01/23/2008 7:04PM

Vegas, Reinvented Again


LAS VEGAS --As more and more Americans don't have to stray far from home to drop their money into slot machines, Las Vegas keeps reinventing itself to encourge them to continue getting on airplanes to fly here.

There was the brief flirtation with becoming a "family destination" in the 1990's, a concept abandoned when it became clear that families with children both annoyed the other patrons and failed to spend Vegas-sized money.

Then came the resurrection of the Sin City pitch, where what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas and visitors are encouraged to don wigs and fake names in search of random hookups.

More recently there's been a sideways expansion into nightclub-laden, hipster-friendly resorts away from the glittery Strip, the best example of which is the Red Rock, the palatial new home of the National Handicapping Championship, which begins here Friday morning.

The Red Rock, 11 miles west of the Strip and a $42 cab ride from the airport, was the most expensive off-Strip Vegas property every built when it opened two years at a cost of $925 million -- an astounding sum for a 450-room property (since expanded to 850.) It's the new flagship (and corporate headquarters) of the Station casino group, which began as a chain of bingo halls and was once known for its budget-minded casinos catering to locals. The Red Rock is a violent departure from all that, a swank yet consciously ironic retro take on 1960's Space Age modernism. The overall feel is one part desert resort and one part futuristic casino. The colors are muted earthtones, and the slots volume is turned down lower than the onmipresent trancey lounge music.

The NHC tournament players, who will arrive tomorrow, will find themselves in slightly nicer rooms than in the past and will appreciate the well-wired built-in workstation desks in the rooms for staying up and poring over pp's at night. The racebook, where the tourney will be held, is spacious with massive walls of projection screens. And it's right next to the 25-table poker room, the 16-screen first-run movie theatre and the 72-lane bowling alley.

The idea is that you never have to leave the property, and that's a good idea. Step outside and you feel like you're at a lonely shopping mall in Phoenix rather than in Vegas, where once upon a time the whole idea was to hit the sidewalks and the strip and cruise from one neon joint to the next. Now you might as well have flown to Dubai City or some other fabulous, self-contained 21st Century metropolis that looks like where people might vacation in a science-fiction movie. It's pretty cool, but it sure ain't your father's Las Vegas any more.