The Duke of Fremont Street is a cathedral to class.
If you’ve been around Las Vegas for any length of time, it’s likely you’ve seen the dapper gentleman dressed to the limit. If not, then perhaps the 1938 Cadillac caught your attention. From his earliest origins spent gambling along the Mississippi River all the way to the bright lights of the Las Vegas Strip, the Duke has been there and always seems to be closing a deal.
In this 25-minute interview, I sat down with the Duke where we talked about his life, what he thinks of Las Vegas and casinos today, and where he thinks we’re all headed. No surprise, the Duke delivers. He holds nothing back. He sounds just as cool as he looks.
CLICK AND WATCH HERE:
This was one of the first (of several) interviews we’ve recorded as part of a new series called “The Basement Tapes,” brought to you by 5th Street Sports. We shot the video in a basement, where the studio is located — hence, the show’s name.
I had a great time interviewing the Duke, which is obvious in this video. Thanks to my guest for coming on to the show and setting a shining example of elegance, perhaps matched though never surpassed.
Given a national tidal wave of retailer bankruptcies and thousands of store closures, why does the Las Vegas Strip defy all odds and increasingly look like the new Mall of America?
Las Vegas used to be called “Sin City.”
Now, it’s “Shopping City.”
The iconic decorative fountains outside in front of Caesars Palace are now obscured by a pop-up retail store hawking Samsung smartphones. The pirate ship at Treasure Island has been torn down and hauled away, replaced by a lousy barbecue joint with a mechanical bull. Every casino along Las Vegas Boulevard has a shopping mall or is connected to a shopping mall.
Indeed, everywhere you look up and down The Strip, there’s a trendy retail store or chain restaurant. Sales pests leap out of nowhere, begging to clean your jewelry or talk you into a miracle skin cream. Shopping has become so pervasive that it’s become increasingly difficult to find the way into a casino amidst a disorienting maze of overpriced clothing stores, perfume shops, gourmet burger bars, and kiosks selling junk knick-knacks that nobody needs. Playing cards used to symbolize the Las Vegas experience. Now, it’s credit cards.
Even off The Strip, several so-called “outlet malls” packed with hundreds of retail stores cater almost exclusively to tourists. Near downtown, there’s a giant complex called Premium Outlets (which just announced plans to start charging to park, begging the question — who pays for parking just to shop?). South of Mandalay Bay, there’s an even bigger shopping outlet known as Town Square. Just south of that mall is another outlet mall named Las Vegas South Premium Outlets. Parking is still free there, at least for now.
Even the swarms of visitors who drive into Las Vegas from the west can’t escape the shopping craze. What’s the first thing you see when crossing the California-Nevada border? Not a casino. Answer: The Primm Outlet Mall. Who in the hell drives four hours from Los Angeles across the desert to swerve into Nordstrom Rack? Hmm, I guess there are no stores left in California.
Las Vegas doesn’t need Gamblers Anonymous. We need Shoppers Anonymous.
What’s truly baffling is this trend defies absolutely everything that’s happening across the rest of America. Retailers just about everywhere are in very serious trouble. More than 10,000 stores affiliated with national chains closed down last year. Retail bankruptcies are at an all-time high. More than 50 retailers have gone out of business just within the last year.
Toys R Us is bankrupt. Perfumania is bankrupt. Rue21 is bankrupt. Payless Shoes bankrupt. RadioShack is bankrupt. The Limited is bankrupt. Gymboree is bankrupt. Vitamin World is bankrupt. Aerosoles is bankrupt. Styles for Less is bankrupt. That’s the short list. READ MORE
K-Mart is about to be bankrupt. Sears is about to be bankrupt. JC Penny is about to be bankrupt. SteinMart is about to be bankrupt. Burlington is about to be bankrupt. Men’s Warehouse is about to be bankrupt. Joseph A. Bank is about to be bankrupt. That’s another short list. READ MORE
These are even worse times for shopping malls. They simply aren’t being built anymore. Not with Walmart, Costco, Sam’s Club, and other retail giants offering far better value and easier convenience. Who wants to visit a mall and walk three miles to grab a few things when one megastore offers the same thing at a cheaper price — plus a hot dog and drink lunch for $1.50?
Of course, the real culprit in the demise of malls and retail stores is online shopping, and more specifically the explosion of Amazon. E-shopping has revolutionized consumer culture. It’s far easier to find the perfect replacement part or the ideal sweater on a home laptop and then have it delivered to our doorstep. No doubt, Amazon will continue cutting into the market share of brick and mortar retailers, which will increasingly find themselves following K-Mart into bankruptcy court.
So, given what’s happening everyplace else, why is Las Vegas such a mystifying exception? It makes no sense. It defies all logic.
Clearly, these retail stores on The Strip don’t offer any bargains. The prices for goods and services are usually much higher in casino malls than back at home. Sure, tourists will buy t-shirts and souvenirs. That’s to be expected. But who flies to Las Vegas on their vacation to purchase a smartphone? Or, a bottle of perfume? Or, a pair of pants? Or, a pair of sneakers? Or, any of the other millions of products for sale at a considerable markup?
One plausible theory is that most Las Vegas visitors expect to lose money. Hence, rather than blowing $1,200 at a craps table as the tourists used to do, by splurging on an $800 iPhone and $400 handbag instead, at least there’s something left to show for the act of self-indulgence.
Still, I can’t shake the undeniable fact that at least some (albeit small) percentage of gamblers depart the casino with more money than they started with. A very tiny number might even get rich. But everyone who walks into a shopping mall and then buys something loses money.
Why is Las Vegas so different when it comes to retail shopping? I can’t explain it.
Thoughts and feedback are welcome.
Correction / Update: I’ve been informed the Samsung store at Caesars is now gone. So, don’t rush there to buy the new Galaxy S9.
St. Patricks Day and March Madness weekend combine to create the perfect storm for skilled low- to mid-stakes poker players. It’s become the best calendar date of the year to play poker in Las Vegas.
I was astounded by all the craziness last night. Call it March Poker Madness.
Las Vegas poker rooms were packed. Every seat was taken. Waiting lists were long. More drinking and talking went on than usual. Almost no headphones were seen. Players looked to be having fun. The pots seemed bigger. Many games were great.
I got my ass kicked.
No, not really. Let’s just say it was a good night.
This was my overall impression after playing at four different cardrooms over an 11-hour stretch on a long Saturday night-early Sunday morning, which just so happened to overlap into a perfect storm of citywide poker action. My conclusion is this:
St. Patrick’s Day and the opening weekend of March Madness appear to create the best calendar date of the year to play poker, at least here in Las Vegas.
Surprisingly, I never realized this phenomenon before. Las Vegas has been my home for 16 years. One would think I’d have discovered this already. But I don’t recall going out to play poker during this specific weekend. In the past, for more than a decade I traveled frequently with the World Series of Poker Circuit, which meant I was off working, someplace else. If I was in Las Vegas during mid-March, it’s most likely that I avoided what amounts to “amateur night” for partiers and drinkers. Don’t misunderstand. I love drinking. But I don’t like drinking with drunken amateurs. Besides, the service sucks everywhere. It’s way too crowded.
Now, I realize the objective isn’t drinking with drunken amateurs. It’s to play poker with them.
Aside from the financial upside, the games last night reminded me of the way poker used to be. Players cracking jokes and laughing. Everyone talking about the ball game on TV. Gamblers discussing the next day’s pointspreads, while ordering another Miller Lite. You know, having fun.
If this all sounds manipulative, even exploitive, well — it is. In a game with tougher players and diminishing edges, every conceivable advantage must be hunted. That’s assuming you play for money. The formula for increasing one’s chance of winning is simple: You have to go where games are good and play at the ideal time. Oh, and you must play well.
Saturday nights are almost always the best nights of the year to play poker. This is true just about anywhere, especially in Las Vegas. Friday nights can be pretty good, too. However, on Friday nights many less-skilled players realize there’s still a long weekend ahead of them. They tend to remain in control of themselves and make table decisions that aren’t catastrophic. Not yet, anyway.
By Saturday night, the emotional bolts of self-constraint have rusted away and are about to snap. At least a few dozen beers into the weekend with a pocket full of losing sports tickets, the poker table becomes the last chance to get even. Sometimes maxed out on ATM visits and down to their last hundred, players will simply give up out of frustration. I saw this happen last night when an out-of-town visitor on a bad run got fed up with playing normally. He decided to blind shove his last $120. He lost.
Those kinds of bizarre situations happen a lot on Saturday nights, especially in the “touristy” poker rooms on The Strip filled with frat boys. But that’s merely the foundation for more craziness.
Combine Saturday night with the opening weekend of March Madness, which is four exhaustive days and nights of betting and watching television and cheering, then subtract the hours of much-needed rest, and low-to mid-stakes poker games all over town become even wilder. Then, to top things off, add in the party factor — St. Patrick’s Day. This is one of the most popular days of the year for casual alcohol consumption, perhaps second only to New Year’s Eve. All the scrumptious ingredients are in place:
Las Vegas + Saturday Night + March Madness + St. Patrick’s Day = Great poker games.
Admittedly, this was just one night. Perhaps, my experience was atypical. Maybe I’m exaggerating. Let’s open this up to other opinions.
Eager to know if my personal experience and hypothesis about St. Patrick’s Day/March Madness is shared by other poker players, I posted a poll on Twitter. Although the results are unscientific, these percentages show that a majority of poker players believe this is/was the best night (and weekend) of the year to play poker in Las Vegas.
Here are the results, so far (Note: It’s now 12 hours into the 24-hour poll — so the results are incomplete). The results do appear to be conclusive:
I don’t know what I’ll be doing tomorrow night — or the next, or the next. But I sure do know what I’ll be doing next March 16, 2019. I’ll definitely be playing poker.
Every big city in America has its own peculiar set of rules for driving a car:
In Los Angeles — make sure each drive begins with a full tank of gas. You might need it. Sitting in traffic for hours with the engine idling away is a part of daily life.
In Philadephia — always keep one hand on the steering wheel, while maintaining the other hand in a locked position with the middle finger extended, fully prepared to engage any violators.
In Chicago — get bulletproof windows.
In Dallas — make sure your collision insurance is up-to-date.
In Miami-Ft. Lauderdale — prepare for a constant game of dodgeball, since half the population is over 85 and the rest are nuts.
In New York — don’t drive.
Las Vegas can be a really strange place, especially when it comes to driving.
Our auto insurance rates are among the highest in the nation. Driving on freeways here can be like racing in the Daytona 500. Everything is a competition. Cutting off someone is traffic is personal and demands revenge. Other cities with heavy traffic slow down when it’s bumper to bumper. In Las Vegas, we hit the gas. Flashing neon lights up and down the casino strip is a particularly bad influence on drivers; turn signals are used merely for ornamentation. When it rains, which is almost never, forget about it. You might as well pack up and leave town. When the roads are slick, everyone drives faster. It’s madness.
We do love to gamble. Especially behind the wheel.
For tourists who rent a car, local residents, or god forbid pedestrians and cyclists (how are you not in a coma?), what follows are some helpful hints enabling you to survive the unique Las Vegas driving experience.
A Dozen Rules for Driving in Las Vegas:
Rule #1: There are no rules.
That’s right. There are no rules for driving in Las Vegas. Well at least, no one pays attention to them. So, neither should you. Ignore traffic laws relating to speed limits, school zones, and areas under constructions (which basically applies to every expressway in the city). Do whatever you want.
Rule#2: Keep up with the flow of traffic.
If there’s a speed limit posted, add 20 mph to it. That’s the real speed limit. The 20 mph “over” rule especially applies to delivery trucks and city buses, which all drive batshit crazy. If you don’t drive at the common speed limit, you might get run off the road. So, keep up with the flow of traffic. Note: In Sun City Summerlin, which is a sprawling “over 55” community, reverse everything written above. Subtract 20 mph from the posted speed limits. Better yet, buy a golf cart.
Rule #3: It’s always rush hour.
In Las Vegas, there are no clocks in casinos. Moreover, there are no clocks on the roadways. Normal times of day don’t apply here. 9 to 5 isn’t the workday. It’s the odds on a craps table. This is a 24-hour city where anyone can order a steak, smoke a bowl, shoot up, or down half a dozen martinis — day and night. You might think it’s safe to drive the streets at 10 am. Not true. The morning drive means the graveyard shift got off work and already had three hours to party. Las Vegas’ rush hour is midnight until 11:59 at night.
Rule #4: Never brake on yellow.
Yellow traffic lights aren’t what they mean in other cities. Yellow does not mean — caution or slow down. In Las Vegas, yellow means — pound the gas pedal. Braking on yellow in this city can get you rear-ended, assaulted, or perhaps even shot.
Rule #5: A green light does not mean “go.”
Green lights at traffic intersections do not mean “go.” In Las Vegas, a green light means “proceed with extreme caution.” When stopped at a traffic light, upon seeing evidence of a green light, wait at least five full seconds before accelerating. Allow several vehicles caught in cross traffic to race through the intersection as the light changes from yellow to red. Otherwise, you’ll probably get sideswiped by an uninsured driver with expired out-of-state plates.
Rule #6: Handicapped parking spaces are for handicappers.
All the casinos have plenty of handicapped parking spaces. Most of them are empty. This is most convenient for sports gamblers caught in a time crunch. Why risk missing the tip-off when a handicapped parking space is just a few steps away from the race and sportsbook betting window, and the game starts in 3 minutes? The chances of a disabled person needing the space are small, anyway. In Las Vegas, handicapped parking applies to both “the handicapped” and “handicappers.”
Rule #7: What to do if your car breaks down.
If your vehicle breaks down for any reason, remove it from the roadway, immediately. Otherwise, a car thief will come along and remove it for you. Also — don’t even think of changing a flat tire on your own. You will be run over and end up in a coma.
Rule #8: Learn the local language.
In Las Vegas, the three most common ways to communicate are as follows —  English,  Spanish, and  Texting While Driving. If exceeding 80 mph, the ten-second rule on replying to phone text messages does not apply. Do not text while driving more than 25 mph above the speed limit. That’s what school zones are for.
Rule #9: Learn how to properly use the horn.
Sometimes, honking the car horn may be necessary when driving in Las Vegas traffic. However, one must also practice the proper discretion. So, it’s best to follow the local customs. Your car horn has a clear purpose and it is to be used — as a weapon.
Rule #10: Always be prepared for the danger of a traffic stop.
Take extra special care when being pulled over by the police during a traffic stop. Making a mistake can be very costly. Here’s some advice: A personal flask is much easier to hide under the front seat than either a beer can or a beer bottle, especially if the beverage is full. No one wants to spill good liquor just because a tail light is out and you get pulled over. So, prepare accordingly.
Rule #11: Weaponize your car stereo sound speakers.
Young people in Las Vegas enjoy blasting their shitty music. Worse, they make sure everyone else can hear it. At busy intersections with extra-long red lights, be prepared for rap lyrics loud enough to sound like you’re chained next to the speakers at a DMX concert. The optimal countermeasure to this auditory pollution is establishing a good defense, a.k.a. “amping up,” sort of like how nations stockpile nukes. When confronted with booming rap music at a traffic light, put on your favorite music, roll down the car windows, crank up the volume, and blast the fuck away.
Rule #12: Learn what the road signs really mean.
In Las Vegas, traffic signs are meant as suggestions. Sort of like your waiter reciting the nightly dinner specials. No one pays attention. Everyone will do their own thing. Here’s the real road sign menu, with descriptions:
STOP = Slow down.
YIELD = Accelerate to beat other cars into the traffic circle.
DO NOT ENTER = Be sure no one is approaching, then proceed.
NO PARKING = Free parking.
DUCK CROSSING = 1 duck – 1 point; 2 ducks – 2 points; 3 ducks – 3 points; 4 ducks – we don’t believe it….post video on YouTube.
ROAD WORK AHEAD = Speed up now to make up for lost time.
MERGING TRAFFIC = Ride the tail of the car in front so no one can cut in.
SCHOOL ZONE = Check your text messages.
Finally, thinking of renting a car? Here’s a one-word suggestion, instead: Uber.
The audience was treated to a pleasant surprise at Red Rock’s free variety show on Sunday.
About 20 minutes into the monthly matinee “Brunch to Broadway,” the emcee ushered four local high school students onto the stage. Two were young girls, aged 16 and 17. The two other kids were a 14-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl.
Inviting minors onstage to join a live show at a casino seemed a bit unusual.
“Brunch to Broadway” is 75-minutes of music with a live band. Years ago, these types of shows were quite popular. They used to be called “lounge acts.” Every big casino had one. Lounge acts played both afternoons and nights, and sometimes even into the early morning. Shows were free, although seeing the most popular entertainers often required a two-drink minimum, and getting a really good table usually mandated a generous tip to the Maitre’d. Many popular singers and comedians of the past century began their careers as Las Vegas lounge acts.
Unfortunately, searching for a free lounge act on the Las Vegas Strip has become tougher than finding a casino that pays 2 to 1 on blackjack. Lounge acts have pretty much disappeared.
However, there are some notable exceptions. Several “locals” casinos — which means resorts catering mostly to local residents instead of out-of-town visitors — continue to offer this throwback to the past. Red Rock (owned by Stations Casinos) and Suncoast (owned by Boyd Gaming) host regular variety shows in their showrooms. Most are free. As one might expect, the crowds in attendance skew a bit older. But I’ve also seen many families and young people in the audiences. It’s nice seeing shows featured that can be enjoyed by everyone.
“Brunch to Broadway” is fun. But it’s nothing out of the ordinary. We’ve enjoyed this show on three occasions (there’s a different show each time). The set list mostly includes show tunes and standards from the classic American songbook. Performers rotate in and out from various shows around town.
Sunday’s show was special, however. The two younger kids joined a four-piece band — which then became a six-piece band. Instantly, a horn section was born. The boy played the saxophone. The girl played the trumpet. The kids didn’t always hit every note perfectly. But that didn’t seem to matter. It was really cool to see the youngsters playing alongside professional musicians in a live show. The kids appeared to be having the time of their lives.
The two teen girls each sang a solo. Later, they sang together. Both girls were excellent. But, the audience could tell they were also a little nervous. Again, none of this mattered. Their songs were from Broadway show tunes.
A bit later, the other full-time performers continued the show. Finally, the entire ensemble cast did a few songs together with the band. It was all good fun. The price (free) was certainly right.
The episode impressed me. Bringing four youngsters onstage and giving them a chance to perform in front of a live audience added something really special to the performance. Sure, it’s understandable that Strip casinos would never take a chance like this — inviting school-age children to play in a live show. Visitors don’t pay $130 for a seat in the Bellagio showroom to see a 12-year-old trumpet player. But locals’ casinos are different. We have other expectations.
Indeed, locals’ casinos are very much part of our communities. People in our neighborhoods often work there. We go to movies at Red Rock and Suncoast (many locals casinos now have movie theaters). We eat at restaurants there. How nice to see a few casinos allowing youngsters to display their talents alongside full-time professional performers. What a marvelous idea.
The best way to keep great music alive is making sure that children are exposed to it. If they aren’t exposed to songs we grew to love, then gradually the music will fade away. If young people don’t develop an appreciation for the classics, then some of the greatest music ever written will be forgotten. Allowing local high schoolers the chance to perform music we enjoy and even mix in some of their own more contemporary stuff is a win-win arrangement for everyone.
After the show at the exit, the performers greeted members of the audience. We remarked to each young entertainer how much we appreciated them for giving their time and talent. See the photograph above of the two young ladies who performed in the Sunday show.
Sure, this was a small thing. A few kids performed in a free Las Vegas show. What’s the big deal?
Well, maybe this is a big deal. If more high school kids are given the chance to sing and play musical instruments at casinos, then perhaps free lounge acts will make a comeback, someday. If kids are provided with a creative outlet and allowed to pursue their talents in songwriting and performing, perhaps not quite so many will become absorbed by e-games and techno-music.
What happened on Sunday afternoon made a positive impression on me. Hence, I congratulate Red Rock casino management and the band for inviting these young stars of tomorrow up to the stage. Hopefully, the seeds of great music have been planted for many more generations to come.