The Southwest confirmation is in your inbox and you’re sending “So stocked (sic)” texts to your bros. You’re watching college hoops for the first time since last March. You’re loading up an envelope with a little cash after every paycheck (and you’re totally putting back that $20 you pinched for cab fare to the 80s party).
You’ve decided to head to Vegas for the opening weekend of March Madness.
Like a pilgrimage for the semi-affluent sports junkie (or the guy whose dad is footing the bill), you’re headed to sports gambling’s Mecca for five days of observant living. To adhere faithfully to your journey, you’ll need to pack the following in spades: Cash, booze, rubbers (Ha ha, no. You won’t meet any girls there. Go ahead and quit your Rogaine and shaving regimens about 13 days ahead of time and pack nothing but team logo apparel, you slob), Red Bull and college basketball preview magazine courtesy the Hudson News stand adjacent to your gate.
On your quest to hit parlays and hang out at the pool in breezy, barely-tolerable 55-degree weather, you’re bound to run into these five characters:
1) The Ernie McCracken
Like Bill Murray’s character prowling the lanes in the film Kingpin, Vegas during March Madness elevates dudes to an echelon of cool they have absolutely no business hanging out in. I remember meeting an exceedingly paunchy Arkansas Razorbacks fan on my first trip to Vegas for March Madness. His red sweatshirt nicely blotted sweat off of his armpits, lower neck and lower back before ending just above his belt line, exposing a hint of his hairy beergut.
He lipped the living hell out of a large cigar and the odd pieces of related detritus spread over his lips, chin, collar and the table in front of him. He was repulsive, and also possibly a genius. He’d hit a five-leg parlay the previous day and was betting big on some seriously down ballot games; 3-14, 4-13, that sort of thing.
He knew, off the top of his head, who was better in neutral court contests on odd days. His demonstrated knowledge of Horizon League hoops boggled the mind. He had an educated opinion ready on every game that day, and turned out to be right on most of them. A gaggle of young gamblers gathered ‘round his rotundity, eager for his praise of our crinkly, sweaty parlay cards, pulled from our pockets for his purview. It was the “Tell me more” scene with the toadies from Grease gathered around Danny, but for degenerates.
2) West Coast Sports Guy/Philly Sports Guy
Most of America thinks about the University of San Diego exactly once a year—when they fill out their brackets. Ditto Philadelphia’s La Salle. Knowledge on some of the lesser schools surrounding America’s largest metropolises is concentrated in nerds who scan the deep end of the sports section in those cities—and you’re bound to meet him in Vegas.
Desperate, you shake your head while looking at that Kansas-Santa Barbara matchup. You know what the Jayhawks will bring, but what the f*ck even is a Gaucho? West Coast sports guy, sitting a table behind you in the book at Paris (which, be sure to hit up, shortest lines in Vegas) knows. He knows that Alan Williams does nothing but swat shots and score from three feet in for UCSB.
He’s the guy who watches the Pac 12 Network while streaming the booty Mountain West feed on his desktop while the rest of America sleeps. He knows who went to Mater Dei when and who is shaving points on those back-end-of-the-Sportscenter-scroll-teams in a desert state you prefer not to think about. Likewise, bros making the four hour trek across the Mojave from SoCal will find a Philly guy who is waaaaay too up on St. Joseph’s backcourt minute-splitting situation. Kings of the micro-market, heed their knowledge.
3) The Encino Man
A few years ago, Indiana fans were un-thawed and returned to Vegas after wandering in the wilderness of shitty college hoops for a spell. After that, maize and blue started popping up again around the sports books when Michigan became officially relevant for the first time since the elder Bush’s administration. Iowa State fans may be this year’s Encino Man—walking around with a slack expression and garish clothing.
These fans may once have been annual participants in the four-day bacchanal that marks opening weekend, but now they’re tourists again looking for a vacation condo.
They shuttle about in tightly-knit groups looking like rubes at all the bright lights and endemic sin. Imagine taking your young cousin into a college bar and admonishing him to “just look like you’re supposed to be here,”—he’ll do the opposite. They mostly dress in immaculate team-store clothing—they’ve only recently boarded the bandwagon and have to gear up again for the occasion. They cheer wildly during their team’s noncompetitive first round tilt and, like total dicks, show up 10 minutes before the 9 a.m. games are about to tip off and get indignant when the line at the book stretches out to Laughlin.
Their comportment is in every way that of an amateur’s, and it’s incumbent upon you to take advantage of their excitement about being back in the game by fleecing them for free drinks.
4) The Uncomfortable Bro
He’s friggin’ amped. He’ll tell all of you in the elevator on the way down to the sports book. He and his boys are in town for March Madness and they’re gonna get sooooo drunk, gamble their faces off and chase some serious tail at night, bro. You feel me? Up top!
Dude’s problem will become apparent right about the time you queue up for the first bets of the day. He doesn’t really know shit about hoops beyond which basketball guys are assholes at his state school. He also doesn’t really care, making his nervous energy unbearable while you’re trying to figure out which Holy Cross you’re betting in the 5-12.
When are we hitting the pool? What club do you want to DOMINATE tonight? He’ll query his buddies. During all this, he’ll forget to formulate any bets, and when he gets to the book, he’ll look up at the screen for the first time that day, taking FOREVER to find North Carolina and acting indignant when the bookie treats him like the unprepared asshole he is. It’ll dawn on him by Friday morning, after a relatively short night without an unmarried female in sight, that this isn’t the Vegas trip he hoped for.
There’ll be no club. The pool is filled with Wisconsinites who are seeing the sun for the first time in 74 days. People are only talking about basketball, and this guy has never been in an environment where sports are the ends, they’re always just a means—a reason to booze (tailgating), a reason to score (homecoming), a reason to post selfies (box seats, brah!) This ain’t his scene.
5) Pete Rose
OK, this one is a bit of a unicorn. You may very well not see Pete. But, his affinity for the sports book is the stuff of open public fodder—and Vegas legend. Once in a Wynn hot tub at about 10 a.m. on Saturday my father and I ran into an overweight Chicagoan smoking what I could only guess was his fifth cigarette of the day.
We’d heard a buzz that Pete was in the house for an autograph signing and our new friend became animated at this news. “Holy shit! I saw him in the book late last night watching horse races. He was sitting there with the most beautiful Asian hooker on his lap. She must have been 19. He looked bored.”
If that isn’t worth the return trip, the obnoxious gaggle of dudes celebrated unpaid performers while going for bankruptcy and cirrhosis in one shot, I don’t know what is.