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Saturday, July 16, 2005

A Day in the Magical Empire

Originally published in the Trip Reports section of the Las Vegas Advisor message boards, based of a July 16, 2005 visit to Atlantic City.

To celebrate Harrah's recent acquisition of Caesars Entertainment the LVA East Coast members decided to stage our most recent member meet in some of their newly acquired properties.  Well, perhaps "celebrate" is not the right word, "grudgingly accept" might be more appropriate, but several of us did gather in the new Magical Empire this past Saturday.

"I must say that I like the new parking situation in Atlantic City."

I left home just after 1:50 PM, realizing that I would not be able to meander along the back roads of southern New Jersey if I wanted to arrive on time for the scheduled 3:00 PM meet.  That meant disregarding one of my core values, namely, never paying highway tolls when a reasonable alternative exists.  However, as a "veteran" LVA member I felt that I should make an effort to show up on time to greet some new members attending their first meet, and I was able to do this despite a brief stretch of driving rain just short of the Atlantic City Expressway.

Traveling the main stretch of road between Philadelphia and Atlantic City is a little like reading Casino Player, as the journalism is equally unbiased, though the billboards provide a little more up to date information.  Along these lines I discovered that not only does the Sands now offer free parking to all members, but so do Caesars and Bally's.

My drive was otherwise uneventful except for a short period of confusion as I tried to find the parking garage for the Sands and somehow ended up inside Bally’s Parking Place.  I did snag a great parking spot on the same floor as the walkway to the casino (using my favorite parking garage technique of heading up a couple floors and then following signs to the exit ramp), so I arrived at the entrance to the Virginia City Buffet inside the Wild Wild West Casino only a few minutes after 3:00.  My relief briefly turned to uncertainty as I saw no one I recognized at our agreed upon meeting spot.  Surely, they wouldn't have ditched me for being a couple minutes late?

Fortunately, I was actually among the early arrivals.  I had also made a wise decision to wear my LVA T-shirt, which made it relatively easy for me to meet Harv and Cath (Harv29).  As a fellow keeper of the Borgata Fork I was eager to me someone who shared my affection for stolen cutlery, so I was happy to have a few minutes to get to know Harv before the other members arrived.

"Do I need to steal you a watch?"

After a few minutes Ken and Lyn (ken8631) arrived for their second Atlantic City meet, and the five of us chatted for some time while wondering what became of Flip (TheycallmeFlip).  It's not like him to miss a member meet, so I figured he must have been waiting for another W2-G.  As it turned out, this was not the case, since Flip hit his royal that night before at Bally's.  He was just fashionably late, presumably in preparation for his dramatic appearance at this year's Elvies.  I offered to swipe a watch for Flip to prevent this from happening again, but he politely declined.

Around 3:30 we decided it was time to eat, even though we were still missing Catherine (Bigfus) and there was some doubt about whether Dick (rcwkent) was coming to the meet.  From what I know of Dick I figured he would have been there on time if he were coming.  No one knew Catherine, but we did know that we were all expecting to eat and the lines for the buffet were starting to form, so we prepared to soldier on without her.

"I recognized you from your avatar"

The six of us moved pretty quickly through the line outside the buffet.  One queue was marked for Comps, which Harv and Flip were holding, but that turned out to be a longer wait than the line for the masses, so we all ended up in the same line.  While waiting we had the opportunity to rehash the magical properties of Lucky Glitter, particularly when mixed with peanuts, though I confessed that I had not performed rigorous scientific tests before reaching the conclusions I posted on these message boards.

We also kept our eyes peeled for Catherine, even as we progressed through the line, but wondered how she would find us, since she has never met any of us.  My t-shirt was one clue, but wouldn't be easy to spot across a crowded room.  However, around this time someone called out for Ken and Lynn, and we were soon joined by the seventh member of our crew.  How did the newest LVA member in our group pull this off?  She recognized Ken and Lyn from their avatar for the forums.  So, we all owe Ken a debt of gratitude for secretly posting his wife's picture without her knowledge.

"I don't know about you guys, but I'm going to get something to eat"

After everyone passed through the cashier station I was $20.13 poorer, but held a pink ticket that entitled me to one steak.  I've never been fond of this concept in buffets, but it probably helps Bally's control their costs better and keeps the price down a little, and looking back I didn't really need to eat any more than I did.  However, it would be another fifteen minutes before we even had the chance to cash in our pink tickets, since there were no tables available right away for seven people.  The buffet herders offered us two tables next to each other, but said those could not be pushed together.  If we wanted to wait then the hostess said she could find us a place that we could all share.

Waiting gave us the chance to chat for a while longer and this continued even after we sat down at our tables, which we ended up pushing together, despite the warnings from the Virginia City staff that the people on one side of the table would not be able to get out.  Confident that Ken, Lyn, Cath, and Harv could extricate themselves from the prison we inadvertently created we agreed to accept the risk and we once again soldiered on.

At this point our meal had still not started, as this is, apparently, a very polite group, despite what you may have heard.  We must have sat at the table for ten minutes before anyone made a move for the food.  Now, I'm all for courtesy and was enjoying the witty banter, but I also came here to eat, so I broke the ice and headed for the troughs.

"I could take a poll about that"

This is probably going to be a strange buffet review, since the food was much less memorable than the conversation, but I will talk briefly about my feast.  I saved my steak ticket for the second course (third, if you count the soup I brought back with course #1), thinking I was saving the best for last, but I was wrong.  The London Broil I picked up from the carving station on my first pass was more pleasing to my palette.  Overall, Virginia City was a pretty average buffet, with your standard Italian, Asian, seafood, and carving stations.  There was also a small deli counter, offering corned beef or pastrami, but that was about as wild as this Wild Wild West eatery got.  Desserts were standard cheesecakes, bread pudding, ice cream, and the lot.  There was a whipped cream dispenser, which is a nice touch, but the toppings for the ice cream were lacking, which for me meant no Oreos or strawberries (they did have Heath bars).  For a couple dollars more I would opt for the Borgata or the Showboat, with the Showboat clearly being the better value when you factor in the ACG 2 for 1.  Nonetheless, the meal was adequate and the company I kept was off the charts.

The seven of us ate at a very leisurely pace, spending close to three hours inside the confines on the buffet, though no one made an extraordinary number of food runs.  There were no awkward periods of silence and everyone seemed to feel comfortable contributing to the conversation.  There was even time to discuss my recent period of prolific poll-posting.  Apparently, my flurry of activity on the forums leading up to this meet did not go unnoticed.  After considering the comments everyone made the best solution I could think of was to take a poll about whether I was posting too many polls.  In retrospect, I think I'll nix that idea.  Too McClurg.

Harrah's is Great!

Dining with a wise-ass can be trying, and I feel for my six companions who endured my rantings during their meal.  I may be shy, but when I'm with people I know they get to hear what is on my mind.  I remember taking a shot at Casino Player, though I don't remember what for.  It's such an easy target.  At another point during the meal I had to warn Lynn about the all-encompassing power of the Total Rewards system by telling her not to be too critical of our masters at Harrah's central, something along the lines of, "Shhhh. They're listening."  That gave all of us the opportunity to glance upwards toward the likely locations of security camera and exclaim for the eyes and ears in the sky that, "Harrah's is great!"

Old habits die hard

As great as Harrah's may have been, our time together for dinner eventually wound down.  I was able to steer the discussion away from what was quickly turning into a contest for who had the most unpleasant surgical experience (and Lyn is a nurse, so I know she could have turned the rest of us green at any moment, except Cath; I think she would have gotten a kick out of that, but I don't know why) toward a video poker contest the Harv had proposed while we were planning the meet.  This seemed like a great idea for us to head into the casino together rather than just go off on our own after dinner.

We worked out the details of the contest, where each person who played would put $10 into the pot, then play eight hands, and the person with the best results would win the pot.  With this plan in mind we were ready to leave, since rumor has it that some of us actually came to Atlantic City to gamble.  Go figure.

One objective I did not achieve during this trip was to pass JustFork to another LVA member.  However, it seems that before we left the Wild Wild West she picked up a traveling companion of her own, as a knife somehow found its way into by backpack.

"I can’t eat like a used to"

By all accounts the buffet should have done us in.  Gorging oneself is not exactly at the top of Bob Dancer's list of recommendations for achieving the mental acuity needed to play effective video poker.  Nonetheless, we discovered a number of flaws in Mr. Dancer's theories on this Saturday evening.  I also made a discovery of my own.  I can't eat like I used to.

We decided to hold our unsanctioned video poker tournament using a bank of 25¢ 9/6 Jacks or Better progressives next door at Caesars.  Ken and Lyn searched in vain for these after the last Atlantic City meet, so I thought it was my LVA duty to make sure they knew where to find the best paying quarter VP in AC.  On our way we stopped to make a pit stop, after which one member of our group called me aside upon exiting the restroom and said something along the lines of, "They have a sign saying no one can go in there, right?"  I would soon know how he felt.

Diamond Jim rides again

After a spectacular start to his LVA video poker career last year Flip has slipped into a bit of a slump earlier this year, so it was reassuring to hear that he came into the meet with one Royal Flush already under his belt.  I always like to make sure new members understand what a showman Flip can be, using the four deuces and the Royal he demonstrated for me in Las Vegas last summer as examples, so he was under a lot of pressure to put on a show for the new members.  I asked him to show us a Royal in clubs and Cath asked to see four Queens.  Sadly, Flip did not deliver like his beloved Red Sox, but during the course of the evening he did show us every hand other than a royal while also taking the $60 prize pool from our VP contest.  So, it appears his Flip has returned to his winning ways.

I got to wait for a slot attendant too, and this time it wasn't for a hopper fill

My own recent gambling results remain mired in the morass of mediocrity, which is actually an upgrade from this time last year.  However, the good luck for those around me continues, to the point where I consider myself the frontrunner for the Elvie for Best Good Luck Charm.  While watching Ken and Flip play, and trying my best to bring my ambient good fortune to them, I did have the opportunity to see a man sitting next to them hit a Royal, taking home about $1025 for his efforts.  Perhaps, "taking home", wasn't entirely accurate, as for a while there was some question whether the man would ever get paid.  He must have waited at least twenty minutes before any Caesars personnel noticed his plight, and to make matters worse, though I would have gladly accepted the inconvenience to change places with this gentleman, when he tried to cash out his remaining credits after he was paid for his Royal the ticket he printed jammed inside the machine.  Another fifteen minutes later and he was finally on his way to the cage to collect his winnings.

Not being able to literally take this stranger's place I did the next best thing and took his machine when he left.  After briefly pondering staging a picture of myself next to the remnants of the stranger's Royal I quickly discarded that idea like and unsuited deuce-seven and started another quest to finally end my Royal Flush drought.  I also now had the opportunity to play with Ken and Flip, and we were later joined by Harv, when Ken and Lyn left us for the evening and Harv returned from his exile on the far left of our bank of machines.  Catherine had long since left us, before the real craziness began.

"Keep it down over there.  I'm trying to gamble"

Despite Harv's status as a Harrah's stockholder (sorry, man, but I had to out you on this one) we did not actually take ownership of the progressives that we were playing, but there was no doubt that this was our bank of machines.  Video poker can often be a grind.  A solitary activity that offers practical benefits ranging from useful comps to the occasional jackpot, but rarely does it offer the social thrills of many table games.  At times, however, the right group of people comes together and the game becomes secondary to the joy of rooting for your "teammates" against the evil empire that is the casino.  Saturday night was one such occasion.  We announced our big hands and cheered with high fives, hoots, hollers, and hands raised in celebration.  We must have been the only bank of video poker machines in Atlantic City that sounded like a craps table.  Actually, there were a couple times when we had to ask the folks playing craps to tone it down.

During the quieter moments of my play I made a couple discoveries.  The first was that when your body tells you it's time to go to the bathroom then you ought to listen.  Just about the time I was starting to get settled into the chair of my slanttop machine I realize that it was time to pass some of the food I gathered at the buffet on to the nearest municipal waste authority, but I was having too much fun to leave my seat.  When I finally took a few moments to take care of business and returned to my machine, a couple pounds lighter, I felt 100 percent better.  This also allowed me to discover that when you press two places on a touch screen machine at the same time then the computer takes the "average" of the two places you touch the screen.  If you want to see this in action then touch the first and fifth (or second and fourth) cards on a VP screen at the same time and you will see the middle card will be marked "held."  I also found out that if you press the 25¢ button that is normally used to change denominations on these particular machines then it acts as a "cash out" button, which was unfortunate because I was sitting at the machine that jams when printing tickets.  Grrrr.  I hit the "change" light and prepared to wait.  At least the last guy knew he was waiting for $1000.  I was waiting for 70 quarters.

In the interim I admired the animations that appear when a machine on the cards when it sits idle for a while.  However, I soon tired of the amusing little swords that spun around on the Aces from my last hand and meandered a couple machines down the row to continue my play while I waited.  This turned out to be a wise decision as I hit quad-somethings and decided to cash out and return to the safety of my fellow LVA members and to watch Flip and Harv while still waiting for my 70 credit ticket, which I just wanted to put back into the machine.  A slot attendant finally arrived right in the middle of my disparaging remarks about all the "not my station looks" on the faces of every other employees who passed by in the interim.

Queen of Quads

My playing partners for this evening each had their own memorable moments, with our new "Queen of Quads" probably having the most profitable night.  During dinner Harv had mentioned that his fiancĂ©e hit a couple quads earlier in the day and he dubbed her the "Quad Queen."  I didn't say it at the time, but thought that he was a little hasty after only one day's play.  I must admit, however, that I was wrong, as Cath lived up to her moniker by steadily hitting quads throughout the evening whenever her credits started to dip.  She didn't have the endurance that the rest of us did, but who needs endurance when you can turn $20 into well over $100.  The only trouble was that she seemed to also have a knack for finding the wrong ticket-changer, which meant she was paid for her winning in $5 bills.  We, of course wondered if Cath could have exchanged those for $2 bills? Or perhaps, Sacagawea dollars?  That didn't seem to bother Cath, but it's easy to accept a little razzing when you're holding a massive stack of bills.

Harv was not as fortunate.  While he ultimately came out ahead, the video poker gods decided to torture him on at least five different occasions with four to the Royal and never delivering that final magical card that I have only seen Flip (and this our mysterious stranger from earlier in the evening) conjure up.  One near miss saw Harv complete a flush of a non-royal nature, another a straight, and he even managed a straight-flush, another thing that I failed to achieve during our time together.  Harv did discover he could have hit a Royal or two with some unconventional plays, such as discarding a paying hand to keep only a ten.  We consulted the strategy card I brought along, but there is very little information about how to play when you know the cards that are going to be dealt after you choose your discards.

Since I mentioned my failures, the astute reader will no doubt observe that I have not announced that my lifetime o-fer in the Royal Flush column has come to an end.  I came close, drawing a suited nine to make an almost-royal flush, which prompted an exasperated head-butt that somehow evaded the dreaded cash-out button.  Unfortunately, since there were no horseshoes nor any hand-grenades around close wasn't going to cut it.  On a side note, horseshoes and hand-grenades is a great idea for a slot machine.

"At least there's no way we can get drunk around here"

Our boisterous nature betrayed the fact that through our wildly enjoyable evening we remaining disturbingly sober.  I have never felt the need for alcohol for me to have a good time, but there are times in my life when I do take pleasure in enjoy an adult beverage or two, and many of those times are while I am in a casino.  However, this night the cocktail servers must have been auditioning to become bevertainers, since they conspired to make sure that there would be no doubt about my ability to operate a motor vehicle that evening.  I think one waitress visited our little party of her own volition, while we managed to summon one other.  While we were playing Cath found a supervisor type, I guess he was an aspiring pit-critter, or perhaps someone above the ranks of those confined to the pits.  Whoever he was, he had the power to summon a cocktail waitress, but not before disappearing because "someone was assaulted."  I'm still a little dubious about this man's skewed priorities, but there was no point in arguing with the man who held the power to quench my thirst in the hands that were gripped the walkie-talkie he used to call for our beverage service.  Besides, if I went much longer without a cocktail then there was a reasonable chance another assault was going to occur.

Despite our lack of booze our evening was far from sober.  We continued to be a rowdy bunch of merry men (and one woman) for several hours.  By this time our "Harrah's is great" chants had evolved into, "I love Harrah's", which we frequently announced whenever one of us hit three sixes.  Flip realized that this was "the mark of the beast" and one of us discovered that when you look at this hand very closely you can actually see the Harrah's logo.

"What do you think we are, Marines?"

Sadly, our evening soon came to and end.  Harv and Cath had hotel reservations in Vineland, which is about as close to Atlantic City as it is to Philadelphia, and Flip was ready to move around a little after being the first to notice that we had been sitting in one spot for an awfully long time.  This thought was contagious and we all soon realized that we had to break camp and move on.  He cashed out, as did Harv, which left only me to play until I reached an even number of quarters, particularly one that is payable in a multiple of $20.  I didn't quite achieve that, but did hit one last quad that allowed me to cash out $90, after an initial investment of $100.

We had played for somewhere in the neighborhood of four hours, so it was more than a little disappointing to read "$0 Cashback     $0 Future Cashback     $2 Comp Dollars" across the slot club display screen before I left.  Hopefully, that was a mistake, but Harv and Flip seemed to have earned similar comps for their play.  I remember suggesting that I could buy a candy bar, or maybe twelve minutes in a hotel room?  I then realized that the last suggestion sounded a little too much like I was talking about the places along the Black Horse Pike that cater to the twelve-minute crowd, and I don't think the Connection Club comps you for that.

With no cashback to worry about all that was left to do was cash in my $90 ticket.  Flip, Harv, and Cath were kind enough to wait for me, explaining that "we leave no one behind."  I thought that was the slogan of the Marine Corps, but I guess it's OK for LVA members to use it too.  Regardless, it was a nice gesture.

I live in a world of great contrasts

I think we said goodbye about three different times during our walk back to Bally's, but we finally went our separate and our member meet was over.  I went off in search of my elusive Royal on the $1 9/6 JoB progressives at Bally's, but didn't play very long.  I fell down a little and then worked my way back up $20 and thought it was better to leave a small winner than a big loser, with no offense to Bobknob (Warning: Inside Joke; newbies use the author search feature to read about this guy; you'll be amused).  Of course, I wasn't quite ready to leave yet, since I want to try some video slots.  It was then that I realized that Bally's sure does have a lot of reel slots, none of which looked very amusing at the time, so I moved next door to their Wild Wild West casino, where I tried several nickel slots, including Leopard Spots, Little Green Men (I wanted to see what the fuss was about this; whatever it is still escapes me), and a video Double Diamond (in honor of our own Diamond Jim).  The only creatures that gave me any more virtual nickels than I put in were the leopards, but even they eventually got hungry and started gobbling up what they had given me, so I eventually cashed out $10 behind from my brief foray onto the slot floor, and that was the end of my gambling for the evening.

Being semi-local means that I almost never finish or start my day in Atlantic City.  Before one of our meets last year I started the day attending my sister's college graduation in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in the middle of Amish country, and a couple hours later found myself in the glitter of the Borgata.  On this evening I left the hustle and bustle of the Atlantic City Boardwalk and soon found myself on the quiet causeway leading to Stone Harbor, the most tranquil town on the Jersey Shore.  There was a hint of excitement I left behind, as ESPN Classic was re-running the 2004 World Series of Poker, but the time came to shut off the television and listen to the sounds of the seashore as I drifted off to sleep.  Sunday was just as serene, as I was able to spend part of it floating around in the bay outside of our house, which offers a form of relaxation that no casino can re-create.  So, this weekend offered the best of all worlds.  Great times with a fun group of friends and a chance to rest and recharge for our next adventure.