Vegas? You bet.
March Madness brings out the big gamblers and a party scene. Here's where to wager and cheer in style.
The true madness that lies within the heart of March Madness, the annual fixation that is the three-week NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, isn’t inside any arena nor in the tens of thousands of offices where otherwise conscientious workers stare at TVs, cheering or despairing over how their brackets are faring.
Ground zero for experiencing the tourney at its rabid, unfettered and frenzied best – especially in the initial rounds when 48 games are played over 96 hours – is Las Vegas. Specifically, in the casino sports books all over town that are each transformed by the event from a surprisingly sedate space into the hedonistic heart of the action.
It’s here, amidst the smell of stale cigar smoke and the howls of utter frustration from thwarted bettors, that the true essence of March Madness – gambling – is experienced in a delirium of sports wagering unfolding on dozens of video screens in huge, communal spaces.
Think the Super Bowl is big? Las Vegas handles more than $200 million in legal bets
during the tournament, more than twice what is wagered on the average football
championship, according to The New York Times.
This year, the peak pandemonium – that first long weekend – happens March 19-22,
with 63 Vegas casino sports books happy to host and separate the unlucky from their cash.
Here are three destinations that are better than even odds to deliver on this rite of spring.
Westsgate Las Vegas Superbook
What’s in a name: Never heard of the biggest sports book in the United States? How about LVH? Still no? How ‘bout, for decades, the Las Vegas Hilton? There you go – this is that property: Westgate is a Florida time-share company run by 79-year old mogul David Siegel who snatched up the hotel complex last July.
The big show: Not only the largest room in Vegas – 30,000 square feet – this is the most important when it comes to betting. That’s because most of the lines for odds on sports betting in the United States – as well as the wildest array of proposition bets – originate here, coming from Superbook Director Jay Kornegay. Beyond that, this admittedly worn venue has the most seats, the most screens and attracts probably the hardest hard-core gambling constituency in Las Vegas.
Nostalgia is what it used to be: The best entry to this monstrous cavern is to drive around the back of the complex to park. Happily, Westgate’s iteration of the Superbook is still guarded outside the glass doors by the bronze statue of “The Mostest Horse,” aka the legendary 1930s racehorse Man O’ War, which speaks to this venue’s equal interest in the ponies as well as sports betting.
Drinks are on them: Unlike the pricing insanity elsewhere, you can get a free drink voucher for as little as a $1 quinella bet on a horse race.
Healthy viewing: Adjacent to the book is a new and fresh-feeling (and well-vented) smoke-free 40-chair room uncreatively christened the Ultimate Fan Cave.
Final score: The closest thing to a guarantee of a good time, even if all your wagers crap out. The big, boisterous betting clientele, fueled with drinks, makes this sports book the undisputed everyman’s experience in town.
Wynn Encore Race & Sports Book
Heaven knows: If you are a sports bettor, this is what you might hope to find beyond the pearly gates. Steve Wynn’s upscale touches elevate the proceedings here. From the design flourishes of light to dark brown paneling, rich, multi-hued carpeting and bright yet discreet lighting, this is easily the classiest betting space on The Strip. Even if the bets are not paying off as the day goes by, the ambience certainly won’t further darken the mood.
But is that a good thing?: As clearly the most attractive sports gambling cathedral in Vegas, the question is whether there is cheering in church? Some books combine nice with noisy. But here it’s hard to picture a fan with Kentucky in a parlay bet, seeing the Wildcats pushed into overtime and letting loose the uncouth scream of frustration this scenario would require.
Pals: A slight drawback to the seating arrangement – each of the 100 cubicles has a 15-inch screen and a comfy leather swivel chair – is if you are doing March Madness with a group. The cloistered cubicles feel like solitary cells, with only betting slips for companionship. As an alternative, a nearby bar, with plenty of screens, has a few couches and chairs to group around small tables.
A sobering experience: What’s the minimum sports bet for a free drink here? $200! One clerk, in a muted tone, indicated that bets over $100 and a polite plea can sometimes score that drink on the house. In any case, sip, don’t guzzle.
Final score: Like cheering a John Wooden UCLA squad or Duke in the ’90s, you’ll feel like a winner but might miss the drama.
Red Rock Casino’s Race & Sports Book
Far from the madding crowd: Few tourists know about this Taj Mahal. One of Station Casinos’ chain of 10 locals-centric spots, it’s a 10.6-mile atmospheric drive off The Strip out West Charleston Boulevard. Just keep eyes on Red Rock Canyon and the mountains on the near horizon, not the endless strip malls you’re passing. Red Rock proves to be an homage to the proposition that viewing can be better for the bettor.
The ultimate view: A jaw-dropping 96-foot video wall dominates this airy, high-ceilinged room. This is anchored by the two largest video panels in town, with each mammoth screen capable of being quartered down to images to present simultaneous multiple games at still epic size. Twenty-three flat panels ring the large, airy book on three sides, plus there are nearly 200 personal small screens in the seating
Itchy-trigger finger: Massive screens during March Madness are only as good as the behind-the-scenes programmer controlling them. A couple of on-site regulars said this place is satisfyingly sensitive to the viewer. Screens change during key momentum shifts and the final seconds in close contests, meaning that when there are heart-pumping upsets in the making, that game suddenly takes over the biggest screen.
Creature comforts: Somehow, Red Rock does it all in a low-key, unsnooty way. This makes it the Goldilocks choice between Westgate and Wynn: In terms of all the creature comforts, it’s just right. Logistics are ideal – the sports book is 50 feet away from doors to the main parking structure while less than 25 feet in the other direction. The Wieners Circle snack bar allows March maniacs to scarf down a between-games gut bomb for $8.99 or less.
Final score: A buzzer-beater environment worth the drive.