Wherever we have gone, we have been between the season and the spot; snow and sun; dark and light, dry and wet, high and low, desert and forest, peak and off peak. I can’t tell if my father is passing from old to elderly, nor where I am in the freefall of middle age. Even our latest destination, Las Vegas, is nearly unrecognizable to me. It’s black and grey and cold; tonight she has merged with some other town, a Billings with a neon problem. Outside what might have been an inviting entrance and valet spot at Harrah’s, glum smokers and lost tourists remind me of a train station or the Greyhound depot. I expect to get hit on for change or drugs or action. A girl huddles on a concrete ledge, sternly reminding her grinning boyfriend in a cowboy hat that they are here to “get the money.”
Inside, it’s no different. The lines for reception are long and uncheerful. It’s like Christmas at the airport. Even my father, who doesn’t gamble, asks me why they don’t want to whisk everyone through the process and get us onto the floor. The conventioneers, easily identifiable by their giant tags or their false front “business” attire, look oddly unhappy, as if they wish they had been sent to a more cheerful place for MoreProductCon, such as Omaha. Floating above, the anonymous, half-derived, half-baseless figures of celebration, impossibly merry, that form the Harrah’s brand image puff on kazoos. Nothing fits.
Arrival in Vegas means we are just past halfway through our tour of the western states. The length of the road trip is too short but still weighs upon me. I can’t completely enjoy it with so much on my mind and so many reasons to get home (as if that solves anything), but there is another problem: I can’t sleep. I haven’t slept more than a few hours total in four nights. Reeling before the day even starts, I close my eyes while I’m in the passenger seat, then revive myself with quarts of coffee, before I drive for hours. I make all the travel plans, my heart pumping from confusion and caffeine and worry, as unsure of myself and unsteady as if I were tilting at the table. Yet, I’m not on the trip to play or as a lark: I’m here to finally spend some time with my aloof father, and to cheer him up from the doldrums of retirement.
So tonight, as much as I want to hit the Wynn for deep stack cash or relax with some beef tendon and oyster tacos at the China Pablano, I need to make sure he is happy so I can close my eyes and maybe finally awake refreshed.
I try to sell him on a show, but he can’t because his wife will be mad that he went alone, without her. He enjoys comedy but says he won’t like anyone here. He won’t drive anywhere so it has to be within walking distance. The only improv is about menopause. I settle on sending him to the cinema at the MGM. I read him the titles, then he wants me to read the descriptions. When we’ve got it sorted it out that he will see Steve Jobs, he decides the three blocks is too far. I won’t give up so easily, after all this, and counter with a taxi. I don’t argue it, I tell him it is happening. Then, an unfortunate discovery that bypasses our brains and hits our family frugality nerve: the monorail goes from Harrah’s to the MGM.
We carefully go over the plans. I’m going to take him past the express elevator, around the corner with the rootin’ tootin’ roadhouse eatery (Harrah’s mysterious theme worked for Mr. Harrah and all the descendants of his seven wives, but this one seems a very popular alternative, with lines of people looking to feel more at home, having travelled so far to get away). From there, we’ll unite with the Linq and follow a walkway to an escalator and buy him a pass. This will provide him with nearly an hour to get to the film, a ticket that will allow him a number of trips in case of error. And I will try to sleep.
I say good bye at the turnstile, and he reaches out to shake my hand and smiles at me. He's a tall shy man, his crown shorn smooth. He's congenitally friendly and misunderstood, an engineer in an era of technicians. I feel love for him in this moment. However, I am only standing on the wisps of fumes, and rush back to the room, thinking of those clean, fresh hotel sheets.
Hours later, a hopeful bath, and a few near-restful moments, I start watching the clock. He’s an hour late. I call him; no answer. I still have not slept but am waking up to the idea that he may be lost. I realize at once that the folly of the monorail was all the possible stops. I get dressed and think of a plan to find him. As I am calling the cinema, nearly an hour and half late, he walks in the door. Apparently nearly made it all the way, but at the last the last possible point, confused the Linq for Harrah’s. While I express my relief, he talks over me, having had quite an adventure, ending up in a kitchen at the neighboring property.
People grimly talk about what they would do if they lose someone important to them, but there is nothing they can do, which was exactly the problem all along. It’s the oddest expression. While Dad goes on about his evening and critiques the biopic, I feel the darkness outside rubbing up against the windows. We’re high above the strip, by floors twenty eight, but it feels like 28,000 feet. My life is hurtling somewhere, and I can’t stop it. I can’t even keep my father safe going to a movie three blocks away. How am I going to alter the flight of this asteroid of me, so deep in space, so detached from all that is good and earthy and blue and green? Vegas, dully named for some meadows but sharing etymology with the bright star of Lyra, flickers and says nothing.
And I still can’t sleep. I’m an insomniac player on a regular basis, leaving for the casino at 1 a.m. on weekdays. I love the empty room, the tired faces, the weary but attentive floor, the shorthanded games. Tonight it’s going to be especially sweet relief. I flee the room as my father turns in. Besides, it’s going to be my first time playing in weeks, and I need a tune up, in addition to being utterly exhausted, so I head to the Flamingo, where there’s never much of a wait for an okay mini game with the locals.
Las Vegas 1/2 NLHE players are the worst poker players in the entire world. Charged with every blessing: an abundance of games; an abundance of interest; an abundance of reputation; an abundance of available expertise. This leaves the local player pool with one responsibility, just one. To make the games good. To enjoy poker and to make it, in turn, enjoyable. To grow the game where it is most ready to be fertilized. To perform at the very front lines of the quintessential American gaming paradise.
Instead, Las Vegas low stakers play, in some order, nitty, terrible, and short stacked. They, in the (former) gambling capitol of world, whine pitifully about bad beats, berate tourists and each other, play worse as they learn more, and give less action than your mom on her period with a headache.
So when I sit down on the strip just past midnight to find a bunch of local ne’er do wells with $75 in front of them, at least I know the game won’t be hard to beat after having no sleep for nearly a week, being completely distracted by my father, and having not played this stake since spring.
My favorite moment is when I iso yet another limp from EP and get flatted by a crank in the usual Tough Old Guy Getup, weathered and leathered. From the way he calls I know he has a big hand and is playing “tricky.” The limper folds and we see an ace high, rainbow flop; maybe it was A73r. It’s a great continuation board, couldn’t be better, really, but I know trapper TOGG has a hand; even pocket aces are not beyond the realm of possibility. I decide I just have to go for it and put out a hefty cbet. After all, there are fewer aces because of the board, blah, blah, blah. TOGG immediately grimaces and angrily folds, pushing his cards a bit forward petulantly. Then he thinks twice, and turns over QQ, slapping those poor bitches down, just to show how f’ing unlucky he is and how gangster he plays.
Unimpressed, I show him my usual clown car holding, K2, wanting to rub this in as hard as possible. I even make a silly face to make sure he gets the message. He immediately racks up and leaves. That’s right, go back to your hole in Henderson, you lifesucking nit. Go cry at the Wednesday discussion group about how to trap better and wear sunglasses more shadily. Don’t muck up the games for everyone trying to have a little fun at the live micros in a place named for a pink bird. It’s your responsibility to keep poker alive and you fail her, every day.
The night goes on. I show the table K3 to help the table see that I’m tightening up. A guy keeps referring to 69 as the Big Leak, cracking me up. As the game relaxes, as it should, it becomes good, as it should. Then, someone interesting shows up, who the dealer and floor know and welcome.
She’s a young, happy blonde. She clearly wants to have a good time and orders a beer, offering drinks to the table. She can carry a conversation between tapping at her phone. When she deliberately malaprops “Those who can’t do, write,” we soon learn she is a reporter for the poker industry. She’s got a few hours to play, before she meets a friend, then flies to Tahoe and back to cover the live tourney scene. It’s great to have her here, but she reminds me of how lonely and hard my life is. She is being flown all over to cover the games, while I labor in them obscurely for my meager reward.
I watch her carefully. I’m guessing she doesn’t just cover the donkaments, but plays in them as well, and probably adds a little small stakes cash, very straightforwardly. It’s hard for tournament players to survive in the pure game, and even this table is all she can handle. While her style is in fact stronger than most of these lost players, she shoots herself in the foot repeatedly. She fails to build pots, infected by the Vegas disease of pointless pot control. She makes a bad overcall out of position in a three bet pot with no plan but to realize her equity, burning up her hourly, yikes.
Yet it matters not. She grows on me rapidly. She is likely popular and gregarious at the tournament tables, and was probably asked by poker media to work for them. She has a striking face and her dumpy clothes are hiding a feminine figure. She has no ring yet can’t be much younger than thirty. She’s delicate and fun but highly opinionated, informed by easy strat thoughts and poker clichés, perhaps, but ones that are easily overcome. She thinks Blumenfield has no chance at all at the final table, misunderstanding variance and overestimating the skill involved in a single tournament. I get the feeling there are people in her life who have given her false ideas about the game and herself.
Confirming this, I observe her reading an article on trust, clearly an issue she has struggled with; her face is only serious and beautiful when examining it. I intuit that she is trying to learn to let others be, that she is the one who doesn’t trust, that she in her self-image bubble has pushed boundaries for her own comfort and created some regret. She is not wrong to do this, though it may have caused her pain; the parasitic industry of social compromise will help her change herself into something more malleable, but in truth, it’s not necessarily for the best. Deeply ingrained standards are not far from principles, a natural resource that seems to have peaked long ago.
When her boyfriend or wannabe boyfriend shows up, douched up with a black blazer and black ear studs (Las Vegas male fashion sense is essentially feminizing, celebrating superfluity), lending the otherwise polite looking young man the decor of a junior demon bureaucrat late for happy hour, I let it go. I can tell she isn’t impressed with him, keeping him at a comfortable sad male orbiter distance. Nevertheless I abandon my plan to ask her out, not remembering when she’s leaving or what I am really doing with a day in Vegas. Yet it’s not the opportunity that I regret losing, it’s feeling like the opportunity didn’t matter. As my father and I drive further and further into the country, even in this capitol of one of my passions, the trip has revealed me as disoriented. I can’t even tell what I am supposed to be thinking or sensing. I have found my star in Vegas once more, but she is dark and messageless.
Lost in thought once the happy reporter leaves, I punt off what would have been a solid win. However, I’ve learned what I needed: I’m not sharp. I missed two barreling spots that would have made all the difference; in one, shamefully letting Ace high win when I had pretty much had named his hand on the turn. I funnel the embarrassment and rage of losing and playing poorly into a stream of concentrated thoughts on how I will play tomorrow. At 5 a.m., I go back to the room to pretend to sleep.
A few hours later, we’re on the road for Red Rock Canyon. Our trip has been a good balance of nature and man, and this is the perfect way to get dad out of the city. The traffic, pace, and most of the all, the air of smoke that gets into everything are not relaxing to him. I’ve never been able to get out of Vegas on all my trips, always looking for that last hour at the Wynn, so it’s good for me as well.
First, however, is breakfast. I make an easy mistake, thinking my father would settle for a light refreshment, so we have to make a second stop. We find a real curiosity, the Bagel Café on North Buffalo Drive. It’s modelled after various New York delicatessens. It’s got the full service counter and all the German inspired oil salads, the overprocessed meats and the cheap breads, as well as a big dining area, just like Katz’s. If the sun were not shining so brightly on the deadender business park we’re in, and if the there hadn’t been so many signs assuring us we were in an authentic location, it might have been quite the authentic place. For certain, it’s packed, and we are lucky to get a seat. I have lox on my first bagel in years, very nice. My dad chooses a cheese omelet, the nut low of omelets, but he’s satisfied. I suggest going to this crazy place if you have not been; it’s a favorite of the current Mayor, apparently, who likes to show up on Sundays.
The Canyon is everything I hope. It’s rough and natural; hail beats our car, and then our clothes when we take a short hike. The sandstone shapes are marvelous. Formed when the earth was much younger and softer, underground water bled the sand dunes that covered the land and rusted out the iron in the rock, calcifying a shifting desert into a fossilized, bright red and ghostly monument of itself.
Dad’s tired after the excursion, and although we both planned to nap, I of course can’t. I sit down at Harrah’s poker tables for the first time, with the plan of making the course corrections that I’d plan. I play loose, winning a big pot with 73. Of course, I get to hear that last, flaccid insult of the loser, “nice catch,” when I value bet two pair huge and get full stacks in by the river- not always easy in games where the wagers are often less than half the pot. Should the fish insult the fisherman with his mouth full of hook? It’s close, as they love to say.
The truth is I can’t even stay at the table, being still too hyped up on no sleep. All my sensitivities are heightened. As I drift from solid win to loss after the latest gambler gets there, a Middle Eastern man with an outrageous number of quirks sits down beside me. He immediately starts caressing his red stacks over and over to be sure the full ones were even and smooth, and then put all the smaller chips in little turrets of five. As soon as he stopped, he would get an aggravated look on his face and notice some small inconsistency or a fiber on the chips or the felt, and begin his routine over again.
Caressing, worry worry worry, caress, caress, precious precious my precious. I stare at the uncomfortably sensual undulations of his organizational ecstasies for a few more seconds. After five days of next to no sleep, I can’t handle his psychosis. They say the higher stakes games are more polite, and I can report that it is true, so it makes sense that it’s equally true the most weirdos per table are at the bottom rungs. Before I can leave and be rid of him, he cracks my last open. Like a true Vegasite, he can’t bet it on the end or raise it when he can get value. Of course.
With a few glasses of the sweet tawny port my father keeps with him, I coax myself into bed from midnight to four a.m., making a badly needed interest payment on my sleep debt. While I lie staring at the ceiling, I realize I’m rested enough to take one last crack at the tables. I know my dad will need most of the morning to pack and prepare. It’s time to catch some drunks and all night gamers.
However, while I’m finally ready for Vegas, she is isn’t ready for me. Bravo reports a total dearth of games. My favorite place to play, the Wynn, has one table running. I have to make a choice, and I have to choose quickly. We have to check out and get on the road. The Aria has three games but if I strike out on a seat, which is easy considering the massive lines it usually attracts, I will be near nothing. It’s a gamble, but because Harrah’s is closer, I can cruise the Venetian on the way to the Wynn, and maybe make a choice or bounce back if the list is right.
Plan A starts to work. There are two games and a single seat at the V. It’s 1/2, which makes my skin crawl, but I keep my bottom stakes runbad curse to a minimum, losing only fifty dollars before a new 2/5 game forms.
I am immediately much more comfortable at my natural stake, and it shows. I get things going with a couple moves and quickly I am winning on the day. With about an hour to play poker, I make two important pots happen.
First I open J8ss from EP, and pick up a polarized pair of villains: the player who appears to be the most competent at the table on the button and the one player I had identified as a pure mark from the blinds. The flop is a pretty sweet As10h6s. I can represent the Ace naturally and have the equity for multiple barrels. With about 125 bbs to play, I have plenty of room to make this work.
Even more intriguingly, the mark in the blinds leads out for a strong fifty into sixty. Game on.
I start by raising him small but definitively, about 2.5x. The strong player folds, and the mark looks surprised. He expected this hand to play out differently, yet I can tell he is not interested in folding but is not comfortable. He has an ace. He makes the call, and a red seven falls, giving me a few more outs. A7 was in his range at first but after the flop, he more likely had better. I rip it in here, and he shows AQ before mucking. Now that I’ve won meal money, can I add some room and board?
A quiet player opens small from EP, likely setting a price with a middle pair or non-premium broadway hand. He picks up a bunch of callers and I see AKo in the big blind. This couldn’t be better. I raise, looking to get it in if necessary. Quiet guy hems and haws but gives up, triggering another fold. When it gets to the mark from earlier, he is putting together a call. After he pushes it forward, one more fold. I’m really hoping I hit because this guy will not want to go away twice.
I do: the flop is Kxxdd. Acting first, I take my time. He started with 100 bbs, so there is not much room to maneuver. This is two street or two bet poker and I want to get it exactly right. I don’t know if he will bet if I check. I don’t really want to give him a free card for the negative equity slowplay. Therefore I cbet small, one hundred into about 220, trying to keep my hand disguised. However, I quickly learn that this was not necessary. My opponent snap ships the rest of his stack. I call just as quickly.
When the river is dealt and no diamond appears, my opponent shakes his head and declares he’s missed, revealing AQdd. I show and take a healthy pot. Yesterday I had aces cracked by the overcalling flusher at 1/2; now I hold for real stakes to take a 200 bb pot. Parlay.
I’d love to stay but within a couple orbits, my time at the V., and in Vegas, has expired. The trip must go on.
As we grow older, we default to long established patterns, whether they are habitual, genetic, or personal. As my father ages, he is more and more the man of daily details, oblivious to the general trend of what people often want or expect. While I continue to seek the meaning of this netherlands journey, for I was beginning to understand him, at long last, perhaps hit over the head by time together.
Our conversations are always at odds yet precisely on point, it must be the clue:
Me: That car is following that truck so closely it looks like it’s being towed.
Him: It’s not. But it could be.
Me: That cheese on your omelet is crazy yellow.
Him: I didn’t want the meat.
Me: That is a Buddhist temple.
Him: There were GFI outlets, but one did not work.
Me: There’s a grey cat, looks a little beaten compared to your wife’s.
Him: Finn’s coat is in better shape.
Ok. Yesterday I thought I understood what all this meant, something along along the lines of a certain directness of thought. It’s so simple, I told myself, yet it’s taken me decades understand. I’m such an idiot. I’m going to wrap this post and this trip up so nicely.
Yet that’s not exactly what it is either, and this morning I can’t really explain anything or why these moments meant something to me the day before.
I’m in between, trying to understand it and everything else, but I really don't. I thought he was losing his mind at one point, but then it turns out it’s his hearing, which he tries to correct with an aid. Yet as we are leaving, and I am repeating everything, he calls them “earplugs.” Natch. I learn his wife his mad he went to a movie instead of taking the opportunity to see a show.
I later see on the twitter feed something from the reporter. She’s been hit on, and is both making fun of it and very pleased by it: classic girly attitude. She has to share it, naturally, and just as tellingly, it gets all sorts of likes. People are so transparent it’s hard to even believe it. I’m glad she was there at the Flamingo, if only to shine a little light on the Vegas night while my star has gone black. Now she’s hanging with the gamblers and stakees and true believers, high on excitement and variance and possibility. Good luck.
As my dad and I pack up for Utah and the great white north, I'm relieved to get him out of this beehive of desire and distraction, one with not much use for either of us this time, and no city for old men. More importantly, I finally realize something clearly, after all: I need a new purpose. My own aloofness, my own disorientation, it can’t go on. I can't be out of position forever. I finally know why I can’t sleep.
But I can drive. Goodbye, dark star of Vegas.