For 110 years, Las Vegas has stood in the desert as a monument to the sheer weirdness of human potential. It's a collection of impossible structures shining in the middle of a wasteland, a bunch of windowless buildings where you can go if you want to lose money according to the vicious laws of probability. Casinos are traps, everyone knows this, and yet Vegas attracted more than 41 million visitors in 2014. But how do these places part patrons from their money? How does the gambling machine work, hour by hour? I spent 24 hours in the D Hotel and Casino to find out.
The D—yes, really, "the D"—sits smack dab in the middleof Fremont Street, the heart of Old Vegas. Atomic-era neon fills the tightly packed streets here, in stark contrast to the gaudy, ultra-modern behemoths that comprise the Ocean's Eleven version of Vegas down the Strip. Fremont is in the midst of a concerted revitalization effort, with its legacy casinos getting facelifts and CEOs like Zappos's Tony Hsieh pouring hundreds of millions into sections like "Fremont East," a hip enclave that's the Vegas answer to Williamsburg or Silver Lake.
That's to say this slice of Vegas is quieter, or less VEGAS, BABY, than some parts of town and therefore maybe the best place for a relative gambling newbie like me to watch the never-ending festivities for an entire day and night. In any case, that's what I did. Here's how it went.
I meet with Kara from the D's PR department, and she excitedly gives me a tour of the property. I take mental notes while simultaneously trying to will myself to not take too much in. This is only the first hour, after all.
The first floor has state-of-the-art video slots pretty much everywhere, with two long rows of various table games cutting a swath through the middle of the room. On the borders are cashiers, restaurants, a bar, and a station for sports betting. The second floor is the "Classic Vegas" casino with another bar, restaurant, and theater.
There's a surprising crowd of people already out getting a jump on their day. The games run 24 hours a day, but I hadn't expected this level of attendance on a Saturday morning. These early birds have an "aging bro" vibe to them, but they never cross the line into being so loud and obnoxious that I could fairly deem them "douchey," and it's making me anxious. It's like waiting for a balloon to pop.
A friend had Venmo-ed me $50 to "put on red" for her once I'd arrived, so I find my way to the roulette tables, where I realize I have to go to the cashier, who then informs me I have to make my way to the ATM to withdraw $60 (with a fee, of course), then take that back to the roulette table to hand to the croupier, who then gives me chips with which to place my bet. A friend had just digitally sent currency from her bank account to mine, from a state away, with no fees, and here I was basically trading seashells. I make the bet, the ball hits 22 black, and I send a picture along with condolences to my friend.
Breakfast at the D Grill seems an appropriate and leisurely way to eat both food and time. I order an eggs Benedict from the menu and watch a surprising number of elderly men sit down at the tables around me with newspapers. They read and nibble on toast and sip coffee. Is this what growing old in Vegas is like?
I set a goal for myself to finally learn how craps is played. A legendary player, Stanley Fujitake, rolled a 118-shot streak on his second time ever playing the game and took the house for millions, so I have a chance at glory if I can figure out what's even going on.
I go over to a moderately active table and start watching the shooters, hoping osmosis will take care of the rest. When that doesn't work, I pull out my phone to try and read the rules as I watch. There are a couple of people who seem to know what they're doing—I have no clue if they're up or down, but they are playing the game with the same kind of enthusiasm and profanity of a 14-year-old playing Call of Duty on Xbox Live.
Fuck that. Craps is basically the Enigma code. I'll try again later.
Cynthia, who has come along with me to serve as my photographer, friend, and tether to sanity, finally makes it down to the casino and meets up with me. I give her a carbon copy of the tour that Kara gave me only a few hours earlier.
I point out the piece of Blarney Castle wall with fresh metal clamps wrapped around it. As Kara explained, some idiot had just run off with the slab a week prior, only to return it after the casino's CEO had plastered the thief's face from security footage all over the web. Apparently, patrons are supposed to rub the bit of castle for luck—but the Blarney Castle wall isn't the same as the Blarney Stone, and even if it was, the stone gives those who kiss it, not rub it, eloquence, not luck. So really, pretending for a moment that the concept of "luck" actually exists, you just have a bunch of people in your casino rubbing a powerless rock. But Kara wasn't around anymore, so I went on my little diatribe for Cynthia.
There are so many branded video slots—Wheel of Fortune being the most popular slot theme of all time. Old people love them some Wheel, and they love them some slots. Why not marry the two? But who is the Bridesmaids video slot machine for? Or this Willy Wonka slot using the smug pic of his face from the meme? Is that intentional?
Apparently these companies put lots of research into what nostalgic factors appeal to their Boomer target demo, but I have to question the process by which they produce The Mummy machines.
Alcohol seems like a foregone conclusion for a Vegas afternoon, so we go to the outdoor bar, which has far too many flavors of booze-infused slushies. Not wanting to fuck up our stomachs this early into the day, we choose the least neon-colored tumbler, piña colada.
I felt an obligation to try something from each of the casino's restaurants, so we continue down the side of the building to American Coney Island Dog. I get the signature item, the Coney Island Hot Dog. It's not bad, though not remarkable, like most hot dogs. It is a meal I will never think about again the second I finish typing this sentence.
The music in the casino is obnoxious—high BPMs, dubstep drops, oversinging. I already know this will be torture by 5 AM. I guess it suits the crowd in here. The people milling about now are the sorts of people who drink their slushies out of those things that look like big plastic bongs, unlike the sensible plastic cups Cynthia and I chose.
Cynthia and I make our way up to the second floor of the casino, where the "old games" are located. Unfortunately, this doesn't mean chrome-plated slots from the world of Fallout, just some slots that aren't computer screens. Chief among them: more Wheel of Fortune.
In the middle of the second floor is a mechanical horse race track—a crown jewel of the D's gaming fleet. We sit and watch others bet on this for a while. The jerky clopping of the pewter steeds is hypnotic, and I have to agree with Cynthia that it's "so cute."
Cynthia and I decide to sign up for the D's player club card to get $5 of free-play credit for slot machines. It's highly unlikely we will ever use these cards again, but $5 is $5, and it's not like we're pressed for time.
We each swipe our newly minted plastic at a kiosk to see if we would be "emailed millions." We are not. We're only emailed a message informing us that we've lost but would now be on a mailing list. Great.
I watch Cynthia try out the Bridesmaids-themed game. We can't use our free-play credit on this one, so she puts down $20 of her own and fumbles around with the buttons, trying to figure out what to press to just place one bet on a dashboard that looks like it belongs in a cockpit.
Two minutes later, the $20 is gone. Just like that. You lose money so much more rapidly than I could've ever imagined. How the fuck do social-security-dependent seniors sit at slots all day? Is that a false stereotype? They must be playing at the penny slots that I hear so much about. We move over to play some of those.
Turns out there is no such thing as a true penny slot anymore. They hook you in with the promise of frugality, and then you see some bullshit "50 cent minimum bet" sticker. Thanks, Obama.
A waitress brings us free drinks—and they aren't weak. I forgot this was a thing at casinos. Since we're already flushing money down the toilet on gambling, Cynthia and I resolve to not pay for any other drinks the rest of our stay.
I have a buzz again and have somehow parlayed my $5 of free play into a redeemable $11.17 voucher simply by slapping buttons randomly. Even so, the win doesn't feel like a high. It feels like if my cat walked across my keyboard and, in doing so, somehow wrote a paragraph of this article for me.
We sit at the bar watching the people around us, and I eavesdrop on the two couples in their 50s yukking it up next to us. After discussing how difficult it is to program universal remotes, almost like he's giving highlights from his 90s stand up routine, one guy launches into a diatribe about how lazy millennials are.
"Like, if I asked you to take seven from a hundred, I'm sure you could do that," he says to his lady. "But you know most of them would just take out their phones to figure that out." I'm too in awe of the absurdity of the claim to be offended.
After wandering around some more, I put $20 into The Walking Dead video slot. Sorry, I mean the AMC's The Walking Dead: Brought to you by AMC video slot. Daryl and Rick look at me over their shoulders with an appropriate amount of scorn from the game cabinet. Despite the flashy "GUTS" that appear on the screen during my spins, this is just like any other slot machine, and my credit is gone in minutes.
Photo courtesy of The D
The CEO and owner of the D, Derek Stevens, has agreed to meet with me for an interview and a "behind the scenes" tour. We rendezvous at his spot at the end of Long Bar, which is indeed a very long bar.
Derek is the face of the D, almost its mascot. He has the twinkle in his eye of a little kid about to try to get away with something his parents told him not to do. He's wearing a sharp navy windowpane suit, but has enough jewelry on to remind you that, yeah, this guy owns casinos.
I ask him to just take me on his normal rounds, and we start our little Sorkin walk-and-talk going through the kitchen area that connects the D Grill and Andiamo Steakhouse, the fancier eatery on the property. Derek shows me the keg room and the wine room and food storage, and I have to wonder if he's really in there on the regular checking ranch-dressing expiration dates.
What I observe as he goes through each zone is how he interacts with almost everyone. He thanks bartenders for "a phenomenal Thursday night," he asks how a cook's kids are. Even a janitor greets him with what seems to be a non-perfunctory "Hello, boss!" Derek tells me the property has 1,100 employees. I don't find it hard to believe at all that he's interacted with each and every one of them.
Derek's approachability extends to the patrons as well. A table of high rollers seated in Andiamo motion him over, and he glad-hands like a seasoned politician. He tells me about the car giveaways he does, the most recent one offering a Dodge Charger Hellcat.
"So you just buy a flashy car for yourself through the company, drive it around for fun a while, and then give it away as a prize. And then repeat?" I ask.
"Yeah, pretty much," Derek chuckles.
Derek takes me and Cynthia back to Longbar and orders us drinks. I'm asking him something dumb, like what his drink of choice is, as if we're out on some Tinder date, when a pair of suited-up security guys sprint past us. Derek stops what he's saying and we all start craning our necks to see what all the commotion is about. Moments later, the security bros are leading a young man out of the casino right past us with his arms behind his back. His face is covered in blood. Cynthia raises her camera only to have the lens swatted down by the PR rep, Lorena, who had been walking with us. No hard feelings, Lorena. We know you were just doing your job.
When the dust settles and enough people have conferred with Derek about what just happened, we find out that the bloody guy had thrown a beer on some old guy's daughter. The old guy—whom we'd seen at this point, unscathed and dressed like Jimmy Buffet—had proceeded to sock the guy right in the eye. Forehead cuts bleed profusely, so I guess it looked a lot worse than it was. Still, my adrenaline was racing, and I was loving that such a "rare event," as Derek put it, had happened right in front of me as I sat talking to the CEO.
"No fights here are premeditated," Derek says. "Think about it: There's a billion cameras. This is the worst place in the world to fight or steal something. Something like that has happened maybe once before since we opened."
Unfortunately, biomaterial (usually puke) spilled in a public setting like this requires a clean-up crew to jump through a fuck-ton of hoops to deal with the situation. Derek grimaces at the paperwork and hassle this tussle is going to cause him.
Cynthia and I have a show to catch and Derek has matters to attend to, so we thank him for his time and tell him we'll rendezvous at the bar later.
We queue up for Defending the Caveman, one of the three comedy shows playing daily at the D's theater. We're seated and given more complimentary drinks.
Then the show starts.
"All men are idiots," says the host, and the crowd cheers. "Imagine if I'd come in and said, 'All women are bitches!' Think how you'd all react then!" More laughs. Hoo boy.
We're only a few minutes into this guy's schtick when I just can't anymore. It's Tim Allen's humor reheated and framed in the context of Neanderthals. The audience is heckle-y as fuck, but in a supportive way. He's killing with them, so who cares what I think? I flag down more drinks.
People come to Vegas for the shows as much as they come for the gambling and nightlife. I remember the last show I saw in Vegas: KÀ, by Cirque du Soleil. It was better than other Cirques I'd seen. One section of that show had a girl just twirling and throwing a baton with such grace and elegance that I was nearly brought to tears.
"A man doesn't just watch TV. A man becomes the TV," says the guy on stage at this Caveman show. I wish I was back at KÀ watching the baton girl.
After the show, Cynthia and I get dinner at Andiamo. Our waiter is like the suave "paging Mr. Herman" version of Pee-Wee from Big Adventure. We get champagne and seafood because neither of us wants a steak sitting in our stomachs for the latter half of the night.
Cynthia doesn't know how to play blackjack, so we go to a table and I teach her. She doubles the $20 she put down in only ten minutes, and I tell her to cash out while she's ahead. She's giddy, and says she wants to play again later. I might've done a bad thing here.
We check out the slushie bar again and re-up on piña coladas. There are street performers doing freestyle battles, and the energy of Fremont Street is at spring-break levels. The contained ids from the morning and afternoon are out of their cages. Guys in cargo shorts holler at every girl who walks by. Clusters of women out for bachelorette parties or 21st birthdays shriek at compatriots spotted across the way. I feel old.
The D's features "Dancing Dealers," go-go dancers who step down off their platform to deal a few hands every few songs. It offends me in the way Carl's Jr. ads offend me—like I'm such an id-driven lunk that I can't have burgers or table games be their own thing, I also need the appeal of bouncing titties.
Derek mentioned earlier that if some UFC fight went long tonight it would really fuck the D over as people might too be tired to go out after and continue partying and gambling. I guess the fight went long, because the casino should be way more packed than this on a Saturday night, right?
I chat up a lonely-looking elderly woman at a Willy Wonka slot. She isn't really reciprocating my pleasantries, and keeps her eyes ahead on the spinning Oompa-Loompas.
Cynthia goes upstairs to sleep, and I'm one of the last few people left in the casino. The night before, the D had hosted a Dropkick Murphys show, and apparently the crowd was partying until 5 AM. It seems like there really is no "average day" at the D.
I nodded off sitting at a slot for a good 20 minutes, but when I wake up, I notice that a cocktail waitress has left me a fresh whiskey ginger. She did this while I was asleep. I'm confused, but not ungrateful.
I decide to walk around the outer perimeter of the casino to see if there's anything cool I might've missed by staying (mostly) inside this whole time.
I notice that the D has a armored party truck parked by valet. That's a party bus built into the body of a stretch armored truck. I guess for when Obama throws a bachelor party?
The casino is dead. There are maybe ten people gambling on the first floor. I haven't been offered a free drink in a while. The dancing dealers are long gone and have been replaced with dour, no-nonsense pros. There are only few folks sitting at the bar, and I wonder how the bartender isn't just checking his phone when there's this little to do.
In the stillness of the early morning, I notice something that has apparently been present this whole time: You can smoke in here. Indoor smoking feels like something from before my lifetime, so this startles me a bit.
A guy is at a craps table. I do my best to really learn the rules this time, but I'm already at dwindling brain-function levels and I give up, mad at myself for throwing in the towel.
Old people start coming in off the streets. When I'm retired (pretend with me, for a second, that my generation will have that luxury), I think I'll want to spend my free time in whatever crazy Occulus Rift wonder world game designers have dreamed up. Then I realize that's not too different from how these people are choosing to stare at screens.
I have no comprehension of how any of these games work anymore. I decide to follow my unlucky friend's advice and put $50 of my own money on red at a roulette table. I don't even hear the guy tell me I've won. I just see a stack of chips get pushed next to my chips. I try to pick up 100 $1 chips with both hands like an idiot. The croupier asks if I'd like to cash out and get larger chips. I mumble an affirmative and go get my money.
Feeling like a zombie, I head back to my room to get some sleep. I shed my clothes like they're on fire and collapse onto the bed.
On the one hand, I'm happy that this experience didn't coax any dormant inner gambler out of me. On the other, I was partially disappointed that I couldn't get swept up in some sort of mania and feel the peaks and valleys of a hot and cold streak. The D showed me a good time, but all good times must come to an end. And mine should have ended hours earlier.
Fortunately, as I drifted off to sleep, there were plenty of hopeful gamblers making their way to the casino floor to pick up where I left off. Cash in one hand, plastic bong of alcoholic ice in the other, a whole day in Las Vegas lay ahead of them. Anything could happen if they just got lucky.
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