the poker tables thinking like Mike McD in "Rounders."
    Eventually, we left the casino to walk the Strip, my favorite tradition of any Vegas trip; this year's excursion featured me, Bish, Hopper and Hopper's friend DJ (picked up in free agency since Geoff didn't make the trip). Our first stop? The Monte Carlo, an underrated place for blackjack (cheap tables, no shuffle machines, friendly waitresses, good lighting). Of course, our first $10 table was manned by a surly dealer named Frank, who apparently forgot to take his Zoloft that morning. At one point, I counted seven spots at our table, then wondered why there were seven spots and only six seats. So Frank hollers out, "It's a handicapped table -- there are five seats, not six ... COUNT AGAIN!" Swear to God.

    On the bright side, we finally had a running joke for the trip: COUNT AGAIN! We probably said that 25,972 times over the next four hours. And once Frank changed tables, everyone was in good spirits, and the jokes were flying, and everyone was winning, and Rick the Dealer was commenting on every female in a 50-foot vicinity, and Darlene the Waitress was keeping the drinks coming ... next thing you know, three hours had passed and our planned voyage down The Strip was up in flames. COUNT AGAIN! We were doing so well that the Generic Evil Pit Boss started hovering near our table, making annoying comments to destroy our karma. Didn't work.

    Up $300 and humming "Rocky" music after every blackjack, the drinks were catching up to me. All afternoon, I had been drinking Absolut Raspberry with tonic water & cranberry juice, partly because I was too hung over to drink anything else, partly because I knew the drink would become a running joke. And it did. After the third order, Darlene was asking me, "You want another macho drink?" and Hopper was ordering me Pink Squirrels. I'm telling you, this stuff needs to happen when you're winning -- good karma, jokes flying, people making fun of each other, friendly dealers and waitresses, the whole shebang. That's why I kept ordering the Macho Drink.

    And I was having too good of a time, and the pilot had turned off the "No Smoking" sign, and we couldn't stop winning, and the drinks kept coming ...

    Stage No. 5: The missed jump from the top rope
    You know how this works: The jobber has turned the tide, the crowd's behind him, his stunned opponent lies prone on his back ... and the jobber gets greedy. He climbs to the top rope and goes for his killer finishing move, soaring in the air to land his big elbow, and at the last minute, his opponent rolls out of the way. You can't recover from that one.

    And I couldn't recover from this: Playing third base, I'm on my umpteenth Macho Drink -- I was afraid to switch drinks, because I don't want to ruin our collective karma -- when the dealer asks me if I want to stay on ace-eight against a nine. I wave my hand "No," but a little too emphatically ... and inexplicably knock my drink everywhere.

    Chaos. Suddenly eight people are cleaning up the mess. My buddies are ragging on me. I'm trying to pretend that I wasn't buzzed, that the whole thing was an accident. And most importantly, some of the cards got soaked, so we needed a whole new setup. That's right ... a 20-minute delay and we lose the cards that were working so well for us.

    COUNT AGAIN!

    You can guess what happened. The new deck didn't treat us nearly as well, eventually driving us out of the Monte Carlo (I finished plus-$200). But that gaffe set the tone for the rest of the night, which included an absurdly expensive, drunken dinner at the Mandalay's Rum Jungle ($3,700 for 22 people, yet another chapter in the Mandalay's new book, "How To Rip Off Our Customers"), followed by some, um, bar-hopping and general revelry, which culminated in DJ, Bish and I heading back to Monte Carlo (somehow, improbably, our cab got pulled over for running a red light -- talk about your bad omens). After struggling at Monte Carlo, we walked back to Mandalay, where I pulled my patented "I'm running up to my room to take out my contacts and put on my glasses ... I'll be right back" ploy and passed out within 15 minutes. At least I avoided the DTM gambling.

    Final tally: plus-$140 for the day, minus-$420 for the trip. Could have been better. And it all goes back to spilling that damned drink.

    Stage No. 6: The chair shot
    In wrestling, usually this happens when the ref isn't looking: The opponent grabs a chair from outside the ring, brings it back in and bashes the unsuspecting jobber across the head. Happens all the time. Nobody bounces back from the chair shot.

    As for me, I spent my Sunday morning ordering room service, coughing up oyster-sized loogies (thanks to Hopper, the only person alive who can convince me to smoke cigarettes), and monitoring my NFL bets, where I planned to make my big comeback. I ended up winning Tampa Bay-Buffalo and Tampa Bay -Indy teases, but losing huge on the slumping Pats, a wager in which I broke three of my own rules -- "Never bet against Brett Favre" and "Never bet on your own team" and "Never bet more on one game than the other games." The lesson, as always: I'm an idiot.

    Drew Brees
    Kicking myself, I headed downstairs to wager on the Chiefs (money line: $60 to win $93) and play some poker. Here's where hubris kicked in -- instead of playing it safe at a seven-card stud table, I pulled a Mike McD and joined a $4-to-8 "Texas Hold 'Em" table (higher stakes, better players, greater chance to lose big quickly). Looking back, I should have been wearing a Tom Gamboa jersey, just because as soon as I sat down, I was suddenly and inexplicably getting the crap kicked out of me.

    A mere $190 later, I limped over to Mandalay's sports book to watch the Chiefs finish off the Chargers. When they won the game, I would be down about $50 for the day. Not bad. Of course, the Chiefs blow third down and end up kicking a field goal. Up by six, 150 seconds to play. Wayyyyyyy too much time.

    Now I'm scared. Sometimes in Vegas, you just know. You can feel it. It's mystical. I'm watching Brees pick apart K.C.'s defense like Elway, driving the Chargers down to the red zone, and the sports book is hopping, and I'm like Apollo Creed waiting for Drago to land that last overhand right, and then Brees finds someone in the end zone -- touchdown! -- and I'm down $190 for the day, a whopping $610 for the trip.

    Good God almighty.

    Stage No. 7: The pin
    Pretty self-explanatory in wrestling. When you get pinned in Vegas, it's usually that one final wager that breaks your heart -- you're down, you're struggling, you're practically done, but there's one wager that could turn things around, whether it's a giant blackjack bet, a roulette bet, a sports bet, a bottle of Veuve Cliquot in the Champagne Room or whatever floats your boat. In my case, I reached for the Broncos. Sunday night game. Denver at home. Fielder on the road. Denver only giving 3½ points.

    Bish and I headed over to Treasure Island's sports book, where we drank bloody mary's and watched the Broncos dominate the first half against Miami, somehow only emerging with a two-point lead (thanks to a goal-line fumble, red-zone interception and half-ending field goal wiped out by a holding penalty). And you knew it was ending badly. You just knew. In the history of the NFL, nobody has ever squandered multiple scoring chances in the first half, then ended up winning the game. It's never happened. I defy Steve Sabol to prove me wrong.

    You know the rest. Miami ended up winning an unbelievable game -- an absolute roller-coaster ride of the worst scale -- and I dropped another $82.50. Heartbreaking. I can't even talk about it. Seriously. I'm incapable. For some reason, I kept forging ahead, hitting the Treasure blackjack tables with Bish and Hopper, so desperate that I even consented to play at a table with those evil automatic shuffling machines. That led to this exchange:

    Rob Konrad, Olindo Mare
    Olindo Mare's last-second field goal pinned The Sports Guy to the mat.

    You can guess how that one ended. I dropped another $105, pushing my figure right up to minus-$800. Minus-$800!

    Now it's midnight. I'm buzzed again. And tired. And wildly depressed. Three days of sitting in Vegas have left me more constipated than the Sumner Tunnel at rush hour -- I can't perform on the road, anyway, and frankly, I don't know who can -- so I have the permanent Mike Shanahan Face going. And I have an 11:45 a.m. flight the following morning. I'm totally broken. I'm Tim Couch. I never want to come to Vegas again. Ever.

    It's over. I'm done. Vegas has pinned me.

    (Wait, there's one more stage!)

    Stage No. 8: Cleaning house
    One of my favorite wrestling traditions: The jobber squanders the match, becomes incensed, attacks the winner, unleashes a few punches and throws him out of the ring (as the crowd explodes). A moral victory, if you will.

    Well, we have those in Vegas, too: The last-minute, "I know I'm getting on a plane in a few hours, but maybe I can fit in a few more blackjack hands" gambling spree. Strangely enough, there's a remarkably high success rate here, almost as if Vegas allows you to leave on a happy note, just so you'll come back again.

    My mini-redemption happened in the strangest of ways: Bish skipped out to catch an early flight, I woke up, couldn't fall back asleep ... within 30 minutes, I found myself heading over to the Venetian at 7:30 in the morning (special thanks to the Sports Gal for her inspiring "You can do it!" speech). And everything just felt right. The five cups of coffee helped. So did the jovial dealers. And the three guys at my table who knew what they were doing. You can't describe why it's working in a casino, you only know how to identify it when it's happening. And for me, it was happening. Finally.

    Two hours later, I regained a little self-respect, walking away at the perfect time and cashing in for a $175 profit. More importantly, I liked Vegas again. Losing $800 in three days would have been a disaster; losing $625 in four days was merely an unfortunate aberration. Vegas might have pinned me, but I think I had her scared there Monday morning. And I'll be back. Ohhhhhhhh, yes ... I'll be back.

    Vegas, baby.

    Vegas.

    Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.