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.
2010 – Wednesday – Duke (#1) – Luxor – 8
- Listening to games in the car Thursday morning on the way up to Vegas had become a science. By now, we had learned to leave in the morning since nothing was getting done at work anyways. Often, if there was a choice, we would listen to the #8 vs. #9 or #7 vs. #10 seed games as these were critical to squeezing a few extra points out of the office pool brackets. This year served up an excellent battle to start off the tournament which helped to speed up the drive north. Tipping off at 9:20 AM PST, just as we were rolling out of LA, the Jimmer Fredette lead BYU Cougars snuck past the Florida Gators in double overtime; with the teams combining to jack up 55 3-pointers, this game made for great radio listening.
- As it turned out our lodging selection for this year, the Luxor Hotel and Casino, was as complicated to navigate inside as it’s pyramid external architecture suggested. Due to the triangular layout, the elevators needed to be in the center of the structure, resulting in many tempting and dangerous meanderings through the Luxor casino floor on the way outside. However, this location, being the furthest south on the strip we ever stayed during Irish Madness, did allow us to explore all the way down to Mandalay Bay which turned out to be a solid hoops viewing location.
- Around this time, we learned about the “First to 20” Sportsbook betting option which essentially made us stop caring who actually won the basketball game for a few years. Basically, there was a money line set for each game reflecting which team would be the first to score 20 points, this typically ranged from even money for coin flip matchups to -300 for major first-round favorites like the #1 vs. #16 seed games. The “First to 20” was a frustrating bet which could take most of the first half, especially in the defense oriented Big Ten games of this era. It was hilarious to watch people cheer for a random 3 pointer when the score 19 – 17 with 5 minutes left in the first half, and equally surprising to see how close these races to 20 points often were. Most notable this first year was the #5 seed Butler versus #13 seed Murray St. second round game which ground on through most of the first half before an Isaiah Canaan 3-pointer pushed the Racers up to 21 points on their way to a 4-point halftime lead. Butler actually won the game by 2 points, but by then, we had moved on to a different 20-point betting proposition.
- Another interesting table game that gained popularity as we ventured to Las Vegas more often was Pai Gow Poker. This is a fairly straightforward game where you get 7 cards and have to make a 2-card and a 5-card poker hand. The dealer does the same, with specified rules on how they set their hands, like splitting pairs, ace high in the 5-card hand, etc.; then to win you need to beat both the dealer’s hands. It’s a game with more thought and options than blackjack and a lot of pushes which works well if you’re trying to pass away the hours with minimal losses while also keeping an eye on the basketball games inevitably playing on TVs placed behind the dealers’ shoulder.
- At this point, we were pretty knowledgeable on college basketball betting and memorized most game lines on the drive up each year. Also, watching college basketball intently year over year, we started to pick favorite teams based on key players, an eccentric coach, or a certain style of play. One such team for me, Villanova, even earned an amusing nickname this year in which they garnered a #2 seed. Watching in the crowded and loud Sportsbook late on a Saturday evening, a yelled and slightly slurred “Bet the Nova game?” from me turned into “Got Novocain?” in the ears on my friend sitting adjacent. We had a good laugh about it at the time, even though #10 seed St. Mary’s, another one of my favorite NCAA tourney darlings beat them, and to this day I can’t watch Villanova college hoops without thinking about the dentist.
- This year included the hands down funniest moment I’ve seen in Vegas though it may not be as amusing for everyone involved. A small group of us were playing Pai Gow poker at Planet Hollywood when my friend’s girlfriend walked up from behind his chair and without a word slapped him in the face. Chaos ensued as my friend was still trying to play his hand for some reason while the dealer and pit boss looked on in disbelief. Within a few minutes, he was able to calm her down; apparently, he had her phone and room key since she was in her club outfit with no pockets. This account reinforces two of my pet peeves about Vegas, dance clubs, as I’ve already noted, and the lack of cell phone reception or the ability to use them while at the gaming tables. Generally, I’m not a big cell phone user, but there are so many distractions in Vegas it’s impossible to keep a crew together without some networking devices.
- The basketball highlight of this year for me was watching my alma mater Cornell run through Temple and Wisconsin as a #12 seed to reach Sweet 16. I hadn’t really followed Cornell hoops much since graduating in 2005, but after they made the tournament in 2008, I took a renewed interest. The Ivy League was one of the only remaining conferences where the regular season winner goes to the Big Dance, which leaves little chance for a conference tournament run to get a weak team in the NCAA field of 64. I took Cornell getting points in both games which worked out fine, but betting the money line which was at least +250 in both games would have been much more lucrative in hindsight. Either way, a win is a win, and Cornell moved on to the second weekend for the first time since 1954. They promptly got crushed by the #1 seed Kentucky Wildcats.
2011 – Thursday – UConn (#3) – Buffalo Bill’s – 9
- In 2011, the NCAA tournament expanded to 68 teams which resulted in 4 play-in games played on Tuesday. This adjustment caused additional confusion when setting betting lines and filling out brackets. This year, the left half of the NCAA bracket was very mundane, almost chalk which made for some dull gambling. In contrast, the right side was a disaster of upsets including the #11 seed VCU Rams, appropriately decked out in Irish green, eventually reaching the Final Four under the leadership of young coach Shaka Smart. After seeds #1 through #3 won, everyone else in the Southwest Region was upset. It’s funny but with the way the schedules for games from different regions are intermingled, we rarely thought about the bracket as whole until the ride home. Another hindsight fun fact for this year is that it represented the highest sum total of seeds to ever reach the Final Four (#3, #4, #8, #11), with UConn as a #3 seed winning it all.
- In an ode to my own Irish roots, I decided to go all out in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day this year, especially since it fell on the traditional day of the week. After arriving in town and getting my initial hoops bets in, I donned a green sport jacket and top hat, baggy black pants and shoes separated by tall white socks, the outfit complemented by my thick red mustache. That afternoon I spent extra time away from the basketball games wandering down Las Vegas Boulevard, tall boy of Guinness in hand, nodding to my similarly clad Irish brethren.
- As we got older and outgrew the expensive club bottle service scene, one of our favorite spots to go with a big crew was the Karaoke bar outside the Imperial Palace. This fine establishment was right off the strip so lots of riff-raff rolled in. This particular year, we snuck in a 30 rack of Miller High Life from the drug store next store, knowing they sold the same cans inside so with a little discretion the servers would be none the wiser. After an hour or so, an average looking white guy took the mike and proceed to execute the best Eminem tribute rap I’ve ever seen. The crowd was so excited they asked for an encore and in the frenzy during his second song, “Loose Yourself”, a couple of inebriated female dancers kicked over our table exposing a pile of cans underneath. Grabbing the few remaining full beers we made a dash for the exits since there was no bill to settle up on anyways.
- It was at this time that we really started exploiting a very useful Sportsbook hack. It seemed each year the Sportsbooks got more and more crowded, plus more and more stingy on free alcohol. Free back in 2007, a $50 sports bet was now required to get a single drink ticket. However, I’ll have to give my wife credit here since her complete lack of interest in college basketball lead to a fascination with betting the ponies. Over a few years’ time we learned that the horse racing terminals in the Sportsbook, while seemingly reserved, were actually prime seats as long as you held a bet for any horse race. Our initial forays were timid and awkward, but in time we got the cadence of placing horse wagers: track, race, amount, bet, pony. It goes something like this: “Monmouth, Race #4, $5 to Place on #7.” Over the years we got pretty decent at securing prime viewing spots and pretending we knew what we were doing. Our horse betting strategy was always selecting the horses based on good names and middle of the pack odds. Not sure where we netted out over the years, but the $2 “Across the Board” bet lost here and there was well worth being able to sit down and enjoy some free booze while watching hoops.
- Not surprisingly, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish were a real crowd favorite in Vegas every mid-March regardless of how they played. I was never sure how many of these yahoos actually had ties to Notre Dame, or even knew where the university was, but that minor detail didn’t stop them from being exceptionally loud and obnoxious during the games. I can remember several times when I even spotted old-school navy blue Starter jackets sporting the embroidered logo of the goofy Irishman with his dukes up on the back. What thrift store did people go to pick those coats up at? In 2011, Notre Dame actually put together a decent season as part of the Big East, earning a #2 seed in the Southwest under the coaching of Mike Brey and spirited play of Big East Player of the Year Ben Hansbrough, Tyler’s smaller, younger brother. They promptly got bounced out of the tournament by #10 seed Florida State in the second round, good riddance to those fooling bandwagon fans.
- Of all the table game options I know, the one that most lead to my own personal financial hardship was roulette. I could not walk by a table without looking at the number history. Despite having a decent knowledge of statistics, over time drunkenly wandering through casinos I would convince myself that if there was 4 or 5 of the same color in a row it was bound to hit the other color. Clearly flawed logic, but many a time I fell into this trap. I would bet some menial amount, then if I lost double up assuming the missing color would inevitably hit. My personal record for most of one color in a row, appropriately red, was 11; I ran out of money well before that point but would always stay to watch the end of a color rush.