Wednesday, July 7, 2021

The loss of Tuscany table games is a sign of the new normal

It has been a long, long time since I've taken the time to post an instant reaction to something happening in Las Vegas, but this one piggybacks on my observations and conclusions made during my trip last month. 

The fine folks at Vital Vegas, (it's one guy,) wrote about the loss of table games at another Sin City casino. In this case, the often forgotten Tuscany Casino dumped its modest collection of table games, I learned today. 

Shocked I am not. 

As I noted a couple of weeks ago, I could find $5 blackjack downtown and at plenty of off-strip casinos just a few years ago. Two decades earlier, $5 blackjack was the standard, with some  casinos offering $3 minimums or gimmicky $1 tables to attract low rollers. Times change, and $5 doesn't go as far as it use to, but two years ago it wasn't that hard to find $5 minimums on table games if you were willing to play off the strip. 

Given the fact we all presumably earn more per year, due to inflation if nothing else, than we did 20 years ago, and the fact that there are plenty of $10 or $15 players to be had at craps and blackjack tables up and down Fremont Street, what incentive does Main Street Station have to offer a $5 blackjack table when it reopens? In the summer of 2018 I ended up killing an hour on an August Friday night, and I most certainly played $5 blackjack. 

Table games are labor intensive. I don't have any inside knowledge about the economics of a blackjack pit, but it doesn't take a math major to know that the house will win more over time if the table minimums are $15 rather than $5. 

Casinos had higher minimums for their table games during the pandemic simply because they had fewer seats available at a blackjack table. If you're capped at three seats to a table due to social distancing requirements, you're going to want to increase the minimum for the seats you have, as long as  you can still put asses in those seats. 

Once the capacity restrictions were lifted, plenty of people made it a priority to return to Vegas. And it didn't take $5 tables to put asses in the seats. So we have a new normal.

Obviously smaller operators with less traffic don't have the luxury of simply raising the table minimums and expecting people to fill those seats. 

The Orleans wasn't offering $5 blackjack on a Thursday night last month. If you're a local or a low roller who doesn't want to play at the higher minimums, you go elsewhere. But elsewhere is quickly becoming extinct, it seems. 

During last month's trip, I made it a point to visit a handful of odd joints I don't normally visit. My friend/podcast producer was with me, and he has never seen the locals casinos, so we made that part of our experience. 

I knew Joker's Wild had removed its table games. That made sense. They are a locals joint that doesn't attract big spenders, so the low roller blackjack tables and the famous $1 minimum craps game weren't going to make meaningful money. Instead of simply closing the tables during the pandemic, they were pulled. As of mid-June, they hadn't been restored. 

I wound up inside Casino Royale during my trip, a place I don't visit very often these days. I remember playing Spanish 21 there one night many years ago, when I was still staying and playing on the strip. I had a great time on a Sunday night, and the pit was busy. Not to my surprise, there are no tables at Casino Royale, at least not as of mid-June. Casino Royale is known as one of the last bastions of low rolling on the strip, so perhaps its days of live table games are over. 

I had never been inside the sketchy Wild Wild West, despite driving by it many times on my way to The Orleans. Having hyped its sketchiness to my friend, we were compelled to visit on a steamy Sunday afternoon. It was rather empty, not to my surprise, and there were no longer table games to be found. That wasn't a shock, either. 

There are still tables to be found at smaller casinos. On our Friday afternoon trek down the Boulder Highway we stopped at Skyline Casino. The tables were there, but they weren't open, not to my surprise. I suspect you can get $5 action there. And we went all the way down to Club Fortune Casino, which I had never been to. Again, they had tables, but they weren't open on a Friday afternoon. I'm guessing they still offer $5 action. But these aren't destinations typical tourists will ever see. 

And yes, you can still play $5 blackjack. We had lunch on Saturday at Jerry's Nugget. (More on that another day.) We stayed to play blackjack, as $5 tables were the norm. So was $5 craps. It's a Saturday in Vegas, at a very locals casino, and there were a bunch of people playing low minimum blackjack, roulette and craps. The craps table was pretty full, and offering a $5 minimum. Jerry's Nugget knows how to draw the locals, and was doing so. 

We also played a few hands of $3 blackjack prior to lunch at Jerry's Nugget. Real deal blackjack at none other than Poker Palace. This name may not ring a bell to tourists, but it's a small, no frills dump a few miles from downtown. We had been at the big flea market that morning, and after four hours of flea market scouring, we stopped at Poker Palace for a beverage. Turns out they were just getting ready to open their tables, so we sat down for 10 minutes on a Saturday, around the noon hour, to play at Poker Palace. The cards at the table looked like an old deck kept behind the bar at a small town Minnesota bar. And the joint had hardwood flooring. It was so, so weird, but dammit, we played $3 blackjack in Vegas, and somewhere I have one of the Poker Palace silver dollars from the table to prove it. 

I mistakenly thought we were at Bellagio.

I've always known that Tuscany has table games, but I've never been there to see it for myself. The casino is still there, but with no tables, I'm not likely to stop in any time soon. 

Tuscany isn't as convenient as Ellis Island when it comes to accessing the property from the strip, but it would seem that now, more than ever, the Tuscany tables should have been doing brisk business, offering $5 games not far from the strip. Perhaps it was just far enough that people wouldn't walk over to it, but it isn't that much further away than Ellis Island is, and Ellis Island is doing just fine offering lower minimum table action.

The loss of table games at low roller joints like Joker's Wild, Wild Wild West and Tuscany suggest to me that the days of $5 tables are mostly history. Sure, they could return, and sure, The Orleans could start offering them again after the pent-up demand for burning through cash in Vegas subsides. 

But I think the absence of tables at Tuscany is another sign that the days of the $5 tables are about over, even for the locals joints. Stadium gambling, bubble craps and other machines are the new normal for low rollers. On the heels of the pandemic, video gambling that requires less labor is helping usher out the $5 craps and blackjack era. Tuscany is another nail in that coffin. 

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

And so it ended

I spent 8 nights in Vegas, and it all went by in a hurry. It always does. 

Let's start with a recount of my final night in Vegas.

Most of my time was split with two friends. Thomas, my podcast producer, was there first. Dave, my college friend, came second. Their stays in Vegas overlapped one night. 

Dave took a red-eye flight home on Thursday, and I wasn't leaving until Friday afternoon, so I was on my own for the final night. After dropping Dave off at the airport, I drove straight to The Orleans, a place I have stayed many times.

Normally I'd park in the ramp, head in and hit the tables when visiting The Orleans. Instead I parked in the front corner lot, far from the door. There weren't many cars in the area. I was closer to Tropicana Avenue than I was to the front doors of The Orleans. 

I stood there looking at everything from a distance for at least five minutes, wondering if it was my last time at The Orleans. My future in Vegas had been on my mind periodically during this trip, as I noted in my previous blog entry.

It's the roadside sign for The Orleans, the casino I have stayed at multiple times over the past decade.
I have found myself sitting in a quiet corner of its parking lot for a few minutes the past few trips, contemplating life as I know it. 

I took a picture of the giant Orleans sign out front and finally headed inside to try my luck at cards.  

I spent a couple of hours playing Ultimate Texas Hold 'Em. I didn't win money. I lost about $65 during my time on the table. It was a mostly forgettable night of cards, save for two things. 

A dude, probably younger than me, but hard to tell for sure, ended up right next to me. This dude was wearing a track suit, and had an East Coast accent. He referenced being from Boston at one point. And he also mentioned something about being comped at the casino, suggesting he was not a Vegas transplant. 

His distinct look is not what I will remember most. It wasn't his incessant table talk that I will remember most. It was his cash that I will remember most. 

I don't walk the tables at Bellagio, Wynn or other swanky casinos. I suspect I'd see a lot of cash on some of those tables if I did. I see people with hundreds of dollars in chips sit down at Orleans tables periodically, but I don't recall having ever noticed anyone with $5,000 in chips seated anywhere on the floor. I'm sure I have, but it doesn't fascinate me enough to remember it happening.

Mr. Track Suit didn't have a huge stack of chips in his possession as he sat down, but he had a fistful of black chips. It looked like $1,200 or $1,300. That's a lot for a $5 Ultimate Texas Hold 'Em table, but not obscene. And he played $25 hands every time, talking up a storm and trying to decide whether or not to bet his 9 high pocket card following the river. Seriously, the guy talked a lot. Given I talk a lot, that's saying something. 

The thing that struck me as odd about his presence was the cash he was carrying around. I'm sure a lot of people are carrying more cash than I would guess. But Mr. Track Suit had a strap of $100 bills tucked into one of his pockets. I didn't gawk at it, but he pulled it out on two different occasions, looked at it briefly, and somewhat discretely, then put it back wherever he had it tucked. 

I suppose it could have been a single $100 bill on top of a stack of $1 bills, but I doubt it. I'm guessing they were all $100 bills, and it sure looked like $10,000 to me. Perhaps there was a little less in it, given he had more than $1,000 in chips on the table.

I'm sure most longtime gamblers have seen big stacks of cash flashed somewhere, but I don't recall ever seeing it, and I never would have bet on the place where it happened being The Orleans. 

I was lucky that night. As I said, I lost about $65. Hardly a disastrous night. But I was set to drop $170. No big deal, given I was up for the week. But I took home an extra $100 thanks to an error. 

Dealers make mistakes. It happens. I had noticed earlier in the evening, after the hand was done, that I was shorted $10 on a full house payout. I knew it didn't seem quite right at the time of the payout, but I wasn't sharp enough to catch why as I studied the payout.

Cards were scooped up, I pulled chips back, here comes the next hand. Then it hit me. I was paid even money on my "blind" bet, when I should have been paid 3:1. It seemed a little late to call for a check of the payouts, so I accepted it as a dealer error that went against me. Sometimes the dealer errs in the player's favor. That has happened plenty of times. So this one went against me. It likely wasn't the first time, but in this case, I realized it after the fact. 

So as the night goes on, my luck swings back and forth. I'm never ahead at the table, and as midnight passes, I'm down on my luck again. I need to check out of my room at 10 a.m. Friday anyway, and I'm betting with my last chips. There would not be another buy in. 

The dealer made an improbable queen-high straight, killing the table. Me, too, I think. I'm pretty sure that despite the king in my pocket cards, I don't have a straight. She looked at it for a moment, and I realized she was trying to analyze it. I almost told her I didn't have it, as I am certain I didn't. Then she paid my hand and cleared my cards. 

Nobody said anything, not even Mr. Track Suit. We all sat there in silence for a second, then I lamented how the dealer's 9 in her pocket killed everyone else at the table. Onto the next hand, I'm still in the game.

I certainly didn't try to mislead the dealer, or suggest I had a winning hand, as Mr. Track Suit liked doing periodically. I'm 99% certain, based upon the cards I was seeing past midnight, that I didn't win. The silence at the table certainly suggested to me that I didn't, otherwise the other players would have commented about my nice hand. 

Was I wrong for not sharing my doubt about having a winning hand? Perhaps. You could argue it was unethical. If I'd had a straight, and she scooped my chips, I'd be quick to point that out, of course. 

On the other hand, I am confident a dealer mistake earlier that evening cost me $10. It's not an even mistake, I came out ahead, but until that point, I was shorted $10 by the house for more than an hour. 

I'm not losing sleep over this. 

I played a bit longer. I played the next hand, and put a $1 tip on the "trips" bet for the dealer. Given the gift it appeared I had just received, I figured I could offer a modest tip for the dealer. And on the very next hand I hit a full house. A nice little win for me, and a $9 tip for the dealer. 

I tipped a buck on the "trips" bet again during the next hand, but my luck had run out. After another modest win and a loss, I was ready to call it a night. I colored up for $100 that I shouldn't have had and made my way to the door. 

It was time to go back to my room at the Holiday Inn Club Vacations at Desert Club Resort. That's the name that shows up on Google, anyway. 

It's a timeshare joint on Koval Lane, behind the High Roller wheel at the Linq, and next to the MSG Sphere that's under construction. It's a decent place, and like many non-casino hotels, it has its benefits and drawbacks. Dave owns timeshares. Yes, more than one. He bought them on the cheap from disgruntled owners, and seems to like the perks and benefits he gets as a result. We paid for five nights at the Desert Club, we weren't using his "owned" week, or whatever he has. It was $200 for five nights, just a short walk down the street from Ellis Island. 

I spent five nights at the Desert Club Resort on Koval Lane. From the north boundary of the property you can get a good look at the fantastic MSG Sphere. A concert venue behind the strip? Why not, it works for T-Mobile Arena, although access to MSG Sphere won't be as slick. 

I returned to the Desert Club to begin packing and preparing for my Friday departure. I didn't have a ton of packing to do, but I did run a load of laundry before going to bed. Having a washer and dryer in your vacation unit is nice. 

Perhaps I'll elaborate on the pros and cons of the Desert Club in the future. 

My Friday morning was highly uneventful. I played a little pinball before returning my rental vehicle and heading to the airport, wondering when, or if, I'll have an appetite to do it all again. 

Saturday, June 19, 2021

A Las Vegas obituary

I went to see the Las Vegas Aviators on June 14. That's a minor league baseball team, which plays in a fancy new ballpark near Red Rock Casino in Summerlin. The visiting Reno Aces defeated the Aviators 21-16 that night. Yes, it was a baseball game. 

I don't know what major media organizations do nowadays, but there was a time when they wrote early obituaries. 

Before the internet and TMZ made our world a better place, your major news sources had obituaries ready to go, in case word broke that a major celebrity or public figure died with little advance warning. Some form of that practice probably remains in place. When former president Jimmy Carter dies, you'll see information pouring out in rapid succession, Perhaps some of that will be the result of news aggregation, but I suspect there will be a few base pieces that were put together long ago in anticipation of the day.

What does this have to do with Vegas? 

It's too early to say my Vegas career is dead, but I really had to wonder when I left town this time. 

I just spent a week in Vegas. I had a good time, and enjoyed a lot of the things I did. 

At the same time, the things I enjoyed didn't seem to warm my heart quite the same way. 

I have been traveling to Vegas for 24 years. A lot changes during any 24-year period. And like all those who bemoan how Vegas was better when the mob ran the casinos, I'm starting to think Vegas was more enjoyable for me back in my glory days, too. I just can't thank the mob for that. 

I stayed on the strip almost every time I visited Vegas during those early years. I was young, and didn't have a ton of money, but that didn't seem to prevent me from enjoying the Vegas strip. I could play all the $5 blackjack I wanted, and there were plenty of cheap places to eat and drink. I was far less discerning back then, and had an iron gut, so that helped the cause. 

For the past 10-12 years I have been staying either downtown or off the strip. The Orleans has been a frequent destination when staying off-strip. There was no single reason I gravitated away from the strip, but there were a few contributing factors. 

I don't think my off-strip exploration had anything to do with higher minimums on the strip for table games. That became a factor in cementing my departure, but there were still $5 games to be had circa 2009, when I started making my move off the strip, as I recall. 

I think my disenchantment with the strip was driven primarily by two things: Low rollers were finding fewer options on the strip and the casinos became dull. 

At the end of the day, it doesn't matter if you're playing blackjack in Egypt, New York, Paris or under a circus tent, it's the game that matters. But I, like many, found the less colorful casino decor and abandoned themes to be less entertaining than their predecessors. 

Take away low roller gambling, make the casinos less fascinating and keep increasing prices of everything else in and around your casino... suddenly downtown Las Vegas looks far more appealing. 

Downtown became my savior, despite its lack of entertainment alternatives. There was no observation tower, fake volcano or sky parade to entertain the masses, but downtown casinos still valued those folks who don't need to burn through C-note in 10 minutes to feel as if they're entertained. 

The days of the cheap table games, and cheap yard drinks, at Slots-A-Fun are long gone. (As are those 99-cent half-pound hot dogs I stopped eating in 2000.) And the $5 Spanish 21 tables up and down the strip are a dim memory. But I found a lot of replacements for those days, and I found them everywhere but on the strip. And that was fine. 

Two years ago my alternate-universe Vegas, the one that contrasted greatly from 1997 Vegas, was still a lot of fun. Vegas 2019 is gone, too, and what I'm left with has me wondering if there's a lot of Vegas in my future. 

I blame some of it on the pandemic. The pandemic forced casinos to raise their table game minimums, due to the limited capacity at each table under social distancing guidelines. Now that tables are full, the minimums are not going down. There's no shortage of players willing to drop their cash at a $15 minimum blackjack table, so why would a casino offer $5 tables? 

Sure, there are still 25-cent video poker machines and machines offering nickel-based wagering, but for those who like the table games, you'd better be happy with stadium gaming or a fully computerized experience. Some of that was coming, regardless of the table minimums. Automation and technology have long reduced labor costs for casinos, and such corners will be cut as often as possible. 

So is it simply the fact I can't spend an evening playing $5 blackjack at The Orleans that has me soured on Vegas? No. 

I never found that an evening spent listening to free cover bands on Fremont Street, elbow to elbow with drunk strangers, was an important part of my life. I'll listen to a little music, sure, but dancing around like I'm having the greatest night of my life as Zowie Bowie pretends to rap "O.P.P." is beyond preposterous. And the light show up above Fremont Street is pretty impressive, but after a couple of trips downtown, it's not all that fascinating.

And my disinterest in downtown is not just at night. On a recent Sunday afternoon they had a "dancing DJ" or whatever it is they're selling, cranking out the tunes for those walking by. I didn't have to shout in order for my friend to hear me, but I didn't need a dance party at that time of day, either. 

Couple that with the buskers and homeless clogging up Fremont street, between kiosks selling crap I want no part of, and Fremont Street is a big disappointment to me. And nothing pisses me off more than the "circle jerks" whose dance crew, bucket drumming or audience-participation spectacle creates a choke point on Fremont. Yeah, it's the pedestrians that create the circle, not the performers, but their spectacles aren't cut out for the performance circles that were intended for showgirls, creepy KISS dudes and Star Wars rejects.

Fremont Street has lost me, too. 

I can find plenty of favorite places and activities to visit in Vegas that still make it a great city to visit. And it's still a low-cost city, if you want it to be. But after nearly 25 years, I have walked away from Vegas wondering why I'll be in a hurry to go back. 

So I'm not saying I'm done with Vegas. But it really feels like my Vegas days are numbered. And I'm not interested in going back right now. That tells me a lot. 

Some people really don't like the Pinball Hall of Fame's new home on the Las Vegas Strip, I learned on June 18. 


Monday, March 8, 2021

Enjoy the thrills of Vegas when you can't be in Vegas!

The short of it: Del, the creator of videos at NeonVacation, and me, the writer of blogs here, are creating an online group aimed at providing a little fun, with a little Vegas flavor, for anyone who wants to join us. 

We're not casino operators, and we're not getting into the casino business, but for those who want to have a little of that Vegas action in their lives when they can't be in Sin City, splashing chips across the roulette felt, we have created the Las Vegas Fun and Games group. 

If you want to contribute $3 or $5 to the pot for a game of chance, you might win enough for two of those expensive drinks at that fancy new Circa casino in downtown Las Vegas. Or 25 bottles of the latest $3 beer offered at the Fremont and California casinos. 

Is that all you need to know? Join us here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/lvfunandgames

The long of it: Late last summer I was invited to join a "raffle club." A longtime friend was running a group, via Facebook, where you could "donate" a few bucks to a game of chance. The games varied a bit, as did the payout structure. Sometimes the winner received cash, sometimes the winner received a prize. Sometimes the winner had a variety of prizes to choose from. Good times, for sure. 

Turns out, there are plenty of raffle groups out there. I was invited to join a few others. They all differ a bit. But at the end of the day, the purpose was the same...gambling. No matter the terminology used, it was low-stakes gambling. And many of us enjoy a little of that in our lives. It's part of the reason many of us go to Vegas. 

My first thought wasn't, "How do I start my own group." But as the months progressed, I noticed there was something missing from these groups: Games of chance based upon sporting events. When it comes to sports, many of us will drop a few bucks on the outcome of the game we're going to watch, just to make the game a little more exciting, especially if we don't have a rooting interest in the outcome. 

One of the things I noticed about the groups is that the people running them put a bunch of time and effort into doing so, from setting up the games to collecting electronic payments and running the games via live videos. And it culminates with disseminating the prize(s) to the winner(s). It's not labor intensive, but it takes time and attention to do it well. Most group operators take a cut of the prize pool, and people don't seem to mind that, myself included. 

So my question was, "How can I make a group that's different than the others I have been a part of?" One that players will participate in and appreciate? A little brainstorming and a few discussions later, the Las Vegas Fun and Games group was born.

I needed somebody to help me get a new group going. To what extent, I wasn't sure, but I couldn't do it all on my own. I knew I wanted a Vegas themed group, so I reached out to a guy whose Vegas videos I've been watching for a while, a guy who has been dedicating greater time to his video content in the past year.  

That's how Del and I started the ball rolling. We hope it rolls for more than a week. 

What makes our group different? There will be a variety of games of chance, some linked to sporting events, others based upon games run through free gaming websites. All we need is a bunch of entries and a free online prize wheel. With that we can hold a "raffle."

But it's a Vegas group, so we'll try to find ways to have a little casino-style fun in determining some of our winners. 

The prizes awarded through prize wheels or other games of chance will be done via live videos posted to our group. You do not need to watch live to win a prize, but the video will be there for you to review if you're not watching live. 

And one of the important aspects of our group: The prize pool goes to the players. If there are 10 entries at $10 each, the prize pool will go back to the players. There may be $5 or $10 withheld from the prize pool, and that $5 or $10 will go toward bonus prizes or future games for members. Participation will have an added benefit down the road, without a doubt. 

Bottom line: If people want to have fun and are willing to play, we won't collect a commission for our effort. 

So, why should you trust us? As content creators, we are out there sharing our love of Vegas, and hoping you enjoy what we produce. We're not in the business of alienating consumers of our content. If you don't know of us, perhaps you were invited by a friend who does, somebody who knows that we, too, work for a living and are trying to bring a little entertainment to the world, through our love of Vegas. We're not going to jeopardize that trust after uniting a group of Vegas lovers for low-stakes fun and games.  

And when the outcome is not linked to a sporting event that we have no control over, we'll make it a point to have an observer join us for the live videos of the game being played. When the video goes live, group members get a notice, so anyone who is available is free to watch the action as it happens. 

All you need to do to participate is have an online payment account, such as Venmo, join our group and register for a game when it is announced. You need to be able to pay in U.S. dollars, and if we end up with non-cash prizes, you'll need to live in the United States to receive them.

With all that, let me close by saying that we hope you're interested enough to join us for fun and games. 

-- Mike

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

A visit to the Magical Forest

In December 2018 I visited the Magical Forest, a Christmas-themed Las Vegas wonderland. 

I have lots of photos and tidbits from past Vegas trips that have never made it to my blog. I intended to write about my visit to a fabulous Christmas attraction, but I never did. 

For the past week I have been watching YouTube videos by Jacob the Carpetbagger. I've been following his travels via YouTube for about five years. He has been in Vegas for the past week, sharing daily videos and gathering content for additional videos when he returns home. He was invited to a behind-the-scenes tour of Magical Forest, which reminded me that I have yet to share my simple cellphone photos from my visit. 

Magical Forest is a seasonal attraction that needs no explanation. Take a look at my photos and video below and you'll have a pretty good idea. It's a fundraising event for Opportunity Village, an organization that provides vocational training, community employment and other services for adults with disabilities in the Las Vegas area. Its mission is close to my heart, so I was extra happy to visit in 2018. 

It turns out they do a Halloween version of their forest, as well. I did not know this. You can put that on my to-do list during my next October visit to Vegas, whatever year that might be.  

Here's Jacob's recent video of his Magical Forest tour: 


And here, from 2018, is a collection of photos I took during my visit to the forest. I didn't take pictures of the amusement rides. There's a small collection of them within the property, including a cool carousel that is featured in Jacob's video.  










You can ride a train through the forest. I managed to avoid getting a picture of it.




The giant slide Jacob attempted to navigate can be seen in the background.




My photo isn't the best, but this is a tree sponsored by Penn and Teller. Notice the rabbit/top hat on top.

















And finally, here's a video I took, showing the musical light show discussed in Jacob's video: 



Tuesday, February 16, 2021

A good night's sleep?

If you ever talk about a Vegas vacation with anyone -- yours or theirs -- there are certain to be two questions.

"Did you win?"

"Where did you stay?"

My first trip in 1997 included three nights at the MGM Grand, and I arrived on the night of a star-studded preview party at the New York New York, which was opening to the public the following morning. 

I have stayed at several properties up and down the strip over the years, and occasionally at downtown casinos. I have stayed on the strip once during the past decade or more, and that was at The Strat, about as far away from the action as you can get and still make a legit argument you're staying on the strip. 

If I'm not staying downtown, I'm usually staying at the Orleans. I have used timeshare-style properties a couple of times during the past decade or so, although I wasn't there because of, or for, a timeshare pitch. 

I rent a car every trip, and staying off strip is more my style. I should really book a room at South Point or Silverton one of these years, although I never play there, so they're not going to entice me with a discounted rate. And I do like being closer to the action. Orleans has been a great destination for me, for the most part, during the past decade. 

I like gambling, but I have little interest in gambling with my hotel accommodations. I don't visit Vegas during the biggest weekends of the year, so I have little reason to look to the smaller independent hotels and chains that are scattered all over Vegas. 

The website photos look nice, but I can't imagine I'll be booking a room at The Shalimar Hotel any time soon. 

But I often wonder, who stays at those odd, unassuming flop houses still in business east of downtown Vegas? 

Want a low roller vacation? Stay at Hotel Galaxy. Right across the freeway from the Luxor! It looks like a slice of paradise, according to the website, and nothing says low roller like a small, independent hotel that nobody will accidentally find their way to. And just minutes from the action! 

Like many other Vegas enthusiasts, I watch YouTube videos about Sin City. I don't watch any channel religiously, but I have sampled plenty of them. One of the more modest channels out there is NeonVacation

Del, the content creator, hasn't been hammering away at videos for years, but he has uploads dating back nine years. He has been more active in the last year or so, and has been producing content that I'm not seeing elsewhere. (Admittedly, I'm not looking for it, either.)

One of the things Del does occasionally in Vegas is stay at one of the older independent hotels, and give you a look at them, inside and out. No, these are not the most fascinating videos ever produced, but when you've been to Vegas more than 40 times during the past 24 years, as I have, you start to wonder about these places. Del gives me a glimpse into that world. 

Recently he stayed at the Thunderbird Boutique Hotel. Maybe it's not as old as I assume, but it's just up the road from The Shalimar Hotel, not far from The Strat on Las Vegas Boulevard. That whole stretch between The Strat and Fremont Street is a bit dingy these days, but there are wedding chapels as well as hotels along the way, harkening back to a time when downtown gamblers didn't venture as far as The Tropicana when they visited Vegas. 


I  correspond with Del occasionally, but we haven't discussed what his motivation was for staying at the Thunderbird. I am also curious as to what the room rate was, including taxes. Trivial stuff, I know, but interesting stuff for longtime Vegas enthusiasts, I'd argue. 

I was impressed by how nice his Thunderbird room appeared to be. I was expecting 30-year-old amenities and rather dull, basic furnishings, but that didn't appear to be the case. 

The pool looked rather unspectacular, but that's not a surprise. Old motor lodges weren't known for their elaborate pools. 

Much to my surprise, however, is that there's a wedding chapel and banquet room on the property. Going to Vegas for to get married? Why hassle with going to the top of The Strat for a ceremony when you can get married at the Thunderbird? 

Years ago I was making periodic solo trips to Vegas. I stayed at a timeshare property near the Orleans one year, and as a result I ended up at the Orleans on subsequent trips. I never considered booking a room at one of these quirky, odd, old school properties. 

Even with a rental car, the drawbacks of booking a room at a quirky old Vegas relic are obvious. The Thunderbird has a lounge with some sort of food service, but it's not as if you have easy access to numerous dining options. And there's no gambling and heading up to the hotel room from the casino floor at the end of your night. Those are things Orleans offers, and I value. 

If I lived in southern California and wanted to head to Vegas for short trips on a recurring basis, perhaps that would inspire a weekend stay at Shalimar, which has a Florida-themed bar and grill, as well as a coffee shop, so says the website. And I can get married there, too! 

When you drive east on Fremont Street toward Boulder Highway, you pass old hotels with quirky neon signs. Some still appear to be in business, some clearly are not. Many appear to be rather sad and pathetic. But they remind you of a simpler time, before Holiday Inn, Days Inn, Super 8, Motel 6 and the others took over the Vegas landscape. And there were even a few of those old, independent motels still hanging on along the strip in the late 1990s.

And thanks to Del's videos, I've seen the inside of a few such places still waging war against the casinos and national chains. 

Perhaps I'll get a chance to revisit that era of Vegas one of these years. I might even book a stay at the Hotel Galaxy.  

Friday, February 5, 2021

Pinball players hate the Pinball Hall of Fame

I'm a pinball player, and when I visit Las Vegas, there's one place I make it a priority to visit every single trip, the Pinball Hall of Fame. 

I've written about the Hall of Fame in the past, and I have recommended it countless times.   

I know its story and history, more or less, but let me recount it, as best as I can recall. Don't hold me to having every last detail perfectly accurate. It's late, and I don't feel like trying to research every last tidbit. This is a blog, not the newspaper of record for Clark County.

The Hall of Fame evolved from the massive personal pinball collection of Tim Arnold. Arnold grew up in Minnesota and started making money in the pinball business before he was an adult. He made a lot of money courtesy of the video game industry during the 1980s in Michigan, and purchased a lot of old pinball machines that were gathering dust and taking up space. He was able to retire at a young age and moved to Las Vegas, trucking his massive collection of machines to the desert. 

He started the Hall of Fame by hosting game nights in a pole shed, with local players gathering occasionally. From those game nights came the Hall of Fame, and a dedicated space in a strip mall for more than 100 machines from his massive collection. The first Hall of Fame was a few miles east of the Las Vegas strip on Tropicana Avenue. 

More than 10 years ago the Hall of Fame moved to a standalone building on Tropicana, closer to the strip, but still a couple of miles away. 

The Hall of Fame operates as a nonprofit business, staffed by volunteers. The quarters spent to play pinball pay the bills, and additional revenue is donated to charity. This has been going on for years. 

A few years ago the Hall of Fame announced its most ambitious plan, to set up shop on the Las Vegas strip. Incredibly, profits from the Hall of Fame's operation were set aside for the project, and used to buy a large piece of land on the far south end of the strip, near the "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign. It's not the heart of the strip, but it's a far more accessible site for tourists on the strip. And the new home of the Hall of Fame is going to blow away its current home, which hosts more than 200 pinball machines. 

The Hall of Fame stopped donating its profits to charity so that it could bankroll the project, both the land acquisition and the construction of a building. Unlike its first two locations, the Hall of Fame will have a brand new building to call home, designed for hosting hundreds of pinball machines and other coin-operated machines of years past. It's going to be an amazing display of American history, ingenuity and creativity. 

The Hall of Fame owns its building on Tropicana Avenue, and an adjacent empty lot. The sale of those will help offset costs for the new project on the strip. But the new project is far more expensive than the value of those parcels, without a doubt. It seemed to me, a guy who doesn't know much about financing a commercial construction project or anything about Las Vegas strip real estate, that the Hall of Fame was rather proactive in financing the project. 

I don't recall the details of the plan when it was first announced, but I thought there was some level of debt that would befinanced in conjunction with this project. The organization is a proven success, however, and I suspect that any debt load wouldn't take decades to pay off. Arnold has stressed that his goal is to resume donating profits to charity.

So, all that said, the project commenced last spring, after the pandemic shuttered Vegas. The project had been in the planning for many months, and the financial pieces were in place, so construction proceeded as planned. 

Here's the well-known wrinkle in all the planning: It was anticipated that the Tropicana Avenue Hall of Fame would continue producing revenue during construction. The pandemic put a big dent in that projected revenue, and recently Arnold initiated a fundraising campaign to make up a deficit of $200,000.  

According to his campaign, the new Hall of Fame is a $10 million project, and will be paid off upon completion. If that's correct, meaning there's no debt to pay off after the fact, my mind is blown. Without a final $200,000, the project won't be completed, he claims. 

The campaign has circulated among pinball players and Vegas nerds for a few weeks now, and as of tonight a little more than $100,000 has been donated. 

I saw yet another mention of the campaign earlier today, with the suggestion the new Hall of Fame might not see completion. I was among the doubters. There's too much invested in the project, and too little to finance, for it to suddenly go belly up.

Some pinball players are happy to donate to the project. Others think the late fundraising campaign is despicable. More than a few. I was a bit surprised. 

I get the vitriol, sort of, regarding Arnold and the Hall of Fame. Folks claim he's a curmudgeon and that he or the volunteers are rude toward visitors who don't follow a very strict, unwritten protocol. This is not new, I've heard this before. Is it a fair representation of the Hall of Fame? Hard for me to say yes, I've been there at least 25 times during the past 13-14 years, and I've never seen it. 

A few people bemoaned the fact that of the Hall of Fame's 200+ machines, there are always machines that are in need of a tune up, if not outright repair. I guess it's easier than I would imagine to maintain dozens of machines that are 40-60 years old, as well as dozens more that are only 20-30 years old, all of which are played 365 days a year. Regardless, the machines do not play as if they're showroom new, so the venue isn't worth supporting, evidently. 

More fascinating than the hatred for a guy whose personal collection is available to play 365 days a year is the financial wizardry and knowledge of many pinball players. Several have concluded that Arnold is a clueless dolt who has mismanaged this project spectacularly. He is $200,000 short, after all, so he must he be an idiot. 

Here I thought a guy who has shepherded the Hall of Fame for more than a decade, banking cash and donating to charity, must be doing something right. If it's a $10 million project, he came up $200,000 short due to the financial hardships of a pandemic that nobody projected, or planned for, two years ago. Foolish me, I'm impressed by what has been accomplished so far. The new building on the strip is nearly complete. 

Other financial geniuses suggested that Arnold foolishly started the project last spring after the pandemic shut down Vegas casinos for more than two months. I don't have a clue what the financial ramifications would have been to suspending the project indefinitely and sitting on the vacant land instead of keeping construction workers employed during the pandemic, but pinball's Mensa members know that Arnold is a financial fool. 

Point of reference: I have seen plenty of construction projects continue, or commence, since the pandemic graced Minnesota with its presence last spring. Why didn't all of those grind to a halt? 

A few financial gurus noted that they have or do run a pinball business, and they don't ask pinball players to donate to their business. Fair enough, although none of them mentioned running their business as a nonprofit or noted how many thousands of dollars they have donated to charity.

If there's anything I question, it's the need to raise $200,000 from the pinball community. Some pinheads wondered why there isn't some sort of corporate sponsorship or other fundraising mechanism to help build an oversized arcade dedicated to preserving the history of pinball. Fair question. 

Arnold isn't interested in amassing debt in order to build a Las Vegas strip Hall of Fame, although it can't be that hard to finance the final $200,000 of construction costs for the project. But it appears he just doesn't want to do it. Building a big new Vegas attraction without a huge debt to pay off? How un-American! 

One way or another, we'll have a new Hall of Fame in Vegas, on the strip, and likely before my next visit to Vegas.

It will attract thousands of tourists per week, if we ever get past the pandemic. Most of those tourists will go home with a smile on their face, having relived their youth or experienced something new, something they never imagined. 

And yet half the pinball community, if Facebook discussions are to be believed, absolutely despise the place.