What happens in Vegas…

When you get off the plane in Las Vegas, there are pokies in the airport. Right there at the arrival gate. Literally the first thing you see is a bank of slot machines and a bunch of dead-eyed travellers getting in that last flutter before they head back to whichever drab middle American city they hail from.

Right then and there, I made the snap decision not to gamble during my first-ever trip to Vegas last weekend. It makes a fool of many a man, Sin City, but I would be strong. I would place not one dollar into the coffers of the gambling industry.

(I was disappointed to discover that my colleague was only kidding about there being slot machines in the airport bathrooms as well. It’s probably just because they haven’t thought of it yet.)

Given my general aversion to betting, why was I even visiting what used to be the centre of world gambling until the Chinese Government decided to let Macau fleece its own citizens? I was joining a group of gentlemen friends for a “bachelor party”, as they call them in the States. We weren’t after a Hangover-type experience, although I’d gladly have met Mike Tyson and/or a tiger. But we did want to hang out, and go to some clubs and nice restaurant, and generally bond before consigning one of our number to the altar.

I won’t go into the details of the various shenanigans that occurred, because as everyone repeated like a mantra everywhere we went, “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”. Besides, it might be somewhat embarrassing to reveal just how tame a dozen thirty-something men can be.

There is trouble to be found in Vegas, of course, and I did find myself regularly thinking of the tragic, recent story of the 22-year-old AFL footballer John McCarthy, who died on a post-season trip to Vegas with Port Adelaide. Despite Las Vegas’ offer of hedonism without consequences, there are plenty of reminders that this is not always the case.

Admittedly, it’s a remarkable place, and I saw a lot of truly extraordinary things. It’s incredible what can be achieved with an unlimited budget and no sense of aesthetic restraint whatsoever. The Luxor has an enormous glass pyramid which dwarfs the Louvre’s in scale. The Paris Las Vegas resort has a replica Eiffel Tower, bang smack in the middle of which is a nightclub where I made an idiot of myself shimmying to R&B numbers. Caesar’s Palace has extraordinarily real-looking Roman antiquities, although I felt the effect was somewhat undermined by the escalators. And the Venetian, extraordinarily, has a network of indoor canals and a fleet of gondolas propelled by authentic singing gondoliers. It’s the kitschest place on the planet, with the possible exception of North Korea.

But the problem with it all, the thing that kept making me uncomfortable, is that every ridiculously opulent feature you look at, every jaw-dropping feature like the absurd roller coaster at Circus Circus and the replica Manhattan skyline in New York, New York, was paid for by gambling losses. Nevada’s casinos take in a billion dollars a month. Just one proprietor, Sheldon Adelson, makes so much money that he can afford to give $70 million to support the Republican Party. And while I’m sure a lot of that money came from high rollers who can presumably afford it, a great deal of the money being raked in undoubtedly comes from people who probably couldn’t afford to go to Vegas at all, let alone walked in the doors of the casinos.

As much as it’s a town of excess, the place is also a monument to weakness. I wasn’t immune to it, and so I became only the latest in a long line of people to abandon my principles in Vegas, and played a little bit of blackjack with all of my friends. (I ended up earning the princely sum of $30, so in many ways, I showed those Vegas fat cats a thing or two.)

We got talking to the dealer – a really nice guy who’d been in the town for years and ended up working at the Hard Rock Casino because he preferred a more relaxed atmosphere where you turn up to work in a t-shirt. And he told us a few tales that were horrifying enough to ruin our sense of bachelor-party bonhomie.

He told us about one patron who had bet $17,000 on a final hand, gotten a 20 but then been beaten by the dealer’s 21 at very long odds. He had burst into tears, blubbering right onto the gaming table. Security arrived to escort him away. And finally, after a long pause, the dealer told us that one day, he’d had a patron walk away from his table, head up to his room and end his life. It’s a common occurrence when you’re a Vegas dealer, apparently. We had no idea what to say.

All of the glitz of Vegas, with its wonderful nightclubs and its fascinatingly strange architecture and its dozen bizarre Cirque du Soleil shows and its surprisingly cheap hotel rooms, is merely a lure. It’s the cheerful multicoloured feather baiting a treacherously sharp hook. I don’t know whether organised crime still runs the place, but it’s worth bearing in mind that many of the people who made Vegas what it is today ended up either behind bars, or gunned down themselves.

(The wedding chapels I can’t explain, except that it’s a place where people make rash, expensive decisions.)

This has all happened because in 1931, the state of Nevada decided to give up its moral responsibilities to its citizens, and to the rest of the world. It’s understandable in a sense – it happened during the Great Depression, when its economy was on the verge of collapse. From then on, things snowballed to the point where the “tourism industry” is still Nevada’s largest employer today – and since the place is essentially a desert, nobody’s visiting for the scenery.

I had a great time, but in the end, all the pleasures that Vegas has to offer are guilty ones. At a time where a second Sydney casino is being discussed, and efforts to crack down on problem gaming seem to have encountered legislative stalemate, the place gave me pause for thought. The ubiquity of poker machines in Australia is something that demands more investigation, because while we are no Nevada, there’s no shortage of misery to be found underneath the glamour of our own gaming rooms.

There’s a rather charming line in Steve Martin’s movie L.A. Story where one of the characters says that Los Angeles is a place where they’ve taken the desert and turned it into their dreams. Las Vegas is a chunk of desert that’s been turned into a nightmare. And while groups like our bachelor party will no doubt continue to visit it for a weekend off the leash, it’s hard to view the State of Nevada’s 1931 decision as a wise one.