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Surviving March Madness In Vegas - Part I...By Nelson Lardner

Unless you wind up comped to the gills at one of the Strip's ritziest resorts, there's no comparison between the Las Vegas Super Bowl and March Madness experiences. The latter wins, hands down.

Proposition players armed with sophisticated research will continue to have good reason to enjoy Super Sunday in Southern Nevada . . . but when all is said and done, it's only one day . . . sixty minutes of football, and out, with congestion and broad inconvenience the order of the day. If you're into college basketball at least a little bit, the first week of the NCAA tournament is like the Super Bowl, cubed - in a good way.

Thursday and Friday of NCAA week are two of the greatest days on the sporting calendar. Twelve-plus hours of wall-to-wall hoops, and should you have well-grounded opinions on a majority of the games? Gaming nirvana - especially with access to first- and second-half opportunities for play which make a appetizing menu agonizingly attractive.

It's been a long time since I was on a plane on which EVERY SEAT was occupied, but the 757 which chauffeured me to El Vee Wednesday afternoon matched that description. That left me with a window seat . . . a rare curse for yours truly in coach, and tres painful on a plane this crowded for a flight this long (5+ hours). Tired, going in, we slept every minute we could while in the air, but knew we had several stops before hitting our Wednesday-night hotel, and knew we'd be a'draggin'. Thursday and Friday are an especially-stressful two days, and for the sake of clarity of thought, one needs to be as fresh as humanly possible.

At least the deplaning/baggage/rental-card connection was smooth, and we headed up Tropicana before turning north, with the Las Vegas Hilton our initial destination. A local independent under the Colony North banner, with numbers frequently divergent from the run-of-the-mill, and limits big enough to accommodate all but the largest tunas, plus a downright eagerness to roll those halftime numbers out there, the Hilton remains a must-stop . . . especially with the wall of large screens and the copious seating offering fine sight lines. Thursday the place was a mob scene, but on Tourney Eve it was more than manageable. Wound up making a modest contribution on an NIT halftime loser (Appy State +4, if you must know - a painful loss, given as how AS essentially saw the lid nailed down on their basket with eight minutes left) . . . and moved on to our next stop - downtown.

We ventured to Fremont Street because we knew that the Plaza was dealing -105 on tourney games - sides, and totals, too, Dorothy. Halftimes are -110, but who's quibbling? Thought that the El Cortez might be dealing Wal-Mart prices, as well, in conjunction with its big-brother property, South Point, but that hope went unfulfilled.

Was a tad disappointed when I arrived at the venerable Plaza shortly after 7 PM, Vegas time, only to find but a single clerk writing basketball business. Understand that those behind the counter don't want to be hit simultaneously on the same side for the max, but the resulting line was almost as bad as the crowd typically spillng out of the doorway at the tattoo parlor at the Palms. Scant chance writing much basketball halftime business under these conditions, and can understand the frustration of customers deep in the line at the sight of once-a-year speculators each spending ten minutes at the window enunciating laundry lists of ten-dollar side plays, ordered by their cousins enamored of Weber State, Oral Roberts, et al.

I will defend to the death the right of occasional players to back their guesses while getting their jollies therefrom. A cash customer is a cash customer . . . and Plaza management, well-aware of the fact that they were offering such entertainment / psychic satisfactions at bargain rates, were no doubt confident that those looking to risk more serious money were willing to bide their time in line in return for the proffered "vig" savings. Delighted to report that there were no such problems on Thursday, with multiple windows open during peak hours. But it's not good business to inconvenience loyal patrons seeking to risk their hard-earned cash.

The saddest news to greet our arrival was the imminent departure of Richie Baccellieri, the "man in the chair" at the Palms. Disheartening, in that Baccellieri was one of the few bookmakers willing to deal high while using non-homogenized numbers. In today's stifling corporate atmosphere, such an attitude is as rare as the dodo. Word is that Baccellieri will remain aligned within the industry (an established RB connection, Progressive Gaming, is our conjecture), and rumors regarding the identity of his replacement are encouraging, in terms of winding up with a capable individual likely to maintain Baccellieri's tone. Hope so. Richie B will be missed behind the counter. Most players felt they consistently received a fair shot at the trendy joint on Flamingo, and would hate to see the hot property regress in this area.

Survived Thursday, thanks to the happy convergence of VCU and Duke, but as is the case when chalk dominates a particular session, it wasn't pretty. Can envision a number of Friday's hefty favorites steamrolling as well, but hopefully the competitive games will yield a more reasonabale fav/dog balance, for the sake of the exchequer.

Nelson Lardner

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