Broke in Vegas

Broke in Vegas

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The problem with this poker lark is that things don’t always go to plan. It’s been the fate of many of us poker players to “overextend” ourselves when visiting Sin City and end up epically doing our proverbials; in short: going broke. So, in case we’re ever accused of being too “aspirational” in this magazine, here’s our guide to hitting rock bottom. God knows, we’ve been there.

Cash in your chips

If you’re anything like us, you like to wander up and down the Strip acquiring $1 dollar chips from each casino in order to furnish your nerdy casino chip collection back home. Well, now comes that humiliating moment where you have to revisit each casino cage to cash them out, dollar at a time. You can forget about self-respect; you’re on your uppers. We have no use for self-respect any more. Right. Now we have 30 bucks to play with. We’re off!


One of the first concerns when finding oneself insolvent in Las Vegas is: How on earth am I going to buy drinks? Vegas is full of people drinking; constantly drinking, and if you’re not one of them – well, you may as well be dead. But don’t worry: where there’s a will, there’s a way. Always.

First rule is, don’t gamble to drink. Yes, it’s true that cocktail waitresses will offer you “free” drinks if you’re gambling, so you think: “If I stand here and play the 5c slots I’m bound to make a profit.” You won’t. The frequency with which a cocktail waitress passes by is directly proportionate to the stakes you are playing. The casinos have this figured out. They’ve done the maths, which is why they’re rich and you’re not. And besides, you have to tip the waitresses after each drink otherwise you will be blanked to kingdom come.

Incidentally, if, like us, you’re British and therefore pathologically “gratuity-averse”, here’s a sneaky little trick to avoid tipping. Instead of buying beer at the bar, get it from the gift shop instead. It’ll cost you a couple of dollars, no tip necessary and you’ll be able to walk around the casino with it unmolested. Us 1, Vegas 0!

Obviously, you must avoid the classier casinos on the Strip in favour of the more down-at-heel establishments. Fortunately, there are three economies in Las Vegas: one for the high rollers, one for regular folks and one for the acutely impecunious, like us. So, while a beer at the Mirage or Bellagio might cost you $67 or $8, there’s always O’ Shea’s, Casino Royale and the Sahara, where you can get $1 beers – pissy American beers, sure, but we’re in no position to quibble. And then there is Bill’s Gambling Hall. Ah, Bill’s! Home of the 99c Margherita, served in funny little plastic cup, and the dubious but free entertainment of Bill’s Lounge; home of tacky, quiet desperation. A glance at the website shows that the current star attraction at Bill’s Lounge is obese Elvis impersonator “Big Elvis”. Another nail in the coffin of variety, no doubt.

If you are a woman, then congratulations: many of the Vegas nightclubs will not only let you in for free, but some will also let you drink for free during certain hours. If you are not a woman, it helps if you can at least pass as a woman. Let’s face it: anything’s worth a try and desperate means call for desperate measures.

And finally, we’re not saying you do this, we’re just saying… some people do it… probably. Practically every bar in Vegas has video poker terminals embedded in it. As long as you’re playing on one of these terminals, the barman will give you free drinks. What if you were to ostentatiously deposit $20 in such a machine, have a few cheap spins, order your drinks, cash out immediately and then buzz off? We suppose you could try this stunt all over town, couldn’t you? Just saying...


We expect that, at some point, you’ll probably need to eat something, and if this really is the case then the budget buffets are the way to go. The cheapest we ever found was at the Gold Coast, a place very well known to poker journalists due to its proximity to the Rio and favourable room rates during the World Series of Poker. Breakfast is $5.95; lunch $7.99, so get there at the end of breakfast and hang around until the beginning of lunch. Then scuttle off into the blazing desert afternoon with strips of bacon strapped round your ankles beneath your trousers and pockets stuffed with scrambled egg. Sorted.

Alternatively, there’s a dive bar called The Stage Door, right where the Las Vegas Monorail crosses Flamingo. You wouldn’t know it was called that because the sign emblazoned above the door simply says, “We have 28 years left on our lease!” Why they are quite so proud of this fact, we have no idea.

Here you can fraternise with real, blue-collar Americans, the kind Tom Waits sings about; the type of people who make you uncomfortable by sidling up to you, saying “So, what’s your story, buddy?” Ex strippers working behind the bar, etc, but what was our point? Oh, the point is that they do a beer and a hot dog for $2. There’s also a grocery attached which is the cheapest place to buy supplies anywhere near the Strip.


The fortunate thing here is that you never really feel like sleeping much in Vegas; the sugary oxygen they pump into the casinos is designed to keep you awake and gambling, and nowhere ever closes. The best advice we can give you is, if you must sleep, do it during the week because room rates can double at the weekends. So, stay up all weekend, maybe catching the odd power nap in a sportsbook here and there, and crash out on Monday. Check out the side bar for our list of the cheapest hotels in town. Beware, however, that if there’s a big convention going on nearby they will hoik the prices up something rotten.


The cheap hotels generally offer rather tragic cabaret acts, such as the aforementioned “Big Elvis”, which are free, popular with the pensioners and may just appeal to your ironic love of bad entertainment. Failing that, all hotels will have a book of coupons, offering discounts and free stuff around town, but you have to ask for them at the desk.

There are plenty of free attractions on the Strip, such as the Forum Shops, where statues of Greek gods suddenly become automated under a ceiling painted with sky that actually makes you claustrophobic and panicky; there’s a “sexy pirate battle” at Treasure Island; the Bellagio Fountains, leaping and twirling to Mozart; and that volcano thing at the Mirage, to name but a few.

No need to fork out a fortune to see Cirque du Soleil when there’s a permanent free circus at Circus Circus, with clowns and acrobats aplenty, and what better accompaniment to a visit to the circus than a trip to the zoo? Until a couple of months ago you could see the Lion Habitat at the MGM Grand, where a pride of bored lions were slowly rotated for our viewing pleasure. It closed down in February. We can’t think why.

So know you’ll have to content yourself with the “zoo” at the Flamingo, which offers flamingos, koi and turtles in their “natural habitat” (the middle of the desert!). They used to have penguins that just used to sit around looking hot and bothered. We don’t know what happened to the penguins. Maybe they melted.

But really, the best entertainment is the human zoo that surrounds you. People watching is free and Vegas is the greatest place on earth to do it. Simply sit back and savour the wave of bonkers humanity that swirls around you.


OK, if you must gamble, there are cheap ways to do it. The 5c slots might seem appealing, but they offer some of the worst odds in town. Blackjack is a far better proposition and the Poker Palace, a rather unsavoury place in North Las Vegas, offers One Dollar Blackjack. If you happen to be a card counter, security probably won’t pay too much attention to this table. You might just go on some kind of epic spin-up, in which case, we’re moving back into the Wynn! But remember what got you in this dire situation to begin with, OK?

Tags: Las Vegas