Vegas unvarnished – dystopia in the desert

Racing Post Magazine, Autumn 2005

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden, an account of the two years the author spent living in a wood cabin on Walden Pond, not far from the town of Concord, Massachusetts. Walden, published in 1854, has become a byword for the spiritual quest of the reflective American, the individual who abandons materialism in search of a life of harmony with nature.

It was curious, therefore, to hear Thoreau’s words at the World Series of Poker 2005 press conference, held deep among the labyrinths of the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas. Poker legend Doyle Brunson - twice a winner of the World Series and, as ever, dressed in brown and wearing a Stetson - co-opted Thoreau for his own revisionist take on the history – and meaning – of Las Vegas. Waxing as lyrically as his Texan drawl allowed, Brunson eulogised poker and Vegas: “We’re here to participate in the largest poker game the world has ever seen. We’re doing what we’ve always done – since the early days, the people who came to this town refused to lead lives of quiet desperation.”

The assembled throng murmured its approval. No one paused to wonder what Thoreau would have made of Las Vegas, and the mixture of media and aficionados listened, rapt, as the poker gods alongside Brunson - men such as Greg ‘The Fossil Man’ Raymer and the sharp-suited Crandell Addington - spelt out what the World Series was about: a total prize pool of $103m, collected by means of a $10,000 buy-in from a field of 5,619, with the winner set to walk away with $7.5m. The top nine players would receive more than $1m, but, as Jack Binion – owner of Binion’s Horseshoe Casino and newly inducted in the Poker Hall of Fame – said: “Poker is a great product and a great game, but the bottom line is fun.”

Fun – and lots of it - is what Las Vegas has to offer. The town, now in its centenary year, rises from the arid wastes of the Nevada desert with diplomacy of a mudwrestler in a mausoleum. Nothing should exist, out here in the 45C heat – nothing but rattlesnakes and cacti. Everything else should wither and die. And yet Las Vegas is not just surviving, it is alive and well, a place for fun, vice, relaxation, families and, above all else, gambling. Las Vegas is everything you could ever want – and everything you could ever hate. And it is also immune – most of all, from itself.

The town’s horrific beauty is incorruptible. Apparently, the lights of The Strip – the infamous stretch of world-famous hotel-casinos such as the Bellagio, Caesar’s Palace and the MGM Grand – are visible to orbiting astronauts. Perhaps, if the spacemen are allowed to read Thoreau as they go about their cosmic tasks, Vegas looks like a giant, comforting and well-illumined log cabin, testimony to the realisation of human dreams. Down on the sidewalks and in the hotels, though, Thoreau seems light years away – even when he is quoted by poker superstars.

Struck by Brunson’s adoption of Thoreau, I tried America’s foremost diarist of the 19th century Transcendentalist movement on one of the barmaids at the epitome of Vegas cool, Pure Nightclub in Caesar’s Palace. The 36,000 square-foot club features ultra-hip sounds, perfect bodies, a ‘sensual’ red room and an outdoor terrace whose outer edge hosts VIP sofas and chairs from which the hoi polloi are excluded by a combination of absurdly outsize doormen and a velvet rail. The rest of Vegas can only look on at these exemplars of the American Dream, with their boob jobs, perma-tans and invincible superficiality, and feel strangely admonished. Aware of my own limitations as an English male, I asked the barmaid what she thought of the idea that Vegas represented the triumph of the men who refused to lead lives of quiet desperation.

“I’m not so sure about that,” she said. “A lot of the guys here are pretty desperate.”

Outside, relief is on hand. Any man fed up with the quietude of his desperation can avail himself of the sidewalk news-vending bureaux, stuffed not with newspapers but sex contact magazines. Many cities have sex flyers (viz., the tart cards of London phone boxes), but Las Vegas is unique in that the magazines with prostitutes’ contact details have been printed for anyone to collect, free of charge. There are two pages of terms and conditions at the outset of the magazines, regulating the transaction between punter and callgirl. In Vegas, vice is a lawyer’s cerebral challenge. It is beyond surreal, because it is true.

So, too, is the oft-repeated line about Vegas being timeless. It is, because the casinos are, quite literally, denuded of any means of telling what time of day or night it is. Slot machines, craps tables, roulette, poker and blackjack games abound at every turn, and yet nowhere is there anything so humble or prosaic as a clock. The casinos are similarly made as confusing as possible – once you’re in, it is very difficult to get out. There are no windows, artifice is everywhere, and so too images to remind you what you’re dreaming of: beautiful women serve your drinks, dancers gyrate seductively on nearby stages, posters of fast cars and diamonds adorn the walls. Upstairs, in all but the most lavish suites, rooms are anodyne. You don’t want to spend any time in them, so where better to be than back in the casino?

None of this is to say that Vegas does not have a peculiar, insidious appeal, something felt rather than understood. This is less a part of its charm – it is, without doubt, the most charmless city on earth – and a more a product of its shameless absurdity. Can there be anything more ridiculous than a town that boasts a replica of the Eiffel Tower and its own, kitsch Manhattan skyline? One that is home to a shark reef at the Mandalay Bay Casino and gondola rides at the Venetian Resort Hotel? Or that builds the Stratosphere Tower, at 1,149 feet the tallest free-standing observation tower in the U.S – and then perches not only a roller-coaster at the top but the new Insanity Ride, an arm that extends out over the edge of the Tower and flings customers around at 3Gs?

Las Vegas does not have a ‘real’ self, because nothing in the town is real. Those that own and run the place – like Steve Wynn, who built the Bellagio and the Mirage – know this. They constantly reinvent themselves and the town’s attractions to keep its annual influx of 37million tourists happy. Where formerly Wynn was as ostentatious as anyone in the bid to lure people inside his domain, with the signature fountains outside the Bellagio, there is now what, in Vegas, passes for discretion. His new hotel, the Wynn Las Vegas, bears an almost elegant neon sign and is partially hidden by 60-foot pine trees, shielding what is known as the ‘Lake of Dreams’. The aim is to tantalise with the enigma of what is within – and make more money for Wynn. “The only way to make money in a casino is to own one,” he once said. With 85% of visitors to Vegas gambling, and on average losing $665 each, Wynn is not exactly what poker players would call ‘short-stacked.’

Most visitors to Vegas dream of having Steve Wynn’s wealth, of living his life – or another life, secured by that lucky break in sin city. Albeit that it is bang in the middle of a desert, hundreds of miles from the ocean, Las Vegas is awash with the imagery of surfing. On sidewalk hoardings, on taxi cabs, in hotel foyers – seemingly everywhere are pictures of lean young surfers (usually male), surfing impossibly blue and beautiful waves. The subliminal effect is unashamedly aspirational, as if to say that this, too, could be your life – if you just bet another dollar. And if you don’t, before you return to the Midwest – or anywhere else miles from the hedonistic escapism of surfing – you can always call Brenda, or Suzi, or Sharon. Just read the Ts and Cs carefully first.

Surprisingly, though, Las Vegas is also a family holiday destination. Children scramble around the slot machines, if not during the night but certainly in daylight hours. Vegas has ephemera of every hue to occupy a child, from the tat that souvenir shops sell, to swimming pools with their $5.00 bottles of water and the seemingly endless roller-coasters and theme park attractions.

Ultimately, this is not a surprise. If there is anywhere that can at once be a safe choice for a family holiday and a mecca for vice-lovers, it is Las Vegas. It is a bizarre, ghastly and intoxicating place, where a nun called Sister Alice will happily accept a $1m cheque (raised by contributions from the poker fraternity) for Meals on Wheels at the World Series press conference, and where Henry David Thoreau is wielded as the harbinger of the Vegas version of the American Dream. The danger is that a place whose guiding moral principle is artifice might look best from space – Thoreau or no Thoreau.