2005.02.12 Las Vegas, USA

Vegas is always fun.

Prior to my first visit I had no desire to see this city--I'd heard what to expect. "Everything is fake." "Nowadays the sin is all by corporate design." "If you have any interest in culture or history, you'll hate it." I'm not sure how many trips I've now made, but I'd guess around ten.

Why do I keep coming back?

Well. I do play blackjack the times I'm here. I stick to all the rules the good gambler is supposed to observe: I meticulously follow the basic strategy chart of when to hit, split, stand, or double-down. I keep a precise record of how much I wager. I don't drink at the table. I set a limit for my play on either side--how much won or lost. Despite all that, I still lose more than I win.

Mathematics state that optimal play will make blackjack a 51-49 game. (The advantage, naturally, is to the house.) As I seek out the table with the casino's lowest minimum, I should theoretically lose very little. However, such odds presume a player has infinite time and money--which is why I keep coming up short.

It's hard to define the appeal of spending hours at a game where you are certain to lose money, even given limitless cash and time. The best I can explain is that it's a different mental zone. When I was a child I wanted to be a mathematician. Something about the tangibility of the probabilities alive in each hand brings that fascination with numbers back to life.

Another draw here is The Hookah Lounge. A second branch has opened since I was last in town. The original, superior location is nestled in a strip mall on the corner of Flamingo and Maryland. Regular readers of davidwong.com are familiar with my love for Middle-Eastern water pipes. I find it pleasant enough to puff away on a bowl of apple- or peach-flavored tobacco most anywhere. The ambience at The Hookah Lounge elevates the activity to an experience.

The Hookah Lounge is one snug, dim room. The walls are painted a pleasant maroon and covered with pictures and paraphernalia from the Middle East. Beautiful cushions are everywhere. Crystals dangle from the ceiling, shimmering parallel to a row of hookahs along a high shelf. Couches extend around the perimeter of the room. Patrons also sit on padded stools surrounding low, circular tables. There are about a dozen such tables, each with a hookah at its center. Beneath each pipe is a small contraption of LED lights that illuminate the water-filled glass base. The color slowly cycles from red, to blue, then green. The tobacco is tasty and smooth.

It's hard to describe without making it sound tacky. It just has to be seen to be comprehended. While it is a favorite place of mine, there are a couple of aspects I'm not so keen on. Personally, I would have hung at least a few works of Islamic calligraphy on the walls. (But then, I suppose I would do that anyplace I were to decorate.) I wouldn't have selected the peppy dance music on the stereo of my private hookah lounge. However, the clientele are mostly visiting hipsters--I suppose the atmosphere has to be tailored to their tastes. I imagine more money comes in from the bar rather than the pipes.

I continue on my road-trip today. Next stop, Los Angeles. I'll first drop fellow blackjack- hookah-lover Hidetada off at the airport, then drive to the end of I-10. My friends Zach and Lisa recently moved into an apartment on Venice Beach--I can't wait to see it. I'm also hoping to call on some cousins and other folks while in L.A..