January 30, 2007

Long trip

The last day Mike and I went to the Chiang Mai night safari, a zoo that has tram tours at night of animals in their natural habitats. During the day it’s a self-guided walking tour through a pretty nice little zoo. We were the only ones there and had a leisurely stroll past monkeys, big cats, and capybaras. Of course we did the final cocktail hour and repeated the hotel restaurant, paying for it this time. Once again the Indian food was the star of the show.

In the morning Mike came by for breakfast and we said our goodbyes as the hotel’s Mercedes gave me a complimentary trip to the airport. I enjoyed the wifi in the Royal Silk lounge before my business-class flight to Bangkok, which cost less than drinks with Kitty, and in an hour I was at the new airport meeting another Mercedes to take me to the Westin Sukhumvit, which I had booked using Starpoints for the night. The Mercedes was a bad value, costing 2100 baht when a perfectly good Toyota available through AOT in baggage claim was only 900 baht.

At the Westin they treated me like a king because of my Platinum status, whisking me up to the executive lounge to check me in. They had a fabulous cocktail-hour spread and free wifi in the lounge so I camped out and played a little poker while I chowed down on chicken tikka and sipped Cabernet. I wanted to try out the new subway so I took a ride to Rachadaphisek to check out the entertainment district there with its super-high-end massage parlors. Unfortunately it wasn’t at the Rachidaphisek stop on the train – pretty much nothing was there. I asked a taxi driver and he said they were all closed already so I took the train back. Bangkok is full of incredibly expensive stuff that I can never figure out how anyone can afford. This subway was absolutely world class, with high-tech RFID tokens, sliding glass doors, and trains running smooth as silk.

In the morning I took the 900-baht Toyota (they insisted on my choosing between a Toyota and a Nissan) to the new airport and discovered my Cathay Pacific flight was delayed and they had put me on a Thai Airways flight so I wouldn’t miss my connection. The Thai flight actually had a first-class cabin and I tried to talk them into putting me there since I had a first-class ticket but it was not possible. Upstairs in the business-class cabin of the 747 was just fine for the short flight. It was all for naught anyway because when I got to Bangkok my onward flight was also delayed. I never minded hanging out in The Wing, though, and munched some sushi and sipped Champagne while I waited.

Finally I got on the 747 to LAX. First class was half full and I had two orders of caviar and a bowl of soup. The food on Cathay is so good I don’t feel the need to eat seven courses like most airlines serve you in first class. I just pick and choose what I want and enjoy it. Everyone in F slept most of the 11.5-hour flight, including me. I awoke two hours before landing, had two more orders of caviar and black coffee, and prepared to deal with missing my onward connection on US Airways, I wasn’t too worried since the worst possible case was having to buy a new $99 ticket on one of the 14 airlines that flew between LAX and LAS every 20 minutes or so.

We landed a bit over an hour late and I breezed through customs. I walked in the cool Southern California air to terminal one, seamlessly got put on the next flight to Vegas, and even scored a last-minute upgrade. I arrived at Caesars Palace almost exactly 24 hours after I had woken up in Bangkok.

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January 29, 2007

“A geek girl who came to Chiang Mai…”

She wasn’t an uberbabe. Oh, she was hot all right. But she was a bad girl. She liked to break the rules.

My brother Mike wasn’t feeling well so he went home to get some rest while I hit the cigar store and walked around the Night Bazaar smoking a Romeo y Julieta. I was on a small street with beer bars when a very cute American girl came up to me and asked if I knew where she could get a cigar. She had long strawberry blonde hair and wore a white peasant skirt and a black tank top with a few beads of sweat on her bare shoulders. “I’ll take you,” I said.

She told me her name was Kitty and she was from California. She had come to Thailand, she said, to try to cure her addictions to smoking, drinking, and sex.

"How old are you?" I asked. "Twenty-three," she said. “Well,” I said, “you’ve definitely come to the right place.” The cigar store didn’t have her brand so she asked if I knew anyplace else. I said my hotel had a cigar bar. She didn’t say anything so I said, “Follow me.”

At the hotel the lobby was full of uniformed guards and a long red carpet was laid out to the porte-cochere. I told Kitty the guards were probably there in preparation for the princess checking in. She was very excited about the princess and wanted to see her so even though the cigar bar didn’t have her brand, she ordered a pack of cigarettes and a glass of Champagne and tipped the bartender 100 baht to tell her when the princess arrived. I wanted a clear head to remember this story. I just drank water.

Kitty, she told me, was working as a computer technician in Silicon Valley until they caught her and a coworker naked in the network operation center. After that, she said, she decided she liked having sex with strangers so much she might as well get paid for it so she hung out a shingle on the Internet and had been whoring for about a year. And here I thought if you wanted to find skanky geek girls you had to go to Reno. “I was porting a Unix app to a milspec-secure system,” Kitty said. I told her I used to be a computer programmer. “What language did you program in?” I told her C. “Good,” she said. “If you had said Java I would have no respect for you. Although I barely qualified for Mensa myself.”

At this point I was frantically making mental notes. I didn’t want to forget anything. I was making up limericks in my head and grinning uncontrollably, which she probably misconstrued:

A geek girl who came to Chiang Mai
Must be nuts to compete with the Thai.
“Well, I like to get laid,”
She said, “and to get paid--
“And you never do know till you try.”

Just then the bartender bowed in: “Scuse me! Princess coming!” Kitty leapt up and I followed her to the railing where we saw several people enter the hotel and turn toward the elevators. She wanted a better look so we ran down the stairs but by the time we got there they were rolling up the red carpet. There were several other farangs loitering about the lobby princess-watching so Kitty chatted them up and verified she was part of that initial group. She asked one of the hotel staff, who said the princess had arrived but had gone to the fitness center. “She’s in her 50s, right?” Kitty said. “I bet she’s had a lot of work done.” Then she realized you can get locked in a dungeon for speaking ill of the royal family, and quickly added, “I mean she works out a lot, right? In the fitness center.” I sidled away from her until I was sure the soldiers showed no interest.

We went back to the bar and she chain-smoked L&Ms while downing three glasses of Champagne I figured I was going to get stuck for, but it was worth the story. “Are you hungry?” she asked, and ordered several tapas. Then she noticed I wasn’t drinking alcohol and said I was being ungentlemanly so I ordered a glass of Bordeaux. Finally the bar closed. I signed the bill and watched as they put the bottles away, one by one. She showed no signs of leaving. “Well,” I said, “it looks like they’re closing the bar down.” She didn’t move.

“I was drinking and smoking with a guy three days ago,” she said. “But I was still being celibate.”

“How’s that working for you?” I said.

“I haven’t decided,” she said. “But it was what I wanted three days ago. I’m not sure what I want today.”

“Why did you come to Thailand?” I asked.

“I was too into the orgy scene in LA and it was getting hairy,” she said. “And California is tough when you don’t drive. I can’t get a driver’s license. I have blackouts.” I stared. “But I’d love to take flying lessons.” She looked at me with big brown eyes. “Maybe you could help me out with flying lessons.”

“How can you fly if you have blackouts?” I asked.

“Oh, I’d always have an instructor with me,” she said. One of the bartenders had left. The other, a Thai girl about Kitty’s age, stood waiting. “I lost my virginity when I was 13,” Kitty said. “A friend of my brother’s gave me a back rub while we were watching TV. He asked me if I wanted to try having sex. I said OK.”

“How old was he?” I asked.

“Twenty. I liked it so much he couldn’t believe it was my first time.”

“Did the guy go to prison?” I asked.

“Oh no,” she said. “I didn’t turn him in. I could have, but I didn’t want to.” She finished her Champagne and then held the empty glass out in the direction of my remaining Bordeaux. I poured half of what I had left into her glass. I signed the bill for 4400 baht ($125). We drained the last of the wine. “I really get off on guys who have moral issues with me,” she said. “It was a lot easier to find them when I was underage.” She looked down at her empty glass. “Is there somewhere else we can keep drinking?”

Oh, dear reader. I want you to know that it is only for your sake – the sake of the story -- that I swallowed hard and suggested we go back to my room to partake of my complimentary minibar, sadly underutilized except for a few glasses of Ballantine 12 year Scotch by my brother. Without a word, she rose and followed me.

Kitty headed right for the outdoor daybed and lit up an L&M. “Do you have a laptop?” she asked? “I’ll show you some pictures.” Now this was 21st-Century geek girl ho marketing. She showed me some legit modeling she had done and then a tasteful nude spread. The idea of this pretty Jewish California girl plying her trade in Chiang Mai was jaw-droppingly fascinating to me. She came from a place where men gladly pay $500 for an hour of her time to a land where guys pay $30 to mate with a girl who wouldn’t give them a dirty look in the USA.

“My feet are cold,” she said. “Do you have an extra pair of socks?” I went inside, taking my laptop with me so the Mensa nymphomaniac couldn’t surreptitiously install a Trojan on it while I wasn’t looking, and returned with a pair of black Jhane Barnes dress socks. I expected never to see them again. Maybe she collected men’s socks like some guys collect women’s panties. Maybe she nailed them up on her wall.

Kitty put on the socks. “Thank you,” she said. “That’s very gentlemanly of you.” She sipped Semillon Blanc. I lit her second-to-last L&M for her and gazed out over the pool, the reflecting lights, and the Ping river. I refilled her glass. She opened her purse and took out a roll-on of citronella mosquito repellent, applying it to herself and then offering it to me. “No thanks,” I said, “I’m taken care of.” She nodded and was quiet awhile. I lit her last L&M for her.

“I really like anal sex,” she said. “Do you?”

Somehow I managed to get her down to the porte-cochere. I planned to call a taxi for her but she said she wanted a tuk-tuk instead, essentially a motorized tricycle with a back seat and canopy. The doorman was aghast but she insisted. “That way I can smoke in the back,” she said. She climbed into the tuk-tuk, still wearing my Jhane Barnes black socks, and looked back hopefully at me as the driver pulled out. I waved at her to stop but the driver pulled away. She kept looking and I waved again. She told the driver to come back. I sprinted down the driveway.

“How much is the fare?” I asked. 300 baht. I pulled it out and gave it to her. It was worth $8.

“That’s very gentlemanly of you,” said Kitty as the tuk-tuk pulled away, “very gentlemanly.” Her wide eyes looked back at me till she was out of sight.

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January 27, 2007

Rocky road

Tapas in the bar at Chedi came with the package so we segued from cocktails in the club lounge to a complimentary bottle of house wine with a goat cheese salad and some local sausages. The upstairs bar was stunning, all done in dark wood with stone wall carvings dribbling water. The use of light and water in the Chedi would impress Steve Wynn. The most important things to me in a hotel are sleep comfort and Internet access so when I find myself repeatedly noticing the serene beauty of a place it’s remarkable.

We visited a local tourist attraction, a hot springs where people liked to bathe and cook eggs. Mike and I hit the main pool and soaked awhile. Amazingly, even Thailand has non-smoking laws and this place had signs saying you couldn’t even smoke outside! We had dinner at an uncrowded local Thai restaurant on the outskirts of town. We were the only farangs there.

The next day Mike asked if I’d like to drive up into the mountains and I said sure! We took a pleasant winding road up Doi Suthep past the Phuping Palace and a commercial hill tribe. Most people were turning around but Mike followed a dirt road to a place where Chiang Mai university was doing research into coffee growing. “You can have a cup of coffee and a delicious cookie,” Mike said. As a rule I don’t eat dessert but I had coffee and looked out over the field where they were growing it.

We continued down the road and the terrain got more and more rugged. We were bouncing around in all directions as the truck managed the rutted unimproved trail. The pick-up had no trouble with it but we did. Mike had to pull over every few minutes due to motion sickness and I was feeling a little queasy myself. It seemed like it took forever to get down but finally we found asphalt. “I have a new respect for paved roads,” I told Mike as we pulled out by a large lake with fishing and swimming areas. “Let’s take this drive again, say, when we’re fleeing an imminent nuclear explosion and this is the only road out of town.” We made it back to the Chedi and relaxed till cocktail hour. I couldn’t think of a much nicer place to come home to.

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January 26, 2007

Flower show

Breakfast at the Chedi, for suite guests, was in the club lounge. There were never more than two other tables of guests and often we were the only ones there. They had a buffet with a gourmet selection of cold items and then a menu for ordering hot ones. They brought a carafe of French press coffee and two helpings of Eggs Benedict, which we consumed leisurely as the morning sun warmed the river air.

After breakfast we decided to visit the Royal Flower Show at the new fairgrounds. This was the reason for the unusual tourist surge in Chiang Mai. Mike drove the turbo pickup to the show, which had a huge parking lot but wasn’t letting anyone but public transportation park in it. We had to find a private lot and take a shuttle. Once at the show, we strolled around the grounds, hitting the Royal Pavilion first. Mike was interested in learning about orchids to decorate his renovated condo, but there wasn’t much learning to be done. Many countries had set up showcase exhibits but there really was nothing terribly exciting except a big pair of wooden shoes the Dutch had set up as a photo op. We complied. The most interesting thing to me was the number of Thais carrying parasols. Apparently they prefer them to sunblock.

There were plenty of orchids everywhere and Mike snapped some pictures to take home as decorating ideas.

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January 24, 2007

Hotel problem solved

Although January was certainly high season in Chiang Mai, the idea of every hotel in town being booked was foreign to both Mike and me. We walked around town, asking at all the nice hotels if they had a room for the next five nights. The answer was always the same: “Sorry sirrrrr…fully booked!” Finally we went over to the Chedi hotel, a new, ultra-high-end joint on the bank of the Ping river with availability showing on the Internet starting at the Thai-diculous rate of $333/night. Chedi is a Singapore-based chain with a dozen locations around Asia, two in Thailand (the other is in Phuket).

The place was spectacular. It was built in open style on two to four levels. Everything was teak, water, and candles. There was a world-class spa and fitness center with TechnoGym equipment, same as Caesars Palace. The club lounge, bars, and restaurant all had indoor and outdoor seating and spaciously separated tables. A small lap pool with chaise longues overlooked the Ping. I was home.

We had them show us a room, which was small but beautiful, and then a Jacuzzi suite, which was nicer than most of the places I stay in Vegas. We took a half-hour of the bellman’s time to tour the place and ultimately I decided to get a suite for five nights on a promotional package that included more extras than I’d ever seen: free full breakfast daily, one free dinner for two including house wine, free cocktails and canapés every night, tapas at the bar one night, free use of minibar restocked daily, in-room espresso maker, and two comps that are tough to get even in Vegas: free Internet and free laundry. I asked for a view room on the top floor but the entire fourth floor was reserved for the princess and her entourage, checking in later in the week, so I settled for the third floor.

The hotel problem solved, Mike drove me in his turbo Toyota pickup to one of our favorite restaurants in Chiang Mai, the Galae. This outdoor thai restaurant, at the base of a mountain just above a lake, specializes in seafood and has a table permanently reserved for the king. They had a good wine list for a Thai restaurant and I ordered an inexpensive Australian Shiraz to toast Maria Sharapova.

The next day at 2 p.m. I moved into the suite at the Chedi and headed for the gym to work out before cocktail hour. I was the only one in the gym and a Thai attendant stood by, I guess ready to catch me if I fell off the elliptical machine. I relaxed in the suite, tried out the shower, which had both rain bath and European shower heads, and met Mike in the club lounge for cocktail hour. Three attendants were there to wait on one or two tables. They brought us some nice canapés and offered us a choice of drinks, including a dozen wines by the bottomless glass. I drank the Bordeaux all week while Mike settled on the Shiraz.

We took our comped dinner the first night and it was incredible. The menu was Thai, Indian, and European, but at the suggestion of the German intern who was working there in a supervisory role, I had a fantastic Indian dish, chicken Tika. Mike and I agreed this had to be one of the best meals we’d had in Thailand. We sat out by the river, armed with mosquito repellent placed on every table, and listened to a Thai piano player who had quite a bit more skill, and better repertoire, than the one at the Sheraton. I asked when they were opening a Chedi in Vegas.

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January 23, 2007

Sexy Poom Pui

In the morning I took the elevator down to the lobby to meet Mike and discovered the place packed full of checking-out guests. A Thai pianist was playing Carpenters songs badly. Mike came in and we breakfasted on the included buffet, same as I remember it from five years ago.

The weather was perfect throughout my visit. Thailand has three seasons: hot, rainy, and cold, and the cold season is the only reasonable time to come. In Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand, evenings actually got a bit cool sometimes and it was rarely too hot during the day. Mike played the five-star tour guide, taking me to an out-of-the-way Issan restaurant for dinner. At my request we tried the local fish – chon and thap tim -- which were wonderful. Thailand is full of inexplicable cross-cultural elements and when I asked Mike why this restaurant had sketches of American Indians mounted on pillars, or why there was a set of deer antlers hanging over the kitchen, he just smiled.

We went to buy me a cheap cell phone to use in Thailand and ended up in a mall that had at least 20 cell-phone stores, some selling new phones and some used. I got a $50 Nokia and 250 baht worth of service which, at one baht per call during the daytime under their promotion, would last well beyond the week. In most countries other than the US, incoming calls are free, so I had no worries about running out of minutes.

Chiang Mai is more of a livable city than a destination for foreign tourists but like Bangkok and Phuket it has lots of bars. The gogo bars are much like men’s clubs in America except the girls don’t really dance and they don’t even go topless; they just sway around in bikinis or underwear. There are no lap dances and no rip-off VIP room. Of course 100% of them are hookers whereas in America it’s closer to 50%. In addition to gogo bars, the streets are lined with beer bars, much more casual venues but still with hookers. One of them was called “Sexy Poom Pui” (pot belly), clearly designed to attract a certain class of clientele. Mike took me on a tour but after five trips to Thailand these all blended together in a chorus of “hello! how you?”

Mike took me back to the Sheraton but there was a partial power failure and they weren’t letting anyone up the elevators. After 15 minutes or so the problem cleared up and I ascended the tower. They still had the sign pictorially prohibiting the smelly durian fruit in the elevator. Mike’s condo was being renovated so we decided to stay in Chiang Mai the entire visit. Astonishingly, though, almost all the hotels were fully booked, including the Sheraton. We’d have to address this situation tomorrow.

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January 20, 2007

One more helping

I had finally learned to order “long black” when I wanted coffee in Australia but my short visit to Melbourne was already over, memories of barramundi floating dreamily through my semi-conscious mind as an early-morning taxi took me to the airport. I was looking forward to this next segment in first class on Cathay Pacific. It was a daytime flight so I doubted I’d be using the flat-bed feature but from past experience I knew I was going to have a good time. I was in fact the only passenger in F on this flight. I started with a light breakfast and then scanned the movie selection. I figured I could get in four movies on the flight, which I did. Woody Allen’s Scoop, starring uberbabe Scarlett Johansson, added to his unending oeuvre of funny little movies, while The Illusionist proved Paul Giamatti can do more than complain about bad wine.

As the flight wore on I decided what they really needed in these first-class cabins were gyms. You’ve got nothing to do on these flights and it would be a great time to work out. I didn’t see one, though, so instead I ordered dinner. I looked over the menu: filet, lamb – barramundi! I read no further and ordered one more helping of my new favorite fish. It was wonderful. I paired it with a nice Brunello di Montalcino. At the conclusion to the flight the attendants let on that they recognized me as a poker player and had me all sign playing cards for them.

I had deliberately left some extra time for my connection in Hong Kong because the first-class lounge there, The Wing, is the best in the world. You get a private cabana with shower, bath, and babbling brook. I caught up on the Internet and took a hot lazy cool shower after. The next leg, to Bangkok, was a short two-hour flight on Cathay. It was a two-cabin plane so I suffered through business class. Even on this short flight they served a delicious hot sea bass. No barramundi though.

It was my first time in Bangkok’s new airport. I wanted to see if I could transfer to Chiang Mai without clearing customs and to my pleasant surprise it was possible, although it was a very long walk to the domestic departures. I waited in one of the many Royal Silk lounges, got online, and then took the one-hour final leg of today’s long, long journey. My brother Mike was waiting for me at the Chiang Mai airport and he drove me to the Sheraton (formerly the Westin, where I have stayed many times), and having been up for 22 hours I simply crashed in the big old suite.

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January 16, 2007

A new fish in town

There’s a new fish in town.

If you’ve ever been with me when I ordered salmon for dinner, you probably heard me say I could eat salmon every meal. It’s a great food to love. Salmon is a health food, containing just the right omega-three fatty acids, and besides that it tastes like victory. I imagine when the Vikings returned home from war they jumped into streams, grabbed king salmon with their studded gauntlets, and feasted like there was no tomorrow.

I had dinner with Kathy “Pokerkat” Liebert who, like me, spells her name with an “IE” like Internet Explorer. IE7 sucks so bad even Richard Brodie, who bleeds Microsoft blue when he’s not talking about himself in the third person, switched to Firefox. Kathy is a true professional who constantly likes to discuss new ways of looking at hands. It’s nice to have years where you win two or three big events but the reality of the game is that kind of luck comes only rarely no matter how good you are. A pro carries on through the lean years. I had another order of barramundi, after enjoying it at JJ’s, and once again found it delicious. It may be my new favorite fish.

Jay Greenspan, up there with Michael Craig at the top of the poker-journalism ladder, joined me for a cigar in the soon-to-close Fidel’s cigar store at the Crown. The no-smoking law made no exception for cigar stores and so they will close. Meanwhile, we smoked a couple mild Partagas and sipped Lagavulin. Jay snapped a photo of me enjoying life, something I’m good at.

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January 14, 2007

Aussie busto

I got off to an exciting start in the Aussie Millions, making the nuts twice early and chipping up to 53,000 from the starting 20,000. Carlos Mortensen was at my table but never got cards. After my early success I bluffed into a set for half my stack, made a series of unsuccessful steals, and eventually put my last chips in with top two pair against a flush on the turn, eliminated in the wee hours of day one. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, Melbourne was great. Full Tilt took us on a river cruise, wined and dined us, and gave us a whole bag full of custom Aussie logo swag. This takes over from Aruba as my favorite event. And next year the whole casino will be non smoking!

Maria Sharapova has been hanging around, looking for excuses to run into me, riding up in the elevator, etc. I hope it doesn’t distract her from winning the Australian Open. Well, dealing with many admirers is one of the responsibilities that comes with success. Good luck to Maria and our new friend Andy Roddick. Doug Lee and I have already gone busto in our tournament.

Tomorrow I leave for Thailand to visit my brother.

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January 12, 2007

Tennis uberbabe

Qantas 94 landed right on time in Melbourne and Daniel and I were among the first off. The Crown Casino was supposed to send a limo for me but the only driver from the Crown had a sign with Daniel’s name on it. This kind of screwup happens all the time and Daniel graciously offered me a ride in his stretch limo despite the fact he had a camera crew there to meet him on arrival and ride in the limo with him. It was a quick ride to the Crown Towers, where Full Tilt had booked rooms for all the pros and the online qualifiers. I followed Daniel and his entourage to the check-in area but it turned out he had a special check-in desk on the 29th floor called the Crystal Club. I was supposed to go to the regular check-in but they were nice enough to take care of me.

My room wasn’t ready so I went down to the gym to work out. All the tennis pros here for the Australian Open were staying here and several of them were working out in the gym or out on the tennis courts. Many of them recognized me and one blonde uberbabe begged me to pose with her for a picture so I did. I don’t watch tennis so if anyone knows who it is let me know.

The nice lady from the Crystal Club brought down my room keys to the gym so I went up and spent 15 minutes figuring out how to turn on the bathroom light. There were two switches and a dimmer, all three of which had to be turned on simultaneously. The bathroom scale was marked in dual measurements but unfortunately neither was pounds. They had kilograms and stones so I had my choice of multiplying by 2.2 or 14.

My plan for Melbourne is to eat a lot of fish. I already tried Tasmanian salmon and barramundi, both of which were superb. And of course the local wine is delicious. It feels weird to be drinking a 2006 Cabernet-Shiraz in January 2007 but I guess the growing season is six months earlier here.

Today there is a freeroll for all the Full Tilt online qualifiers with bounties on the pros. I’ll pop up to the Crystal Club for breakfast with Andy “The Rock” Bloch and Doug “Canadian Superbomber” Lee. I hope those tennis pros don’t swarm us again.

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January 10, 2007

Circle Pacific

When I’m single I like to travel a lot. I met my second ex-wife in the Thai Airways first-class lounge in Bangkok, which I guess is a good place to meet nice Jewish girls from Toronto. I call it “Brownian motion,” which if you took high-school chemistry you may remember is the way particles in liquid randomly move about and bump into each other. Being a geek guy I have a limited need for social interaction. When I’m married I don’t seem to have the desire to go out and meet people, which doesn’t seem to please the wife. When I’m single I turn into this kind of international playboy, workout hound, raconteur, clothes horse – if I could just kick this marriage habit I’d be fine.

Anyway I still remembered a bit about the ins and outs of luxury travel from back when Lion Tales used to be more of a travelogue than a seamy underblog. One thing I know is that there’s a sooper-sekrit way to fly business class for much less than the cost of a round-trip ticket. There are three ways, actually, but the first isn’t secret: use miles. I have a zillion miles saved up from back in the day but unfortunately Qantas has very few award seats available so that wasn’t an option.

The second way is to use American Express’s two-for-one deal. With the Centurion Card I can take a companion for free if I buy a full-fare ticket. I’ve never actually used this program and it’s not as good as it sounds because there’s usually no need to pay full fare even if you’re purchasing a ticket – you end up saving a bit, but not half. I could think of half a dozen uberbabes who would probably jump on a plane but I was aching to try out the third option.

Very loyal readers will remember my brother Mike lives in Thailand. I used to go see him every year but recently something seemed to come up every winter (oh yeah, poker tournaments). Now that I’m not playing World Poker Tour I made a point of going up for a visit this year. That brings us to the sooper sekrit. You see, airlines make an obscene amount of money on business-class and first-class tickets. They make so much that they could sell the seats at half the price and still make a profit. But they won’t, since they are primarily purchased by business travelers who are not nearly as price sensitive as leisure travelers. How, then, to sell the empty seats to leisure travelers without undercutting their own market?

Make the leisure traveler fly around the world.

There’s a special department at all of the OneWorld and Star Alliance airlines called the “Around the World desk.” By requiring an itinerary that is too restrictive for most business travel, airlines can sell these excess premium seats to leisure travelers without cannibalizing the lucrative business market. I gave American Airlines a call and got a quote on a Circle Pacific fare from the USA to Melbourne to Bangkok and back to the USA. I asked how much for first class and it was still $1000 less than the round-trip business-class ticket. Sold.

So I’m here in my personal one-bedroom suite aboard Qantas 94, three hours out of Melbourne. I had been warned the service was friendly but Spartan on Qantas and that’s what it was: no super-premium wines or liquors, a decent dinner menu, and three very friendly flight attendants. I tried three different Australian reds and settled on the 2003 Stonier Reserve Pinot Noir. They have a nice selection of video choices but I spent most of the flight sleeping like a baby in my flat bed with Daniel Negreanu in the seat behind me. David Singer and his beautiful girlfriend Mandy are back in the business-class cabin but most of the Full Tilt team took the same flight yesterday.

I’ll stay in Melbourne until I bust out of the main event, which starts the 14th, and then jump on a sooper-sekrit Cathay Pacific jet to Bangkok. Shh.

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January 7, 2007

You want seamy?

With the imminent implosion of the Stardust, the Las Vegas landmark where I gambled through the night the weekend I turned 21, it gets harder and harder to find in Sin City the dirty, gritty experience loyal readers demand of my seamy underblog. So with a scant few days on the calendar until my big Circle Pacific trip, I pinged Kyle and asked if he wanted to hit Reno for the weekend. He made a courtesy call to his financial backers and then booked a flight.

Kyle got into Reno a couple hours earlier than I did so at my suggestion he took the shuttle to the Grand Sierra (formerly Reno Hilton) and played some poker. When I landed I rented a Ford Explorer from Hertz and picked up a grinning Kyle in front of the Sierra. He was up just a little in the ultra-loose 3/6 Hold ‘Em game but it amused him no end to see people call a river bet and turn over Jack high in a six-way pot.

It was a quick hop to Harrah’s, where my buddies and hosts John and Gabe had put us in the Ambassador Suite. We did a walking tour of downtown Reno before dinner. You want seamy? Virginia Street has been torn up for years, cyclone fences and detour signs routing cars and pedestrians in serpentine patterns. Buildings are boarded up. Soot stains drip from windows of burned-out edifices. The “O” is dark atop city hall, which proudly proclaims “REN.” Casinos, bars, and strip clubs populate downtown in the Biggest Little City in the World. We looked out the window of the Ambassador suite and drank it all in.

Gabe and John took us to the steakhouse, where the food and service excelled as usual. We started with an Amarone while the 2002 Phelps Insignia decanted. I’d been a good workout hound so I decided to indulge in the escargot and filet mignon, with a table-prepared Caesar salad in the interregnum. After dinner it wasn’t hard to drag the boys to the FQ Men’s Club, scene of my recent geek-girl encounter, but my hopes of a repeat night of fantasy turned out to be chimerical. Once again the place was filled with hotties but most of the ones we talked to quickly lost interest when we declined the “VIP room” treatment, where you get to pay $250 for a half-hour of lap dances. “And we also accept tips,” one hustler said.

The exception was a sweet 21-year-old with a sunny smile named Summer. She just plonked herself down next to Kyle and hung out with us, ordering sushi for herself while I smoked a cigar. Yes, that’s right. Strip clubs and brothels are now the only place in Nevada where you can smoke and eat at the same time. Summer sat with us until it was time for her act, which we watched appreciatively.

My second visit to FQ confirms it sports much hotter strippers than most men’s clubs I’ve been to. Without that magical geek connection, though, we left the club at a decent hour and returned to the Ambassador Suite to find Kahlua nips waiting for us in our respective bedrooms, along with a bountiful gift basket in the living room and a cornucopia of undrinkable Pepsi products in the refrigerator. I really hope the new owners of Harrah’s sell the company to Coca-Cola.

Saturday we had lunch from the coffee shop menu in the Italian restaurant because the coffee shop was closed for renovation. Unlike Vegas, where most of the resorts have some healthy choices on the menu, Harrah’s Reno had all-carb all-fat all the time. I had a greasy sandwich and then went to the gym to work out. Kyle and I played a little 3/6 Hold ‘Em at the El Dorado and watched the Seahawks stumble to victory before Gabe took us for dinner to Ichiban, the excellent Japanese restaurant in the hotel. There we had a bottle of Mikune “Root of Innocence” sake. It was good but no Divine Droplets. We had the teppanyaki, done well in standard style, and then Gabe invited the two lesbians sitting next to him to join us at the topless show “Rock My Ride.” They happily assented and we all huggled into a VIP booth to watch the show. It was a standard topless revue with the exception of a very long and tedious puppet act. The dancing girls were beautiful and only one had implants.

After the show Gabe suggested we hit the trendy new nightclub in town, 210 North. For the hottest club in town on a Saturday night, it was pretty dead. I spent a fair amount of time trying to order Scotch from a ditzy blonde bartender who didn’t know what “neat” meant but I ended up with a yummy Bowmore 17. We split that popsicle stand in short order but on the way out a young man exclaimed, “You’re that poker guy!” He emoted as if I was his long-lost brother for the better part of a minute and I left him with a smile and well wishes.

We returned to Harrah’s and the lounge there, Sapphire, where two of the dancers from Rock My Ride were relaxing and two young nurses from California were exuberantly dancing. The nurses grabbed me for a dance but Gabe was waving me over to the show dancers’ table so I extricated myself and left Kyle to take care of the nurses. Victoria, the redheaded dancer from the topless show, introduced herself and said she bet I didn’t recognize her because she was wearing a wig in the act. I bet her I could think of a way to recognize her and she said, “I’m not showing you my boobs!” “Seen ‘em,” I said.

We closed down Sapphire and then all went to a gritty, seamy local hangout called Keystone Cue and Cushion, a combination nightclub, diner, and pool hall. “The strippers come here after work,” Gabe said. We went to the bar, where smoking was no longer allowed although management didn’t care if you did – at this point any potential enforcement is simply a $100 fine for the smoker. They did, however, have to remove the ashtrays so you needed a glass of water if you wanted to safely park your ashes. Gabe and the dancers all knew the bartender, Kenny. Victoria filled me in: Kenny had been diagnosed long ago with terminal cancer but had long since outlived his expiration date so he was just taking each day as if it were his last.

We played a little eight ball while Gabe sipped a drink and waxed philosophical to Kyle and Kenny. Then came the news that Kenny needed a ride to the hospital because he was suffering blackouts, but he would wait until his relief came. Apparently this was not an uncommon occurrence. Everyone seemed cool with it so we returned to our pool game. No one was keeping track but I went undefeated.

We had flights the next morning so I reluctantly returned to the Ambassador suite while the 21-year-old Kyle stayed up all night flirting with the dancers and listening to Gabe’s progressively existential philosophizing. For some, a weekend in Reno may be too long. For others, it leaves you wanting more. Either way, you want seamy? You got it.

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January 3, 2007

No pair

With 2004 and 2005 shaping up to be two of the best vintages in Napa history, I was excited to find a three-liter bottle of 2004 Caymus Special Selection staring me in the face as I walked into the Wynn Resort’s Country Club Grill for one of the final meals of 2006. Benjie and I entertained four uberbabes and with the help of Jodie, the excellent sommelier, picked out a 2005 Penner-Ash Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley to start. I was hoping the ubers would prefer the lighter-style Pinot, leaving the chewy, chocolaty Caymus for the boys. The strategy worked pretty well and no one left thirsty.

There’s a whole literature on pairing wines with food but to me that’s like pairing a girlfriend with an event. I think it’s best to have one you really like no matter what else you’re eating or doing. Tonight both wines were superb. Both the Oregon weather and Pinot Noir in general are temperamental. 2005 was a year with difficult weather and produced a wine with higher acidity than normal, which will please Burgundy fans who find Oregon’s usual output too unstructured. In any case Penner-Ash will now be a name I look for. The Caymus was exactly as expected, huge but elegant. This is a wine to cellar for 20 years or so but with the way restaurant wine lists work I may have to drink a few more bottles this year.

Being a workout hound I ordered the sea bass topped with diced tomatoes. I had never thought of combining those two flavors but it was probably the best sea bass I’ve had. That’s a hit-or-miss fish for me: if it’s too loose and flaky I don’t like it and of course I don’t want it overdone either. It’s like the shower in my old apartment with a dial that had one angstrom of perfect temperature: any deviation and you got either arctic blast or thermonuclear war. This sea bass was perfect.

After dinner we retired to the high-limit lounge and had cigars and digestifs. Many of us were ready to put 2006 to rest. It was a tough year.

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January 1, 2007

Me say Rao

No Smoking signs went up all over Las Vegas this weekend, but it looks like Atlantic City is about to stay one step ahead by banning smoking in casinos altogether. In Vegas you can still smoke in bars that don’t serve food and are not part of restaurants, and of course outdoors, which is where smoking is best done. I was a big supporter of the ban but now that it’s here, to quote gambling buddy Benjie, “I didn’t realize just how bad it was gonna bite me in the ass.” Read on.

Benjie, who knows even more uberbabes than I do, took me to Rao's (pronounced “Ray-O's”), the new Italian restaurant at Caesars Palace, along with two of his top ubers. There was no smoking inside the restaurant but they were hoping the terrace lounge “outside” was OK and had the tables seeded with ashtrays and matches. I say “outside” in quotation marks because while the terrace is outside the restaurant, no matter how many clouds they paint on the ceiling it’s still inside the hotel and I suspect the heath department will not allow smoking there.

Other than some minor service glitches expected from a restaurant open for less than a month (they kept topping off our Panna with tap water and forgetting to replace cleared utensils), Rao's is a great addition to the Las Vegas dining scene. The primarily Italian wine list had a nice selection of mid-priced Barolos and Supertuscans and at the recommendation of the cute Asian sommelier Julie, we tried a Gaja Barolo I hadn’t seen before. It was nice but about 45 minutes in, just as I was draining the last ounce, it really started to open up and became excellent.

April, our server, suggested eating family style so we ordered a couple appetizers, pastas, and a double order of sea bass to share. The clams and mussels in white wine and garlic were tremendous, as was the pasta with vodka sauce. The raviolis were sautéed in butter, which I found too rich for my taste, but the others loved them. Frankie Pellegrino, one of the owners in from the original location in New York, asked for and got feedback and then brought us a complimentary dessert barge in thanks. As a rule I don't eat dessert but the others loved it.

After dinner we headed over to Harrah’s, where Benjie was taking a bunch of friends to the Improv. We scored a couple stogies and then realized all the usual places to smoke were either gone or so crowded because of the holiday weekend that they were hopeless. Restaurant bars and lounges were all non-smoking now. The outdoor seats by the pool were closed for the winter. We went up to the ballroom area but they had already plastered all non-casino hallways with No Smoking signs and changed all the combination wastebasket-ashtrays to simple trash cans. Finally we just sat down at a row of slot machines in high limit and lit up. The times, they are a-changin’.

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