Sin city bowling: Luxurious and nostalgic

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I was in Las Vegas, looking for a little XXX action, so I prowled the alley, my mind in the gutter.

No, you pervs, not the kind of XXX you'll see advertised on top of Vegas taxicabs and handouts on The Strip.

My kind of XXX was at the South Point bowling center. In the 10th frame of an otherwise mediocre bowling game I had rolled a strike, then another. Now I took aim, hoping for another true roll and not the ignominy of a ball sent fluttering into the gutter.

I shuffled my white, red and black rented bowling shoes across the polished hardwood and let fly a 14-pound blue sphere toward a formation of 10 white pins. The spinning orb skipped and rolled, on a beeline for the headpin. At the last second, it slid to the left and struck hard between the 1 and 2 pin, sending the whole set crashing end over end.

I'd rolled a wrong-side strike -- a "Brooklyn" -- for my third strike in the 10th frame, a turkey.

It was my best showing in three days rolling across Las Vegas, taking in one of the latest quirks in the gaming mecca's constant attempt to find a new niche to lure gamblers. Along with high-roller suites, $250-a-round golf courses and "bar wars" that have new clubs opening and closing seemingly every month, an old draw -- bowling -- has taken on a new gloss of lux.

Giving new meaning to the term "high roller," the most expensive bowling alley in the world opened in the Las Vegas suburb of Summerlin. The new star is the $31 million, 72-lane Red Rock Lanes.

It's a major turnaround for a city that just a few years ago closed down the largest bowling alley in the world at the 106-lane Castaways (formerly the Showboat). Red Rock has an arcade, deli and lounge, shuffleboard, pool tables, lots of TVs and -- surprise, surprise -- video poker machines.

Scoring is shown on more than 100 high-definition flat-screen monitors, so you can leave your pencils at home. Common visitors roll on the 60-lane bowling concourse. There's a separate 12-lane "VIP suite" if you are a high roller who wants privacy.

I made Red Rock my first stop on a small sampling of my favorite alleys. I arrived midmorning. The lanes shined. The balls were new and the bowling shoes fresh and cushy -- like nothing I had ever felt. The pro shop window was filled with odd balls: a blue and red Superman logo ball, a Bart Simpson ball and -- my favorite -- a clear ball with a skeleton head in the middle. This isn't your dad's bowling pro shop.

Red Rock is primarily for nighthawks, so I was just one of five bowlers. Good thing, as a stiff back, tight hamstrings and an overly optimistic 16-pound ball had me finishing under 100 for the first two games. I wasn't the only one having a bad day.

"The lanes are a little tight," says Mauro Cusi, 62, frowning at his 223 finish, a score that would have me spinning in the aisles. But Cusi was just getting started. Besides, if he was having bad luck here, he could move on to another spot in a place that to him is bowling nirvana.

"Bowling is how I fell in love with Las Vegas." Cusi says. "I used to come from the Bay Area for tournaments, and I finally moved here. Now I bowl everywhere -- here, Suncoast, Texas Station, Sunset Station. Where else does a bowler have so many choices?"

Cusi's third game has him slamming home six strikes and finishing just over 250. I improved too -- a whopping 101. Time to hit the road.

At my second of three stops, Suncoast, I work up a good sweat on the massive trek from garage to causeway to casino to bowling center. The alley is as crowded as Red Rock was empty. There's a huge group from the nearby Sun City retirement center unzipping bags and putting on bowling gloves for their weekly visit.

"Sorry, no lanes -- you've got to come before noon or after three," the counter guy in the island between two rows of 32 lanes says. He says the Sun City crowd starts at noon, in 20 minutes. I tell him I will roll one game and be done and if I'm not, he can shut me down. Deal. The focus of the quick game and perhaps the unplanned exercise of the long walk has loosened my legs, allowing me to get lower on my delivery. I roll a respectable 131, with a couple of strikes and some spares (though a lot of nine-pin first balls and then unable to pick up the last white sentinel before the Brunswick gate drops and sweeps my failure away).

I make my 20-minute deadline and within minutes the Sun City crowd is firing away -- strike after strike from sun-worn arms and bony elbows. There's the sound of thumbs popping from balls as twirling curves are sent thundering down for another strike. The noise is deafening -- like a cannonball volley for Pirates of the Caribbean. My pride evaporates as the retirees rack up 170s, 180s, 200s and more. I try to take some pictures, but a woman turns and sternly warns, "No flash photography -- this is league play!" I retreat and head toward the south end of The Strip.

I thought I would stiffen up on the long drive down to South Point. I favor my back a bit and loft the ball in the first game, diving back below 100 with gutter balls and splits. But I go down a pound on the ball in the second game, go with a shorter delivery and a little less speed. A steady game until my XXX epiphany. I know when to end on a high note and take off my bowling shoes for the last time after 60 frames in a day.

What to do after a long day of bowling? Why, bowl, of course. Not exactly the same kind. I head over to the Silverton Casino, famous for its huge aquarium (complete with occasional mermaid) and Bass Pro Shop. But I like it for a little spot back by the bar. An Airstream trailer with mica shaded lamps that has been converted into a two-lane mini-bowling alley like the kind I used to find at penny arcades as a kid. Palm-sized balls, a longneck beer and lots of silliness with other patrons.

"Throw it as hard as you can!" Kevin Tidwell of Morgan Hill, Calif., yells to his wife, Tory. The ball rattles up the alley and nine pins flip up into the roof of the alley.

"How could that not be a strike?!" Tory says, laughing.

What I had been saying all day.

"This is better than real bowling," says Gregg Smith of Tracy, Calif.

Whatever lofts your ball, Gregg. Las Vegas has lots of bowling styles -- sleek and cool, loud and rowdy, traditional and serious. Even miniaturized. Try them all. Just not in a day.

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IF YOU GO:

Some of my favorite bowling spots in Las Vegas. Prices vary widely by time and day. These are for Saturdays during the day.

-- Red Rock Lanes, 11011 W. Charleston Blvd., 702-797-7467. $3.75 for all adults, $3.25 for juniors.

-- Gold Coast Hotel, 4000 W. Flamingo Road, 702-367-4700. $2.90 for all ages.

-- Mahoney's Silver Nugget, 2140 Las Vegas Blvd. N., 702-320-2695. $2.75 for adults, $2.25 for children 12 and under.

-- Orleans Hotel and Casino, 4500 W. Tropicana, 702-365-7400. $3.25 for all ages.

-- Sam's Town, 5111 Boulder Highway, 702-454-8022. $2.25 for all ages.

-- Santa Fe Station, 4949 N. Rancho Drive, 702-658-4995. $3.75 for all ages.

-- Silverton, 3333 Blue Diamond Road, 702-263-7777. Airstream bowling, $2 a game.

-- South Point Casino Hotel & Spa, 9777 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 702-797-8080. $3.25 for all ages.

-- Sunset Station Strike Zone, 1301 W. Sunset Road, 702-547-7467. $3.75 for adults, $3 for children 10 and under.

-- Suncoast Hotel and Casino, 9090 Alta Drive, 702-636-7400. $2 for all ages.

-- Sunset Lanes, 4451 Sunset Road, 702-736-2695. $2 for all ages.

--Texas Station, 2101 Texas Star Lane, 702-631-8388. $2.50 for all ages.

MORE INFO: vegas.com

------© 2009, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.).

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