May 31, 2007

Long Weekend

$2,000 and a Dream

Sand dollars: Desert Pines is beautiful to look at—even if it's not quite "Pinehurst."

Sand dollars: Desert Pines is beautiful to look at—even if it's not quite "Pinehurst." seemed designed for this assignment—a simple menu of options to choose precisely how much vacation I could afford. I clicked my way through the necessities: round-trip airfare for my wife and me, two nights at the Bellagio, rental car, a fancy dinner for two and four rounds of golf, all for roughly $1,800.

We were already married, so we didn't need the "Carefree Elopement Package" ($239), and we weren't tempted by Madame Tussaud's Interactive Wax Museum ($19.95) or the Hoover Dam Bus Tour ("Deluxe" version, $39; "Express," $29). Still, because we'd chosen to go to Vegas, the budget constrained us. My wife suggested we economize, maybe hunt down those infamous $1.99 buffets for our remaining meals. I had a different idea. Instead of hoarding that last $200, I thought we should ... invest it. On, say, black. Doubling that modest stake wouldn't let us live like the Rat Pack, but at least it would let us dine a la carte. It was, you see, my first visit to the Strip.

We landed before noon on a Friday, and even the airport announced that we could only be in one place. There were slot machines lined up before we hit baggage claim, and billboards touted the unique, if sometimes mysterious, local pleasures. "World's Greatest Uncensored Hypnotist!" -- meaning that the government regulates others? "Liberal video poker!" -- implying that William Bennett plays elsewhere? "Andrew Dice Clay!" -- suggesting that he is still alive? Some signs required no translation -- "Mud Wrestling! Dirty Girls! Cold Beer!" -- but we had no time (or inclination) for such frivolity. We had a tee time.

Every few years, Las Vegas tries to repackage itself as something it's not. The "family resort" idea seems to have mostly run its course, and more recently the casinos—er, hotels—have been touting themselves as "golf destinations," like Pebble Beach. But no one is really fooled. The only thing most people know about the most famous course in Las Vegas, Shadow Creek, is that the high rollers play there for free. (At $500 a round for the likes of me, it was well outside our budget.) As ever, gambling is to Las Vegas as politics is to Washington—the only real game in town.

Through Expedia, we were sent first to a course called Desert Pines Golf Club, which is about 20 minutes from the airport. According to the ad copy, "many" described it as the Pinehurst of Las Vegas. Yeah, right. There is nothing wrong with Desert Pines—a rather docile layout by Perry Dye, son of Pete—but it resembles Pinehurst less than the Venetian looks like Venice.

After we parked our car in the meager noon-time shadows, we found out the temperature was 116 degrees; but it was dry heat, so it only felt like about 112. The pines, plunked in the middle of the desert, looked almost embarrassed to be there. In an irritating touch, the scorecard had the yardages all wrong; the "512-yard" third hole couldn't have been much more than 400 yards, but I made par, so I wasn't complaining. McIntosh—I've always called by wife by her last name—and I made sure to stop the beverage cart every time it came around. "It's good you're drinking," the driver told us, "A guy just fainted on 13."

Notably sane, McIntosh followed her stylish 52 on the front side with a seat at the bar for my second nine; two birdies and two triples on the back side left me with a 91 (a little better than my average) and a longing to explore the pools at our hotel.

Only a greater cynic than I could find fault with the Bellagio. The place is dazzling—big rooms, marble bathrooms, terrific food, classy stores. We dined at Olives, the local branch of the Boston culinary landmark, at a table where we could see the Bellagio's famous fountains dance to the music. By dessert, we were too exhausted to contemplate a raid on the gaming tables, so we just staggered up to our room.

Day two began at Stallion Mountain Country Club, a three-course complex to the east of the city. We played Citation (the others are Secretariat and Man O' War—get it?), which is the easiest of the three and one of the tamest golf courses I've ever played. The fairways seemed almost as wide as they were long, and because it was as hot as the day before, nearly empty of golfers. Frankly, the holes all pretty much looked alike, and when I hit the ball into a hidden water hazard on 16, I wasn't so much angry as hurt. What happened? I implored the course. I thought we were friends. McIntosh didn't play quite as well this time, and I had a quiet 93, but at least no one fainted.

A jog along the Strip (just so I could say I did it), a nap (mandatory) and a dinner at Morton's Steak House (part of our package deal) fortified us at last for our trip to the tables. I'd been scoping out the scene in the Bellagio's casino ever since we arrived. By Saturday night I came to believe that there were only two kinds of gamblers—those who lose slowly and those who lose quickly. Maybe threecraps players lose loudly. Roulette looked like the biggest mug's game of all; the dealers seemed to spend all their time sweeping great armfuls of losers' chips into the gullet of the tables. So much for Plan A—put it all on black. It was time for Plan B—blackjack.

We'd had lots of fun over the previous 48 hours, and there hadn't been any serious budget overruns either, so all I had to do to stay under $2,000 was achieve my original goal—earn $200 more gambling.

Now that I finally had my own stack, I realized the chips were surprisingly sensuous to hold, and they gave off a pleasing ceramic click when stacked. There was pleasure, too, in watching the stationary ballet of the dealers, as they manipulated the cards with such easy confidence. Even the cards themselves felt good, so easy to slide and retrieve on the taut green felt. In all, my entire maiden gambling experience was close to perfect—except that the next time I want to double my money in a casino, I'll invest in its stock.