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As We See It

[Vegas On My Mind]

Steve Friess finds Vegas bashing in Montana’s land of dumpy grind joints

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When this is your local casino, do you really have any business dissing Vegas’ megaresorts?
Photo: Steve Friess

Ordinarily, it wouldn’t be worth noting that, over lunch one Saturday, I ran into yet another standard-issue anti-Las Vegas screed by yet another holier-than-thou visitor rolling out all the usual clichés and tropes. They are as ubiquitous as celebrity chefs on the Strip. But this one is worth noting.

The author, Sam Lavin, begins with a zinger about how she recently found Vegas “exactly the same only a whole lot scummier” than she did on her prior visit 12 years ago. She spends a bit of ink dwelling on margaritas that dangle from tourists’ necks, observes that since her last sojourn the town “is turning into Disneyland” and mocks the existence of a castle-themed resort.

Ignore the historical insanity of these cheap shots. Ignore the fact that the Vegas of today is significantly more polished and upscale than it was a decade ago—when it was already getting pretty polished and upscale—or the fact that the heyday of the family-friendly gambit was 1990 when said castle-themed resort opened. Forget all of that.

The reason this is of any interest at all is because of where I read it. I was hovering over a super-cheap French dip in a little joint called the Montana Nugget Casino where, so says the menu, “winners play and players win!” My reading material was the fearsomely named Vigilante, an alternative weekly magazine in Helena, Montana.

I read Lavin’s “humor column,” as it was billed, then looked up at the depressing array of geriatric players hunched over the video slot machines under the watchful eye of several head of mounted elk.

All I could think was, “Huh?”

In the 18 hours I had been on assignment in Montana thus far, I’d discovered that casinos are everywhere there. And by “casinos,” I mean little dumps that use food, alcohol and often gasoline as loss leaders to draw dreamers into these sad rooms where, by law, the biggest payouts can be $800.

On that same five-block stretch of Helena’s Euclid Avenue—just off an exit of the I-15 about 900 miles north of the same highway’s Flamingo Road exit in Nevada—stands the Nugget, the Magic Diamond, the Best Bet, the Nickel Ante, the Copper Club and the Sunset casinos. All were roughly the same drill: some video gaming machines, maybe limited hours for some table games, greasy grub and inexpensive booze. Montana even has, I’d later learn, a few Dotty’s.

I usually don’t blink when I come across this sort of tripe. There’s not enough time in recorded history to counter all the condescension and mockery Las Vegas suffers, nor is it dignified to do so. But rarely does such nonsense emerge from a place where casinos and gambling are quite so bleak and dystopian.

So what actually separates Nevada from Montana? Freedom.

Nevada law was first and most persistent in permitting large-scale casinos that could become all-purpose resort and entertainment complexes. We attracted capital—first illicit, later corporate—because these were businesses that had significant growth potential. Eventually, they captured the imagination of people throughout the world who replicated the approach from Mohegan Sun to Macau.

This hasn’t happened in Lavin’s morally superior Treasure State because it isn’t allowed. What Montana has is all the law permits, crappy little pockets of low-stakes gambling in places plucked from 1930s Fremont Street without the charm or the outlaw romance.

Montana’s casino business is responsible, so far as I can tell, for few jobs, little construction and modest economic activity. How could it not be? It came into being in fits and starts, a referendum killing a gaming commission here, a legislative vote to up the number of video poker machines to 20 there. As recently as 2003, the legislature killed a proposal to create “Destination Montana,” which the Montana Department of Justice website described as “an entertainment district with Las Vegas-style casinos in Butte.”

Indeed, Montana’s gaming history is littered with schizophrenic lawmaking certain to discourage anyone with any imagination or ambition from trying anything interesting. As a result, whereas Nevada and Montana had about the same number of residents in the early 1980s, Montana’s entire population could now probably fit in Clark County’s hotel rooms with a few to spare.

Rather than giggling at the easiest jokes about Vegas—Hookers! Frat-boy douchebags! Kids in strollers by blackjack tables!—perhaps Lavin might have returned as Montana’s Marco Polo, bringing home a better, more liberated, more free-market approach. There are, after all, reasons Nevada has fabulous hotel-casinos with the most modern amenities and attractions at a variety of price points while Montana has grind joints.

“Way to be a huge disappointment, Las Vegas,” Lavin wrote. “You’ve had 12 years to give me something new to see and all you did was hide your prostitutes and add a shoulder harness to a cup.”

To which, again, I say: “Huh?”

Tags: Gambling
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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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