Tuesday, August 14, 2018

(Mostly) Vegas Memories

Random reminiscences about my early visits to Las Vegas (mostly).

In December 1977 I married my now ex-wife Nikki. We returned from our honeymoon in the Virgin Islands before the New Year and on January 2 set out for Menlo Park, California from Chicago in our 1968 Pontiac GTO. I was about to start a new job at SRI International. By the third night of the drive we were in Flagstaff, Arizona. Since we weren't in any particular hurry, on the spur of the moment, we decide to stop in Las Vegas for a night. Luckily we missed the Consumer Electronics Show -- we were able to get a room at the Holiday Inn - Center Strip (now Harrah's) pretty easily. We spent the evening playing nickle slots (Quarters? You have to be kidding!) and going to the Shecky Greene dinner show at the MGM Grand (now Bally's).

The Bay Area Years

While living in the Bay Area I had several chances to visit Reno and Las Vegas. I had learned a bit about blackjack and wanted to try my hand at it. At the time casinos in Reno/Tahoe would issue coupons that could be used for a free 50 cents, $1 or $2 in slot or table game play, or a match play. Armed with a fistful of these, we made a few trips like this and I made a little money each time (big surprise.)

One year SRI sent me to a computer conference being held at the Frontier (now nothing) in Las Vegas. Being a big fan of Nathan Detroit and Big Julie, I decided that I wanted to learn to shoot craps--especially with Big Julie's dice. I bought a copy of the book "The Basics of Craps" and went to Nob Hill (now Casino Royale) because they advertised 10 cents craps. I figured I could not get burned too badly. The book recommended playing the pass line and two come bets with full or double odds, which is what I did. I bought in for $8 worth of dimes and cashed out for around $20.

In 1979, Amtrak began train service from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City through Las Vegas and my wife and I were invited to ride the inaugural train which, unlike the scheduled train, stopped for the night in Las Vegas. (The purpose of an inaugural train is to show off the train to the community it passes through, the press, and travel agents. It is also an opportunity for local politicians to take some credit.)

The Mint with the Union Plaza in the background
The Amtrak station was the old Union Pacific station located in the Union Plaza hotel (now the Plaza) a four star hotel owned by the railroad. Amtrak put us up at the Holiday Inn - Downtown (now Main Street Station), and the Chamber of Commerce held a party with a seafood buffet at the top of the Mint (now Binion's Steakhouse). We played a little slots and blackjack at the Las Vegas Club (now a hole in the ground) while walking between the Mint and our hotel.

Leaving the Bay Area

In December 1981, I moved back to Pittsburgh and joined Tartan Laboratories. They sent me and two others (including our VP of marketing) to Comdex probably in 1983. It was a last minute decision and there were no rooms "available". Several of my Dad's friends were "high rollers" and one of them was able to get me two rooms at the MGM Grand (now Bally's) -- one single (which I took) and one double (which the other two shared). The gambling I remember during this trip was at the Las Vegas Club (now a hole in the ground) prior to catching the train back to Pittsburgh via Chicago.

Subsequently I attended a DECUS meeting (The Digital Equipment Computer Users' Society) held at the MGM Grand (still now Bally's) and stayed across the street at the Dunes (now the Bellagio). I have no specific memories of gambling during this trip, though I am sure I did.


rec.gambling and ConJelCo and the Home Poker Game and the WSOP

In July 1989 when I made a trip to Atlantic City on Amtrak after riding another inaugural train. I had hours to kill before my fight from Atlantic City airport back to Pittsburgh and went to (I think) the Tropicana and played blackjack and craps, winning around $100 at each. I used basic strategy as I remembered it and had a ball. I decided I wanted to learn proper blackjack play and perhaps card counting, but I did not want to pay dues at the casino. I had been thinking about learning to program on the Macintosh. All of this led to the development of software to help to learn blackjack. When it was done I thought I had a marketable product and sent it off to Arnold Snyder, publisher of Blackjack Forum. He liked what he saw, and had me show it also to Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor for additional suggestions. The result was Blackjack Trainer -- the first product of what would become ConJelCo. At about this time I also discovered alt.gambling/rec.gambling and started participating in the discussions.

For a number of years around this time my home poker group would make a trip to Las Vegas in January and I made several solo trips at other times as well. I know the poker group stayed in the Frontier (now nothing) at least once and I stayed on my own at the Flamingo Hilton (now the Flamingo) two or three times. One reason for the solo trips was to try to get Blackjack Trainer sold in casino gift shops and other outlets.

On the first such trip I visited Gambler's Book Club then near Charleston and Maryland. I had not rented a car so I decided to take a bus to Charleston and Las Vegas Blvd and walk the few blocks to the store. The first bus came by and was full so I walked next door to O'Sheas (now the Linq) and visited for a while. The next bus came by and was full so I walked down to the Imperial Palace (now the Linq) and visited for a while. Rinse and repeat as I walked into the Holiday Inn (now Harrah's) and the Sands (now the Venetian), and eventually the Riviera (now a part of the convention center) and the Sahara (now the SLS)...each time coming out to find a full bus. I eventually ended up walking all of the way to the Gambler's Book Club. Luckily it was October. The walk was fun, but more importantly, GBC agreed to sell my software. Oh, and I took a taxi back to the Flamingo Hilton.

On another trip I arranged to meet Frank Irwin (from rec.gambling) for the first time. He had a comped room at the Stardust (now nothing)...in their new tower. I met him at the airport and went with him while he checked in. He got up to his room and lo-and-behold it was a suite...with a jacuzzi in the room off the bedroom. The next morning he told me that he had taken a nice long jacuzzi and gone to bed. He heard someone trying to get into the adjoining room, followed by a phone call from the front desk. It soon developed that he had not been comped a suite and that the door between the rooms had been left open by mistake.

In 1991 I married the love of my life, Barbara. We honeymooned in San Francisco and at the Hyatt Lake Tahoe. One evening we went to dinner at La Strada in the El Dorado in Reno--one of the best Italian Restaurants I've ever eaten at. Afterwards I wanted to play a little blackjack at the Flamingo Reno. That was short-lived as Barb fell asleep on a chair in the casino and security rousted her (and me!).

In 1992 we made a trip to Las Vegas and stayed at the Flamingo Hilton (now the Flamingo). My parents decided to join us and they stayed in a suite at the Desert Inn (now the Wynn). After a few nights we moved there as well. Frank Sinatra was the headliner and my Mom wanted to see him, but the rest of us talked her out of it on the grounds that she would be better off remembering him as he was. Instead we went to see Jubilee at Bally's (a big downgrade but I still think it was the right decision not to see Frank.) My main memory of that night is me knocking over a full glass of something like a frozen daiquiri onto my Mom's leather skirt. Barb remembers her simply saying "oh my" and using napkins to clean it off. The other thing I remember about the trip is going with my Dad over to Silver City (now part of the convention center) to play craps together for the first and only time (very meaningful to me.)

Getting things a bit out of order, in 1994 Barb and I attended the Ninth International Conference on Gambling and Risk Taking at the MGM Grand (still the MGM Grand!) where we spent time with Mason Malmuth and Arnold Snyder. Arnold and his wife joined us seeing Mystere at the Mirage (still the Mirage) and on another night had a great dinner at Hugo's at the Four Queens (still the Four Queens, and Hugo's is still great.)

Possibly on this trip, but perhaps during another one, I made a trip downtown to Binion's Horseshoe (now just Binion's) to talk with poker room manager Jim Albrecht about letting me provide Internet coverage of the World Series of Poker. This coverage began with the 1995 WSOP and ended after the 2000 WSOP (when the poker boom took off.)



In 1991 some members of the rec.gambling crowd met at SIGGRAPH, a computer graphics conference in Las Vegas in early August. They had a great time meeting each other and wrote wonderful trip reports on rec.gambling. They repeated in 1992 and at that point I was determined to join them in 1993. BARGE, as it came to be called, in 1993 was at the Rio (still the Rio). I, and probably others, suggested that we hold the poker tournament in a casino poker room as the group was getting too large to be held around a bed in a hotel room. The Rio agreed and we had a two table tournament on Saturday morning. I remember, prior to the tournament, playing craps with Jonathan Rosenberg (from my home poker game) and him throwing out a chip and yelling "hard five". After the tournament there was a blackjack tournament held in Abdul's RFB comped suite at the Frontier (still nothing).

The next year BARGE was at the Luxor (still the Luxor). In my earlier meeting with Jim Albrecht I mentioned BARGE to him and he thought he might be interested in hosting us in Binion's poker room the following year. So Mike Zimmers and I went downtown to work out the details and BARGE 1995 and most subsequent ones through BARGE 2018 were held there. But that's a tale for another essay.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Great Airline Give Away

On May 25, 1979 American Airlines flight 191, a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 took off from O'Hare airport in Chicago. Moments later its left engine separated from the wing and the plane went down killing all aboard. The cause was eventually determined to be faulty installation of the engine after maintenance (using a forklift) resulting in its mounting pylon breaking free from the wing. This led to questions regarding the aircraft design and on June 6 the FAA grounded all DC-10s. They removed the restriction on July 13.

Surprisingly, given cameras weren't a pocket accessory, lots of photos were captured of the crash of flight 191
Just prior to the crash, United Airlines, another major flier of DC-10s returned to operation following a devastating nearly two month strike by the machinists union. They had planes to fill and no passengers with reservations to fill them. Up until shortly before this strike, airlines relied on a mutual aid pact to weather such strikes. An airline under strike was given a high percentage of the windfall profits that the other airlines earned due to the strike. With airline deregulation, this was one of the first things to go. United was desperate.

In an effort to lure back passengers (with unfortunate timing), the very same day as the crash of AA 191 United started running ads (featuring a DC-10) offering "half-fare" coupons to all passengers who flew on any of their flights beginning on May 28. (American soon followed.) Coupons were handed out on each segment of a multi-segment flight, and in any class of service, through June 17. The coupons were good for half off the regular coach or first-class fares for domestic travel between July 1 and December 15. To put this deal in context, in those days there were generally two fares available -- full fare, or something called Super Saver fares which were significantly less than full fare but which required round trip travel, 30 day advanced purchase, a Saturday night stay, your first-born, and probably other restrictions that I've forgotten. The coupons were good on one-way, round-trip, open-jaw, and circle trips...so they were an amazing give away.
One of the full page ads running in most major cities. Note the plane illustrated.
Here's an example: in July 1979 TWA offered round-trips from San Francisco to New York for $490 in coach (there was also a night fare for somewhat less.) Super Saver (in coach) was $294 off-peak and $343 peak but with the aforementioned restrictions. So the half fare coupon gave you the same trip for $245 with no restrictions.

To no one's surprise there was quite a rush to obtain these coupons. You could find them for sale in classified ads. But, of course, the easy way to get them was to actually take a flight--any flight, if you were flying, just as the airlines intended. You could not, for example, make a reservation, show up at the airport, get a coupon and not actually take the flight. You had to fly!

I quickly pulled out the Official Airline Guide to see what might be the easiest and cheapest way to obtain one or more coupons. At the time I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, a United hub, and flights were plentiful. I quickly determined that there was a United flight that went from San Francisco to Fresno and back with a stop in Stockton in one direction. Since they gave one coupon per flight segment that meant three coupons for a quick round trip. And the round trip full fare was only $28. One problem...the flights were sold out. So back to the drawing board.

Further scrutiny of the OAG showed that United had several one stop flights from San Francisco to Chicago and the stop was in Oakland, just across the San Francisco Bay. Checking with the airline I found that they would indeed sell tickets for the short segment across the bay and that they were only $14. Unfortunately the flight that made sense (UA 125 leaving SFO at 11:40am and arriving OAK at 12:02pm, the guide shows it was served by a 727 though I remember it as a DC-8) was also sold out. But a friend and I picked a date and asked to be put on the wait list (they had wait lists in those days.)

On the morning in question we drove to SFO and stood around the gate to see if we cleared the list. We both did and soon boarded. The plane was full and had a party atmosphere as essentially everyone was on a "coupon run". I recall that the stewardesses (as they were called in those days) handed out champagne prior to take off and, of course, the coupons. My friend remembers that when the stewardess went to take her jump seat there was a passenger sitting in it. The plane had to go back to the gate and discharge the extra passenger before continuing to Oakland -- he was the one exception to the "you actually had to take the flight to get a coupon" rule.

The pilot got on the PA and announced that he would receive landing clearance at OAK before he received take off clearance at SFO. Wheels up to wheels down was probably 10 minutes to cover the 11.3 miles, and before we knew it we were in Oakland.*  We were then had to get back to SFO and our car. A shuttle to the nearby BART station and a ride on BART to the nearest station at the time (Daly City I believe) and another shuttle to the airport took several more hours. The entire endeavor took the better part of a day, but we had our coupons!

I recall buying at least one other coupon from a colleague who had no need for it for, maybe $25, probably ultimately a better deal, but not nearly as fun (and no story to tell.)

My friend tells me that he later made a round trip to Sacramento to get two coupons. He flew out in the morning and back in the late afternoon. Since most of the passengers were there for the coupon (it was easier to drive to Sacramento than fly for normal passengers), people were in a friendly mood. Though not usually that outgoing he struck up conversations with a number of people, including one very attractive woman, with whom he spent the day in Sacramento. They dated for a few months before she introduced him to the woman who would become his future ex-wife.

In those days my employer had a policy that a traveler was entitled to a full fare coach ticket to where ever they were going on business and that if they flew for less they could, for instance, use the savings to help take their spouse along on the trip. I took advantage of this several times while working for that company. But the half fare coupon opened up a whole new set of possibilities. Here's the one case that I remember. I had to make a trip to Huntsville, AL to accept a piece of computer hardware. In those days United had a flight from SFO that flew one stop to HSV (via LAX). The company travel office bought me the ticket and I quickly used the half fare coupon to turn it into a first class open-jaw trip: San Francisco to Huntsville, Chicago to San Francisco (in a DC-10!.) Since that didn't eat up the full SFO-HSV-SFO coach fare, I also received a MCO (miscellaneous charge order) for the difference. I paid cash for a ticket from HSV to ORD (on Southern Airlines) so that I could visit my parents after my business in Huntsville was concluded. I basically got a free upgrade plus a very low cost visit to Chicago (plus funds to use on another trip) for my coupon. I subsequently used the MCO to pay for another flight (in coach this time) from SFO to LAX to catch a rail excursion. And the whole thing was completely within the corporate rules! (Of course the rules are a lot different these days -- I'm sure even at that same company.)

Over the years, I've had my share of free flights due to volunteering, etc., but to me, that doesn't compare to the benefit from the 1979 Half Fare coupon.

*This is (but not by far) my shortest flight on a commercial airline. Second place goes to a United flight from PHF (Newport News) to ORF (Norfolk) a year or so later at 23 miles...the flight was also going on to ORD which was my actual destination this time.