Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Florida Memories -- Part I (Early Days)

I'm a Chicagoan by birth as are both of my parents. Chicago has harsh winters so both sides of the family spent a good deal of time in Florida for part of the year. As a result, throughout my life, at least until both of my parents passed away, I have been a frequent visitor to Florida.

I thought that I'd write a series of vignettes of family memories of Florida. Things will not be presented in chronological order. Because of the shear volume of memories, this will be separated into three separate posts. This one consists of a few short memories that my Mom and Dad told me regarding their time in Florida before I was born. The second one will deal with traveling to Florida over the years. The third one will cover were we stayed and other memories.


Mom's childhood home in Miami Beach

My Mom's family had a house on the Venetian Causeway on Rivo Alto Island in Miami Beach. My Grandfather bought it sometime in the 1920s because one of my Uncles had health issues that made winter in Chicago problematical. In high school (and probably earlier) my Mom would start the school year in Chicago (at Lakeview High), transition to Miami Beach around November (at Miami Beach Senior High), and then back to Chicago around April for the end of the school year. There was one exception to this. For her senior year she and my other Uncle stayed in Florida and both graduated from Miami Beach Senior High. I believe the house was sold right after World War II.

The Rivo Alto House
In March of 2011 during Lizzy's spring break, Barb, Lizzy,  my sister Kay, and I spent some time together in Florida for the last time with my Mom. We stayed in the Boca Raton Beach Club. My Mom said that she'd like for us to drive down to Miami Beach to see her old house one more time and have lunch at Joe's (more on Joe's in another part of this story). I did some research and found out that the house was now owned by the Chairman of Elizabeth Arden, a high-end skin care company. I sent their PR office a message and asked it it would be possible to visit. I do not recall if they replied, but we did make the trip and when we arrived at the house we found it under massive renovation. After a chat with the construction foreman we were invited to walk the planks across the mud to see the inside of the house. The foreman took us on a guided tour and along the way my Mom would point out where things (such as the vault from when the house had been a casino before my Grandfather bought it0 had been in the house. It was fascinating for all of us and we had a lot to talk about over lunch at Joe's. Subsequent to the visit my Mom wrote to the Elizabeth Arden Chairman to tell him about the visit, to thank him and give him some of the history of the house. He wrote a nice personal letter back and about a week or two later sent a big box full of products from Elizabeth Arden's premium skin care line.


Where's the bookie?

During World War II, my Dad was sent from basic training to the east coast of Florida for training in radar (he would eventually serve in the Aleutian Islands). He started training near Jupiter Florida, and he and my Mom got married in Palm Beach. They honeymooned (such as it was) in Miami Beach and set up housekeeping in an apartment in Palm Beach. Sometime after they were married my Dad's Mom, Goldie, came for a visit, dropped her bags in the apartment and asked my Dad "where's the nearest bookie?" and ran out the door to place a bet or two.


Cherry pie

Before his deployment to the Aleutians they went for additional training in the Clearwater, Florida area. One day while my Dad was on base, my Mom went out and managed to put together the ingredients to bake a homemade cherry pie, complete with a lattice crust. That evening, after they finished the main course, my Mom proudly showed Dad the pie and he said "I'm sorry dear, I don't like cherry pie." She never baked him any sort of pie again. For the few years that Mom outlived Dad we'd share a piece of cherry pie on or near his birthday when we'd come for a visit.

I hope you've enjoyed this brief memoir. In part two of this series I'll remember traveling to Florida over the years.

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.