Casino: Take One

8 Feb


The other day when I was dress shopping and the salesgirl, Lu, recommended I go to the casino town of Blackhawk, it reminded me of something I hadn’t thought of in a long time.

Back in high school, my friend Nikki (the one I saw at Christmas) would sneak into the casino on the Native American reservation, all by herself, and play poker all night. She got pretty good, and I think she paid for a European trip from her winnings.

At the time, I didn’t think much about it, except that I was little jealous she got to go to Europe. It was just one of those odd little things Nikki did by herself and didn’t really talk about. With the hindsight of several years, I am now in awe of Nikki. Gambling— and winning! – as a 17-year-old female in our small town was pretty bad ass.

I wish I had let Nikki influence me more as a teenager, when I was impressionable and more likely to emulate her confidence and healthy risk-taking. Now, with a clearer view of things, maybe I could glean some inspiration from her adventures.

Thanks to Lu, the suggestion of going to a nearby casino was percolating in my mind. What better way to channel my inner Nikki than try my hand at a poker table?

I’ve never been to Vegas, or even a casino, but that doesn’t mean I’m so naive to believe that I can just walk into a casino and win my first hand of poker – or win at any game for that matter. Going to Blackhawk wouldn’t be about gambling my way to an international trip as Nikki had done; it would be about challenging myself to dabble in the world of gaming while maintaining an air of confidence, and maybe even a little mystique. It would be about modeling the behavior of a really cool woman.

To plan my little excursion, I perused the website of the Ameristar hotel and casino, which appeared to be the nicest hotel in Blackhawk; it had been named one of the best hotels in the Denver area. To determine just how fancy it was, I compared its photos with those from the Bellagio in Vegas. It kind of looked like the slightly dressed down, mountain version of the Bellagio – lots of plush, white linens, polished dark wood, clean lines and an imposing exterior. This could be the perfect place to take my new dress for a spin.

Since I’d never been to a casino, I thought I should refresh my understanding of casino customs, lingo and wardrobe that I had learned from movies and TV shows. Thus, I watched Ocean’s 11 and the World Series of Poker. (And, okay, I also watched that episode of Full House where Stephanie illegally wins a boatload of coins in Lake Tahoe, and Uncle Jesse and Becky almost get hitched.)

Luckily, Blackhawk was close, so I could drive to the Ameristar early on a Saturday evening and be home in time to get a decent night’s sleep. Accordingly, I got ready for my big casino debut at my Denver apartment so I wouldn’t have to pack a bag.

I put on my new black dress and styled my hair, make-up and accessories channeling equal parts Julia Roberts from Ocean’s 11 and Eva Green from Casino Royale. I gave myself dramatic charcoal eye makeup, styled my hair into an old Hollywood, wavy side-do, and filled my lips with blood-red lipstick to accentuate the drama. I donned my most impractical stilettos, put on a costume necklace of large, fake diamonds, and grabbed a fabulous sequined clutch that I had reserved for such an occasion as this.

Examining myself in the mirror, I imagined how I would look poised at a poker table. “Raise,” I would say with nonchalance, carelessly throwing another hundred-dollar chip on the pile.

Driving into Blackhawk kind of took my breath away. I exited I-70 and wound through a tight canyon that suddenly opened into a wide, curving street. Various casinos with multi-story, blinking marquees lined the street; the Ameristar rose the highest of them all, 30 stories dramatically into the sky. I’d never been anywhere like this. The scale of the tall buildings next to the mountains threw off my sense of proportion, perhaps making everything feel grander than it really was.

I pulled into the parking garage of the Ameristar and started to feel nervous about how I looked when I realized no one else walking into the casino was dressed up. I didn’t seem to fit in. Walking through the parking garage, I stared straight ahead, my head high, as I tried not to notice the looks from the other casino-goers.

On the elevator, a middle aged Hispanic man asked if I was there for the Quinceanera. I shook my head, he said “too bad,” and then we stood in uncomfortable silence until the elevator arrived at the main floor.

From the elevator bank, I walked a long corridor through the hotel lobby – which, by the way, didn’t much resemble the Bellagio – until I heard a cacophony of electronic chimes. I had arrived at the casino.

Two stories of slot machines encircled an atrium with a bar in the middle. Gaming tables fanned out beyond the machines in one direction and a couple of restaurants hugged the other side of the space. Escalators descended in the middle of the atrium to the open floor below.

The casino was crowded with all sorts of people – grandmas and grandpas, flannel-clad bros, a middle aged couple that smelled like a campfire, and a party of five guys all wearing bolo ties and denim shirts. All sorts of people, that is, except the one who looked like me, the girl who thought she was going to rub elbows with Colorado’s elite at an exclusive alpine casino.

I stepped onto the escalator, ready to make my grand entrance. But instead of owning the room, as Julia Roberts had done in Ocean’s 11 as she descended a grand staircase in the lobby of the Bellagio, I received a few stares from lonely-looking men, a catcall from one of the bolo-tie guys, and a sarcastic “nice dress,” from a girl in unseasonable booty shorts.

“This ain’t Vegas,” I thought I heard her snicker.

On the main floor, I wasn’t sure where to go first, so clutching my sequin purse, I walked to the bar and ordered a gin and tonic, hoping it would ease my discomfort. I sipped through the tiny straw, and slowly wandered toward the roulette tables.

I circled the roulette table like a shy shark, not sure what to do with my money. I pulled all my money – 75 dollars – out of my purse and sidled up to a table. The dealer looked at me expectantly.

“Red 21?” I held out a 10-dollar bill.

“Minimum bid, 25 dollars,” the dealer said matter-of-factly.

Twenty-five dollars for just one roulette spin? I was going to run out of money fast if I played like that. But I was too embarrassed to back away, so I pulled out the requisite bills and handed them to the dealer who swiftly collected them and put a chip on the table.

The small group at the roulette table waited uneventfully as the wheel spun. It happened quickly and I couldn’t tell where the ball landed. One person clapped. I turned to the person next to me.

“Did I win?”

“Honey, if you don’t know, you shouldn’t be here.”

I nodded, waited a minute to confirm that the dealer didn’t have any winnings for me, and walked away before anyone could remember I was there.

One spin on the roulette table already had me down one-third of all the money I had to spend that night. Before I tried any more high stakes gambling, maybe I should try to earn a little back on the penny slots.

I sat down in an unassuming row. A few chairs down from me, a small woman with tight, gray curls and an oversized Elvis t-shirt was playing three slot machines at once. She aggressively fed bills into the machines, punched some buttons and stared with the intensity of a fighter pilot.

The machine in front of me overwhelmed was overwhelming. Too impatient to learn what it all meant, I fed it five dollars, pressed some buttons at random, took a deep breath, and pushed “spin.” Lights blinked and bells chimed, but I didn’t win anything. I looked back at the lady down the row. She was now pumping her fist with one hand, pressing buttons with the other, and yelling, “Jailhouse rock, baby!” The machines lit her face like a strobe light.

Surely, I was not in the right place. This could not be it. Maybe I would check out the other casinos on the “strip.” I found a door that let me outside and hurried along the road, cold from the mountain air. Just a few people passed me along the winding road, all similar looking to those inside the Ameristar. I darted into a large casino full of tiki torches and 80s carpeting, where the bar was hosting a Jimmy Buffet karaoke contest. The third casino was large, plain, and full of mostly elderly people quietly playing slot machines. Further down the road, a row of old west buildings housed more bars and gold-mining themed casino games. Those were full of mostly white men singing along to the country music playing overhead.

I guess that was it. I turned back toward the Ameristar.

Inside, I wandered the floor until I found myself at the entrance to the all-you-can eat buffet. I fished around my clutch and pulled out a 20-dollar bill. I handed it to the cashier, who gave me a sideways glance as I walked past her.

A few minutes later, I stared at the mountain of food in front of me, then to the glitzy casino floor beyond.

And then I started laughing. I laughed hard. I couldn’t stop laughing. People stared and I laughed harder. What a hilarious misadventure this turned out to be.

At that moment, I realized I had two choices: I could sulk in this restaurant booth for the rest of the night, or I could embrace the spectacle and pretend to be someone else. I was kind of dressed up in costume anyway. No one here knew me, so I could have fun being someone else. What did I have to lose?

It’s what Jenny G. would do and that was plenty reason enough.



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