All of us big-time gamblers are superstitious. And we knew it was a bad omen when our blackjack instructor called in sick.
Well, OK, my wife, Bobbie, and I were not quite big-time gamblers when we hit the casinos last month. We didn't even know how to play the games. We had tried one table game in our lives. It was roulette, during a brief Vegas visit last March, and we had won $175 on a $5 bet. Bitten by the gambling bug, we wanted to do it right. What better way than to attend classes?
More than a dozen Las Vegas casinos offer free, regularly scheduled classes in poker, blackjack, craps, pai gow and roulette, but only Bally's and the MGM Grand offered classes on the weekend we were in town. We didn't have to sign up in advance or even prove that we were hotel guests.
When we strode onto the floor at Bally's at 4:10 on a Friday afternoon, a pit boss hit us with the news: "Sorry, folks, no 4:30 blackjack class. The instructor is sick." But she added, "There's a craps class in progress."
Helen Gilmore, the craps instructor, and her class of novices welcomed us warmly. We learned that you're supposed to throw your dice against the far wall of the table and keep your drink on the ledge below. The rest seemed pretty complicated to me. But we had missed two-thirds of the lesson. I was sure it would all become clear the next day, when we would take a complete craps class.
After a detour to Paris, the hotel, where we drank a couple of free Chardonnays, we went down an escalator to the Bally's monorail station, and in three minutes we were at our hotel, the MGM Grand. Our room, on the 11th floor in the newly refurbished Grand Tower, was decorated to evoke Jean Harlow's bungalow on the old MGM lot, with blond furniture, pink-and-gray granite tabletops and a white Italian marble bathroom.
We were on time for our 8 p.m. reservations at the Hollywood Brown Derby downstairs. We waited in the bar, surrounded by drawings of Susan Hayward, Judy Holliday and Wallace Beery. Red wines by the glass averaged a steep $13, so we decided to split a glass of Merlot.
Twenty minutes later, we found ourselves in Old Hollywood, seated amid mahogany panels and armoires, in a sea of silver serving dishes and flaming desserts. Waiters in tuxedos scurried about. On the walls were signed caricatures of celebrities from days gone by.
The menu read like the Queen Mary cookbook. Bobbie ordered scallops and halibut in creamy clam sauce, and I ordered a veal chop in Bordelaise sauce. We were very, very happy with our food.
As we left, Frank Sinatra impersonator Bobby Barrett was singing "Hey! Jealous Lover" in the bar. He stood beside a piano, smoking a cigarette. He didn't look much like Sinatra, but his phrasing and gestures were perfect. The bar patrons were smoking, snapping their fingers and looking cool.
A little after noon the next day, we joined 30 others huddled three-deep around an MGM Grand craps table for 45 minutes of instruction from Lanie Sawka.
"In 45 minutes, you are not going to learn all there is to know about craps," she warned us. "In 45 days, you are not going to learn all there is to know about craps." Later she added: "At the end of this class, one-third of you will not be with me."
She told us about natural sevens and don't-pass lines, about proposition bets, field bets and hard ways, about calculating odds and wagers, and about sevening out. She explained the difference between putting your chips on the pass line and putting them behind it, and under what circumstance you call out your bet to your dealer. She told us about the seemingly infinite number of combinations you could bet on.
My head was swimming. I was not going to be class valedictorian. I did not want to play craps. I was going to look like an idiot. Sawka led 12 survivors to a $2 table set up for beginners. (The minimum here usually is $10.) She promised that the dealers would be friendly and would help us. Bobbie was among the survivors. I stood back and held her purse.
Two dealers ran the game, with someone called a stickman retrieving the dice. A boxman in a suit organized the chips.
Bobbie stood next to the stickman and bought $60 worth of chips from the dealer, Joe. A fellow student to her right was the first to be bawled out by Joe: "One hand on the dice, sir, not two." Bobbie was next. "You have to tell me what you want, ma'am. I can't read your mind." The next time she forgot to call out her number, Joe said: "You said you were from L.A., ma'am. Was that Lower Alabama?"
Tim, the stickman, chimed in with his Chinese accent: "I keep my eye on you." The next time Bobbie erred, he said, "Madam, you want to go home early?"
But Bobbie played for 45 minutes and was clearly getting the hang of it. She quit because she was hungry and $15 ahead. She wanted to go to the buffet at Caesars Palace. She said the buffet was the only game in Las Vegas where the odds favored the customer.
We took the monorail to Bally's and crossed over the Strip on the pedestrian walkway to Caesars. The sky was sunny, the temperature 53. We paid $14.95 each for the Champagne brunch, sat down, toasted our big success with a glass of bubbly, asked for two more and left for the food stations. Bobbie pyramided her plate with enough shrimp to feed a school of sharks, but where she really beat the house was on the desserts. She had a cream puff, a ladyfinger, a cannoli, a slice of Black Forest cake and a hot fudge sundae with M&M's and walnuts.
Next we were off by taxi to Binion's Horseshoe downtown, our lucky casino. It was here that we had won at roulette. No longer a beginner, Bobbie took a spot at a $2 craps table with a bunch of tough-looking hombres. She bought $20 worth of chips, bet on "pass" for the first throw, won, and did well until it was her turn to toss the dice. They went sailing right off the table. It was downhill from there. After 35 minutes, she was $1 behind, and she quit.
At the same roulette table where we won $175 by betting on 28, we put $5 down on 28 again. The ball landed on 27. Stung by the losses, we decided against an expensive cab ride back to the Strip. We left the bright lights of the Fremont Street Experience and walked through a dicey neighborhood until we arrived at the Downtown Transit Center, dogged by throngs of teenage boys. We grabbed the first bus in sight and rode to the Sahara and its Congo Room.
The 7:30 p.m. show was "The Rat Pack Is Back." We slipped an usher $5, and he seated us in the second row of a festive showroom.
It was Frank Sinatra's birthday, and the year was 1961. A Joey Bishop look-alike rattled off gags about John F. Kennedy's sex life and the Bay of Pigs invasion.
A Frank Sinatra impersonator arrived, sang "Luck Be a Lady," and then a Dean Martin impersonator showed up, drinking from a magnum-size martini glass. He sang, "Everybody Loves Somebody" and "That's Amore."
Joey Bishop to Frank Sinatra: "Hey, Frank, why do Italians hate Jehovah's Witnesses?"
Frank: "I don't know. Why, Joey?"
Joey: "Because Italians hate all witnesses."
We thought the show captured the era faithfully. We couldn't stop laughing despite ourselves.
MGM Grand Hotel & Casino, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Las Vegas, NV 89109; telephone (877) 880-0880 or (702) 891-7777, Internet www.mgmgrand.com/lv/.