As I made my maiden trip here last week, I was not sure whether I was going to be entranced or repelled.
Because my passion for gambling is ordinarily unquenchable, I wondered if I would even be able to sleep with the awareness that cards were being dealt, dice were being rolled and roulette wheels were being spun just a few floors below me. I wondered if the casinos would bring out aspects of my character that were better left suppressed. But I found the temptations here surprisingly resistable.
While I did make some contributions to the local economy at the Caesars Palace blackjack tables, the casino action didn't hypnotize me. As I watched a crapshooter betting thousands of dollars on each throw of the dice, his diamond pinkie ring sparkling as he rolled, I never felt a twinge of desire to be in his shoes. I could not forget that with each roll he was bucking immutable, insurmountable percentages. The spectacle of people asserting themselves by showing how much they could bet on a losing proposition struck me as slightly distasteful.
By the end of my 10 days here, however, I realized that judging Las Vegas on the basis of the glittering casino action was as superficial as it was unfair. That is the tourists' Vegas, the vulgar Vegas. At its heart this city has a sense of values that any intelligent gambler can share and a nongambler can at least appreciate.
Professional and would-be professional gamblers settle here because they think they can live by their wits. Most of them are sports handicappers or poker players, but there are members of the community who will risk their money on any test of skill or judgment. People who get to observe the upper echelon of this fraternity look on its members with respect and awe.
Jack Binion, owner of the Horseshoe Club, has witnessed many staggering bets at his casino; a $100,000 wager at the blackjack table won't make him blink. But he speaks almost reverentially of the inner resources of the top gamblers in this town, men like his friend Doyle Brunson:
"Doyle has more heart than anyone you've ever seen," Binion said. "He and I used to play golf against two of the biggest gamblers in town, and they were better players than we were. We'd be down a stroke going into the last couple holes and Doyle would say, 'We're coming to Choke Alley now,' and somehow we'd always manage to win. When the pressure is great, 999 out of 1,000 people fold. Doyle is the one man in a thousand who can do things under pressure that he couldn't ordinarily do."
If the gambling life here provides the ultimate test of a man's ability to deal with pressure, it also poses a supreme test of character.
The experience of two well-known young gamblers here is a paradigm of the Vegas experience. They were best friends, and they came to town together with brash confidence and the card-playing skill to back it up. Together they worked their way up the gambling ladder, from small-stakes poker and gin games to near the top of the local hierarchy.
Temptations beckoned them from every direction. One of them managed to resist, albeit with some difficulty, and today he ranks among the highest of the high rollers, universally respected. His friend could not ignore the many distractions that Vegas offers and was finally ruined by cocaine. Today, at about the age of 30, he is a burnt-out case who can't even win in $10 limit games any more.
When people talk about the great gamblers here, they never talk about their material acquisitions; they never say that such and such a high roller lives in baronial splendor or buys a new Mercedes every year or wears flashy diamond rings. Instead, the only relevant accolade for a gambler is, "He's always stayed in money," or "He's always stayed in action." These men value money principally because it enables them to gamble, and they gamble for sheer love of the game.