Madness In Vegas

March Madness is dramatic enough with nothing but emotion riding on the games. It's a purer madness with money on everything, and in Las Vegas.
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I know, you know, because it's what the city advertises on television: Las Vegas is a town built on excess, decadence, delirium. From the time you arrive until you limp bleary-eyed onto a red-eye flight back to whatever normalcy comprises your life, you are inundated with a feverish assault on the senses. The basic operating model of any Vegas casino is one of disorientation. It surrounds you with promises of fortune and unprecedented, never-to-be-repeated experiences. The idea is to yield to it.

The places themselves border on being impossible to navigate. The bells and whistles and steroidal beef and fake tits and ‘free’ drinks—these are the ways Vegas keeps you there, gets you to focus on the business of letting go. Everything else disappears, even and maybe especially the weather. Recaps of any given vacation generally include a banal description of the weather; with Vegas, the assumption is that the weather is air-conditioned. The rise and fall of the sun has nothing to do with it at all. It does not do Vegas justice to simply say it is open 24 hours a day, or that it never stops. It just always goes.

It is no surprise, then, that the perfect Las Vegas wedding is that which tied the city to the overwhelming first days of March Madness. This is, after all, the sporting event that comes closest to matching the constant barrage on the body and mind that one identifies with Vegas itself. The first weekend rolls out an effectively relentless 48 games in 96 hours.

Games, and accordingly betting opportunities, pile on each other, until they’re barely distinguishable. For my girlfriend Jamie and I, both of us obsessed with college basketball, a trip to Las Vegas on this particular weekend was a long-held dream. That it came true does not make it seem much more real. Here is what happened.

Thursday

“This is a great ticket,” I said to no one in particular. I was with hundreds of others in the ballroom at Downtown Vegas’ newest hotel, the D. The space had been hastily arranged to provide a viewing area for guests, since the D’s sportsbook was a tiny little thing that would otherwise have been quickly overrun. I scanned our picks again as Jamie arrived with a couple of beers. We were confident, ready. Having arrived late the previous night, armed with statistical breakdowns of the first day’s action, we’d placed all our bets before the first game tipped. All that was left was to watch.

Quickly, it became apparent that this was not our scene. Having come expecting to be surrounded by grizzled vets of the betting circuit puffing on cheap cigars, we instead found ourselves surrounded by frat boys and obnoxious alums. By late morning we were treated to a nearby group of middle-aged Wisconsin Badgers foisting their crotches into the unresponsive face of a friend who was already slumped over and passed out. They only broke from their Instagramming of this high comedy to hit on the Captain Morgan reps passing out samples of white rum and coke. The sea of team gear that inundated our peripheral vision made it clear that this annual event was not only a mecca for sports gamblers, but a bizarre homecoming weekend for thousands of people desperate to reclaim their youth and brag about the time they heckled Bobby Hurley from the student section at Wake Forest.

Our losses mounted quickly. Cincinnati, Florida, Oklahoma, Louisville. It was easier to blame the bad start on the energy of the place than the disturbing notion that perhaps we knew nothing at all. Mere hours in, our energy was sapped. Jamie picked up the drinking; her quotient of shakes of the head increased exponentially. Conversation dwindled, save for the odd jab at each other regarding who was in a worse mood. Eventually, I tried to rally us with a speech. “We’re here! We’re in Vegas! Who cares if we lose, let’s just have a good time!” But the words couldn’t hide the truth; a loss is a loss is a loss.

After a brief spat about the dangers of live in-game betting, we stumbled to Fremont Street in an attempt to gather ourselves. IT only made things worse. We were serenaded by a crooner from Tempe who looked like a coked out Guy Fieri. “Let me hear you if you’re here for March Madness!” he bellowed, and was met by the obligatory shouts of affirmation from pedestrians that were. He talked of his love for the Arizona State Seminoles, who are in fact, the Arizona State Sun Devils. A drunk woman danced alone, until a man, confusing her for a prostitute, shoved a couple fives in her face. She stopped dancing and pointed for him to go away. “Buzzkill for her,” I said. Only it was me who was confused. She was instructing him to put the cash away and pay her over by the taco stand. Just another thing we got wrong.

As we went up to our room at the end of the night, a child became convinced he was choking on a sip of Gatorade. The mother panicked, and some dude leapt out of the elevator to deliver a poorly-executed Heimlich. Panic subsided. An older gentleman on an oversized electric scooter forced his way into the elevator. When the door wouldn’t close he angrily rose from the scooter, as if he’d miraculously overcome paralysis, and dragged it to a necessary angle. Something about this place was off. We had to get the hell out of there.

Friday

When you’re gambling on anything, how you start is critical. On that first day, if we’d put a couple of wins on the board, it's rainbows and fucking sunshine. You get that warm feeling of playing with house money; you get a little loose. But, when you take a loss out of the gates, you’re climbing just to get back to where you started. This quiet desperation dictates the way you talk, think, bet, eat. A meal at the acclaimed tapas joint becomes a hot dog in the food court, just to be safe.

But, hey, it was still early. Besides, we were moving to the MGM Grand, and its pool had a fucking lazy river, so why get too down? After dropping our bags at a frankly anarchic bell desk, we made our way to the sportsbook. Before we could even see the massive wall of televisions, we were met by a wall of bettors. The line was hundreds deep, everyone peering over betting slips and discussing their next move. We settled in for the early games at a place called Centrifuge, which was not nearly as douchey as its name or lighting suggested.

Patrons sipped on Bloody Marys and talked about their miracle win or unbelievable loss from the night before. It is a testament to those who make the betting lines that the outcome of every wager still somehow feels as though it is tinged with the supernatural. We sat beside Steve, a Vegas vet from Michigan, who’d been coming for this weekend as long as he could remember. We calmly exchanged pleasantries until Chris Webber flashed across a television plugging Burger King.

“Fuck Webber,” lamented Steve. “Ruined our program. We had to take the damn banners down. There’s no reason for him to say all those years later that he got money.” Steve fairly quickly announced himself as the kind of conversationalist that was best agreed with, no matter what he had to say. “Just so many problems. These kids shouldn’t be able to leave after a year. Guys like that. At least they make it. Need to stay for two, so they can get more education and not end up on the streets.” It would have been easy to pinpoint the obvious flaws in the man’s logic, but there was no reason to bother. Steve was not there to listen. Steve was there to bet. We wished him luck and moved on.

It’s in Vegas, on this giddy long weekend, that the full picture of college sports exploitation becomes clear. Steve believed that "guys like that" owed something to the school he so loved, and that they should be thankful to do four semesters instead of two before finally getting paid what they were worth; he was certain that fans were owed their banners and their history. But, upon your first glimpse of the huge projector screens running alongside flashing betting lines at one of Vegas’ biggest sportsbooks, it’s easy to see that for many, the players are even less than that. They’re number generators, a multifaceted Keno board with human beings on it.

An example of this phenomenon played out in the Virginia Commonwealth-Stephen F. Austin match-up. The night games had come quickly, and we’d made a bit of a comeback. Stephen F. Austin needed to cover (they were getting 6 points) for us to get back to even. The game itself was a classic first round bout—an upstart program from a tiny conference surprised the favorite early, jumping out to a big lead. VCU regrouped at halftime and started to roll; Stephen F. Austin wilted under the ceaseless pressure of VCU’s famous "havoc" defense. In a flash, they were down 11 and we were doomed. But, the underdogs had one last run in them, clawing back to within four with ten seconds to go. It was a great game, which no one—least of all us—was really enjoying as such.

At this point, everyone that had bet on the game simultaneously switches allegiances. We needed these kids, who’d been both so good and so good to us, to lay down. Those with VCU, who hated everything about the effort the underdogs had given, now needed them to provide a miracle four-point play. Which, because it’s Vegas and because it’s March Madness, is precisely what they did. The place erupted, split down the middle between cheers and groans. The numbers had turned everything upside down, until Stephen F. Austin restored order by covering in overtime. The game, which is still maybe the most exciting game of this tournament, was the one that most effectively reminded everyone that, ultimately, only the number matters.

Enjoying something despite its obvious corruption and moral failings is something we first-worlders have turned into a sort of art. There is no one betting on college basketball games that does not also know about the absurd, contradictory, mostly loathsome nature of the NCAA. The bogus amateurism, the desperate manufacture of history and tradition to distract from the wild exploitation in the present tense, its use of unpaid labor to garner billions of dollars in television money. But, as good Americans, we push it out. We push it down, because despite it all, there’s nothing like seeing whether a last-second prayer will be answered. I cashed our ticket with glee. We were in business.

Saturday

There is a strange behavioral norm at an overcrowded sportsbook that allows for rampant, obsessive seat-saving. Bettors arrive hours before the games start and carve out a slice of territory, which they then defend with all the zeal of the Minuteman Project. As such, we were seatless, and wandered over to the bar at the back, where we ordered a couple of tequila oranges and leaned into a small pocket of space.

Looking over the scene, one sees that this protectionism facilitates the formation of mini-communities. Strangers ask other strangers to look out for their spot, and soon they are friends, sharing tips and wisdom, pulling together to try to take down the house. From our vantage point, we felt somewhat on the outside, at least until we noticed that our own such grouping was taking shape.

First, there was Keith, a gregarious former NFL player who, like us, had taken Louisville. The Cardinals covered and Keith told the bartender to take care of us from there on out. Then there was someone we came to call Florida Guy, an SEC loyalist in his sixties, who was convinced that any woman who spoke to him was desperate for sexual congress. Chuck, who like Jamie, hailed from Montana, soon joined in, and we came to agree that we should all bet on Villanova.

There is something about gambling that speeds up feelings of togetherness. Lord knows it's not much deeper than this, but in risking money, you suddenly have something in common with strangers that goes beyond dialogue. It’s really not even the money so much as it’s the risk. Our meager bet and the thousands of dollars Keith had on the line were treated with the same seriousness; our loss was treated with precisely the same sympathy.

The final piece to our puzzle was a sharp called Ed. Even before Jamie and I had met him, we’d been regaled with stories of his huge success on Thursday, followed by his bizarre, and somewhat worrying disappearance. Security came by to ask the others if they’d seen Ed. With that much money in his pocket, the thinking went, Ed might have been in danger.

Instead, Ed told us when he finally emerged, “it’s just that I’m an idiot.” He’d somehow ended up downtown and “all the sudden it was Saturday night.” He introduced himself as he nestled into the bar stool that had remained empty the whole time.

When Villanova lost we were back in the hole. Keith told Jamie to tell him how much we were down and that he’d take care of it, but she didn’t feel right taking his money; this frankly remains a mystery to me. With the games over, and only one day to go, we asked Ed for advice.

“I love Kansas. Love Wiggins,” I offered.

“Stanford. Take Stanford big. Kansas is not what you think they are.”

“What about Creighton? Love McDermott.”

“Baylor. Bet it all on Baylor. That’s the worst matchup on the board.”

“Don’t know if I can do it,” I said as Jamie agreed with everything Ed had to say.

“Then you’ll lose.”

Sunday

I couldn’t do it. And I lost. I apologized profusely to Jamie for my inability to pull the trigger. Despite all the warnings, all the matchup problems, the coaching disparities, I just wanted my favorite teams, my favorite players to win. I still cared about the outcome of the games, and I duly paid the price. Ed shook his head and Keith got some drinks.

We’d reached our limit and taken a beat for the weekend. The drinks kept coming and our betting options dwindled, which was probably a good thing. UCLA, however, was still on the board. We loved UCLA, but our only parlay with them on had already lost. Ed told us to bet it all. I made a drunken dash to the ATM for one last withdrawal. UCLA romped over Stephen F. Austin, the weary Cinderella who’d saved us the first time round. We were even.

As we said our goodbyes, there was no exchange of phone numbers or emails. We’d spent the better part of 36 hours with these gentlemen, hugged, yelled, lost our shirts and miraculously gotten them back, but there was no sense of time in the friendships. No need for continuation. Just a half-hearted, “If you’re ever in L.A.” from Keith. If we end up in Vegas next year, I sense we’ll know just where to find them.


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