Sean and I elect to sleep in – it’s Sunday after all! We manage to snooze until 7 am before noise from the adjacent room and hallway forces us up. We ready for the day and then trudge down to Island Buffet for some nosh. John joins us as we finish breakfast to show off his new haircut, which looks quite fetching, we both agree. “Life is a Highway” warbles from the overhead speakers and he sings along idly.

Mirage from the Venetian PorticoJohn fills us in on the rest of the group while we sip the last of our coffee. Apparently, Melissa stayed up all night playing $1/$2 no-limit in the Trop poker room. She won a decent amount of money, but John isn’t sure how much. Brian also played very late and won a good amount, but did go to bed for a few hours. Presently, the two of them are back at it. Insane!

Liz has gone to Mandalay Bay for breakfast where she also intends to purchase a ticket for Cirque du Soliel’s 7 pm showing of “Love”. Jim got up early and is on his way to meet us. As we get up to leave, John receives a text message from Liz saying she’s on her way back.

Jim meets us in the corridor connecting the tower hotel to the casino and the four of us amble down to the Trop’s poker room. Melissa and Brian cash out, both ahead, when we get there and Liz shows up right after. Good timing!

We all head over to the MGM sports book to put down bets on the Bears/Colts Superbowl. I take $5 from everyone so we can post a $35 line bet on the Chicago Bears for Mick, by far the biggest football fan of our group. Sean and I each make a line bet on the Chicago Bears as well. We all relax in the cushy chairs for a bit, zoning out on the wall of screens before us, but the non-sports enthusiasts quickly become bored (read that: everyone but Sean).

We leave Sean watching hockey in the sports book to wander MGM. Liz and John throw some money in an Elvis slot machine and the King takes them for all of it. We donate some coin to the Wheel of Fortune machines, because they look lonely and dejected. They tell us, “Wheel. Of. FORTUNE!” and we know that means, “Thanks!”

Back atcha, WoF.

MGM Grand 7By the time we come back to the sports book, Sean’s made a little friend – one with a rather nasty sports betting problem, some hygiene quirks, his worldly possessions in a trash bag at his feet and a tremendously foul mouth. Sean seems to be the only person in the sports book this guy doesn’t want to punch and also the only person in the sports book willing to listen to the guy’s rather convoluted betting strategies. I decide I’m happy for them both and take my leave.

I meet with the poker planning committee at the lion cages and we decide the Flamingo’s 6 pm tournament looks awfully tempting, after which we can easily head over to O’Sheas for the 9 pm. Done and done!

We all troupe back to the sports book, pull Sean away from his friend and head for the monorail. On the way, Sean, who has been debating poker or not, decides to end his Vegas poker play on a high note, so begs off the tournaments. Instead, he decides spend his daily gambling allotment on a ticket to “Love”. He and Liz try to talk me into it, but my money has “FOR POKER OR BAIL ONLY” written on both sides, so it just won’t spend anywhere else. Really, it’s beyond my control.

Harrah's 2The Flamingo is packed! We all like the looks of the Flamingo Poker room. It is big, roomy and the chairs look comfy. The reception desk doesn’t look like a used church podium, but rather actually appears built for the room. It even has an electronic screen over the top that displays current action. Swank!

Since it’s too early for sign up, Melissa and Brian buy chips and settle in at a cash game. Liz and Sean hurry off to the Mirage to buy tickets to “Love” and John and Jim go to Bally’s to buy chocolate. Suddenly, I am alone in unfamiliar territory. What to do, what to do? I begin walking down the banks of video poker machines, checking the pay tables. I check every poker machine I can find, but can’t find one machine with a pay table higher than 7/5. Laaaame.

Finally, sign-up opens and I plunk my money down. An hour left to burn, I figure I might as well wet my poker whistle, so I buy-in for a $1/$2 no-limit cash game. The room manager seats me right next to Brian! Across from me, an older man who looks vaguely like a cross between Papa Smurf and Jerry Garcia tells me that the tariff for sitting at his table is my phone number. We banter back and forth awhile. I notice he’s wearing a t-shirt and suspenders emblazoned with “The Midwest Poker Tour” and ask him if he participated. Indeed, he has, for several years! He and his friend, sitting on my right, are semi-professional poker players.

A beautifully coifed and immaculately dressed woman in her mid-50’s sits two to my right and when I can tear my eyes away from her huge diamond ring, I notice she has several trays worth of chips. Papa Garcia tells me that she’s the table’s shark. Yikes! I smile down at her and the Matriarch Shark shows me two rows of perfect white teeth in return. To the left of Brian, four young guys sit in front of rather diminished stacks and I swear I can see a couple of bite marks. One of the guys turns out to be from Billings, Montana and we gab mountains, cabin fever and minute men.

Brian and Melissa decide to stop and take a break to eat before the tournament starts, but I’ve been off food for days now and can subsist entirely on the random vodka tonic and occasional bites of super-oxygenated air, so I sit tight.

After about 20 minutes, I take Billings out and his friend decides to cash out with him, leaving 7 players. No one changes seats, so the territory to the left of me on the table remains empty. Although Papa Garcia sits across from me, he’s actually the next player to my left.

Papa is on the small blind when I’m dealt two aces. Player 1 folds. The Matriarch Shark limps in. Player 3 folds. Papa’s friend folds. Just as I gather my chips for a raise, Papa says, “I call,” and throws his chips out to match the big blind. I blink at Papa and then the dealer and then back at Papa, who suddenly realizes he’s spaced me out.

“Aw, gosh darnit, darlin’. I’m sorry,” Papa says.

“That’s ok. But, I’m not sure how to work this. I was raising.”

[The dealer gives us the verbal contract spiel]

“I am completely willing to let him out of that,” I say to the dealer.

“Nah, nah. I should have raised it anyway,” Papa says. “How much do I owe?

Well, now I have a problem. I know I have him beat and while I’m generally the first to take any opportunity to win a poker hand, I feel a little sleazy putting a huge bet out there.

I realize anyone past beginner would take advantage of this situation, but I just can’t do it, so I scale my $20 bet down to $10. Papa puts his chips in and the big blind folds. The Matriarch Shark calls and I figure her for a high pair. Papa? I figure him for two high cards, maybe suited. We’ll see.

I get a third ace on the flop, the Matriarch Shark drops out and Papa checks and then re-raises my raise. We play raise war through the turn and river. I take down the pot with my trip aces against Papa’s busted ace-high straight. I feel awful, but Papa seems congenial about the whole thing.

“Fair and square,” he says. “But, can I have your number now?”

About 40 minutes in, I look down at my stack and see I’m up $85. Wow! Not a king’s ransom, but a good wage/hour in my book. I decide I’ve got time for one more hand before I need to cash out take a pre-trounament break.

I pay the big blind and my cards come Q – J . It folds around to the Matriarch Shark and she pauses before putting $10 in the pot. The next two fold and I impulsively decide to perform a double-dumbass with a twist – I tangle with the Matriarch Shark for the first time AND I pay $10 to win $13. Ta da! Here all week folks, try the veal.

The flop comes Q – J – 6 . Nice flop for me! I start calculating my raise when the Matriarch Shark starts to chip fiddle.

“Oh dear,” says the generally quiet shark, clacking her tongue against her teeth.

“Oh dear, oh dear, she just flopped the flush, I just know it. But I don’t want to lay this hand down! Oh … what do I do here?” She cranes her neck to look down the table at me.

“Yes, she got the flush, I’m certain of it! But…oh what the hell!”

She overbets $40. Action to me.

Now, when I was a beginner-beginner, I would have thought, “Hey! If she thinks I have the flush, I’ll bet like I have the flush!” However, now I am an intermediate-beginner and I’ve grown out of such foolishness. I think back to Caro, remembering his hilarious section on the poker clack, which I believe I’ve just heard. “Weak means strong…”, “beware the speech…” (“Oh dear, dear…”). Flush, flush, you have the flush, she says.

She has the flush, doesn’t she!

“Wow. You had me in until you started going on about the flush!” I say, mucking my cards.

“Damn,” says the shark, slapping her cards down and pulling the pot her way.

The dealer throws her a “mother, may I?” look and she nods. He peeks at her cards and laughs. “Yeah, I thought so.” She nods again, so he shows me her A – 8 . I let out a “Phew!” and laugh with the rest of them as I stand and handshake my goodbyes.

Sean waves to me from the rail as I’m cashing my chips ($75 up) and I give him the rundown while we stroll the casino. He shows me his ticket to “Love” and says he intends to hook up with Jim and Liz pre-show and grab some grub.

Ceasar's Palace 6[A note: I get the story later that Sean and Liz went to Caesar’s and watched some craps before grabbing some dinner. After dinner, Sean struck off on his own to shop for a hat and Liz went to Bally’s to hang with Jim, who was apparently “scaring all the drunken frat boys”. How, you might ask? Apprently, just by being our good ole’ sarcastic Jim. Liz said it was a floorshow all in itself watching the master work the crowd.]

John, Melissa and Brian return to the poker room and we talk a bit about my near miss with the Matriarch Shark. I conclude that even though I blundered coming into the hand, the fold was solid – it stands as my proudest moment of the trip. Sean gives me a smooch for luck and I tell him to enjoy the show! As we take our seats, I’m feeling confident and relaxed.

MargaritavilleThe tournament capped at 40 players, so we spread out 10 players on 4 tables. Melissa and I again sit down at the same table. To my dismay, the Matriarch Shark sits down across from me in seat 3. Oddly, she looks nervous about the tournament and passes me a wan smile. I give her a thumbs up and mouth, “Good luck!”

The old guy next to me starts talking as soon as I sit down and I find out he is a music promoter out of Austin, Texas. I comment favorably on the hot Austin music scene. The young guy two over agrees. The music promoter agrees too and tells us he owns a honky-tonk on the outskirts of town. He points to his hat, which has the honky-tonk’s logo.

Now, I’ve heard the term “honky-tonk”, but I don’t know exactly what it means. I figure it simply means a bar that plays country-western music. When he starts talking about booking Willy Nelson for the last 40 years, I figure I’m on the right track.

Over the next little while, he continues to jaw about Austin, famous performers he’s met and honky-tonks. He’s a great guy. When the tables collapse down to two and I am reseated, he stands up and proudly displays the back of his leather jacket.

“George Strait gave me this one as a present. See? It’s signed right here!”

“Wow! That is so cool!” I say, completely sincere, even though I have utterly no idea who George Strait is.

“You and your husband ever get down to Austin, you come on down to my honky-tonk. Tell the guys at the door that you played a hold ‘em tournament with me in Vegas and that I said you were a special guest of mine.”

“I will! I’ve always wanted to see Austin! Thanks so much!”

What a great guy!

Brian busts out of the tournament around the half-way mark and Melissa follows him soon after. I look over at the other table and see they are down to about 6 players, including John, Mr. Honky-tonk and Papa Garcia! I wave to John and give him a thumbs up. He grins back.

The Strip at Night 4

Our table goes down to seven players when the guy to my immediate left busts. To my right, two young, loud guys seem frustrated and intimidated by the four older guys in their mid-50’s to mid-60’s sitting in tribunal fashion on the other side of the table. To be honest, the tribunal intimidates me too. They’ve obviously played their fair share of poker and don’t much like younger players. They throw a frosty vibe towards the two young guys and a flirty but dismissive vibe my way. I promise myself I’ll capitalize.

Try as I might, I never get comfortable and miss several opportunities to play by folding pretty ok hands. The blinds chow down on my chip stack. John taps out 13th, looks down at my dwindling chip stack as he passes and frowns. I give him a slanted, shaky smile.

The tribunal focusses attention on the two young guys and hammers them pot after pot. The two young guys whine about bad beats and lousy calls. I miss several more opportunities to get in on the feeding frenzy.

Both young guys bust out and I barely have any of their chips. The tribunal turns its attention on me and, damn me, I pretty much resign myself to fate. So, they squash me. I stand up and shake hands, out in 9th place.

The Strip at Night 2I rejoin John, Brian and Melissa outside the poker room and we decide to run sign up for the O’Sheas tourney and then grab a drink. From O’Sheas, Brian and Melissa guide John and I to a bar called “Beachers Rockhouse Bar”, which consists of a cut-out on the corner of the Imperial Palace that looks, for all the world to me, like a passthrough from the hotel to the strip rather than a drinking establishment.

The decor favors black and leather. A two-man (or three stripper) cage hangs directly in the center, swinging lazily in the evening breeze. I wander off into fantasy land for a minute and imagine Sean and my squealing, wall-kicking next door neighbors back at the Trop locked in that cage, surrounded by adult revelers pelting them with martini olives. Niiiiice.

The bar is completely deserted, so we become the bartenders’ main focus as we pull stools up and order drinks. Both bartenders use the slow time to practice “bartender flair” and we find out many interesting facts. For one, a company exists in America for the sole purpose of providing flair supplies to bars. Second, there are flair bartending competition circuits, flair bartender heroes and heroines, flair bartending cliques, flair bartending feuds and a flair bartending association. Wow! Who knew?

Tropicana Stained Glass Canopy Detail 1As we bond with the very nice bartenders, we all knock back a few drinks and by the time we are on our way back to O’Sheas an hour later, I think everyone is feeling it. TD-Sean gives us a wave, a grin and a big ‘hello!’ as we wobble into the poker alcove.

Due to whiskey overage, John manages to bust out in the first few minutes of the tournament. We wave to him as he weaves off into the night. I crane my neck and see Brian sitting in front of a nice, fat chip stack. Good!

Melissa and I become friendly with a couple at our table from Toronto. The woman plays very well, but her husband goes out early. Brian goes out in 20th place. Melissa busts out just after we collapse to two tables and sadly, I’m the one to bust her.

Short-stacked, she goes all-in with A-4 and I cringe as I look down at a pair of queens. I swing my cringe her way and she shrugs. I push my chips in and flip my queens. The queens hold up and Melissa walks around the table to give me a hug. About five minutes later, I notice she and Brian sitting down at a cash game behind me, so all is well in the world.

T-D Sean moves a young man who looks vaguely like Ming the Merciless to our table and he sits down next to me. We bond instantly. He plays very well and has a great, dry sense of humor. Bonus!

Play starts to slow considerably as six of us take turns as chip-leader. We manage to knock out all new-comers. As we collapse into the final table, Ming takes the last new-comer for a lot of chips. Unfortunately, he has quite a pile of my chips as well. Suddenly, I’m in danger of blinding-off.

I decide that I’d rather go all-in than have the blinds force me to move all-in, so I Hail Mary a weak-ass hand before the flop: 2 – 3 . The Brotherhood of Six roots for me hard, but the cards just don’t come my way and I’m out in 8th. As I stand, I notice Melissa and Brian walking off towards the bar, waving to Sean.

Venetian from the MirageI join them and get some consolation sugar from my man. John’s gone back to the Trop, so we hit the road too. We walk and talk poker and Cirque du Soleil’s “Love” the whole way back. Sean says he and Liz had a great time and the show blew their socks off. I check. He’s sockless, alrighty. He tries to explain some of what he saw, but finds that the Cirque’s shows are, indeed, indescribable.

Brian and Melissa tell me about the cash game they played. It was a limit hold ‘em game and Melissa bought in for $40 and cashed out for $37. Brian, on the other hand, bought in for $50, hit a straight flush (!!!) on the third hand and was up to $150!! A straight flush! Wow. They both kept playing, even though the drinks we’d had at the Rockhouse were hitting them hard. Brian cashed out with $100. Go B.!!

Hooers!We are in mighty high spirits as we exit the tram at the MGM. On our way through the turnstile, we see two tall college guys accompanying a wobbly circa 18 year old girl in a short skirt and stilt heels. She drops her ticket and bends over.

“Wow. You’d think you might wear underwear with a skirt that short,” Melissa says.

“Yeah,” I agree. “If I were her, I’d keep one hand over the top of my drink tonight.”

Melissa and I wish her a silent “good luck” as she wobbles off, arm in arm, with the two guys. Brian spends the next 10 minutes kicking himself for missing the whole thing.

We get back to the Trop and hang around with Liz and John for awhile. John has another good run at Let It Ride and adds some $100s to his treasure chest. We all decide to head upstairs around 1:30am to freshen up. Liz, Brian and Sean never come back down. Melissa, of course, makes a bee-line for the poker room, but I decide to hang with John as I try to decide whether to pull an all-nighter (like Melissa) or go up and try to get at least two hours of sleep. John and I play a little Wheel of Fortune accompanied by our unfortunate Vegas theme song, “Life is a Highway”.

When I finally decide to go up and sleep, John begs me to escort him to his room first because he wants to “show me something”. It’s 2:30am and the casino is decidedly quiet. When we enter the long corridor connecting the casino to the hotel towers, we are completely alone.

“Dang,” John says.

“What? Dang, what?”

“Well, every night we’ve come back to the room, this whole corridor has been wall to wall hookers.”

In the daytime, the hall is lined with kiosks selling various and sundry Vegas bric-brac. At night, with the kiosks locked tight, a dozen little hidden notches form. John explains that on previous nights, each notch held a hooker or sometimes two. He seems genuinely bummed they are empty.

As we get to the last row of shuttered kiosks, I see movement in my peripheral and look over to see a young girl. She looks 15, but is probably older. Probably. She’s just standing there, looking bored. I nod to her and she nods back. I notice she is very, very pretty and sort of feel sick. Part of me wants to tell her to go home, go to college, stop doing this kind of thing, but I know she’s probably heard it before.

New York New York 5As we round the corner to the elevator bank, I look back and see her stroll out as a frumpy man of about 50 takes a solo walk into the corridor. The two talk a minute and then swing around, coming back for the tower. They don’t take our elevator.

As I slip into bed 15 minutes later, I hug Sean, feeling lucky that my life has turned out the way it has.