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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2004/04/27
by David Steinberg

Viva What Exactly?

In 1998 seeing Phish in Vegas was a novelty to me. 2000 was a chance
to see what I missed in the Halloween run. By 2003 I was starting to
wonder what the big deal was. The Vegas experience right now is
based around a bizarre marketing campaign, one where Fear and
Loathing in Las Vegas is presented as a guidebook. Take way too much
drugs, gamble away money you can’t afford, stay in hotels you also
can’t afford – the game might be fun but ultimately it feels like such
a cliche. The casinos sure don’t have a problem with romanticizing
losing large amounts of money, but it projects a bit of a carny
attitude towards the general population. Sometimes I think that the
reason people get so drunk in Vegas is that that’s the only way not to
see through the facade, but then again what kind of reaction do you
expect from a sober person who knows enough math to be able to compute
the odds at the tables?
Vegas really is the libertarian fantasy writ large. You have a large
degree of freedom, and that’s great when you want to engage in vices
that the rest of the country frowns upon. The problem though is that
the freedom you see is too often the freedom to fall victim to scams.
Vegas seems to thrive on people who aren’t quite paying attention.
They invent subtle variations of games that magically have an
increased house advantage. They mix up the high payout slots and the
low ones hoping you don’t notice the difference; there’s no
requirement to say how good the payout on any one machine is.
Looking for a job there? The city’s employers are awfully fond at
finding ways to define you as a private contractor so they don’t have
to pay you for slow times or pay their half of the Social Security
Tax. The economy thrives due to the lack of regulation, but at the
same time unless you’re paying constant attention, it’s easy to find
yourself in a bad situation while the casinos get just a little bit
richer. Oh here, have a free drink!
Are there winners? Yes, of course. For that matter winning is more
fun when you know that you beat back forces of evil. However, when I
think of Vegas, the quote that comes to mind is from the amazing comic
book mini series Proposition Player:
Men and women come into town all the time thinking they’ve got what
it takes to make a living as a professional gambler.
Within a few weeks they lose their stake and end up sleeping in their
cars outside of the flea-trap hotel rooms they can no longer afford to
After a week or so of that, it occurs to them that they can sell their
cars for another small stake, and this time, since they learned from
their previous errors, they know they can beat the game.
But they lose again and now they’re out on the streets turning tricks
and selling blood to get by.
There’s the philosophy that built the spectacles.
These thoughts were inspired by reading Bringing Down the House on my
flight down. The story of the MIT students who successfully con
Vegas out of money is interesting, but it also revealed just how
shallow the Vegas lifestyle is. Most of the money that they made
seemed to just disappear into keeping up the image that a high roller
should have. Much like a sports superstar who ends up retiring with
little money, I read their story wondering how they managed to be so
good at one skill and so bad at actually improving their lives with
While I might have little in common in terms of temperment with the
MIT team, one thing did ring true. The players felt like they were
leading a secret life, one where they were a student and another where
they were a high roller. While everyone at work knows about my
other life – the countdown on the whiteboard announcing how long it is
until my next show is a slight tip off – I’m a completely different
person when I’m headed to a show. My jadedness (as evident in the
first paragraph of this column) quickly melts away and I get excited
over seeing my friends and the band. Moreover, this year would be
different. Rather than staying on the strip and alternating between
loving the flashing lights and being creeped out by the attitude,
this year I would be staying with Mel down in Henderson. I’d be
seeing Las Vegas through the eyes of a local.
Unfortunately, part of seeing the town through the point of view of a
resident is that she had to work. After I landed on Wednesday night,
she swung around to the airport to pick me up but then had to get back
to work. Fortunately, it is rather easy to kill time on Las Vegas
Boulevard. I had some money in my pocket that I was ok about losing
so it was time to hit the slot machines.
At this point I expect to see a bunch of people freaking out over my
choice of gambling. Why play the slots (2-8% house advantage) when
there are much better odds at the tables? The answer is that I had
too much time to kill. Between Wednesday night, Thursday morning,
and Friday morning I had 12 hours to spend at the casinos and
only about $60 to lose. A bad run in blackjack or a cold roller
could take away all of that money in minutes. The only way of being
sure that I would still have money to play with at the end of the
Friday is to play with the glorified video games. While I did end up
losing almost all of my money, I still had a few quarters rattling
around my pocket when it was all over. To play at the tables for any
length of time you need to have a bankroll enough to cover 20 losses
and I don’t think they have too many $1 blackjack tables up on the
Since my strip time was minimized, I got to see the rest of Las Vegas.
For years my entire view of the city was the Strip, the Thomas and
Mack, and whatever views I could see on the drives in. What I got to
see this time was both more depressing ("Win $5000! Cash your
paycheck here!" flashed one billboard outside a Henderson casino) and
fascinating; the view of the Las Vegas Valley coming into town on
I-515 is just stunning. You can see all the way to where the
mountains start and notice how they built houses all the way to where
the hills start getting a little too steep. Above the cutoff line
there’s literally nothing but sand. It’s an amazing view and made
the trip worthwhile just to see it. Fortunately that wouldn’t be all
I would see. Vegas wasn’t just to hang out with Mel and throw money
in the slots. There also were three Phish shows to see.
If there was one lesson the first show pointed out to me, it’s that
the CK5 had the right idea. I thought of Kuroda as a talented
lightman but I didn’t think his absence would make that much of a
difference. That was before I was subjected to the multiple
trainwrecks of 4/15. This wasn’t the minor problems in Hampton that
people loved to whine about. During Down With Disease and Stash,
Phish barely resembled a professional band at all. Sure the jams in
the first half of the second set were good, but almost everything else
was flawed to the point of embarrassment (even my long lost Sneakin’
Sally didn’t quite work right). Throw in the horror that was Girls
Girls Girls and this was probably the second worst show I have ever
seen Phish play. Only 7/17/92 comes to mind as being less enjoyable.
Sure I had fun – how can anyone not have fun at a Phish show – but
this is not a pleasant listen on disc.
I was quite fearful going into the show on Friday. It seemed like a
large part of the problem on the first night was due to the lights.
When the band got lost in a song, they couldn’t rely on light cues to
bring them back to the right place. What would have been minor
mistakes became massive train wrecks. Kuroda wasn’t going to return;
they’d have to recover on their own. I walked in the door expecting
more of the same, what I got was a great show. This was one of those
nights where every song was exactly what I wanted to hear at that
moment, even if I couldn’t have told you that was what I wanted before
they started to play it. I’m not sure who it was who played on tax
day, but on Friday we got Phish. The Twist jam alone was enough to
make the trip worthwhile.
If Saturday were as much better than Friday as Friday was from
Thursday, people would be talking about this show forever. Alas, it
was a step backwards. It started out strongly enough with the Soul
Shakedown>Halley’s>Tweezer combo but they weren’t able to keep that
momentum going for the rest of the set. During the setbreak, I
decided to stay at my seat. I was hanging with Phunky Bitches during
the run and people got mad at us for going to the gathering during the
setbreak on Friday; we nearly lost our seats. It turned out to be
good that I stayed. Otherwise I wouldn’t have really understood the
second set.
During the break, a group of people sidestage Mike side started doing
the Meatstick dance, over and over again. It spread around to our
section and was kind of fun. When the band came on they started it
up again and it worked. Set II opener: Meatstick. That was kind of
cool and we all figured it would end there.
You Enjoy Myself started about an hour later. It became obvious
early on that this wasn’t going to be the usual YEM. While Mike was
doing the usual tramps routine, Trey was doing this weird thing where
he was jumping off his trampoline, jumping to the side, jumping back
on it, stepping on his tramp (after Brad had come back to try to
collect them), while playing a chord to the sound of his step. Then
the real silliness happened.
Trey and Mike took off their instruments and started doing the
Meatstick while Fish and Page played. That was fun enough; the crowd
sang along and it was amusing. They put their instruments back on,
started to play again, but Trey wasn’t finished. All throughout the
jam he stopped playing and started doing these insane variations of
the ‘stick.
The jam progressed towards the vocal jam, but I guess they figured
they did that back on Thursday (and they seemed pretty allergic to
finishing songs on this run anyway). Rather than the usual ending,
they segued into the Tweprise. Trey kept singing, "It’s time for the
meatstick," all throughout the build up. Finally it came time for the
real lyrics, Mike got ready to sing along, Trey approached the mic and
asked us the musical question, "Won’t you step into the meatstick?"
The people who started the chant and dance might have hoped for the
opener but they succeeded far beyond that.
As much fun as seeing those antics was unfortunately it doesn’t hold
up on further listenings. You can clearly hear the crowd sing the
Meatstick chant on the Live Phish recordings, but it’s not obvious why
they were. Alas, this show – like this run – was a hit or miss
affair. I got too spoiled in 2003 where I loved nearly every show,
but I can’t expect every show to be a best ever. Some nights the
magic just isn’t there, but that’s why there’s other tours. With
any luck the summer shows will erase the mediocre moments in Las
Vegas. In the mean time I’ll just sit here and count my losses.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New
Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live
music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His
Phish stats website is at
He is the stats section editor for
The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at

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