It all starts with a graying Latino gentleman wearing a jean jacket and a straw cowboy hat being told he can't have a beer.
"I'll give you a bottle of water or a Coke, sir," the bartender pronounces, "but I can't serve you another alcoholic beverage tonight."
Poor bastard, we're told, has been hit with the book: According to Colorado Limited Gaming Regulations, licensees — pit bosses, dealers, bartenders, etc. — cannot serve alcoholic beverages to "visibly intoxicated" persons or allow them to participate in limited gaming activities. Big Brother has been watching Buffalo Bill over there for some time now, and every employee within earshot of a walkie-talkie is on full alert to keep him away from the slots and the sauce.
"Cameras don't take too kindly to chugged drinks, either," the bartender snaps, an obvious knuckle crack for Maggie and the Stoli-7 (her first) she just pounded through the straw.
Ouch. Time to move along.
We find our way to the exit of the Lodge Casino (240 Main Street, Black Hawk), trudge through three or four inches of wet, sloppy snow for a block or so, and head back into the tropical-themed warmth of the Isle of Capri Casino (401 Main Street) — our home base for the night and next morning. This establishment has, so far, served me two healthy glasses of heartburn-inducing red wine in clear plastic cups, two Coronas with limes and four Budweiser bottles. To get these for free — and to subvert house policy of no more than one drink per thirty minutes — I've had to saddle up to different video poker machines at all ends of the main-level Caribbean Cove bar, slide twenties into the feeders and slowly win or lose minimum-bet hands while waiting to be noticed by a server. Between losses and tips, though, "free" is a relative term.
Pretending to play video poker at the bar and bouncing from casino to casino aren't the only ways to procure free drinks. While standing around the Isle's blackjack tables, I briefly make friends with an "apparently intoxicated" guy who lets me in on his strategy: Watch for a waitress with an empty tray, take a shortcut toward a slot machine in her path, plug a few dollars in and wait for her "Cocktails? Drinks?" siren song. "You in?" he half-slurs while rocking back on his heels. Sure, why not? "There's one!" he hollers before darting through the crowd.
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But instead, my crew and I head up the escalator to the secluded (and deserted) Splash Bar, where we find a tall, affable bartender swinging a hand towel in lethargic circles. I slide a paper ticket worth thirty bucks into the countertop machine, and the bartender slides me another Bud. It's just before 1 a.m. at this point, and I'm trying to not appear drunk even though I feel four or five parrot-and-palm-tree-patterned bedspreads to the wind. This is no easy task. Colorado Department of Revenue Liquor Code defines "visibly intoxicated" as a combination of factors related to speech and volume (I think I'm laughing too loudly at the bartender's jokes), scent (I knew I should have showered in the hotel room), eyes (I'm at the ass end of a mostly sleepless four-day bender, and my eyes are shot) and balance (so far, so good — but I'm sitting). Luckily, the bartender doesn't appear concerned: He tells us a story of a recent incident involving sportcoat-wearing security guards apprehending a one-legged man who looked over-served and wobbly on surveillance footage; he jokes about how he used to work in Vegas but hasn't placed a wager since "taking the biggest gamble" of his life — marrying a woman with three daughters. And without even checking his watch, he serves me a second Bud and tells Mags, "I like this guy a whole lot more than the last dude you brought in here."
With two drinks totaled and none of my thirty bucks left, I attempt to rally the group back down to the Caribbean Cove bar, where a cover band wearing wireless microphones, sequined bell bottoms and ridiculous wigs is still playing disco and soul covers. Our bartender, however, has a better idea: "You've got a much better chance of not being spotted by the Eye in the Sky if you stay up here," he reveals while making raised-eyebrow gestures at the beer tub behind the bar. I momentarily consider risking it, if only for the change in scenery.
But why gamble?