As the start of the NFL season crept closer and closer, I knew that I had to make a trip to Las Vegas to sign up for the Westgate and Circa NFL contests. I booked a one-way flight for Sunday, 9/6, with no return booked and a check out date of Wednesday, 9/9. Having never purchased just a one-way ticket before gave me anxiety, but I was also excited.

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Most major airlines charge double the usual fare when making last-minute bookings, but then I remembered signing up for a newsletter from Jet Suite X (JSX), a public company that utilizes private jets to fly short distances around the west coast from specific airports.

Since I live at the north end of San Diego, driving to John Wayne Airport in Orange County takes the same amount of time as getting to San Diego International Airport, and the price was less than half the cost of what major airlines were offering.

For the services that I received, I would happily pay a little bit more and continue flying to Las Vegas with JSX. No long wait lines, no TSA searches, plenty of legroom, and private jet-like services, and if you’ve ever flown into the Las Vegas airport, then you know that the experience is less than fantastic.

As our luggage was pulled from the plane, our flight attendant instructed us to order our Uber/Lyft. We walked down the stairs to find both our rides and our luggage waiting for us in front of the MGM Grand, rather than at the public terminals.

My “private” jet to Las Vegas (Credit: Sean Alvarez)

As a horseplayer, staying at the Westgate is terrific. Waiting for me down in the casino’s famed SuperBook was Opening Day at Kentucky Downs and Closing Day at both Saratoga and Del Mar. The book filled considerably due to the playoff hockey and basketball games that day, but I still found an empty table in the back.

Since I was only betting on Del Mar at this point, I walked up to get a better view whenever each race was about to go off, and I noticed that a family was doing the same thing. After the second race came to a close, I asked if they had the winner. As it turns out, the Wantas (their last name) are Las Vegas locals who own horses and compete on the Southern California circuit, so we had plenty to talk about.

As the Del Mar card continued, we exchanged stories and handicapping angles for upcoming races, and though I was in a completely different state, I felt like I was right at home with friends. I thought it was great that my strongest lean (on Three Ay Em in the finale) was a winner because here I was in Las Vegas, watching and betting on the race, while this city’s own Alydom Racing was in MY home town, watching the horse that they owned cross a surefire victor.

Three Ay Em after winning the 11th race at Del Mar, as seen from the Westgate SuperBook (Credit: Sean Alvarez)

By the time that Tuesday rolled around, I’d already placed my SuperContest NFL entries with KIV Proxy Service, but I still needed to sign up for the Circa contest, so I made my way to the downtown strip known as Fremont Street.

I met up with Joe from Sports Gambling Daily that Tuesday evening as a group of people joined him, and almost immediately, I knew that I wanted to hang out with them. A Canadian named Dylan was perhaps the sharpest, not because of his opinions but because of how he talked through his bets. He waited for the right spots and talked through his opinions for a good half-hour, and though he had solid opinions, he treated them exactly that way – as opinions.

After our first five conversations, his opinions had gone 5-for-5, but he hadn’t placed them because he didn’t feel confident. Though he continued to have correct opinions, he never placed a wager unless he felt sure about it, even up to the day that I finally left. I will always respect him for sticking to his guns and never going “tilt.”

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The people I met at The D made it a very easy decision to not only extend my stay in Vegas, but to move to that hotel on 9/9. Within an hour of checking in and meeting up with Joe in the sports book, our table was filled with John from Florida, Dylan from Canada, and a local named Nick. I found myself surrounded by sharp bettors who turned out to be some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.

Vegas has always been somewhat of a scary city to me. I’m not a nightclub or a party guy, and (human) sports betting was never my thing growing up, so I always figured that Las Vegas was not my type of city. However, that changed after I finished tenth in Westgate’s ‘Reboot NFL Contest’ last year and began following shows dedicated to sports betting, particularly the Vegas Stats and Information Network (VSiN).

While enjoying my evening and learning about sports bettin, I was stunned to see Derek Stevens (who owns The D, the Golden Gate, and the Circa) and Jeffrey Benson doing a live recording for their VSiN show! I was in heaven; I was sitting just feet away from these sharp and well-respected guys.

Derek Stevens and Jeffrey Benson on VSiN (Credit: Sean Alvarez)

I ran into friendly faces in the book each day that week, from Joe and John going over plays with their online group, to every Circa Sports staff member who greeted me by name and made me feel like I belonged.

When the NFL’s Thursday night season opener rolled around, the book was filled to “social distance” capacity, and the entire night just felt like a group of friends watching together. I was essentially alone in Las Vegas, high-fiving complete strangers, and trying to calculate how we could all cash our bets while on different sides.

At one point in the evening, Mike Palm (Derek’s right hand man) had us rooting for goals in an MLS game that ended 7-1; every score resulted in yells of excitement. This kind of friendship with complete strangers is something I haven’t felt in any other sports book.

Bill Krackomberger and Sean Alvarez (Credit: Sean Alvarez)

One of the things that I enjoy the most about “Horse Racing Twitter” is how many great people I’ve met, and “Sports Betting Twitter” proved no different.

I saw Bill Krackomberger, from the Showtime docu-series “Action,” placing a few bets, so I approached him and mentioned that I was a fan of the show, follow him on Twitter, and would appreciate a picture if he had a minute. I knew that he was busy, but within two minutes, he joined our table and could not have been a nicer person.

Through KIV, I met and bounced ideas/strategies off of Rich Velez, a former NFL Contest winner at The Golden Nugget. Dave Sharipan and Howard Barish from the GT Cash Consideration podcast found out that I was in town and came by to hang out for a bit, too.

Here I was, a stranger in their community/industry, yet each and every person treated me as if I was part of their inner circle.

Sean Alvarez, Joe, Dave Sharipan, and Howard Barish (Credit: Sean Alvarez)

As Sunday approached, I was feared how the atmosphere might change with a bulk of the NFL games underway and passionate fans disrupting the Thursday night communal atmospher, but boy, was I wrong.

Each table had groups wearing different team’s jerseys, but it always felt like the room’s collective main goal was to have fun. Before kickoff, our table created a friendly contest picking which team would score first in each game, and within minutes, other tables tried getting in on the fun.

A guy in a Jets jersey took the Bills, and when ee tried to tell him that the Bills were playing the Jets, his reply was, “Yeah, the Jets suck!” A guy behind us sang “Fly Eagles Fly” periodically; another wore a Raiders blazer; yet each cheered and rooted for the other’s favorite teams at the same time.

Derek Stevens, Jeffrey Benson, Sean Alvarez, and Mike Palm (Credit: Sean Alvarez)

As my trip finally came to a close, all I could think about was when to return. Las Vegas can be exhausting if you’re always trying to get to the next plan, but this was the kind of trip that I could enjoy every day of the week. I never felt the need to venture out; I was there for sports betting and to meet great people, and I accomplished both goals.

When traveling alone in a town like Las Vegas, you can feel just that: alone. I found that there was always someone within the group who was willing to go over their plays or opinions, and there were countless strangers who were awesome to speak with during our short encounters.

It’s easy to say that it was a good trip because I had an awesome time, but I’m grateful for the people who I met on this trip.

They not only opened my eyes to a new world, they also accepted me into it.

Sean Alvarez is a regular on the horseplayer tournament circuit. Follow him on Twitter @smoothturn2.