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LAS VEGAS BLACKJACK REPORT:

BELLAGIO and CAESARS PALACE

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 June 2012. The casinos visited on the Las Vegas Strip were:

Caesars Palace, 3570 Las Vegas Boulevard South

Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Boulevard South

I watched Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) earlier this month when my local cable company had a free preview of movie channels. Iíd seen the film before, but itís the kind of viewing that gets you thinking and you notice things you didnít the previous time. If you arenít familiar, Iím referring to the film adaptation of the late Hunter S. Thompsonís classic 1971 novel by the same name starring Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke, and Benicio del Toro as Dr. Gonzo. Itís billed as a "Savage journey to the heart of the American Dream." Fast forward 40+ years. If we were to do a 2012 version, thereís no better place to begin that journey than the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard South and Flamingo Road. There you will find this monthís subjects, two high-end properties that represent all that is "good" and "evil" in the blackjack world and America at large: Caesars Palace and Bellagio.

Caesars Palace, 3570 Las Vegas Boulevard South

Every time I walk into Caesars Palace, Iím reminded of the fall of 1990. I was a freshly minted Second Lieutenant, right out of Officer Training School, making my way across country to begin flight training at Mather Air Force Base in Sacramento, CA. I checked into Nellis Air Force Base, billeting in North Las Vegas late one afternoon during my journey. Iíd never been to Las Vegas and wanted to see the Strip. As the sun was going down that evening, I made my initial foray to the Fabulous Las Vegas Strip. Many of the properties I drove past are long gone, but the neon lights and billboards advertising real celebrity headliners and cheap buffets still remind me of a better time.

I donít remember where I parked my car back then, but I soon found myself on the people mover heading towards the main entrance to Caesars Palace. "Why not start at the top?" I thought to myself. In 1990, Caesars, with its Roman Empire theme, represented the "top" of the casino world. As I reached the entrance, a beautiful woman, dressed as Cleopatra, greeted me. I gazed down at the "empire" with awe and set foot in a casino for the first time in my young life. I didnít know anything about casino gambling and didnít wager a nickel that night, but I knew Iíd be back (after I did some studying). Unfortunately, a lot has changed in the gaming industry over the years. The current version of the Empire represents it all.

Caesars Palace is owned by Caesars Entertainment Corporation (ticker symbol CZR on the NASDAQ), formerly Harrahís Entertainment. The name change was made official on November 23, 2010. I got my first players card at Harrahís Reno and at one time, it represented a good place to gamble.

As time passed and the company grew larger and larger via acquisition and the construction of new properties, the odds turned dramatically to the downside for the player. I dubbed Harrahís the "Evil Empire" over a decade ago (Iíve seen and heard them referred to by that name many times over the years so I guess I canít lay claim to it). Most of their properties offer lousy blackjack games and a plethora of short-pay video poker schedules. They tend to reward their loyal slot-playing customers rather handsomely, but, in my opinion, look at blackjack and video pokers with suspicion and disdain.

I maintained a relationship for many years after the "new philosophy" of currying slot players and discouraging serious gamblers was enacted through a property they acquired in Tunica, Mississippi as part of a larger deal involving multiple properties. Their Tunica casino offered 9/6 Jacks or Better (JOB) and 9/7 Double Bonus (DB) video poker in quarters, and was my second choice for video poker in that market. My play there earned me a few free nights periodically at some of their Las Vegas properties on the Strip. However, I found the games in their Strip properties all unplayable and made a conscious decision to not overplay my bankroll or play their poor pay schedules or table games. Eventually, they exiled me and the free room offers and comps dried up.

Needless to say, it pains me to walk into the current version of Caesars Palace Las Vegas. The Roman Empire theme, with the statues, paintings, and references to ancient Rome, is still fantastic and the target audience remains high rollers and those with expense accounts. However, much of the class and elegance has been replaced by nothing short of corporate greed. Apparently, that vice is no longer reserved only for the gamblers. Caesars offers high table limits and a dizzying array of blackjack rules that vary from pit to pit. There are some very good games offered, however, if you know where to look and can afford them. With that as a backdrop, Iíll guide you through the ups and downs of the many versions of blackjack at this historic and once great property.

Caesars is split into two primary casino areas: the Forum Casino and the Palace Casino. The high limit room is known as Palace Court and is located across from the Palace Casino. Weíll start with the bad Ė the Forum Casino. The only reason you should ever set foot in the Forum Casino is if you parked in the garage at the rear of the property, are standing in line to see Celine Dion perform at the Colosseum, or going shopping in the Forum Shops. There are two table games pits filled with single-deck blackjack tables, paying 6:5 for blackjacks, various "carnival games," and a pair of roulette wheels. Needless to say, several of these 6:5 blackjack tables were full! (Did I mention earlier that it pains me to walk through this property?)

Past the Forum Casino is the Race and Sports Book. Itís a shadow of its former self as well. The "Immortal Joe Louis" statue is all thatís left from the days when it was a great sports book. I spent a lot of hours in my formidable days watching games and listening to the old guys from back East tell stories and talk sports betting during my visits. Now, itís a terrible place to watch games and they deal a 15-cent baseball line (a 10-cent line is preferred; however, most Strip casinos deal a 20-cent line which is even worse for the bettor). However, they will book large wagers: the kind with commas and zeros.

Caesars features a very large poker room, with an entrance just past the restrooms at the Race and Sports Book and next to Pure Nightclub. A series of Leroy Neiman paintings entitled "The Girls of Caesars Palaceí line the hallway entrance and are worth a look.

The Pussy Cat Dolls Pit is outside the entrance to Pure. This nightspot epitomizes the evolution of Las Vegas away from gambling. Itís one of the most famous nightclubs in the country and is reportedly frequented by many A-listers and plenty of eye candy. I bluffed my way in, sans the cover charge, a few years back, passing as a local on a weeknight. I didnít see Paris Hilton or any other celebrities, but a beer cost $8. Speaking of famous eye candy, Playboy Playmate and former Girl Next Door, Kendra Wilkinson celebrated her birthday at Pure on June 22.

The Pussy Cat Dolls pit is Caesars version of a party pit. The original Pussy Cat Dolls were a burlesque dance troupe that morphed into a pop-girl group and have featured numerous cast members and line-ups over the years. This pit features arguably the worst...

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