I’m writing this while reflecting upon my annual March Madness sojourn to Las Vegas.
In case you missed my first dispatch from the desert, my dad and I do this every spring. It’s an absolute blast, and I was able to salvage a break-even day on Thursday despite one of the worst touts in sports betting history (Kentucky -18 over Saint Peter’s).
Recapping the next three days in a concise, live-blog fashion, as I did late Thursday night, is impossible. There are countless Las Vegas sports betting moments, little anecdotes and tangents I could go off on.
To the relief of my editor, I’ll sum up my biggest takeaway with four simple words: Sometimes, you just know.
The legend of Booboo
Friday was a middling basketball day.
Iowa State winning outright was a plus and brought home point spread and money line tickets.
However, Wisconsin only topping Colgate by six as 6 1/2-point favorites hurt badly.
Craving some blackjack, Dad and I headed to Gold Coast, next door to the Rio (where we stayed).
It’s nobody’s idea of a hot spot, but they spread $15 double-deck games with 3:2 payoffs on blackjack. Most places didn’t go below $25, and that’s just too rich for my blood.
I sat down at a table, and players immediately started calling me Booboo.
If you’ve ever had a group of total strangers suddenly start calling you Booboo, please tell me how to react. I was puzzled, as I think most people would be, but apparently, it was a table thing.
Bailed out by the cards
Instead of memorizing names, an older Chinese woman at third base just called everyone Booboo, and it stuck.
Additionally, drinks were flowing, and several fellow players were half in the bag. All of this made for the kind of loose, friendly table that can sometimes be hard to find.
“This is good,” I thought to myself. “There’s no way this isn’t good.”
Booboo got used in varying tones, depending on the action.
A Canadian gentleman hit on 17 against a dealer’s 4. The abusive Booboo’s started flying, until he drew an ace that wound up saving the table. Instead of the dealer pulling that ace to turn 10 into 21, she pulled two cards to bust.
Much to the relief of my new friend from the Great White North, the Booboo’s became celebratory, and fast. After an hour (and many, many Booboo’s), I recouped my basketball losses and headed to bed.
For the second straight day, cards bailed me out. It wouldn’t be the last time this happened.
The Champagne family rides again
Basketball was awful Saturday. I loved Baylor -5 over North Carolina. The Tar Heels raced out to a 25-point lead. While the Bears rallied to force overtime, the reigning national champs ran out of gas.
Additionally, I really liked Middle Tennessee State -6.5 over Cal Baptist in the CBI tournament. The Blue Raiders were up 16 points with 10 minutes to go, but the Lancers stormed back and wound up losing by six. For the second straight day, a major play had failed to cover by a mere half-point.
A few sound horse racing bets saved my bacon, though, and we headed to the Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace. Reservations weeks in advance are required, and it’s not cheap, but if you’re in Vegas, make it a point to go there.
Everything we ate was world-class, and it put a spring in our steps as we headed back to Bally’s to play poker.
Necessary pretext: My dad and I have played a lot of tournaments over the years. There have been times where one of us has made a deep run, but both of us having success at the same time has been rare.
About an hour and a half into the tournament, my dad’s table broke and he got seated to my left.
The table got a laugh as I practiced my “all-in” motion, since I’d be acting before him on every hand. Unfortunately, no such clash came about, but we both did well enough to move to the final two tables, where we were separated again.
Champagne at the poker tables
Much like Thursday, I was short-stacked with 12 players left on two, six-handed tables. Blinds came quickly, and each level increase became more drastic as the poker room looked to move things along.
I got a double-up at the right time, though, and I noticed my dad dodging bullets on the other table. In a weird, welcome plot twist, one back-to-back series of hands saw two players get knocked out. Another saw three players eliminated just before the final table.
With the tournament paying seven spots, this meant, improbably, both members of the Champagne family cashed. From what we remembered, this had not happened in about five years, so we exchanged plenty of fist-bumps and, “wait, all right!” body language.
Even better, chip leaders started butting heads.
This allowed us to move up despite not winning many big hands. Ultimately, Dad finished fourth when his Q-J ran into pocket kings. I bowed out in third when I rivered a king-high flush and ran into a chip leader holding a full house with 9-2.
This was a 65-entry tournament, so a pair of top-four finishes meant two nice scores. Thankfully, there were more to come.
Redemption, and a lesson on the gambling gods
I prepped hard for March Madness.
I studied. I watched film. And I pored over matchups.
Up until Sunday, with the exception of a nice, first-round score on Iowa State, the results had been very poor.
My final wagers of the weekend were two ACC teams. I loved Duke, giving 6 1/2 to Michigan State, and I also liked Virginia, getting 2 1/2 from North Texas in the NIT. Those two spreads got almost all of my action Sunday, and Dad was in on Duke as well. Neither of us are in any way Duke fans, so this felt weird.
Michigan State battled back to go up by three late in the second half. I walked to use the bathroom, and I saw a Michigan State bettor scream at the television, “BYE BYE, COACH K!”
I stopped and looked in his direction. It was probably a good thing I had a mask on, because my lips curled into a devilish smirk.
Sometimes, you just know.
Duke was down three with about four minutes left. This was far from a blowout. If there was any justice, I thought, that premature exclamation meant the Blue Devils were bound to make a comeback.
Basketball bets finally cash
Not only did Duke rally to win the game, it rallied to cover the 6 1/2-point spread. I looked back after joining a celebratory cheer in the sportsbook, and the drunk fan had seemingly already beaten feet out of the bar. “BYE BYE, COACH K!” is going to be a story I tell for a long time, and I hope it serves as a reminder to avoid tempting fate.
Already assured of a good day, my attention turned to Virginia. The Cavaliers blew a second-half lead at North Texas, and the game went to overtime. It was on ESPN+, which meant the Bally’s sportsbook wasn’t showing video.
Repeated yells of, “VIRGINIA BASKETBALL SCORE!,” into my phone produced results met with varying degrees of satisfaction. Virginia went up six halfway through the extra five minutes, but North Texas pecked away and kept me nervous. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I got a final score.
Virginia won by two. My spread bet, money line bet, and Duke-Virginia parlay all cashed.
After three days of basketball beating my brains in, these two games meant I had my most financially-successful Vegas trip ever.
I wouldn’t have wagered on that outcome after Kentucky’s shocking loss to Saint Peter’s. However, I headed home comfortably ahead, and on the kind of natural high that any gambler can understand.
I can tell you about money management, what happens when gambling Twitter drags you, or any number of other topics. Should you want those conversations, I’m an easy guy to find.
None of those are close to the most important things here, though.
If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s to take nothing for granted.
We canceled our plans in 2020 days before we were supposed to fly in. 2021’s March Madness trip, meanwhile, was the worst Vegas sojourn of my life.
Casinos wanted all of the money they lost in the first year of the pandemic immediately. They started charging for seats, they got stingier with drink tickets, and the vibe of the city was totally warped from the Vegas I’d come to love.
The pandemic isn’t over, but this year certainly seemed more normal. We got to do the things we enjoyed doing, and we had a blast doing them with people who were fun to be around.
On that note, I extend my gratitude to the folks at the Bally’s sportsbook. Everyone was incredibly welcoming, down to making sure we had places to sit for each day of the tournament. That room is getting a face-lift with the upcoming Horseshoe rebrand. I sincerely hope the folks in charge do it justice and don’t drain the place of its charm or the people who make it fun.
Speaking of fun …
Since I moved from upstate New York to California in late-2013, my dad and I have made it a point to meet in Las Vegas when we can. These trips give us as good an opportunity as any to do stuff together.
He’s the reason I got into journalism. He reported on high school sports teams in the area, brought me with him, and showed me a career path I instantly fell in love with.
Him taking me to Saratoga every summer also meant I knew how to read a racing form at a very young age. Cards and board games being at the ready didn’t hurt, either. My upbringing turned me into an award-winning content creator and handicapper, and the lessons he taught me were driving forces in my development.
A few months ago, a friend of mine (who I sincerely hope is reading this) urged me to “chase happy.”
I’m not sure he knows this, but that conversation’s been on my mind a lot lately. Chasing happiness is not an easy thing to do in the gambling world. Successes often go unnoticed and failures get blown up (hi, “I’m betting Kentucky regardless of the spread!”).
That stuff wears on a person. That’s not a mark of insecurity, but rather, one of humanity and caring deeply about what one does.
This week, though? Chasing happiness wasn’t hard. I got to spend four full days in Las Vegas with my dad. Wall-to-wall basketball was interrupted by horse races, poker games, blackjack sessions, and, for the most part, really good food. I also got to write about all of it for people who have hopefully enjoyed the coverage.
Thanks, Dad. And thanks to all of you for following along.