On my last night in Las Vegas, as we finally got back onto the freeway after an extended drive through downtown, my garrulous Albanian taxi driver commanded me to turn my head left. Vegas’s ritzy lights extended to the horizon. “Turn your head right.” Again, stretched to the horizon was the gleaming sprawl; the thick, velvety sky was lit not by stars but blinking neon. How different it was from the perspective afforded just a few days earlier by an airplane window. Flying into Vegas mid morning, I saw scorched desert encircled by hills, the taupe and beige aridity of rocks and sand. That Las Vegas exists at all is staggering; surely Vegas ought to be a mirage, ought to shimmer only momentarily like the illusion of water on a road dazzled by the sun. But there it is, extraordinarily ugly, though somehow touching, evidence of bloody-mindedness, of human will.
This monstrous city, once an oasis on the route from the Spanish colony of New Mexico to Los Angeles and then settled by Brigham Young’s Mormon missionaries, later turning into a popular rest stop on the railroad linking Salt Lake City to southern California, is now home to nearly 1.8 million people and will soon become America’s 20th largest city, a vertiginous expansion driven solely by the casinos. But even so hastily sketched a reference to Las Vegas’s past is irrelevant. When we talk now of going to Las Vegas, we mean the four-mile section of Las Vegas Boulevard South on the city’s fringes known as the Las Vegas Strip, lined by the gaudy super hotels that attract nearly 40 million visitors annually and make $10 billion from gambling alone. The past here, is not so much a foreign country as another planet. In Vegas ersatz nostalgia is the default setting. Everywhere a mythical past is not so much preserved or paid homage to as grotesquely parodied, while real history, even history so recent as to barely qualify as such is unsentimentally expunged. Vegas is in perennial flux. To be in the city is to be caught in a twilight zone of heightened churn.
Who then is the visitor to Vegas? The answer, I suppose, is everyone. At Kennedy airport, I study furtively my fellow passengers. Sitting closest to me is a fantastically obese man, a diabetic former taxi driver from Queens. Squeezed into his chair his flab settles and resettles, spreads like the continental drift. His wife, in a pink sweatshirt and shorts that reveal fleshy calves striated by varicose veins, blue-green like the rivulets of mould in a chunk of Dorset blue vinney cheese, listens with practiced patience to a story he tells a retired bus driver from Brooklyn. “I had, and this is the God’s honest truth, Jackie Kennedy in my cab not once but twice! Can you imagine the coincidence? The second time I picked her up was in front of 1040 Fifth Avenue where she lived, God rest her soul. Before she got out of the cab I said to her, I said, ‘Mrs.Kennedy, this is the second time you’ve ridden in my cab,’ and she looked straight at me and said,” (here he adopts a quavering, reed thin falsetto), “‘Well, in that case I’m sure we’ll meet again. Good things happen in threes.’” I saw him and his wife, and dozens of facsimiles, seated in front of slot machines and queuing for shows throughout Vegas, the town itself a sentimental celebration of the America they once knew, the America of Elvis, of the Rat Pack, of mom and pop stores, widespread prosperity and unbounded optimism.
Typical is the Folies Bergere show I saw at the Tropicana. One of Vegas’s longest-running shows, the current production is a lavishly produced paean to women, which in Vegas parlance means a shorthand account of the way women have dressed through the ages — from the can-can dancers in Belle Epoque music halls, to flappers in 1920s speakeasies, to 1930s Hollywood glamour, the 70s peace and love crowd. The show only loses its way when it addresses contemporary times. Folies Bergere is the classic Vegas confection, an overproduced spectacular that makes up in enthusiasm and desire to please what it lacks in depth and imagination. Vegas shows are lavish and aspire to fantasy but, at least the two I saw, never quite achieve it. Fantasy requires originality but Vegas is about reduction, taking the great or the extraordinary or the beautiful and cutting it down to size.
Take the hangar-like hotels on the Strip. Each hotel is built around a ludicrous theme. So you have hotels like New York, New York featuring a half-size Statue of Liberty and a recreation of the New York skyline. There’s also an Eiffel Tower, Venetian canals and the Piazza San Marco, an Egyptian pyramid and Italy’s Lake District. There are pirate ships, volcanoes, a circus big top, Hollywood kitsch, rock & roll kitsch... I stayed at the Luxor, a mid-price black glass recreation of the Giza pyramid including sphinx, located at the southern end of the Strip. The Luxor, built in 1993, is one of the older theme hotels and is recognizable both for the show-stopping black glass and the light beam that shoots from its apex straight into the sky and can apparently be seen from space. When I first visited Vegas in 1994 — embarrassingly, I was on holiday with my parents and of an age and temperament when I felt compelled to remind my parents that any fun they thought I was having was ironic — the Luxor had a river and guests were ferried to their part of the hotel. There was a river ride too. It was removed, I was told, because guests often saw in the murky tunnels the ghosts of three workers killed during the hotel’s construction.
All the hotels on the Strip contain casinos. Much of Vegas’s appeal comes from its rakish, Sin City past. There is for the stolidly middle class tourist a vicarious frisson in imagining himself a part of outlaw Vegas, a desert outpost for gangsters, high rollers, card sharps and femme fatales. Of course, that corrupt Vegas, so colourfully limned in Scorsese’s Casino, that Vegas defined by Bugsy Siegel, the famous New York mobster, is now run by mammoth corporations.
The Bugsy Siegel’s have been replaced by the Steve Wynns. Wynn went from owning the Golden Nugget, the downtown casino built in 1946 which in Las Vegas terms practically makes it Stonehenge, to owning the Mirage with its absurd ‘volcano’ and the luxurious Bellagio credited with kick-starting the revival of Vegas in the last half-decade or so; his new venture, the Wynn Las Vegas which opened just over a year ago, cost $2.7 billion, about a billion dollars more than it will cost to rebuild the World Trade Center. Wynn himself has become a billionaire and famous for his art collection. Not knowing much about property developers, I first heard of Wynn late last year when I read a story in the New Yorker about him damaging with his elbow a Picasso painting, Le Rêve, which he owned and was about to sell for $139 million. It’s a story that to some is analogous with his blunderbuss approach to development in Vegas, though it cannot seriously be argued that subtlety and respect for local cultural history has ever been a Vegas trait.
One romantic Vegas tradition threatened by the encroaching ubiquity of the narcoticising slot machine but now undergoing a renaissance is poker. The popularity of Internet poker has attracted an entirely new audience to the game, which the poet and critic Al Alvarez wrote was “at its highest level as sophisticated as chess”. The Internet poker player emboldened by his online wins has also swelled the ranks of players entering professional tournaments, including the showpiece World Series of Poker which concludes with a $2 million Texas hold ’em ‘Tournament of Champions’. The World Series of Poker, now held at the Rio, began in 1970 at Binion’s Horseshoe, the downtown casino which was the only one in town to permit no-limit games. I went downtown to visit the Binion’s poker room. Crippled by the popularity of the Strip, downtown Las Vegasfinally reacted a couple of years ago by creating the Fremont Street Experience, a pedestrian mall with live music, a nightly fireworks show and lights that sparkle just as brightly as on the Strip. Downtown Vegas, with its bars, strip clubs and casinos for serious gamblers, is also considerably less staid than the Disneyfied Strip.
At Binion’s, close to the Glitter Gulch, a cheerfully seedy strip club, I sat down at a poker table with a diverse group of players. There were fresh-faced frat boys, a woman in a T-shirt that read “I’m the one with the pussy, I’ll make the decisions”, a man in lime green suit, fedora and winkle-pickers, middle-aged guys with potbellies and dapper older men with young, bottle-blonde mini-skirted consorts. Poker is an instantly absorbing game and it was easy to tell the sharks from the suckers. One of the older men, whose girlfriend approved every winning hand by murmuring “that’s my daddy”, told me that what separated a player from a pretender was a player’s attitude to money. “A player has no respect for money. Most people get nervous when money’s on the line but a shark can only focus when money’s involved. A shark, who’s a horrible golfer, given the correct number of strokes, will beat a club pro if there’s $10,000 on the line.” Poker at the highest level is a game of imagination and the best players at the table were uncanny in their ability to read people’s hands, using just instinct and an eye for ‘tells’, the nervous tics that give away what a poker player is thinking.
Poker remains an apt metaphor for Las Vegas. Luck is important in poker, as in life, but nerve and endurance separates the winners from the losers. The game’s ruthlessness is the city’s ruthlessness. Las Vegas too is winner-take-all, a truth that is all too easy to ascertain. Drive a hundred yards or so past the vibrant Fremont Street nightlife and the suddenly dark, dingy streets are crowded with improvised, makeshift rag-shelters under which crouch Vegas’s many thousands of homeless. I saw one woman, clutching a brown paper bag, her face blowsy with drink, position herself right on the edge of the Fremont Street Experience and ask passersby for money. She wouldn’t cross the Rubicon though and the revelers, staring up at a sky streaked pink and red with light, were unheeding.
Flights to Vegas can be caught from most US cities. Check online for the cheapest fares. The earlier you book, the better the deal. I flew nonstop from New York’s John F. Kennedy airport on US Airways to Las Vegas and returned on Delta. The flight cost $588.
Where to stay:
The gigantic resorts on the Strip are the most popular choices. I stayed at the Luxor, a mid-priced Strip hotel with the usual amenities, vast swimming pool, spa, whirlpool and a variety of rooms. Rates midweek can start from as low as $70 per night. On the weekend, the same room will start at $380 The newest luxury hotel on the Strip is Wynn Las Vegas (from $399; . MGM Grand (from $110; with more than 5,000 rooms, is the world’s largest hotel. A room at the Sahara can be had for as little as $49.50. Other famous hotels include Tropicana, Caesars Palace, the Bellagio, the Mirage, the Venetian, the Riviera and the Flamingo. Staying downtown, off the Strip, where it’s more interesting, is a good idea. On a weekday the atmospheric Golden Nugget costs about $95.
What to do:
obviously, gamble. For the echt experience visit the casinos downtown, particularly Binion’s Horseshoe (The casinos on the Strip are really just glorified slot machine parlours. If you’re reluctant to leave the Strip, catch several of the shows at the various hotels. Cirque du Soleil seems to have colonised Vegas. There is a whole range from stand-up comedy to adult revues to magic shows to classic Vegas variety shows. Shows cost between $40 and $110. When I was there both Celine Dion and Elton were on Vegas runs.