Tropicana 1After a long six month wait, the “Sean Brainiversary 2: Electric Boogaloo” Vegas trip is FINALLY here!! Although some of the Vegas regulars can’t make it this year, seven of us have booked passage on three different flights bound for Glitter Gulch, the adult entertainment capital of the world.

Sean and I arrive first, at 1:15pm, after a very comfortable United Airlines’ Ted flight, on which we were inexplicably and without charge bumped up to “economy plus” class. Very comfortable and 45 minutes early into LV. How often do you hear that?? We grab our bags and catch a cab to our favorite old jewel of the strip – the Tropicana.

The Tropicana's Glass CanopyThe Trop hasn’t changed. She’s slightly worn but still valiantly holding fast to the last vestiges of her 50’s Rat Pack cool. The oxygen-infused air engulfs us as we enter the lobby and we smile as we get our first whiff of the Trop’s singular and unusual (though not entirely unpleasant) odor – overtones of exotic flowers and cotton candy atop a stale ash and cold sweat base.

Blind and deaf, I bet I’d be able to identify the Trop on scent alone. I bet. I bet you $100.00. Seriously. I’m ready to gamble.

The reception desk lady tries to talk us into upgrading from our garden room to a tower room, but we decline. The tower rooms are so last year. This year, we come ready for new experiences. And gambling. I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned that yet.

Keycards in hand, Sean and I saunter off towards the 5000 wing to room 5262, our home for the next four days. It turns out to be quite a prodigious hike and we arrive just in time to receive a text message from John saying that their plane just landed.

Our room overlooks the Trop’s famously scenic pool and Sean thinks that will make for a quiet, serene stay, since it’s January and no one will be swimming. Everything seems very clean and tidy, but, like the rest of the joint, shows wear and tear around the edges. The Tropicana has seen a lot in her many years on the strip and it’s really starting to show – we still love her, though (don’t we all love a saucy old dame with a history?).

We unpack and then mosey back down to the casino right in time to greet Melissa, Brian, John and Jim. They look frazzled, but happy to be in LV after a sort of sucko flight. They tell us they booked a limo for the trip to Midway airport and I silently hand out the first style points of the weekend. Nice going, guys.

Sean and I decide to get some lunch at the Garden Cafe while we wait for folks to unpack and settle in. Melissa and Brian join us a half hour later, although our waiter has yet to make an appearance. Melissa gives the floor manager her best death stare and ordering and food arrival follows fairly quickly. I think the poor guy may have wet himself a little. John and Jim join us mid-meal.

Hunger semi-satiated, we enter gambling formation, Jim on point, and cruise towards the casino. The Trop is one of the few places on the strip one can find $5 table games at pretty much any hour of any day and Sean finds a lively $5 craps game in play. He peels off from the formation. Jim mumbles something about “cute” and “bar” and we lose our point man. Brian and Melissa peel off as we pass the Trop’s tiny poker room and I lose John right after that to a packed Let It Ride table. I fly solo towards the bank of video poker machines. “Life is a Highway”, one of my least favorite songs in the world, blasts out of the speakers over my head.

About four months before the trip, Sean and I decided to study some table games with hopes that our play would yield slightly better results than the year before. Sean picked craps as his focus. I decided to memorize the optimal play blackjack chart from The Wizard of Odds. As well, I memorized the Wizard’s optimal play Jacks or Better video poker chart, figuring that I might as well play the best possible strategy on everything, including machines I touch only when I’m trying to get free drinks.

Thanks to the Wizard, I know that casinos have most Jacks or Better video poker pay tables set at 5/4 (pays 5 for a full house and 4 for a flush), which means that with perfect play, the return is somewhere around an abysmal 92.78%. However, hidden in and among the machines should be one or maybe two machines set at a 9/6 pay table, which should return 99.54% with perfect play.

So, I diligently scope out the Trop’s video poker machines and finally find ONE Game King machine that pays 9/6. The machines inlayed in the bar (where we usually end up playing while taking a break from poker or table games) unsurprisingly have the worst pay tables in the place. I pat my 9/6 machine and promise it that I’ll be true, even if the floozy machines at the bar are more attractively located.

Stephanie, Melissa and Brian 4Mission accomplished, I wander back over to the craps tables to watch Sean play. After a bit, I want to play something too, so I pull my dog-eared copy of the Wizard’s blackjack chart from my purse (I’d brought just in case my memory completely failed due to overexcitement). Looking around, I see an older dealer standing alone behind a $25 Carribean Poker table, so I smile and say, “Hello!”

I show the man my blackjack chart and ask whether I’ll get into any trouble having it at the table. He blinks at me, leans forward and says, in low tones, “I would put that away. You can’t have that in here.”

“I can’t? Are you kidding me? They sell charts more or less like these in the gift shop, don’t they?”

“Yes, but those are laminated. Yours isn’t. Seriously, put that away. I don’t want you to get into trouble.”

“Oh, er, thank you,” I say, tucking the paper back into my purse. “What would happen?”

“It’s a fine of about $500 and you can get thrown out.”

“You are KIDDING me,” I say.

“Yes. I am,” he deadpans.

I realize I’ve been in Vegas for all of two hours and have already been duped. Jesus. What a rube.

John finds me, red-faced and staring at the still chuckling dealer, and pulls me towards the cluster of $5 blackjack tables. We slip into two seats and plunk down $80 each. I pull my blackjack chart from my purse and show it to the dealer, just to be on the safe side. She nods it off and the table patrons flick me some good-natured shit while the dealer lays out our first hand. Right off the pop, I get my least favorite hand – 10/3 – against dealer’s ten. I have to hit and bust out with a K for 23. Not an auspicious start.

It takes a little over an hour to lose $40, which I suppose is an improvement on last year’s longest game (20 minutes). Even though I do everything in accordance with optimal play – splitting, hitting and doubling down like a pro – I still can’t get the cards, and in blackjack, you GOTTA get the cards. And, I think, you have got to have a big enough bankroll to be able to ride out the losing streaks. As well, I think it might help if you aren’t Mrs. Freeze of Cardville – just my thoughts on the matter.

As the dealer whisks some of my chips away, a beaming Sean bumps me from the back and tells us he’s up $100 in craps. Excellent, sugar daddy! Melissa and Brian show up and Brian follows Sean back to the craps table while Melissa buys in and sits down next to John. We all bleed the rest of our money over the next couple of hours. At least the optimal play chart gives me more bang for my buck – a partial success, I suppose.

Melissa busts and decides to buy more chips, so I take John over and introduce him to my 9/6 machine. He tries very hard to look interested as I give him a small lecture about 9/6 versus 5/4, 7/5, etc… All the while, a woman next to us plinks through hands on an inferior 7/5 machine. While I’m distracted disdainfully tsking at her, John ditches me for Let It Ride, so I sit down at Mr. 9/6. After an hour of play, I cash out $30 ahead. Profit! Thanks, Wizard!

Sean finds me and talks me into putting some money down on craps, with him as my betting guide. As it turns out, the game itself doesn’t interest me all that much, but when the dice are passed to me, I find that I am a naturally gifted dice thrower and have a lot of fun with that part. People cheer wildly for me and I try to take it all in stride while side-arming throw after perfect throw down the table. With Sean’s guidance, I win $70!

John gets a text from Liz at 9pm and we all head to the lobby to greet her. She’s bushed but ready to rumble. The gang’s all here and the Vegas trip is officially on!

MGM Grand 1Which means it’s time for a walkabout. After Liz unpacks, we take the sky bridge to the MGM. Melissa and Brian stop to gape at the MGM’s huge (and packed) poker room while Sean gets some weekend tournament info. We peruse the info while trekking towards New York, New York, where we scoop up more tourny schedules.

Brian impulsively sits down at a mini-baccarat table and loses $40 in little under 10 minutes. We pull him up from his chair and support his white and shaking form on the walk to Excalibur. He’s calmed by the time we arrive and vows never to play mini-baccarat again. Well done, good sir.

The folks at the Excalibur poker room are extremely friendly and though we all dislike the casino (kid germs, no returns), we decide to come back the next day for the 9am hold’em tournament.

Everyone starts to yawn and Jim declares he’s going to bed, so we all follow him back to the Trop. I decide we need to perform one final Vegas ritual before I can call it a night. Every year, pre-trip, I go on and on about how much of a scam the Wheel of Fortune machines are and how I won’t get sucked into dropping coins into their voracious maws. Every year, I get sucked into playing them by Liz and John.

I decide it doesn’t count as a failure of will if I spearhead the event, so I drag the whole party over to the line of blinking Wheel of Fortune Machines and slip one a $20. I cash out sometime later about $20 ahead.

Sean and I bid the group a fond good night. We drop into bed just after 2am and lay cuddling in the dark, enjoying the serenity of our poolside room. We scoff at those who’d warned us they’d heard the garden suites had horrendously thin walls and thus were incredibly noisy. Soon, we both fall into a deep and restful sleep.