The Things We’re Good At, We’re Good At

As for the rest of it, well … help! One week in the weird life of Las Vegas.

Illustration by Jesse J. Sutherland

Illustration by Jesse J. Sutherland

Sometimes an assortment of tried-and-true Vegas characteristics just lay themselves out in the shape of an absurdly cliché Vegas week: celebrated poker tournaments, failures in public education, County Commission arguments over removing “smut” magazine racks on the Strip, a seminar at budget-challenged UNLV dubbed “Is College a Good Investment?” … and the arrival of the first passenger compartment on a 550-foot-tall Ferris wheel.

An average week, I suppose.

Might as well take it chronologically: At the World Series of Poker Main Event Final Table in the Rio’s Penn & Teller Theater, nine men, ages 23-38, played for a bracelet and a whole lot of money. The place was packed. Each player had a troop of fans—loud fans—who held signs and chanted their players’ names, wore specially made T-shirts, hit the bar during ESPN commercial breaks and watched every card turn for two rambunctious—rambunctious!—evenings of poker. The winner was 23-year-old Michigan transplant Ryan Riess, who collected $8.4 million.

At the County Commission meeting, longtime Las Vegas attorney Dominic Gentile— who has represented the adult-entertainment industry, a corrupt County Commissioner and all manner of other Las Vegans—defended the continued presence of news racks on the Strip. But not because they primarily contain nearly nude escort ads that are protected by the First Amendment. And not even because the proposed reason for removing them—that they pose pedestrian safety issues—seems specious. Instead, Gentile trotted up person after person to explain the importance of the Valley’s only Italian-American publication, La Voce, which he owns, and which, he says, depends on the Strip news racks to attract advertisers. Children wouldn’t know their Italian heritage without the ability to pick up that newspaper, his allies said. This urgent concern for preserving ethnic community news came as a pure lucky coincidence for the owners of the escort publications.

The commissioners eventually tabled the measure—but not before Commissioner Steve Sisolak disclosed for the record that Gentile has also represented him in the past.

The following night, UNLV hosted a Brookings Institute scholar whose presentation was titled, “Is College a Good Investment?” The auditorium was quite a bit smaller than the Penn & Teller Theater, and no one wore specially made “Go, Education!” T-shirts nor cheered nor disclosed any potential conflicts of interest. A sedate crowd examined bar graphs on PowerPoint, and saw that generally, if you average the nationwide pay for all types of bachelor’s degrees, from all kinds of institutions, and subtract the average debt, then yes—yes!—a college degree is a good investment. It pays off over the course of a lifetime. It makes you more likely to earn the median annual income of $44,970 versus the high school graduate’s median $31,990. Predictably, someone in the audience threw out, “If you’re a valet here, you earn more.”

There was no mention of escort earnings, although I was waiting for it.

I should note here that poker champ Ryan Riess holds a bachelor’s in business from Michigan State University. His 2013 annual earnings are already 259 times those of an average high school graduate. Attorney Dominic Gentile went to Chicago’s DePaul Law School and the National Criminal Defense College in Houston. Odds are, he’s making more than $44,970. But statistics and career planning are, well, dicey.

I happened to speak to Elaine Wynn during the week. Wynn is, of course, the ex-wife of casino titan Steve Wynn, and she serves as the director of Wynn Resorts. She is also the president of the State Board of Education. In a longer interview about a variety of things, I asked her if Las Vegas’ culture and lack of economic industry diversity discourages kids from going to college. “No,” she said. “Kids are kids are kids.”

Anyway. The next morning brought the results of the National Assessment of Education tests: Nevada’s fourth-graders scored 47 percent in math and 43 percent in reading, meaning our students placed seventh worst in the nation. State superintendent of public instruction Dale Erquiaga told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “Overall, I am pleased.” Apparently, we went up a few points.

When I look at the first 44,000-pound, glass-enclosed compartment newly placed atop the 550-foot-tall High Roller observation wheel on the east side of the Strip, I have mixed feelings about it, and about everything else. I’ve been around a circle like this before; and yet I feel sure this time, it’ll be different. Better.