Home of 'Gaming' and Family Vacations A Letter From LAS VEGAS

October 20, 1991|By TED CHAN

The extremely tall gentleman was not a good blackjack player -- and the woman from San Antonio, Texas let him know it.

He laughed off her good-natured teasing and everyone within earshot shared the guffaws. Finally, she said: "You know, a guy as big as you should have learned to play basketball. You should just give up on blackjack." The dealer and the pit boss nearly fell down laughing.

He was basketball legend Wilt Chamberlin.

Las Vegas has that way of throwing people off guard. There's a lot more -- or less -- to it than meets the eyes in the mix of tourists from across America and beyond.

Sure, it's the nation's No. 1 gambling paradise. And it has a history of corruption and ties to the mob. But the bettors' Mecca has also become home to hundreds of thousands of people. In the past 10 years, the metropolitan population has catapulted to about 830,000 from 460,000, making Las Vegas one of the fastest growing cities in the nation.

Residents cite a wide assortment of reasons why they moved here, or why they've stayed: affordable housing and low property taxes, no personal income tax, no mosquitoes, no snow, no ragweed. The only complaint I heard was from one taxi driver who said, "I don't like the summer. It's too hot and dry."

Oh, not like your home, which is where, sir?

"Ethiopia."

Overseeing the growth is Mayor Jan Laverty Jones, previously known for her wacky character roles in her husband's car dealer ads. But, she's not a dizzy dame. She's a Stanford University graduate, who made a fortune managing her family's grocery chain in California.

Mrs. Jones wants to give Vegas a family town image and shed the city's sinful reputation tied to mob activities. Family town? Why not? Vegas already has become family vacation destination.

Walk into the new Excalibur, built like a medieval castle, or Circus Circus (trapeze act in the middle and carnival games). Surely, they are the product of cartoonists and theme park creators who have been taking psychedelic drugs. It's Disneyland with dice. But it works. The places are wall-to-wall with parents and children.

Of course, the mayor knows gambling -- or "gaming," as it is called in Nevada -- is here to stay as the city's No. 1 industry.

The Vegas seduction starts immediately. The tinkle of rapidly dropping coins -- the siren song of the slot machines -- can be heard before visitors can even get from their plane through the passenger chute. It was the soundtrack of the next four days.

I resisted and headed for the Mirage Hotel (tropical theme, white tigers, tolerable number of children) to rendezvous with my best friend, Joel. Advice: don't gamble with people from the Far East.

Asians and Arabs are regarded as the heaviest betters in Vegas and they can give you an immediate inferiority complex. Joel, a native New Yorker, has lived in Japan for the past 12 years, which has distorted his handle on the U.S. dollar. Remind him that he's making a $50-dollar bet and he's apt to say, "Yeah, but in real money [he means yen], it's nothing." It's frightening. We sat at different tables.

A few days later, Joel's friend Jerry, a college professor in Pennsylvania, joins us. He immediately lost nearly $300 on video poker machines -- but his luck changed after a visit to to Bell Books and Candle, one of the oldest purveyors of luck in Vegas.

Lucky Avatar (his legal name) sells a wide assortment of amulets, charms, oils and "Mojo" bags, which are filled with roots, seeds and gemstones formulated to increase his customers' winnings.

"We have a lot of people get off the plane and come here before they even go to their hotel," Mr. Avatar said with an assuring nod.

As a souvenir, we bought a vial of green-colored oil, called "draw money," which contained gold flakes. The oil, Mr. Avatar suggested, smells like money. "Rub some on your money, right palms and wallets before you get to the casino floor," Mr Avatar advised. "And you have to believe it's going to work. That's very important."

We rubbed -- too much. Our blackjack dealer's head recoiled at the smell and she asked, "Whew, where'd you guys get this money? It smells like you've been keeping it in a box of mothballs."

Jerry (the believer) won. Joel and I lost.

After stops in several casinos, we conclude our favorite is Binion's Horseshoe in downtown Vegas, appropriately known as Glitter Gulch. Binion's is low-key: simple decor, no night club, not even a band. But in a nice observation of ways to risk money, it has televisions tuned in to the stock markets, along with games and horse races for sports bettors.

Horseshoe also has the friendliest gamblers. They are from small towns in America's heartland, silver-haired ladies, men in overalls and plaid pants. We compare notes about the Midwest. Between hands, it's like pulling up a chair for pie and coffee in Illinois again.

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