Last year, we passed up the Flamingo for the Orleans, our favorite. But not this year.

I initially booked through Flamingo's website for a very nice rate of $49 but canceled and rebooked through hotels.com after they e-mailed me a very special "recession rate" of $35. Plus a coupon book full of good deals at the various Harrah's properties.

Flamingo is my favorite Strip hotel because of it's central location at the Fabulous Four Corners of the dead center Strip. Caesar's is across the street (west), Bally's / Paris is on the southeast side and Bellagio is on the southwest corner. And with no setback from the sidewalk, it's easy to get in and out of.

We had spent the previous week hiking in southern Utah (Grand Canyon north rim, Bryce, etc.), where we had visited 15 years ago during a three week trek of the Golden Circle from Vegas through southern Utah to Four Corners / Mesa Verde and Northern Arizona and back to Vegas. We wanted to spend more time in Bryce and areas we had missed on the previous trip.

After 1,500 miles in southern Utah, we were ready for R & R in Vegas!

But not the heat.... We'd been to Vegas in early once September but I'd forgotten how hot that "dry" heat is. When we woke up Saturday in Cedar City (Utah), it was in the mid-60's. We had the rental car's sunroof down as we checked out Cedar Breaks National Monument before heading to Vegas.

As we crossed the Virgin River Gorge bridge, which connects the end of Utah's plateau to the end of the Mojave Desert, I could feel the temperature increasing. It was in the low 80's as we crossed the Gorge. By the time we arrived in Mesquite (Nevada) about a half hour later, it was past 100.

Our Flamingo room was on the 16th floor, one of the lowest yet in any of our stays there. But, we had a nice view of the pool / wildlife habitat area.

The recession continues to take its toll on Vegas. There were deals everywhere. Although I have way too much Vegas logo apparel, I added a white New York New York logo T-shirt with a big peace sign on the back. After all, it was the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love!

Newly Noticed:

After returning the rental car to Excalibur so we could check out the south Strip without walking all the way there in the heat, I noticed that Excalibur had bowed to poker fan pressure and ditched the "electronic" poker tables to bring back live dealers. It had happened so recently they hadn't received tournament chips, so they had no tournaments scheduled yet. I didn't care: Excalibur has a reputation as being the biggest fish tank on the Strip and I'm not too fond of poker sushi except when I'm desperate.

On the other hand, in various other casinos I noticed "electronic" blackjack and semi-electronic craps where there was only one croupier. Now why go to Vegas to play table games "electronically" when you can do that online? That may be the sorry future as casinos try to cut labor costs. But maybe if folks don't patronize the 'electronic' tables the casinos will have to keep the table crews, just like Excalibur's poker room.

Walking through New York New York after a poker tournament at Mandalay Bay, I got to talking with a security guard because I couldn't remember if the Monte Carlo tram was still operating. (It isn't.) I was in no rush and he was bored so we talked about half an hour. I learned that the City Center entertainment complex, going up where the eyesore Boardwalk Casino used to be, is scheduled to be finished in December after getting their financing going again.

But, the condos will be only half the 40 stories they were supposed to be. Seems the rebar was installed improperly but that wasn't discovered until after 20 stories had been finished. The choice was to tear the 20 stories down and start over, or leave it at 20 stories which could be supported by the rebar. With condo sales pathetic, they took the 20 stories option but will probably sue the contractor and engineer for "lost profit."

At Coca-Cola World, I noticed two new menu items at the upstairs café. A sampler of eight 8-ounce Coke products from around the world for $7 (which used to be free years ago and featured more than eight flavors) and, for a dollar more, eight 8-ounce floats. We went with the floats and could barely finish the eight between us. That was four scoops of ice cream and 32 ounces of soda each. We called it dinner....

Where FAO Schwartz used to be in the Forum Shops at Caesar's Palace is a confectionery cleverly named after it's predecessor: FAO Schweetz. The giant horse is still there.

On the north end of the Strip, there's now a Wal-Greens next to Venetian.

Dining:

It was steak, more steak, and even more steak followed by prime rib / shrimp / crab legs in a rare appearance at a buffet.

Our first steak was the Gambler's Special at Mr. Lucky's at the Hard Rock Casino. That's a six-ounce steak, three large grilled shrimp, a baked potato and a large salad. The price is what you'd expect for a place named Mr. Lucky's - $7.77. (Not on the menu, so you need to know about it from Vegas veterans like me.) I didn't care for it. The steak is a "thin cut" style more suited to a steak and eggs breakfast.

The next steak was at Orleans. Don Miguel's Cantina was not offering their appetizers at half-price, as I had hoped. But the adjacent Courtyard Café's appetizers were half-price so we ate lunch / dinner there.

Of course, we went straight for the jugular by ordering up the biggest appetizer - a sampler platter of chicken tenders, chicken wings, onion rings and some others I've forgotten. If I'd known how huge that platter was, we'd not have ordered anything else because it stuffed us.

But we did manage to split a $7 eight-ounce prime rib / baked potato / salad special. That meal had a value of $16, but because we used casino rewards points to pay for it, we received a 40% discount on top of the appetizer discount and so the bottom line was a very reasonable $7.

The third steak was at Ellis Island, in back of Bally's. We made the mistake of arriving around 5 and there was a line. We were seated about 30 minutes later but the wait was well worth it.

They have a steak special that's not on the menu but they are now 'advertising' it on their marquee. It's a 10-ounce 'filet cut' sirloin, with baked potato, garlic green beans and a large salad for $7. I complemented that with a pint of root beer from their micro-brewery, which they say has been rated the top one in Nevada and one of the top 10 in the country.

I also joined their player's club since seniors get $1 every Tuesday and Thursday and $5 for your birthday. These comps can't be used for that steak special, but they can be used for a monster dessert they have of a brownie under two large scoops of vanilla ice cream, chocolate syrup, whipped cream and sprinkles. Good thing Susie and I split the steak because it was hard to put that dessert away.

One night, we used a "$10 off" coupon to check out the gourmet burger restaurant at Paris - Le Burger Brassiere. I had an eight-ounce lamb burger and Susie went with an eight ounce salmon burger. These were served with a large amount of lettuce, tomato, onion and half a Claussen pickle. Since Susie doesn't eat any of those, I inherited them. We also ordered some seasoned fries. Even with the $10 coupon, the tab was $17, more than I've ever paid for a burger meal. (I don't plan on paying it again, either... we can eat steak and prime rib cheaper than thatin Vegas.)

Our final night, we indulged at the Flamingo's buffet. I feel buffets have lost value so we rarely go to them. But this buffet was free because it was part of a "show package." We saw the Nathan Burton afternoon magic and comedy show. Tickets are normally about $35 each but we had a coupon for "buy one get one free" and a free buffet ($24 if you paid for it) came with each ticket. That's how bad Vegas is hurting.

Despite my retirement from Vegas buffets, I acquitted myself well. I started off with a plate of prime rib, roast lamb, and roast duck along with three olives salad and whole mushrooms in vinaigrette. Then two plates heaped with shrimp and pre-split crab legs with more drawn butter than my doctor would approve of. I limited dessert to a fresh fruit torte topped with strawberry, blueberry, blackberry, and kiwi and a very rich chocolate cake inside a chocolate crust shaped half the size of a softball. Followed by some Swiss cheese and dried apricots, dried figs, and dried papaya (not what I expected). I figured the fiber would be useful in digesting <g> all that food.

Shows:

Nathan Burton's "comedy magic" was the only show we saw. For someone who won some "talent" show (and he may have been the youngest winner), as well as four first place trophies in four straight years in international competitions, I wasn't impressed. But then, I'm not into "illusionists."

I enjoyed the "comedy" portion, which featured a juggler using some very "non-standard" items. In one segment, he juggled an M & M, a bowling ball and some other item. He ended by throwing the M & M into the air and catching it in his mouth while still juggling the bowling ball and other item.

I had hoped we could catch Jersey Boys since it was summer and that's slow season. The good news was that it showed up at the half-price "day of show" outlets. The bad news is that the tickets were only about 30% discount and still over $100 each. I decided to wait until we return in January and see if prices drop to 50%.

Over the many years we've been to Vegas, we've caught many of the shows, some more than once. And some shows I'm not interested in, such as Blue Man Group. We did see Mystere but that's not my interest so most Cirque shows are off the table, except possibly Love. So the shows we're interested in catching have narrowed.

Gaming:

Susie quickly noticed that the slots were very tight. Duuuuh! So she played very little.

I enjoyed four poker tournaments at Mandalay Bay, O'Sheas, and Hard Rock.

My first tournie was Monday at Mandalay Bay where I played their 10 AM $40 poker tournament. I finished 11th out of 30 when chip leader 'Blondie' exacted some revenge on me by taking all my chips when she called my all-in Aces and Jacks post flop with just a pair of sevens but hit a third seven on the river. Ouch!

I like to think she knew when she saw my hand after we put our chips in that my win probability was 92% and she scored a very, very major suck out. (Earlier, I had taken about 1,000 chips from her when she went all-in pre-flop with a pair of sixes and I called with a pair of sevens which held up.) I played well, so I wasn't too upset with a fairly poor finish. The poker probability gods owed me big time for this...

Tuesday, I played the 9 am $45 tournament at O'shea's, a tiny casino next to Flamingo and owned by it. I was crippled early on when I bet top pair post flop and found one caller. At the turn, I was still top pair and I bet again only to face an all-in. I've played at O'shea's before and there are some wild players there. I figured he was trying to buy the pot and called. He had flopped trip sixes and just smooth called me when I bet rather than raise and reveal his strength.

I went out when I again bet top pair post flop and found myself up against pocket aces. By not raising pre-flop, he had concealed his hand strength and suckered me in. (That was the last time I wrote off O'shea's tournament players.)

Wednesday afternoon, I played the $50 tournament at Hard Rock. I like this one because instead of just 1,500 or 2,00 chips, you receive 5,000 chips. That's a deep enough stack to be able to wait for the premium hands, which is my style of play early on.

There were some strong, aggressive players in this tournament and one was at my table. It didn't take long for him to become the big stack. I pretty much avoided him and he usually played cautiously if I came into a hand since he knew I was only played strong hands.

My "Degree moment" came when a woman went all in preflop and I held A-Q suited. That's a very strong hand but if I lost I'd be pretty much out of the tournament. I spent a good minute thinking it through and finally called. She had K-10 off suit so I was dominating her. But the flop came out with a 10 and I saw 'Blondie' from Mandalay Bay. But the poker gods made up for what happened there by giving me a Queen on the turn and I went on to win the hand.

I did make the final table. But I finished 5th (two away from the money) when I called an all in with A-6 against a short stack with A-Q. The probability of there being two Aces out with just 5 players is low, so I felt that Ace was good and that I was facing another King just like the earlier hand.

That cost me 6,500 chips when the blinds were 800 and 1,600 and with just five players those blinds came around fast. I blinded out before getting a playable hand. It was 4:30 by the time I busted out, so I had played 3 ½ hours. I consoled myself with some of the large cookies (three types) HR has for its poker players.

Thursday, I played an 11 a.m. tournament at O'shea's again and busted out again in about an hour after I went head to head against 'Redhead' by raising preflop to 600 with A-J and she was the only one to call. Flop came with a Queen and I probably made a mistake by checking. She put me all in for my last 1,000. I think she expected me to fold but I did not and she wasn't pleased to see two overcards to her pocket nines. Even though her win probability was about 55%, this situation is generally considered an "even race." But the nines held.

I was the second one she busted and from table conversation she had with the dealer it was clear to me she played triple digit buy-ins at big California casinos. In retrospect, I should have gone all-in post flop because with a Queen on the board, she may have respected that show of 'strength' since I raised preflop.

At the front of O'shea's, I came upon a $1-$5 spread Hold 'Em table with a single $1 blind. Now I normally don't like these limit cash games because the texture of the game is completely different from no limit tournament play. But it had an interesting twist: anyone who lost with pocket Aces with a pot of at least $20 received $50. And 'Redhead's' first victim was there, so I took a seat to his right.

It didn't take me long to realize that the two of us were the strong players. The others seemed more interested in catching and losing with pocket Aces for that $50. (And ordering drinks.) And in the three hours I played there, that happened three times. But not to me, unfortunately.

I was able to use my tournament play experience and style to win $40. Once I won two big hands with a straight and two pair, I was given wide berth when I came out betting. The only player I watched out for was 'Redhead's' first victim. He was also given wide berth when he came out betting. And we made it a point to stay out of each other's way. There was enough sushi for both of us!

I checked up on the tournament regularly. 'Redhead' made it to the final table, final five, final 3 and was the eventual first place winner for $395.

So ladies, learn to play poker! It's not just for men!

The plan is to return to Vegas in January. I stumbled onto a deal: $59 for MGM. Which isn't that great except for this: three free buffets daily for Susie and I. If we just have breakfast and dinner, the combined price for both of us would be $80. So they're paying me $21 a day (in food value) to stay there....

Viva Las Vegas!