WRITING - The Vegas Guy

LAUGHLIN, Nev. -- I'm sitting in a bar, but I'm not quite sure which hotel the bar is in. I'm looking out at a river, but then all the hotels are on the river, and for that matter half the casinos in America are on rivers. I'm listening to a lounge act with too much reverb, gulping watered-down martinis, feeling overwhelming deja vu, and now I'm going into a slow simmer caused by that most dreaded of casino sounds:

"Wheel! Of! Fortune! . . . ding ding ding ding . . . Wheel! Of! Fortune! . . . pudalump pudalump . . . "Wheel! Of! Fortune!" But then again, I've wanted to take a shotgun to a "Wheel of Fortune" slot machine at dozens of casinos.

So where am I?

I knew this had to happen sooner or later. I'm not anywhere. I've entered the matrix. I'm living in Generic Casino.

Fortunately I have the presence of mind to ask the bartender, "Uh, which casino is this?"

He looks at me like I'm starting to tell another lame joke, then realizes I'm serious. "Edgewater." And he points to the matchbook that's right there in front of me. "Oh, right," I say.

The Edgewater Hotel and Casino in Laughlin, Nevada, may be the most generic casino in the most generic casino town in generically over-casinoed America. It doesn't even try to have a theme. Just a giant white high-rise hotel with a few palm trees scattered along the river. I look through my notebook, where I've scrawled "Tabitha Houchens." A clue! Her I remember. Tabitha is the beautiful babe who serves as the Edgewater's Director of Public Relations, and we had lunch sometime last week and she did her damndest to tell me what the Edgewater is all about. "You don't really have a theme, do you?" I said.

"Oh yes, the theme is southwestern," she says. "Kokopelli is our logo. He's a mythical good-luck god."

She shows me a picture of Kokopelli. He looks like a dancing lizard playing a lute.

"We have three rubbing rocks in the casino, for good luck. And our lounge is called Kokopelli's Lounge."

That's where I am! Kokopelli's Lounge! In the decade of Indian casinos--when California Indian casinos are threatening the very existence of Laughlin--I'm sitting in a white-man's casino with an Indian totem mascot. There's a sign up for the band appearing that night, country rockers called Wild At Heart. I remember Tabitha mentioning them. "Dee, the lead singer, does a great Shania Twain."

But I don't think I'll stick around for the ersatz Shania. Instead I wander the slots floor, checking out the clientele, which is mostly grandmotherly and old-cootish. There are only 37 table games in the whole place, and this is not a small casino. The race and sports book is larger than most--with 133 televisions--but I've seen so many cookie-cutter casinos like this that I can almost tell you what the restaurants are in advance. There will be one steakhouse, one buffet, one 24-hour coffee shop, and one sandwich deli. This is the formula, as unvarying as the phases of the moon.

"Our upscale restaurant is called The Hickory Pit," I remember Tabitha telling me. I check my notes for the others. Yes, there's the "Winner's Circle Deli," there's the "Garden Room" (open 24 hours), and there's "The Buffet." They didn't even bother to give it a name. It's just "The Buffet."

The hotel is right next door to Don Laughlin's Riverside Resort, the city's original casino that got things started here in the sixties, but the Edgewater didn't open until 1981, the sixth casino on the strip. In 1983 it was acquired by Circus Circus, which later became Mandalay Bay, and it's actually the sister property of the Colorado Belle, its other neighbor, which is built in the shape of a paddlewheel riverboat. Not to be outdone, the Edgewater has its own paddlewheeler, the Edgewater Belle, which actually takes tour groups out on the river--and is available for weddings, Tabitha is keen to point out. Pardon me while my eyes glaze over.

One thing you can say about the Edgewater is that it IS a bargain. Weekday room rates average $19, and they rarely go above $36 even on weekends. Right now you can get a package that includes a room for two nights, two prime-rib dinners, two breakfast buffets, and two cocktails, all for $59. Since I've paid $59 for one prime-rib dinner, without the prime rib, I almost wanna check in here just to leech off these nice people.

But as a casino town, Laughlin is a little too sleepy for me. The entertainment runs to attractions like Old West gunfights staged at the Pioneer by the Oatman Ghost Riders, a Latino magician known as Ayala at Harrah's, a host of karaoke bars, Les Brown & His Band of Renown at the Flamingo, the "Turquoise Circuit" women's rodeo, a 7 a.m. (!) patriotic flag-raising ceremony honoring World War II veterans at the Ramada Express, and . . . Wait! What am I saying?

Take me back to Kokopelli's Lounge. What time does the Shania Twain imitator come on?


On the strip, Laughlin, Nev.
Theme: Slot Machine Heaven
Opened: 1981
Total Investment: $80 million
Known For: Largest sports book on the river
Marketing niche: Snowbirds, tour groups, jet-skiers, day-trippers from Southern California and Arizona.
Gambler's Intensity: Low
Cocktail speed: Medium
Dealers: Amiable
Bosses: Comatose
Tables: 37
Slots: 1,315
Rooms: 1,450
Surrounding area: Don Laughlin's Riverside Resort to the north, the Colorado Belle to the south, connected by the Riverwalk..
Website:  www.edgewater-casino.com
Overall rating: 60
Joe Bob's bankroll: Down $80 after two hours of low-limit Texas Hold 'Em: Total to date: -$163 If I'm gonna go generic, that is exactly where I wanna be.