The city of Las Vegas hosts more than 21,000 conferences a year, gatherings that collectively draw 6.3 million delegates from around the world to gamble, drink, and frolic between program sessions.
Hosting a convention in Las Vegas is a win-win for organizers and city officials alike. The organization gets to dangle the venial delights of the city as an incentive to attend. The city gets gaming revenue, because the odds are always stacked in a casino’s favor and humans are rubes. It’s like George Clooney said to Brad Pitt in Ocean’s Eleven: “The house takes you. Unless, when that perfect hand comes along, you bet big—then you take the house.”
Or, unless you’re a physicist.
The American Physical Society, which represents more than 55,000 physicists, last held an annual meeting in Las Vegas in 1986. It has never returned because—according to society legend, anyway—the event was such a bad financial deal for the venue that the city barred it from hosting future conferences there.
Vegas was a last-minute choice for the professional society, after its original arrangements at a venue in San Diego, California, fell through. Organizers found a good deal in Vegas, and in April 1986, some 4,000 physics researchers and students descended on the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino. (The site is now Bally’s Hotel; the MGM moved to its current location in 1993.)
Physicists, apparently, view gambling odds a little differently than the general public does. APS conference goers eschewed the casino tables, instead spending the time immersed in physics talk or (in the case of broke graduate-student attendees) availing themselves of the hotel’s discount buffet.
“All the physicists were much more interested in discussing their work than in anything else the hotel had to offer, and I remember the disconsolate faces of the girls hanging around at night, expecting to take drink orders, while small groups of physicists at the tables were deep in conversation, with pencils and paper,” says Judith Ashcroft, whose husband, Neil Ashcroft, in 1986 was the chair of the society’s Division of Condensed Matter Physics.
The casino’s take that weekend was so low that the group was allegedly asked never to return to the MGM Grand, or to the city of Las Vegas—or so says the legend the APS has repeated for the last 32 years. The most effective way to take the house, it seems, is to simply refuse to play its games.
But are physicists still banned from Sin City—if indeed they ever were? Exactly 31 people are banned from Nevada casinos for cheating. None are known members of the APS.
Jeremy Handel, senior director of communications for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, said he was unaware of any ban on the APS, or any other professional group wishing to hold a convention in Las Vegas. The physicists are welcome back any time. The odds are no better, but the buffets are still good.