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Las Vegas

by Philip Greenspun, 1999


Pioneer. Downtown Las Vegas (Fremont Street) by day. Las Vegas is

  • 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.

Housing

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

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.

Hoover Dam

Hoover Dam. Nevada/Arizona border 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.

More: www.hooverdam.com.

Gambling

Sign for Binion's Horseshoe. Downtown Las Vegas. The owner of Binion's, Ted Binion, was murdered on September 17, 1998 by Sandy Murphy, Binion's 27-year-old girlfriend and former topless dancer, and her lover, Rick Tabish 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 their odds).

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.

Statue of Benny Binion, founder of the Horseshoe Club casino. Downtown Las Vegas. His son Ted Binion, was murdered on September 17, 1998 by Sandy Murphy, Binion's 27-year-old girlfriend and former topless dancer, and her lover, Rick Tabish 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: http://www.lasvegassun.com/dossier/crime/binion/).

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 fund.


What to See at Night

Paris Casino. The Strip Las Vegas. 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) 488-7111.

If the shows are sold out, you can pay $100+ extra and buy tickets from a broker, such as www.viptickets.com (1-800-328-4253).

If you're on a budget, you can entertain yourself adequately at no cost by visiting

  • 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: www.thedesertinn.com

If you want to be crass and nouveau riche, the current favored casino-hotel is Bellagio: www.bellagiolasvegas.com.

Where to Eat

The Desert Inn and Bellagio have the best fancy restaurants. Luxor has a great Chinese restaurant.

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 area:

Shopping

There is a fancy shopping mall right on the Strip, complete with Neiman-Marcus. The Venetian has a fancy boutique-y shopping mall.

Red Rock Canyon

Forty-five minutes west of Las Vegas...

Tempted to Move to Vegas?

More



These images were scanned to PhotoCD by the good folks at Advanced Digital Imaging. They are copyright 1999 by Philip Greenspun.

Article created 1999

Readers' Comments


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Jason Schock , October 16, 1999; 07:57 A.M.

The Horseshoe is definitely one of the coolest old-skool hotel/casinos. And they're one of the few places that still run single deck blackjack tables. Worth the visit to get a feel of the Old Vegas.

Joe Shipman , December 22, 1999; 06:39 P.M.

I was there a couple of weeks ago. Everything in Las Vegas belongs to one or another big hotel. The airport has separate parking levels and knickknack stores for each hotel. There are slot machines EVERYWHERE. When you go to a hotel you are given the choice of smoking-nonsmoking room and of slot-nonslot room. The hotels all require you to pay in advance (guess why?) and the cash machines give out $100 bills, which I had never encountered before. There is lots of cheap and reasonable-quality Indian jewelry (silver and turquoise) and the food is plentiful, inexpensive, and unpredictable in quality (that is, at a buffet great dishes are next to lousy ones, though I suppose the quality of a given dish at a given restaurant is relatively stable over time). Obesity is very common. Women tend toward the high-maintenance, men pay no attention to their appearance (except that a cowboy hat and boots are de rigeur). The best way to stay in Las Vegas is to spend one day at each of several different big theme hotels, they are fantastic in the literal sense (the desert provided a blank canvas where the most elaborate dream-palaces could be realized). The stage shows are the showbiz pinnacle.

David Bedno , January 06, 2000; 09:44 P.M.

The larger strip casinos, while being paranoid about pictures taken in the table gaming area, don't mind if you take pictures of the more "touristy" areas. "New York, New York" has a great many areas where you can take pictures unmolested. Likely the other casinos are the same.

Your best bet is to just go in and be relaxed about your pictures, and be clear that you're just taking pictures of the casino, and not of the gamblers. Presuming you're on good behaviour, they'll probably just ask you to leave politely.

On the other hand, if you see anything that *says* that you shouldn't take pictures, then don't. But most of the casinos don't have those signs anymore.

Christopher Kirk , March 17, 2000; 09:04 P.M.

Regarding photography in the casinos, I walked straight up to the guards' booth at a few of the big casinos in Vegas and asked outright what I would be allowed to do with my camera. The guards consistently informed me that video cameras were a no-no, but they had no problems with my still photography... so long as, the implication was, I didn't make an ass of myself. I took pictures quite freely and was never hassled, but I made an effort to be discreet (e.g., I didn't aim the big zoom at the high-roller poker table). YMMV.

Kevin Liang , May 22, 2000; 08:42 P.M.

About that comment on why Casinos can boot card counters out on a whim. I think its because they are considered to be private clubs under the law, and thus can refuse service...

Eugene Martinez , March 23, 2001; 11:45 A.M.

Las Vegas is one of those few destinations that I consider an absolute must for all humans to visit. Whatever one's opinions on kitsch, glitz and tack are, this city is absolutely unique and worth seeing at least once in a lifetime.

The Liberace Museum, located in a strip-mall not far from the airport, embodies Vegas in one small building. Exhibits include Liberace's earthmovingly loud costumes and his rhinestone encrusted pianos and Rolls. Although you might be tempted to snicker, please be polite to the nice blue-haired ladies who staff the museum - they are sincere in their reverence for the Candalabred One and don't appreciate weisenheimers.

Of all the big theme-hotels, the one that still inspires me the most, even compared to those huge, expensively gauche ones like The Venetian and Paris, is Circus Circus. A stay at this hotel, with its clown infested wallpaper and carpeting, will make anyone feel like Olivia DeHavilland in The Snake Pit after just a few hours!

The most depressing hotel in Vegas is The Excalibur. The "enchanted castle" theme took a wrong turn somewhere, you feel like a prisoner in the castle's dungeon.

Since a car is essential in Vegas, it's interesting to explore the areas of the city away from the strip. The fastest growing city in the U.S. means that you find neighborhoods under construction at the edge of civilization. The outer frontier of the city literally has the desert as its back yard, complete with tumbleweed. For those of us who live in places where nature is held safely and comfortably at arm's lenght, like New York, this is indeed exotic!

Vegas has a few "antique malls" as well as a very little neighborhood near downtown (Fremont) that specializes in antique stores. What makes them intersting and unique is that Vegas, being a kitsch magnet, offers all sorts of incredibly, pricelessly tacky for sale!

Gambling in legal in the entire state of Nevada, and where there are casinos, there's the potential of encountering fascinating wildlife, unusual local color, mindboggling decor. A road trip anywhere outside of Vegas itself will turn up any sort of intriguing points of interest, from Walt Disney-like desert scenes to washed out, third rate truck stop slot machine parlors.

Whatever one thinks of a place like Las Vegas, it truly is a one-of-a-kind place and well worth exploring!

Jared Haworth , July 30, 2002; 10:43 A.M.

Just a quick update for any of the 'would be' Las Vegas tourists, Philip recommends the Desert Inn as a place to stay. Unfortunately, the DI was closed and partially imploded last year. Plans to build a new Casino named "Le Reve" on the site are underway.

Gabi G. , June 15, 2007; 11:05 P.M.

I lived in Vegas for over 9 years,I feel VERY blessed that I could leave this town two years ago.Maybe great for tourists, singles ( or pretend singles...), party animals or gambling addicts.Horrible place to race children.

Michael Gaskell , July 05, 2007; 04:59 P.M.

Las Vegas Photographer - MG Studio www.mgstudio.net If you're a photographer looking for a unique place to shoot, downtown LV is the spot. I've shot numerous images from downtown that you couldn't find anywhere else. Just checkout my portfolio and tell me what you think... http://www.mgstudio.com/portfolio/ or http://www.mgstudio.net

Mathew Wangrycht , July 09, 2007; 05:11 P.M.

"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 life long resident of Las Vegas. This is one of the worst statements I've ever read.

Bennie Shapiro , October 11, 2007; 10:33 P.M.

Life long Vegas resident here, I took my new camera for a walk down the strip and wasn't too thrilled. Im sure the guy who lives on the beach in Hawaii doesn't wake up and fill his memory card everyday, however, Southern Nevada, has a treasure of great spots near by for picture taking, I'd have to agree that Downtown is the best place for "casino" pictures, but Red Rock is only minutes away, Valley of Fire is far either, these places are some of the best desert spots in the country!

Raymond Banfield , March 22, 2008; 11:36 A.M.

Been in Vegas for over a quarter of a century. Its a fantastic place to live and raise kids. My favorite place to shoot is Red Rock. 15 minute drive from the house. Lots to do here besides gamble and eat the buffets. Come on out and see for yourself...RAY

Robert Johnston , May 25, 2009; 03:00 P.M.

We have been going to Vegas at least four times a year from CA since 1970, picture opportunities abound everywhere. We do not gamble excessively, Limiting our Budget to $20 per trip. We find we can have just as much fun playing nickle or even penny slots until you get bored. Let all the others who gamble and lose pay the freight, to reduce your room and food budget. You cant beat the room prices and food anywhere in the country.

Shoot people on the streets at all times of the day, with the backgrounds of your choice. With all there is to do in Vegas our favorite location is still..... The Valley of Fire State Park.... Go north out I-15 and plan on arriving at about 2-3pm with the sun in the West. You go over the desert, without much color and as you top the entrance the Valley of Fire looks like it IS on Fire. A blaze of color everywhere, and a much greater variation of scenery than there is in Red Rock Canyon.

BUT, especially in March, get out of the car, to walk across the desert. People think there is nothing to see there, but when the desert is in Bloom, there is an endless variety of plant life to photography. The flowers may be from the size of your little fingernail, to maybe an inch or so. Varieties you will not see anywhere else. Colors from off white to brilliant reds, blues, yellows, purples, etc... If you are quiet and move slowly, you may get to see many of the animals which abound in this echo system.


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