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Travel Rollin’ on the River

Shreveport-Bossier’s best casino and hotel offers the most important element of any good trip-a change of pace.
By Daryl Cleveland |

I’d never actually felt a plane swerve before. But then I was headed to a Shreveport casino with a wad of cash in my pocket, so the risk seemed fitting. Terrifying, yes, and even a bit insane, but fitting. With our flight already delayed two hours by a line of violent thunderstorms, our pilots had met us beside the Casino Air Jetstream 3100, hurrying us to our seats. Severe weather still bombarded Shreveport, but the casino-seasoned passengers with me on the plane didn’t seem worried. To them, the flight was only a diversion, an extension of the red carpet leading into the pits. Many of them were regulars who take the 55-minute flight out of Love Field every week. With little luggage, loose pockets, and big dreams, they were ready for the adrenaline rush of easy money.

They had been here before and knew what to expect. I wasn’t as prepared.

The plane bumped and whirred through the turbulent skies, lightning flashing outside the window. The man behind me said to no one in particular, “Thank God I brought my Xanax,” then laughed. I gripped the armrests, white-knuckled, and closed my eyes. This trip had seemed like such a good idea: company cash to spend, the chance to win big money. And now this- imminent disaster with a bunch of professional gamblers who operate on the premise that life is a game.

But in spite of the harrowing beginning, we landed safely at Shreveport Downtown Airport, the Horseshoe Casino’s complimentary shuttle awaiting our arrival. (It doesn’t take long to realize that “complimentary” is a popular word here. Translation: We’re sure you’ll blow enough money once we get you to the tables.)

Shreveport isn’t Las Vegas, and it isn’t Atlantic City. You won’t find much glitz in this city outside of the four casino boats, and you won’t find a bustling urban scene when you’ve finished gambling. But what you will find is the most important element of any good trip: diversion. The feeling that you’ve gone Somewhere Different. Somewhere distinct from the day-to-day predictability of home and job. As my ever-optimistic co-passengers were counting on, the dream of a lifetime just might come true.

The lavish, gold Horseshoe Casino Hotel rises like some shiny Olympic edifice over the Red River, larger than life and completely disproportionate to the surroundings. As in Vegas, bigger is better here, and the Horseshoe wins the prize. Completed in November 1998, the $204 million tower of luxury rooms and suites is connected to the casino by a wide, million-dollar hallway papered floor-to-ceiling with 10,000 hundred-dollar bills. The moneyed wall is dizzying to behold, and the hallway empties into the lower level of the casino like a tunnel opening onto a gambler’s paradise. Craps, roulette, blackjack, and poker tables; slot machines from one end of each vast room to the other; bright lights and recirculated air alive with the sounds of ringing bells, clinking coins, nervous conversation. The sound of money being lost, won, and lost again.

Aimed with my $150 allowance, I jumped right in with the slot machines. I settled in at one on the end of a row, beside an elderly lady with a cigarette dangling from her mouth, then slipped a twenty into the machine. At one dollar per spin, I figured the odds were on my side. Nineteen pulls and seven minutes later, I had not won a thing, until that last pull and… The machine started to ring; a light flashed above me. Coins poured out for what seemed an eternity. Just like that, $180. And the old lady beside me had never even looked up. I had to ask for an extra tray to carry all the coins, tipping the waitress-who knows how much?

for her assistance. This, I understood, was the reason people come to Shreveport to gamble. The anticipation of winning is thrilling, and each turn at the slots, each hand at the blackjack or poker tables holds the possibility of payoff. Each loss is another step toward winning.

Making my way to the cash window, I felt giddy, like I’d won thousands rather than $ 180. Shouldn’t someone be congratulating me? Wasn’t this an event? Nobody even noticed. The cashier was pleasant but obviously unimpressed. She’d seen bigger scores and losses.

With my winnings tucked away, I watched the roomful of gamblers waiting for the big one. That’s when I felt it-the distinct and exciting sense of containable risk. This is what’s so alluring about casino life: the sensation of succumbing to chance, but only as much as you want to. You can always stop when you’re down or ahead or even, but every gambler in the room shares that invigorating powerlessness. The numbers or cards or slots don’t lie, and whether you’re wearing a suit or blue jeans, a cocktail dress or a uniform, you’re a part of the casino’s seductive world of chance.

I took a shot at everything from craps to roulette. I table-hopped, drank free cocktails, and visited all three casino floors. My up-and-down thrills were worth every one of my $150. I could have gambled all night.

But I hadn’t corns just to gamble; I was in search of local culture as well. The casino staff wasn’t helpful about attractions in town (after all, why leave the boat?), so I settled on a $6 cab ride into Shreveport.

In the shadow of the glittering casinos, the city has kept its old-time atmosphere, and there’s a sense that many shops and restaurants are the same today as they were 30 years ago: quaint and simple, even, in some cases, run down, But depending on your attitude, that can be a good thing.

Take Herby K’s, on Pierre Avenue, for example. The restaurant looks like the kind of place where Huey Long might have delivered a burn-’em-down speech 70 years ago. The cramped wooden booths are worn, the walls are adorned with a mix of taxidermy and football memorabilia. Inside, the air is filled with the pungent aroma of fried seafood and cold beer.

Herby K’s is home to a locally famous mystery dish: the Shrimp Buster. The mystery is how the butterflied shrimp are flattened before being fried and piled on a buttered bun. When asked, our waitress said something evasive about 2 x 4s, but she obviously wanted to avoid the subject, and a scan of the kitchen through the open window revealed nothing. The Shrimp Buster is a classic, food that reminds you that no amount of health-consciousness is worth self-denial. Your waitress will be happy to add an extra shrimp to your order (regulars order six shrimp on the Buster), and if you’re in the mood for oysters, she’ll pull the bushel’s tag so you can check the date and find out where they came from. With a Shrimp Buster, a half-dozen oysters, and a thick, frosty mug of Budweiser within reach, you can forget that the Horseshoe’s glitz lies just a few miles away on the dirt-red banks of the river. Here, Shreveport seems a homey place.

A number of historic sites highlight the downtown area, all conspicuously marked. The old Strand Theatre, built in 1925, presents stage performances of Stomp, Grease, and Brigadoon. Bill Cosby had appeared in the elegant and richly decorated theater just a few weeks before my trip.

Oakland Park Cemetery, on the outskirts of downtown, offers a breathtaking and somber tour through Shreveport’s history and legacy, with a number of gravestones dating back to the early 1800s. Spring Street, on the western bank of the river across from the casinos, is packed with bars and dance clubs that stay open late for the post-gambling crowd. And Casa D’Arte, a modem art gallery on Texas Street, offers a good collection of local work in a setting that’s refreshingly urbane.

But whether you’re trekking through downtown Shreveport or reveling in the sheer luxury of the Horseshoe, you can feel the necessary release from work and daily routine. Like Vegas, life in the Horseshoe is non-stop, a 24-hour buzz of dining, drinking, and spending. After a quick rest-stop in my plush suite, furnished with a king-size bed, extra-large bath. L-shaped sofa, and three TVs, I strolled back through the hotel. An immense wall aquarium just past the lobby features an array of glittering fish. Beautiful carpeting, lavish paintings, and sculpture adorn every wall, nook, and comer.

In a world where time doesn’t exist, you don’t fee] guilty about dining late. Around midnight 1 wandered into Jack Binion’s Steak House for the high-roller special: Surf-n-Turf, beginning with a glass of Cabernet and escargots bourguignonne, followed by-French onion soup au gratin. The filet mignon was thick, lender, and expertly seared, a good mix with the buttery Australian lobster tail.

In lieu of dessert, I chose to walk off my meal and visit the casino one last time. Well after midnight, the place was still jumping, vibrant as ever, and I was slightly bothered by the fact that I’d won only $240. My lucky slot had been occupied all night-maybe that’s why my luck dwindled. The rush of expectation and the promise of big winnings kept me at the slots longer than I intended.

Every pull chipped away at my stash. My $240 profit became $ 150, then $75, until I was even. All around me, people were throwing dice, pulling slots. The sharp noise of falling coins and the whisper of chips sliding across velvet tabletops filled the room. I knew it was time to stop.

I wandered back to my suite, happy I hadn’t lost more than I came with, relieved that I hadn’t blown the company’s fourth-quarter profit, and looking forward to a good night’s sleep in the oversized suite.

In the morning, I felt energized, ready to get back home. For a beginner, breaking even is as good as winning. But even if I’d lost, the price would have been worth it-I’d left the heavy routine of work and home and immersed myself in luxury and leisure for two days.

And that didn’t take luck at all.