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Casinos come and go, but the stories remain forever

By John Grochowski


In my time as a player, I’ve seen casinos come and casino go, and there’s always a little melancholy whenever one of the old standards is no more.

So it is with the announcement earlier this year that the Riviera would close after a 60-year-run on the Las Vegas Strip, with the May 4 closing scheduled for two weeks after the milestone anniversary. Soon, it’s expected to make way from an expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center.

Each of the grand old names, especially those on the Strip, has made a lasting imprint on my memory. Any mention of the Las Vegas Sands brings to mind its former long-running slot tournament. I once won that one, racking up the top-paying blue 7s four times in the final round to collect the top prize of $1,000 for my $10 entry. Even better: The winning round started at 10 p.m., and with an 8 a.m. flight to Chicago the next day, I brought it all home.

The Desert Inn? That was the first place I ever saw a royal flush at video poker. I didn’t get it myself, mind you. That didn’t happen till a year later at a casino that’s still operating, the Tropicana. At the DI, a woman playing next to me drew the five high clubs, and just started screaming. “Woooooo!!! I don’t believe it! Al! Al! Alan!!!!! You have to come see this!”

Alan was her husband, at a craps table that wasn’t all that close and probably never heard her. No doubt she showed off her 10 fresh $100 bills later on.

Some of you no doubt recall a little joint called Bourbon Street, across Flamingo Road from Bally’s. On our first trip to Las Vegas together, Marcy and I started what for us was an epic round of casino hopping on Bourbon Street, with some quarter video poker and some nickel slots. Marcy hit a 250-nickel slot jackpot—not bad on an old three-reel game with a three-nickel bet—and I drew a four of a kind. That started us on a jaunt through the Barbary Coast, Flamingo, the old Holiday Casino that begat Harrah’s, the Sands and more. At the end, we had $65 more than we started with—a nice haul for a couple of newbie, short-bankrolled low rollers.

At the Dunes, my prime memory isn’t of a big win. It’s more of a wistful impression. In its closing days, the Dunes had a circular section at the Strip entrance that was devoted to nickel three-reel slots. It seemed on the seedy side by Strip standards. In the once-elegant main casino, the chandeliers were yellowing and carpets showing their age. I walked through with my wife Marcy, and she said, “It’s like a faded old lady. It must have been beautiful once.”

My memory of the Riviera is happier, one jogged by a magnet from the late 1990s, with a picture of me wearing a plastic firefighter’s hat in front of a couple of slot machines. The occasion was my winning $100 in the Riv’s $20-for-$40 promotion—a surprise win when I really wasn’t in it for the money.

At the Riviera, as at many other casinos over the years, the $20-for-$40 promotion involved paying a $20 entry fee, and getting $40 worth of credits on a three-reel slot machine.

You couldn’t just play the credits through and cash out the rest, as with current-day free play. Instead, the idea was to play them all through and accumulate points—most winning combinations were for points, not cash, though there were two top jackpot combos that brought the bucks, either $100 or $1,000. At the end, if you didn’t win cash, you could choose a prize from several cases of merchandise.

As it happened, one of the prizes was a cheap watch, and I happened to be in need of a cheap watch. I was in Las Vegas to cover the World Gaming Congress at the Las Vegas Convention Center, the show that was the casino industry’s big American trade show and conference before the birth of the Global Gaming Expo.

I had appointments to keep, and my good watch—a self-winding mechanical Seiko that I loved dearly—had stopped working. Cellphones of the day were enormous, and you didn’t just carry one in your pocket, so I needed something cheap and cheerful to get me to my appointments until I could get my own watch repaired.

So I plunked down my $20, and figured I was paying for my temporary timepiece and a story.

That’s how it went for the first few spins. There was a hostess wandering up and down the aisle of machines, stopping to talk to players and announcing the proceedings over the PA. “We have three bars here, keep on spinning…Flamingo, flamingo… oops, not this time. Good luck.”

Then the surprise came—cash symbol, cash symbol, cash symbol. I wasn’t going to the prize case to pick out my watch after all. I was going to leave with some money instead.

An attendant checked my machine and the hostess announced, “Winner here! We have a $100 winner! Congratulations!”

At session’s end, I signed my paper and the hostess handed me a cash voucher and the fire hat. Another attendant took my picture, the one that’s on the magnet that adorns a file cabinet in my home office.

That still left the matter of a cheap watch. I bought one in the gift shop for $12.95. It worked for a few days, enough to get me through the expo, though not for very much longer. I made my appointments and had a tale to tell.

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