Winter is the long night of the Washington gambler's soul.
Sure, horses race nearby, even when it snows. But the spectacle loses something when the guy next to you is rooting a nag down the stretch -- and his lips start turning blue.
And, yup, you can always bet on college basketball. But that is a renowned way to grow gray hair. Anyone who places a serious bet between January's Super Bowl and the last pro basketball playoff sometime in June is D for Desperate.
What of Las Vegas and Puerto Rico, and their casinos? Well, Las Vegas is almost certainly too far away for a quickie winter weekend. And in Puerto Rico, the winter crowd is insufferable. They all walk around congratulating themselves for getting away from Cleveland for a week.
So that leaves Atlantic City.
Since Memorial Day, 1978, Resorts International has operated a casino there. It is the first licensed one ever to function on the East Coast.
Because their oasis sits within one tank of gas of 30 million people -- including the 2.5 million of greater Washington -- the Resorts folks made a huge effort over their first summer to draw bettors who drove.
They did just swell. People waited in ten-block-long lines for the simple privilege of getting in. Once in, they obligingly lost an average of $45 apiece. All in all, it shaped up as "Vegas, beware!"
But then winter wafted in, and the auto trade began to waft out. Who needed icy highways, parking lots that had closed for the season or a pneumonia wind whipping off the ocean?
So Resorts went after the Bus Business. In each major eastern city, a franchise was awarded to a local company. In Washington, the franchise went to East Coast Parlor Car Tours, a 34-year veteran of daytripping in and around Washington.
Beginning last Friday, East Coast was authorized to offer one-day trips, every day, to Atlantic City. For $19 ( $29 on Saturdays and Sundays), each gambler was to get a roundtrip ride on a deluxe bus, admission to the Resorts casino, a free drink in the Rendezvous Lounge and an all-you-can-gobble meal in the Wedgewood Pavilion restaurant.
The trip would leave from the Capital Hilton Hotel, 16th and K Streets NW., at 8:30 a.m. East Coast promised you six hours on the loose in the casino. You would be back at the Hilton by 10:30 p.m., according to East Coast's newspaper ads.
Opening day drew 18 plungers, one tourguide, one driver -- and one scribe who thought he'd better come along in case anyone pretty, single and female was looking for blackjack advice.
As usual, though, Scribe's wishfulness was as far off the mark as could be. The bus hadn't even budged from Mr. Hilton's curb before the 18 paying customers started telling "war stories" of past trips to the gaming tables. No rookies or tenderfeet in this bunch.
The surest sign had been the way they got aboard the bus. They filled the back seats first, and quickly pretended to be reading. The only other people who do that are kids who board school buses knowing they are about to start a spitball fight.
The 18 passengers were exactly half black and half white, exactly half female and half male. Their ages ranged from early 20s to mid 60s. They were all crisply on board five minutes before departure time.
East Coast called its bus an "Executive Lounge," which was accurate enough as far as most comforts went.
The seats were wide and adjustable, and they squished to fit bodies perfectly. The windows were huge and clean. And incredibly, the temperature inside was ideal. Where most buses handle a ten-degree day by choosing to be either 30 or 90, Executive Lounge was a happy 70.
The bathroom, though, was anything but joyous. The toilet had no flushing mechanism. The sink hadn't been cleaned. No toilet paper was provided, and the only thing approzimating soap was a bunch of Wash-Ups -- those miniature, prepackaged, oily towelettes that smell like mouthwash, and feel a little like it, too.
The ride itself was smooth, uneventful and, in part, unexpectedly scenic. Driver Lindell Nelson won bundles of brownie points by choosing U.S. 40 rather than the Atlantic City Expressway for the leg of the journey across southern New Jersey.
The Expressway is fast and sterile, like most. But U.S. 40 is a gloriously potholed, two-lane oldie-but-goodie that passes through small towns, rolling woods and sprawling farms. U.S. 40 is sometimes slow, 'tis true, but the difference in travel time over the Expressway is at most ten minutes.
The only annoyance of the ride up was an unannounced stop in Baltimore for more passengers. When baccarat is on the brain, who needs ten minutes in a Holiday Inn parking lot?
Our bus was met in Atlantic City across the street from Resorts' main entrance by two ladies wearing see-through blouses and high-heeled boots. They boarded the bus with all the sassiness of customs inspectors at a frontier, and introduced themselves as Jean and Heidi.
They turned out to be official greeters from Resorts' bus sales department. They wished us good luck, and pressed a white circular sticker on the lapel of each of us (instant admission to the casino, in case of lines). Then they wisely stood aside and let us canter through the cold to Neverneverland.
Resorts' casino trade is largely from Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York, to judge from snatches of conversation between blackjack deals and jackpots.
Players from Washington are advised to be careful about admitting where they come from. This reporter confessed "Washington" to four people. One replied, "Oh, wow," and walked away. Another asked: "You here to check this place out?" The third asked if I worked for "the internal revenue." The fourth asked if I worked for the CIA.
The casino staff was vastly friendlier and savvier. Advice is given to novice gamblers without weariness, snottiness or superiority. Change is made without complaint. Everyone is resolutely "Sir" and "Ma'am," even when they don't look as if they deserve to be. For courtesy, A.C. has L.V. beaten, hands down.
But not in any other way. At least not yet.
For example, Las Vegas shines at providing top-notch food and entertainment regardless of the hour. But when one Washingtonian arrived at the Resorts luncheon buffet 25 minutes before closing, all the hot main courses were gone, and a busboy said they weren't going to be replenished.
As for entertainment, even the No. 3 bar of most Las Vegas hotels will feature a "name" singer. At Resorts, the No. 1 And Only bar featured someone named Danny Diaz, who was massacring 1950s rock tunes as a disco band backed him.
But East Coast's success with the Atlantic City daytripping run will not stand or fall on Diaz's rendition of Blue Suede Shoes. The bottom line is simple: when you can drive to Atlantic City yourself, in about 3 1/2 hours, why is East Coast worth choosing?
Because it saves you time and money.
East Coast's $19 weekday rate represents a savings of at least $10.80 over what it would cost an individual who drives from Washington and does the same things East Coast provides. The $29 weekend rate represents a savings of only 80 cents -- but Jean and Heidi's little white stickers will avoid lines, and on weekends, at Resorts, that is the single most important edge.
No one on East Coast's opening day caravan admitted winning any money in the casino. No one admitted to having a name, either. Some, you see, had falsely called in sick. Some had spouses who thought they were at Aunt Pearl's. Gamblers are like that.
But two ladies in the second row agreed to a chat on the way home. We will call them Treasury and State, in honor of where they said they work.
"The bus is the best way to go. It saves all that wear and tear," said State. "I think this will go like wildfire when people hear about it."
"I think this is great. I hate looking for parking spaces," said Treasury, whose shoulder was sore from jerking handles of slot machines all afternoon. "I think the six hours they give you in the casino is just right."
It wasn't right for one traveler, who left some legal tender behind. But in picking a way to get there, he did just fine.