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Marching to the Madness in Sin City...By Jay Graziani

I'll admit it - I'm a March Madness virgin. Or was, at least.

I finally decided to pony up and make the long trip to the desert in March, to escape the cold East Coast as well as to see what the hoopla is all about for the first weekend of the tourney. Luckily I count plenty of degenerate gamblers as friends, many of whom make the annual western pilgrimage, so finding some willing accomplices wasn't a problem.

My choice of digs for the weekend? The Imperial Palace. While certainly not the lap of Las Vegas luxury, the centralized location (and attached monorail station) makes for a perfect home base, and the reasonable rates leave a little something extra in the pocket for those late-night trips to the Rhino.

Vegas was buzzing Wednesday night, and the tourists weren't the only ones looking for action. The working girls were out in full force, well aware of the fact that the city was flush with money, at least temporarily. The most shocking fact to me was just how bad the blackjack has become. Not only are the 6/5 single deck games now accepted as standard, but 6/5 multi-deck games are now starting to proliferate. Talk about an outright rip-off.

While there was plenty to do, there was also 12 consecutive hours of basketball on the horizon. I managed to pick up a few hundo at the blackjack table (something of a feat considering my essentially year-long blackjack losing streak), so I kept that for some extra ammo, avoid the remaining prostitutes (skank shift in Vegas can get downright scary), and hit the hay for a short 3-hour nap before the 7 AM wake-up call for tomorrow's action.

I miss the alarm and roll out of bed at 8, enough time for a quick shower and to hit the sportsbook before the games (or so I think). I head to the MGM Grand, where the line is literally out the door with squares in basketball jerseys, representing probably 63 of the 64 teams left in the tournament. The testosterone is overwhelming, with enough 20-year olds huddled in the sportsbook to make me think we're at a frathouse keg party.

Comps were kept tightly reined in. A four hundred dollar bet got you a measley two drinks, and you had to beg for it. Vegas knows when they have you by the balls, and that's when the purse strings tighten up.

Somehow we manage to find the only seats available on the entire strip (at a bar in the Paris) and settle in for about a dozen drinks and the first round of games. Luckily the booze numbs the pain of my moneyline bet on Georgia (worst meltdown ever) and the under on Kansas (loses by a hook). Drunk and feeling defeated, I drop the hammer on Kent State 2nd half - after scoring only 10 in the first, they have to pull something together, right? Kent keeps me alive by squeaking by, and with Cornell the only game in the afternoon, time to recharge the batteries with another quick nap before the late action.

An hour nap turns into 3-hour snoozefest, but I'm up in time for the last round of games. A quick shower gets rid of the cobwebs, but a haze still hangs in my head from the early morning binge. The late games give me (along with the rest of the world) a huge winner with the Mountaineers. The celebration for winning is, of course, the same as for losing - copious amounts of alcohol and a little of "nature's finest" (shout outs are owed here to Rick and Corey from SoCal, two guys I never met before and will surely never meet again, but who came through in the clutch with a primo score).

Thursday, of course, was chalk city, much to the chagrin of the smart money (funny, my wallet didn't feel all that smart Friday A.M.). A whole three underdogs cashed on Thursday by my count, and UNLV could barely be called an underdog. Of course, Vegas doesn't mind some early winners, assured that those dollars will return ten-fold on Friday, and most of those dollars would be staying in Vegas this time around.

And of course they did. Friday was a bloodbath, and Saturday and Sunday were no better. Each morning the lines at the sportsbook got a little shorter, the bets a little smaller, the bars a little emptier. Until Sunday, when only the last stragglers were left to watch the earlier-than-normal "late" game. Easter took its toll, but plenty of non-religious gamblers were begging repentance as well.

Of course, that's what Vegas is all about - unfulfilled promises and broken hearts. My only regret - that I won't be there this weekend for the Sweet Sixteen.

Jay Graziani

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