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I take back what I said about The Mirage having a good sports book. It was dingy, and seemed darker than usual (even by sports book standards) the evening I was there—to watch the Angels lose Game 4. A group of hookers seemed to be using the book as a staging area of sorts, a place to meet and strategize before taking up positions in other parts of the hotel. The waitress took a long time to bring drinks.

In fact, my whole Mirage experience was somewhat disappointing. It's still a nice hotel, but after twenty years, the place is in need of a makeover. (Note to the owner, MGM-Mirage, Inc: MGM looks great, but don't neglect Mirage.) The buffet and the deli, which used to be very good, are nothing special now. The standard room is spacious, with large bathrooms, but not as luxurious as I remember, and the list of available TV channels is limited. One important item missing from the room in “the hotel that has everything”--a comfortable chair to relax in when you just want to sit and do nothing.

No doubt, my impression of Mirage was colored by my dismal play at blackjack on the first night, when I lost $400 in two hours. A loss of this magnitude in such a short time is not supposed to happen when you play basic strategy at the $10 tables, but it was one of those nights when nothing went right.

Because of my poor start, the rest of the trip was spent at the $5 tables. Turns out, $5 games are getting harder to find at the “name” hotels along the strip, at least at night. MGM, Excalibur, NY/NY, Riviera, and Sahara had a few, but that's about it. Downtown, you can still play $5 blackjack at Horseshoe and Golden Nugget. Hotel California was a pleasant surprise—two decks, with good penetration. Stardust had $5 games, but with lots of gimmicks: single-deck games that pay only 6/5 for blackjack, “Spanish 21” (whatever that is), and automatic shufflers everywhere.

I tried counting cards, without success. I always seemed to lose track half way through the shoe. To be sure, card counting becomes more difficult after you've had a couple of cold beers. But the really hard part about counting is that you feel like you are being watched. You lose concentration. At the $5 tables, you are surrounded by inattentive amateurs making stupid plays. So if you are the rare player who pays attention as the cards are shown, if you give the appearance of actually understanding the rules of the game and the probabilities, well, you are going to stand out like a sore thumb. To be truthful, I doubt a casino will care much if someone is counting at a $5 game. Nevertheless, the fear of detection does creep into your mind, and you lose track of the cards. You can play on without counting. But after awhile it all becomes mechanical and very boring.

The last night was spent at the Rio. The dealers were friendly, and there was a very good Mexican restaurant too. The hard part was getting there. I like to avoid taxis whenever walking is possible, so when the bellman said sure, you can walk to Rio, I gave it a try. I don't recommend it. Turning off the strip, it's a twenty-minute trip along a mostly deserted path, and a little scary at night. On the elevated walkway over I-15, I passed by a couple of unsavory characters, then watched nervously as they reversed course and headed towards me at a fast clip. Did a quick sprint the last quarter mile into Rio and arrived unscathed. Was still a little out of breath when a dealer helpfully suggested that I take the free shuttle bus on the way back.

At this point, I'd pretty much seen enough of Las Vegas. I tossed my copy of the book “Blackjack: Your Way to Riches” into the trash, and vowed never to return. Then something nice happened on the ride to the airport. The taxi was stuck in traffic, and the driver said: “look to your right, roll down the window.”

What a beautiful sight it was, the fountains in front of Bellagio. The white lights were shining bright upon the waters rising high and on into the sky, as the loud speakers played the song “God Bless the USA.” At this time in our nation's history, the scene seemed to resonate with the large crowd that had gathered along the sidewalk to watch the show. People of all ages and nationalities were singing along, and some were moved to tears. I know I was.

Reinvigorated, I decided that a return trip to this town might not be such a bad thing after all. Maybe next time I'll buy tickets to a show or two. Or maybe I'll just watch free shows like the one I saw those few minutes in front of Bellagio, the kind of stuff you don't find anywhere else. Maybe I'll try craps instead of blackjack, or not gamble at all. But I will be back.

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