Thursday, March 17, 2011 | 2:01 a.m.
Momentous decisions must be made by the tens of thousands of out-of-towners descending on Las Vegas for the beginning of March Madness — the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Maybe the most important decision of all: Where should they gamble?
Will these packs of testosterone-fueled gamblers find their bliss in some of the town’s shopworn sports books, cheap booze at arm’s reach? Or will they prefer Las Vegas’ fancier digs, with digital displays and designer cocktails?
For those seeking the quintessential new and old Vegas, there are the chic Cosmopolitan, which opened in December, and the Las Vegas Hilton, which opened the daddy of race and sports books in 1986.
The Cosmopolitan’s nightclubesque décor drips with shiny objects d’ art, including a three-story chandelier of 2 million beaded crystals that envelops multiple lounging spots as well as the escalator that transports visitors to the second-floor sports book that opened this month.
The start of the NCAA Tournament isn’t the biggest gambling day of the year — that honor belongs to the Super Bowl. Still, over the next few weeks, the tournament will attract a greater volume of sports bets than the Super Bowl and a comparable number of visitors, both serious bettors and basketball fans.
Sports books, those beer and hot dog hangouts for manly men, have met their metrosexual match in the Cosmopolitan’s minimalist “betting boutique.” At 4,300 square feet, it isn’t much bigger than a high-end shoe store.
Its prominent location next to Cosmo’s Marquee nightclub — the latest hipster hangout on the Strip, with earsplitting electronic music and celebrity appearances — may only be symbolic. That’s because the club gets going closer to midnight, well after the day’s betting action. With nary a slot machine in sight, the carnivallike din of casino gambling sequestered downstairs, the sports book’s upstairs neighborhood is a departure of the fashionable, New York magazine variety, with restaurants and stores many would call trendy even though their proprietors dislike the term.
The sports book’s color scheme is more male-friendly than many areas of the resort, which resembles a pricey cocktail in spirit and hue, sparkling from floor to ceiling with high-sheen silvers and luminescent purples.
The book’s 43 betting terminals are encased in metallic red fiberglass, with glossy black counters and chairs with wheels that are more office executive than living room lounger. There are no extra seats for beer-guzzling sports fans: Chairs are for bettors only. Two ticket windows, one of them facing the mall’s public area, accommodate bet-and-go customers.
Navarrio Shepard, who runs the space for owner Cantor Gaming, explains the space like he’s describing the cut of his classy business suit. “Our customers don’t like a lot of screaming and ‘rah rah.’ They want to sit down and make their bets in an intimate, comfortable setting.”
You won’t find giant TV screens hanging off the walls in this uncluttered space, which looks like the interior of a high-tech muscle car crossed with the cockpit of Star Trek’s USS Enterprise.
It also has a new-car smell — there’s no smoking in this race and sports book.
Curved walls feature paper-thin digital displays offset by a surrounding, dark gray crocodile print. The curved displays, which can be customized to show up to 17 games at once, mean less eyestrain than traditionally flat images, Shepard says.
Shepard is on hand to explain the 21st-century betting technology, developed in Europe and exported to Las Vegas in 2009 with the opening of M Resort. Cantor’s in-running betting platform enables gamblers to bet, minute-by-minute, on games in progress.
The company’s operating agreements with casinos, enticed by the new technology, are a recent arrangement in Las Vegas, where older, smaller casinos that could less afford the risk of taking sports bets historically ran their own books.
At the Cosmopolitan, the small staff of ticket-writers who take your bets wear white dress shirts and black vests like old-school hotel bartenders, blending in with the hotel’s modern interpretation of 1960s whimsy. (Men seeking more eye candy need not worry, as scantily clad cocktail servers will also be on hand to deliver drinks from the nearby Chandelier Bar.)
The outdoor-facing betting window is a stone’s throw from an eclectic, Chinese-Mexican restaurant with walk-up take-away windows that mirror the betting counter across the way. Its thick slab of gray marble is more befitting the $4 billion resort than some of the more worn-down gambling windows around town.
Tournament bettors who want to stretch their legs can check out a BlackBerry-sized gambling device and head down to the Book & Stage, one of the resort’s many flashy bars. Along with the usual brews, you will find an extensive wine list and select beers such as Chimay Grand Reserve Blue Label or Medocino Brewing Red Tail Ale ($8 and $7 each). There’s fancy stadium and bar food such as seared tuna nachos and gluten-free lump crab cocktail for $12 each and exotic drinks from $11 to $14 that range from the effeminate to the more manly variety, from the bacon-infused bourbon of “the Colonial” and the garlic-roasted vodka, black pepper and Bloody Mary combination of “Mambo Italiano.”
Hours after that Ohio State game you bet on has wrapped, Robert Randolph and the Family Band, fresh from an appearance on David Letterman, will take the stage atop the sleek bar, which has recently hosted such hipster acts as Best Coast and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Feel free to drown your sorrows, or celebrate, with the young, well-dressed and styled crowd — or scan the next day’s bets at the ticket window tucked in a corner of the bar.
Not far from the Strip’s high-rent district, the Las Vegas Hilton on Paradise Road features the affectionately named SuperBook.
After more than two decades in operation, it’s still the world’s largest race and sports book. At 30,000 square feet, it is like your rotund, brassy cousin from Chicago.
There’s plenty of cheap brews in the book’s horseshoe-shaped bar, a throwback with a padded counter and swivel seats. The beers are mostly free for sports bettors. Same goes for the budget-priced deli, which offers a foot-long Italian hoagie for $8.95 and a similarly sized Philly cheesesteak for $9.45. (Cheaper, stadium fare will be available in the Hilton Theater, where fans can watch the games for free on giant screens and bet at portable ticket windows that, hopefully for the Hilton, will cover the cost of the $2 beers and hot dogs.)
The SuperBook’s cavernous ceiling, 19 betting windows, more than 300 seats and 28 oversized screens give it the appearance of a gambling theme park — complete with its own, spacious parking lot.
The décor is all casino, though, from the old video poker machines packed into rows near the center of the floor to the gaudy, and worn, carpet. The Hilton’s cocktail servers also wear skimpy black outfits. Like their surroundings, some are decades older than their less experienced counterparts at newer Strip resorts.
Dozens of Barcalounger-like chairs with cupholders offer plush comfort to gamblers. The couches are in remarkably good shape considering the aging surroundings, as they are replaced every few months.
“They really take a beating,” says Jay Kornegay, who runs the Hilton’s race and sports book.
With more than 48 hours to go before the tournament, there’s a growing Bud Light and Corona crowd gathered in the SuperBook. Most of these folks are old hands at sports betting, though the Hilton — a landmark for its unique and extensive proposition bets — offers a “tip sheet” for beginners on how and when to bet the tournament.
Omaha, Neb. resident Dave Frey, making his 17th annual trip to the SuperBook for the tournament with friends, is settled at a table with a beer and a stack of betting sheets.
There’s space for bettors to spread out, the waitresses are capable and friendly and the wagering options are plentiful at the Hilton, says Frey, who hasn’t seen the Cosmopolitan’s sports book.
It sounds like the kind of place a guy would go to pick up girls rather than make a sports bet, he says.