The first time I went to Las Vegas was Christmas, 1988.

We were living in DC at the time, and while I played poker in home games, the only place I could go to gamble legally was Atlantic City. I made the four-hour drive several times a year to spend a weekend walking the boardwalk and playing craps at The Sands (where they comped my room and dinner at an their excellent steakhouse) or poker at the Taj Mahal.

At the time, the Taj was the poker room on the east coast. A decade later, it would be featured in the movie “Rounders.” This was long before the poker room and the explosion of no-limit hold’em, when stud was the game everyone played. To this day, I consider stud the toughest form of poker because, to be good at it, you have to pay attention to so much — especially the cards that are folded by the other players. In hold’em, you have to read the players, but in stud, you have to read the players, the cards they’re playing, and everything that’s been thrown away, too.

I always took Christmas week off from my morning radio responsibilities, and this year I decided to see what Vegas was like. My wife had no interest in going, so I got on a non-stop America West flight from BWI to McCarran at around 9pm on Christmas Eve. I slept most of the way until I was awakened an hour outside of Vegas by the flight attendants singing Christmas carols over the PA as midnight approached.

That was the last indication I had that it was Christmas. As I walked off the plane, I noticed there were no holiday decorations among the rows of slot machines in the terminal. This was apparently a city where Christmas was just like every other day in a different world. Outside, I found one of the shuttle buses that go to the hotels on the strip and sat with my eyes wide open taking in the lights and sights.

Vegas had not yet grown into its mega-resort era — the Mirage wouldn’t open until a year later, and there were no Bellagio, Aria, Wynn, or Venetian. The shuttle dropped me off at The Riviera, an old-school casino on the strip’s north end that came cheap with my airline package. If I wanted the schlocky Vegas experience, this was a good place to start. I wanted to go out and explore right away, but I was exhausted, so I took a few pictures of the neon lights of the strip through my hotel room window, then nodded off around 2am.

When I awoke, I made my way to the 99¢ breakfast buffet (I told you this was 25 years ago!) and made my first Vegas discovery — you can’t eat well for a buck. I took two bites and pushed the plate away. Ah, well, let’s go see what this town is like.

I’ll tell you more of the story tomorrow in Part 2.