In Notes from the Blackjack Underground: Las Vegas Parks, Casinos and Politics, a professional gambler reports to Blackjack Forum how casinos determine where the money from the Las Vegas parks budget is spent, and provides the latest blackjack information to card counters heading to Las Vegas.
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Las Vegas Casinos and Glitter Gulch "Park"

Las Vegas politics, parks and the casino cash cow
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Las Vegas Casinos, Parks and Politics

By G.K. Schroeder
(From Blackjack Forum XVII #2, Summer 1997)
© Blackjack Forum 1997

In one of the silliest civic debates I can remember, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and the Las Vegas Parks and Recreation Advisory Board have been arguing about whether or not the Fremont Street Experience is a park. If you are not aware, a few years ago when the new theme-hotels on the strip began to seriously draw gambling revenue away from the older venues downtown, the Visitors Authority and the downtown casino owners jointly bankrolled the construction of a 70 million dollar canopy over Fremont street which would convert downtown Las Vegas into a kind of gambling mall with a light and sound show. If the strip could have volcanoes, pyramids, and pirate ships, well then downtown Las Vegas would go out and buy a roof.

It turns out that in a quietly held meeting four years ago the Visitors Authority voted to grant $8 million to the project from the Parks and Recreation budget on the basis that the Fremont Street Experience was a recreational facility. Now the Parks Department is complaining about it and I don’t blame them: Fremont Street has no picnic tables or swings, the trees are in pots, and there are no ducks. Downtown Las Vegas is not a park, it is a place to play blackjack, or at least tie one on.

East Las Vegas "Parks"

Sam’s Town Hotel and Gambling Hall out on Boulder Highway is a place where you can find a good game of blackjack and enjoy a real park with a roof over it. There are no ducks in Mystic Falls Park but there is one each animatronic squirrel, beaver, wolf and woodpecker, and four stationary plastic rams.

Mystic Falls Park is a 25,000 square foot atrium enclosed by the Sam’s Town hotel towers. (Sam’s has expanded six times in the last 15 years.) It is a rambling rock and foliage setting with gazebos, footpaths, streams and bridges. At one end of the park there is Mystic Falls, a 30-foot pile of rocks with a waterfall and pond. On top of the tallest rock lives a wolf who emerges from his cave and howls during the Sunset Stampede laser and music show. You will do the same if you’re napping in your room when the music starts.

The registration area is in the park, as is Papamio’s Italian kitchen. Papamio’s offers a Sunday Champagne and Seafood Brunch, $13.95, all the crab legs you can eat, and it’s a pleasant place to watch the folks pass by. In addition to Papamio’s, there’s the Rams Head bar, a circular affair built into a rock grotto with, of course, plastic rams on top.

The casino at Sam’s Town has a western theme, like the Mojave has a desert theme. It is carpeted in bordello red with designs of wagon wheels, cacti and cowboy boots. There are bars tucked in every corner (14 in all) with names like Billy Joe’s or Billy Bob’s (the Mexican Restaurant is called Willy and Jose’s) and at Diamond Lil’s, their gourmet restaurant, the beer list is longer than the wine list—all reliable signs of western influence.

Western dancing is offered nightly at the Western Dance Hall, and if you prefer modern country music, you can mosey over the Roxy’s Saloon in the main pit and enjoy the music of “Jumpin’ Boots” or “The Sons of the Buffalo Chips” (don’t worry, they play rock music too). And if you need some cowboy boots, try the enormous Western Emporium (carpeted in a planked-floor design) where you can select from a thousand pair.

There are 39 blackjack tables at Sam’s including about a dozen each single-deck and double-deck. They hit soft 17 and don’t allow doubling after splitting, so there’s a significant 0.53% basic strategy disadvantage at the double-deckers, but if you’re one of those card counters who thinks any single-deck game is a good game, with a 0.18% casino edge at Sam’s, you’ll be happy here.

I’m not averse to playing single-deck, but the expectation during the shuffle is low, and if you play at a full table, which is too often the case in any single-deck house, you’ll get a shuffle every three minutes and play about 40 rounds per hour. However, if you can play two hands on the third base side, see the cards of two or three other players, and bet big off the top, it can be a decent opportunity.

How much does it cost to bet big off the top? Following are the results of 100 million round simulations (SD .01) on the Universal Blackjack Engine, Professional Edition. In each sim the player played two hands of $100 on the third base side of a table of six players and saw the hole cards of two other players as well as the hit cards and busted hands of all the other players prior to making strategy decisions. One round was dealt per deck.

%W/L $/100 rounds

Basic Strategy -0.18 -$36.00

Hi Lo (18 Indices) -0.08 -$16.00

Full Hi Lo -0.06 -$13.00

Halves -0.06 -$12.00

½ Deck Zen -0.01 -$1.00

Omega II 0.00 +$1.00

Uston APC +0.01 +$2.00

Sam’s is a friendly place to play blackjack and, if they’re satisfied that you’re not a horse thief or a card counter, they won’t sweat it if you win.

The rooms of Sam’s Town continue the western theme with furnishings that are rustic to the point of being uncomfortable: try a bark-on pine chair with back and bottom made of rawhide strips, or a roughcut sandstone-topped table that makes your laptop wobble and abrades your heels when you put your feet up.

But they are charming rooms and well worth the rack rates $45/60 weekdays, $90+ weekends. A quarter bet for four hours a day will get you one. A $50-$75 bet will get you a petite “A” suite ($165 and up rack rate) and a $100 bet gets a full-sized “B” suite ($265 and up). The “B” suites are luxurious and comfortable with a sit-down wet bar, dining area, and attractive pieces of western art. Both types of suites have jacuzzis. Whatever type of room you get, try to get on one of the top floors facing Mystic Falls Park.

Sleeping Around Las Vegas

My current favorite places for staying and playing (meaning that the blackjack card counting, the food and the rooms are all good) are (alphabetically) Bally’s, Flamingo, Mirage, Palace Station, Stardust, Sam’s Town, and Texas Station.

I’ve removed the Rio from my list because their service still hasn’t caught up with their recent expansion, but it’s still a good place to play blackjack, and their new Masquerade Village is worth a walk-through. It is a two-story complex in a Mardi Gras/Voodoo/Brazilian theme with dozens of new shops and restaurants. There’s a voodoo shop where you can buy a real alligator head or a doll of your favorite pit boss to stick pins in—Gordito, my former neighbor and sometime partner, goes there regularly and puts a curse on Harrah’s. At night there is a live Mardi Gras show with masked ladies dancing in cages that whirl around the ceiling on tracks.

Business slows down a bit in June in Las Vegas due to a lull in convention business as people take off on real vacations, so it’s easy to get a room for a quarter bet. If you want to stay downtown, try the Four Queens or Golden Nugget; on the Strip, try the Excalibur or Harrah’s (don’t eat there); off the strip, the Stations, Palace, Texas, and Boulder, are all good values as is, of course, Sam’s Town.

Swimming Around Town: Las Vegas Pools

As this is the summer issue of Blackjack Forum, it might be appropriate to look at the swimming facilities in town. A good tan is a key element in Gordito’s act; he claims that a deep tan expresses a carefree and well-to-do image and sets off his gold and diamonds.

His favorite spots to sunbathe are Rio, Flamingo, Mirage and Monte Carlo. The Rio has three pools including a fresh water pool with a waterfall and sandy beach, and is known, along with Gordito’s other favorites, for having a high proportion of attractive, uninhibited young sunbathers. The only problem with the Rio facility is that one side is open to the desert and the afternoon windstorms will imbed beach in your teeth.

Both the Flamingo and Mirage have full-blown resort-style bathing facilities with strings of amoeba-shaped pools, water falls, water slides, and hundreds of deck chairs spaced 3/8ths of an inch apart in a setting of curving walkways, cute bridges, and tropical foliage.

The Mandalay Bay has perhaps the most entertaining of the pool facilities. There is the Wave Pool, which has pumps at the deep end that propel water toward the cement slope of the shallow end, creating a continuous surf of about two feet. Kids on rafts ($12/day) or inner tubes ($6/day) have a blast. And there is Easy River, a circular canal with directional current and hairpin turns at either end. The trick is to maneuver a raft around the turns without spilling your drink.

None of these pools—generally no more than 3 ½ feet deep—is satisfactory for actual swimming (although Mirage and the MGM complex do have pools with buoyed-off lanes for swimming laps). If you really want to swim, try the Riviera, Harrah’s, Imperial Palace (don’t stay here unless you’re comped to a suite, and never eat here), and Bally’s. The old-style rectangular pool at Bally’s has a 13’ deep end and lies in the shadow of the monorail that runs from there to the MGM. If you ever wondered why they built that monorail, it’s to travel between the pools at Bally’s and the MGM.

If you prefer to exercise in air-conditioned comfort, but enjoy a view of sunbathing, the spas at both the MGM and the Rio offer stationary bikes, treadmills, and stairmasters that give a close-up view through floor-to-ceiling windows of their pools and denizens. My favorite pool is the old pool at the Flamingo with the eight 12-foot iron flamingos expectorating return water from their beaks. The setting is cozy and beautiful, the foliage is mature, and most of the folks are crammed in at the newer amoeba-shaped wading pools.

The worst pools in Las Vegas are at any Station hotel, particularly Boulder Station, and the Stratosphere. The pool at the Stratosphere is on the 24th floor (right, it’s deep) and takes up most of the area with just a fringe of cement around the edges for deck chairs. There is a small bar, however, with about a dozen bottles of booze and music provided by a ghetto blaster placed on top of a bar stool.

Not the Top Ten Places in Vegas to Play Blackjack

I have been asked why I don’t provide a “top ten” play list in this column. There are three reasons: 1) Blackjack Forum is a quarterly, and thus providing an up-to-date list would not be practical; 2) There is already a “Best Bets” section; and 3) I wouldn’t tell you anyway.

However, there are plenty of viable games in Las Vegas and, unless otherwise stated, the casinos mentioned in this column were good places to play at the time of writing.

Las Vegas Casino Crybabies

The Stratosphere has been backing off big bettors in recent weeks without even bothering to guess if they are card counters. The “Nobody’s Better” theme may be wearing thin. Other places that can’t endure winners would include Imperial Palace (they also will serve what seem to be triple-strength cocktails if you’re ahead), Excalibur (they don’t have a clue about handling comped players, although they have finally replaced their cardboard players’ cards with plastic), Gold Coast (they don’t like anybody who looks smart, even $10 players) and, of course, Harrah’s.

Airlines for the Trip to Las Vegas

If you’re sick of the Southwest Airlines cattle car between LAX and Las Vegas's McCarran, you might try America West. You can reserve a forward seat in advance, and thus be last on and first off. The round trips are about the same price; their planes seem cleaner and quieter; they keep to a closer schedule; they offer honey-roasted peanuts; and the stewardesses don’t sing.

Las Vegas Hotels: Nice Touches

The shelf for shaving gear, etc., above the bathroom counter at the Riviera, six pillows on the king-sized beds at Palace Station, Tropical Ted’s Gourmet Pepper Sauce on every table at Rio’s Beach Café, free cigarettes in the pit at Rio, 22nd Floor Club at Bally’s, any room with an ironing board.

Las Vegas Hotels: Cruel Touches

Elevators with buttons on one side only which may force a slot player to reach in front of you, lamps that are bolted to night tables, prong and slot hangers, opaque shower curtains that require you to bring a flashlight to wash your toes, most hotel room lighting, prearranged deck chairs, any blackjack fun pit.♠

For up-to-date information on traveling to Las Vegas, see Eating Las Vegas 2012: The 50 Essential Restaurants and Sin City Advisor's Topless Vegas, a guide to Las Vegas adult entertainment.

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  Las Vegas Casinos Get the Las Vegas Parks Budget Spent on Glitter Gulch
This Blackjack Forum article provides insider information on Las Vegas politics as it relates to casinos, and also reviews Las Vegas casino pools, rooms, and other amenities.