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Gambling on the Strip

7 January 2003

When riverboat gambling was launched in Illinois in 1991, it was beyond my wildest flights of imagination that we would get to this point:

A picky player is just as well off gambling on the boats and barges in Illinois and Indiana as on the Las Vegas Strip.

Don't get me wrong. I truly enjoy Las Vegas. I've rarely had a bad trip, even when I've lost money. The constant circus, the all-night restaurants, the 24-hour show has always been appealing to one who was a night worker for most of the last 25 years.

But when it comes time to deal the cards, more and more I find myself shuffling off the Strip and making my way downtown or to locals casinos on Boulder Highway, Rancho or in Henderson.

The Strip, it seems, is no longer about gambling. It's about pirate battles and dancing fountains, magicians and designer restaurants, "Mystere!" and "The Folies Bergere." But it's not about getting a decent blackjack game or video poker pay table.

That feeling has been building over the years as I've chosen to invest more of my wagering dollar off the Strip, at locals-oriented casinos including the Palms, Fiesta, Orleans and Arizona Charlie's.

I've known for years--and have written often--that players get more bang for the buck at the locals joints. But now it's gotten to the point that a popgun could overwhelm the bang at many Strip resorts.

During the Global Gaming Expo in September, I checked out the Tropicana, a place where I've stayed and played often since the late 1980s. The gambling hasn't been first-class there in a long time, but a liberal comping policy and the presence of 8-5 Bonus Poker, a 99.2 percent game with expert play, on its quarter Triple Play/Five Play video poker machines made it a reasonable play.

I headed to the Triple Play/Five Plays ... and found the Bonus Poker pay table had been reduced to 6-5. Full houses now returned only 6-for-1 instead of 8-for-1, and the 99.2 percent game was now a 97 percent game. Room and meal comps may be easy, but not enough to make up THAT kind of a shortfall.

So I headed toward the blackjack pit, and at first was pleasantly surprised to find a hand-dealt double-deck blackjack game. Then I inspected more closely. There was an automatic shuffler on the table, shuffling six decks, then separating two decks for the dealer. This is no double-deck game; it's a fooler of a six-deck game with really lousy penetration. For a basic strategy player, the house edge is as high as on any other six-deck game.

I mentioned the blackjack game to Henry Tamburin, a friend and author of Blackjack: Take the Money and Run. Henry says several casinos have gone the phony double-deck route, and that there's a certain meanness about blackjack on the Strip nowadays. Single-deck games that pay only 6-5 instead of the normal 3-2 are common on the Strip, including tables at Paris, Bally's, the Flamingo Hilton and Harrah's, and paranoia about card counters has grown all out of proportion.

Many six-deck games on the Strip have the dealer hit soft 17 nowadays, leaving a game that's tougher on the player than the multideck games with the dealer standing on all 17s in the Chicago area at Harrah's and Empress in Joliet, Trump and Majestic Star in Gary, Harrah's in East Chicago and Horseshoe in Hammond.

When riverboat casinos first opened with 7-5 Jacks or Better, 6-5 Bonus Poker and some really ugly versions of Deuces Wild, it used to be a treat to get to the Strip for some full-pay video poker. Today, full-pay games on the Strip are a dying breed. If you look hard, you can still find some 9-6 Jacks or Better--although availability often is skewed toward high-end players. Anyone for $5, $10, $25 and $100 Jacks or Better at Bally's? And Barbary Coast, near the center of the Strip, is a legitimately good video poker casino. But overall, if you took Majestic Star and dropped it on the Strip, it would be one of the best video poker houses there.

One way in which the Strip and Chicago-area casinos differ is in their treatment of multiple-hand games, such as Triple Play. Near Chicago, most casinos have taken the higher wagers made on these games as justification to raise pay tables and offer more attractive games. On the Strip, multihand games usually have lower pay tables than the single-hand games, as if opportunity to play multiple hands is enough of an attraction that they might as well stick the suckers who play with poor games.

Think it's just the skill games, blackjack and video poker? Nope. In May, the last Nevada figures I have, quarter slots on the Strip returned about 92 percent, while dollars returned 94 percent. Both figures are lower than average returns in Illinois.

There's still plenty of good gambling in Las Vegas. Playing at locals casinos, with good single-deck and double-deck blackjack and great video poker, can be a real treat, just the way the Strip used to be.

The Strip still has its attractions for those who want glitz and glamor. But gambling? On the Strip, it's all show and no go.

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Best of John Grochowski
John Grochowski

John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

> More Books By John Grochowski

John Grochowski
John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

> More Books By John Grochowski