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LAS VEGAS BLACKJACK REPORT:

FEAR AND LOATHING AT THE WESTERN

by Stu D. Hoss

Stu D. Hoss is a recently retired Air Force officer and aviator. He has visited and served in over 40 countries including flying combat missions in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Horn of Africa. Most of it under the guise of keeping the world safe for democracy, better blackjack, and for a few other personal reasons. He has been playing blackjack for 20 years and cut his teeth on the tables of South Lake Tahoe during flight training in Northern CA. Mr. Hoss uses basic strategy and the HiLo count method to give himself a chance against the house edge. He currently resides in NV and is weighing his options for a second career.

The observations of casino conditions were made in January 2012. The casino visited in Las Vegas was Western Hotel and Casino, 899 Fremont Street.

In his 1925 poem, The Hollow Men, T.S. Eliot wrote, "This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang, but a whimper."

So it was on a chilly, windy Las Vegas night when the Western Hotel and Casino closed its doors. The closing had been announced in November of last year, and it met with mild local media interest. I had written the date on my calendar for no particular reason, but as the date approached, I thought as a quasi-Vegas historian and observer of the human condition, I was long overdue to set foot in the property. What better time than its last night? What follows is my account of the Western, for good or ill. Warning: this article includes whisky, breakfast cereal, bad blackjack, a coonskin cap, security shakedown, chicken nuggets, and alternative rock band Fuel.

I found myself in a curious state of mind as I took the "scenic route" downtown from my headquarters to the north. Maybe I was in a bit of shock as the upstart New York Giants had just upset the Green Bay Packers and my two-team six-point teaser of the Ravens and Packers had gone up in smoke as I drove slowly past the Las Vegas Rescue Mission on Bonanza, then right on Main Street, and left to the El Cortez Hotel and Casino (EC) on Fremont and Sixth Street. Iíd park my car in the ECís parking garage and walk the three blocks to the Western, near the intersection of Fremont and 9th Street.

If you read my article in the August 2011 Blackjack Insider Newsletter, you might recall I referred to the area near the EC as being a bit "sketchy" for lack of a better phrase in the past. Thanks to several new businesses and a concerted effort by business owners and the Las Vegas Police Department, the Fremont East District is safer and more frequented by locals and tourists alike. However, the walk to the Western is still rather dark and quiet. I was reminded of an afternoon in the summer of 2006 when a friend and I were visiting and as we walked down Fremont Street to the EC, my friend asked, "Whatís that place down there?" An older, downtrodden looking man appeared on the sidewalk and before I could answer, told us, "Thatís the Western. You donít even go down there during the daytime, mistah."

Things were better now than in 2006 in this neck of the woods, but I was taking no chances. I dressed down wearing old blue jeans, tennis shoes, a plain gray sweatshirt, and a plain dark windbreaker. I carried a small amount of cash in case the blackjack conditions were favorable and kept my cranium on a swivel as I strode toward 9th Street. The Western was lit up brightly like, well, like something youíd see in Vegas. As I passed the bus stop about a half block away, a song, "Shimmer" from the rock band Fuel popped into my mind. "She calls me from the cold/Just when I was low, feeling short of stable" (from the 1998 album "Sunburn"). I wondered how many and who had answered that call over the years at this establishment.

As I stepped through the front doors and entered the Western for the first time, I was met with bright lights, but of the greenish, dull, surreal variety. It reminded me of Eastern Europe, post Soviet Union (and probably before). At one time, there was sawdust on the floor I had read, but now the floors were faux wood. The joint was relatively crowded despite many of the slot machines being dark. Currently this wasnít so much a gambling joint as a drinking joint. Being in a less-than-plush block of East Fremont Street, the deteriorating casino was able to extend its life by catering to a clientele of low-limit gamblers and $1 beverage connoisseurs. The Western was known for its $1 whisky shots and $1 Coors draft beer. A sign read, "$2 hot dog and Coors draft. See your bartender."

I walked around the casino, but found only one of three blackjack tables open. It offered a double-deck game with limits of $2-$200. The table was full, but I wouldnít have played since blackjack paid 6/5 in $5 increments. Below that, you were paid at even money. At least management had the decency to post that. Later in the evening, a second double-deck table opened with limits of $3-$200. I talked to the dealer to clarify the 6/5 and even money business on blackjacks. I had read it correctly. The dealer was a young Chinese woman and when I asked what she would be doing tomorrow when the doors were closed, she said, "Looking for job." We chatted briefly and she explained that I could double on any first two cards and double down after splits. However, I could re-split Aces only once and Surrender was not allowed. "You play?" she encouraged. "Not with those rules and payouts." I replied. I wished her well in finding a new job and went back towards the bar area.

The Western had a horseshoe or squared-off U-shaped configuration with patron seating on three sides. There were about 25 seats and they were all full when I entered. There were several small tables in the bar area that were filled with characters making all sorts of fashion statements. I nodded to the old skinny white guy in the too short, too tight denim shorts, tank top, and combat boots as I passed. Perhaps he had auditioned for the Village People when he was younger. There was a middle-aged black woman wearing a...

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