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The New Empress is Empressive

9 September 2003

From the time Empress in Joliet first announced it was remodeling a barge to replace its Empress I and Empress II riverboats, I was a little wary of the project.

After all, this was a scaled-back plan, a substitute for a more expensive construction of a new barge that was scrubbed last year when Illinois raised its maximum gaming tax to 50 percent of revenue. On the remodeled barge, which had been used in St. Louis, Empress would have to divide its gaming positions between two levels--an improvement over seven gaming decks spread across two boats, but I doubted it would be quite so convenient as the single-level barges at Harrah's Joliet and Hollywood in Aurora.

I couldn't have been more wrong. The recently opened Empress facility is a match for any casino in the Chicago area. It's roomy and easy to navigate, with wide aisles. The two-deck layout isn't at all bothersome--players have a choice when they enter to either veer left or right to stay on the upper floor, or keep to the center and head down the escalator or stairway to the lower deck.

Perhaps best of all, when I left the casino, my clothes didn't smell of smoke, something that's always been a problem on the riverboats with low ceilings. Empress general manager Jeff Pfeiffer and director of casino operations Michael Dickson both said that one of the features that has drawn the most positive customer feedback has been the decrease of smoke in the casino, something that comes with the higher ceilings and new Bimetric filtering system.

As now configured, the barge has 60,000 square feet of gaming space, an increase of 15,000 square feet from the two boats combined. There is plenty of room to expand should Illinois ever raise its limit of 1,200 gaming positions per license. Conference rooms on the lower level could easily be converted to casino space.

All 32 table games--the same number Empress had on its two boats--are on the upper level, in one cohesive table pit. Upper-deck slots include a few nickel video games for a little flash, but are mostly higher denominations. At the back, a high-limit room is divided with slots from $1 to $100 to your left as you enter, and tables to the right. Between the slots and tables is the credit desk and hosts' station.

Almost directly below the high-limit area is a VIP room with food and beverages. High-limit players don't have to walk back to the front escalator to access the VIP room--there is an elevator near the back of the casino.

Downstairs, the gaming is all slots and video poker. This is where the bulk of the nickel video slots are, including a special Nickel Madness area toward the back of the deck, complete with its own cashiers' cage. Near the front of the deck, just to your left as you leave the escalator, is a deli.

The whole thing has a big-casino feel, more cohesive than is possible on riverboats. Far from taking a back seat to the earlier barges, it comes across as a more comfortable facility than Harrah's and is a strong rival to Hollywood.

Empressive, indeed.

FAREWELL TO 10-7: During my walkthrough last week, Empress' slot mix was not yet final. In order make a seamless transition from boats to barge, without loss of operating time, the barge was filled mostly with new games and slots that had been aboard Empress I, while many games remained aboard Empress II. Newer games from Empress II will replace some of the older machines from Empress I.

One old friend of video poker fans has been lost in the transition. Empress no longer has full-pay 10-7 Double Bonus Poker. Instead, its dollar single-hand Double Bonus games have 9-7 pay tables, meaning full houses pay 9-for-1 and flushes 7-for-1, along with a progressive jackpot for royal flushes.

Empress would have liked to continue offering the full pay table, but the Illinois Gaming Board did not approve the 10-7 version on manufacturer IGT's new gaming platform. In buying new machines on the revised platform, Empress had to request gaming board approval for every video poker game it wished to offer. Full-pay Double Bonus was rejected.

With expert play, 10-7 Double Bonus Poker has a theoretical return of 100.17 percent. That exceeds Illinois' legal maximum of 100 percent. Strategy for 10-7 Double Bonus is difficult to master, so in practice the games don't return more than 100 percent. Empress wasn't losing any money on the machines, or they wouldn't have been there. Nevertheless, the game is now history here.

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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:

The Craps Answer Book

> 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