It was almost the night before Christmas and the house was winning.
His creatures moved through secondhand smoke.
A man in a knitted Santa hat laughed out loud outside the Bellagio, a cigarette in one hand and a Modelo wall unit in the other. Guests ran to the card tables wearing reindeer socks and plastic antlers. Small dogs in seasonal sweaters clattered by in baby strollers.
And my septuagenarian mother approached an inscrutable dragon-themed slot machine: She'd already lost $60, but she was determined to turn it around.
He pressed a button. The lights flickered. The contraption purred.
“Yeshhhhh!” he said as the profits poured in, narrowly surpassing his initial loss.
“Balance!” my father shouted.
“I didn't know you could make money doing this!” said my wife, Alexis, a newcomer to this family tradition, behind them.
We returned to Las Vegas for Christmas and won $1.25. The world was ours.
Every family has its own Christmas rituals, choices, and tics that can seem inexplicable to even the most open-minded of friends. And for about 20 years now, since I was a teenager, my family's vacation usually looks like this: a reel of (relative) sin in a Las Vegas casino, illuminated on its downward-facing color wheel, marked with the clack of blackjack chips and Paul McCartney's Christmas song (“Simp-ly haaaa-aaving…”) that seems to play above every table like a matter of Nevada state law.
There are, of course, thousands of Vegas hidden within the city limits: late-night or open-air, boozy or kid-friendly, gambling-averse or financially ruinous, far beyond our annual habit of losing a couple of hundreds of dollars (and maybe a couple hundred more). ) when our NBA cards or picks fail.
Ours is a Vegas in bed at midnight, mostly sober, anthropologically fascinated by clubbing and perpetually dismayed by the volume of restaurant music. “I'm going to spin when this guy's done,” my dad said one night, threatening to replace the DJ at Best Friend, Roy Choi's fantastic but deafening Korean fusion venue at Park MGM.
For better or worse, I've spent far more time in Las Vegas than any other vacation destination, absorbing a procession of fateful (or at least memorable) snapshots over the years. There was the time when Jay Leno, apparently surprised to see a pubescent-looking high school student on his show, criticized me (correctly) for inspecting the cosmetic enhancements of the middle-aged woman to my right. Pete Rose, looking as tough as his garden glove, was regularly seen signing paid autographs at Caesar's Palace.
One year, Siegfried (of “and Roy” fame) brightened our Christmas Day by performatively flirting with my mother when we found him strolling through his petting zoo at the Mirage. On this trip, we visited the hotel to observe a moment of silence for him, before locating the quick wedding chapel where my parents renewed their vows in 2014. “If I get emotional,” the officiant asked that day, swelling with practiced sincerity, his lock of dark hair is versatile enough to imitate Elvis at night, “is that okay?” No one has ever been better at his job.
A lot had changed in the family since our last stay in 2019, before Covid hit us: serious health problems, semi-retirement, personal losses. “If I had a week to live,” my father said this time. He didn't need to bother with the joke.
Having my wife join us now had a special resonance, especially for my mother, who liked Alexis long before we met after reading a tweet from him during a work trip to Las Vegas. “Desperately lost somewhere in the Venetian,” the post said. “Send help.” My mother quoted that line in a speech she wrote for our rehearsal dinner last spring.
Alexis, a veteran evangelist of the Las Vegas food scene on previous visits, took us to her old favorites: Lotus of Siam, an otherworldly Thai spot off the Strip, and China Poblano, upstairs at the Cosmopolitan, for bagels and pork tacos from José Andrés.
Over several meals, my parents introduced another family tradition: setting probabilities for such mundane details as the time of day (“about 9 o'clock?”), and then haggling for so long that the answer changed.
Alexis doesn't share my family's affection for the mid-stakes game, an instinct we considered something of a challenge. “You press buttons and sometimes there is money,” Alexis said of casino games. “I could do much more interesting things by pressing buttons. I could start a car. “I could launch a rocket.” Admittedly, her case was bulletproof, and it didn't change even after my father's four-figure jackpot late on Christmas Eve.
“I got it,” he said softly, as the 10 of clubs completed his royal flush in video poker (his first, he believed, after many thousands of lesser hands over the decades), prompting a casino attendant to appear. for the best. type of logistics: the paperwork of the big winner. (“Believe me, he can make up for it,” my mom said of the tax implications.)
Raised in Louisville, Kentucky, among racetrack denizens, my father could be a miserable loser and a confused winner, self-pitying in defeat and embarrassed in victory, as if either outcome seemed a little unfair. In Las Vegas, he is unmissable and well camouflaged among his own people: a man who takes calls on loudspeaker in public places and says: “In the words of Danny DeVito…” before quoting Dustin Hoffman's character in “Rain Man” .
“You meet like-minded people,” he once said warmly at Wynn Race & Sports Book, where we high-fived strangers who had made the same bet on the Miami Heat.
My mother also caught the gambling bug early: As a teenager, she watched horse racing with her parents and attended college in Saratoga Springs, New York, a pony paradise. She spent enough time at the machines during occasional stops in Atlantic City that a casino once sent her a birthday cake to our house to greet her patronage. “We have to take Oma to a casino,” she said recently about my goddaughter. Oma is 3 years old.
When my parents expressed their opinion about raising my children, we joined one of the many amalgamated Las Vegas subgroups as secular Jews who appreciated and celebrated Christmas in New York, but we decided it all made a little more sense in the desert.
“I know some people disagree, but I think Las Vegas is very pretty,” my mother said one afternoon, assessing the mountains and the Sphere, the superorb that now juts out of the city skyline like a municipal grain. Then we stumbled upon the Erotic Heritage Museum.
But he is not wrong, especially at this time of year, when the season and the setting conspire in harmony: spiritual despite the vices, joyful despite the adversities. People-watching can be more rewarding than any gamble: kids in snowman pajamas on Christmas morning, yawning as they take photos with their presents in a tinsel-strewn hallway; Costumed Grinches and Mickeys chat, headless, during a break from the outdoor hustle and bustle, with potential tips distracted by a Bellagio water show set to “Carol of the Bells.”
Even a family of inveterate oversharers can learn new things from each other. As she played an advertisement for the male striptease show Thunder From Down Under, my mother discovered that her memory of her had been jogged. “I went to Chippendales once,” she volunteered. “Everything was fine.”
By Christmas Day, his attention had turned more squarely to his daughter-in-law and how to persuade her to fatten (or lighten) his wallet. Alexis had already moved forward cautiously, posing a question as we waited in line for donuts: What were the odds, she asked, that we'd make it to the register before 10 a.m.?
“See?” she said. “I'm trying!”
That night, she declared herself ready for reality and sat next to my mother to play video poker.
It started badly. They lost $20, $40 and went under. Alexis was more bewildered than discouraged. “It is this?” she asked.
And then, almost simultaneously, two Christmas presents: four sevens appeared on each of their screens: the kind of cosmic success that can, if the casinos have their way, give a beginner a lifetime of bad ideas.
“I like to win!” Alexis reported, as she and my mom admired her work, posing for pictures with her matching rewards.
“That was supposed to happen,” my mom said, smiling. “Welcome to the family.”
Alexis was in, as if that was ever in doubt. And she knew enough to withdraw money.
“I feel like this means I stop doing it now,” he said.
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