Book review: Super Casino

Re-reading after seven years, I’m struck by two things: I’m not entirely comfortable reviewing books that I don’t like, and the general quality of writing about Las Vegas has not much improved.

Let me explain: as a writer, I absolutely hate saying negative things about other writers. I know how hard it is to find the discipline and vision to write a book, then go through rounds of revisions and editorial haggling. To do all this and then see your work ripped to shreds is just heart-breaking.

But sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind, I’ve heard, and sometimes the writer isn’t the victim, the reader is. Maybe the writer took a nice advance then realized that he didn’t have anything meaningful to say on the topic. In that case, I’ve got no pity: I’ve been offered projects that I didn’t feel I could do justice to, and I’ve turned them down, even though it meant passing up a payday. Before I start writing, I feel an obligation to the reader to approach the topic in good faith.

And the more crap that’s out there, particularly the more well-marketed crap, the less room there is for real writing in the book ecosystem: it’s literary kudzu, or snakeheads, or whatever invasive species you can think of. Theodore Sturgeon was probably right when he said “ninety-five percent of everything is crap,” and in regard to Las Vegas/gambling that’s probably a generous estimate. But since for whatever reason I’m in a position to have some influence, I try to encourage good writing. I’m not saying I practice it or anything, I’m just saying I can recognize it and, like a soused undergrad seeing that guy from his o-chem class across the haze of a frat party, say, with an equivalent nod of the head, “Dude!”

As you’ll see, I’m not saying “dude” for this book.

Pete Earley. Super Casino: Inside the “New” Las Vegas. New York: Bantam Books, 2000. 386 pp. Includes index and illustrations

Las Vegas and the gaming industry have caused more trees to be needlessly sacrificed than any topic in popular culture with the possible exception of professional wrestling. This is not to say that there is nothing of interest to say about either subject; on the contrary, both are thriving industries whose practices and appeal tell the sensitive observer a great deal about American culture. But most authors seem content to ply their readers with commonplace facts (“there are three shifts in the casino-day, swing and grave”), “inside” vocabulary (“a ‘whale’ is casino jargon for a heavy better”), and recycled publicity hype (“more Americans visit the Strip than Walt Disney World”). While all of these “facts” may be true, they don’t really explain anything about why Las Vegas is so popular.

Pete Earley’s Super Casino: Inside the “New” Las Vegas is an “inside” history of Mandalay Resorts merged with a first-hand account of a “super casino,” mostly gotten from the author’s hanging out in Luxor. Earley would seem to be overly impressed with the “new” Strip megaresorts of the 1990s as he reports that these were the first casinos marketed as complete destination resorts. In fact, that is how Strip casinos have sold themselves since Thomas Hull’s El Rancho Vegas opened in 1941. This “new” paradigm isn’t so new; it just grafts huge hotel towers and shopping malls onto the tested casino resort concept: casino, entertainment, restaurants, and rooms. The more intense theming of the casinos of the 1990s actually has more to do with trends in American commercial culture than Vegas innovations, and the larger hotels are a result of Las Vegas’s successful promotion as a vacation and convention destination. Earley implies these explanations, but does little more to explain why the “new” Las Vegas is new.

The book’s structure is somewhat conflicted; a reasonably straight telling of the development of Circus Circus resorts from Jay Sarno to Mandalay Bay is followed by a seemingly random series of chapters detailing the jobs of selected casino personnel. Thrown into the mix are small vignettes from casino patrons and employees that are often complete non-sequiturs. For comparison, think of When Harry Met Sally. In the place of couples reminiscing about how they fell in love, substitute lurid tales of the pleasures of sunbathing topless in Las Vegas, interminable contrasts to the “good old days” of goodfella imperium, and random tales of personal bliss and woe at the hand of the cruel goddess Fortuna. Some of the stories are interesting, but they really have nothing to do with anything else. If they are meant to capture the pulse of the “real” Las Vegas, they seem a rather poor representative sample; much more interesting stories are in the air even on slow nights. If they are meant to flesh out the goings on in the Luxor, they simply don’t.

Earley is on his strongest ground when describing the inner politics of the Circus Circus/Mandalay Resorts company. He translated his astute observations of the corporate boardroom into genuinely interesting prose. The story of how William Bennett and William Pennington rescued the Sarno’s ailing Circus Circus by transforming it into the K Mart of the Strip contrasts nicely with Clyde Turner, Glenn Schaeffer, and others’ baccaratization of Luxor, Circus’s first foray into an upscale market. With the opening of Mandalay Bay and Circus Circus’s rebirth as the Mandalay Resort Group, briefly covered at the book’s end, the company had come full circle. As early relates, this was just as much a function of the clashing personalities of the men at the helm of Circus/Mandalay as it was the result of a deliberately studied marketing approach. In this regard, Earley provides a truly interesting look at how a large casino company actually runs.

But Earley fails to look past the hype. His consideration of actual casino operations is hopelessly uncritical. For example, he writes with admiration about the Luxor’s “sophisticated” security systems without really looking at them; because the Director and a few chosen shift managers told Earley the Luxor was the state of the art in surveillance and security, the author dutifully accepted this as fact. The illusion of omnipresent, devouring surveillance and ubiquitous control is precisely that, an illusion. Earley doesn’t question the logistics of how a security “force” of fifteen men and women, five of whom have assigned sitting posts, can maintain order in a crowded casino and hotel (p.236). He catches echoes of line employee’s despair at Luxor boss Tony Alamo’s insistence on improved service in the face of slashed costs, but doesn’t really consider whether these are valid criticisms or sour grapes.

Earley disappoints most strenuously, though, in his glimpses of the “real” Las Vegas. There are the myriad high rollers, casual gamblers, and compulsive addicts, and of course the de rigueur look at the two most fetishized females in Las Vegas past and present, the showgirl and the prostitute. Even though Earley carefully apprises the reader of the hard work needed to become a successful showgirl, his parallel consideration of the two “career paths” tends to degrade the dancer’s life. Besides a new security shift manager who is given a brief treatment, these are the two most consistently prominent women in the book. Is that a commentary on the glass ceiling in the casino industry or an author’s lazy contentment to recycle stereotypical considerations of women in the casino? Given the success of women in rising to top management positions in several casino companies, the latter is the more obvious choice.

“Inside” books on Las Vegas by journalists (Earley is a former Washington Poster with several acclaimed books to his credit) generally follow the same pattern: the author is a Dante whose glimpse of the Inferno is only as good as his Virgil. For example, when a former law enforcement agent is the guide the author usually wanders onto avenues of speculation about who “really” rules Las Vegas and where all the bodies are buried. In this case, Earley apparently had Glenn Schaeffer and Tony Alamo as his primary handlers. The result is excellent material on the culture of Mandalay Resort Group’s boardroom and the Luxor’s management team. But the specious quality of Earley’s less structured research, e.g., his discussions of the lowlifes and high rollers that call Las Vegas home or haven unfortunately slides this book precipitously close to the pile of bad books about Las Vegas. In addition, there are a few factual errors, such as the inexplicable statement that “Bally’s no longer exists,” at the corner of Flamingo and the Strip (p.126) or the reportage of Asian high rollers’ predilection for a novel dice game called “pia gow,” that might have been caught by a seasoned industry observer, or at least someone who has spent a day on the Strip and leafed through a promotional guide to playing pai gow tiles and other games.

The casino world is unforgivingly chimerical and threatens to lead even the most deliberate chronicler astray. Like a first-timer overexcited by the lights of the Strip and the flash and glitter of the casino, it is easy for a writer on Las Vegas to become absorbed into the hype machine and eschew his or her carefully considered prospectus for a fevered search for the “real” Las Vegas, which can be found by interviewing the right combination of high rollers, desperate losers, circumstantial prostitutes, and jaded old-timers. Such a writer forgets a cardinal rule of the sensible gambler: don’t chase your losses, but don’t chase your winnings, either. If you can turn a bankroll of fifty dollars into five hundred, that is a good night’s fun; don’t lose it all by placing an inside roulette bet and trying to turn it into $17,500 at horrible odds. Likewise, a writer with the gift of a good prose style and access to the inner workings of a major company during a period of exhilarating turmoil should be content with a book about one face of Las Vegas. To chase the fiction of a comprehensive look at the “real” Las Vegas is to truly tempt the fates and invite ruin.

Originally reviewed August 2001.

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