June 16, 2016 – The Sportsbook in the Rio was filled with tobacco smoke, teeming with a rowdy crowd watching Game 2 of the NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Having finished playing in my tournament at the World Series of Poker for the day, I sat in the back of the room nursing a Beam-and-coke. (FYI: the bar in the Rio Sportsbook does NOT stock Jack Daniels.) Even though I’m a Warriors fan and live 5 minutes from Oracle Arena (and am currently 10,861 on the Season Ticket Priority Waiting List), I wasn’t paying attention to the game. I was talking to Janice, an Akron native who loved to Las Vegas 10 years previously. But instead of talking about the game or debating the merits of Stephen Curry versus LeBron James, she was telling me about her experience at the Nevada caucus earlier in the year. She had not participated in any of the previous caucuses, so she was very intrigued on how the process works. We spent a good hour talking about politics, before delving into other topics.
While the Warriors did win the game that night, I barely watched the action. (SPOILER ALERT: it did not end well for my team.) Janice & I were so engaged in our conversation, that we mostly ignored the cheers (and some crying) from the crowd. When the game ended, we only noticed because the sportsbook started emptying out. We finished our drinks, shook hands and said our goodbyes. (Don’t worry: Janice’s husband drove home… he was more interested in the game than talking politics!) While I don’t expect to ever see Janice or her husband again, I do remember this encounter very fondly.
Over the last 4+ years running my family’s business, I had to adjust to several lifestyle changes. Specifically, my time and energy was dominated by the Store. Working 70+ hours over a 6 day week would do that. Even when I was home or out, my mind would drift to some unfinished business matters. It got to the point where I was to tired to do much outside the house, and my social life suffered. Other than the occasional Giants game or dinner out, I spent most of my free time slouching at home.
Prior to working at the Store, I was a social butterfly. In college, I spend much of my time playing this, hanging out here, and not doing enough of this. After graduation, I spent my time playing this, hanging out here, going to these events, and doing side work as this. My circle of friends was very wide, but I enjoyed occupying my time with all these activities. It kept me fresh and energized, despite whatever job I had during the time.
As I was winding down my time at the Store, I took the opportunity to go to Vegas to play in the WSOP. Since my wife was not interesting in playing, I flew out alone on June 3. After checking into the hotel and playing poker for a few hours, I went back to my room to watch some Sportscenter before going to sleep. But sleep was elusive, as that night Muhammad Ali passed away. The coverage on ESPN was constant, not just bringing in boxing analysts and historians, but politicians, professors and athletes in other sports that revered Ali. I was expecting to turn off the TV by midnight, but it was easily 3 AM by the time I finally passed out.
Ali had transcended sports, mostly through his religious and political stances (which were very controversial for the time). He was outspoken when athletes were expected to only be entertainers. While his life in the 60s was very difficult, his public persona changed in his later years. Instead of being seen as an agitator, he was an agent of peace. Ali changed lives, not just from his championship boxing matches, but through connecting with people all over the world.
While I do not have the influence that Ali had, I’ve come to the realization that connecting with people (especially those from different backgrounds) is a big key to finding peace, both internal and external. Individuals and groups that insulate themselves from people different than them cannot develop any empathy, instead turning to indifference (or worse).
During the 4 days I was in Las Vegas, I made it a point to talk to folks, especially casino employees and Las Vegas locals. Gamblers are a weird lot, often not talking to others, as they are only interesting in winning money (and possibly getting drunk). (PSA for the day: if you do not gamble, do NOT start now! Your psyche and wallet will thank you later.) While I’m weird AND a gambler, I went out of my way to talk to the poker dealers. Some of them seemed surprised by my interest in their lives, where they are from and how they made it to Las Vegas. Most dealers are used to players only talking to them to blame them for bad cards or bad play (because, the dealers want players to lose and NOT tip them). But I enjoyed hearing their stories, especially from those that travel around the country to deal at different events and casinos.
(Another aside: talking to casino dealers is not a new thing for me. I’ve been doing that since I turned 21 and started going to Vegas. After graduating from college, I contemplated moving to Vegas and becoming a professional dealer. A lot of younger dealers (under 30) gave me the low-down, which dissuaded me from doing so. I’m glad I made that decision, but still enjoy dealing casino games. I’ve been doing that for over 15 years, currently at this company. My picture is even currently in the front page rotation on their website!)
Everywhere I went, my desire to connect with people along with my solo travel status created this odd, chatty-Patty monster. If I noticed that a cab driver, bartender, or another gambler had any inclination to talk, I dove right in. While some people were obviously not interested in sharing any details of their lives, I went all 60 Minutes on those that did! I met people from all over the country, as well as from Australia, the UK, El Salvador and Ethiopia. I even ran into a few people from the Bay Area (not super surprising, as Vegas is a $64 Southwest ticket away).
You would be surprised with just a couple of sincere questions what you can find out about a stranger. One cab driver told me that he hates driving visitors to the strip clubs, knowing that every dancer is a someone’s daughter. One of the WSOP poker dealer hopes to start his own personal training business back home in New York in the next year. And a waiter escaped war in Eritrea with his family and found their way to Las Vegas. And all this info was shared in chats of 10 minutes or less!
Which leads me back to Janice. Unlike the short conversations I had with the others listed above (and more), my talk with Janice lasted throughout the entire game (over 2 hours). We covered everything from the upcoming presidential election to life in the military (hers, not mine) and great places to eat in Las Vegas (here’s my recommendation for a place off the Strip).
Over a month later, I still remember that exchange very fondly. It would not have happened if I went to vacation in Yosemite or Joshua Tree. I needed to be around people, not by myself. I’ve done that for far too long already.