The Tao of Pauly … Electric Kool-Aid Vegas

Someone get this guy a nap

“Your action, Pauly,” said Spielberg.
“What’s the raise?”
“8K,” said Jake Plummer.
“Really, Jake? I thought we’re friends? You know I have a short stack? You really want to risk doubling or tripling me up just to steal the blinds?”
“If you had something, you would have already shoved,” replied Jake Plummer very matter-of-factly.
“Fair point,” I conceded and tossed my cards toward the muck. Plummer won the pot and Spielberg scooped up the discards.
That’s when I woke up.


I had nodded at the final table in the middle of my own “Inception”-like dream-within-a-dream mind warp. Reality sunk in. Mark, a doppelganger for Spielberg and host of the tournament, politely reminded me it was my turn to act. The guy to my right was not Jake Plummer, instead it was Snake from Wicked Chops Poker, whose nickname derived from his uncanny resemblance to an unshaven Jake Plummer when he played for the Denver Broncos.
“You must’ve had a fun time in Vegas,” said Snake ribbing me about dozing off. “You look remarkably well for someone who’s been up for five straight days.”

It was actually only three days since my last nap. But as soon as my flight from Vegas landed at LAX, I headed to Cheviot Hills for John Caldwell’s surprise birthday party. I should have been sleeping it off, but Caldwell was like a mentor during my earliest years in the poker biz. Besides, he’s one of the few people who’d be disappointed if I didn’t push the boundaries of how deep down the rabbit hole you can go without losing your mind after five intense days and nights in Vegas.

Caldwell’s party was capped off by a poker tournament. Despite not winning a pot in the first two hours, I squeaked onto the final table short stacked and running on vapors. Sometimes that competitive instinct kicks in and settles any debate between the mind and body. The gambling juices were percolating enough fuel to keep me navigating my way to the final nine like a sleepwalking ninja. I bubbled in fifth place despite passing out at the table. Poker is all skill right? You know how the saying goes. Even a doped-up zombie gets to see sunshine on a dog’s ass every blue moon. Or something like that.

I only accumulated five hours of slumber in five days. Even for an insomniac, that’s pushing it for a Vegas bender. If you have never experienced sleep deprivation, here’s what happens … you get loopy and goofy about 30 hours in, and even if you’re dead sober it feels like you pounded a 12-pack and ate a couple of Xanax by the 40th hour, but you really start to lose your mind around the 50th hour when you cannot triage the hallucinations from reality. If you’re lucky enough to pass the 60th hour without being sedated by law enforcement and locked up in the psych ward for observation, then you’ve reached a state of total disconnection from your mind and body as time, space and logic are impossible to comprehend and you’re floating through the casino, bouncing off rows of slot machines like a pinball, before you convinced yourself you have the powers of telekinesis and can hear the anxious disconnected thoughts of everyone within earshot and it’s like a crowded cocktail party with 40 conversations going on simultaneously until you start to drown in sensory overload and the once-hypnotic blinking kaleidoscope of lights have become blinding lasers searing your eyeballs, and the droll video-game beeps and clanking fake coins become deafening roars like jet engines pounding your eardrums, and you rush off the floor in a full-blown panic attack to hide in your hotel room and shield yourself from the over-stimulation of the powerful, omnipresent collective consciousness of Sin City.

What does the dark side of the force really look like? Stay up for 60 straight hours then walk through any casino. Vegas will mentally maim more weak-minded tourists than any other holiday destination. At least I survived; I battled the Vegas demons for decades, so I know sleep is your only friend in a city that will relentlessly take your last dollar and leave you dangling with one tattered shred left of your humiliated dignity.

I’m losing my edge, just like that James Murphy song with LCD Soundsystem when he laments the doldrums of middle age that quickly eroded his coolness. There was a time when I could stay awake for a week straight in Las Vegas without any naps or cognitive enhancers from Shire Pharmaceuticals, which give you super-human strength and the ability to stay awake, alert and gambling for 24-36 hour stretches. If Vegas casino juntas were really slick, they’d offer Adderall in the vending machines next to the ice machine.

Tin-foil hat time. I once read a conspiracy theory on 2+2 that casino hotel maids ignore the DO NOT DISTURB signs on purpose because the casino conglomerates know that well-rested gamblers are significantly sharper than anyone on the tail end of a two-day orgy of debauchery. Yes, even the maids are in on the hustle by trying to throw off your circadian rhythms in a weak-ass effort to induce non-optimal gambling.

The psychedelic circus invaded Las Vegas with three consecutive Phish concerts, including Halloween, and neo-hippies were scattered throughout the Strip. The festive trip blended into one long blur of lights and disjointed flashbacks. Pai Gow. Football. Blackjack. Dice. Strip Clubs. Whiskey Tango drunk girls. Wicked Spoon. Spun hippie girls tripping balls. Flopping sets and busting locals. Krispy Kreme at 4 a.m. Chasing shots of tequila with 4-Hour Energy. It’s all one long flickering movie of fractured clips of memory blasts.

The last time I slept was sometime Sunday morning around sunrise. Nothing is worse than a sleeping pill that does not work and you get caught in a purgatory of consciousness dragging around like a zombie. I was roaming the casino floor at the witching hour during the changing of the guard as the last vestiges of working girls headed home after an exhausting Saturday night and were greeted by a fresh batch of octogenarian grandmas in wheelchairs awake at the crack of dawn for a discount Sunday buffet. I snapped out of my daze sometime around 7 a.m. and shuffled off to the sportsbook. Three hours until the first NFL games kicked off and it was already mostly filled up.

I lost a chunk of my bankroll betting on San Diego when the Chargers were blown out and humiliated by Miami. I realized I knew nothing about betting on football and I was better off betting on exotic sports like road running. Even my one sure-fire bet on the NYC Marathon unraveled apart the previous day. A friend of mine Hollie was a marathoner and gave me a “can’t miss” inside tip on Rita Jeptoo. Alas, Ms. Jeptoo failed a drug test after she won the Chicago Marathon and was listed as ineligible for the NYC Marathon.
Late on Halloween night as it bled into Saturday morning, we took over an entire Pai Gow table and I taught my friend Chris, a member of the Austin band Moving Matter, how to play my favorite degen derivative of poker. The initial tutorial lasted less than 90 seconds, but Chris was a well-versed hold’em player so it only took three hands before he got the swing of it. And in all, took fewer than 10 minutes before he was completely hooked.
“I push 80 percent of the time and get free Dewars on the rocks? I friggin’ love this game,” Chris remarked.

An unfriendly dealer nearly ruined the session. I have a theory that Strip casinos cut back on labor costs by hiring robots. On that night, the eye in the sky saw us and they dispatched a bot to cool us down. That one bot at our table had their humor setting on 0 percent. I usually maintain my cool until they unleash the bots and I go on the depths of MPGT (Mega Pai Gow Tilt). Once I venture over that demarcation line, the dealers receive a caustic tongue lashing.

“What’s hell wrong with your horrible customer service? Here’s some fresh meat! And you can’t be nice to Chris for a half hour? He’s completely hooked and will be a Pai Gow junkie for the rest of his life. I bring you another veritable ATM and this is how you thank us? The silent treatment? So much for a friendly and fun atmosphere, eh? I mean the guy is clearly a noob, so help him set his hands. Just don’t cold deck the heck out of us and rob him of his last black chips! We might be degenerates, but we’re human beings too, dammit. We’re crippled with feelings of inadequacy, which is why we gamble so much, so would it hurt to just be nice for one hand?”

Luz the dealer arrived. Luz is pronounced “lose” which we all thought was a harbinger of doom. Turned out we were wrong because Luz was lucky for us. She dealt the first Pai Gow in hours. We squealed like little girls catching a glimpse of Beiber’s bare chest. Then Luz dealt a few more Pai Gows. The table made money. The table went berserk. My bud Chris got unstuck. I got unstuck. Everyone was happy. But then the inevitable occurred … it was time for Luz to go on break. As soon as the unfriendly dealer robot returned, we cashed out. We walked away with modest profit, but for the first time in a very long time, the house didn’t win.

December 2014