1. An Earful of Cider
These women weren’t dressed like your typical prostitutes. They were dressed like prostitutes who, for Halloween, had decided to go out as slutty hookers. You name the prostitute cliché and these two were on it like leopard print on a miniskirt. Fishnet stockings? Check. Thigh-high leather boots? Check. Sophia Loren eye shadow? Check.
They were sitting at a table for four and the other two seats were free, so I asked them whether my mom and I could join them for dinner.
“Of course, sweetie,” the blond one said, mentally preparing herself for what was sure to be the weirdest request of her professional career.
We set our Panda Express trays down and my mom got the ball rolling:
“Where are you nice young ladies from?” she asked.
“We’re both from Oakland, but we met on the Strip,” the redhead said. “How about you?”
“Michigan, then Chicago,” I told her.
“Yeah, you seem like a midwesterner,” she replied. “Well, be careful who you trust out here. Especially on the Strip. Everybody’s working an angle.”
She delivered the line with no apparent irony.
“What brought you to Vegas?” I asked the blonde.
“I needed a change. Needed to get away from some things. Plus I’ve always loved it here.”
“I’ve got two kids,” the redhead said. “Two-year-old and a five-year-old. This is where the business is, so this is where I am.”
“And how is business?” I asked.
“Bad,” she replied. “Economy—you know? Everybody’s talking about ‘bailout’ this and ‘bailout’ that. All I know is I can’t get a [slang term for a unit of currency] for a [slang term for a sex act].”
“That’s terrible!” my mom said, leaving it unclear as to whether the terrible thing was the prostitute’s vulgar language or the fact that the economy was so bad that she couldn’t get a whichever for a whatever.
I told the hookers that I needed a change, too, that I loved Las Vegas, too, that I planned to spend a couple of weeks in the city, and that I planned to write about it.
The redhead said, “I should write a book. I’ve got more stories than everybody else in this city put together.”
“Well, you have to tell me,” I said. “Once my mom’s gone, I mean. Give me your number so we can meet up sometime and you can, yeah, tell me about … your business.”
“Sure, sweetie. So I can”—air quotes here—“tell you about my business.”
“Really,” I said. “I mean, I’m not interested in doing business.”
She shot me a look of offense.
“No … not … it’s not that I don’t think you’re attractive. That’s not … I just meant that I’m not in the market—”
“Not in the market…?”
“I’m not gay. It’s not that. I just want to talk about—”
“Here’s my number.”
The prostitutes excused themselves and walked out of the Palms Resort & Casino food court. I watched them make friends with some guy at the adjacent casino bar, and within a minute his arms were around their waists. Within two minutes, all three of them were throwing their heads back and laughing, looking as if they were being filmed for a Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) TV spot.
The LVCVA is the group responsible for the “What happens here stays here” ad campaign, which centers around a handful of TV commercials promoting explicit lying.1 Most people know it as the “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” campaign, but from a business point of view, the point is, most people know it.
When city advertising executives discuss what makes the “What happens” ads so successful, they say things like, “The beauty of the ‘What happens’ campaign is that it means different things to different people. It can mean everything from going to a risqué revue show to splurging on a fancy dinner.” That characterization is as deceitful as the ad campaign itself; the “What happens” ad campaign’s implication is crystal clear: If you come to Las Vegas and gamble away your children’s college fund and cheat on your wife with, say, two prostitutes you meet at the Palms food court, the city’s tourism board will credit your bank account and fly you home in a time machine so you can un-cheat on your wife and preserve the sanctity of your marriage. That message hits home with a lot of people; every year 40 million visit Las Vegas, and do their best to hang on to their money in the process.
Not all succeed—I saw that much firsthand, after I’d left the prostitutes and my mom back at the Palms.
Between Monte Carlo and New York New York, I came across a group of twenty or so tourists gathered in a tight cluster around a stack of milk crates. It was a three-card monte game. Now, two years ago, if you had told me you’d seen a real three-card monte game on Las Vegas Boulevard—not just a gambling demonstration performed by a magician—I’d have called you a liar. I’d have told you that three-card monte games exist only in outdated movies in which fast-talking men in bowler hats and high trousers recite antiquated poems that include phrases like “Hey Diddle Diddle” and “Hanky Poo.”
The operator, a forty-something black guy wearing a Mighty Ducks jersey and Breitling watch—possibly a Brotling or a Breitline—was quick with his hands and with his words. He was friendly and funny. And I suppose he needed to be; he was taking everybody’s money. Well, everybody except some white guy with long sideburns and a fraternity T-shirt.
Frat boy, I deduced, was a shill. He was working with the operator, and his job was to convince passersby that the game was winnable. The difference in age and race was no accident.
I stood behind the operator and watched the game for fifteen or twenty minutes. These guys were pros. At one point, the operator turned his back to the impromptu table he had constructed from two milk crates and a cardboard box top and asked me if I wanted to move to the front to get a better view. While he was saying this, an Asian lady wearing a Mandalay Bay T-shirt and Mandalay Bay baseball cap reached forward and bent up the upper-right corner of the “money card.” The queen. The bend was slight but unmistakable. The operator turned back to the table, picked up the cards, but failed to notice the bend. He mixed the three cards and then asked for bets.
“Who’s gonna bet? Someone’s gonna bet. One bet to the highest bidder.”
The Asian lady slapped a fifty in front of the center card, the one with the bend in its upper right-hand corner.
“Fifty dollars bet. Anybody want to bet more?”
Everybody wanted to bet more, including a dad who reached into his wallet and pulled out a stack of twenties.
“I got one forty on the middle card,” he said, laying seven bills on the table.
“Sorry, lady,” the operator said as he returned the Asian woman’s fifty. “You know the rules: only one bet at a time, to the highest bidder.”
She protested—in Japanese, I think—but to no avail.
“If you don’t like it, take your money inside. They’ll let you bet however much you want on whatever you want. Okay, we got one forty on the middle card. Any higher bets?”
I pulled out my wallet. I had more than three hundred dollars in it.
But I also had a piece of advice I’d picked up from my high school’s production of Guys and Dolls. The advice comes from Sky Masterson and it was passed on to Nathan Detroit, a gambler who wanted to bet Masterson that Mindy’s restaurant sold more strudel than cheesecake:
One of these days in your travels, a guy is going to show you a brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is not yet broken. This man is going to offer to bet you that he can make the jack of spades jump out of the deck and squirt cider in your ear. Now son, do not bet this man, for sure as you stand there, you’re going to wind up with an earful of cider.
The moral is that if a bet seems too good to be true, it probably is. I knew this advice, yet I was still very tempted to bet. I had the money, I had the edge, and I knew exactly where the queen was.
It was on the left, not in the middle.
You see, I knew that the Asian tourist in the Mandalay Bay shirt and hat wasn’t really a tourist; she was another shill. I knew that the bent corner was part of the act, that the operator had removed the bend from the queen with his right pinky and that he put another one in the four of clubs by pressing it against the table.
“Any more bets? Any more bets?”
I stuck my pinky in my ear to check for cider and then returned my money to my pocket. The operator turned over the center card and showed that it was the four of clubs. The queen was on the left. I’d been right.
Still, I probably made the right choice in not betting. Even if I did throw my cash next to the queen, it’s unlikely I would have walked away three hundred dollars richer. The operator probably would have picked up the two of clubs, the card that hadn’t been bent at any point, and used it to execute a Mexican turnover, a move in which you use one card to turn over a second and switch the two in the process. And what would I have said in response? “That’s a Mexican turnover”? Oh, I’m sure that would have persuaded him. If I had thrown my money down and turned over the card myself, he would have said that I’d broken the rules of the game by touching the cards, and that the violation invalidated my bet.
The operator scooped up the midwestern dad’s twenties and resumed the game … until he got the signal that the cops were coming. The signal didn’t come from either of the men I’d pegged as lookouts. It came from one of the guys who populate the Strip handing out advertisements for escort services.2 The operator slipped the cards in his pocket, tossed the box top in a nearby trash can, and kicked the milk carts toward the street.
The Asian tourist walked north toward Monte Carlo; the operator walked south toward New York New York; frat guy pulled out his cell phone and started a conversation with his imaginary stockbroker. I tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Looks like today’s your lucky day.”
Terrible opening line. I sounded just like a cop.
“Guess so,” he said, and then he returned to his imaginary call.
“Well, I’m sorry to interrupt your call”—I paused and looked at him in a way that was meant to convey that I knew the call was fake (if I were a cop, I’d know how to execute this look perfectly)—“but I wanted to talk to you about the game.”
“I’m telling you, you can beat that game if you watch the guy carefully.”
It was a stock line. He’d been saying it again and again like a broken record player for the past twenty minutes.
“I was watching carefully. I’m a magician. That’s why I want to talk with you about your game. So how long have you been out here?”
He folded up his phone and returned it to his pocket (without even saying good-bye).
“No, I mean, how long have you been out here?”
“If you’re being serious about the magic thing,” he told me, “then let me give you some advice:”—bet it doesn’t involve cider—“Go away.”
The real cop wore a yellow shirt and had a belt with two walkie-talkies. He might have been a casino security guard, come to think of it. But either way, he didn’t look twice at the cardboard box top in the trash can or the milk crates near the street. He was just passing by, not prowling for monte games.
“Where you from?” I asked the shill.
“Where are you from?” he replied.
“Michigan, then Chicago.”
“Where in Chicago?” he asked.
“I’m from the Southside.”
The shill looked around, presumably to see whether any of his partners were in sight.
“I’ve been doing this for a couple months,” he told me. “On and off.”
Apparently the Chicago connection did the trick.3
“I owned a construction company back in Chicago. I employed five to ten guys, depending on the season, on the job. Then the economy turned around and there were no construction jobs. So, I came to Vegas to look for work, but there was none here either, turned out.”
For a while everybody thought Las Vegas was immune to the recession. But when Boyd Gaming Corporation abandoned its plans to build the five-thousand-room mega-resort known as Echelon (after spending $500 million on concrete and steel), people weren’t so sure. And a couple months later, after Las Vegas Sands Corporation nixed its $600 million condominium project, locals got the message: The recession had hit Vegas, too.
“So the other guys are other out-of-work construction workers?” I asked.
“No, just met them here, randomly.”
“That’s a stupid question. And you know it’s a stupid question. This is a shit gig. Just a matter of time before we get busted. Some of these guys have been busted before. But yeah, it’d be a great gig if I could do it forever without getting caught. Only thing that stops people from taking other people’s money is the fear of getting caught. I’m going back to Chicago as soon as I get the chance.”
“Me, too,” I lied. As I told the hookers, I love Las Vegas.
Now, I’m no psychologist—this according to my undergraduate psychology professors—but my love of Las Vegas probably also has something to do with my first experiences in the city. My dad was one of the first people to read Edward Thorp’s Beat the Dealer, and was quick to teach himself how to count cards. He took my mom and me to Las Vegas every year. Caesars Palace put us up in big suites, comped our meals, and gave us tickets to see Siegfried & Roy and Lance Burton.
Back on the Strip, the three-card monte operator returned and restacked his milk crates.
“Back to work,” the shill said. “And just so you know, I’m the friendly one. These other guys aren’t going to talk to you. Or, if they do, if they’re friendly, it’s ’cause they want something from you. And you don’t want that. You saw our show. You saw our moves. So if I were you, I’d probably head somewhere else at this point.”
At that point, I headed elsewhere, and as I did, I wondered how I’d gone from studying for the Illinois Bar Exam to cavorting with Las Vegas prostitutes and con men in such a short period of time.
Well, let me tell you how.…
Copyright © 2010 by Rick Lax