“Las Vegas is sort of like how God would do it if he had money.” – Steve Wynn.
"Of all the major destination towns in the U.S., Las Vegas might be the most perfectly, unashamedly transparent. No other city in North America, after all -- and perhaps no other city in the world -- has for so long been so identified with one pursuit: namely, the heart-pounding, more-often-than-not-futile hunt for the improbable, near-mythic Big Score." Ben Cosgrove
I recently visited the city of Las Vegas, Nevada for the first time, and it was unlike any place I've ever been to. Las Vegas has been on the upswing with new casinos, more people, famous celebrity residencies, and three new sports franchises- The Stanley Cup Champion Golden Knights, the relocated NFL Raiders, (accompanied by the 2024 Super Bowl, and a new baseball team in 2028, also stolen from the city of Oakland, California.
I knew I was in a different land when I got off my airplane and saw slot machines throughout the airport. This desert town that barely existed when I was born 60 years ago is now an international tourist destination. Right before my arrival the entire city hosted a formula one race that went right down the Las Vegas Strip past all of the most famous casinos, and elites from all over the world came to watch. I soon discovered that you don't have to be rich to visit Las Vegas, but it sure helps. The entire city depends on tourism and casinos, helping Nevada become one of the few states that have no income tax. Here are my reflections on what I observed.
1- Slot machines rule Las Vegas. They are everywhere and reportedly account for 80% of the substantial casino revenue that funds the skyscraper hotels and casinos. I've noticed slot machines creeping into my area of St. Louis, even in bars, restaurants and gas stations. They have evolved from the one-armed bandits of old. Now they are sophisticated video entertainment devices specifically programmed to take your money while enticing you to think you're winning. There are make them unique and dangerous.
-They are impersonal. You can win or lose with no one looking at you or judging you. The slot machine will congratulate you when you win and encourage you when you lose. People can spend hours in front of them and feel more of a connection than with real people. In the age of cell phones and computers, these fit the current atmosphere more than the friendly poker table.
-Slots are essentially video games. The days of pull handle slots with cherries and bars is long gone. Today's slots are full of bright lights and graphics, with characters carefully chosen to be entertaining and addicting. Video games are programmed to have level upon level that keeps people engaged, and slots are no exception.
-They can be extremely addictive.
Slot machines are designed with human psychology in mind. They can be rigged to pay our more or less, and even the loosest slots still guarantee that you will lose over the long run. The only way to beat a slot machine is to get a quick win and walk away. But walking away has been made harder than ever thanks to addictive technology. Variable rewards and close calls make people think they are getting close to the jackpot when the laws of probability show that they have no better chance than the next sucker.
Many of my tax clients have hit jackpots, had taxes taken out, and still managed to lose much more than they ever won. Slot machines are one of the biggest scams invented by the gambling industry, yet people still fool themselves into thinking that they are special, and that only they can pick the lucky machines.
2- Sports betting is taking off. People have been betting on sporting events as long as there have been such events. But it had mostly been illegal and done through bookies and shady organized crime syndicates. But in 2018, the Supreme Court changed all of that by overturning laws that prohibited sports betting. Since then, many states have passed laws allowing it and many more are considering it. Now companies such as Draft Kings and Fan Duel are making billions by organizing the entire enterprise of sports betting.
I saw the entire scope of it playing out in Las Vegas casinos. Each one had a special lounge with big-screen televisions and opportunities to bet on any sport imaginable. You can bet on pro football, college basketball, hockey, golf, NASCAR, boxing and many more contests. You can bet on the score at halftime. You can bet on a single game or on an entire season. And each time the "bookies" take their cut, whether you win or lose.
As one who occasionally enjoys sports, I can't help but think that this will not be good for gamesmanship. Inevitably there will be scandals where some athlete is paid off to lose or beat the spread. And fewer and fewer people will enjoy sports as the entertainment that they are supposed to be. They will see them as a unending stream of wins and losses, where human beings don't matter but beating the odds is everything.
I did partake in one sports betting adventure. They had a fake horse track with miniature fake horses. Every few minutes these fake little horses would run around the tiny track and you could bet on them. It was fun to watch, but I lost my money.
3- Food and drink are different in Las Vegas. I was struck by how many celebrity chefs have a presence in the city. Gordon Ramsay, Emeril Lagasse, Guy Fieri, the Cake Boss, and many I've never heard of have restaurants. The food is overpriced everywhere, which is typical for a tourist area. Many places are open 24/7 given the all night atmosphere of the city. Our hotel room offered a mini bar at ridiculous prices, and you couldn't put your own food in the tiny refrigerator.
Las Vegas's nickname as Sin City definitely applies to the food and liquor. This is not a place for those on a diet. Sweets are everywhere, and many eateries have the name "sugar" prominently displayed on their marquis. The city is supposedly famous for its buffets, but I didn't notice very many, and the few I considered were too expensive. As long as you have money you wouldn't starve there, and I assume that off of the main drag food prices and choices are more reasonable. Elaborate and overpriced food and drink fit into the fantasy that is Las Vegas.
4- The shows in Las Vegas are world class and the main reason to visit. Having been to Branson, I knew what a tourist area was like that caters mainly to shows and entertainment.
Given the amount of money freely flowing in that town, they are able to attract almost any celebrity. From the days when the Rat Pack and Elvis ruled the city, people have been willing to put down serious money to see entertainers perform six or seven days a week. Sigfried and Roy no longer perform there, but their presence is felt as pioneers of signature Las Vegas shows.
David Copperfield, Donny Osmond, and Wayne Newton still have shows there, as do many new magicians and variety acts from America's Got Talent. I saw magician Matt Franco and his show was funny and fascinating. Headliners like Celine Dion, Carrie Underwood, or Katie Perry have residencies that last for many weeks with dazzling shows. The shows can be expensive, but offer large auditoriums with a variety of pricing and seating options. I would recommend buying tickets before you come, and shopping around as the ticket prices can vary depending on where you get them from.
There are several versions of Cirque du Soleil shows to choose from, and almost every major casino has one. They combine music, acrobatics, and dance with unique stories and are major attractions in Las Vegas. I saw Love, which was a Cirque du Soleil production devoted to Beatles classics, and it was my favorite show there. Here is a taste of what I'm talking about:
5- The best things in Vegas have nothing to do with gambling or consuming. The architecture, people watching and free shows made the visit the most fascinating. There are many free shows like the Bellagio Fountains that play on repeat all evening that are just mesmerizing. There are other free shows and street musicians that I barely had time to take in.
Many of the hotels themselves are fun to look at from the street. The New York casino has a copy of the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan skyline. The Paris casino has an Eiffel Tower that you can to up to the top of. The Luxor is a giant pyramid with all sorts of Egyptian decor inside, and the Venetian replicates the canals of Venice complete with singing gondoliers.
My new obsession is the Las Vegas Sphere, a new and highly sophisticated LED screened structure that changes personalities and displays constantly. The displays are beautiful, funny, dazzling and always evolving, using technology that is light years ahead of anything I've ever seen. Inside of the sphere is a large auditorium for an enormous I-MAX movie, Postcards From Earth. I saw the movie and got to walk around the cavernous theater, but I still love watching the changing displays of this on Facebook, where entire groups have evolved to post photos and videos.
Las Vegas is not for everyone, but like any tourist attraction it can be fun if you plan ahead, budget yourself, and know what you're getting into. It's a shame that so much of it rests on illusion and trickery that is the bedrock of gambling, but hopefully most gamblers go into their ventures with the knowledge that they are not that special and are unlikely to beat the odds. If not, they will learn the hard way.