A few observations after spending several days in Las Vegas last week…

In the past, I’ve always made the trip over a weekend, because that’s when there are more tourists playing in the poker rooms. I know I qualify as an out-of-towner, too, but I don’t like to take on a table full of regulars.

That’s one of the reasons I don’t play more than once or twice a month in St. Louis anymore. Everyone knows how everyone else plays, and there are few surprises. On the other hand, there are always plenty of games I can play in Vegas against people I don’t know (and who don’t know me), so I thought I’d try an experiment and not go over a weekend.

I flew in on Monday and home on Friday, and learned why that’s not such a great idea. There were barely any non-locals at Bellagio, where I stayed and played most days. They all had pretty much the same skill level and tended to play tight, so there weren’t a lot of chips going into the middle. In fact, I played in one $5/10 game where there wasn’t a single pot over $100 for an entire hour. Despite some decent conversation keeping things social, the poker was brutally boring. I eventually got up and went somewhere else.

I decided to try out The Venetian, which I hadn’t set foot in for more than a decade because I detested its owner, Sheldon Adelson. But now that he’s dead, I ventured back to find quite a bit more activity than I expected. That’s partly due to The Venetian running a promotion from noon to midnight where the high hand of each half-hour gets a prize. One of the guys at my table made quad sixes and earned an extra $450. At midnight, however, when the bonuses were gone, about half the room got up and left.

Based on the number of people I had to maneuver around in casinos and — in particular — on the sidewalks of The Strip, the crowds in Vegas are back to pre-pandemic levels. I went for a walk one evening and could barely get by the people standing in front of The Mirage just as the volcano was about the erupt. To pass the volcano viewers, I had to squeeze into the tight space between the bollards and the curb, without stepping into the oncoming traffic. Quite a feat for a man my size, but I managed.

The Mirage volcano has been one of the iconic must-see free attractions in Las Vegas since 1989. Unfortunately, its days are numbered as the place has been sold to the Seminole tribe, which will tear it all down in the next year or so to make room for a Hard Rock Guitar Hotel (like the original in Hollywood, Florida).

As I walked further along The Strip, I encountered the usual people dressed up as Elmo, Spiderman, a Transformer, or other popular characters. They’re not cosplayers, nor are they licensees of the companies that hold the copyrights on those figures. Inside the costumes are folks trying to convince people, particularly with kids, to take a picture with them and then hand over some cash for the honor of doing so. The temperatures were relatively cool that night, but I’ve been there in the desert heat of a Nevada summer and wondered how anyone could stand being inside those big furry outfits that must smell horrible.

On the other hand, there were at least ten different duos of women scantily clad in faux showgirl outfits constantly approaching guys and trying to talk them into shooting some selfies while they posed. The ladies usually target men half my age, but they must have been desperate because a pair of them stopped me and worked their spiel until I cut them off and said no, thanks. As I started to walk away, one of them said, “How about a tip just for the effort?” I laughed, then realized she was serious and I had to turn her down again.

The new thing I hadn’t seen before on The Strip was the line of guys in front of the Bellagio fountains with little stages with an attachment that spins around as they shoot video of you with super bright — and equally annoying — ring lights. Or maybe you do it with your own cellphone. I didn’t stop long enough to find out, but was surprised that they’re allowed to take up so much space on that heavily-traveled sidewalk.

As I strolled through a couple of casinos, I observed a whole new generation of slot machines that are louder, brighter, and even more confusing. I have often wanted to approach someone sitting there to ask whether they know what qualifies as a winning result, because it’s hard to tell just by looking. There’s no such thing as strategy when playing slot machines, but what outcome are you hoping for when you play a game based on “Jurassic Park,” “Planet Of The Apes,” or “The Big Bang Theory?” I doubt the glassy-eyed players knew, either.

The days of waiting for reels to spin into a 7-7-7 pattern are long gone and we’ve come a long way from the one-armed bandits where you had to pull the lever for each spin. That was replaced years ago by buttons to press, which sped up the action and allowed you to play more lines when you increased your bets. But the newest development is many of the machines play themselves! You simply put your cash in the slot and the software does its thing, complete with bombastic graphics and sounds, and you just watch until your money is gone.

What a perfect metaphor for most trips to Las Vegas.

As for me, I’ll only be planning future trips there over weekends, in the hope I’ll encounter some boisterously drunken opponent with a loose playing style who parts with his money easily and repeatedly. Unless he’s already given it to the showgirls on the strip, of course.