On the road from Los Angeles, you travel between two hills, around a curve to the left, and see the Las Vegas Valley spread out below you as a dusty but majestic plain growing pale and hazy towers in the daytime or by night, light gleaming like more than a skyful of stars, brightening and merging towards the liquid river light of the Strip.

The Greyhound bus is not as bad as you think; considering all factors it is about as comfortable as the airlines. The usual colorful characters, like the silent Mohawk-wearing boy or the pleasant and cheerful (but badly marked-up) tattoo artist, only added to the trip. But after relaxing from Orange County, California to within sight of the gambling capitol of the world, I was more than ready to play.
Playing, gambling, visiting Las Vegas were possible only because my divorce, still pending after 11 months of separation, gave me the time and freedom to go. I wanted to wait until the separation was final, but that wasn't coming anytime soon, as you can't negotiate with someone who won't talk with you. We went here together for a romantic weekend at the Bellagio before we were married, but this trip would be far simpler - traveling light, alone, and at very low cost.
Arriving downtown on an April Sunday afternoon, the sunshine gave the city ideal spring weather before the arrival of the soul-melting heat of summer. Although pulled from side to side by the sounds of the machines and the offers of cheap and gut-filling food and booze, I walked straight down Fremont Street to my hotel. The El Cortez, a favorite of the world's greatest Las Vegas website, cheapovegas.com, is the greatest bargain in the city. One of their 'vintage' rooms, which have overlooked Fremont since the 1940s, was $30/night midweek with one of two nights free, meaning that, with my $60 bus ticket, I paid less than $100 for transportation and lodging. Adding food, beverages, tips, etc., the bill for the three-day / two-night trip was under $200, and the hotel gave me a voucher for two free nights in June & August.
Once in the room, I reviewed the plan I made at home. Using deals learned from the Web and, more importantly, a fistful of coupons from the invaluable book American Casino Guide, I planned an attack on the city. Moving from one casino to the next, I would cherry-pick matchplays and free slot play to win at gambling and put even more money back in my pocket. In the process, I would tour a wide selection of casinos, from locals dives to luxury megaresorts.
First, I needed transportation. Citizen's Area Transit, the city bus service, opened the ACE Gold Line only a few days ago. With ticketing at the curb instead of on the bus, limited stops, and dedicated lanes in some places, this service approximates a subway. Seven dollars for a 24 hour pass took me quickly from downtown to my first stop at the south end of the Strip: Mandalay Bay.
My tasteful Banana Republic shirt (bought at Salvation Army) helped me blend in with the too-young and too-rich Californians at this themeless casino. Unless 'swanky hotel' is a theme. I bought the Win Cards promo of $30 non-negotiable chips for $20 with some soon-to-be-discarded strategy cards thrown in for free. Feeling only slightly like the cheapo I am, I quickly lost the funny money on a single craps pass line bet, then took the free tram to the Luxor next door to try again. I again bought the $30 in chips and put them on the pass line. This time my luck held and I won twice, leaving up $40 and feeling the warm glow of unearned gain. On a whim, I put $3 in a Megabucks machine, knowing these are sucker bets returning 88%. That $3 turned into $33 and I left a winner again. I play for small stakes and considered a $50 profit for the entire trip a success, hoping only to hold my gain to have the satisfaction of leaving Las Vegas a winner.
Feeling more fearful of loss than confident of gain, I took the the tram to the third of the south Strip sisters, the hilariously tacky Excalibur. The Win Cards deal there was only $15 chips for $10 real money, which I lost at once before breaking to eat. Back in the casino, I may have played my favorite game -video poker - but won and lost small amounts at VP so many times during the trip that I can't remember most of them. Now that I think about it, I probably won a few dollars at Mandalay Bay.
A long but scenic walk up the strip from Tropicana to Flamingo, pausing to gawk at the Bellagio's still tasteful and impressive lake, lead me to Bill's, that outpost of cheapery on Vegas' priciest corner. After two 99-cent Newcastles, I put a $10 matchplay on the craps table. At the other end, a nondescript woman (accompanied by a lovely friend in a push-up bra who did not play, but stayed seated and cheered every play) started rolling numbers. To my surprise and delight, my $20 buy-in grew and grew hitting points with odds with probability-defying regularity. I like to think I understand probability and risk. I know about the gambler's fallacy and that independent events are uncorrelated. But craps players say tables can be hot or cold and this one was hot. I left the table with $173 in chips in my hands and two 7&7s in my belly.
The combined effect of booze and money left me feeling unusually content as a I moved further north up the Strip. The sun was down and the crowds were out when I went into the dumpy Casino Royale for a new member funbook, which had little of value. Still, the two-for-one coupon for beer meant two of their already rock-bottom $1 bottled Michelobs were now only $1 plus tip. With a drink in each hand, I headed for the Treasure Island pirate show.
High winds canceled the performance, so I was unable to learn if it was as laughably bad as I heard. As an old-time nautical enthusiast (think Patrick O'Brian) I am almost invariably disappointed by anything related to the pirate trend of the last few years (think Jerry Bruckheimer). I crossed the street to the Wynn, whose theme is 'we are rich and you are not,' where they gave me $10 slot play for signing up. I cashed out an even $10 ahead and went further north, past stalled, rusting construction projects to the Peppermill Lounge.
Why I went to a famous romantic nightspot while alone and unloved is hard to say, except so I could feel the sting of loneliness. I quickly ducked out and headed for the Riviera, where the slot club was closed, meaning I needed to come back later. A bus (I think) took me to the Sahara where my $25 matchplay at the craps table led to another winning streak of about $100 and another 7&7. Sahara has an ongoing Dollar Days promotion with $1 blackjack, $1 shots, $1 beer, and $1 hot dogs. A late-night beer and hot dog was pretty satisfying before I took the 108 bus back downtown.
Arriving at Fremont Street and Las Vegas Blvd, I looked in at one or two casinos before I reached the Vegas Club, where I picked up some free slot play with another American Casino Guide coupon, then took a matchplay to the craps tables. My dice-playing had developed a pattern - start with the matchplay and leave if I lost. If I won, keep playing with the casino's money as long as the streak lasted. Craps is a game of dumb luck, but I had plenty of luck tonight and found my third hot table, with the dealers continuing to shovel money at me. The go-go dancers at a nearby pit were getting tired and the cocktail servers must have have left for the night, because none came by as my mouth became drier and drier. When winning, however, everyone near you is a friend and you feel peace and happiness. I made bets for the dealers, bet the horn (considered a bad bet, but I hit t enough times to pay off) and always laid odds. By consensus, we let the shooters at the other end of the table hold the dice, meaning the winning numbers appeared again and again right under my nose. We cheered winnings together and took our rare losses with good grace. Seeming to exist outside of time, I have no clear memory of leaving the table, but remember being back in the real world at the cashier's counter with $203 in chips and a glow of almost moral virtue.On the way back to El Cortez, I politely declined 'Monica,' a prostitute or con artist who wanted to join me. Laying out the $100s and $20s by myself in the room, I found myself up $508 for the night. Sounds of slot machines drifted up through the floor even at 1:30am, but I slept the sleep of the content.
By 6 am, however, my Monday morning office drone reflexes had me awake and, due to the great amount of water I drank before sleeping, without a hangover. The early hour was not a problem, as it let me start my attack on Flamingo Road early. Caught the 108 bus down Paradise (this bus is an easy way from the airport to downtown for air travelers) to Terrible's for a half-price couponed Terrible breakfast. The slot club wasn't open that early, so I couldn't use the coupon and walked to the Hard Rock for a good but expensive omlette that drained my food & bev budget by nearly $25. In quick succession, I used matchplays at the Hard Rock (lost), back to Terribles (lost), Ellis Island (won), Tuscany (won), and the Westin (not open yet), usually playing a little video poker at each, then took the bus across the Strip and freeway to Gold Coast (lost) and Palms (lost) before returning to the Westin (still closed), where the supervisor in the eerily quiet casino told me one blackjack table would finally open at 3pm. I was down for the day, both financially and emotionally, but, with only $100 budgeted for the day's gambling, knew I would end the trip up, even if I lost my entire Monday bankroll.
But I had many more chances to win, and the Deuce bus that goes up and down the Strip took me back to the Riviera, where a free play coupon netted me a slight profit at video poker, a game where I was moving up from quarters to dollars.
Back in my room after an easy bus ride to downtown, I relaxed with cable TV while the weariness resulting from three hours of sleep wore off, then walked to the Gold Spike for a half-price coupon lunch. Like a homeless man shaved and put into Dockers, the Spike has transformed from a smoky, dark den where a stabbing seemed imminent to a bright and tasteful room with travertine decorating the still-cheap coffee shop.
Finished with gambling for a while, I browsed the souvenir shops on Fremont Street and ate one of Mermaids' infamous culinary monstrosities - a deep-fried Twinkie. That is, I ate half of a deep-fried Twinkie. Under the influence of 450-degree molten vegetable shortening, a Twinkie bloats into an irregular golden blob with a soft, tooth-grabbing texture not helped by the powdered sugar and jimmies, meaning I was unable to stomach more than a few bites.
Stunt snacks and TV are fine, but it was soon time for the raison of the trip - more gambling. I used a few more of the coupons provided by the incredibly-generous El Cortez in the funbook given to hotel guests, then again headed up the Experience. At the far end,, the Plaza's match play brought me nearly even for the day, and beer and bartop video poker at the Vegas Club left me mellow as I moved to the small but welcoming Golden Gate. Go-go dancers adorned each end of the table games pit and changed often enough that they stayed fresh and enthusiastic, including one smiling young lady with curly blond hair whose hips appeared be on a pintle mount. The free play offer left me no richer, but a whim moved me to roulette, usually a bad bet with its 5% house advantage. The move paid off, as my $5 matchplay increased to $20 before I hit number 28 with a $5 bet for a $175 payoff. I tipped the dealer and left happy, emerging onto Fremont Street as a light show played on the Experience canopy to the sound of 'American Pie.'
Just off the Experience, Main Street Station is an underrated property with elegant Victorian decor, but I came to see the famous, if incongruous, section of the Berlin Wall in the casino men's room. Four urinals were bolted to the graffiti-covered slab and I used my bodily fluids to show my disrespect for communism. The real marble and brass bar had full-pay quarter video poker built in and microbrews for $1.50. A small win and a full glass of excellent porter accompanied me as I headed back towards El Cortez, stopping at the Dunkin' Donuts in the Fremont, possibly the westernmost outpost of this New England chain. I developed a taste for Dunkin' while on business trips to Maine and if you can't be happy walking out of a casino with winnings in your pocket, a donut in one hand, and a beer in the other, you just can't be happy. I ended the night up $141, bringing my total for the trip to $649.
With this success behind me, I planned to gamble only lightly on Tuesday, the trip's last day, setting a limit of only $40. El Cortez' coffee shop has been remodeled and gave me a bacon and eggs breakfast that, while unexceptional, was better than prior visits. I spent some spare change on keno and, intending to play only a hand or two of video poker, hit four queens on a double bonus machine for $62.50.
Happy to have another winning day, I began the 20 minute walk from downtown to the Old Mormon Fort State Park, a historical site preserving the city's first settlement. On the way, on Las Vegas Blvd, just past the freeway north of downtown, I found the Young Electric Sign Company's neon boneyard. Behind a temporary fence in the parking lot of the Cashman Field baseball stadium, a hundred or more old neon and lighted signs rested in the sun. Departed hotels like the Horseshoe, Lady Luck, and Stardust were represented, along with decayed moderne design from motels, stores, and wedding chapels. This Old Vegas find awaits completion of the city's Neon Boneyard Park, where a backhoe worked on the next block, preparing a permanent home for vintage neon and the huge grinning skull from the original sign of the Treasure Island. You can see the signs clearly through or over the chain links and I took plenty of pictures.
The fort, largely a reconstruction of the 1855 original, was well done, if slightly less glamorous than neon. Las Vegas is a large city and people interested in historic preservation have only a few sites on which to focus their attentions, meaning the fort and its visitor center showed recent improvements and maintenance, including a recreation of the creek that attracted the first settlers. Still, I was the only visitor, giving this ruined desert outpost the lonely, wind-swept, Old West aura it deserves.
El Cortez is also Old Vegas, but when I returned it was time to check out. As my conscience nagged me to return the glass I took last night, I went to Main Street Station's bar for another microbrew or two before leaving. When he saw I was playing video poker, the bartender apologized for charging me for the beer and gave me the second one for free. Next trip, I plan to sit at a bar, put some money in the machine, then ask for comped drinks.
Leaving the casino for the bus station, I counted my winnings and found I was up $57 for the day, meaning three winning days on a three-day trip, for a total win of $706. I already feel the city pulling me back and will use those two free nights as soon as the calendar allows, maybe to bet on the opening of the World Cup in June. I will go between two hills, around a curve to the left, and see the city spread out below.