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.
2012 – Saturday – Kentucky (#1) – Excalibur – 10
- This was the first year I flew into Las Vegas, having moved up to Utah for work. No worries, we already had a critical mass of peeps from So Cal to bring the stocked cooler, and others who had left were flying in as well so getting picked up at the airport was easy.
- One of our quickly established Irish Madness traditions were Irish car bombs, these were ever-present in some form from Year #1 through Year #9. Usually in charge of shopping for the crew, early in the week before our pilgrimage to Las Vegas, I would hit the liquor store and secure 2 handles each of Jameson Irish Whiskey and Bailey’s Irish Cream, along with a few cases of Guinness Irish Stout in bottles. These tasty drinks served many purposes throughout the weekend; a hearty breakfast, a celebration after a group bet win, a rallying cry before heading out in the evenings. It was always clear when we had a virgin Irish Car Bomb drinker in the mix as failure to consume the mixed beer and shot in the timely manner resulted in a curdled, cloying disaster. This drink was definitely a mess to execute, we tried to rinse the Solo cups and shot glasses after each round, but inevitably a few strays ended up strewn around the hotel room. Despite the hassle, these tasty concoctions were definitively a key part of the Irish Madness tradition.
- In later trips, the Excalibur Sportsbook turned into one of our go-to viewing spots. Originally laid out in a pretty traditional manner, a few years back the Excalibur staff made the bold move to place rows of portable metal bleachers, like you would find at a very small high school football game, in the back of the Sportsbook. This resulted in a fairly random visual looking in from the casino side but created a great lively atmosphere for basketball viewing inside the ring of bleachers. They also made the wise decision to charge reasonable beer prices, $10 for a 6-bottle bucket, and within 2 years had converted their dull Sportsbook into a regular tailgate party for March Madness weekends. Being located at the Tropicana Avenue quadrant with New York – New York, Tropicana, and MGM Grand casinos, this portion of The Strip had lots going for it.
- One of the most frustrating parts of betting the “Under” in college basketball games, especially in the NCAA Tournament, is the high potential for overtime. Aside from a few of the extreme seed matchups in the first round, all the teams are so evenly matched and play hard down to the last second that some ties are unavoidable. This phenomenon is what makes the NCAA tournament great for viewing, and gut-wrenching when betting the “Under.” There are countless times a last second shot, or excessive fouling in the last few minutes, has destroyed a well placed “Under” bet. In this regard, 2012 was an excellent year with many strong defensive teams line Cincinnati, Kansas, and Louisville, plus more importantly not a single overtime game, despite many close calls, in the entire first weekend of the tournament.
- A discussion on Vegas gambling would not be complete without a slight aside about craps. One of the most intimidating games to join for newcomers, the large table with chips flying all over and random yelling makes it seem complicated. In fact, once we learned craps this became one of our favorite group games since you could often get a casino to open a new table with just 6 peeps, and there are many conservative betting options, $100 can get you by at a $5 table for a while unless something really goes wrong.
2013 – Sunday – Louisville (#1) – Aria – 7
- With some extra time off between jobs, this was the year I decided to go bell to bell and catch all 32 NCAA first round games in Vegas, ignoring the goofy First 4 matchups of course. The flight from Salt Lake City was just over an hour. The first Southwest flight out Thursday morning got me on the ground before the inaugural game, an uneventful matchup where #5 seed VCU crushed #12 Akron by 46 points. No worries from a gambling standpoint, that just set up the remaining three number #12 seeds to cover; in fact, they all won their first games outright.
- Our accommodations this year were at the Aria, a new casino we had watched go up over the years prior. The newer casinos offered many modern amenities like wifi, drop down video screens, and kitchenettes that were not part of the old guard Vegas casinos due to high retrofit costs. Even though it was March, the forecast was mid-80s, so we coordinated ahead of time to bring swim suits with the intent of going to a pool party. This turned out to be surprisingly fun with good scenery both on the TVs and in the water. The main drawbacks were that they insisted on having an obnoxious DJ on instead of the basketball game commentary, and the drinks, even beers, were absurdly expensive with no way to smuggle booze in as was our usual move. Overall, it was a good change of pace from the Sportsbooks provided you got your bets for the day in ahead of time.
- The most appropriately themed location on the strip for St. Patrick’s Day, O’Sheas Irish Casino, saw a significant uptick in traffic during Irish Madness weekend. This classy establishment’s claim to fame was pedaling green beer and Irish car bombs, two drinks our crew was intimately familiar with. The décor was absurd, including stuffed leprechauns, harps, and tons of tacky shamrocks plastered on the walls. For the entire month surrounding St. Patrick’s Day, they had Irish bands of varying skill levels playing on the tiny stage next to the slot machines. Quite an experience.
- While our crew wasn’t addicted to strip clubs, we did venture there from time to time; usually on a drunken late-night whim. The most amusing times were always when we took someone for the first time, or when we dragged our girlfriends along. By 7 PM on a weekend night, a group of young guys couldn’t walk more than a few minutes on the sidewalk without getting offered discounts for VIP service at some classy establishment, and by that point in the day, one of us was usually ready to take the bait.
- It’s time for my Caesar’s Casino product plug. Over the years of Vegas visits, this location was by far our most visited spot as a group. A few of the amenity highlights include: one of the “OG” sportsbooks directly connected to one of the best poker rooms in town, the continuously popular dance club Pure despite the foolish bottle service cost, by far the best food court in Vegas with reasonable prices and great cuisine selection, and last but not least the only secret, elevated ramp directly into the casino from the Las Vegas strip. Granted, this fine establishment was the home of my most memorable roulette loss as already discussed, but that only elevates its rarified standing.
- Sticking to my plan this year, I took the late flight back to Utah, catching the 2nd half of the unanticipated #12 Ole Miss versus #13 La Salle matchup in LAS airport; not many people had La Salle moving onto the Sweet 16 in their bracket that year. 32 games in 96 hours, and I’d bet on 24 of them, quite an amusing and productive weekend.
2014 – Monday – UConn (#7) – Best Western – 4
- As a result of late trip planning and a dwindling crew, we booked a Best Western off The Strip. For the first time, I flew in for the weekend from the East Coast, leaving Baltimore, MD very early in the morning and arriving in Vegas around midday on Thursday. It’s amusing to observe the morale of the passengers on a flight to Vegas as opposed to those leaving town. Flight attendants’ hands were busy pouring drinks that Thursday as we flew over the Midwest at 9 AM in the morning; travelers anxious to get in the right mindset before landing at McCarran Airport.
- One of the perks of our off-the-beaten-path hotel was its location right next to City Of Sin microbrewery. While nothing to write home about, but in the spirit for the season, they did have a tasty dry Irish stout which went down just as well at 10 AM as 10 PM.
- This year, with only a few people to distract me, I realized how many hours I’d spent playing poker in Vegas over the years. TVs and drinks were prevalent, plus the slow methodical pace of playing tight and aggressive, often folding an entire deal around the table, was complemented nicely by the wealth of college hoops games on. I was still recognized by many dealers, back from several years earlier when we were going to Las Vegas 4 times annually. Per usual, this trip I devoted two full days to poker, then met up with the crew in the evenings. If the Sportsbook was close to the Poker Room, as it was at MGM and Caesars, I would play for 8 straight hours subsisting on Sierra Nevada pale ales and luck.
- This was the year I scored one of the biggest upset bets in memory, Duke losing as a #3 seed to #14 seed Mercer in the first round of the NCAA tournament. I’d been making the same bet against Duke the past few seasons since they lost in the first round in 2012 to small Pennsylvania based Lehigh University, and in 2014, it actually paid off. As the game was on Friday, I was able to hit the Sportsbook and lock in the underdog on the money line at +320. Posting up with a clear view of the action, it seemed like a large majority of those in the casino were completely comfortable rooting against Duke. Mercer played well in the first half, trailing by only a point, then took over in the second half in route to a 7-point victory. This game was not the traditional upset playbook, with Duke making 40% of the 27 three point attempts they chucked up, while Mercer focused on controlling the paint and got to the line 15 more times that the Blue Devils. It’s always fun to watch angry Duke fans.
- Surprisingly, this was the first, and only, time I ventured down to Old Vegas to meet up with a few friends staying at the newly renovated Big D Casino. Old Vegas in general had a run-down and dirty feel, but the Big D makeovers were nice. They had converted one of their conference rooms into a Sportsbook complete with a full wall of flat screen TVs on wheels and classic Detroit fair like Coney Dogs and square, deep dish pizza. No reason to stay down there, but it was a nice change of pace from the hectic crowds of The Strip for a few hours.
- One oddity of the year was that UConn, the team who eventually won the entire tournament, was nearly eliminated from the tournament on its very first day. Surviving an overtime against St. Joseph’s midday on Thursday, a game which I didn’t have a horse in, UConn found their stride and reeled of the necessary 5 more wins to claim the NCAA title.
- Eating sushi on my own on Sunday evening before my red-eye flight back to the East Coast, occasionally glancing over at the UCLA versus Stephen F. Austin (#4 vs. #12) game, I started to realize this was likely the end of Irish Madness in this format. The smaller crew, many friends had kids at this point, staying off The Strip, having to fly back across the country home; this combination of factors led to the decision that 2014 was the conclusion of a good run.
Sadly, the Las Vegas St. Patrick’s Day NCAA tournament first weekend tradition has come to an end; probably for the better in terms of my liver and pocket book. However, I still have a pile of drink coupons and uncashed casino chips in my bedside drawer if anyone wants to get the band back together.