Perspectives: Go to Vegas for Entertainment, Stay in Pittsburgh for Gambling

There's plenty that distinguishes Las Vegas as a destination — but the gaming is just as good in Pittsburgh.

I recently returned from my first trip to Las Vegas.

To answer a question I get surprisingly often: No, I didn’t win anything. I lost quite a bit of money, in fact. Are there people out there who somehow manage to come back from Vegas in a better financial situation? That doesn’t seem possible.

In any case, I enjoyed it. It’s interesting to see a place so totally and completely dedicated to grown-up tourism (it’s obvious to say that there’s no Las Vegas without tourists, but that understates just how much every square inch of the city is designed for people from somewhere else). In my experience, it’s really only comparable to Orlando — except, thankfully, Las Vegas is not a family destination.

By the way: Don’t take your kids to Vegas. I know, I know, they want you to think it’s a family vacation destination. It’s not. Your kids, in fact, want to go to Orlando. Take the whole family to Disney; leave them with a sitter when you go to Las Vegas.

That grumpy digression aside, the parts of the trip that stick with me are shows and experiences. I can’t stop talking about Omega Mart, the sprawling, uncanny immersive-art (or is it live theater? Or both?) installation by Meow Wolf. I’m making spooky friends jealous with an account of the Haunted Museum, a macabre collection of historic artifacts and supposedly cursed and/or possessed whatnot. The cabaret-style show “Absinthe” — a blend of burlesque, acrobatics and unfiltered bawdiness — was a great time.

I ate well (and too much), drank well (and too much) and spent hours wandering through sprawling resorts. And when I reflect on that trip, I think … oh yeah, I guess I gambled?

To reiterate what I said above: I did. I know it because there’s a good deal of money which I no longer possess. But, as much as I did enjoy my time at the tables, it’s not particularly memorable for one simple reason: I can do that here.

Playing Blackjack on Fremont Street is not a meaningfully different experience than doing so at Rivers Casino. Sitting at a slot machine in the MGM Grand is not all that much better than playing the same game at the Meadows.

Thirty years ago, when legal gambling was mostly limited to Las Vegas and Atlantic City, the games may have been the draw. Now, however, you can lose your shirt just as well at home as you can in the desert.

In fact, based on my limited experience, you’ll stand to lose a bit (a bit) less around here than you will in Nevada. (If you’re not a gambler, the rest of this paragraph will make little sense, so feel free to jump ahead.) While the house always wins, I noticed two differences at the Las Vegas tables: If you’re at a nice casino, the minimum bets are higher. (At the Bellagio, most Blackjack tables had a $50-per-hand minimum, with a few crowded strays at $25 — and others were $100.) And if you find one of the old-school casinos, you’ll get lower minimums, but you’ll also get worse odds; when I played Blackjack at the Four Queens, for example, a Blackjack paid 6-to-5 rather than 3-to-2.

This isn’t to tell you not to go to Las Vegas; I certainly would recommend that you do. For 24-hour entertainment, stunning attractions and experiences you simply can’t find in most other places, you should go. I’m thinking about going back soon. But if you’d simply like to play some games — within reason, never betting too much, only playing with what you can stand to lose — there’s a whole host of perfectly amenable casinos throughout western Pennsylvania.

And the steak and cocktails will be much more affordable. I may have lost money gambling, but it’s not nearly as much as I lost eating.

If you or someone you know may have a gambling problem, call 1-800-GAMBLER for help. Play responsibly.

Categories: Collier’s Weekly