Blackjack in the Small-Town Casinos of Nevada
FROM ET FAN:
On the Road to Nevada's Nowhere TownsBy Barry Meadow
(From Blackjack Forum XX #2, Summer 2000)
© Blackjack Forum 2000
[Barry Meadow is the author of Blackjack Autumn: A True Tale of Life, Death, and Splitting Tens in Winnemucca .]
The road is long, With many a-winding turn, That leads us to who knows where, Who knows where...
Uh, I know where. Iíve been there.
Most of us have doubled down and split pairs all over Las Vegas and Reno.
Some of us have comp-hustled in Laughlin or surrendered in Lake Tahoe. But I say if youíre going to play serious blackjack in Nevada, hit the road.
That means blackjack in Tonopah and McDermitt and Ely and Jackpot and every other place youíve seen on the map, only it was too damn far or too damn cold and why the heck would you drive a hundred miles to Lovelock when there was exactly one blackjack table in town and youíd look like a stalker trying to wong it?
Iíve been here, and there, and everywhere in Nevada. I counted cards at blackjack in every casino in the state during a two-month trip last year which consisted of me, a suitcase, and $8000. No entourage, no pals, no nothing but yours truly and one open road.
Every day, Iíd record my observations on a tiny tape machine. I made more recordings in garages than a Seattle grunge band. And by the time I finished my trip, 192 casinos later, my laptop computer was in worse shape than Andy Sipowicz.
And so was I.
The name of the book is Blackjack Autumn, and if you donít buy a copy right this minute, shame on you. The subtitle is A True Tale of Life, Death, and Splitting Tens in Winnemucca.
I should point out that the count was really, really good at the time. Once I played in a one-deck game dealt all the way to the bottom. Boy, it sure was fun taking insurance on a plus count when only two cards remained to be dealt!
Then again, there was the casino that featured a grand total of one player ó me again ó and seven pit employees, none of whom had anything better to do than watch me try to earn a few dollars.
At times I was the crusher, while at other times I was the crushee.
Iíve seen a blackjack dealer pull out more dead hands than a grave robber, and Iíve also seen a blackjack dealer lose so many hands that the floorman actually switched the game from two decks to one deck in an effort to change the casinoís luck (it didnít work).
I played with plastic cards. I played a game in which a playerís two hands were dealt one face up and the other face down (donít ask). I saw a man deal the first half of the shoe, walk to the other side of the table, and play the rest of the shoe himself.
Sometimes I was barred for card counting, including one telephone ejection at 1 a.m.. Golly, didnít that casino managerís mother ever tell him it was impolite to call after 9 p.m.? A card counter once told me that if youíve never been barred, youíre doing something wrong. I guess I did something right four times.
A few tips if youíre going to make a similar trip: Bring money. Have reliable transportation. And donít blow into town at 8 a.m., you little Carlsonite, because the blackjack game isnít open until 4 p.m. and what are you going to do all day when thereís absolutely nothing to do?
Donít bother showing up at 10 p.m., either, because that means you will have traveled on a two-lane Nevada blacktop at night on roads so dark that if some animal decides to cross the road in front of your vehicle, youíll never see it until itís draped over your hood, which is bad for your paint job.
Itís a long way from Nowheresville to South Nowheresville in Nevada, as you will soon learn. This is not a trip from Las Vegas to Henderson weíre talking about.
Letís say, for instance, that you decide to travel to Montgomery Pass to play blackjack. Try finding it on a map. Better yet, try calling information. Chances are youíll have no luck either way. Hint: The place is actually called the Montgomery Pass Lodge and Casino, but itís also called Soperís Cafe, and thereís no town anywhere nearby. If you do manage to find it, youíll enjoy the $2 chips and the aformentioned plastic cards that the casino employees wash rather than replace. There will also be a sign advising you not to drop your cigarettes into the urinal, always a sign of a first-class establishment.
Along the way, amazing things happened to me, as they no doubt will to you should you take on this assignment. In Beatty, for instance, I realized every card counterís dream. I won so much money at the Burro Inn ó well not all that much, but pretty big for Beatty as my blackjack profits crept into the mid three-figures ó that the game actually had to come to halt because if I won the next hand, there would not be enough chips to pay me. Yes, all action actually stopped as we waited for one of the bartenders to step into the casino cage to chip-run another rack of reds for my gambling pleasure.
Good thing, too, because my next hand was a blackjack.
I found an Indian casino outside of Laughlin, though I actually found quite a few more Indians near the Say When Casino in McDermitt, and I wound up helping some of them herd horses across the state highway. Found some cowboys in Mesquite, too. And highway patrolmen in more than one place, although why they found 132 miles per hour objectionable is something Iíll never quite understand ó heck, there werenít any other cars for miles and miles, for Breedloveís sake.
I met cattle who looked meaner than Mike Tyson after a three-day drunk, and pit bosses who looked meaner still. Then again, I ran into gorgeous blackjack dealers, who made me sad that I was already engaged, although there is no evidence that any of these women would have had the slightest interest in me anyway.
Can You Win Counting Cards in Winnemucca?
Now to the important question: Can you actually win counting cards in these towns? Yes and no. You canít win thousands of dollars, because some of these towns donít have thousands of dollars. In Wells, the highest limit blackjack game is $25.
Forget about black chips ó in plenty of places youíll never even see green chips. If you visit the Bird Farm in Fallon, the highest amount you can play at blackjack is $5 per hand, though by brilliantly spreading from one hand of $2 to two hands of $5 I was able to carve out a $26 profit.
Nor can you blithely spread from $1 to $100 with impunity, Mr. Uston, because even the smallest places have heard of card counters, although in some places I doubt theyíve ever actually seen many of them. At Sturgeonís in Lovelock, not only did they cut off two of the four decks, but they burned a card after every round. The blackjack game wasnít much more attractive in Topaz Lake, or in Gardnerville, or in Jean. And I couldnít even find the blackjack game in Amargosa Valley, which turned out to be open only on weekends.
Then again, there was Yerington. I lost there ó no big news; I lost in a lot of places ó but I did find one intriguing practice at Casino West. The blackjack game was four decks, with the cut card placed halfway up. When the cut card appeared, the dealer would ask the players if they wanted her to shuffle; if they said no, sheíd keep dealing until only a few cards remained. Does that mean you could have gotten negative shoes shuffled away while asking the dealer to keep going on the positive shoes? Apparently so. Hmmmmm.
And sometimes the blackjack games were downright good. I had a very nice 80% penetration shoe dealt to me at the Nugget in Searchlight, and the $415 I managed to drop there was simply my way of saying thank you. And the dealt-to-the-bottom blackjack game, discovered at the Station House Casino in Tonopah, proved more than pleasant until I was asked to please leave town as quickly as possible.
Not that youíre likely to find that game any more. Game conditions in these little towns change more often than Bill Clintonís stories, although you can generally assume bad rules. When the best blackjack game in town is four decks, dealer hits soft 17, double on 10 or 11 only, with a $50 maximum, itís safe to assume that high-powered card counting teams will be spending their evenings elsewhere. You canít scout these games, either ó it might look a tad suspicious for a stranger to loiter around a game all day without playing, and you canít very well table-top because there is no other open table to hop to.
There is decent action in some of these out-of-the-way places, though.
Take Wendover, for example. Itís on the Utah border, and Utah is one of only two states (Hawaii is the other) where there is no legal gambling of any kind. Naturally the Mormons who populate the state occasionally like to get down a bet or two, and so there are a couple of very large casinos there as well as some smaller ones. At the State Line Casino, I saw a guy bet two hands of $500 apiece. A warning, though: the chips in Wendover are in the weirdest colors youíve ever seen, so be careful what youíre betting because just when you think youíre betting $17 on a hand, you just might accidentally be betting $341.
Elko gets some play, too. The owner of the Red Lion Inn owns an airline and flies in players from all over the West. Not real big players, you understand ó show up with $350 in front money and youíre in, no playing obligation required ó but itís eerie to visit this small northeastern Nevada town and see dozens of players sporting junket buttons.
Comps at Casinos in Small Town Nevada
The good news is that in some of these places, if you play for anything resembling quarters, youíll probably get comped, or least score a casino room rate. At the Saddle West in Pahrump, I had only been playing about fifteen minutes for $35 or so per hand when I asked the floorman what I needed to do to qualify for a comp; he proudly displayed the comp slip that he had already written for me, and gave me a discounted room as well. At the Tahoe Biltmore in Crystal Bay, another eager pitster offered me a room before I even had a chance to ask about it, and I had only been there about ten minutes.
Tourists in these burgs are few and far between, the action mostly confined to locals and truckers. You probably wonít find Wayne Newton in the showroom, if you can find a showroom at all. The townís gourmet restaurant might well be the casino coffee shop. Your room will have a bed and a thin bar of soap.
But hey, itís blackjack. Just make sure you gas up the car, because between towns is the desert, and if you run out of a gas thereís no filling station for 50 miles. Itís also probably best not to try such a trip with a 15-year-old salvage vehicle, unless you have hefty towing insurance and donít mind waiting a week for a part to come via UPS from Las Vegas.
Another reason to double-check your automobile is that it would be highly unfortunate to find yourself alone at night on a road next to an inoperable car thatís got $20,000 in cash stuffed in the trunk. Itís bad enough that some of these places donít have safe-deposit boxes, and youíve got to sleep with two chairs propped up against your motel door. The last thing you want to do is break down on some bandit-filled Nevada highway, where finding some abandoned mine in which to hide your bullet-riddled body would take the average criminal maybe ten minutes.
If you take up the road warriorís life, you donít have to worry much about running out of casinos, since Nevada is a pretty large state. If youíve worn out your welcome in Minden, youíll still be welcome in Verdi.
Many places, of course, are still more than happy to bar you if you play with any skill at all, no matter how big or small they might be. After powering my way to a hefty $40 profit at Harrahís Tahoe, for instance, I was asked to take my action elswhere, preferably to the bottom of Lake Mead. Hey, Mr. Harrah ó it wasnít me who lost millions on your New Orleans project. Whereís your sense of humor?
Itís difficult to disguise your play much in the little towns, because there is usually only one cashierís cage, only one or two shifts, and sometimes only one or two tables. If somehow the casino is short a thousand dollars, there are very few suspects, no matter how good your act. So youíre not going to be able to camp out for a week in Battle Mountain and bury the Owl Club and the Nevada Hotel for very long.
If you want to play reds for awhile and maintain a moderate spread, chances are nothing too terrible will befall you, though your chances of getting rich are none too great, either.
Sure, the Venetian has beautiful suites and the Desert Inn has a lovely golf course, but can you stay in a historic hotel for $19.95 on a Saturday night as I did in Ely, or play a nine-hole golf course thatís only slightly more challenging than Melís Mini-Putt as I did in Hawthorne? OK, there are no Bellagios in Indian Springs, but exactly how many floral cornucopias do you need to see, anyway? ♠
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Barry Meadow Reports on Card Counting Outside of Las VegasBarry Meadow writes about table limits, surveillance, and professional card counting profits and pitfalls in the small-town casinos of Nevada in this Blackjack Forum article.