There’s no better time to roll into Las Vegas than the dead of night.
On that early January evening of 1976 when I arrived here on a lark, I remember being transfixed by the iridescent glow of the valley. Even back then, the neon was bright enough to throw a halo into the darkness.
Whether you’re arriving from north or south, the haunting parabola of Las Vegas lights as you climb over a rise in the highway will warm you like no other vision.
For some, those lights must be heeded like the cry of a siren in the blackness. This city can be too much too fast, and it can destroy the weak or impulsive. But I wasn’t a gambler. I knew how to hoard what little money I had, and I instantly sensed that very night that this was the place for me.
I had been here three or four times before, enough to appreciate that Las Vegas housed a marvelous assortment of Byzantine characters with wild stories that you wouldn’t believe if they happened anywhere else, and that the town had enough ambition and spunk to fuel the most grandiose dreams imaginable.
I bunked with a friend for the first several weeks and started writing about everything I witnessed. Without a clue about how to navigate the proper channels for getting published in the larger magazines, I dashed out submissions and query letters to the New Yorker, Esquire, Reader’s Digest and Sports Illustrated. My attempts either came back unopened or with an impersonal one-sentence rejection that in effect said, “Don’t waste your time and quit cluttering our mailbox.”
As my skill set was as limited as my bank account, I soon decided that my best chance of avoiding welfare was to do some gambling on the golf course. That was the one arena where I’d enjoyed some success through my teen and college years.
My main hangout was Paradise Valley Country Club, a track that has sported more names than Elizabeth Taylor in the ensuing years. At various times, it has been known as Showboat C.C., Indian Wells, Royal Kenfield, and Wildhorse. It’s fitting that the course has had so many different names over the years because the guys I was betting against back then surely operated under a variety of aliases as they floated from one pigeon to the next.
While I was masquerading under a 4 handicap, and averaging even par or slightly better, I was getting plucked cleaner than the eyebrows of a prom queen. One day I shot 69 giving a guy three shots a side. He shot 71. Another time, in a $100 nassau, I went up against a guy who claimed to have a 12 handicap, so I gave him four a side. I shot 32 on the front nine and lost 2 down. First liar always loses.
Now this can be laughed off if you’re flush, but when you’re playing with rent money and unemployment checks, the humor escapes you. As I was grousing one day about how difficult it was to get an honest bet on the links in Las Vegas, a savvy veteran told me, “Son, if you ain’t cheating at least twice a round in this city you’re not trying hard enough.”
I decided from then on that any money games I would arrange had to be without giving strokes. It would be mano a mano, let the better player win.
I heard about a craps dealer at the Stardust who allegedly had a 5-handicap and the whiskey shakes over short putts. He agreed to play me scratch for a Cecil four ways (a $100 nassau with an automatic press on the back nine). I shot 67 and lost $300. I later learned that he’d won two state amateur titles in the Midwest and had modest success on mini-tours in a stint as a professional.
It was obvious that any hustling I did better be to the employment office. Here, valet parking attendants shoot even par, and pit bosses are tuning up for the Senior Tour.
Seeing as I couldn’t win straight up, I decided it was time to paste a happy-face sticker on the side of my golf bag and play for kicks. While the adrenaline rush of gambling is no longer there, the satisfaction of occasionally finding the sweet spot on a four-iron and watching the ball crawl close to the flag is as satisfying as ever.
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