By: S. G. Lacey
For 9 of my most formative years, those just out of college, I participated annually in an adventure which yielded a ton of amazing memories and brought together great friends. This weekend combined two of my favorite events, the honoring of the Irish St. Patrick on March 17th, and the start of the annual NCAA March Madness basketball tournament which conveniently coincides. Of course, there’s no better spot to enjoy either of these engaging activities than Las Vegas, except potentially Dublin, but the basketball game times are all screwed up over there.
2008 – Saturday – Kansas (#1) – Imperial Palace – 10
- This year all the cards came together during the match-up drawn on the Sunday prior to the tournament starting. Stanford (#3), Marquette (#6), and Cornell (#14) were all placed in the South region, playing their first games in the early time slot on Thursday in Anaheim, CA. These 3 schools happened to be the alma-mater of 3 peeps from our annual March crew, including myself, so the decision was easy. We bought tickets online with plans to leave Southern California right after the games ended, meeting up with our friends who would already be checked in and have the hotel room in Vegas stocked. The Trees unfortunately beat my Big Red by 22, and Marquette cruised past a crappy #11 seed who some may recognize, the Kentucky Wildcats pre-Calipari as he was leading Memphis to a spot in the NCAA Championship game in 2008. Hopping in the car excitement was high, even with the Cornell loss it was the best start to an Irish Madness trip ever.
- Our selected place of lodging was the Imperial Palace, a real dump which they actually completely renovated a few years later; this location was referred to as The Quad for a little while but now operates as The Linq Hotel and Casino. For some reason, our crew became attached to staying at the old Imperial Palace, despite the smoky rooms and terrible décor. The place did have its charms for a group of mid-20s college students: cheap room rates, $5 table games, center strip location, and best of all back-stairwell access to the rooms so we could bring in large coolers no questions asked. We probably stayed here 5 times in a span of a few years, but this was the only time we were able to book The Imp during March Madness.
- By Year 3, our Sportsbook viewing operations were getting more and more refined. The usual move was for a few of the most functional participants based on the activities of the night before to get to the Sportsbook by 8:30 AM and reserve as many seats as possible, two chairs per person was about the maximum possible without getting some pretty nasty looks. We would bring a grocery bag with 2 magnums of Cook’s champagne, a half-gallon carton of orange juice, a full ice bucket from the hotel room, and a bunch of red Solo cups. This simple combination made for several hours of morning basketball viewing fun; the gambling results of 4 NCAA games and a good mimosa buzz could all be achieved before noon on a Friday. While the early start for professional sports on the West Coast can be debated, it’s perfect for both NFL Sundays, with the early games starting at 10 AM, and NCAA tournament where game tip times span from 9 AM to 6 PM uninterrupted.
- Sorry to revisit this same teams twice in a single year, but this was the one and only time we had two friends with undergraduate ties playing each other. To frame it up: the #3 seed Stanford Cardinals, with the tall, gangly Lopez twins taking on a scrappy #6 seed Marquette Golden Eagles, which used 3 and even 4 guards on the floor at once. Our internal group betting essentially funneled down to Big Ten fans vs. everyone else; no reason to give the Sportsbook their 10% rake when you can bet amongst each other. Honestly, I don’t remember many specific plays in the game, but it lived up to the hype and one OT later Stanford pulled out an 82 – 81 victory. All our person-to-person bets were old school, even-up, winner take all; but with the starting casino lines at Stanford -3 the results would have been completely different gambling with the point spread.
- An interesting game which our crew entertained ourselves with often in these early years was Sic-Bo. A fairly uncommon table game, New York-New York and The Venetian having the only tables we ever found on The Strip, this was a 3 dice game where you could essentially bet on any number combination. Our interest likely stemmed from the fact that we were all nerdy math types, combined with our love of dice drinking games like Lair’s Dice, LRC, and Snappa. The dealers were always Asian ladies, not sure if this was to attract a certain clientele or their superior dice handling skills, but over time a few of the regular workers learned to just roll their eyes and ignore our antics; clearly there was no mathematic gambling edge for the customer in this or any other Vegas table game.
- St. Patrick’s Day falling on a Saturday again, combined with our excitement from the OT basketball game, made for a great, but blurry last night in town. We wandered in and out of the various bars along the strip, meeting a wide range of interesting costumed characters and indulging in all manner of Irish themed cocktails. The Sunday alarm to reserve out Sportsbook seats came early, but a weekend of Irish Madness requires dedication and commitment to get through.
2009 – Tuesday – North Carolina (#1) – Treasure Island – 14
- I have no idea why my friend bought a Cadillac Escalade, but I will say it provided one of the most comfortable and roomy rides to Vegas this year. We entered town Thursday evening in high spirits, bumping tunes with the windows down as we rolled onto the Las Vegas Strip. Granted the car sat in the hotel garage for the next 3 nights, and with the amount of gas we all needed to split we probably could have just flown up from LAX.
- This was one of the only year’s that friends flew in from out of town, including my brother. It was also the first year that ladies joined the Irish Madness festivities. None of the trips before were ever explicitly bachelor parties, but watching college basketball while gambling and drinking for several days straight just seemed like more of a guy’s thing. However, in Year 4, we finally broke down since pretty much all of us had girlfriends now and it was getting harder and harder to explain the 3 days per year we disappeared as a group and returned with minimal recollection of the entire weekend.
- We continue to pack more and more people into hotel rooms, since sleeping wasn’t very common in Vegas and it made more sense to save as much money as possible for our still mediocre gambling bankrolls. As was inevitable, this was the year the close quarters came to a head as Saturday morning several of us woke up in hotel room to the shouts of “Get the #### off me!” from two of my larger gentlemen friends who had become accidentally entangled during the night. Sharing of beds did help make people more proactive about finding alternate bedding accommodations. It wasn’t uncommon to organize in the room on a given morning and find someone missing; usually the odds were 50-50 they had hooked up and were still sleeping, or had a rough night on the tables and were still out trying to recoup their losses.
- A bunch of the crew was into Blackjack and one of the ongoing challenges was finding a $10 table that had several open seats during the prime evening hours. I always found Blackjack boring with its regimented system of rules, but it was very simple for anyone to learn, so it became the default table game for our troop in the early years. Looking back, I remember numerous times when one or several of us would go on a big run, but it was always so difficult to walk away from the crew and inevitably the chip stacks would ebb and flow back closer to even or dwindle down to virtually nothing. It was a slow painful trickle via the 1% house edge, but we had some great conversations and laughs along the way.
- In one of the more random Irish Madness occurrences, we were playing craps at a table Saturday afternoon when the young gentlemen next to me asked if he could buy my sweatshirt. There was nothing special about this piece of clothing; it was a $15 Russel Athletic full-zip item bought at Dick’s Sporting Goods back in high school, but this article of clothing did have one special quality: it was kelly green. When he initially leaned towards me and asked, I did a double take, but after he repeated “How much?” while pointing at my torso, I blurted out ”$40?” sheepishly. Without a word, he took one blue $25 chip and 3 red $5 New York-New York chips from his pile on the wooden rail and passed them over to me. Still confused, I unzipped my sweatshirt and handed it to him; he promptly passed it off to his girlfriend next to him who put the garment on. I was left stunned in my “Real Men Wear Orange” Syracuse t-shirt, wondering how much I should have asked for. After this, I made sure to bring as many green outfits as possible for the weekend, but was never solicited again.
- This was the first year that St. Patrick’s Day itself did not occur on a day we we’re actually in Las Vegas, as it fell on the Tuesday after the first round of NCAA tournament games. Sad timing certainly, but the unfortunate placement of March 17th in 2009 didn’t stop us from indulging in a few green beers while wandering between casinos.
- This year Syracuse was playing exceptionally well in March, making a run to the finals of the stacked Big East tournament which including the epic 6 overtime game against UConn. When the bracket was released the Sunday before the tournament, Syracuse earned a #3 seed, their highest since the 2003 NCAA Championship squad with Melo. A matchup with #2 seed Oklahoma, who sported debatably the most athletic player in the NCAA that year, Blake Griffin, loomed large in the Sweet 16 round, but Syracuse needed to win their opening 2 games first. Feeling confident, I heavily bet Cuse giving points in the first 2 rounds, both of which they easily covered. Unfortunately, Oklahoma played excellent early in the tournament as well, and Blake Griffin looked like the inside presence that would wreak havoc on the 2-3 zone. This narrative played out the week after we got back from Vegas, as Oklahoma easily defeated Syracuse then lost in the Elite Eight round to eventual national champion North Carolina, the only #1 seed in the NCAA tournament not from the Big East that year.
- Early Sunday morning as my brother and I we were wandering in a back alley parallel to the strip we came across a massive pile of metal. Getting closer, we realized this was a stack of rusty, greasy, mangled barbeque grills. Apparently, the Tropicana Casino, which was in the midst of renovating, had simply thrown the grills off the back balcony of each room, then piled them up in this scrap heap. Though the Tropicana was in dire need of renovations, this find was one of the most obvious messages about the shear absurdity of Las Vegas in terms of waste, excess, and poor planning.