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by Stu D. Hoss

Stu D. Hoss is a 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 over 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.

Note: The observations of casino conditions were made in September 2013. The casinos visited in North Las Vegas and Summerlin include:

Santa Fe Station Hotel and Casino, 4949 North Rancho Drive, N. Las Vegas

Texas Station Gambling Hall and Hotel, 2101 Texas Star Lane, N. Las Vegas

Red Rock Casino Resort Spa, 11011 West Charleston, Summerlin

September in Las Vegas means football. Professional and college football mania sweep the city. Everyone you meet is an expert and parlay cards litter the sports books. However, as the last days of summer fade into fall and the shadows of Mount Charleston seem to inch closer, thereís always time to play blackjack. Itís always in season. This month I ventured into three off-Strip properties in the northern and western sections of the Las Vegas Valley. The properties Ė Santa Fe Station, Texas Station, and Red Rock Ė are all owned by Station Casinos Inc.

For those that arenít familiar with Station Casinos, the company was founded by the late Frank Fertitta Jr., and began as a locals casino operator when it opened the Bingo Palace in 1976. That property later became Palace Station. The company currently owns and operates eighteen casinos, ten of which have hotels totaling over 4,000 rooms, in the greater Las Vegas metro area. Collectively, they have over 24,000 slot and video poker machines, table games, poker tables, and keno lounges on their casino floors. They are one of the dominant companies in the Las Vegas locals marketplace and their properties run the gamut when it comes to its customersí budgets. Read on for more information about three distinctly different Station properties in the Las Vegas market.

Santa Fe Station Hotel and Casino, 4949 North Rancho Drive, N. Las Vegas

Located at the intersection of U.S. Route 95 and Rancho North Drive in the northwest corner of the valley, Santa Fe Station offers a little bit of everything for its visitors. Thereís a 200-room hotel, an 85,000 square-foot casino, and several other options and amenities that include a 60-lane bowling center and a nightclub. The casino features a large race and sports book area, a 14-table poker room, a bingo hall, and a keno lounge. More importantly, thereís also some good blackjack and video poker opportunities for the savvy player.

The table games area is centrally located on the casino floor. Depending where you park and enter the casino, this area might not be obvious. There are lots of pillars and right angles at Santa Fe; however, everything is well marked. Just read and follow the plentiful signs and you should have no trouble.

The table games are divided into four pit areas. One pit, with six blackjack tables, and another 12-table pit that included eight blackjack tables, a Super Fun 21 table, and two roulette wheels was closed when I visited. The remaining open tables offered a few carnival game selections such as Three Card Poker, Emperorís Challenge, and Ultimate Texas Hold ĎEm; as well as nine blackjack games. Unfortunately, these included two unplayable single-deck games offering 6:5 payouts on player blackjacks. The remainder consisted of six double-deck games and a six-deck shoe game. For the dice hurlers, there were also three craps tables.

Except for the single-decks mentioned above, blackjacks pay 3:2 at Santa Fe Station. Players are allowed to double down on any first two cards (DOA) and double after splits (DAS). Aces may be split and re-split to form up to four hands. Dealers hit soft 17 and surrender is not available. Playing rules are the same on the double-deck and six-deck games. Table minimum and maximum bets varied from $5-$500; $10-$500; and $25-$1,000. The $10 double-deck minimum game was dealt from a mini-shoe. Mid-deck entry is allowed and relief dealers picked up the current deal without shuffling or burning a card. Also of note, Santa Fe dealers use a discard tray with a notch. Iíll discuss this more in the next section.

Santa Fe offers the Pair Square Side Bet on its blackjack games. Players can make a side bet that they will be dealt a pair on their first two cards. This pays 10:1 and if the pair is suited, 25:1. I never make this side bet and donít recommend it. The house edge is close to 10 percent on this wager. In a double-deck game, just think about how many pairs and especially suited pairs are possible. Thereís only eight of everything and two of the same suit. In fairness, I was the only player on my table not making this side bet and the suited pairs did pay off three times for players in about an hour. All I can say about that is even a stopped clock is right twice a day!

Included in Santa Fe Stationís 2,700 slot and video poker machines is a small handful of over 100% payback video poker options with the best being Full-Pay Deuces Wild (100.76%) in quarters. Other 100% payback schedules include 10/7 Double Bonus (100.17%), Loose Deuces Wild (100.15%), and Double-Double Bonus (100.07%). These are offered on the same machines in 25-cent, 50-cent, and $1 denominations. These machines are spread throughout the casino and clearly marked, but also require $4 in CI to earn one players club point. Other popular and very playable games such as Not-So Ugly Deuces (99.73%) and 9/6 Jacks or Better (99.54%) are also available, but not plentiful.

Santa Fe Stationís dining options include the Feast Buffet, a good dinner bargain at $9.99 with a playerís card and yes, I have eaten there and probably will again at some point. Other choices include the Charcoal Room (steakhouse), Cabo (Tex-Mex), and the Grand Café. Thereís also a food court not far from the table games area that includes Wing Stop, Fat Burger, and Starbucks. Parents can leave the youngsters at Kids Quest or at the arcade while they hit the casino floor or enjoy dinner.

Texas Station Gambling Hall and Hotel, 2101 Texas Star Lane, N. Las Vegas

Southeast from Santa Fe Station about five miles on Rancho Drive, near the North Las Vegas airport, is Texas Station. To their credit, the folks at Texas Station play the Texas theme well. They even have oil derricks in the parking lot and barbecue on the buffet spread! Like Santa Fe Station, thereís a 200-room hotel and several amenities common in a Las Vegas local casino. These include a movie theater, the 2,000-seat Dallas Events Center (Abba Mania was there September 27), and a small night club, South Padre. If you like classic rock n roll, check out the Saturday night act, Yellow Brick Road. I saw them years ago at Green Valley Ranch and they were one of the better classic rock tribute and cover bands youíll find Ė anywhere. I need to check out one of their performances again real soon.

The casino floor at Texas Station is 91,000 square-feet, but feels smaller to me than Santa Fe Station. However, it does offer comparable blackjack games if you can find an open table. The night I visited, one of the dealers told me business had been pretty slow of late. The table games are in one central area. When I visited, one six-table and an adjacent four-table pit were both closed. The remaining tables that were open housed Emperorís Challenge, Fortune Pai Gow Progressive, Ultimate Texas Hold ĎEm, and six blackjack games. The blackjack tables consisted of a single-deck game that paid 6:5 on player blackjacks, a six-deck shoe, three hand-dealt double-deck games, and a double-deck game dealt from a mini-shoe. This game had higher betting limits, $25-$1,000, than the other tables. Minimum and maximum bet limits on those ranged from $5-$500; $5-$1,000; and $10-$500. In addition, the table games included three craps tables and two roulette wheels.

The blackjack house rules at Texas Station are the same as those for Santa Fe Station (and the other Station properties Iíve visited.) Except for the single-deck game mentioned above, blackjacks pay 3:2. DOA and DAS are allowed and Aces may be split and re-split to form up to four hands. Dealers hit soft 17 and surrender is not available.

While waiting for the pit boss to log me in and a new shuffle, I witnessed something Iíve never seen before on a blackjack table...

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