Earlier this month, I made my eighth annual visit to Las Vegas. For the fifth year in a row, my trip to Sin City was in conjunction with the annual Trivia Championships of North America (TCONA). At TCONA, I had my usual awesome time convening with some of the smartest and most knowledgeable people in the United States (and even a few from other countries like Canada and Norway). It was enjoyable to reconnect with some really cool and interesting people who share my passion for learning as much as I can about every subject in the world, and whom I’m honoured to call my friends. Moreover, it was equally rewarding to make new friends who meet that description. As well, competing against a self-selected group of elite trivia players, in the diverse array of individual and team contests that TCONA offers, pushes me to improve myself and perform as well as I can.
As I do every year, I also managed to slip away from TCONA to experience an attraction in Las Vegas outside of the Tropicana Hotel where the event is traditionally held. Of course, it also goes without saying that my latest long weekend in Vegas included karaoke. 🙂 Finally, being that I was in a town where gambling has been known to take place, I also managed to squeeze in a little bit of that pastime — and came across a new twist on the blackjack tables that I tend to hit.
The view from Paris: très jolie
The Strip is renowned for its themed hotels, including several with sections that mimic world landmarks. For example, if you roam the grounds of the New York, New York hotel, you’ll find replicas of iconic Big Apple structures ranging from the Statue of Liberty to the Brooklyn Bridge to the Chrysler Building. At the Venetian, you can take a gondola ride among doppelgängers of some of Venice’s most legendary sights, such as the campanile (bell tower), the Rialto Bridge, and Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square). And then there’s the destination that was the subject of my August 2015 non-TCONA excursion in Las Vegas: the Paris Hotel, and one portion of it in particular.
While the Paris boasts reproductions of the venerable Arc de Triomphe and of several other Parisian edifices of note, the hotel’s centerpiece — and a key component of the skyline of the Las Vegas Strip — is a one-half scale duplicate of the most celebrated symbol of the City of Lights: the Eiffel Tower.
The view from the top: it’s not the Champs-Élysées, but it’s pretty darned nice
Las Vegas’s version of la tour Eiffel features an observation deck 460 feet above ground level. (By way of comparison, the highest observation level in the actual Eiffel Tower in the city of Paris is 906 feet above the ground.) Due to the Paris Hotel’s central location on the Las Vegas Strip, that observatory affords ravishing aerial vistas — particularly at night, when the Strip becomes a glittering sea of neon. Here are a couple of photos I snapped from the top of the Paris Hotel’s Eiffel Tower:
The enormous Ferris wheel (technically an “observation wheel”) that’s visible in the second image is the High Roller — at 550 feet, the tallest such wheel in the world, narrowly edging out the 541-foot Singapore Flyer. (Both Las Vegas’s High Roller and the Singapore Flyer are comfortably higher than the London Eye, whose capsules ascend to a maximum height of 443 feet.) I took a ride on the High Roller during a visit to Vegas in August 2014.
The Fountains of Bellagio, as seen from the sky
Due to its position across the street from the Bellagio Hotel, the Eiffel Tower’s observatory is an excellent vantage point from which to gaze down upon the famous “dancing fountains” in front of the Bellagio, and to behold the pirouetting jets of water from a unique overhead perspective. Here’s a video of the Bellagio’s dancing fountains that I filmed from the top of the Eiffel Tower:
Officially known simply as the “Fountains of Bellagio,” the fountain show occurs at intervals ranging from every 15 minutes to every half hour, depending on time of day; the complete schedule can be found here. (Each show only lasts for a few minutes.) The aquatic gyrations are always accompanied by a musical selection drawn from a roster of 29 musical pieces, and are specifically choreographed to complement the song. In the particular fountain show captured in the video above, the background tune was “Con te Partiro” (“Time to Say Goodbye”), the Italian-language duet recorded by Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli.
The bird’s-eye view of the Fountains of Bellagio is only one reason that I recommend an ascension to the Eiffel Tower’s observation deck. The panoramic view of the Strip, and of the surrounding area, from that elevated platform is truly breathtaking. Las Vegas looks stunning when seen from Paris.
In which I unsuccessfully try to win a motorcycle by playing blackjack
When I’m in Las Vegas — or any other city in which I find a casino — blackjack is my game of choice. At the Tropicana, I discovered that one of the blackjack tables in the in-house casino has recently added a new wrinkle: players can qualify for more than just the usual payouts for which the rules of blackjack provide.
Attached to this unique new table is a video monitor displaying an image of a wheel and bearing the words “Bonus Spin.” The circle of the animated wheel is divided into slots listing various prizes. Most of those prizes are cash payouts, in amounts ranging from $50 to $250. But that’s not all. Because one of the giveaways is even more impressive: you can win a motorcycle. According to the Tropicana’s website, the bike is custom-crafted by the Las Vegas body shop of Danny “the Count” Koker, who’s “known for his numerous appearances on ‘Pawn Stars’ as well as his own series on the History channel, ‘Counting Cars,’ where he and his team restore, customize and sell cars.” (The slot on the wheel that corresponds to an awarding of the motorcycle bears the Count’s Kustoms logo; and the table is branded as “Count’s Kustoms Blackjack.”) A representative of the Tropicana casino with whom I spoke estimated the value of the custom motorcycle at approximately $50,000.
So, you may be wondering: what’s this mysterious bonus wheel, and how does it relate to the card game that’s being played at the table? Well, here’s how it works: Before a hand is dealt, each player seated at the table has the option of making a $5 side bet. (The table itself has a minimum bet of $5 per hand.) If you choose to place the side bet and your hand results in blackjack, you not only win the usual blackjack payout; you also gain a chance to give the wheel a whirl. Unlike the Showcase Showdown wheel on The Price is Right, you don’t physically launch the wheel into its revolution; as mentioned, the wheel is virtual rather than physical. Instead, the dealer hands you a controller containing a green button. You press that button, which starts the image of the wheel spinning. Eventually the virtual wheel comes to rest, with an arrow above it pointing to one of the prizes.
Given that the lowest prize value on the bonus wheel is $50 in cash, if you earn a spin of the wheel you’re guaranteed to pick up at least that amount on top of the standard blackjack payout. If you make the side bet and one of the first two cards that’s dealt to you on the ensuing hand is an ace but the hand doesn’t result in a blackjack, you win $5 — in other words, the side bet pays even money in that situation. Of course, the vast majority of hands dealt to you will not result in your holding a blackjack, or even in one of your initial two cards being an ace; so if you make the side wager too often, you’ll incur frequent losses to the dealer in $5 increments, separate from how you’re faring in the game itself. On the other hand, you’ll kick yourself if you score a blackjack without having made the side wager beforehand — because you’ll have then foregone an opportunity to spin the bonus wheel.
Over the course of my long weekend at the Tropicana, I ultimately qualified for five shots at the “bonus spin” wheel. I wanted very badly to win the motorcycle, partly because my friend Drew had suggested that if I won it, we would call it a Harvey-Davidson. 🙂 Sadly, it wasn’t fated to be. None of my bonus spins ended with the arrow pointing to the slot that would have entitled me to the chopper.
Even if Lady Luck had smiled upon me, I wouldn’t have kept the motorcycle; when I asked one of the dealers how I would be able to transport such a large object back to my home city of New York, he told me that winners of the grand prize could alternatively opt to claim a cash payout. So that’s what I would have done. I really would have had little choice; I don’t have a motorcycle driver’s license. In fact, being a true New Yorker, I don’t have a valid driver’s license of any kind. 🙂 It still would have been cool to have been able to say that I won a motorcycle, even if I’d actually ended up returning to New York with a check for a large sum of funds. (In the course of my researching this blog post, I learned that the amount of the cash option hasn’t yet been determined, but that it would be substantially lower than the value of the motorcycle — perhaps in the neighbourhood of $15,000.)
Although the Trop was the particular casino where I engaged in my futile pursuit of a motorcycle at a blackjack table, it’s not the only gambling hall that features such a table. Similar tables have been installed in select additional casinos in Las Vegas and elsewhere in the United States. For a full list of locations where you can find them, visit the Count’s Kustoms Blackjack page. You’ll notice that at some of those casinos, instead of a customized motorcycle, the grand prize at the Count’s Kustoms table is a customized car or truck — also furnished by the Count’s body shop.
Karaoke: singing in a badass dive bar
The sad demise of Zinger’s: goodbye to my favourite karaoke venue
During each of my first seven visits to Las Vegas, I’d sung at an outdoor bar on the Strip called Zinger’s Rock ‘n Roll Cafe. To perform at an outdoor venue, where all the passersby who were walking up and down the Strip past the bar could watch me singing, was incredibly rewarding. It’s no exaggeration to say that Zinger’s was my absolute favourite spot in the world for karaoke. I’ve previously written about my affection for Zinger’s here and here. Moreover, during my more recent jaunts to Las Vegas, Zinger’s provided an additional benefit for me: it was conveniently located just a few blocks’ walk from the Tropicana Hotel (which, as mentioned, is where TCONA traditionally takes place).
But this year, upon walking to what used to be the site of Zinger’s, I discovered that Zinger’s is gone. Sometime between my most recent appearance there (in August 2014) and August 2015, it had closed, and the space that formerly housed my beloved karaoke bar was now occupied by a burger joint called “Fuku” (which sounds remarkably similar to what I would like to say to the people responsible for that state of affairs). 🙂 In a Facebook exchange with the management of the former Zinger’s, I was advised that the landlord had declined to renew their lease. Apparently, the property owner is seeking to gentrify the Hawaiian Marketplace, the shopping area in which Zinger’s had been situated. Indeed, already, a two-story Chili’s has opened in the Hawaiian Markeptlace. Because if there’s one thing the Las Vegas Strip needed, it was more chain restaurants.
Dino’s: a dive bar with a strict no-gun policy
With the disappearance of Zinger’s, there are now no remaining karaoke bars on the Las Vegas Strip. (Another venue where I used to enjoy singing in Vegas was inside a hotel on the Strip called Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall & Saloon; but Bill’s closed in 2013, and the facility has since been renovated into a luxury boutique hotel called The Cromwell. The entertainment options in The Cromwell don’t include karaoke.) So this year, in order to get my singing in, I went off-Strip, to a bar called Dino’s Lounge. Located near the Stratosphere tower, Dino’s is on Las Vegas Boulevard, but north of the portion of that road that’s known as the Strip. I chose Dino’s due to the combination of its location (which offered a reasonable proximity to the Tropicana), and the fact that a list that I found online had rated its karaoke show the best in the city.
Initially, I was put off when the bar staff wouldn’t allow me to bring in my backpack; they claimed that I could have been using it to smuggle in a gun or liquor. Of course, a simple inspection of my backpack would have revealed the absence of such contraband; but the staff inexplicably declined my invitation to open it up and search its contents. Among those contents on the evening in question were my passport, my phone charger, and a bag of Halls cough drops (which I sometimes suck on while waiting for my turn at the mic) — but, shockingly, no firearms or alcoholic beverages. Further highlighting the logic-challenged nature of the no-backpack policy: I noticed that female patrons of Dino’s were permitted to bring purses or handbags into the establishment. And guess what? Those women could have fit guns or alcohol into their bags. But yet management chose to look the other way. So the rule isn’t even enforced in an even-handed manner.
Over the years, I’ve been to nearly one hundred different karaoke bars around the world, and Dino’s is the only one — indeed, the only bar or restaurant of any kind — that has ever refused entry to my backpack. Nevertheless, while the blanket ban on backpacks is a stupid rule, I complied with it so that I could sing. (In case you’re wondering what I did with my knapsack, I was fortunate in that I’d received a ride to Dino’s from my friend and fellow TCONA participant Sara, who had driven to Las Vegas from her home in New Mexico. We stashed my backpack in the trunk of her car. I don’t know what we would have done if we’d arrived at Dino’s by taxi.)
I would add that the stated concern of Dino’s that patrons will bring guns into the premises suggests that this scenario has actually happened there in the past. The potential for a recurrence adds an element of danger and excitement that enhances the pleasure of an evening at Dino’s — and provides Dino’s with street cred as an authentic dive bar. 🙂 (Another indication of the dive bar status of Dino’s: many of the vehicles in its parking lot were motorcycles, albeit not nearly as expensive as the one that I failed to win at the Tropicana’s blackjack table.)
My song selection, plus my friend sings in German
My opening number at Dino’s was “Viva Las Vegas,” originally performed by Elvis Presley in the 1964 motion picture of that name. I’d never previously done this song in Las Vegas; in fact, until the weekend prior to my trip when I practiced it in New York, I’d never performed it anywhere. You might find it surprising that it took until my eighth trip to Las Vegas for me to finally karaoke such a Vegas-centric song in that city. All I can say is that I don’t perform the King’s material very often. But once I actually took the time to listen to this particular Elvis standard, I realized that it wouldn’t be an especially complicated or challenging song to learn. Anyway, here you can watch my Las Vegas debut of “Viva Las Vegas”:
For an encore, I sang “Use Somebody” by Kings of Leon. You may recall that as the tune that I belted out in Kiev, Ukraine in 2013 when I tied the record for most countries on a world karaoke tour (a record that, of course, I went on to break; at last count, I’ve sung karaoke in 38 different countries). Here’s how it went down at Dino’s:
My friend Sara also did some singing. For me, the highlight of the evening was when she sang the great one-hit wonder from the 1980s, “99 Luftballons” — in the original German. Making Sara’s achievement even more impressive, Dino’s only had the English-language version of the song (“99 Red Balloons”), and thus the lyrics that were appearing on the monitor in front of Sara were in English. But still she sang the German lyrics! Below you can watch Sara’s rendition of “99 Luftballons”:
Sara is actually the second of my friends to have performed “99 Luftballoons” in the language of Deutsch; my pal Jerome (another regular at the annual TCONA gathering) accomplished that feat at a Los Angeles karaoke bar in 2013. Inspired by their examples, I’ve set for myself the goal of also singing “99 Luftballons” in German before the end of 2015!
As for my overall assessment of Dino’s: if I’m being honest, I have to admit that other than having to deal with the idiotic backpack ban, I had a pretty good time there. Ryan, the karaoke host (who was filling in for the regular host, Danny G., who reportedly was on vacation in China) was very nice to me and did a good job running the show. And the quality of singers was consistently high.
What’s next on my World Karaoke Tour
As my regular readers know, I’m scheduled to undergo heart surgery in a few weeks. Thus, my karaoke travels aren’t foremost in my mind right now. But I’m still actively planning post-surgery trips — partly to give myself things to look forward to, to help me get through the surgery and the associated pain and discomfort. Assuming that I recover as quickly as my doctors expect, my next karaoke performance outside of New York City will probably occur the weekend of October 15-16, when I’ll be in Washington, DC attending my law school reunion. My next international karaoke appearance is scheduled to happen in Rome, Italy in late November. That Roman holiday has already been postponed twice for medical reasons; and I’m eager to finally make it back to the Eternal City for the first time since 2004, and to make Italy the 39th country on my World Karaoke Tour!