“The Last Time Josh Axelrad Went to Vegas”

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

By Josh Axelrad

Elsewhere on SMITH, Lewis Schiff interviews Josh Axelrad, author of the memoir, Repeat Until Rich. Below, Axelrad offers a long riff to the question, “When was the last time you went to Vegas and what was that like?”

I was last in Vegas for two days in September of 2006. It was a bleak mission for me. As you know from the book, having sold to Penguin Press for a startling sum a memoir about my five years of high times and glorious achievements in the world of professional blackjack, I proceeded to have a mental breakdown while trying actually to write the book, and as part of that breakdown I began gambling pathologically and ingloriously on the Internet, playing poker, which had never been my game, and I effectively spent one year locked in psychic horror, doing this, day in and day out, frequently for multiple straight days uninterrupted by sleep, isolating myself socially, not writing anything, wrecking myself and my story and my reputation and my self-respect, ruining the premise of my book (and to a large extent, life) while going from flush to cash-poor.

By September I was in a bind and I needed money. Part of my assets were in the form of casino chips. It was about seven grand. Sometimes for various reasons during a blackjack trip it would be inconvenient to cash your chips, or you might hope to make use of those chips on a subsequent trip; it wasn’t uncommon to leave town with some. For over a year those chips had been stowed in a safe-deposit box at 73rd Street and Broadway, but I needed the liquidity now. Cashing the chips was my last option before cashing out (and taking an early-withdrawal tax penalty on) an old IRA, which I had to do in 2007–or, you know, getting a job.

So, in September I visited family in LA and I routed myself through Vegas on the return. I was aware when planning this trip and even more aware as the jet was taking off from LAX–all that thrust upon launch calls to mind visions of the leap to hyperspace and seems like the optimal metaphor for…departure, I guess, if you follow me–that returning to Nevada in this way, for this purpose, broke, after everything else I’d experienced there and done to those fucking casinos, would be bittersweet, pitiful, solemn. Sometimes I get consumed with piercing fear during takeoff, and that was happening on this occasion, but the moment we were airborne, the moment I saw we had cleared land and were soaring west over the Pacific to make the big U-turn they make, I became calmer, I felt unattached and aloof. I looked out the window and saw something extraordinary, some utterly wild interplay between the clouds, the lights from LA, and, as I recall it, the moon. (But this is wrong about the moon. The Vegas flight was September 19 and according to this website there was practically no moon visible.) It was just fully exotic, whatever this spectacle was, some happenstantial confluence of visuals entirely unlike any vantage I had had of any city in all the times I’d flown. I was mesmerized by it, transported. I held it in my mind through the flight.

At McCarran Airport in Vegas I was moving with the old jauntiness of the blackjack days, showing utmost efficiency, or so I thought. There’s an optimal route to the luggage carousels, an optimal path out to the shuttle that will take you to your rental car, and so on. I was as directed as I had been in the old days. Dealing with logistics in this manner, I temporarily suppressed any thought of the actual mission at hand.

I drove to the South Point (it was called the South Coast at the the time)–a junky new off-Strip resort that had cheap rooms–checked in, and dragged my bags across the gaming floor to get to the elevators. Now, crossing a casino floor, casting your gaze over it to scan for the blackjack area and eyeball the number of tables and whether they’re crowded and whether there seems to be action (i.e., large bets–virtually impossible in this dump) is both a familiar and a gratifying thing for a one-time professional card-counter: gratifying, because an act of analysis in an ambient like a casino, where people behave like morons, sets you apart from all of them, establishes the fact that you’re superior. But the old gratifying rush was immediately offset by the specter of what I’d become–a pathological gambler, and worse than any of the fish here because I’d had the background to understand my own predicament while it was beginning, but I’d still lacked the will to forestall it.

The room was clean enough, though, and new, institutional-smelling, pleasant. I’ve always enjoyed hotels more than any home. I brought my chips out and reviewed what I would be dealing with. There were, I think, two orange chips ($1000 apiece) from Caesars (sic), something similar from Mandalay, a lesser amount from the Aladdin, and something like $2500 in black ($100s) from Imperial Palace.

At Caesars I’d been 86′d in definitively memorable fashion. (Memorable for all concerned parties.) At Mandalay I’d been heated up an absurd number of times, although never 86′d. At Aladdin I had heat, and I was concerned about the chips because Aladdin was just in the process of becoming the Planet Hollywood Casino and I didn’t know whether they’d replaced their chips yet or how they might treat these.

The big problem was the IP, though. I’d been 86′d there, not that a formal trespass was a major obstacle to cashing chips. (I expected no trouble at Caesars and indeed, ducking to the cashier in a baseball cap the next day presented no problems at all.) IP was the only casino on the Strip where $100 chips were an issue. An issue, meaning that the cashier would often call the pit to verify that you had been playing and that the chips you were presenting were your own. Most casinos simply didn’t care about chips worth less than $5 grand, or $1K at the worst, but IP was a nervous little toilet whose inglorious history included a Nazi-phillic founder, Ralph Engelstad, a collector of WWII-era German memorabilia who was once issued a rare fine by Nevada regulators for hosting a gala in the casino on the occasion of Hitler’s birthday. I use the word “toilet” advisedly.

Making matters worse, IP had only recently been hit by a scam involving counterfeit black chips, so they now had more reason than ever to verify the chips upon cashout. This is what had prompted me to book two nights in Las Vegas. My plan was to cash a very modest quantity of IP chips once every shift for a day or two–a few on the day shift, a few on swing and on grave. I would be treating the dump with kid gloves. If hadn’t been for those chips, I might have made do with a few-hour layover in Vegas and gotten everything cashed in a hurry.

I’d decided to use the extra time while I was there to go around to casinos taking notes for the book. So, beginning that first night I started my runs at the IP–doing $400 a pop. I hit the swing shift that evening and grave the next morning. Then I went to the other casinos. I cashed the chips and would plod around with a notebook, looking at details like the carpet design or the precise shape of the tables or of the pits, or how the place smelled, or how individual dealers behaved.

I went to Riviera. I had a couple significant memories from there and had already done some writing about these. I was distressed to find certain things different from what I’d recalled–and different almost in a way that made a story I’d been writing impossible. This meant that my memory was not right. It bothered me a great deal. One of the consequences of my year-long implosion with poker was that my previous life as a successful working pro gambler feared by casinos nationally and honored with his own extensive personal entry in the infamous Griffin Book of dangerous dudes had begun to seem half-real, almost as if it never had happened. Now I had proof that at least some aspects of my memory were wrong.

It bothered me. The second night I was again walking through the gaming floor at my hotel. As I glanced over to look at the blackjack I felt suddenly ridiculous. What was I doing–”analyzing game conditions?” Had I ever done that? If so, had it meant anything? Did it still mean anything now, now that I was here as a broke man darting in and out of these dumps so he could scrounge a few G’s to pay rent? Afraid to even place a single bet, lest his mind start unraveling anew?

I was agitated. But, I had to sleep. There was a tight chip-cashing agenda in the morning and I had a flight. Next to the elevator bank there was a gift shop in which booze was sold. I bought a good-sized bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream which could double as dessert and therefore wouldn’t qualify as pitiful solitary hard-drinking in a junked-out hotel off the Strip when you’re nervous and drinking to knock yourself out.

Upstairs I sat at the desk. I poured the Bailey’s over ice and I drank. I popped my laptop open and I wrote. I meant to describe the whole trip and the state of mind it had produced and how lowly I felt, but I got stuck right at the beginning–at the flight coming out of Los Angeles and how the clouds had been lit and how astounding it was. I remember reading back over the sentences and nodding, and saying, “Yeah,” and really feeling like I’d gotten down the heart of that incredible spectacle from the airplane. And just like that, I felt better. I felt well. I was drunk and my stomach was beginning to intimate serious displeasure with the quantity of Irish cream, but I was at least able to believe, at that moment, that I had an identity separate from gambling and the associated ultimate failure, and that I could write. It was possible that I could write, which I’d always wanted to do from the very beginning of everything, but never had. Fittingly, I’ve lost track of that Word file and have no clear recollection of whatever the captivating spectacle was. So that was my last time in Vegas.


READ an interview with Josh Axelrad on SMITH.

BUY Repeat Until Rich.

VISIT Josh Axelrad’s blog.

2 responses

  1. LAX TOWN CAR says:

    I love the drive to Vegas! but has to be in a BIG car!

  2. Benj says:

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