I reached into my back pocket yesterday and found a receipt for $2.26 from Liquor World on Tropicana Avenue in Las Vegas, timestamped 5:55 a.m. In almost any other context, this very sad remnant from a booze-swill bargain purchase would be an emblem of human deterioration. Instead, it was a reminder of four young people besting one of the most extravagant cities in the world. It was a triumphant banner of how we beat Vegas.
You don’t need to be a card shark, combinatorics savant, or debonair conman to pull one over on Vegas. I headed to Sin City with my college buddy Marty, my journalist friend Pauline, and her researcher friend Emilie. The four of us didn’t even plan out our Vegas heist—it just spawned naturally in the company of a few broke twenty-somethings, gaining momentum at every cost-saving measure.
Our first grift was an old one—booking for two in a Motel 6 and squeezing in four. This was accomplished by Marty and me walking up to the counter alone to ensure we were given the two full bed option versus the one king size. We walked in with an air of sophistication and belonging. After sliding over my credit card, I casually asked the hostess where the “hot tables were at.” She told us, and this is not a paraphrase, to “leave this city.”
We made sure to cover our tracks. We had parked the two girls in a distant parking lot, and we brought our own luggage in first so as not to tip off the security cameras that we were going to quadruply occupy our double room. In our final act of carefulness, we staggered the ladies from entering the room by seven minutes. Vegas had no idea.
The house was going to lose some more when we got on with our evening. Instead of ordering martinis at the Venetian, we opted to buy bottles of juice and a fifth of rum at CVS (we were appalled but not defeated by its $21 price tag). Feeling decadent, we also picked up a can of Pringles.
We poured the rum into our Ocean Sprays (we left the Tropicana for the i-bankers) behind the CVS, blissfully unaware that in Vegas you can drink wherever you want. We nodded, simpatico, to another group doing the same thing next to a dumpster. They were almost certainly in high school.
After our amateur mixology, we promenaded on our merry way through cavernous casinos, and marveled the spectacles meant to entice you to the sidle up to the roulette wheel, or the enter the vortex of video poker. Strolling through Paris, New York, and Venice in one night was quite a cosmopolitan thrill—and we did it without $9 cosmopolitans.
Our next brilliant play was entirely unintentional. Instead of shelling out cash for Vegas buffets that started cost-prohibitively high at $8.95, we just didn’t eat. The entire drive from L.A. we had subsisted on candy, chips, and baby carrots picked up at Trader Joe’s (to avoid stopping at a restaurant—another old shell game). The perfect combination of these foodstuffs (and I use that word in the most generous term possible) gave our bodies this crazy sense of fullness that was only cemented by the CVS Pringles. Vegas was none the wiser.
Of course a human body can’t sustain forever on these trifles, so on day two, we doubled down on our food situation and dined with Marty’s generous uncle who owns a beautiful penthouse in a Vegas high rise. This is a pretty advanced technique, and it requires decades of blood relation to establish, but worth the effort to save some coin in Sin City.
Night two saw a continuation of our drinking policy, this time with vodka from an off-the-strip liquor store, which was $5 cheaper. We were quickly learning the ins and outs of Vegas, and it was a damn shame we had to leave it, and our burgeoning local knowledge, behind the next morning. A few more days and we probably would have been paid to sip vodka out of Pepsi bottles. Vegas was wrapped around our finger.
Our final grift was one of pure luck. Determined to gamble all weekend but undermined by our craps game of frugality that remarkably kept turning up sevens, we finally made the choice to head to The Bellagio at 2 a.m. after touring other casinos. We laughed that if we were going to throw our money away, it might as well be in the classiest casino in Vegas. After standing for a half an hour in front of the Bellagio’s famed fountains before realizing they actually stop their show at 11 p.m., we headed inside, high on the idea that even if we threw away fifty dollars, we were still doing Vegas on the cheap.
Our time in The Bellagio was short-lived. There wasn’t a $10 Blackjack table to be found, and the cashier wouldn’t give us chips on credit or debit. Ignoring the dire financial prognostication a 50-year-old woman behind a barred counter just gave us, we headed for the only casino that would fit our needs of cheapness, proximity, and lack of judgment: Hooters.
Except for the massive Hooters restaurant inside, the Hooters Casino is pretty much like all the others, albeit a stronger tinge of sadness heralded by the 150 foot “$1.50 Bud Lights” banner that hangs from the side of their massive hotel. With my vodka finished, Marty and I sat down at the $10 blackjack table, ready to have a little fun. The numbers on my cards swam due to the night’s indulgences, and I struggled to count them up. I had a 16 (I think), which is one of the worst hands to have (I think). I opted not to hit, and after the dealer had to explain to me exactly how to do that, I found out I had lost. I was out. Vegas was starting to take her sweet revenge.
But three hands later, Marty used his hot streak winnings to deal me back in. And then the math got easier (20, 21) and the chips started flowing. Marty snapped me out of what was likely to become a several hour gambling problem when he presciently said, “Let’s cash out”, and we left Hooters with $60 in earnings. And we did what all Vegas people do when you hit it big: It was time to celebrate at Liquor World.
I still don’t know exactly what I bought for $2.26. I remember being in the store with the group, the two girls repeatedly asking why we were in there. It was probably one of those wine juice box things, but the question remains: “What store sells wine for $2.26?” which precipitates and even larger question, “Who buys wine for $2.26?” These are questions I certainly do not want the answers to.
To sum up, here is what the casinos made off us in Vegas in drinks, food, gambling, and attractions:
The Bellagio: $0
The MGM Grand: $0
Caesar’s Palace: $0
The Luxor: $0
Mandalay Bay: $0
We left Vegas not four and a half hours after that mysterious $2.26 purchase, all nursing hangovers and memories of the countless tables and games walked by without so much as a nickel being thrown their way. Somewhere around Barstow, California we squared up on expenses. It averaged out to $82 each for two decadent nights of Pringles and binge drinking in Vegas. I don’t know the next time I’ll be in the jewel of southern Nevada, but I can’t imagine it will ever be done so cheap again. And if anyone doubts me, I’ve got the receipt to prove it.
Matt Powers is is in his early twenties-ish. He lives in NYC.