Betting against reality

Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS -- It's still early by casino time at Caesars Palace -- around 10 a.m., when most tourists are either packing for home or just waking up before planning another assault on the gambling tables. There are only a few die-hards at the slot machines when an alarm siren shrieks with the eerie urgency of TV dispatches from Baghdad.

Uniformed security officials race through the casino, their loud squawk boxes adding to the noisy assault.

It proves to be a routine signal from a monitoring device, nothing serious, a guard tells anyone who asks. Not that anyone does. None of the video machine bettors even seems to look up.

During prime time at night, the noise in the crowded casinos is so loud gamblers would have trouble hearing the sirens. Even in the morning quiet, the few dozen players seem oblivious to them. They keep shoving money into video gambling machines so bettor-friendly that they let you gaze at some nostalgic images while feeding the beasts. There are "I Love Lucy" and "The Beverly Hillbillies" machines, and a row of Elvis Presley ones.

Las Vegas makes it easy to tune out the rest of the world -- even in wartime.

People come here to escape -- and everything inside the goliath resorts helps you do that. There's a smile on every employee's face, a drink at every command. You can even smoke.

One of the high-end jewelry shops at Caesars is so obliging it's open all night. After all, some high-roller can get lucky just as easily at 3 in the morning as 11 at night and decide it's time for a $500,000 watch.

If the gamblers aren't alert to their own safety, you can see why they can also tune out the fighting half the globe away in Iraq.

During her opening-night concert this week in the new $95-million Colosseum theater, Celine Dion pretty much outlined the Vegas philosophy when she urged the audience to set aside their anxieties and just enjoy themselves during the show.

That's the same spirit you find in the wing of Caesars devoted to sports betting. One wall is dominated by eight TV monitors, each as large as the screens in some movie multiplexes. Six screens are tuned to sporting events, including three racetracks around the country and a Dodger spring training game. Another screen is plugging the Dion show. The final is devoted to CNN's war coverage.

The CNN screen isn't a concession to the war, a casino worker says. The hotel will show whatever they think people want. Before the war, the screen often charted the stock market's progress. The hotel might even devote two of the huge screens to news shows when there's no sports action to follow. During the madness of the NCAA basketball tournament, however, all the screens are likely to be devoted to sports.

"We are in business to help people have a good time," the employee says. "But most people come over here to bet on sports. Some look forward to their visit for weeks and they are focused on it here."

Many of us still have images, from magazines or experience, of millions of American families huddled around radios during World War II, listening to the latest fragmentary reports from the battlefield. That's when the great CBS news team led by Edward R. Morrow made its name.

Today, that still happens to varying degrees in bars and other public places. But most of the watching is at home, and it tests your nerves to keep up with the constant coverage, even though the drama has heightened in recent days as the nation learns of the increasing dangers and complexities of battle.

Sure enough, only one person here is watching the CNN screen.

Ann Watt, a DMV worker from Richmond, Va., is celebrating her 50th birthday and is trying to have a good time, but it is hard, she says, to shake off the anxiety of the war. She has an 18-year-old cousin in Kuwait and checks the news periodically. "He wanted to join the Marines instead of go to college, and we're all behind him and the troops," she says. "I just wish they come home soon."

The sound is turned down on the news channel, but the headlines scrolling across the bottom of the screen proclaim an important Pentagon update is just minutes away. The attention in the room, however, is on a screen showing a tight stretch run during the third race at New York's Aqueduct track.

"I don't think people who come here care any less about what's going on in the world," a security guard says. "I'm a former military man, but I don't sit around the house watching the news all night because I've got a young son. I don't want him to go to bed with those images in his head."

There are some patriotic images around town. The huge Caesars message board on the Strip periodically declares "One nation under God" on a field of red, white and blue. Across the street at the smaller Barbary Coast casino, there is a "United we stand" sign that flashes several times a minute. More than 2,000 locals, primarily, attended a rally Wednesday to support U.S. military personnel in the Middle East. A casino snack bar attendant, who has a relative in the military, says TV sets in the employee lounge are turned to news channels.

"We're a patriotic city," says an assistant casino manager. "But people come to get relief from their problems. We have TV sets on with the news and closed captions if they want it -- and you see people pausing by the sets."

Shalice Northrop, on vacation from Michigan, believes that even the tourists keep up with war news on TV sets in their rooms. "I want to see what's happening," she says at Caesars. "I don't think you can ever fully get it out of your mind."

Inside the casino, though, it's easy to take a few hours' break.

Asked if he ever feels the impact of the outside world on the casino environment, one employee in the sports book area says, "Sept. 11."

How was it different that day?

"There was nobody here."

Until the Iraq war captures our attention the way Sept. 11 did, the interest at the sports book will continue to be on the races at the "I Love Lucy" slots and Aqueduct.

It's only when you get to the airport here that you start making the transition back to reality. In a waiting area, someone asks the attendant to change the channel from a game show to CNN. The attendant apologizes. He says people have been asking that all day, but the set just doesn't pick up the cable channels.

By then, you know you are leaving Las Vegas.

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