03/11/2010 1:00AM

Vegas the place to be for the NCAA tournament

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LAS VEGAS - In 1998, ESPN the Magazine ran an article entitled "99 Things Every Sports Fan Should Do Before They Die," and attending Caesars Palace for March Madness was No. 5 on the bucket list.

That article was right around the time when Vegas really started marketing itself as the place to be if you couldn't go to the biggest sports extravaganzas such as the Super Bowl, March Madness, and Kentucky Derby, and the article helped feed the frenzy.

Since then, the race and sports books on the Strip have become overcrowded for these events, and you either need to have juice to get a seat or stake your claim at 3 a.m. or you'll be SRO: standing room only. Oh, don't get me wrong, it's still a very exciting atmosphere, and there's nothing like being in a Vegas sports book when two or three games are coming down to the final seconds, especially if the point spreads or totals are in doubt. Some places will hold VIP parties, but if you're reading this and don't have an invitation in hand, you're probably out of luck.

If that ESPN article were rewritten today, the mecca would have to be the Las Vegas Hilton, which not only has its spacious SuperBook with plenty of space in the back by the bar and slot-machine area for the overflow crowd, but also opens its 1,400-seat theater - which is where Elvis played - to the public with every game shown on big screens. Admission is free, and the Hilton has food and drink specials.

The Orleans and the South Point also open their ballrooms for free viewing parties. For those coming to town next week, my last piece of advice on picking a place to watch the games would be to pick up the daily newspaper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, in the days before the tourney to see if any other property is adding public parties in its showrooms or ballrooms.

More March Madness musings

In-game wagering is the latest trend in Las Vegas sports books. This is when the book posts an adjusted point spread or total at commercial breaks as the game is in progress, similar to re-betting a game at halftime, except there are many more opportunities to jump in after you've seen how the two teams are playing. This option is offered at the M Resort and the Venetian on the Strip with the use of hand-held devices so you can quickly place wagers from your seat (or anywhere else in the casino).

* Lucky's is offering a $100,000 parlay card if you go 15 for 15 against the spread in the opening-round games next Thursday and Friday at its 13 sports books in the state. The card will be available starting Tuesday, with lines on all 32 games. The card costs $5 per try.

The M Resort has a $10 card with a $50,000 prize, though you must pick all 32 first-round games straight up.

* Lucky's also is in the contest game with the $6,000 College Basketball Bailout Contest. It costs $10 and if you buy three entries you get a fourth free. Players pick every NCAA tournament game against the spread, meaning you have to go in every day of the tourney (which is what all of these contests require because the goal is to get you to their properties). All entry fees are returned as prize money, with $3,000 for first, $1,500 for second, and $500 for third. There also is a $1,000 prize for the leader at the end of the opening weekend.

* The Leroy's Race & Sports Book network is using its "Three N Out" format for its NCAA contest. The entry fee is $25, with a maximum of five per person. Players make one selection per entry each day against the spread and an entry isn't eliminated until it has three losses. The prize is winner-take-all, though it will be distributed among all contestants who make if through the entire tournament (11 contest days). The deadline to enter this contest is 5 p.m. Wednesday.

* Station Casinos is going with a straight survivor format, using its Last Man Standing rules. The entry fee is $25; buy four and get one free. One loss and you're out. The prize pool is guaranteed at $25,000, though last year it topped $40,000.

* Howard Schwartz of the Gambler's Book Shop (at its new location of 1550 E. Tropicana Ave., Suite No. 4) called to say it would have the "Blue Ribbon College Tournament Guide," edited by Chris Dortch, available in the store on Tuesday afternoon. The Blue Ribbon magazines, which also cover college football, are among the most comprehensive publications, and are very popular with Las Vegas wise guys, even though they don't talk about point spreads. For those outside Vegas, the issue is available via overnight shipping at blueribbonyearbookonline.com. Obviously, it has a short shelf life.

Quick note on Rachel vs. Zenyatta

A number of books here in Las Vegas have posted a head-to-head matchup on Rachel Alexandra vs. Zenyatta, regardless of where or when they meet (the prop doesn't specify the April 9 Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park). The Wynn was the first book to post this after Rachel Alexandra won the Eclipse Award, and it had it Rachel Alexandra -150 (odds of 2-3) with Zenyatta at +130 (odds of 6.5-5). Money came in early on Zenyatta, and the line was adjusted even lower when Oaklawn became the likely venue. It is now Rachel -125, with Zenyatta at +105, which are the same odds at Lucky's. The reigning Horse of the Year, Rachel Alexandra has been as low as -110 (with Zenyatta also -110) at the MGM Mirage properties.

* Coming Wednesday, Tuley's NCAA bracket and a look at the opening lines and updated odds to win the tournament.