The Rise of the Gaming-Tech Corridor in Vegas Seven

This week in Vegas Seven, I’ve got a short piece about why BMM’s move to the gaming tech corridor is significant:

The gaming-testing lab BMM International announced in late May that it was moving its world headquarters from its current Eastern Avenue digs to the south-of-McCarran industrial area that’s become the city’s gaming-tech corridor—an area whose very existence defines the way Las Vegas and gambling are changing.

via The Rise of the Gaming-Tech Corridor | Vegas Seven.

As you’ll see from the full article, this move speaks to the bigger shift that, I think, will profoundly change Las Vegas over the next few decades.

Live After Death in Vegas Seven

I’ve got the cover story in this week’s Vegas Seven. It’s a piece that I worked on a quite a while under the astute editorial eye of Greg Blake Miller, in which I come to grips with why people come to Vegas to see dead people:

The Mob Museum’s Feb. 14 debut was another reminder of Las Vegas’ longstanding penchant—one might even call it a skill—for raising the dead and recycling the past. People used to joke that Vegas was where show business careers went to die, though just as often it’s been the place where, having died, they rise again in tribute shows and improbable cults of personality. Sometimes it feels as if the Rat Pack really is back. In a way, there’s not much separating the stage icons who have returned from the dead to entertain Las Vegas audiences from the rubbed-out wiseguys whose careers the Mob Museum chronicles. Both return from a troubled reality to fulfill our longing for—or at least fascination with—a burnished past. Michael Jackson might not have had a made man’s swagger, and Bugsy Siegel surely never moon-walked, but the two have this in common: They’re worth more to Las Vegas dead than alive

via Live After Death | Vegas Seven.

I haven’t gotten the chance to do much of this kind of writing before. Don’t get me wrong, I like the more straight-forward “telling people’s stories” material I usually do, but I wanted to try something more ambitious where I got to use some of my more academic analytic sensibilities but for a broader audience.

A few things inspired me to write this piece: the macabre attractions at Luxor, which got me thinking about Iron Maiden’s Live After Death; the Michael Jackson billboard, which reminded me of Live After Death’s cover; Elvis impersonators; the fizzling of “Viva Elvis;” and the obsession with mobsters.

It’s fun to be able to bounce from H. P. Lovecraft to mobsters to Frank Sinatra to Michael Jackson and back again, and close with a reference to It’s a Wonderful Life. And that’s just the first paragraph. I also got to make an Anthrax reference, probably my first in print, and even worked Bob Stupak into the mix along the way.

Hopefully this gets a good reception and I get to do more of it in the future. Thanks for reading it.

Something that never found a home

Going through my “My Documents” folder, I happened across something I wrote just after the Aria opening. It’s pointless little anecdote about my completely inconsequential run-in with Cesar Pelli.

This was back when I still had the energy to write things on spec, which is broke writer-speak for “no one’s hired me to do this, but I’m vaguely hopeful that I can sell it somewhere, so I’m going to write it anyway.” Needless to say, I never found a place for it, which happens distressingly often when you write things on spec. Knowing this, I thought it would be a great idea to write my next book without a contract in hand, which is why I’ve got a nearly-complete manuscript and no contract today.

Anyway, I thought some people might get a kick out of traveling back in time to mid-December, 2009, when the sky seemed the limit for CityCenter and I was still trying to figure out what it all meant. So without further ado, I present something that has finally found a home.

Brush with Greatness

Before I tell you what happened that afternoon in Las Vegas, I should make one thing clear: I’m supposed to know what I’m talking about. I’ve written three books about gambling history, including one that traces the evolution of casinos on the Las Vegas Strip as essentially suburban institutions. I blog on the subject just about daily, turn out a few articles each month, and spend a big part of my day just talking to people about the context of the latest casino news. If there’s one thing I should be qualified to talk about, it’s casinos.

Yet a moment at the opening of the latest Strip casino, Aria, left me at a loss for words.

Aria’s the centerpiece of CityCenter, a multi-billion dollar development that brought notable architects from around the world to Las Vegas, was a chance for me to get a personal perspective on the history I study as it unfolds. It’s like a Western historian getting the chance to tag along with Lewis and Clark.

So as I explored Aria ten hours before it opened to the public, I was mentally writing an article for a local weekly about how the resort puts a fresh spin on the casino hotel, hoping that I could avoid the term “paradigm shift,” at least for the first few paragraphs.
Pausing for a second in the main lobby, across from the Maya Lin sculpture that hovers behind the front desk, the ceiling seemed farther away than anything I’d ever seen in a casino.

Aria plays with volume, light, and space, I wrote in my mental notebook, in ways that no other Las Vegas casino has to date. It’s a decisive break from the reigning Strip design philosophy, which is to cocoon the visitor in comfort and sensation from the moment he steps inside. It’s not afraid of letting the outside in, of drawing energy from the surrounding streetscape.

We’d been told that CityCenter couldn’t be explained, just experienced. Yet it’s precisely my job to explain things like what makes the latest casino resort to open different from the dozens that have come before. And I thought was doing a bang-up job.

Then out of the corner of my eye I spotted architect Cesar Pelli, whose firm Pelli Clarke Pelli designed Aria. He was walking across the lobby in an impeccably understated suit, looking not merely distinguished and not yet venerable, but positively august. This was a man who’d command respect anywhere, let alone in the lobby of a building that his team had designed.

Pelli, the former dean of the Yale University School of Architecture, has created some of the best-known buildings in the world, including the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur. He’s received more than 200 awards, including the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal. There are few architects more accomplished.

I turned to face him. He made eye contact as he drew closer.

And I, who was in the process of writing word after grandiloquent word that put this significant addition to the Strip into its historical context? What did I say to the man who deserved to hear it?

“It’s incredible.”

I got a polite nod and a smile, a fair trade for a vague compliment.

Where was all of my measured prose about light and volume? If I didn’t want to run the risk of sounding like a pretentious jerk, why not just “I’ve been in a lot of casinos, and this doesn’t look like anything else I’ve seen? Great job!”

It’s because I realized that I, as far as Mr. Pelli could tell was just some guy in a thirty-dollar tweed jacket, wasn’t in much of a position to pass judgment on one of the world’s most eminent living architects. If I tried to explain that I had something in the way of qualifications to assess his team’s creation, I’d sound like I was more interested in impressing him than expressing gratitude. Not wanting to do either, I took the easy way out: a simple, barely articulate expression of amazement.

“Really. It’s just …incredible.”

He allowed me another smile, as if indulging a child, and left me again explaining the building to myself.

… and with its astonishing views that juxtapose taxis swirling around the central traffic circle, the freeway and streets to the west, and the Spring Mountains in the distance, Aria is the perfect distillation of the urban West. It’s an ambitious, transformational….

Pondering life after football in Vegas Seven

My final bit of writing for this week’s Vegas Seven is a Green Felt Journal column about the impact of a potential NFL work stoppage, exclusive of any lost gaming revenue. Here, I’m looking at how the locals would be impacted:

That a work stoppage will hurt the casinos of Las Vegas—particularly on the Strip—is hardly mysterious. Even though football betting doesn’t generate a ton of revenue for casinos (less than $26 million for the Strip in 2010 for both college and pro football), it’s an amenity that draws a relatively free-spending crowd. The casinos will be just as sad to see the sportsbook big screens tuned into bowling on Sunday as anyone.

via Tavern owners ponder life after football | Vegas Seven.

So this week you got about 3,000 words of mine to read in Vegas Seven, should you choose to do so. Add a few Two Way Hard Three pieces and the Las Vegas Business Press column, and that’s a respectable chunk of reading.

And I’m not taking the weekend off, so expect more next week. And the week after that. The sad thing is, if I had more time, I’d have even more to write about–there’s so much going on.

Response to another lame take on Vegas

What is it about Las Vegas that brings out the worst in some writers? The latest victim shares his thoughts on Las Vegas in Smithsonian Magazine, though I cant imagine why an editor would solicit this kind of superficial “analysis,” much less publish it:

I knew, going in, that I’d feel out of place. The glitz, the kitsch, the acid-trip architecture—Vegas isn’t me. I’m more a Vermont guy. I’ve never actually lived in Vermont, but that doesn’t keep me from thinking of myself as a Vermont guy. Writing a book, however, greatly increased my sense of alienation. Vegas doesn’t want you writing any more than it wants you reading. You can sit by the topless pool at the Wynn all day long, all year long, and you won’t see anyone crack open anything more challenging than a cold beer.And it’s not just books. Vegas discourages everything prized by book people, like silence and reason and linear thinking. Vegas is about noise, impulse, chaos. You like books? Go back to Boston.

via Las Vegas: An American Paradox | Travel | Smithsonian Magazine.

It’s probably 1,500 words long, but it feels much longer thanks to the 5 click-throughs you need to do, and the absolutely vapid writing.

Great, J.R., you saw some T&A, and you had a two-minute conversation with some lady in a restaurant. That doesn’t mean you’ve plumbed the soul of America, or even understand Las Vegas at all.

It’s easy to be contemptuous of other people having a good time–the Puritans elevated it to an art form a few centuries ago. But that says more about the writer than the subject, doesn’t it?

On one hand, everyone’s entitled to their opinion. Moehringer spent two years and didn’t have a good time. I get that. But it’s hard not to take what he says personally. I like books, and I live in Vegas. I don’t see any disconnect between the two. And anyone who divides the world between “book people” and the hoi polloi is so ineffably pretentious that…I can’t describe it. But you get the point—really, really pretentious.

That being said, I’ll just mention a few things that I think are really off base in the article. For example, IMHO linear thinking is of definite but limited value. I prefer diagonal thinking–it’s much less limiting.

There are lots of places for silence in Las Vegas. Try Turtlehead Peak, for one: an hour’s hike, and you can look down on the entire valley. It’s beautiful. Or just pick a corner of Sunset Park, or any of the other public parks that dot the valley.

He’s simply wrong that Vegas doesn’t want you writing books. I’ve had no problem writing three books in Las Vegas, and I’m working on the fourth. And as someone who writes a minimum of 5,000 words a month (Vegas Seven, Las Vegas Business Press, Casino Connection, I’m looking at you), I’ve never had a problem finding inspiration or space to write. But I tend not to overthink things, and it’s more a question of, “How many words? When do you want it?” than absorbing writerly inspiration via osmosis or whatever Moehringer does in Fantasy Vermont with all of the book people.

Look, I’m the last person to be a Vegas booster, saying this is the best of all possible cities. It’s just not in my temperament. But I wouldn’t blame any of my shortcomings as a writer on the city. A good craftsman doesn’t blame his tools, or the setting of his workshop. And, like Moehringer, I’m an award-winning author. So there.

AC needs more than mini-casinos

This isn’t the popular thing to say right now, but I’ve got real doubts about the AC mini-casino proposal. Here are my thoughts from the LV Business Press:

Both Atlantic City and Las Vegas have had a difficult recession of course, by definition no recession is easy. Atlantic City, however, has suffered much more due to increasing regional competition and that's triggered a not-so-profound re-evaluation of that city's casino industry.Atlantic City's casinos find themselves in a tough spot. Their regional monopoly, which once extended to the Mississippi River, now barely touches the Delaware. Pennsylvania will soon add table games and New York and Delaware are both considering expanding their casino industries. Gamblers, it would seem, are driving past more and more casinos on their way “down the shore.”

But in increasing numbers, they're not, which is the problem. The city's gaming revenues have fallen to 1997 numbers. Las Vegas, by comparison, has retreated only to 2004

via Las Vegas Business Press :: David G. Schwartz : Smaller casinos won’t fix what ails Atlantic City.

It’s worth saying that the most successful casinos in Atlantic City right now are the biggest ones (Borgata, Harrah’s). I’m just not seeing the ROI for something one-tenth of their size.

The article’s punch line makes it clear just how unrealistic I think the mini-casino=revival talk is.

Madder, leaner, Vegas

Since it’s Thursday, I’ve got a new Green Felt Journal for you to read in Vegas Seven magazine. This week, I talk about March Madness on the Strip:

The basketball-mad crowd covers all ages, from cigar-chomping sharp bettors in their 60s to still-in-school rowdies wearing their college colors. It skews young, however, with 20- to 30-somethings dominating in most casinos. The audience in most sports books is about 97 percent male.

The NCAA Tournament, particularly the first weekend, has become an unofficial cross-country college reunion getaway. Although many fans have moved on from the frat house or dorm television lounge and might live thousands of miles apart, they return to Las Vegas in groups of varying sizes each spring to watch the games, drink beer and enjoy what’s become the ultimate guy trip.

The tournament has become one of the biggest draws in town. While it’s impossible to directly assess its total economic impact (no one fills out a survey saying they came to town for the games), it’s acknowledged as a huge draw.

via March Madness offers peek at leaner Vegas vacation | Vegas Seven.

I used the word “crowd” three times in the story, and might have used it more, because gathering information for this story really brought to mind Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Not that I’m saying that the guys betting on March Madness are deluded, but it is March “Madness,” and there are big crowds, so I guess my brain filled in the blanks.

And there was something very compelling, but very exhausting, about the atmosphere in the books. I can’t see how anyone has enough energy to do anything but crash for 12 hours, beer and other depressants of choice notwithstanding, after a day of March Madness Vegas action. It must be all the oxygen they pump into the casino.

That last sentence, my friends, is the closest I’m getting to an April Fool’s joke this year.

Baccarat to the future at Vegas Seven

New Green Felt Journal in Vegas Seven:

Baccarat first came to Las Vegas in the 1950s, but didn’t make much headway until the growth of high-end, international play in the 1970s. Caesars Palace and the Hilton led the way, and soon most casinos with any pretension to catering to high-rollers added the game.

The game has had an up-and-down ride over the past two decades. In the 1980s, when mass marketing to small-budget players replaced a reliance on a select group of high-rollers, many casinos junked their baccarat tables. In 1992, there were only 59 baccarat tables in the state, and the game accounted for about $291 million in winnings, less than 5 percent of total gaming revenues.

via Baccarat to the future | Vegas Seven.

Yes, I came up with that title. It’s because you’ve got to make sure the flux capacitor is in good shape before you start a serious game of bacc.

Take Seven

For a while now, I’ve been dropping hints about an article on resort fees that I’ve been working on. I’ve been a little more mysterious than usual because the magazine I wrote it for hadn’t been published yet. Well, it’s out at last, in the debut issue of Vegas Seven magazine.

It’s the first in a weekly column series that I’m writing called “Green Felt Journal.” My beat is gaming and tourism generally, with a mix of current issues, historical perspective, and coming trends. It’s different from the column I write for the Business Press every two weeks, because the LVBP column is more reflective and observational, while Green Felt Journal is drawn more on statistical research and interviews.

The best way I’ve found to read the resort fee article is to go to the digital version of the magazine and flip ahead to page 34, where you’ll see the inaugural edition of the Green Felt Journal in all its glory. forum members will be glad to see that I used the topic thread on resort fees in the article, with users rockchickx51 and donnymac66 getting quoted in print. Thanks, guys!

But that’s not all. I’ve also got an essay in today’s issue about how the Wonder Pets can save Las Vegas. Yes, in all seriousness I wax philosophical on how Las Vegas should take some tips from a toddler TV show. Here’s a sample:

In a recent episode, the Pets fly to Las Vegas to aid the Rat Pack, a trio of bumbling performing rodents named Blue Eyes, Dino and Sammy who can’t get their act together. In honor of this mission, the heroes replace the mast and sail on their intrepid vehicle of choice, the Fly Boat, with a construction inspired by neon signs and showgirls’ headdresses. Just like that, the Fly Boat is reborn as the “Vegas Boat.” After departing the schoolhouse to a slot machine’s jangle, the Vegas Boat zooms past the Wynn and down into a pint-size re-creation of the Strip. There, in a makeshift rehearsal space, the Pets give the Rat Pack a lesson on working together when they dance. This works like a charm. To celebrate, they join Dino for some pasta and, though their work is done, Blue Eyes refuses to let them leave without having some fun.

Can the Wonder Pets Save Las Vegas?

Maybe I’ve been watching toddler TV for too long, but the show really says a lot about how most people view Vegas.

If you’re in Vegas, look for a copy of Vegas Seven on the street–I believe you’ll find them where 944 is distributed. [UPDATE: You can find them at 7-Eleven, Albertsons, Fresh N Easy, Whole Foods, Golds Gym, Hard Rock Hotel, the Palms, Lee’s Discount Liquor and Blockbuster]

If you don’t live in Vegas, you’ll have to content yourself with browsing the contents online. There are several great articles in there, including one about how Las Vegas is courting China.

For those of you who want to keep up with the rest of my work, I’m still writing a monthly historical column for Casino Connection, and have occasional longer pieces in Global Gaming Business–one about the mainstreaming of gambling should be out soon. In this month’s issue, by the way, there’s an excerpt from Eadington and Dolye’s Integrated Casino Resorts that is definitely worth reading. There’s also a look inside Aria’s surveillance room that is interesting, and much more.

As the Wonder Pets might say, it looks like my work here is done. How about some celery?

UPDATE: OK Schopenhauer, you asked for it. Here it is:

My favorite is the one at about 1:14. If you want a good introduction to the Wonder Pets, try this video from Parents magazine.

Roll the Bones in Polish

It’s a happy day in my writing career. The Polish translation of Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling is out at last. For those of you who speak Polish, here’s the first bit of the prologue:

Jak feniks z popiołów

Był 5 czerwca 1637 r. Purytańscy osadnicy, przybyli niedawno ze starego kontynentu, posuwali się naprzód zajmując coraz to nowe tereny, zaś dla Indian z plemienia Pequot (Pekoci), z doliny rzeki Connecticut, oznaczało to koniec świata.

Słowo pequot w języku algonkińskim znaczy „niszczyciel” i tylko podkreśla reputację tego plemienia. Wieki temu Pekoci i Mohikanie wyemigrowali razem z doliny rzeki Hudson i udali się do Connecticut, po czym rozdzielili się na dwa wrogie sobie plemiona. Pekoci zajmowali się wyłącznie walką z Mohikanami i Narragansettami, bądź łupieniem okolicznych wiosek, których mieszkańcy drżeli na samą myśl o tym plemieniu i jego wodzu, Sassacusie. Kiedy jednak wielka migracja białych, mówiących po angielsku kolonistów rozlała się po równinach wzdłuż Zatoki Massachusetts, zagrażając dominacji Pekotów, konfrontacja stała się nieunikniona.

Zaczęły nasilać się akty przemocy: porwania, napady i rozboje, co prowadziło do otwartej wojny między Anglikami a Pekotami. Jeszcze kilkanaście lat wcześniej biali przybysze na swoje pierwsze Święto Dziękczynienia zaprosili swoich sąsiadów, Indian, by wspólnie z nimi zajadać się pieczystym z dzikiego indyka i innej upolowanej zwierzyny. Teraz stara przyjaźń ustąpiła miejsca ekspansji, zaś angielska broń palna miała okazję zmierzyć się z legendarnym okrucieństwem Pekotów.

Historia Hazardu – książka.

It is my first written work to be translated into any language, which I guess means something. In any event, if you’ve been wanting to get a copy of Roll the Bones for a friend but their lack of English reading skills has been a problem, you are now in luck–if they can read Polish.