State of Play
Thanks to its ubiquitous sign, ‘Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada’ may be the most famous branding of any city in the world, even if it’s not always telling the truth. Nevada’s largest city is many things to many people – fabulous for some, but it can just as easily be catastrophic. “For a loser,” wrote Hunter S Thompson in his seminal work Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, “Vegas is the meanest town on Earth.”
Mean, maybe, but certainly hyperactive. New York claims to be the city that never sleeps but walk around the Big Apple at 5am on an average Wednesday and you’re unlikely to find much happening. Consider Las Vegas by comparison, a town that parties so relentlessly, so remorselessly, that no matter what time you emerge for breakfast, you’re guaranteed to see someone else at the very start or end of their night. A city that never sleeps? Vegas hasn’t been to bed in years.
Before her book, Molly’s Game, and well before the Oscar-nominated film based on that account, Molly Bloom brought affluent gamblers here to bet big and party hard. Nowhere on the planet was quite so ready to receive them. They were people who could afford to lose but their gambling was still extreme: “By the time we left for LA, the wins and losses were well into eight digits,” she writes in one chapter of her autobiography. “No one had slept; all the men were completely manic. As we left Vegas and headed to the private airport in Los Angeles, monstrous backgammon and Chinese poker games were going on in full force before the pilots closed the doors.”
She ran around five trips to Vegas each year, part scouting missions, part insane holidays. The majority of her players – actors, investors, athletes, and eventually gangsters – had some kind of highly profitable day job with which to fund their vices. Many were adept at poker but not professionals. This is a city where celebrity poker players can collide with poker celebrities. It rarely ends well for the former. “Yeah, I generally kept the pros away from my games,” says Bloom on the phone from her home in Colorado. That was bad news for pros – the ideal opponent is one who is both incredibly rich and unjustifiably confident in their ability. In the jargon-rich world of poker, these players are sometimes referred to as ‘whales.’
George McDonald is remarkably unwhale-like; he is, if anything, a harpoon. Though he predominantly plays poker online, the Scot has been coming to Las Vegas on and off since 2004, often multiple times a year. For the most part he comes to play in the World Series of Poker, the richest tournament on Earth; in 2015 he placed 12th, cashing out for a sweet $526,778, the same amount as the legendary Daniel Negreanu.
The dream for players at his level to be seated with a whale; one year McDonald was placed with Barcelona footballer Gerard Piqué. The Spanish defender, whose weekly salary is $350,000 before endorsements, probably didn’t think too much of losing his $10,000 buy-in.
All that that may sound incredibly exciting and glamorous, but these days McDonald doesn’t look at it like that. “The last two years I’ve been over myself and have treated it very like a work trip, not drinking much or spending too much on leisure activities or meals,” he says. “Instead I try and put everything into the poker tournaments or cash games and then wind down a little at the end when I’m out of the Main Event. The good thing about Vegas if you’re a poker player is that you can switch holiday mode on or off at any time, although if you’re not disciplined then that’s maybe a bad thing.”
The weekend I visit, the Aria Hotel and Casino is hosting the inaugural US Poker Open, a multi-day, multi-discipline tournament that’s brought many elite players (including Negreanu) to the tables over Super Bowl weekend. Buy-ins range from $10,000 – $25,000, the sorts of wild levels featured in Molly’s Game. Many of the players with the biggest reputations and bank balances goad each other on Twitter into even larger side bets.
Yet to see them in action is, to me, something akin to watching a group of students gathered around a Playstation. Of all the games on offer in the city’s mega-casinos, the average poker game is one of the least satisfying for spectators – there isn’t the shared excitement of craps, nor any of the whoopin’ and hollerin’ at a roulette ball. It’s not a team sport. In short, there generally isn’t much of the thing on which Vegas most depends: fun.
I briefly consider playing on one of the lower stakes tables, but there’s a waiting list. And besides, I was a woefully impatient poker player at the best of times – and these are not those. Instead, I try to see what I can of the US Poker Open’s $10,000 Omaha table. The men (and it’s all men on the table I watch) are dressed for maximum comfort and minimal conversation. A couple have earphones in. One is wearing pyjama bottoms. Another wears a shocking pink Mohawk and mirror shades. When a small man in a black t-shirt busts out of a hand, he stands up and walks away from the table scratching his head. He’s wearing flip-flops.
I can’t help wonder if they’d be refused entry from the Jean-Georges Steakhouse just above them. I manage to get a table there for dinner, in among many well-heeled visitors who seem well at home in the sleek, dark restaurant, thinking nothing of spending upwards of $200 on sensational Kobe beef. On appearance alone, it’s hard to imagine many poker players getting into a place like this (George later corrects me: “There’s no dress code in Vegas when you’ve got wads of cash”).
The following morning, Super Bowl Sunday, I see one of the unlucky players in the Aria’s Bardot Brasserie, pushing brunch around a plate while sucking on a bloody mary. I ignore him, order some king crab crepes and a duck waffle, and think again of Hunter S Thompson: “You can’t wallow with the pigs at night and soar with the eagles in the morning.”
Molly Bloom witnessed some extraordinary losing over the years. Now in her late 30s, she is at a stage of her life which is, even by her august standards, pretty odd. From Olympic ski prospect to organiser of the world’s most glamorous poker games, she’s now gone from being arrested by the FBI to having a biopic made about her life less ordinary.
Gregarious, cheery, and long clear of the high-stakes poker world, she speaks to me a couple of weeks before the 90th Academy Awards. Bloom will attend with Molly’s Game director and lickety-split-dialogue-fanatic Aaron Sorkin.
Vegas barely features in the film, but it was vital to the development of her infamous games. The way she talks of healing and redemption through her book and movie, I’m almost reluctant to ask her to revisit her trips to Las Vegas, but she doesn’t hesitate in acknowledging its importance: “Vegas had a pretty profound impact on me in terms of how I built my game,” she explains. “I remember being really blown away the first time I was at a high-end casino. There was such attention to detail, it felt like you were in a different world… Vegas to me seemed like the perfect escape from reality.”
Since she left that universe behind, she’s only been back to the city once, as a stop-over while driving back to her native Colorado from California. There alone and with no interest in the city’s manifold vices, I think she’s putting it very lightly when she describes the experience as “a little weird.” She was aware that nearby tens of thousands of people were having a blast, feasting at marvellous restaurants and seeing world-class shows. Many chose to gamble plenty, too, but she opted not to engage with any of it and left the next day.
Vegas has no bottom, but no ceiling either – you can fall as far as it’s possible to go or rocket beyond your wildest dreams. It can be like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory: psychedelic, addictive, perhaps dangerous. Bloom witnessed both ends of its manic scale, often over the same weekend. She knows better than most the limitlessness of the city. I ask her what she thinks of when she hears the words Las Vegas. Her answer sums up her own experience, but I suspect it could apply to many of Sin City’s visitors. “A little bit of bittersweet nostalgia, and some adrenaline,” She pauses for a second. “And I think a little bit of darkness, too.”
A version of this piece was published in Virgin Atlantic’s Vera in April 2018.