There are few industries as heart-wrenching as the fine art business. It's a six-car pileup at the intersection of art and commerce and the amount of opinion and hyperbole that is somehow labeled as...
the fastest-growing city in the United States (1999)
the most popular tourist destination for Hawaiians
close to awe-inspiring canyons that are ripe for photographers
Beyond the tourist areas of Downtown and The Strip, Las Vegas sprawls out into
the desert. It is a horrifying vision of an American future where children will
grow up knowing only strip malls, franchises, walled-and-planned communities, and
110-degree summer heat.
As a tourist destination, Las Vegas is a paradise. Hotels are reasonably
cheap, Broadway shows play nightly in theaters with cupholders and ample free
parking, and the general level of public spectacle is higher than anywhere else
in the United States.
If you want to see nature by day and Cirque de Soleil by night, Las Vegas is
45-minutes from Red Rock Canyon, two hours from Zion National Park, and 2.5 hours
from Cathedral Gorge State Park.
Downtown Vegas, which few tourists visit, contains the oldest, tackiest, and
in many ways most interesting sights of the city. On the Strip, you drive from
one enormous parking structure and theme-park sized casino to another. On Fremont
Street, you walk from casino to casino, enticed by barkers. To boost tourism, the
city has built an enormous canopy over four blocks of the slightly seedy area and
dubbed it "The Fremont Street experience". At night there may be light shows with
music projected against this canopy.
One hour SE of Las Vegas, the Hoover Dam
impounds Lake Mead and supplies Colorado River water plus hydropower to
California, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah. Built during the Depression, the project
was completed in 1935 during the Roosevelt administration. FDR changed the name
to "Boulder Dam" but Congress changed it back to "Hoover Dam" in 1947. Get there
as early in the morning as possible if you want to take a hardhat tour.
MIT folks tend not to do anything unless they are really good at it. Being good
at gambling means being able to achieve a positive expectation at blackjack. If
you don't count cards but are a good player, your expectation is -2%. That means
if you bet $1.00, you expect to have $0.98 at the end of a round. This would be
the best that you could do if the casino were dealing from an infinite deck.
However, the casinos typically use between two and six decks of cards, all
shuffled together. If there are six decks and you've seen 24 cards with a value
of 8 dealed out, you know that there won't be any more coming. By using this
information, a good player can improve the odds to +2%, so that a $1.00 bet
yields an average of $1.02.
It is illegal to bring a computer into the casino and therefore you have to
learn to compute all of these probabilities in your head. This is a laborious
process that takes members of the MIT Blackjack Team months. Once you've learned
the method you can beat the casino consistently. However, if the casino thinks
that you're counting, they can throw you out. Sound unfair? The casinos can
actually throw you out for any reason at any time. They own enough politicians
that the laws are friendly to them in this way. The really bad thing is to be
"read" where some goons grab you and read you a document that says if you return
you'll be trespassing. Then the casinos can put you in jail. So card counters
become adept at disguise via wigs, contact lenses, etc. They also learn to
disguise their play so it isn't obvious that they are counting (this reduces
Another winnable game is poker. You play against other people in a room
provided by the casino. The casino takes a percentage of the play but basically
if you're the best player in the room you will win a lot of money.
Roulette is winnable if you use a computer. The casino allows bets to be
placed after the ball and wheel are spinning and almost until the point at which
the ball drops into a slot. It isn't possible to perfectly predict the final slot
from the ball and wheel's current position and velocity, but you don't need to be
right. Roulette pays off 36:1 so if the computer is right even a small portion of
the time, the expectation can be +25% or even higher.
Personally I never wanted to learn how to win so I don't gamble. If I were to
gamble, I would do it at Binion's Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas. Binion's has
all the grit of old Las Vegas, before so many Disneyland-esque hotels were built
on the Strip. The founder, Benny Binion, is a legendary figure. His son Ted was
murdered on September 17, 1998 by his girlfriend and her lover. The girlfriend,
Sandy Murphy, was an former topless dancer half Binion's age. The death was
arranged to look accidental, with Binion taking an overdose of Xanax, a
prescription tranquilizer. Binion's sister prompted an investigation: "That was
not Ted . . . Ted would be the first one to tell you that his drug of choice was
heroin." (full story:
It is very difficult to get a camera into a casino's gambling area. The
casinos are worried that folks who've told their wives that they've gone to
Schenectady will be afraid that they'll show up in the background on someone's
snapshot and the wife will learn what they've done with Junior's college
What to See at Night
Cirque de Soleil has two shows in
Las Vegas. "Mystere", at Treasure Island, is the older show and easier to get
tickets for. "O" is newer and plays at the Bellagio. Get tickets as far in
advance as possible. Mystere box office: (702) 894-7710; O box office: (888)
If the shows are sold out, you can pay $100+ extra and buy tickets from a
broker, such as
If you're on a budget, you can entertain yourself adequately at no cost by
Downtown Las Vegas (Fremont Street) to see the packed-together neon lights
and massive canopy
Strip-side shows such as the artificial volcano at the Mirage, the musical
fountains at Bellagio, the pirate battle in front of Treasure Island, etc.
Where to Stay
The Desert Inn ("DI") is right on the Strip and has a reputation as the place
for sophisticated Las Vegas travelers. The casino is very small, the pool is
large, the spa and exercise machines are the best, the 18-hole golf course in
back is unique. Room rates are a touch higher than in other hotels but the rooms
are big and have sliding glass doors that open. More info:
The Desert Inn and Bellagio have the best fancy restaurants. Luxor has a great
When to Visit
June, July, and August are bad, with an average high temperature of over 100
degrees. April, May, and October are just about prefect, with average high
temperatures between 70 and 80. It can be chilly in the middle of winter, though
skiing is possible on nearby Mount Charleston.
Be mindful of trade shows that can fill up the entire city. Two big ones are
COMDEX (irrelevant side note: my friend Richard and I built
www.comdex.com, a dynamic database-backed Web site
with online schedule planning and show reservations, back in 1996) and the
Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Below are some snapshots from my last trip to
CES when my company's booth happened to be next to the pre-recorded adult video
There is a fancy shopping mall right on the Strip, complete with
Neiman-Marcus. The Venetian has a fancy boutique-y shopping mall.