It's in the middle of the night--not to mention the middle of the week--in downtown Las Vegas and I get the sense that if a cinematographer was looking for a post-apocalyptic movie set, he would choose the emptiness under the Fremont Street Experience. I am the only one breathing within earshot and I'm breathing hard. The 2:00am Binion's tournament starts in two minutes and I am nowhere near the tournament room. Wil Wheaton is hungry--starving maybe--and on the verge of homicidal low blood sugar madness. My brother, Dr. Jeff, would say this low blood sugar shit is for the birds, but at the moment I'm not listening to Dr. Jeff. I'm listening to Wheaton, who needs a sandwich. Or peanuts. Or a bag of sugar.
On the Strip, I could've wandered into Fat Burger and picked up something greasy to soil Wheaton's cards. Instead, there's nothing. Nobody is breathing. There are no hookers, no strip club denizens, no hustlers. For a moment, I longed for a New Orleans Lucky Dog vendor. Wheaton would never eat it, but it would be a good way to tilt him.
No, I've made it my mission--as a friend, as a fanboy, as the primary reason we'd ended up in a Stephen King version of Las Vegas at 2am--to make sure Wheaton survives long enough to actually compete for the last longer bet we've made with Absinthe and Spaceman.
The only problem is, Stephen King didn't write a diner into this zombie movie and I have a tournament to play.
Absinthe would later write that no one should listen to me after one in the morning. Apparently, I am incapable of rational thought after Vegas' version of the 13:00 hours. That night, the same night Phil Hellmuth won his tenth bracelet, my friends had no such warning. They'd mistakenly hopped on the Otis Tilt-a-Whirl and were on the ride for the duration.
Our ride took us from the now infamous confines of the Tilted Kilt, to the side of the poker table as Phil Hellmuth celebrated his tenth bracelet, to the Ultimate Bet hospitality suite, to a taxi cab where the driver told actual fish stories and tried to convince the lot of us that Treasures strip club had the best steak house in all of Vegas.
Ultimately, we landed in front of Binions and in another world. We stood in front of the place that made the World Series of Poker famous. It was where Hunter Thompson, Al Alverez, Tony Holden, and Jim McManus had found the inspiration for each of their most famous books. Nearly every poker legend that we knew had made their bones inside the rundown building. As recently as one year before, Binion's still played host to the biggest event in all of poker--and, arguably, the richest event in all of sports or gaming.
Now, it was 1:58am and I had more name recognition than most people within stumbling distance. I would learn this half an hour later when the dealer looked up at me and said, "You're Otis" and the guy in the one seat said, "Holy shit, you are Otis." A world where I get recognized is not a world that God created.
If it hadn't been for the complete vacuum enveloping all of Fremont Street, my footsteps would've echoed. It was not a cavern of despair. For despair to exist, it would require someone actually caring. Instead, it was simply a black hole for things forgotten.
Everybody knows the little shop I'm talking about. It's the place you go when every bar and every gift shop in Binion's has closed down for the night. It's the first corner store you see when you breach Binion's air conditioning and step into the superheated Vegas air. If it weren't for the completely depressing nature of such a store in the tourism capital of the southwest, it might be considered a beacon of hope. Instead, it was the only place I was going to find sustenance for Wheaton.
I jogged through the door and then sprinted past the zombie behind the counter. He mumbled something about "brains," and I thought, "None here, sir." With time being of the essence and all (the tournament was now starting in less than one minute), I let marketing decide how to best feed Wheaton's beast.
"Snickers satisfies," I thought. I was a zombie for a good marketing campaign. I grabbed one candy bar, then decided I couldn't be sure that Wheaton wasn't on the verge of real meltdown.
"Three oughta do it," I said to myself. I threw some money at the zombie and ran for the door.
As I reached escape velocity, I spotted a giant bin of cheap sunglasses.
"Yes," I thought, my 2:00am trance kicking in something fierce. Poker players wear sunglasses. I should wear them for the tournament.
Another voice, this one near my medulla oblongata (incidentally, I think the zombie was eying that particular cut of my noodle), spoke to reason. "You don't have time to buy sunglasses. The tournament is starting in thirty seconds."
I'm not sure where the third voice came from, but it was emphatic as Wheaton was when he said he needed food.
"Steal them," it said.
I've never been a thief. Outside of a few poker blinds and a piece of gum from a corner store when I was a kid, I've always shied away from a life of theft. Still, it made so much sense. The bin of shades sat right by the door. I was already nearly sprinting. No one would catch me. What's more, I would be the envy of every 2:00am tournament player. The 22-year-old recovering alcoholic on my right would ask to borrow them. James Souza (onetime WSOP final tablist turned Binion's $110 tournament regular) would forget that I sucked out on him and compliment me on my ability to turn downtown Las Vegas fashion on its ear. The waitress who learned to bring me a drink every time she came by would ask me what I was doing when she got off at 6:00am.
In short, I needed the glasses and I was willing to resort to a life of crime to get them. Indeed, I would steal the sunglasses.
Just as my brain forced my hand toward the overflowing bin, my eyes fell on a hand-printed sign hanging on the display.
It read: DON'T STEAL.
The world stopped. Wheatons' Snickers began to melt in my hot hand. Suddenly, the tournament and making it to the table on time meant nothing.
The zombies were one step ahead of me and that meant they had more brains than I did.
Everything beyond that moment is a matter of poker. It was a practice in crapshoot action, late night hijinx, and short-stack strategy at the final table. It was Souza saying (after I sucked out on him), "I didn't realize you'd been drinking." It was the young alcoholic asking me to move over because I "smelled like beer." It was Wheaton, Absinthe, and Spaceman sweating me at the final table and imploring me to bubble.
It was, in short, fun.
Still, as we sat down in the cab and settled up on the last longer, there was no escaping the fact that we were likely leaving a casino that won't exist in the near future. Like an old man who has outlived every member of his family, there was no one left to care whether Binion's lives or dies. We young travelers were hoping to find some breath of the excitement Binion's used to symbolize. We were left with the smell of cigarette-burned carpets and the sound of doors that closed before we even got there. While there was universal uneasiness about the way Harrah's was now running the World Series of Poker, there was no questioning that poker had outgrown its home and that Thomas Wolfe was probably right.
Still, Wheaton's belly was sated and I had somehow escaped transformation into a thief or a zombie's dinner. We had set out looking for adventure and we had found it. Like they say, it's not really about where you're going, but how you get there.
We left downtown Las Vegas as the sun rose over Vegas. The zombies would go back to their holes and we would go to bed knowing that, even if no one else cared, we had sat with Binion's as it slipped a little closer toward irrelevance and its ultimate demise. We were a hotel's hospice and it whispered to us as it drifted away.