On a Warm Summer’s Eve, On a Train Bound for Nowhere…

It took just 38 small steps from my seat on the plane to being robbed by a glittering one-armed bandit.

I peeled off a dollar bill, slipped it into the slot machine, pulled the arm, and lost my money. Viva Las Vegas.

Gambling is everywhere in Vegas; slot machines are in the airport, in 7-Elevens – even in casinos.

As I left the airport I was struck by a billboard that mischievously read: “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”, which I assume referred to gambling losses, which last year totalled a whopping $US10.6 billion.

Viva Las Vegas

On arriving at my hotel on The Strip, I began to understand why 87 per cent of visitors to this place gamble (and lose an average of $480 a pop): to get to my room I actually had to walk through the casino.

There was a total absence of ID checks, natural light and clocks, and the place was chock-full of liquored-up losers who had the look of defeat written all over their faces. It was like visiting one of those over-28 nightclubs attached to suburban shopping centres.

No way was I going to get sucked in again by the slots. But as I walked through the valley of darkness I noticed that a pretty cocktail waitress (wearing a Madonna-inspired get-up) was handing out free booze to playing punters. Papa don’t preach – I’m about to get free booze!

Because of the ravages of inflation, combined with the casino’s hunger to extract the maximum amount of cash from each punter, coins aren’t used in the slots anymore.

However, if you do manage to collect, the machines still make an artificial noise of coins dropping into the tray – a nice touch no doubt gleaned from some treacherous gambling counsellor who crossed over to the dark side: “They tell me they love the sound of falling coins; it’s the only form of positive reinforcement they get in life.”

What Kenny Rogers knew

Comfortably seated, I pulled out a $20 bill, fed a Kenny Rogers themed slot machine, and ordered my free Corona beer from Madonna. Right from the get-go I got the feeling that Kenny was working against me.

The Gambler kept on urging me to bet, condescendingly calling me “partner”. He never once offered me any advice on when to hold ’em, when to fold ’em, when to walk away, or when to run – which of course should have been about five minutes before my $20 Corona arrived.

Trip down the Strip

With 21 bucks down the drain I decided to jump on the monorail, which in some parts of The Strip stops every 100 metres (any more than this is too far to walk for your super-sized, calorie-consuming American).

It took me around the world – past the Eiffel Tower, the New York skyline, the Statue of Liberty, the pyramids of Egypt, and, for a touch of medieval history, King Arthur’s digs.

Yet I didn’t want to inhabit some fake pyramid that was merely another excuse for a greedy gambling den. This is America! I wanted to lose my money somewhere that captured the essence of US culture, which is why I headed to Hooters Casino – a place famous for, well, hooters, and the $13.99 all-you-can-eat ribs.

Something for nothing

Alas, it was the same story. The blokes sitting around the table appeared to be afflicted with the epidemic that runs rife in Vegas – the urge to get something for nothing.

After a run of bad hands, the punters were having a communal pep talk, insisting that luck would soon swing in their favour. Which, of course, is Vegas logic at its best.

The odds are always stacked in the house’s favour. That’s how they get the money to build these billion-dollar monuments to bad taste.

The same goes for slot machines, which are designed to systematically take more money than they pay out. In any gambling game, the longer you punt the more you lose (which explains the free beer).

Of course there are exceptions to the rule – such as the person who wins the jackpot and walks away (permanently), or someone who can count cards without getting their arms broken – yet neither was happening at Hooters the night I visited.

The real jackpot

One of the few people in Vegas to ever really hit the jackpot is casino mogul Steve Wynn – a gambling addict’s son who revolutionised The Strip. He was quoted as saying that “the only way to make money in a casino is to own one”.

Even though Steve’s a billionaire, he should take a trip to our sunny shores.

He’d be happy here, given that we hold the illustrious title of having the highest percentage of gamblers in the world.

Australia v. Vegas

Despite being the 52nd most populous nation, we have a fifth of the world’s pokies. We don’t need a fake Eiffel Tower, all-you-can-eat buffets or free beer.

In the average suburban pokie place you’re lucky if you get cold cups of Nescafe and all the second-hand smoke you can handle from the exit door, and we still manage to blow $15 billion a year.

Just like porn, vices tend to head online, and gambling is no exception. A study by Juniper Research estimates worldwide revenues from online and mobile gaming is expected to top $19 billion in 2009 – which appears to be enough fat for Richard Branson.

So much so that he relaxed his famous Virgin criteria for starting a business (it must be high quality, innovative, good value for money, challenging to existing alternatives, and have a sense of fun) when he started Virgin Online Poker – possibly coming to the back of a Virgin Blue seat near you.

Yet the final say must be left with the ultimate gambler. Kenny Rogers understands an ace when he sees one, so earlier this year he jumped from the casino to launch thegamblerpokerclub.com, which is also available via mobile for cowboys who are away from the ranch.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my musings while being away from my ranch – I’m not flying Virgin home, so I should have enough bucks to be back next year.

A special thank you to all the Barefooters who took the time to write me throughout the year.

Merry Christmas and until next year, tread your own path!