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Grochowski Goes to Downtown Vegas

14 September 2004

In the wake of a couple of recent mentions of Las Vegas' better gambling options being away from the Strip, a couple of readers e-mailed to ask if I practice what I preach. "Come on," one said, "do you actually stay and play downtown?"

Timing is everything, because I'm just back from Las Vegas, where I spent four nights downtown at the California. There was a business purpose. I was taping a Travel Channel show at the Golden Nugget, so I stayed a short walk away. I spent only a couple of hours on the Strip this trip, but found plenty of interest elsewhere to report back to you:

** The Fremont Street Experience - the giant light and sound show on the huge mesh canopy that shades the downtown casino area - has been revamped, much for the better. The 2 million light bulbs have been replaced by 12.5 million light-emitting diodes, and the difference in clarity is astonishing. One new show that I saw involves a battle between alien spaceships and fighter jets of Earth. The reactions of the crowd said the entertainment value was a whole new Experience.

** The California is small and well-worn, but quite an interesting place. It's become a headquarters for tour groups from Hawaii. As I looked around the casino, most of the faces were Asian or Polynesian. A little dice wall of fame on the second level consisting of dozens of plaques commemorating rollers who held the dice for an hour or more shows a preponderance of Hawaiian towns.

Restaurants at the Cal cater to that Asian-Polynesian crowd. The snack bar, more than burgers and hot dogs, serves bento bowls, sushi and seitan. Spam may seem like unusual casino restaurant fare, but it's popular in the islands, and readily available at the Cal. At the coffee shop one lunchtime, I had a tropical chicken salad, with mango and papaya. Upstairs at the Island Specialties cafe, I ordered kalua pig and cabbage - my wife and I were married on Kauai, and we enjoyed that dish at a place called the Aloha Diner. At Island Specialties, it was almost like old times. Delicious.

** Upstairs at the Cal, an indoor bridge crosses Main Street to Main Street Station. Like the California and the Fremont, Main Street Station is a Boyd Gaming property - in the Midwest, Boyd owns the Par-A-Dice in East Peoria and the Blue Chip in Michigan City, Ind. Boyd's three downtown Las Vegas properties use the same player rewards cards, and points earned at one casino are redeemable at the others. When I was playing double-deck blackjack at the Fremont, a pit boss who was giving another player a new card told the player, "You can use this at the California and Main Street, too. Of course, we prefer you use it at the Fremont!"

Main Street Station has an outstanding long-running promotion. Alert an attendant anytime you get four of a kind on video poker, and you're given a scratch-off card worth cash. Most of the values will be low - a dollar or two on nickel games, $3 or so on quarter machines - but they can be as high as $5,000. Main Street has a fair amount of full-pay video poker, and combined with good games, the scratch-off cards are a nice bonus.

** I spent the bulk of my video poker time at Main Street Station and the California. Both have single-hand, quarter 10-7 Double Bonus Poker and full-pay Deuces Wild, games with theoretical returns over 100 percent with expert play. Those theoretical paybacks mean the games aren't licensed in Illinois, where no game may pay more than 100 percent - never mind that few players actually have the skill to get full payback on these games. I wandered over to the Horseshoe for a little multihand action. Now operating under Harrah's ownership, the Horseshoe has taken its blackjack game down a notch, but still has 10-7 Double Bonus on Triple Play Poker machines.

I surprised fellow author Henry Tamburin by mentioning the Golden Nugget for low-limit play. The Nugget has 10-7 Double Bonus on NICKEL Triple Play/Five Play and on one nickel Ten Play machine. The Golden Nugget has never been particularly noted for good video poker, and certainly isn't noted for low-limit games, but these were great finds.

Tamburin strongly urged that I check out the video poker at the new Casino Montelago at Lake Las Vegas. "Once you've been there, you'll never want to go anywhere else," he said. That's one for next trip.

** Twice during my stay, I took taxis to the Rio to meet Tamburin, Frank Scoblete and Golden Touch craps aces Dom LoRiggio and Howard Newman for dinner. We had terrific meals at the Fiore steak house and Antonio's Italian restaurant. And in the party atmosphere and skimpiness of the cocktail waitress uniforms, the Rio is still the Rio. As for the gambling - ugh. A dealer bragged to a player that the horrendous even-money payoffs on blackjacks at some tables were being upgraded to the merely awful 6-5. A neon sign above a bank of video poker machines boasted of paybacks up to 98.3 percent. When the neon trumpets short-pay games that wouldn't look good even on Midwestern riverboats, you know the Rio has fallen a long way from its full-pay days of years ago.

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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:

Winning Tips for Casino Games

> 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