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05/07/2009 No. 76
he Guardian Poker Column
Victoria Coren
Sun 5 Jul 2009
Could the high life in Las Vegas turn my head? You bet

Las Vegas is a bubble full of money, hookers, doughnuts and no information whatsoever. I have not seen a newspaper for three weeks. I have seen nothing but spinning wheels, cards and dice. I have no idea what is happening in the outside world. I like this news vacuum, but I am looking forward to coming back to London just to enjoy some cool weather, a relaxing meal at Harry Morgan's and the excitement of Michael Jackson's imminent comeback concerts.

I wonder whether the newspapers have reported anything about the World Series of Poker? I bet they haven't. They should. This is probably, now, the biggest sporting event in the world. Twenty thousand people are out here playing, hundreds of thousands more following the results online.

The British are doing very well. Our boys have won three competitions so far: John Kabbaj won the $10,000 Pot-Limit Hold'em, JP Kelly took the $1,500 No-Limit Hold'em and Roland De Wolfe snatched gold in the $5,000 Omaha High-Low. If you don't follow poker, the Olympic equivalent would be Kabbaj winning the 400 metres, Kelly winning the javelin and De Wolfe winning the, hmm, something obscure but skilful. The synchronised diving.

That would be big news, wouldn't it? It feels big here, especially with the new tradition of playing each winner's national anthem to a crowded room. But there is a scandal brewing over Kabbaj's ceremony: as he ascended the platform, the organisers played - quite by accident, they claim - God Save The Queen by The Sex Pistols. Eighty per cent of the watching Brits laughed, 19.5% made complaints to the management and one called the police claiming racial abuse.

It makes me sad to see us having all this success in a game at which the British have excelled for years, while suspecting - knowing - that it will be completely overlooked by the press at home who are, I would also bet, getting terribly excited if Andy Murray manages to scrape a few points in a game at which we always do badly. It is a hierarchy of interest determined by masochism.

Then again, if the past three weeks are anything to go by, my readiness to bet on this will probably mean that Murray was out on day one and De Wolfe has been the subject of a two-hour special on Channel 4 News

Yes, once again I have been racking up heroic losses - not in poker, but on the blackjack. I never do this at home, only in Las Vegas.

Why? Because this place is brilliant at making you feel richer than you are. All it takes is a lowered ceiling (for intimacy), a plush chair (for general air of comfort), some pumped-through oxygen (for alertness, confidence and ambition), a free drink here and a complimentary buffet ticket there: bang, you think you're Kerry Packer. Five hundred dollars? Why, that is nothing to a big gun like myself! Just look at me nestled into these soft cushions, flatteringly lit by these burgundy chandeliers, sipping my gratis cocktail. Put it all on red!

Two years ago, I lost so much money here that I seem to have a free hotel room for life. They send a limo to the airport and give me a private cabana by the pool. Meals, drinks, show tickets: all free. The first year, I thought that was unnecessary nonsense. The second year, I started to enjoy it. And now, it has become so vital to my existence that I have completely forgotten how to manage without.

Amazing how that happens. The croupiers must think I am a woman of vast independent means. I am not sure what they would make of my basement flat back home, my £12 Topshop clothes and my birthday meals at Pizza Hut. In the UK, there is nothing de luxe about my life at all.

Here, I have lost the ability to lie on a normal sunbed by the pool. Impossible! Too hot! I need that shady cabana with its well-stocked fridge, giant television and two cabana hosts dancing attendance.

I cannot wait in line for a table at the coffee shop. I am too important! I must show my special card with the gold star on it and be ushered ahead of everyone else.

Aspects of Vegas life that once seemed luxurious - fast and friendly service, nice food, ensuite bathrooms with every hotel room - are no longer good enough for me. I expect more. I am massaged into feeling that I deserve more. And I look at the higher rollers, who get the plusher cabanas and the private suites and the limos everywhere (not just from the airport) and I think ... hmm ... perhaps I need those things. Perhaps if I just played a little bigger ...

And I understand, from here, the journey that was taken by all those - MPs, royals, BBC execs - who are currently embroiled in an expenses scandal. With enough exposure to "the finer things", and enough obsequiousness from sufficiently convincing people, you start thinking that all this nonsense is normal. You feel special. You remain dimly aware that other people travel by bus, cook their own food and deny themselves luxuries, but you find yourself believing that these people are somehow different from you. A $500 bottle of wine, a $600 pair of shoes, ceases to be laughable and starts being necessary. And you forget how to go back.

I will never again come here for longer than a fortnight, in case the wind changes and I stay this way. In the meantime, I remain grateful for two things. One: it is only my own money that I'm pissing up the wall. Two: I realised last night, as I bet $200 a box on the Pai Gow table while an elderly Mexican literally cleaned the floor around my feet, that at least I retain the capacity to despise myself.

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