I spent the weekend in Las Vegas where I dropped a dollar at one of the slot machines on the way from my own room to the room where our meeting was being held – a half mile walk – and a second dollar on the way back.

This was at the Mandalay Bay, a hotel with 16 species of sharks swimming in its very own indoor Las Vegas ocean, which I never found time to see for real but watched gurgling on one of the hotel TV channels.

Are you keeping track? I was down $2 Friday.

Saturday, after our meetings, we headed over to the Bellagio for a ‘backstage tour’ reserved for very special groups. Nobel Laureates, say, or Olympic Gold Medalists. Or that elite subset of astronauts who actually walked on the moon. Or, in our case, friends of a Vice President at MGM Grand, which owns the place.

I’m not sure I was supposed to keep notes, but I jotted things down in my head:

The 3,000-room Bellagio was completed in 1998 on 120 acres at a cost of $2 billion.

Hanging above the lobby is a $2.4 million Chihuly, an illuminated ceiling composed of 3,000 large colored glass petals weighing 15 to 30 pounds each.

The Bellagio is immense, and perhaps best known for that Chihuly (Dale Chihuly, the famous Seattle glass sculptor) and for the water shows in its 8.5 acre lake.

They erupt periodically, rather like Old Faithful at Yellowstone, but a full ballet, set to music, where the dancers are jets of water. With the crack, crack, pop of a fireworks display, only there are no fireworks; what’s being fired into the air are jets of water.

The hotel fills the lake with 60 million gallons of water from its three wells, dug to a depth of 12,000 feet. (The lake itself ranges from four feet, if you should fall in at the edge, to 17 feet, if you should swim out to the middle.)

There are something like 200 ‘devices’ that shoot water into the air or make it sway and dance to the music. ‘Shooters’ send jets up 110 feet (picture the height of your basic 10-story building) and ‘super shooters’ go twice as high. By New Year’s Eve, they should have installed their latest, ‘extreme shooters,’ that, operating at 500 pounds per square inch, will shoot jets up 498 feet. Higher than the hotel itself.

Each water jet shoots up through a cluster of four 500-watt lights that sit just under the surface.

Some of the devices make mist. The entire lake can be covered in a low fog in just two minutes. In the summer – given that this is the desert and the temperature regularly hits 115 degrees with no humidity except for this one crazy lake – one imagines the jets of water shooting 200 feet into the air and then, well, just disappearing through evaporation (they check in, but they don’t check out), but our guide assured us it was not that bad . . . though in July and August, they cut the mist effect by 50% to conserve water.

The hotel will not say how much of the lake’s water is lost to evaporation each day, but I am guessing a million gallons. A few of you, I hope, will do the calculations and let me know how close I am, and I will report your analysis: 8.5 acres of water surface at desert temperature and humidity, made slightly more profligate by these occasional anti-Newtonian water shows. (What goes up must not all come back down.)

The hotel has been retrofitted to funnel all the ‘gray water’ from the guest bathtubs and showers – once appropriately filtered – into the lake, but that measure has not yet been stooped to, in part because, though filtered, that’s still a lot of not quite pure mist to be floating around the deluxe premises (‘Honey? Does something smell a little off to you?’) and in part because 24 of the Bellagio’s 8,300 or employees are SCUBA divers whose sole job it is to maintain the devices in the lake. Control Tower sees a 500-watt light bulb blow? Send in a diver. Or maybe more than one, as this would be one of those rare light bulbs it might legitimately require more than a single pair of fins to screw in.

Did I mention this place was large?

It has 2,500 slot machines, 81 gaming tables, and 5.5 million square feet of flooring that must be vacuumed or polished every day.

We got to visit everything from the employee laundry – each employee gets three complete uniforms, bar coded so that, like FedEx packages, the location of any employee’s bow-tie can be ascertained at any moment – to that security room you see in all the movies, with sharp-eyed operators watching 30 monitors, able to zoom in so close you can read the time on a guy’s watch (7:44pm) or the numbers on his Players Card. It’s all stored on video tape for at least a week. Special attention is paid to, say, the high stakes poker game – yes, they can see your hand – and our operator zoomed in to show us what $5,000 and $25,000 chips look like.

(If you should find a couple of these on the floor of the men’s room, don’t get all excited. You won’t be able to cash them in. The casino keeps track of who should have possession of them at any given moment. If you show up with one you neither bought nor won, they will know you either found or stole it.)

My favorite stop on the tour was the liquor pumproom. The Bellagio takes in $5 million a month from liquor sales (one reason, our guide said, that the property profits now accrue 52% from ‘resort’ activities and just 48% from the house take at the casino). To keep the bartenders efficient and the alcohol portions uniform (one and one-quarter ounces per drink), all the popular brands (except Baileys) are poured not by a bartender tipping a bottle but by his pressing a button on a hose. Press the right button and out comes Absolut or Remy Martin.

And now we saw how. Here in this room, neatly stacked from floor to ceiling, were dozens of 1.7-liter bottles of each major brand upside down and attached to a tube, like the drip by your hospital bed. Tubes from this room went to 53 separate Bellagio bars (all but the poolside bars, which are a smidge too far) – 91 miles of tubing in all, all filled with one or another brand of alcohol, terminating in this room at one end (we could touch the actual bottles!) and at a bartender’s thumb at the other. Pfffft, we would hear every few seconds. Pffft. That was the sound of a gambler someplace out on the floor anaesthetizing himself to his losses. (Baileys Irish Cream™ is too thick to flow properly through the tubes, so it is kept out on the bar along with less frequently requested brands.)

And soon it was time for me to go off to the airport for my red-eye back East, still down $2.

I gamble even less than I drink, but I know this much: the slots give you the worst odds, and the slots at the airport . . . well, forget it.

But I wasn’t going to leave Las Vegas a loser, so I bellied up to an appealing looking machine, fed in a single, opted for “one credit” and pulled the crank.  I lost 25 cents.  And again . . . this time, pulling and holding the crank.  Although the crank no longer has any direct connection to the workings of the machine – indeed, there is now a button you can press instead – there is something satisfying about pulling that big arm and holding it for a while, perhaps even until the final BAR, BAR, BAR settle themselves in the middle of your field of vision.

Which they did not, so I was now down half my dollar with two credits left and only an hour and twenty minutes before my flight.  (I live life on the edge, as you can see.)

But here is where the strategy comes in.  With a coin, any given toss is as likely to be heads as tails.  Even if there’s been a run of 13 tails in a row – and even though the odds of getting 14 tails in a row are just 1 in 16,386 – the odds of the next toss being heads remain 50/50, just like any other toss.  But with a slot machine, who the hell knows how they’re programmed?  Not me.  So I played both my remaining two credits – and won!  I pressed the “cash out” button, and the machine started to ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, and people from United to American all the way to US Air looked my way.  Nothing clattered from the machine itself, like in the old days, but pretty soon a nice rumpled old man appeared to hand me four very satisfying dollar bills.

I left Vegas a winner.

If you haven’t been there yourself, you really have to go at least once.  It is the best and the worst of America, all wrapped up in one glitzy, profligate package.  Mama Mia!  (Which was playing at the Mandalay Bay, but I didn’t have time to see it.)

Tomorrow: The Odds of Your Beating the Market


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