LAS VEGAS -- With the American economy at a crossroads, a cross-section of America still converges here every summer. It's as if money grows on palm trees in the middle of The Strip, because, even with recessionary dollars harder to come by, bigger crowds keep coming to the World Series of Poker.
In good times or bad, the one constant is: Gamblers will gamble.
Each year I watch with wonder -- as ESPN's alleged poker expert -- at the Brobdingnagian bankrolls that roll into town.
Then again, Las Vegas is an around-the-clock Mecca to excess.
(It's sort of like ESPN, without "SportsCenter.")
And in a city that invites and defines excess, there are excessive displays of conspicuous consumption everywhere. The other night, when I couldn't sleep -- who sleeps here? -- I compiled a list of my favorite immoderate, larger-than-large Las Vegas landmarks:
* World's Largest Burrito: How big might that be? Two feet in length, six pounds in weight - or about the same size as Yao Ming at birth. It's available at the NASCAR Café at the Sahara Hotel & Casino and it costs $19.95.
But there's a customer-friendly catch.
These are the words straight from the menu board: "Finish It and It's Free!"
Now, before you call Southwest and get on the next no-hidden-fees flight, ask yourself this: Could you eat 24 quarter-pounders with cheese at McDonald's? Exactly. Still, I wanted to conquer that 96-ounce burrito, but, well, I can't expense these things anymore -- what with newspapers plunging into bankruptcy -- and I thought a double sawbuck was too much to pay for apocalyptic indigestion.
On the other hand, if I'm the Oakland Raiders, I'd shift my practice facility to Sin City tomorrow and the entire team could eat without cost every day.
* World's Largest Gift Shop: At the corner of Sahara Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard -- about one good heave away from the world's largest burrito -- sits Bonanza Gift & Souvenir Shop. It occupies the entire space of a typical L-shaped strip mall. On the façade are the words, "WORLD'S LARGEST GIFT SHOP" in jumbo lettering usually reserved for the likes of Frank Sinatra.
You can pick up Las Vegas shot glasses for 99 cents, six pairs of dice for a buck, a "CSI: Las Vegas" coffee mug for $5.99, an Elvis light-up carrying bag for $29.99 or a miniature "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign for $42.99. They even sell books, including "The Art of Pole Dancing" (career change?) for $9.95.
Beware of the security guards - they'll look at you so suspiciously, you'll think you've shoplifted.
* World's Largest Chocolate Fountain: Imagine 2,100 pounds of dark, milk and white chocolate swirling through a maze of 25 suspended glass vessels in a 27-foot-tall kinetic sculpture. It's as if you had died and gone to Hershey, Pa., in a chocolate hearse driven by Willy Wonka.
This amazing sight is in plain view any day for anyone who goes to the Jean Philippe Patisserie inside of the Bellagio. If you bring any 6-year-old to see this, they will immediately move into the Bellagio, regardless of the room rate.
I stood there and stared at it for 10 minutes, then drove to Costco and bought a crate of Twix.
* World's Largest Topless Pool: Admission varies -- guys should expect to pay $30 or more -- but who's pinching pennies when it comes to bearing witness to breasts?
It's the Sapphire Pool at the Rio, daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., in which "performers" from the Sapphire -- aptly billed as The World's Largest Gentlemen's Club -- hang out poolside and talk shop with tourists. It beats downloading porn, does it not?
• Note: Although the Rio is the home of the World Series of Poker -- coincidentally, the World's Largest Poker Tournament -- I have never been to the Sapphire Pool; the hotel has asked me to stay away, due to management's feeling that if I'm seen topless, it might not be good for business.
Q. Do the competitors at the World Series of Poker take your advice regarding fashion and style? (Chris Stephens; Goodlettsville, Tenn.)
A. I've yet to see one of them standing behind me in line at Target buying Cherokee T-shirts.
Q. Being that your favorite "sports" appear to be bowling and poker, is it safe to assume you were not a jock in high school? (Dan Cantwell; Albany, N.Y.)
A. Actually, I was home-schooled and was cut from the family's croquet team.
Q. A friend of mine saw you drinking a glass of wine while playing poker recently. Isn't The Slouch more of a shot-and-a-beer guy? (Tom Hendricks; Pittsburgh)
A. I don't always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Q. If Joba Chamberlain enters the World Series of Poker Main Event, will Joe Girardi put him on a chip count? (Brian Mruk; Arlington, Va.)
A. Pay the man, Shirley.
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