This is part 3 of the story of my first trip to Las Vegas during Christmas week, 1988. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.

I expected to be impressed by the poker room at Binion’s Horseshoe, but was disappointed as soon as I walked in. The place was dirty, the low ceilings kept the smoke hovering over everything, and the chips were filthy. Still, this was considered the place to play, and I’d never considered poker a game of hygiene, so I approached a floor man, who put me on the list for a couple of games, then pointed me towards the poker buffet. In those years, the Horseshoe put out a lunch and dinner buffet for its poker players. Nothing extravagant (that day the entree was corned beef and cabbage), but the food was good — and free. Along with all the action on lots of tables, I was beginning to understand why the room was packed.

I spent the rest of the afternoon in a stud game where it was clear who the good players were and who the tourists were. Not wanting to seem like one of the latter — the fish the local sharks feasted on every day — I played tight but paid close attention. After an hour or so, I could tell who the grinders were, the players who were there every day, making enough to pay the mortgage and car loan and other expenses. It was clear they were better than the players I’d sat with in Atlantic City, most of whom were weekend warriors playing the same way they did in their home games and leaving without most of their money.

This was long before the internet and TV had made the best poker players celebrities. I’d read Al Alvarez’s classic “The Biggest Game In Town,” so I knew the names Doyle Brunson, Johnny Moss, Amarillo Slim, and Nick The Greek, but I didn’t know what any of them looked like, and I was too involved in my own game to see if there was any true high-stakes action going on. Besides, I’ve never been a star-chaser.

I played into the evening, then left to see what the other downtown casinos looked like. If I thought those strip hotels were old-school, they were modern compared to the dinosaurs in this area — the Golden Nugget, the Four Queens, Lady Luck. The players in these places seemed more desperate, the waitresses older, the restaurants uninviting, the staff bored. Frankly, I’m amazed they’re still around in the 21st century.

The rest of my weekend was filled with more walking, more poker, too much craps, and my first Vegas show — Crazy Girls, the revue at the Riviera with elements of burlesque, including a comedian, dancers, topless showgirls, and a water act with female swimmers doing moves in a giant clear tank years before Cirque Du Soleil’s “O.” That was also the first time I saw someone slip some money to a maitre d’ to get a better seat (“Yes, sir, right this way” to a table near the front). I sat in the back and just took it all in.

As I boarded my flight home, I knew I’d go back to Vegas, and have been there many many times since. I’ve watched the strip explode with theme resorts featuring volcanoes, dancing fountains, the New York skyline, the Eiffel Tower, singing gondoliers, and massive amounts of traffic. I’ve stayed on the strip, off the strip, in big hotels and little efficiency apartments — more than a dozen places in total. But on occasion, my thoughts turn to that first trip to Sin City, when I learned that very valuable lesson.

Stay away from the 99¢ buffets.