Lady Luck and my sorry ass

I was undoubtedly the only person in Las Vegas wearing patterned wool socks
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Las Vegas

THE FAT man in the loud monochrome shirt is becoming pretty noisy himself. He is seated on the last of the six chairs that make up a sweating horseshoe of punters, being dealt cards by a suave Latin called Thomas in a Paul Raymond hairstyle. The fat man has been winning so much - judging by the messy shingle of plastic doubloons in front of him - he doesn't know whether to be cock-of-the-walk or afraid that his luck's running out.

He has been lecturing his fellow gamblers on how they should play blackjack, and whether you should stick on 15, 16 or 17 or buy another card and try to keep their score under 21. He shouts "Don't be afraid of it!" at the woman holding 15. To a desperate-looking trucker in a red T-shirt and a neck to match, who is dithering over whether to twist on 17, he yells, "That's a real no-brainer, right there!". He peeps at the two cards he's been dealt, sliding down the nine of clubs with infinite slowness to reveal what Destiny is offering; his second card is the six of diamonds.

He's on 15. It could be worse. It could be far better. He pushes 300 dollars' worth of gambling chips forward with his porky fingers, sucks his cigarette right back inside his mouth like it's a burning lollipop, and says, "I'll settle for a fahve". Thomas tucks a third card face-down under the three chips, and deals out cards to the others. Finally he flips over his own hand: two queens, 20 points. Can they beat that? The others are all busted, but the fat man hasn't looked at his final card, hasn't checked the final magic sum that will reveal how much Lady Luck smiles on his sorry ass.

"Do it for me, boy," he tells the croupier (who, fortunately, isn't black). Thomas flips it over. It's the six of hearts. It's like a love-note from Her Ladyship in person.

The fat man lets out a whoop of joy and high-fives a formal Japanese called Mike at the end of the row. Mike is tired of being given high-fives by this ebullient low-life who keeps on winning, the dealer is frankly weary of him, the waitress in the tailcoat and fishnets is heartily sick of his clicking fingers, but the crowd love him because he is a) a winner, b) a performer and c) a winder-upper of the establishment.

"What's happened to the cheerin' crowd?" he asks, "C'mon..." And he looks round at us, the bloated hero regarding his indulgent public, and starts to sing: "Somethin' tells me Ah'm into somethin' good".

It's 3.30 in the afternoon. There's no daylight in here, no clocks to suggest a deadline or the passage of time, no distinction of day or night, and no mirrors to tell you how shagged-out you're starting to look. Just the fall of cards, the whoops and high-fives and the indefatigable smile of the girls chasing tips.

Of all the dizzy-making sights of , this is what it all comes down to: someone being lucky and beating the system. For this simple aleatoric transaction, 32 million people come every year to this crackpot nirvana, this spun-sugar utopia, this meringue necropolis of taste in the middle of the Nevada desert, stand in these vast aircraft-hangar-sized casino lounges feeding the endlessly cheeping fruit machines as if they were hungry osprey chicks, lingering at the roulette tables where the minimum stake is 10 dollars - then, at the table next door, it's 50 dollars - then, at the fatman's table, it's 100 dollars, and you're in trouble...


DID I get suckered into it? Of course not. What a suggestion. But after inspecting the Rio Casino and the Monte Carlo, and a few others - there are even slot machines in the airport, before you get to baggage reclaim - and traipsed the miles of shockingly coloured carpet, as jackpot sirens went off and machines disgorged thousands of dollars with a sexy, relentless thunking, I felt I might be missing the point of Vegas. (I felt a little out of place anyway, in my sensible shoes and sports jacket, like Prince Harry at a Prodigy concert, when everyone was wearing the regulation uniform of shorts, trainers and floppy shirt. I was undoubtedly the only person in wearing patterned wool socks).

Shyly, I found two quarters in my pocket and fed one into a winking robot emblazoned with coloured sevens. The dials whirled but nothing happened. You see? I thought. Hopeless. I dropped in the last quarter, just for the hell of it, and the thing blazed with life. I'd won - good heavens - 15 tokens. I'd suddenly acquired $3.75 in unearned income.

Reasoning that the machine had shot its bolt for a while, I moved onto a second, and won five more tokens. Then onto a third machine and won five more. I looked over my shoulder. Would I shortly feel the heavy hand of the Management on my arm, and a voice grating "I'm gonna be straight with you, son. We bin watching you and we reckon you're playin' to some kind of system. We can't rightly tell what it is, but Ah suggest you take your winnings and git out of town while you can still walk"? Sensibly, I quit before they came to get me. But I'm off to the Rio tonight...


READERS OF Julian Barnes's new novel, England, England, in which a corrupt tycoon builds an English heritage theme park on the Isle of Wight, may have smiled at the idea of building a hundred simulacra of Big Ben, Buck House, the White Cliffs of Dover, Sherwood Forest and other embodiments of Albion, but reasoned that nobody would be mad enough actually to do such a thing.

They should come to . The place is stiff with ersatz monuments. The New York New York Hotel offers jetlagged visitors the odd experience of seeing a half-size Statue of Liberty, Chrysler Building and Empire State Building looming down the street in front of them. Drive down the main drag and you can make out the four iron legs of a soaring and strangely familiar latticed tower; beside it, through a tangle of scaffolding, a rectangular block with a triumphant-looking arch can be seen. Hardly have you digested, half a mile later, that they were France's two most famous monuments rising up before your eyes than you drive past a new, apricot- hued hotel featuring a graceful palazzo of arches...

They-re both opening in 1999. The former will be the Paris Casino Resort, a $750m extravaganza masterminded by Hilton Hotels. Alongside the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, they're providing replicas of the whole Champs Elysee, the Opera House and a handy-sized River Seine (not to mention the Jules Verne restaurant).

The latter will be even more dottily elaborate. The Venetian Resort Hotel Casino, on the site of the old Sands Hotel where Sinatra and his Rat Pack used to knock 'em dead in 1960, will be a $2.5 billion, 6,000-suite monstrosity full of bits of La Serenissima - the Doge's Palace is just the start. You'll go in through a scaled-down Campanile and travel along a moving walkway over the Rialto Bridge. The more adventurous can take a gondola (and be serenaded in Italian, they assure me) along a 1,200-foot canal that leads them to the Grand Canal Shoppes (sic).

There's no telling where this tendency may lead. Those expecting an England- themed complex may be disappointed, since there are already a number of wholly fake "English pubs" glutting the market (there's one in my hotel; it seems to have cobbles on the floor). After New York, Paris and Venice, will there be smaller versions of Berlin, Rome, Prague, Edinburgh, Barcelona, Dublin, Beijing and Tokyo? When they're all exhausted, perhaps the hotel companies will turn to the most flowingly fake-able city of all and put up a shrunken version of in the heart of . Or would that be just too silly?