January 2000

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24/7: Living It Up and Doubling Down in the New Las Vegas

by Arthur Alexander Parker

24/7: Living It Up and Doubling Down in the New
Las Vegas

Andrés Martinez
Villard Books
352 pp.

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Forget Colonial Williamsburg. As Andrés Martinez shows in his 24/7: Living It Up and Doubling Down in the New Las Vegas, Las Vegas is the place to go if you want to see the real America and understand the traditions that shape it. Unlike Williamsburg, though, the folks in Vegas don't exactly preserve tradition; they blow it up. Out of an impulse to reflect the society it has such a profitable stake in, the city makes a point of destroying anything old.

Take hotels, for example. Casino hotels--the Desert Inn, the MGM Grand, the Aladdin--are the icons of Vegas, monuments to greed and the city's lifeblood. The ones that are more than five years old are considered old and are at risk of being dynamited, wiped off the slate to make room for something new. "Other cities bring down older buildings too," Martinez writes, "but nowhere else is it done so often, with so much glee, or, from the buildings' perspective, so soon."

Vegas, he says, is the nation's ultimate mirror, free of "the hypocritical impulse not to be changed by tourism that afflicts other destinations; smart malleability is what the city is all about."


Smart malleability: subject and author meet in the phrase. Martinez, who by his own description looks like a grown-up Richie Cunningham, proves himself to be a malleable sort, transforming himself overnight from a former Wall Street Journal reporter into a big-shot gambler.

It could only happen in America: to generate material for a proposed book, Martinez talks his publisher into giving him $50,000 to blow on a month's gambling in Las Vegas. And like that, Martinez is living in the Vegas glitter, with his lodging and meals provided free of charge once the hotels he stays in realize he's a high roller--or at least one of the people whom the casinos believe will leave a fair proportion of their money at the table.

A tough month's work, right?

To this task Martinez brings what seems to be a natural talent for blackjack (though not for baccarat or video poker) and an affable personality that makes him an engaging tour guide to Vegas' kaleidoscope of dealers, doped-out high-rollers and diamond-studded showgirls.


Probably the most disappointing information he brings back (to this reader, anyway) is the news that Las Vegas is no longer run by the Mob. Big corporations are taking over, he says--consolidating, putting huge stakes into the hotels and transforming the city into something that's not just a gaming mecca, but an entertainment conglomerate. Las Vegas is a one-industry town, like Detroit; but as the historian Hal Rothman tells Martinez, "I'd rather have my future riding on entertainment these days than on the auto industry."

Martinez tells of striking up a friendship with Braces, a seedy gambler from the old school who claims to be a card counter (someone who uses mathematics to try to better his odds). That can get you thrown out of a casino--or worse, Braces fears. He confides to Martinez that he's getting cold feet about his latest card-counting scheme.

"You don't suppose a casino, you know, a reputable carpet joint, would come after us with fuckin' goons if they catch up to us?" he asks, anxiously.

"No," Martinez says, his tone is flat, as if to say, "I don't want to get into it." What he doesn't tell his anxious friend is: "Don't be a moron; sophisticated, publicly traded companies like Hilton and Starwood don't go around beating up customers."

Pity. One longs for the euphemistically termed "Midwestern businessmen" who built the casino empire. It was probably a sense of nostalgia that stirred Las Vegas residents, in June, to elect as their mayor Oscar Goodman, the self-described Mob lawyer who plays himself in Martin Scorsese's film, Casino.

Mob or no Mob, Martinez says, Las Vegas is an American colony. It grew by providing services--gambling, prostitution, quickie divorces--that, in Martinez's words, "the mother country eschewed but its people wanted."

The identity of the colonists has changed, from the federal government (the building of the Hoover Dam and nearby nuclear test grounds gave the city a boost) to the Mob to the big corporations. But like a colony, Vegas still relies on outsiders for the money it needs to develop and support itself. It's the land of opportunity.


Speaking of opportunities, Martinez makes the most of his chances at the gambling tables. His stakes wax and wane as he gambles elbow to elbow with mysterious Chinese entrepreneurs, grandmothers in gym suits with steely wills to match their big hair, and a former Israeli commando. He gets to know Peggy, a retired good-time girl from the Rat Pack era who is lost in her memories. In those days, writes Martinez, pretty girls "were as indispensable to a gambling establishment as dice and cards." As Peggy herself says, "A male gambler trying to win over a striking woman and impress his friends at the same time is the most generous creature out there."

In the restroom of a casino strip joint, Martinez befriends Joe Alston, the towel attendant. Joe is also a minister. "This is where the Lord wants me, to talk to people who need it; there's a lot of pain here," the recovering drug addict tells Martinez.

There's no shortage of pain for Martinez either, as he watches his stake rise past $60,000 then dwindle to the hundreds before surging again. He begins to understand the addiction of gambling and attends a Gamblers Anonymous meeting. The melting pot melts here; he is struck by the group's diversity--all races and ages and income groups. Getting the 1.3 percent of the population who are pathological gamblers to quit is a tough sell, though. At the GA meeting that Martinez attends, one of the program's inspirational sayings is pinned to the wall. It says, he writes, "something to the effect that the worst day of your new life won't be as bad as the best day of your previous one." One of the recovering gamblers speaks up. "I gotta tell you," he says to the group wistfully, "I had some damn good days when I was out there."

Martinez himself rejects comparisons between gambling and other addictions:

Gambling is not smoking. It's not inherently bad for you. On the contrary, I'd venture to say that a little gambling, a taste for life on the edge, is good for the soul. Come to town, wager your budgeted $250 casino fund between pool sessions, roller-coaster rides, delectable meals, and shows and you'll feel invigorated. By contrast, use a cigarette as intended, and it's still bad for you.


24/7, like its subject, is funny and fast. And you couldn't find a better gambling companion than the affable Martinez, who, like the millions who go to Vegas each year, is always eager and only rarely gives in to cynicism (like when he's scraping the bottom of his nest egg). The book could be trimmed in places, though. At one point, Martinez, presumably burned out from too much time at the tables, troops off to a local high school to participate in a desert clean-up drive. The author is disappointed to find the event is already over, but the reader is grateful.

Get back to the tables, Martinez!


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