At the beginning of the summer, Mr. Shandis announced he had to "defer" my salary for a time. Something to do with the feds sniffing around his bank accounts in the Bahamas. To offset my lack of income, I sublet my apartment and headed for Denver, where I lived for a month in the dank, musty basement filled with computers and flammable liquids that we call the Big Empire "nerve center." The experience was not altogether uncomfortable. I managed to take advantage of some of Denver's civic offerings, especially Lakeside Amusement Park and Coors Field. Amy shared her homemade ice cream with me, and Matt let me mow his lawn a couple of times.

But the real fun began when Matt and I convinced Mr. Shandis that we needed to do some updating of the CheapoVegas pages, and he loosened his purse strings just enough for us to grab almost all the cash necessary for a trip to Vegas.

Our intention was to rent a car from Enterprise, whose weekend rates run around $10 per day, as long as you don't plan on leaving the state. It's not like us to tell lies just to save a few bucks, but we were pretty short on funds, so we felt justified in this one little tiny fib. Matt almost blew our cover in the rental office, when he calculated, out loud, our estimated arrival, reminding everyone that we would gain an hour in our travels. Luckily for us, Matt had invited his English-born friend James along for the trip. All he needed to do was say something in his charming accent and the ravishing Enterprise assistant manager, Andrea, let it slide. Either she didn't notice Matt's gaffe, or she didn't want to get in the way of three devilish raconteurs and their wild adventures.

Matt drove the first leg, through the spectacular Rockies. James manned the handheld GPS, and spent most of the trip engrossed in his goal of proving the roadside signs incorrect. "What? Elevation 8,435 feet? The GPS says 8,258!" Even with the accent, it was less than charming.

With the exception of an unsightly McDonalds in Vail, the scenery along the way was amazing. We were treated to thunderstorms for about a third of the trip, which are hell on AM radio and make the driving decidedly dangerout, but man oh man are they ever cool to look at. The Rocky mountains gave way to the Red Rocks of Utah, which became the desert of Arizona and finally the valley of Las Vegas. It had been years since I had come to town in a car, and I had forgotten the palpable excitement I felt when coming over the last pass and seeing the gaudy light show down below. I was juiced up and ready for thrills.

We checked into our room at the Fiesta (The Gold Spike was all full-up), and dropped our stuff. First stop: Downtown. We quickly covered the downtown casinos, noting whatever small changes had taken place in the past few months, and then got down to the important stuff - gambling. James had been turning his Patrician nose up at what he perceived as the run-down properties along Fremont. We decided to really give him something to feel superior about and headed for the El Cortez.

Matt and I bought in at the craps table and did fairly well with our dollar pass-line bets with odds. We weren't eager to lose our whole budget before we had even eaten a single meal, so we took it pretty easy. Both of us middled for a little over an hour, while James watched. A guy doing a pretty good impression of Kobe Bryant had a hot roll, and he won everybody on the table some decent scratch. Things cooled down for a while, and the dice eventually came to Matt, at which point the table got really icy. He quickly sevened-out and passed the rocks on to me. I threw a few points and put us both back in the black, so we cashed out. It had been a long ride, and with the looming prospect of a full day's work ahead, we chose a good night's sleep over getting a slice of pie at the Gold Spike.

We got up around 9 on Saturday and the first order of business was a cheap buffet. The Fiesta was rumored to have breakfast for $1.99 that wouldn't give you much in the way of intestinal complaint. Unfortunately, they had pulled the old bait 'n switch on us. When we got down there, we wondered why there wasn't much of a line, and when we saw the price of their "Weekend Brunch," we knew why. Does anybody actually believe that a breakfast which would normally set you back 2 bucks is suddenly worth 10 just because the meal starts an hour later? Does the chef from Bellagio moonlight on weekends? We weren't about to be duped.

Across the street we went to the Texas Station, whose buffet had no problem generating a long line. Their brunch may run $9, but the food is actually good. With no time to spare (we were on the clock, after all), we chose not to wait, and instead got a mediocre meal at one of the mediocre coffee shops in the casino.

After breakfast we took care of some administrative duties, and pointed the car toward the Strip. We were scheduled to meet Bill Ordine, who does a gambling column for the travel section of the Philadelphia Inquirer, under Cleopatra's massive boobs at the Barge nightclub in Caesars Palace. Bill had, in a fit of bad judgment, written about CheapoVegas in his column, and we wanted to thank him personally. We talked shop in the Caesars sports book, and James watched a match-up in the Little League World Series on the giant screen.

Bill had to round up his relatives and we needed to get cracking on our research, so we parted ways. I was assigned the West side of the Strip, and Matt and James would be covering the East. We were to meet at 8 in Mandalay Bay, and decide then if our feet were sore enough to justify not covering the North end of the Strip.

The most interesting change I saw in my travels was the newly-opened ESPN Zone at New York-New York. It's just like any other ESPN Zone, and not really that exciting, but it was the only major addition at any of the casinos. For the most part, not much else significant changed in the properties I visited. Okay, maybe the Mandalay Bay smells a little bit more like coconut than before, but it's hard to say.

At 8, Matt and James showed up under the headless statue of Lenin next to Mandalay Bay's Red Square bar. We had another social call to make, this time with Hunter Hillegas, the proprietor of RateVegas.com. Hunter is a programming boy wonder, and a student at UCSB. Too bad for him he was born just a few years too late to get his piece of the dot-com billions. Instead of betting black chips at the Aladdin's swank London Club, he got stuck discussing database-driven technology with us in the Peppermill lounge. We offered him a ride back to the Stratosphere when we left, but I think he might have been afraid we would ask more questions about if/then statements and he elected to walk.

By this point in the day, we were starving, so we gave up on getting to the North end of the Strip and instead headed back downtown for food. Matt wanted Italian, and suggested the Pasta Pirate. He found to his dismay that the focus is more on the Pirate part of the name, than on the Pasta. They serve up mostly seafood, so Matt ended up with spaghetti and meatballs, which he maintains was pretty good. I had a decent piece of halibut, and James' delicate British mouth was burned by Cajun-blackened chicken with saffron.

The meal was more than we could afford, so after eating, it was time to make back some of that scratch. Naturally we headed for the closest thing to a sure thing we know of - the El Cortez craps game. Our usual table was empty, but we decided to play there anyway to avoid any jinx. The table had treated us so well lately that we foreswore camaraderie and went just for winnings.

We started slowly, but never really lost more than a few bucks. More people showed up after a few minutes, so the table started to get its groove on, as the kids say. A guy with a tracheotomy took the place next to me. He kept trying to tell me about his near-misses, and between his raspy voice and hand motions, I understood most of it.

The dice moved fairly quickly, but just about everyone hit at least one point, so we were up more than down. Matt was "hanging 'em high," and at one point actually bounced the dice off of a leaning dealer's head. They landed on the table, the roll not only counted, but set the point. A few rolls later, Matt hit the point, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that not only is the area three to four feet above the table the "Lucky Zone," but that any foreign objects in the "Lucky Zone," such as an unwitting dealer's head, turn to pure gold.

Celebrities and dignitaries filled out the table as we went along, including BeoncÚ from Destiny's Child and former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. It's an amazing fact of life, but somehow celebrities always look less beautiful or commanding in the smoky haze around a dollar craps table. Still, we could tell it was them.

Some youngsters took a spot next to Matt and said that they loved the El Cortez because, "it's so trashy." Matt didn't appreciate their misunderstanding of the subtle charm of the casino one bit and vowed to take them somewhere that would make them consider the El Co nicer than Bellagio. They actually got pretty excited by the prospect. We went around the table a bunch more times, always winning a little before people would 7-out. Matt and I both reached a point where we would have been satisfied to break even, with a couple of drinks and some tips to the dealers under our belts. But the El Co wouldn't let that happen, especially not at our lucky table. On the last trip around, the dice were red hot. Matt and my stacks grew rapidly, and James, who was betting more conservatively due to it being his first ever game of craps, was making a decent amount as well. I ended the session by rolling at least five numbers before crapping out, and we all came out significantly ahead.

We gathered up the kiddies and headed down Fremont for the Western. Matt and one of his young charges sat down at a $1 blackjack table between a Mexican player who kept asking Matt questions in Spanish, and what could possibly be the dumbest person I have ever met. The dumb guy asked Matt where he was from, and Matt said Texas. The guy asked where in Texas, and Matt said Amarillo. "Amarillo? That's where I'm from!" Matt thought the jig might be up on his tall tale, but managed to keep the guy convinced that he was really from Texas, primarily because the guy was too dense to figure out that the reason Matt was being so vague was because he was lying. This guy's story kept changing so much, we're not really sure if he was from Amarillo, either. I have a feeling if Matt would have said, "I'm from Cleveland," then he would have been too.

The former Texan shared with us his accumulated wisdom. First he said that the only game in which you can win is Baccarat, and the only way to do that is to always bet the dealer. He then scolded me, saying that you should never, never, never hit more than once in Blackjack, a rule which he broke approximately three hands later. Even though his advice sounded ridiculous, we couldn't really argue with him after he told us the story of how he decided to stay in town. He had come to Vegas either eight or ten or five years ago, he could never decide exactly when. Immediately, he won $8,000 on a keno machine, and bought himself a triple-wide trailer with a pullout, where he lives to this very day. This particular story had even the other Western regulars rolling their eyes. You know you're in bad shape when a guy making sucker side bets on a $1 blackjack table in the dumpiest casino in town thinks he's smarter than you, and is probably right.

After an hour or so, we had all ground a few bucks out of the house and we called it a night, but not before suggesting the kids make a trip to Larry's Villa, the Western Casino of strip joints. We have no idea if they actually made it or not, but if they did, they will certainly have a more respectful attitude next time they go to the El Cortez to play craps.

The next morning we stopped for a quick buffet at Main Street Station and hit the road. The drive back was less eventful, in terms of thunderstorm activity, but no less beautiful. We got to see the area West of the Rockies during daylight hours, and took the mountains at night. We arrived back to Big Empire headquarters exhausted but deeply satisfied with our trip.

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