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By Mark Gruetze

Mark Gruetze writes the weekly "Player's Advantage" gambling column for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in Pennsylvania. He has been a skilled recreational casino player for more than 30 years, focusing on blackjack, video poker, and poker. E-mail questions or comments to:

You gotta love going to Tunica.

Itís an attractive spot for low-rollers, with $10 DD blackjack, decent video poker pay tables, and easy comps.

My wife and I travel from Pittsburgh to Tunica every March for a weeklong visit. The few changes we noticed since our October 2012 trip indicate that some casinos are struggling. Samís Town closed its live poker and keno areas; a $10 DD seat can be hard to find because many casinos have only one such table; Roadhouse, which opened a poker room since October, closed it a day before we arrived; Resorts still shuts down its table games at 2 a.m.

Still, Gold Strike is spending $9 million on revamping its buffet. Until the renovated area reopens this summer as "Buffet Americana," the buffet is in what had been the food court, near the hotel front desk. Perhaps because of the work, comps there seemed to be a little easier than in the past; in one instance, we were offered dinner as we cashed in at a $5 shoe game.

We stayed at Resorts and Fitzgeraldís, taking advantage of free-room offers, and played most often at those two casinos as well as Ballyís, Gold Strike and Samís Town. The BJ games remain standard Tunica rules: H17, DAS, RSA. Penetration at the DD games is generally 50-55 percent, although some Fitz dealers will go 70 percent. Gold Strike pen is about 60 percent, with dealers using a notch in the discard tray for consistent cutoff card placement.

Whatís unique every time we visit are the people we encounter at the table. Regulars who seemingly live in the casino, sharp players trying to stay under the radar, and the folks who just make you shake your head in wonderment. Here are some stories:

The Decision

Fitzgeraldís seemed to be a magnet this trip for players whose greatest skill is telling everyone else how they should have played their cards. Normally, my wife and I ignore those comments. One night, however, we found ourselves between two incredibly obnoxious players, one at first base, and one at third Ė a stereo effect of whining and dumb plays. They doubled on hard 7 and hard 8 vs. a bust card, and on hard 12 or hard 13 against a deuce. If the dealer made a hand, they would reconstruct each personís play to declare, loudly, how someone should have stayed or hit. They were expert at playing the cards after they had been dealt. The worse thing was that First Base seemed to win all his bad plays Ė he won a couple of $200 double-downs ($100 original bet) by doubling on 7 vs. a bust card. Then came the hand with the tough decision. The dealerís up-card was a deuce. First base doubled his Ace-4, putting $200 at risk. Sitting next to the third baseman, I had 12. Following basic strategy, I hit and received an 8. The third baseman then tucked his cards, a King-2, face up below his chips. The dealer flipped up her hole card. It was a face card, giving her a total of 12. Before she could hit, the third baseman protested, saying he had wanted to double. The dealer summoned a PC, who asked incredulously, "You want to double after seeing her hole card?" He gave the third baseman the option of doubling his hard 12 knowing the dealer also had a hard 12. Aha! Now the guy has to play the hand BEFORE the cards come out. He waffled for several seconds before deciding to stay. The dealer drew an 8, giving her 20. The guy at first, who lost his double-down, exploded, screaming at the third baseman about how he should have hit. Even though I didnít win the hand or that session, the spectacle was sweet.

The "Pros"

In one post-midnight session, I was at "shortstop," between the middle seat and third base. The poor guy in the middle was a rookie, who admitted not knowing much about basic strategy. His play got constant critiques from three other players at the table Ė The Lady in Red, who was at first base; Mr. Smug, who sat next to her and wore a crewcut, sport coat and turtleneck sweater; and The Angry Guy at third base, whose mood never lightened despite receiving multiple blackjacks and favorable draws. In one hand, the rookie stood on Ace-6, and Mr. Smug proceeded to lecture him about the advantage that comes from hitting. "Of course, Iím just a professional at this. What do I know?" he added, not so humbly. In another hand, the guy in the middle hit a hard 12 vs. a 5 and drew a 7. The pro and the woman talked about what a rotten play it was. Of course, the guy in the middle was the only one at the table to be paid on that hand Ė and with a $75 bet at that, possibly his biggest of the night. Itís kind of hard for a message to sink in when he wins and the "teachers" lose. I thought about asking Mr. Smug why a pro chooses to play a grind joint with $300 max bets and generally no better than 50 percent pen, but decided those questions would have to wait. At one point, the count skyrocketed after the first couple of hands, and Mr. Smug...

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