Viva Las Vegas

I always liked Las Vegas, but I fell in love with her one New Year's Eve at Caesar's Palace a few years ago. It was my last night in town, and I was waist-deep into a cheap game of seven-card stud poker at 2:30 A.M., wondering whether my fourflush and I should stick around.

Seven-card stud hands, in case you've never seen one, wear bikinis: the first two cards are dealt face down, the next four are open, and the last one down. Now, at this point my four clubs were ace-high -- the deuce and the five of clubs on board with something else, and the three keeping company with the ace in the hole. Across the table sat a pale, bearded guy -- a steady, straight-ahead type: no fish, he -- showing a pair of kings and an ace, and betting the limit, as though underneath he's got another ace, or a third man. Or both.

To his left was a lady, slightly unfocused, smoking a cigarette and wearing a cardboard Happy New Year! tiara -- courtesy the Pointer Sisters' New Years' show -- whose pair of sixes didn't worry me, since she'd already made clear that she would keep buying cards until she got a threesome.   

Even if I do pull another club, the Beard has got two more chances to fill his house -- in which case, see, he'd beat my flush anyway. If he hasn't already.

To digress: you may think that Las Vegas is far to go for a card game, but to be honest, my streak of lousy New Years' was so long that I'd found myself trying to remember if I'd broken any mirrors. When in October someone had suggested four nights in a big casino hotel the end of December, I'd jumped nearly to Christmas.

Put a casino on every Main Street and a slot machine in each 7- 11, Vegas will still have the gravitational pull of a black hole. It's the kind of trip you anticipate in the back of your mind: the excitement doesn't really come until the plane begins to descend and you look out the window and see the Strip sitting in the middle of the desert: that dish of gleaming gold ingots, stacked high in the middle. Then you can't wait to hit the casino, with that familiar mixture of air-conditioned cigarette smoke and flop sweat.

Back to business: I'd been folding like an umbrella for two hours, to the point where it seemed like the deck was playing with me. King, queen, jack -- I was pretty sick of those pasteboard monarchs, with their little toy heraldries and strange, indifferent faces staring past me. When a Jack's on your side, he's a prince -- it's only when he and one or two of his cousins beats you that he looks like a pretentious jerk. Then there's everybody's favorite impostor, the magical ace: high and low; One, or one -- the King's conscience, or a deuce's schlemiel.

The guy with the kings opened for the limit, "Four dollars."

Cardboard Lil took a puff and called.

Well, maybe Beard's boat won't come in, and I'll be able to chase him. I raised, they saw. Another card, to me first.

I see it coming off the deck, and -- good, it's a low club. But I have most of the low clubs, don't I?, except -- the four of clubs.

Which it is. I put it next to the deuce and the five. Ace, two, three, four, five of clubs. Just to be sure, I took a peek underneath. "Happy New Year!," yelled the three and the ace.

To my delight, the not-fish got his own ace, and the lady got a nine, or an eight, or a ratty old baseball card. Then dealer called the hands: "Possible flush over here" -- I tried to look surprised -- "aces over kings. Uh, pair of sixes. Two pair bet." He opened, she called; I raised, he raised, she called, I raised the last one -- three raises, the limit. He called.

Next card, down. Trying to look anxious, I picked up my cards and peeked again, like everything was on it. But really, I just wanted to touch them again.

Beard opened strong, and she saw. I raised, and he raised (I confess for half an instant I wondered whether he could have a straight flush, too -- after all, mine was the lowest possible) and finally she folded. When I raised, the table buzzed, and a couple of fans moved in to see what was up. He raised -- no limit on raises in the last round with only two players left -- and then I raised him back. But I must have banged the chips a little too hard on the table -- it was all I could do to keep myself from kissing him -- because he only saw me. 

His full house was aces over kings. Fine with me. I flipped my hole cards. Admiring gasps; "A straight flush!"; then, better: "A wheel."

I tipped the dealer a buck-fifty, then another two. I nearly tossed a couple to the elderly lady sitting next to me. ("You know," I said to her, grinning like an idiot, "it really isn't the money so much as getting the cards.") Basking in the envy, I only just stopped myself from taking a bow and giving the guy I beat a pat on the back.

Then the dealer called out to his boss: "Can we get a medallion here?" I didn't know what he was talking about, until someone appeared at my elbow with a very, very gold-looking medal bearing the casino's logo, hanging on a chain. I nearly tossed it, but instead put it in my pocket.

After that, nobody touched me: for the two hours I was pulling more kings than a set of Shakespeare. I ended up nicely ahead.

The money's gone, but I've still got the medallion.