Basketball on CourtForget the Groundhog and its sham prognostications and let’s look at the real indication of spring’s proximity: the NCAA Tournament, March Madness, The Big Dance.

Now most people recognize March Madness as the quintessential cairn of spring’s presence, and with the brackets so easy to understand and bet on — whom among us has never participated in an office pool? It’s here on the storied brackets that even the most uneducated can use their proprietary picking method that can range from team colors to mascots to prettiness of school name (I kid you not). I temper my judgment on any these approaches based on the fact that on more than one occasion the seemingly random picker has schooled me in a big way. But, for those of you who take this as serious as I do, there is only one thing to do during March Madness: get thee to Las Vegas.

If you’ve never been to a Las Vegas sports book during the NFL regular season, the Super Bowl, the World Series, NHL Finals, World Cup, or any of the truly dramatic sporting events, then I highly encourage you to do so. Watching sports is one thing, but waging a little money on any game adds a dynamic that I can only describe as energizing.

Okay, I’ve convinced you to hit the Nevada desert, so now what? Well, funny you should ask because I’m going to tell you exactly what to do and where to go.

Fly into Vegas Wednesday night the day preceding the Tournament First Round/Second Rounds and go out and see the sites because when the First and Second Rounds start you will have little time to ride the Stratosphere roller coaster. Get your whalebone, slots, and any shows out of the way so you can focus on the avalanche of basketball coming at you.

As I’ve written in my previous Las Vegas post, hotels matter very little to me in terms of luxury and amenities (well, to be fair let’s just say that wherever I travel, I do my best to stay in a Four Seasons) but I proclaim it’s the location that is critical. You’ll be out and about for most of your stay so as long as the hotel has a decent room with a comfortable bed and related basics — that should be all you need. Don’t waste your money on an expensive room; save your bucks for the sports book.

Okay, so we agree to stay somewhere mid-strip, and if you do plan on spending some time at the pool and utilizing restaurants, then I recommend Bellagio, Paris, Venetian, Treasure Island, Wynn, Palazzo, Caesar’s, or the Mirage. Treasure Island and the Mirage offer the best value and if money is no object to you and your deep pockets then Wynn, Palazzo, Bellagio, and the Venetian are for you.

I’m warning you ahead of time, if you’ve never been to a sports book on a college Saturday or a NFL Sunday, then you’ll find it hard to believe when I tell you that once you’ve placed your bets and the games start you’ll find it very difficult to leave the book for any reason (including the bathroom). The drinks start flowing, any single play can make or break you, people are cheering, and time dissipates into a forgotten concept and the next thing you know it’s twelve hours later and you’re trying to decide whether you can dash to a restaurant for dinner before the Sunday night game kicks off. It’s a constant high and you’ll be captivated, emotionally battered, drunk, sober, happy, pissed, rich, poor, and after it all, you’ll want more (kinda like a fat kid and know he should stop but he won’t).

In short, it’s exciting and fun, and you’ll never look at sports the same again.

Ok. You bought your plane tickets, domiciled in a mid-strip hotel, so the next big question is where to spend the next three or four days. Well, I’m here to help you make that decision. You can spend Wednesday night scouting sports books or you can take my hard-earned advice. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time in these books and these are my favorites and the reasons why.

#1: Venetian

This may come as a surprise to most people but my favorite place to spend 15 hours a day is the reasonably-sized sports book at the Venetian. It’s not the biggest; it doesn’t have the most action or the biggest TVs, or some of the amenities you think you need (trust me you don’t). We’re here to gamble and watch the games and this is my favorite spot for many reasons (objective and subjective).

The Venetian sports book is on the far end of the casino and the viewing area is in four sections. The left-facing and right-facing wings are for sports patrons, as is the middle-front section. The middle back is for those wagering the ponies, but I suspect you can plant yourself there with little resistance if you wager a little on both. I like the wing seats as they are close to the flat screen, high-definition TVs. From this vantage point, you can actually see five or six games without breaking out a Hubble Telescope to see Terrell Owens drop yet another easy pass. The chairs are comfortable, rounded back, upholstered seats. If you don’t score these limited chairs, then the remaining seats are your standard padded metal frames — but they aren’t too bad either.

Be aware, and this goes for all sports books, you must arrive early and stake out your seats and, please, don’t send one guy down five hours ahead of time to save seven seats. It won’t work and it’s highly irritating to everyone in the place. After ten minutes people will just start sitting in your saved seats and there’s nothing you can do about it. A lot of people are in and out. So even if you oversleep or realize that after several wasted hours that the woman you think is Celine Dion is really just a man dressed like the Canadian uber vocalist and that you aren’t really her next back-up singer, all is not lost because seats will become available, but sitting as a group is probably out of the question.

The Venetian is small, intimate, and the TVs are accessible, plentiful, and the action fairly good. The drinks situation isn’t what it used to be but if you’re nice and promise to lose more than you win you’ll have no problem getting extra coupons when you’re at the window. I don’t know who thought this was a good idea but just about every book I’ve been to now requires you to provide a coupon for drinks while in the sports book. Some just make you pay. You’re supposed to get roughly one ticket per hundred you wager, but I was given two or three for even smaller four or five $10 parlays. I’m guessing you can thank the students at UNLV for this change. I was there one weekend a few years ago and watched college students put down a few $10 bets and drink for hours. After they were all liquored up they left to go party. They probably drank $100 worth of Corona each and then bailed.

In terms of lodging, the Venetian has nice rooms and if you have a group of four you can get a two queen bed suite for around $300/night on weekends. And that’s in a 720 sq/ft room (“suite” as they call it). The suites have two flat screen TVs so if you do decide to leave the sports book you can watch a couple of games in the comfort of your room. The Venetian has a great variety of restaurants, clubs, cafes, and other attractions that should cover your every need. The attached sister property, Palazzo, is a little more expensive but very nice. It does have a sports book but it’s in a modern NYC club-like room that has several levels and certain patrons are placed in nice VIP sections. This whole arrangement makes watching a lot of different games difficult. The Palazzo has limited places outside and, if it’s a nice day, it wouldn’t be too bad to partake, but this is, in my opinion, not a place for the hardcore bettor. If you need to smoke a “look-at-me” cigar and drink small batch bourbon so that everyone can appreciate your good taste then by all means make your way over to the Palazzo. However, for me it’s too modern and it seems too much like you’re sitting in your weird neighbor’s home basement football emporium. Plus — and this is the real deal breaker — it’s a good hike across an untold length of fine imported marble to get to the Venetian sports books. In fact, the Palazzo sports wagering area may technically be closer to the Wynn sports book. On the upside, you’re very close to gelato here (I think you get my drift).

#2: Bellagio

Most people choose Caesar’s as their top pick or at least their number two. Not me. It’s too big, the TVs washed out, too many people, and, in general, not how I like to spend my time. If you like those obstacles, then participate in the mayhem, and you’ll be rewarded with a lot of cheering and good camaraderie and a direct line of sight (a little squinting may be involved) to see the Pussycat Dolls dancers who strut their stuff between gaming tables a couple of hundred yards away.

My number two is an easy choice: Bellagio. The hotel embodies a sense of class that brings in a higher level of clientele and the people watching here is fabulous. By contrast, walk over to Harrah’s and you’ll immediately know/sense/feel what I mean. The sports book is larger than the Venetian but its layout doesn’t put you as close to the TVs as I like. The seats are excellent and if you have to spend 15 hours somewhere this is not a bad place to do it. The sports book offers decent choices and the big board is legible and comprehensive. The amenities cost you a little more but it always seems worth it at the Bellagio. It has great restaurants and, as I reviewed in the last Las Vegas post, the Bellagio Buffet is excellent. Get there early as the dinner line can get crazy long.

#3: Mirage

The Mirage occupies my number three spot. My last Vegas trip was based here and, although most of my time was spent at the Venetian sports book, I found this a pleasant home away from home. The sports book is large like Bellagio’s but it isn’t as updated or sophisticated as the Venetian or the Bellagio. However, it does the basics well and, although the TV’s aren’t as plentiful or as clear as the others, it does have a great location and the proximity to the Carnegie Deli or BLT’s burger outpost makes it even better. At Carnegie, go with the Pastrami on rye (shocker) and the burgers at BLT are worth it (and so is the Buffalo Chicken sandwich).

#4: Wynn

I wanted to love the Wynn sports book, and expected way more than what it is. Located on the left as you walk through the Wynn casino, resides the sports book, which is much smaller than you would guess. As you enter for the first time, it’s hard to tell if you accidentally entered the deli that abuts it or if this is where you’re supposed to be. To your right are a plethora of cubicles for the track bettors and then after you make your way forward you finally get to the sports book seating. They are nice-looking seats with rounded backs and faux leather that’s aesthetically pleasing but much too hard for my liking. It’s always very difficult to find a seat and, when you do, you may need to step over six or seven people to get situated. The drink service was surprisingly slow and not really that impressive once delivered (stick with beer). The TVs are nice and plentiful but if you get stuck with the less-than-desirable seats, you may be so close that you have to crane your neck at a very uncomfortable angle to see any action. However, it does have nice ambiance and, even though getting to the wagering window involves working your way through the crowd, it’s fairly expeditious and the gaming solid. The deli is extremely close so you can order food and not miss a lot of the game.

#5: MGM

It’s not mid-strip, but the MGM sports book is solid as well. The seats are comfortable and TVs are everywhere (although a little far and most awkwardly placed over the wagering counter). It’s framed by elevated VIP areas for those that like to look down on the little people. MGM has all the bells and whistles and there are plenty of restaurants, bars, and sports action to sate most players. Again, I prefer mid-strip so I can move in and out of sports books if I desire, but the MGM is an excellent choice if you plan on staying in one place for the duration.

There are you have it: my top-five Vegas sports books. Drinks are no longer free at any of the Vegas sports books that I’ve wagered at lately. But most places offer coupons for drinks that you provide to the waitress as she makes her way around the room. The Venetian is the most generous and has the most reliable service. Drink in moderation because it’ll be a long day and sometimes night. If you have to eat and don’t want to concede your seat, place a few personal belongings on it and ask someone trustworthy to save it while you leave for a few minutes. Most people are happy to help but you inevitably get some guy who plops himself in your seat “until you get back.” Annoying, and you know who you are.

Order something quick from the adjacent restaurants or delis or take a break and hit one of the great buffets. The Wynn Buffet is best followed by Bellagio and Paris.

Image credit: emyerson / iStockphoto