It could only happen in America: to generate material for
a proposed book, Martinez talks his publisher into giving him
$50,000 to blow on a month's gambling in Las Vegas. And like
that, Martinez is living in the Vegas glitter, with his lodging
and meals provided free of charge once the hotels he stays in
realize he's a high roller--or at least one of the people whom
the casinos believe will leave a fair proportion of their money
at the table.
A tough month's work, right?
To this task Martinez brings what seems to be a natural talent
for blackjack (though not for baccarat or video poker) and an
affable personality that makes him an engaging tour guide to
Vegas' kaleidoscope of dealers, doped-out high-rollers and diamond-studded
most disappointing information he brings back (to this reader,
anyway) is the news that Las Vegas is no longer run by the Mob.
Big corporations are taking over, he says--consolidating, putting
huge stakes into the hotels and transforming the city into something
that's not just a gaming mecca, but an entertainment conglomerate.
Las Vegas is a one-industry town, like Detroit; but as the historian
Hal Rothman tells Martinez, "I'd rather have my future riding
on entertainment these days than on the auto industry."
Martinez tells of striking up a friendship with Braces, a
seedy gambler from the old school who claims to be a card counter
(someone who uses mathematics to try to better his odds). That
can get you thrown out of a casino--or worse, Braces fears. He
confides to Martinez that he's getting cold feet about his latest
"You don't suppose a casino, you know, a reputable carpet
joint, would come after us with fuckin' goons if they catch up
to us?" he asks, anxiously.
"No," Martinez says, his tone is flat, as if to
say, "I don't want to get into it." What he doesn't
tell his anxious friend is: "Don't be a moron; sophisticated,
publicly traded companies like Hilton and Starwood don't go around
beating up customers."
Pity. One longs for the euphemistically termed "Midwestern
businessmen" who built the casino empire. It was probably
a sense of nostalgia that stirred Las Vegas residents, in June,
to elect as their mayor Oscar Goodman, the self-described Mob
lawyer who plays himself in Martin Scorsese's film, Casino.
Mob or no Mob, Martinez says, Las Vegas is an American colony.
It grew by providing services--gambling, prostitution, quickie
divorces--that, in Martinez's words, "the mother country
eschewed but its people wanted."
The identity of the colonists has changed, from the federal
government (the building of the Hoover Dam and nearby nuclear
test grounds gave the city a boost) to the Mob to the big corporations.
But like a colony, Vegas still relies on outsiders for the money
it needs to develop and support itself. It's the land of opportunity.
opportunities, Martinez makes the most of his chances at the
gambling tables. His stakes wax and wane as he gambles elbow
to elbow with mysterious Chinese entrepreneurs, grandmothers
in gym suits with steely wills to match their big hair, and a
former Israeli commando. He gets to know Peggy, a retired good-time
girl from the Rat Pack era who is lost in her memories. In those
days, writes Martinez, pretty girls "were as indispensable
to a gambling establishment as dice and cards." As Peggy
herself says, "A male gambler trying to win over a striking
woman and impress his friends at the same time is the most generous
creature out there."
In the restroom of a casino strip joint, Martinez befriends
Joe Alston, the towel attendant. Joe is also a minister. "This
is where the Lord wants me, to talk to people who need it; there's
a lot of pain here," the recovering drug addict tells Martinez.
There's no shortage of pain for Martinez either, as he watches
his stake rise past $60,000 then dwindle to the hundreds before
surging again. He begins to understand the addiction of gambling
and attends a Gamblers Anonymous meeting. The melting pot melts
here; he is struck by the group's diversity--all races and ages
and income groups. Getting the 1.3 percent of the population
who are pathological gamblers to quit is a tough sell, though.
At the GA meeting that Martinez attends, one of the program's
inspirational sayings is pinned to the wall. It says, he writes,
"something to the effect that the worst day of your new
life won't be as bad as the best day of your previous one."
One of the recovering gamblers speaks up. "I gotta tell
you," he says to the group wistfully, "I had some damn
good days when I was out there."
Martinez himself rejects comparisons between gambling and
Gambling is not smoking. It's not inherently bad for you.
On the contrary, I'd venture to say that a little gambling, a
taste for life on the edge, is good for the soul. Come to town,
wager your budgeted $250 casino fund between pool sessions, roller-coaster
rides, delectable meals, and shows and you'll feel invigorated.
By contrast, use a cigarette as intended, and it's still bad
like its subject, is funny and fast. And you couldn't find a
better gambling companion than the affable Martinez, who, like
the millions who go to Vegas each year, is always eager and only
rarely gives in to cynicism (like when he's scraping the bottom
of his nest egg). The book could be trimmed in places, though.
At one point, Martinez, presumably burned out from too much time
at the tables, troops off to a local high school to participate
in a desert clean-up drive. The author is disappointed to find
the event is already over, but the reader is grateful.
Get back to the tables, Martinez!