BEFORE you gamble, just ask: who pays the electricity bill? America's gambling capital is shown on airport departure boards as Ladollars Vegadollars . Flying in after dark demonstrates the absurdity of the place. Several gigawatts of artificial light glare from the desert. Fellow passengers are planning to pump coins at a rate of dollars 2m an hour into the meter that fuels this glitzy gambling den. Las Vegas exists purely because of America's need to compartmentalise sin, to constrain gambling to isolated enclaves. The state of Nevada has been set aside to cater for the addiction to chance, and the brightest beacon beckoning fortune-seekers is Las Vegas.

At the airport, a gleaming parade of one-armed bandits poses provocatively. These generate more than enough cash to keep the airport lights on. Arriving by train, you meet the wretched checking out of this gamblers' paradise. The railway station is built into the Union Plaza casino. Losers sit disconsolately waiting for a way out while fruit machines blink and bleep unsympathetically. The first part of the city's name is pronounced 'loss'; Loss Vegas shows no mercy to lodollars ers, and concentrates instead on persuading the next batch of visitors to lose control of their purse-strings.

Casinos do this by a system of 'comping' - giving complimentary drinks, meals and even hotel rooms to gamblers. To get trainee gamblers through the doors, casinos offer enticing packages. The most rewarding is Vegas World, which dishes out coupons promising 'dollars 50 in gambling value'. This is an extravagance with the truth, but you can still do better than break even - and get an evening's entertainment for free.

The nominal dollars 50 of generosity is dispensed over a period of three hours. The casino management is betting that, by obliging you to wait, you will succumb to the clatter of the fruit machines or glamour of the tables. But if you resist temptation and team up with a fellow punter, you are guaranteed to come out ahead.

You pay dollars 2 to register, so as to exclude down-and-outs. In return you get a dollars 5 slot machine token and a dollars 5 voucher for the tables. The slot token is almost worthless. You can use it only on special machines, where the odds seem to be millions to one against; they are shunned by regular gamblers. Assume you lose on this one: you are dollars 2 down.

You move into profit on the tables. Play roulette and bet against each other. You and your pal should place the dollars 5 vouchers on red and black respectively, and agree to split the winnings. It is a bit of a swizz because - unlike a real dollars 5 bet - you do not get back your original stake. When it comes up red or black, one of you will win a single dollars 5 chip. Brave the sneers of the cashiers and cash it in. You are each now just 50 cents ahead.

You could fritter away your winnings so far on America's cheapest beer. All the low-rent casinos sell drinks at wholesale prices, typically 50 cents a bottle. The casinos realise that inebriation equals fiscal abandon. Make the drink last, because you have to wait for the rest of the hour to get your next bundle of gambling goodies. You are unlikely to have free cocktails dispensed by one of the scantily clad waitresses. These are only for people shovelling coins into one-armed bandits or shuffling chips at the tables.

Regular customers who bet high stakes get free everything. Among high rollers a 'nickel' is dollars 500, a 'dime' is dollars 1,000 and a 'big dime' is dollars 10,000. Everyone, whether feeding quarters into machines or staking 'big dimes' at craps, hopes for the gold at the end of the rainbow. Perks and payouts diminish down the scale. Quarter (25 cent) slot players are rarely 'comped'. Bottom of the heap are 5 cent slot players. And freeloaders, like you.

If you cannot stretch the beer, stretch your legs and your horizons. Las Vegas Boulevard is the Strip, and every casino has a gimmick: Caesar's Palace, the grandest, is archly decadent in imperial splendour, a muddle of Roman and Greek themes. One of its rivals has a mock volcano in its front garden, which erupts every 15 minutes from dusk until midnight. Passers-by are terrified by the sudden explosion of noise and flames. The United States imposes strict controls on emissions from cars, but it seems if you want to set fire to a man-made mountain on the lawn four times an hour, no one objects.

The casinos conspire to build a huge illusion, hinged on the notion that Las Vegas makes you rich. You hear only the wins, shrieks of success from the card table or the rat-tat-tat of an ejaculating one-armed bandit. The wise freeloader knows, however, that Las Vegas can make you only slightly rich.

Retreat to Vegas World to collect the next hour's worth. You get two more near-worthless slot machine tokens, plus a free game of Keno. This is like bingo except you pick your own numbers. You discover (a) it is jolly difficult and (b) even if you were to win, the slip the casino has generously given you is worth only 10 cents and any winnings are commensurately small.

Another hour of loitering without much intent. Stroll along the Strip to see how money and love, greed and sex are intertwined. Compulsive marriage seems as much of a disorder as uncontrollable gambling. Those who win an emotional jackpot among the fruit machines can wed instantly. You need a licence from the city court house on South Main Street, which stays open until midnight. Any of Las Vegas's 48 chapels will run you there as part of their wedding packages, and they all accept credit cards. Those in a hurry can just drive in for an in-car ceremony.

With a little luck you could be wed and back at Vegas World for the next hand-out. It consists of two vouchers each for the tables, so you and your partner can begin married life by splitting dollars 20 on the roulette table. Each player is now in credit by dollars 5.50 with the casino and can take advantage of America's cheapest menus. Every casino offers bargain buffets of breakfast for

99 cents, and lunch or dinner for dollars 2.99. People are force-fed with eggs, ham and pancakes, but nothing apart from the rehydrated orange juice hints at a healthy diet. Visitors gain spots as quickly as they lose money. Or, in your case, make money.

The final hour at Vegas World bestows you with a blurred souvenir Polaroid photograph and a dollars 5 voucher. You and your accomplice convert this into dollars 2.50 each, boosting your profits to dollars 8 each. You might be tempted to double your money by beginning the cycle again, but the hostesses who operate the system are instructed to turn away repeat clients. (The shift changes at midnight, so you could wait until then.)

The giveaway magazines in most US cities advertise cars or houses. In Las Vegas they sell sex. Prostitution is legal in Nevada, and men will be comforted - or alarmed - to learn that, 'A prerequisite to sex with the girls is that they make their own inspection of each customer's sexual organs, and are well trained in this area.'

Elvis Presley sold himself to the false glamour and high fees of Las Vegas and echoes from the past are still resounding: tonight the Moody Blues save for their senior citizens' rail cards by appearing at Caesar's Palace, playing 'Nights in White Satin' in white tuxedos. But a city that can attract Whitney Houston and Smokey Robinson in the same week deserves some respect. Ticket prices are low, because it is assumed concert-goers will play the fruit machines built into every table.

Most gamblers in Las Vegas do the region and themselves a disservice by ignoring the stunning scenery within an hour's drive. A rental car costs pounds 25 a day, including enough fuel to take you through a dazzling array of natural and man-made phenomena. The Hoover Dam is a wonder of civil engineering, perhaps the greatest constructional feat of the first half of the 20th century.

Nature trumps man west of Las Vegas. A dozen miles along Charleston Boulevard is the Red Rock Canyon National Recreation Lands, a lunar landscape with strange formations and striking colours. Highway 95 takes you from moonscape into cool mountain terrain, flecked with pines and punctuated with alpine chalets. But, as dusk descends, the flickering lights of Las Vegas glow enticingly.

This being Vegas, there has to be a flaw. If the roulette wheel throws up a zero or a double zero - as it does one occasion in 19 - then you and your partner lose. If it happens each time you gamble, you end up dollars 2 down. As it says on the 5 cent slot when you lose your last nickel: 'Game over - no credit'.

Getting there: Bon Voyage (0703 330332) offers a return fare of pounds 371 via Minneapolis on Northwest.

Accommodation: Cheap accommodation is widely available, but book in advance for weekends. Simon Calder paid pounds 22 for a luxurious room at Circus-Circus (0101 702 734 0410).

Weddings: To get married in Las Vegas, you need a licence from the Foley Federal Building at 300 Las Vegas Boulevard South, open 9am-midnight daily.

Divorces: You have to wait a minimum of six weeks before filing for divorce.

Further information: The Las Vegas Visitors' Bureau (0101 702 892 0711).

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