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Best of John Grochowski
Penny Lane Is in My Ears and in My Eyes5 October 2004
In Penny Lane the Par-A-Dice is full of slot machines, from every gamemaker the slot director knows.
When I made the trek to East Peoria recently for an overnight stay at the Par-A-Dice hotel, I knew exactly what I wanted to see first in the casino. I'd spoken with slot director Tammy Couchman on the phone, and she'd told me about Penny Lane, her roomful of 1-cent slot machines on the riverboat's bottom deck.
It's a bright, cheerful place, where '50s and '60s music plays while the customers touch the slot screens to choose to play for 1-cent, 2-cent, 5-cent, 10-cent or 25-cent denominations. On the back wall is a bright, lighted, multicolored sign with late-'60s-style graphics. In bright yellow letters, it says "Penny Lane." On either side are flattened dots. It all reminded me of something.
"I'll tell you what those dots remind me of," I told Couchman. "The Sea of Holes in 'Yellow Submarine.'" Maybe it's just the imagination of an old Beatlemaniac, but this was a graphic that would look right at home in the Fab Four's animated feature.
The players certainly seemed right at home in Penny Lane. It was early afternoon on a Thursday, and the slots were humming. Couchman uses games manufactured by IGT, Konami and Atronic in the 1-cent room. There's good variety in the game selection - Kenny Rogers: The Gambler was drawing heavy play, along with Wild Bear Salmon Run and Frog and Prince.
Variety has become the order of the day at Par-A-Dice, and that goes for more than just the slot floor. I knew my first stop on this trip was going to be for lunch, and I had some qualms. The last time I ate at the buffet here, it was full of fried chicken, ham, ribs and creamy or cheesy vegetables. I came away thinking there needed to be options with a lighter touch.
This time, there were. I was able to load up a plate with fresh salad greens and vegetables, watermelon and parsley carrots without a touch of cream sauce. My waistline and arteries thank Boyd Gaming for the upgrade.
That enabled me to save my appetite for Sam Boyd's steakhouse that night. Another big upgrade, the steakhouse served my bone-in ribeye perfectly medium rare. Thumbs up on the asparagus with lemon butter sauce - I had them serve the lemon butter on the side and focused on the asparagus.
Back at the casino, gaming remains on a boat of the same design as Empress' old cruisers. The configuration is different - there's a high-ceilinged foyer, and customers on the third deck can sit at tables away from the gambling and look down on second-deck (entry-level) slots.
One big plus: I was able to board the boat without forking over any cash. There is no admission charge here.
Those who haven't been to Par-A-Dice for a while will notice something missing. On the entry level, in the high-ceilinged room before you get to the table games area, the Big Hit is no more. Big Hit was a large bank of progressive slot machines with big jackpots - a woman once won more than $600,000 with one pull of the handle. Unfortunately, the big hits on Big Hit were rare enough that they were seldom played. Couchman now has a bigger variety of dollar slot machines in that space, a mix that has proved much more to players' liking.
Something old is gone, but something old remains at Par-A-Dice, too. On the top level, there remain Deuces Wild video poker machines on IGT's old gaming platform, with old-style graphics and a pay table that returns 98.9 percent with expert play. These machines have been there ever since Par-A-Dice opened. At the time, they were the best video poker pay tables in Illinois, and their popularity here prompted the late video poker guru Lenny Frome to dub the pay table "Illinois Deuces Wild."
Elsewhere, there's a collection of the latest and greatest games slot manufacturers have to offer - Aristocrat's Mr. Cashman, Atronic's Sphinx Magic progressive, Konami's Cash Crossing and Hawaiian Dream, IGT's Mata Hari with a bonus reel for free spins in the top box.
New is a collection of "Verified Loosest" slot machines. Look for machines with signs up top or gold stickers on the top box telling you they're "Verified Loosest" games. On those machines, Couchman has the programs with the highest payback percentages in Illinois.
Video poker players have a wide selection, too - Super Times Pay, Multi-Strike Poker, Spin Poker and a collection of single-hand and multiple-hand games. When she was slot director at Empress in Joliet, Couchman was always willing to try new poker games. The same goes at Par-A-Dice. In fact, when I was in town, so was IGT video poker product manager John Daley, talking a little video poker, naturally enough.
Space for table games is shrinking here, as it is everywhere, but there remains a nice variety - blackjack (with $5 tables!) - craps, roulette, Caribbean Stud, Let It Ride and Three Card Poker.
It was a fun trip, well worth making the 2-1/2 -hour ride every now and again. But as I left, there was no question as to what had made the biggest splash: Penny Lane was in my ears and in my eyes.
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Best of John Grochowski