Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Roulette Whisperer

Tunica, Mississippi was never at the top of my “must see” list. But when I placed fourth in The Tennessean vacation photo contest last year, and won a trip to the third-largest gaming region in the United States, I suddenly had an excuse to check it out.
my winning photo from the Vatican Museum in Rome, Italy
Originally I thought I would go with my husband, Greg, who is not a frequent gambler but enjoys playing Blackjack if given the right opportunity. I prefer Texas Hold'em when it comes to card games. But since my best friend, Amy, and I were planning a short girls-only getaway before I move to Portland, OR, we decided to take advantage of this almost-free trip for our little “escape from reality” the week before Christmas.
Amy enjoys a Coalminer's Stout at Blackhorse Brewery in Clarksville, TN
It's about 243 miles from Clarksville to Tunica and a pretty easy drive on I-40W. However there's not much to see along the way, so we spent the four and a half hours in Amy's minivan catching up on the past few months of our lives. I have written about my friendship and adventures with Amy before, so I will not rehash our life story here. Suffice it to say that I have known Amy since we were four years old and she knows me better than anyone on Earth!

My photo contest winnings included a two-night stay at Sam's Town Hotel and Casino, two vouchers for any meal at the Great Buffet, and a $200 voucher for dinner at Twain's Steakhouse. After we checked into our large double room, we set off to explore the property. One of the first things we did was sign up for Boyd Gaming's loyalty program, called B Connected. In return we each received $5 credit towards slot machine play. Since we had some time to kill before dinner, we decided to try our luck at the penny slots. This turned out to be a comical endeavor as it has been years since I've spent any time in a casino (with the exception of a brief visit to Sky City in Auckland, New Zealand in 2010) and Amy had only been to a casino once about 14 years ago!
entrance to Sam's Town
I chose a machine I liked based on such important criteria as appeal of graphics, option to gamble as low as one cent per game and the distance from the nearest smoker (most casinos allow smoking throughout the premises). I decided to try one spin and then planned to move on to the next machine. But we quickly discovered that you can't cash out promo points so I was stuck with playing the full $5 credit on that machine. It also took us forever to figure out how you win. There were no clear instructions on the machine so we thought three of a kind on the same line (my machine had five symbols per line) in any order should result in a credit, but it is actually the first three symbols that count!

Stuck with Lion Dance (my machine) and Stinkin' Rich (Amy's machine), we settled in for the long haul. A waitress brought us free drinks (gin & tonic for me; Jack & Coke for Amy) and we took our time getting familiar with our machines and all the options for betting on multiple lines and for placing larger bets. It took us about an hour to gamble our $5 credits and I ultimately cashed out with $2.57 winnings and Amy won $1.88.
my penny slot winnings
Since we would have plenty of opportunities to gamble over the next 24+ hours, I wanted to brush up on my table game skills. As it was still fairly early and not too busy, we were able to stand & observe the play at the roulette table. The dealers & players were very friendly and didn't hesitate to offer instruction on how to play. With the help of the free brochures I picked up near the casino entrance, I soon understood how to place a bet and to calculate what the payout should be on a winning bet.
Sam's Town cheat sheets
Soon enough it was time for dinner. We went to Twain's Steakhouse and asked the manager if we could split the $200 voucher over two meals as it was originally written to only be valid towards one meal and any unused amount would be forfeited. With much persistence, she finally got someone to agree to split it into two $100 vouchers so we could eat dinner there both nights.

The regular menu at Twain's is quite pricey, with the average appetizer costing $15 and the average entree $40. But they have a great early (5-7pm) or late (9-10pm) dining special which includes your choice of a soup or salad, one of six entrees and one of three desserts for only $25. The restaurant was pretty empty at 6:30, so Amy & I chatted with our server, letting her know we were not in a hurry and would like to enjoy a leisurely dinner.

We ordered some drinks to start and were given a complimentary amuse bouche (a crab concoction served on a spoon) and a nice basket of bread to dip in olive oil & balsamic vinegar. Our first course was a generous Caesar salad, which was followed by a 6 oz tenderloin served with a mound of garlic mashed potatoes and snow peas. I always order my steak rare but Amy ordered her steak (in honor of her husband, Eric) medium rare to medium. However both of our steaks came out very rare and, Eric would be happy to note, Amy still ate hers that way. We were already stuffed but could not pass up the dessert course, for which we both chose the chocolate pecan pie. Then, at the end of the meal, we were served two chocolate-covered strawberries! It was 9:30 by the time we left the restaurant with a total bill of $102 (so all we owed was $2 plus the tip). So, if the food only cost $50, how did we spend the rest of the money??? Over the course of the meal I drank two Gray Goose vodka martinis (straight up with olives) while Amy had one mixed drink and a Baileys with coffee; then we ordered two Sprite/vodka/cranberry juice cocktails to go!

There was no way we could go straight to bed after eating all that food so we returned to the casino. Amazingly, the same people from before were STILL playing roulette so we observed for another 30 minutes then I finally got up the nerve to play. I exchanged $5 cash for 50-cent chips and proceed to play for over two hours without losing. I typically bet only the $2 minimum per game but did well enough that one of the dealers started calling me the “Roulette Whisperer!” It was after 1am when I finally gambled my last chips.

We slept in the next day then ate an early lunch in the Great Buffet. We opted not to use our vouchers as the buffet was half price ($4.94 per person) with the Thursday B Connected Gal Pals promo. I spent some time checking email while Amy skyped with Eric. Not wanting to spend the entire day in the casino, we decided to drive into downtown Tunica.
Mississippi farmland
Of course, if you have ever been to Tunica then you know that there is absolutely nothing to do there besides gamble! Surrounded by miles and miles of farmland (primarily soy beans & cotton), downtown Tunica consists of a small square and a few businesses. It didn't take us long to survey the area so we also drove to the TunicaRiverpark where you can visit the Mississippi River Museum, ride the Tunica Queen riverboat, or walk along the EcoTrail. But since it was the off-season everything was closed and it was too cold to be outside for very long.
an explanatory sign at Tunica Riverpark
We were back at the casino by 2:30pm so we decided to use our new $5 credit (from another B Connected promo) to play the penny slots again. After about an hour I cashed out with $2.57 (an intentional effort to match my winnings from yesterday) while Amy won $5.50. Wanting to relax and enjoy some quiet time, Amy returned to our room to read while I sat in on the $10 hands-on Blackjack table (which turned out to be very intimidating), then moved on to the $5 table, which was much more enjoyable. Note that I was not playing, only observing, so I could decide if I would be comfortable playing later on. I certainly did not expect a friendly couple at the $5 table to give me $10 of their chips so I could play with them! I managed to hold my own for about 30 minutes before I lost the money but did hit Blackjack once so I walked away with a 50-cent piece (I won 1.5 times the amount of my bet or $12.50, but tipped the odd $2 to the dealer).

I returned to the room around 5:30 to meet Amy for dinner. We looked forward to eating at Twain's again and essentially did a replay of the previous night. We started with another (different) crab amuse bouche, followed by chef salads. I ordered the pork chop which was served with mashed sweet potatoes and more snow peas, while Amy had the steak & shrimp skewers which were served on a huge plate of rice. This time we didn't manage to eat all of our entrees, but we still ordered dessert (bread pudding). In another homage to her husband, Amy had two Gray Goose martinis (dirty, with olives) while I drank mine straight up. Then we each ordered a Lazy Magnolia Southern Pecan beer to go and once again, our bill totaled right at $100.

We returned to the casino where Amy decided she would try her hand at roulette. Initially I watched, then when I was sure she was enjoying herself, bought in as well. Amy started by using $6 of her total slot machine winnings while I gambled $25 (including my $5 total slot winnings). Eventually Amy lost all of the first $6 and bought another $5 in chips. We managed to play for a couple of hours, with Amy eventually cashing out with $15 and me with $45. Not bad for two novice gamblers!

After a good night's sleep we used our remaining vouchers to eat breakfast in the Great Buffet and then hit the road towards home. We did make one special stop in downtown Memphis so I could buy some famous Rendezvous barbecue as a Christmas gift for Greg.
serving up charcoal ribs at Rendvezvous in Memphis, TN
While Amy & I enjoyed our girlfriend getaway, mainly because it provided the opportunity for us to relax and catch up, I cannot particularly recommend Tunica as a vacation destination. Yes, if you live in the Southeast and like to gamble then it is a much more affordable option than Atlantic City or Las Vegas. But with few other activities on offer, most people would quickly get bored. I was just happy that the overall cost of the trip was minimal because of my prize package, not to mention that Amy & I both walked away from the casino with more money than we started with!

I am also very happy to report that as I write this, Amy's husband, Eric, is on his way home from his one-year deployment in Afghanistan. I know Amy & the girls are thrilled to welcome him home! Before the end of this year they will be moving to Germany where Eric will serve his remaining time before retirement. Greg & I are planning to visit them in Clarksville before we move to Portland and hopefully we'll get to see them one more time before they leave for Germany in the fall. Of course, knowing our inclination to travel, we'll also visit them in there!

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