Friday, January 31, 2014

The Ins and Outs of the Cosmopolitan

Hey, turns out if you take head west on Harmon Ave. and cross Las Vegas Blvd., it will take you directly to the parking and valet entrance for the Cosmopolitan. When you leave, turn right onto West Harmon, turn left when you get to Polaris, and you'll come out on Tropicana, just west of your choice of I-15 or Dean Martin. Avoid that nasty Strip traffic altogether!

Anyway, on our last visit we decided to splurge on a $40 upgrade to a room with a north-facing private terrace, based on the guidebooks' recommendation that it was the best view of the Bellagio fountain show. And what a room! Two beds facing a gigantic flat-screen TV, a sitting room with a sofa and chairs and a desk with a slightly smaller flat-screen TV, the private terrace with a chair and ottoman overlooking the pool and the Bellagio fountain, a kitchen with a microwave and a dishwasher (you heard me) and a refrigerator (don't touch any of the mini-bar items or you'll trigger the weight-sensitive sensor and get billed for that bottle of champagne). They gave you a cloth laundry bag emblazoned with Mark Twain's slogan, "Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society." The bathroom had a tub and a big shower with a marble bench for sitting down and, uh, whatever, and a big picture window looking out over the bedroom or vice versa. Okay, if that last seemed a bit awkward, it had blinds you could draw over the scene. (At the Princeville Resort on Kaua'i, the same window has a switch you can flick to turn it opaque. Now that's cool.) The bathroom sink had a little stainless steel container holding cotton balls and cotton swabs in addition to the usual bath and shower amenities. Even the spare roll of toilet paper came in a cotton draw-sack. Now, that's class.

If you don't upgrade to a terrace room...well, you get very little of that stuff. You will get a very nice good-sized room with comfy beds which will likely have a spectacular view and overlook the pool. You get one decent-sized flat-screen TV. There's no kitchen; there's not even a microwave or a coffee maker. There's the fridge for the mini-bar, and the staff will volunteer to empty it if you want to be able to use it as your refrigerator without worrying about nudging a bottle of champagne and having it billed to your room. The extra roll of t.p. still comes in a draw-sack, and you might still want to draw those blinds. Also, all the Cosmo's rooms are non-smoking, so if there are any smokers in your party, they might really miss that terrace.

So is it worth $40 to upgrade to a terrace room? Hell, yeah! If you can get a good deal on a room at the Cosmopolitan (like, only being charged the $25 a day resort fee) for just one or two nights, you should treat yourself to the experience at least once. Careful, though; you might get addicted to it.

Heads Up: By default the Cosmopolitan will put a hold on your credit card for $150 each night against expenses that might be charged to the room, so be sure you have that kind of funds available.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Best $5 Haircut in Vegas?

On a recent trip, when we were scouting for a laundromat not too far from the strip, not only did we find one on East Charleston, but I spotted this little shop just east of Charleston & 15th advertising $5 haircuts. Although the idea of me finally getting a haircut was meeting some resistance in some quarters, it became something of a necessity today. So, is this the best $5 haircut in Vegas? Until I hear from any other contenders, I'll let the results speak for themselves.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Off-Strip: The Clarion

I won't lie: We went to The Clarion (305 Convention Center, just off the strip, like it says on the sign) because we had a coupon for two free drinks in the American Casino Guide. But I really like this little place. In honor of the New Year, $20.14 will buy you all you can drink; and they offer free coffee and saltines to help you sober up before you hit the road. There's a "24-hour" food court," i.e. vending machines and tables and chairs. It's part of the Gambler's Bonus network (also available at local convenience stores, drugstores, supermarkets, and other fine places where pulls on slots are sold), which earns you cash back on the video poker machines along the bar. By the way, I found them pretty loose for video poker machines at a bar.

But it's the history of the place and its remnants that are still viewable on-site that really fascinate me. At one point, back in the days when I would go to the nearby Convention Center for COMDEX, this was home to the Debbie Reynolds Hollywood Museum. Big framed photos of classic movie stars still adorn some of the walls, and her "D" monogram is still on the doors that led to the spa during her residence here. Her showroom is still there too and hosts several rotating shows. A bit later it was the Greek Isles (the Cashier sign is noticeably unchanged since), and Buddy Hackett's son Sandy ran a comedy club there. According to Ken, our bartender, it was also briefly the WWF Casino Hotel, until Vince got way overextended. It was almost Larry Flynt's Hustler Hotel. Some of the old-timers remember Larry wheeling his chair through checking out the property; he wanted to get into the resort business in Vegas and the Clarion had its resort hotel license, but he lost interest when he learned of certain anti-nudity clauses. As a practitioner of what I like to call "casino archaeology," this place is a gold mine. Anyway, after all I've recounted: Why wouldn't you head out to check it out?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Happy Hour at the Westin

Last night we visited the Westin, on Flamingo just East of the Strip. Its cozy but full-featured casino, the Max Casino (formerly the Westin Casuarina), features slots, video poker, blackjack, craps and roulette. The last two are of special interest because, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., the Westin has "happy hour" prices on their tables: $3 craps and 25-cent roulette. That last deal is a bargain for the budget-minded gambler, because with 25-cent chips and a minimum $1 total bet per spin, your money could last a long time. You can also get a lot of free drinks, although, as Brian observed, your cocktail waitress may start coming around less frequently once she figures out you were tipping her with quarter chips. With any luck, by the time happy hour is over in two hours, some cool Scottish chicks will have sat down at the table.

In any case, if you limit your bets to three double streets and a split bet, you could conceivably even make a few bucks in that time. ("Double streets" would be placing bets on, say, 0/00 through 3, 25 through 30, and what I call the "7/10 split," or 7 through 12. A split bet would be one chip across two numbers, say 13/14 or 19/20. Try it and see what happens.)(I read a book once.)

Of course, the El Cortez has 25-cent roulette all the time, another reason we love the El Cortez.

Bonus Possible Future Collectible Alert: Our source at the Max Casino informs us their lease is up in three years, so another name change is to be expected. Then again, she may have just said that to persuade me to hold on to this highly collectible Max Casino Grand Opening chip from, uh, November.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Making Money with Free Slot Play

Casino visitors must love slots almost as much as casino owners do, because they're everywhere. Once a side feature to occupy bored housewives while their husbands played real games like craps and such manly pursuits, they've taken over most if not all of the floor space in casinos as game designers add more and more bells and whistles and themes and bonus rounds because casinos woke up to one basic fact: You can program a random number generator to give you back any percentage of the money pumped into the machine that you want.

My poker buddy and I believe slots are good for one thing and one thing only: Free slot play. Fortunately, it's not hard to come by. When you sign up for your player's card at a new casino, many of them will offer you five or ten bucks of free slot play for signing up. Some will offer you free slot play as a bonus when you stay at their hotel on a special package. The American Casino Guide is full of coupons for free slot play. Harrahs even had a couple in costumes offering you free slot play if you'd take your picture with them.

Once you've been awarded the free play, using it often works something like this:
  • Put your player's card in the machine and wait for it to acknowledge you.
  • Press the ENTER button on the machine's keypad.
  • Enter your pin number (selected at the player's club desk).
  • Select PROMO.
  • The machine will tell you how much you have to play. If it's $10.00 and you want to play all of it, just key in 10.
  • The free play will be loaded to the machine and you're ready to go.
My friend Steps and I developed an easy system to make sure once the free play is used up we don't end up giving the machine back any real money that we won: Every time you get paid on a spin, hit the CASHOUT button. The machine will print out a cashout ticket with the amount of your win on it. The rest of your promotional play will stay in the machine because those promotional credits cannot be cashed out. Once you've printed out all your wins and your credit on the machine shows 0, you're done.

My poker buddy Brian has refined this method: Once you've collected all your payout tickets, feed them all back into the machine, then hit CASHOUT again and it will print out a ticket with your total winnings. This saves time when you take your ticket to the redemption kiosk that gives you cash in exchange for your tickets; especially the machines at Caesars Entertainment properties that only redeem one ticket at a time and take their while doing it. (Most other kiosks allow you to put in multiple tickets and cash them all in at once.) If there's an idle machine next to you, you can actually feed each ticket from your machine into that one as you collect them, saving even more time.

At some casinos, you'll get a variation called "Bonus Play" instead of "free play." In these situations, once your bonus play has been installed on the machine, you have to put at least a dollar in the machine and make your first bet; every time you make a bet on the machine, the amount of your last bet will be restored to your credit balance from your Bonus Play balance. Usually the machine will keep a running balance of how much Bonus Play you have left; once it's down to 0, all that money that's left in that machine is yours.

Some places will match your play with "free" play if you put something like $10 through a machine, or match all your losses on your first day with a matching amount of "free" play. In these cases it will be up to you to track how much you've put through the machine.

Now, what machines to play? Depends on which you like more. My friend Steps is a wizard with slots; she once turned $5 in free play into $129 when she hit two of the mini-progressives on a Wheel of Fortune slot. Brian and I prefer video poker; if we play a Deuces Wild machine for low denominations, we expect to hit lots of little wins and hopefully a few big wins. These machines are designed to give you your bet back when you hit three of a kind, which means you're only breaking even when it's your money, but that's all profit when you're using free play. Yesterday I had $40 in free play at Harrahs and turned it into $39.50 in real cash, thanks in part to a wild royal flush and couple of five-of-a-kind; it was a rare machine that got hot and never cooled off during the time it took to put $40 worth of quarter bets through it.

So, good luck. Whenever I drive to Vegas with someone who's never been, I like to take the road down through Taos and Albuquerque; there will be lots of Indian casinos along the way and many will offer them free slot play as new members (although not as many as in the past, sad to say). Back in the day, it was not uncommon for them to be up by $100 by the time we were leaving Albuquerque, just on free play, a welcome addition especially when they left Colorado with no money in their pockets and a car up on blocks.

Come along! The streets are paved with gold! I'd whisper in their ears. They're just giving the stuff away!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Free Deal of the Day: Suds at the Riv

The Riviera's Wicked Vicky Tavern boasts of having over 100 beers to choose from. Want to try one? Several sources, including 24/7 Magazine and the Vegas Values Coupon Booklet, are carrying coupons for a free draft at the Wicked Vicky. We'll be staying there for three nights next month, so why not join us and hoist a few? They have live entertainment on the weekend and bar food, too. Not a bad place to relax on your way to and from the Riviera Comedy Club, where tickets are $19.99 with no hidden fees. Or half price in the Free Vegas Deals coupon sheet you can find in the magazine bins along the Strip. Or free with the American Casino Guide.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Getting About Town: The Monorail and Alternate Routes

We have a guest visiting Vegas for the weekend who has some issues with walking long distances, a real dilemma for anyone who wants to do some real exploring of the sprawling casino properties on the Strip. The obvious solution was a pass for the Las Vegas Monorail, which will take you from one big hotel to another up and down the East side of the strip for a nominal fee. We bought a two-day pass for $18: that was $4 off the regular price with a coupon that's available in several of the visitor's guide magazines, including one available in racks right there at the monorail station. There's still a stop at Sahara and Paradise by the site of the old Sahara, then the LVH (which puts you across Paradise from the Riviera), Las Vegas Convention Center, Harrah's/The Quad (across Las Vegas Blvd. from the Caesars Forum Shops), Flamingo (across from Caesars Palace), Bally's/Paris, and the MGM Grand.

One you cross over to the West side of Las Vegas Boulevard...or let's assume, for the sake of argument, you were too cheap to spring for the Monorail...there are free trams and monorails that connect several of the properties to save you even more walking. There's a rail connecting Treasure Island with the Mirage. Make it across Caesars and a monorail connects Bellagio, Aria/City Center and the Monte Carlo. Make it past New York, New York and across the walkway to Excalibur, and another tram connects the big castle with the Luxor and Mandalay Bay to the South. Another walkway connects New York, New York with the MGM Grand and hey, there's that monorail again.

Conventional wisdom has it that the Monorail is no sightseeing expedition as it passes behind most of the casino hotels, but you get a nice close look at the Skywheel going up as part of the new Linq complex, and from the rear you can see some of the old Imperial Palace architecture that Caesars Entertainment is obscuring as that property gets remodeled into The Quad.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Calendar Girl

"Ah, Claire Sinclair. You put the Sin in Claire Sinclair." The Stratosphere's late-night show, PIN UP, is a starring vehicle for Sinclair (on my left in the blue dress), the 2011 Playmate of the Year, and so, appropriately, is structured as a salute to the pin-up girls of the Forties and Fifties. (A few years ago my friends took me to see Neil Sedaka for my birthday, so this is the second Vegas show where I've got to hear "Calendar Girl" sung.) 

It's a feast of swing music by a hot six-piece combo, dance numbers by four shapely showgirls and a dude (disclaimer: this review may reflect the biases of the author), and vocals by Lisa Marie Smith (on my right), whose smoky rendition of Sondheim's "Sooner or Later," surely the best torch song written in the last 30 years, especially won me over. It's an intimate setting where you may well find Lisa Marie crooning in your lap. A "Rosie the Riveter" number showcases some crazy jitterbugging, dancer Anya (on your far right) gets a show-stopping baseball routine, and when Lisa Marie belts out "This Girl's On Fire" prompting a dancer to come out dressed as a firefighter, it's a good excuse as any to get a pole onstage. Sinclair is given a few routines to make sure she has more to do than look pretty and exude charm, although she has that in spades; a highlight is when she has to interrupt her bedtime routine to fend off the advances of an amorous pillow. There's a bit of burlesque and a few rather impressive magic tricks, so pretty much something for everyone; well, everyone who likes a lot of swing music and half a dozen pretty girls. Well, and one dude. So, everyone, I guess.

Tickets are $49.99 plus taxes, although Stratosphere guests can get two tickets for the price of one. The same deal is offered in the 2014 American Casino Guide. Or if, like me, you know when to hold 'em, like me, you can try to win tickets online at AcePlay Poker, the Stratosphere's online poker site.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Vegas Days Gone By: Boulder Highway

The Klondike was a funky little joint just off Sunset and Boulder (there was a twin on Las Vegas Boulevard not far from the famous "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign, of which not a trace seems to remain), which had $2 blackjack and 10-cent roulette, cheap wings, and hourly drawings where you could win a chance to spin the wheel for fifty bucks. Dealers told me they would come up here after their shifts and play 10-cent roulette to blow off steam.

The Roadhouse on the other side of Sunset and Boulder looks like it's been closed for quite a while, although there's talk it may be reopened now that some of its legal issues have been resolved. It'd be great to see it in operation, as I really like its art deco styling. There are also some cactus plants planted alongside its walls which have grown into some intriguing shapes, like the pair of ballroom dancers pictured below.

If no one else ever steps in to operate it, my poker buddy Brian and I are willing. Brian has an idea for a joint that would offer one-stop shopping: a casino, strip club, and wedding chapel. You could do some gambling, get drunk, fall in love with that stripper and get hitched to her, all in one spot. I saw a billboard for a strip club that included a steakhouse and said, "Dude! We need to add a steakhouse, too!" Then I saw another billboard for a Brazilian steakhouse and said, "Dude! It could be a Brazilian steakhouse! All the waitresses would be Brazilian! And they'd all have Brazilians!"

We're still trying to attract investors.

Here's one last mysterious casino from bygone days, this one at Henderson Plaza. Its name has been effaced like that of an Egyptian pharaoh who has fallen from grace, and similarly seems to have been cruelly obliterated from history. Couldn't find any info about it at all; anyone from those parts have any recollection? Seems a shame any time a bowling alley closes its doors.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Taste of Havana

I've been hearing raves about the Florida Cafe Cuban Bar and Grill on N. Las Vegas Blvd. ever since a friend's relatives stayed at the attached Howard Johnson's while visiting Vegas and found themselves eating all their meals there. If you're on a budget, there's a wide variety of $5 selections, from the breakfast menu (an "American breakfast" with two eggs, hash browns and toast and bacon...or French toast...or pancakes) or the tapas menu (tamal maiz, pappas relleno, meatballs in guava bbq) or the dessert menu (ice cream!) or just pop in for a cup of coffee. Those with a real appetite can tackle the sandwiches and entrees. I tried the tamal maiz (a pork tamale with a side of fried pork rinds) and had a substantial slice of flan for dessert. What's really got me writing though is the framed display hung by my booth: A salute to the 1959-vintage casinos of Havana, just before the revolution, featuring actual chips from several of the casinos! Right up my alley. Our waitress led us to just that booth as if she knew me. Take a trip just north of the Strip and check it out.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Tipapalooza! (Downtown & North Las Vegas Edition)

Fave Downtown Find: We rather regret the removal of almost all of the gaming from the Gold Spike to make room for big beanbag chairs and pool tables, leaving a few slots in one corner to retain the glittering "Casino" sign in more than name only. But! Walking out the back door brings you immediately to this winter wonderland: a nice open-air lounging area where easy chairs surround fire pits, there are outdoor games to play, and, of all things, an ice-skating rink beckons. What more could you ask? How about an Airstream parked there for some mysterious reason?

Downtown Hotel That's Feeding and Housing Us: The Grand moved into the building formerly occupied by the Lady Luck...anyone who stayed at the LL should instantly recognize the driveway at the valet parking entrance..and dolled it up real nice. It's those little extra amenities that show a hotel cares, and one of us especially appreciated the earplugs provided in our room. The Spread is a reasonably-priced deli, the Mob Bar has live entertainment Thursday-Sunday and a big-honking-screen TV for game night, and big photos of jazz musicians greet you as you step off the elevators. As a bonus, the Mob Museum is right across the street. What I really wanted to talk about though is this collage of casino dice that graces the hotel lobby, dice from all over Nevada, including such dear departed Vegas casinos as the Showboat and, yes, my beloved Sahara.

Casino That Really Won Us Over: Not only do new players get $5 in free slot play at the Cannery on Craig, but if you send the following three text messages to 99158...PERK, VICTORY, and get another $5 in free slot play, a $10 food credit at Victory's Cafe, and...uh, I think the third one signs you up for Atlantis Resort updates. Yes, the Cannery has gone promotion-happy, and we couldn't be happier about it. Sundays, Casa Cocina serves up all-you-can-eat tacos and a bottomless margarita for $9.99. On Thursday, Jan. 30, 250 base points or 30 table points will earn you a free six-pack of Dos Equis and a Dos Equis key ring. They have $3 single-deck, and the retro WWII-era look, with lots of vintage ad and poster art, is plenty entertaining.

Head North, Jazz Man: The Aliante, off 215-W and Aliante Parkway, is about as far north as we're going to go without saying "The heck, let's just go to Reno," but for jazz buffs, it would be definitely worth the trip: Jazz luminaries such as Diane Schuur and Eliane Elias are coming to their showroom. Jeff Kashiwa, who's appearing Saturday with his Sax Pack, is guest-hosting the Jazz Lounge program Friday at noon on 91.5 FM, and will be giving away tickets to his show! The casino is spacious and airy, with great line-of-sight, and $5 double-deck games. My player's club host was highly helpful and generous, handing out a magnetization-proof player's card holder and an Aliante license plate frame, although she did turn to her colleagues and say, "I did it! I finally got rid of the last one!"

Sisters: The Bighorn, on E. Lake Mead, is akin to one of our favorite Boulder Highway hangouts, the Longhorn, and save for the absence of a lounge stage or an attached hotel, replicates much of the same experience, including low, low blackjack limits with the most liberal rules for the player you can find in or out of town. Brian, anyway, extended his winning streak at using his blackjack match plays on this trip to 4-for-4 here (my record is holding steady at 1-for-4.)

Paydirt: The Silver Nugget is on the same My Points player's card program as two other casinos north of downtown on Las Vegas Blvd., the Opera House and Lucky Club, but it's the largest of the three and features that favorite of Vegas locals, a bowling alley. It also offers the Homestack Cafe, where homesick tourists can sit underneath a map of their home state while they order the inexpensive specials (even more inexpensive with two-for-one coupons from the American Casino Guide). I will give props to the Lucky Club for giving me both dice and playing cards on my ACG coupon instead of making me choose one.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Off-Strip: Checking Out the Boulder Highway

Did you know the famous "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign on the south entrance to the Strip has a cousin on the Boulder Highway? If not, then you've probably not spent enough time on Boulder. As previously mentioned, it's home to one of our favorite funky blackjack hangouts, the Longhorn, and it's also home to some of the favorite locals hangouts: Sam's Town, Arizona Charlie's and Boulder Station, for example. On our way into town this morning we decided to investigate some of the lesser-known properties out Boulder Highway way.

Club Fortune gets our rave for this column, in part because the staff showed up to give us our player cards and our free slot play from American Casino Guide coupons two full hours before the player's club desk was due to open at 8 A.M. For all its cozy size it's a full casino, with live tables, a poker room, and a high limit area. If you take the Horizon Exit off of I-215, it's on Rainbow Drive (Horizon turns into Rainbow as it crosses  Boulder Highway).

Jokers Wild has blackjack as low as $2 minimum, as well as a $1 minimum craps table. If you like playing lower limits, either to limit your risk or because your bankroll is a little thin, just head here. New player's club members get to spin the wheel for a prize; I won a $10 dining credit, which went a long way in their restaurant. Brian got a water bottle, but it was a really nice water bottle.

"Look! It's My Casino!" "No, it's My Casino!" We could have gone on like that all morning. New members are offered a free gift and gambling and dining coupons, including two shots at $10 in free slot play, and there are plenty of free tournaments during the week to keep the locals coming back. Brian says if he'd known he owned a casino he'd have demanded his cut by now.

Not just off-strip, but's a few blocks off Boulder at the intersection of Pacific and the Emerald Island. A family-owned business, it offers multipliers on slot points, which can be exchanged for credit at the casino's restautants. Just about next door is the El Dorado, on Water Street. On the same Premier Rewards players card program as Jokers Wild, it would appear to be about the same as that casino, minus the $1 craps table.

Also on Water Street...who knew there was such a concentration of casinos in this neighborhood...the Rainbow is incredibly elegant for a glorified slot parlor, with comfy chairs and extravagant fittings and video monitors displaying widescreen views of European scenes. Shame it doesn't have a player's card program; somewhat surprising, as it boasts it's a "Peppermill Resorts Property." You just come here to play, an employee told us. Back on Boulder is the Skyline Casino, which will get short shrift in this column for also not having a player's card program. We're here to earn comps and free rooms and food and free play, baby!

The Wildfire gets points for being the first casino you run into after you take the Boulder Highway exit off I-215 northbound. A member of the Stations Casinos player card program, it's noteworthy mostly as a place to pick up cheap cigarettes ($4.44 a pack for name brands and even less for generics).

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Vegas Days Gone By: The Sahara

I have a deep and compelling interest in abandoned casinos, but one whose loss hit me especially hard is the Sahara, an institution on the northern end of the Strip that closed its doors a few years ago. For starters, it was one of the grand casinos from Vegas's Gilded Age, alongside legendary names like the Sands, the Dunes, and the Desert Inn, frequented by the likes of Elvis and the Beatles, Marilyn and the Rat Pack.  For another thing, I went there many times over the years and, even if the carpeting was a little threadbare, I loved its vaguely delapidated charms. The circular driveway with its minarets was a Moorish marvel. I vividly recall one of our local friends dropping us off there early one morning and watching a casino as its day started, having pastries in the coffee shop and watching other folks have their breakfast, read their paper, or take their morning constitutional around the palm-lined pool area.

It was a fun place, where you could play real $1 blackjack, and play a bonus bet that spun a wheel whenever you hit a blackjack to find out how much you would win, up to fifty bucks! You could scan your player's card and win something, like a free buffet. I walked in once and checked out their lounge, where a rocking band with a fiery redhead singer was running through "Break Out," and she waved me in to join them.  The daughter of Louis Prima and Keely Smith played there, too.

It's being rebuilt as the SLS Casino, which didn't implode or demolish the structure but gutted it and is remodeling it, and adding what look like gigantic glass-and-steel hotel towers, emulating the likes of the Cosmopolitcan and City Center no doubt. While I'm always glad to have a new player's club to join and (hopefully) get some free stuff, I miss you, Sahara. The Strip will never be the same, but then, it never is.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Heading Back to Vegas & Free Rooms Update

We set out from Colorado towards Vegas today, making stops in Albuquerque and Rio Puerco to pick up free promotional chips and free play, and cash in some of our comps for free gas. Since I posted our itinerary, we've been offered two more free nights, from The Quad, so we've extended our trip another two days. Caesar's Entertainment Group, which owns The Quad, is pretty generous with the free nights once you're in their good graces; the only condition for accepting this offer from The Quad was that I hadn't stayed in one of their properties for free within the previous 48 hours. I've received a flyer from them offering three free nights at most of their hotels once a month in March, April and May, and that's in addition to the many special events they invite me to which always include two or three free nights and either a shopping spree or free casino play.

We were thinking of adding on an additional two nights in Laughlin, since we have two-nights-for-the-price-of one coupons from the American Casino Guide, but I found an ad from one of the tour bus operators offering free one-day excursions to Laughlin, including a free buffet and free show tickets, so that might suffice for this trip. We also got an invitation to a birthday party while we're in town; having friends who live in Vegas is a good thing. I also received an invitation to a media seminar at the Orleans from the Las Vegas Review-Journal and thought: why not? They might have some free goodies to scoop up.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Three Biggest Mistakes You're Making at Blackjack: Part 3

Fun fact: Do you know what the average winning hand in blackjack is? It's 18.5. Which means that, in the long run, 18 is a loser. And that brings us to our third mistake:

3. Not hitting a soft 18 against almost anything

Since 18 is below the average winning hand, it's in your interest to try to improve it whenever practical. I mean, think about it: When you have an 18, what hands can you beat? If the dealer has a 17, you're good. That's it. I mean, sure, you can win if the 
dealer busts, but that doesn't make your 18 any better than a 16. Or a 12.

Since you're never going to hit a "hard" 18 (two 9's or an 8 and a 10, for example), the only 18 that it's really practical for you to hit is a "soft" Ace and a 7. "Soft" hands are so-called because the Ace can be played as either a 10 or an 11, depending on the impact of the next card you draw on your hand. A 10 or a face card landing on an Ace-7 gives you a total of 18, a much "softer" landing than if you were to draw the same card on a "hard" 18, which, as I mentioned above, surely you are never going to do.

You hit a soft 18 against most of the dealer's upcards for three reasons:

A. As stated above, 18 is a loser in the long run; it's below the average winning hand of 18.5. For the same reason, you never hit a soft 19 (Ace-8); it's a winner in the long run, since it's better than the average winning hand.

B. Most cards you can draw when hitting a soft 18 will either improve it (A,2,3) or leave it exactly the same (10,J,Q,K), so you have little to lose by taking a hit. This is another reason why we don't hit a soft 19: Only two cards can improve it, and most cards will actually make it worse.

C. You can't possibly bust when taking one hit on a soft 18, so it's a free chance to improve your  hand when the dealer's upcard is a 9, 10 or face card, meaning there's a good chance he has you beat. It also means you can double down against the dealer's 5 or 6 without fear of busting.

There are three dealer upcards that you don't want to hit your Ace-7 against. If the dealer is showing a 7, you stand, because if he does have a 10 in the hole giving him a 17, you already have him beaten. Same if he shows an 8, which means you are likely to have a push. And you don't want to hit against a 2, just because the dealer's 2 is such a dangerous card; in the long run you're better off staying and hoping the dealer either busts or draws to 17.

Now go out there and make some money!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Three Biggest Mistakes You're Making at Blackjack: Part 2

Playing correct strategy reduces the dealer's edge against you at blackjack to as low as 0.5%. Even that small edge is due to one glaring fact: If you bust your hand first, and the dealer busts his hand after all the other players have acted, you still lose. This is why savvy players never hit their 16 when the dealer is showing a 6; if only five cards won't bust you, stand and, assuming the dealer has a 10 in the hole, let them take the next card and hope it busts them instead.

There is one exception to this rule, a hand which although it could be busted by taking another card, is nevertheless a powerful draw, so our second biggest mistake is:

2. Not hitting on 12 when the dealer's upcard is a 2 or 3

All the strategy cards and books will tell you to hit a 12 when you're up against a 2 or 3, but not necessarily why. Well, a 12 is actually one of the best drawing hands in blackjack. Consider: Only 4 of the 13 cards in the deck can bust you on your first hit (10,J,Q,K). That's less than one-third of the cards in the deck. That means if you take one hit on a 12, your odds of not busting are better than two-to-one! If the dealer is showing a 2, then it's in your interest to take a card and try to improve your hand, because the if the dealer has a 10 in the hole then they're in the same great drawing range as you. And that's the good news; anything smaller gives them a killer drawing hand (9,8,7,6,5) or leaves them a long, long way from busting (4,3,2,A). If the dealer is showing a 3, the same applies; you can assume whatever their undercard is, they're in the same drawing range. If the dealer is showing a 4, 5 or 6, however, you need to stand; now there are more cards that could bust them on the next hit, so it's no longer profitable to hit your 12.

So, if you have a 12 and the dealer shows a 2 or 3, you take one hit and then stop, no matter what the next card. Even if it's an Ace. Why? The same reason you don't hit a 13 against a 2 or a 3: The addition of an extra bust card (the 9) means it's no longer profitable to risk busting against the dealer's bustable hand. (I despair of players who I see hit a 12, get an Ace, ponder what to do next, then take a second hit and bust, or worse, take the dealer's bust card. They were so close to getting it right.)

By the way, this move exposes the dirty little secret of basic blackjack strategy, which advises you to assume that any card you haven't seen yet is a 10 or a face card. In actual  fact, this will only be the case less than one-third of the time. (It's the same reason you don't take insurance against a blackjack when the dealer shows an Ace; the odds of him having a 10 in the hole are less than the two-to-one payout offered by the insurance bet.)

So why do we base our decisions on the assumption that the dealer always has a 10 in the hole? Well, for two reasons:

A. Any card we haven't seen yet is four times as likely to be a 10 or face card as any other individual card, since there are four of them (10,J,Q,K), all with the same point value of 10, and, more importantly,

B. As you may recall from our first installment, the math tends to work out the same even if the hole card isn't always a 10. If you have a 16 and you're looking at a 10 as the dealer's upcard, he doesn't have to have another 10 in the hole to already have you beat; anything bigger than a 7 will work, and that constitutes more than half of the cards in the deck. So if you're already beaten more than half of the time when the dealer shows a 10, you might as well assume that hole card is a 10; it's a convenient shorthand for "Mathematically speaking, you are probably toast" and acting accordingly by trying to improve your hand.

Getting back to hitting your 12s when you see a 2 or a 3 across the table: It may seem that every time you take that card, you end up busting. Almost one-third of the time is a lot. It always seemed to me that every time I hit my 12 in these situations I would bust, but after working out the math I take my card without hesitation, and relish those times I'm rewarded with a perfect 9. I love hitting my 12s. Heck, I'd rather hit a 12 against the dealer's 2 than try to decide whether to double down on 11 against the dealer's 10.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Three Biggest Mistakes You're Making at Blackjack: Part 1

They're an essential part of basic blackjack strategy. Every good book on the subject of blackjack, and every strategy card you look at, will tell you to do them. And yet every day I see people ignore these basic moves, and it costs them money. Even players who think they know something about the game make these costly errors.

They're the three biggest mistakes you can make at blackjack. And in this and the next two installments, I'll tell you why.

First up:

1. Not hitting a 16 against the dealer's 9, 10 or Face Card.

The most money I see players leave on the table is because they ignore this part of strategy. Players are simply afraid to hit a 16 because it's the easiest hand in blackjack to bust; hit any card bigger than a 5 and your hand is history. Even players who will blithely hit a 15 without a second thought are reluctant to hit a 16.

I've even had a player stand on a soft 16 [an Ace-5] and proudly tell me "I never hit a 16!" But that guy was an idiot. This is one reason I prefer sitting at first base; otherwise some fool to my right will stand on their 16 when I want to double down on a 10 or 11, and I'll be stuck taking the 4 or 5 they should have hit.

I'll have players tell me they always stand on 16 and they're doing just fine. They're lying. Because (here's the bad news) if you have a 16 and the dealer is showing a Jack, you're probably going to lose no matter what you do. But in the long run you'll lose less of the time if you hit your 16 instead of standing on it. And losing less is the same as winning more.

So, if you're looking at a 9 or a 10, and you have a 16, you just have to hit it. Why?

Because the math says so, and blackjack strategy is all about the math.

Let's start by assuming you have a 16 and the dealer is showing a 9. There are 13 different cards in a blackjack deck (2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,J,Q,K,A). If you have a 16 and the dealer is showing a 9, that means that more than half of the cards that the dealer can have in the hole already have you beat: 8,9,10,J,Q,K,A. Therefore, more than half of the time, you're already beat if you don't try taking another card to improve your hand, and so you have nothing to lose by taking the hit. And more than half the time is all you need to be profitable in the long run.

If you're looking at a 10 or a face card, the situation is even worse if you want to stand. Since if you're in this situation, the dealer has already checked to make sure her undercard wasn't an Ace, which means instead of 7 cards out of 13 giving her a winning hand, it's 7 cards out of 12 (7,8,9,10,J,Q,K), making the odds against her busting even worse.

By the way, let's assume you decided to stay on your 16 and got lucky: you were right and the dealer has a hand that she has a chance of busting (12,13,14,15,16). 

Here's a fun fact: Every bustable hand has exactly five cards that will make them a made hand on the first card drawn. The odds of the next card being any particular card are approximately 7.7%, so that means in the less than half of the time that the dealer has a bustable hand under their face card, they have a 38.5% chance of making a hand.

It also means that when you're faced with a dealer's 9 or 10 against your 16, you still have a 38.7% chance of making a hand on your first hit instead of busting. And while these aren't the best odds in the world, they're better than the 0% chance of winning which you will have more than half of the time.

By the way, I would do the same against the dealer's 8 or 7. What actually got me started working out the math on these hands on my hour-long bus rides to the casinos in Cripple Creek was a conversation I had with a player who never hit her 16 against the dealer's 8. She said her dad told her that when the dealer's showing an 8, he only has a made hand less than half of the time. I figured out the math, and, well, her dad's right up to a point: If the up card is an 8, less than half the cards in the deck that can be his undercard make him a hand (9,10,J,Q,K,A). Well, by the same logic that I hit against a 10, I should stay against an 8, right?

Uh, no. Because whether he already has you beat isn't the only thing you have to worry about. If he has a 2 or 3 in the hole, then he has a hand so good, you'd double down if you had it. Not taking the next card because you're afraid of busting on a 6 through 10 wouldn't do you any good in that case. So the chances of the dealer having a strong card under an 8 actually go from 46.2% (made hands) to 61.6% (adding the 2 or 3). What if his undercard is a 4? A 12 is actually a strong drawing hand, because less than 1 out of 3 cards will bust him on his first hit. So give him a 69.3% chance of having a strong drawing hand. Even in the best possible scenario...that he has an 8 in the hole, meaning he also has a 16...remember, he still has a 38.5% chance of making a hand on his next card. So cumulatively, the odds say staying against that 8 is a horrible idea.

I'd do the same against a 7, even though it's the most marginal of these cases (fewer times he'll have a made hand), because the dealer has one more hole card that could give him a strong draw.

So next time you have a 16 and the dealer's showing a King, go ahead and take the hit. Show no fear. There's no room for fear in blackjack.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Souvenirs, Cheap! And They're Green, Too!

Hey, want an interesting collectible from your favorite casino? Next time you ask your cocktail server for a drink, ask if she'll bring a bottle of water with that. I assume you'll do the right thing and leave her a nice tip (like a buck), but even so you might get a great deal on a souvenir keepsake: Many casinos are now putting their own labels on their bottled water. Save one and take it home and you have quite the conversation piece. Besides, what other collectible can save your life if you're stranded in the desert, or at least help you out if your car's radiator boils over? If you are foolish enough to open it up and drink it, don't toss it in the trash to take up more space in a landfill somewhere; refill it and reuse it! Remember: Reduce! Reuse! Recycle! (Pictured, left to right: Sandia Casino, New Mexico; El Cortez, Las Vegas; Hooters Casino, Las Vegas; Margaritaville Casino, Biloxi; Route 66 "Party of the Decade" Limited Edition, New Mexico)

Hey, here's a bonus collectible for you: The Stratosphere doesn't put any cheap disposable plastic cups in their hotel rooms. Their cups are a heavier plastic, with a faux-frosted-glass finish, and the Stratosphere logo across the front. And: top-rack dishwasher safe! Don't toss them in the trash! Take them home and toss them in the dishwasher! Ask your housekeeper for extras and you can have a set of glasses that will be the envy of all your friends! Hey, anything we can do to make our Vegas trip greener and pick up some cool keepsakes while we're at it.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Why We Love the El Cortez

Many moons ago, when I decided to attend an event in downtown Las Vegas at the last minute, the only place I could find a cheap room downtown was at the venerable El Cortez. They booked me in a tiny room on top of the parking garage, all the doors opening outside to a wraparound balcony. All I remember of the room, where I spent scant moments, was a small space with an even tinier TV set.

But downstairs in the casino, the El Cortez definitely had its moments. I was playing poker when the owner of the casino, Jackie Gaughan, came to the table and joined us. It was hard to miss him since his face was on the casino's player's card. One of the pit crew brought him a case of chips and he proceeded to lose them just like the rest of us. I'd never played poker against the owner of a casino before, so for a relative Vegas neophyte it was pretty trippy.

I had a session at one of their craps tables where I won, if I'm recalling correctly, something like $600. I spent another night there playing blackjack with a dealer from Arizona Charlie's and her father, who was suffering from Alzheimer's. You could tell him all you wanted it was a bad idea to hit that 16 against the dealer's 6; he'd forget it as soon as the next hand was dealt.

I became rather fond of the old El Cortez and its funky old-school downtown charms, even though the general consensus was that it had been on its last legs for years; a block away from the end of the Fremont Street Experience, and not a pretty block at that...a no-man's land where, as my friend Andy Hooper once wrote, "Crack dealers are circling like sharks!" was written off as a dusty relic that had been left behind by the behemoths of the Strip and even the little boost that the Experience had given to the downtown casinos.

Imagine my shock, returning years later, to discover that someone had invested in the El Cortez to the extent of expanding it to twice again its original size. What happened? Well, apparently, much of the credit goes to our old friends at, who moved their headquarters into the old Las Vegas City Hall, bringing to downtown thousands of employees who would need dining (and, one presumes wining) options. Dollars poured into downtown as a result, the whole district around and beyond the El Cortez is being cleaned up, and it's now a viable downtown destination.

When we decided to extend our stay by a couple of extra nights in December, I called around and again the El Cortez seemed the best option to get a cheap weekend night at the last minute. The reservation agent I spoke to said she was booking me into the Pavilion Tower. "That's nice," I said, "last time I stayed there they put me in a room on top of the parking garage."

"Oh," she replied, "that is the Pavilion Tower."

Oh la dee da. In any event, although the room and especially the comewhat cramped bathroom are on the small side, you can't beat the value: we got two nights Saturday and Sunday for a total of about $60, tax included. Good luck getting just the Saturday night for that price anywhere else in town.

And guess what? Atop a parking garage, you get some fantastic views of Vegas. The balcony runs around the perimeter of the structure, so from one side you look past the historic El Cortez sign (the south entrance is pretty much unchanged since the 1940s) down Fremont Street, on another side you have a nice view of the Strip, from yet another you look down on Container Park and the abandoned Western Casino and the Arts District, and from yet another you look out over the Valley. The view from our window was...well, the neighbors; turns out there are also rooms along a corridor that bisects the top floor. It may not be the private terrace we had at the Cosmopolitan, but it's damned handy when one of you doesn't smoke and the other does; just open the door and step outside.

Other things we liked about the El Cortez:
  • One of the marks of a great hotel staff is how they deal with problems. When we came to check in, it turned out the agent had made my reservation for the wrong date; the night before we arrived, in fact. Our registration clerk not only managed to get us in on a Saturday night, and for Sunday as well, but for a lower rate than we'd been quoted over the phone.
  • Yes, our room was small, but ah, the little amenities. After all the fancy hotels we'd stayed in on and off the Strip, they were the first to provide a newspaper in the room; not one paper, in fact, but two. Well, if you consider Gambling Today a newspaper. Or, for that matter, if you consider USA TODAY a newspaper. Free coffee in the room, which may not seem such a big deal until you consider the big-name hotel on the Strip that required you to buy it from the mini-bar. And whereas the big Strip hotels have a minimal line-up of television channels, the better to keep you out of your room and out on the casino floor, the El Cortez has The Movie Channel. Hell, my cable line-up back home doesn't have The Movie Channel.
  • Don't want a tiny room on the rooftop of a garage? There are always the Vintage rooms in the main casino hotel. Want something fancy-schmancy? The El Cortez now has Cabana Suites, having taken over the Ogden House across the street and dollied it up something special. And while once upon a time I had to cross the street and use the wi-fi in the lobby of the Cabana Suites, as of February 1, free wi-fi is available in all of their rooms. 
  • Check-out time: Noon!
  • The Flame Steakhouse comes highly recommended, and the check-in packet had a coupon for a free bottle of wine with your dinner there. The American Casino Guide has a 50% off coupon, as well.
  • Gaming? El Cortez is a favorite with the locals, having won awards for Best Blackjack...they brag about their 3:2 payouts on all blackjacks, even at single-deck. Yes, they really do have 25-cent roulette like Frommers says. And if you look for it, you can find the Holy Grail of video poker machines: a 10/7 pay table. Honest.
  • Karaoke!
  • I understand some of the other downtown hotels also have inexpensive rates that will get you some really nice rooms (such as the Plaza and the billions' worth of furnishings it picked up for a song, presumably), but the El Cortez has a coupon in the American Casino guide that gets you a special rate of $30 and a buy-one-night-get-one-free offer. $15 a night? See you there!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Best Bets at Blackjack (Surprisingly)

One of our favorite blackjack games is at the good old Riviera...a $5 shoe game with decent rules and 3:2 on blackjack. The trick as for all these places is to start your day there, early enough in the morning that you can get a seat while all the tables aren't packed, especially if, like us, you believe that the fewer the players at the table, the better. Oh, they also have $1 blackjack, if you can ever find a seat, and don't mind being dealt out of a continuous-shuffle machine, you basic-strategy-player, you. (Right across the street, Circus Circus has some decent tables too, and just like at the Riv, every six months you can buy $40 worth of promo chips for $30, reducing the casino's edge that much further. Just get there before it gets even more crowded than across the street.)

"Las Vegas has the biggest Hooters I've ever seen," my poker buddy Brian is fond of saying. True, the cocktail servers here look as if they all have the same surgeon's number in their rolodex, but if you can ignore the distractions, we found to our surprise that they have one of the best single-deck games in town, and if you get there early enough in the day, for as low as $5 minium. They also use a notched shoe for their multideck games, guaranteeing you the same good penetration every time.

The Longhorn is a little dive on Boulder, pretty much right across from Sam's Town, that we've grown to love for several reasons, not the least of which is the most generous set of blackjack rules in town: surrender, double down on your 2nd or 3rd card, doubling on splits, etc. (Eat your heart out, Las Vegas Club.) They have $2 and $5 minimum tables, but playing $5 minimum gets you a $5 bonus if you get a blackjack in diamonds. You earn comped meals in their restaurant pretty fast, and generously tipping your dealer may well get you additional comps as well; I'm just sayin'. Brian, who likes playing the side bets, especially likes this place because he hit the Queens of hearts on the Lucky Ladies for $125. One night they let all the pit players spin the wheel for a prize and Brian won a jacket, the lucky stiff. I had to settle for free slot play. Oh, and when you sign up as a new member, they give you a cookie. Throw in cookin' lounge acts on a tiny stage and what's not to like?

Elsewhere around town: The venerable El Cortez brags that they have 3:2 blackjacks on all their tables, and that goes for single-deck as well. The Rio is not exactly known for their low minimums or decent table game odds, yet surprisingly, they have $5 minimum single-deck when you can find it. Ellis Island and Tuscany, near each other off Flamingo east of the Strip, both offer surrender, a boon to my buddy Brian or, as we all call him, "the 15 magnet." Silverton, south of the south end of the Strip, has so much to recommend it, their $5 minimum blackjack is just gravy. Rampart, attached to the J.W. Marriott Resort off of West Charleston, is a good place to eat considering that playing at their $5 minimum tables can quickly earn you comps to their buffet. Finally, the Stratosphere also uses a notched shoe for their multideck games, and it guarantees every deal has the deepest penetration you'll see in town, even if you have to play at least $10 minimum to get better than 6:5 on your blackjacks.