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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 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 February 2015. The casinos visited in Las Vegas were:

Golden Nugget, 129 E. Fremont Street

Binion's Gambling Hall and Hotel, 128 E. Fremont Street

Unseasonably warm weather came to the Las Vegas Valley the first half of February this year. The early spring coupled with Mardi Gras, Valentine's Day, and the Chinese New Year sounds like a good reason to smile, party, and celebrate; at least for most people. I'm not most people and Valentine's Day found me searching for my Valentine, Lady Luck on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas. She and I have had a strained relationship over the years and we've been on the "outs" of late. Suffice it to say, I didn't find her, but she did leave me a message in both downtown casinos I visited for this month's article. If you want to know more about her message, read on.

Golden Nugget, 129 E. Fremont Street

The Golden Nugget Las Vegas is a luxury hotel and casino located in the heart of the downtown Fremont Street Experience. The property is owned and operated by Landry's, Inc. (better known for its multiple chains of restaurants). The Golden Nugget is the largest casino property in the downtown area, with a total of 2,419 deluxe guest rooms and suites. It also features approximately 38,000 square feet of casino space.

Like many of the downtown properties, the Golden Nugget has a colorful history. The property was originally built in 1946, making it one of the oldest casinos in Las Vegas. Its owners have included Jackie Gaughan and Steve Wynn. In fact it was the foundation for Wynn's rise to prominence in the casino industry. The property has seen multiple renovations and additions dating back to the mid-1980s. Since purchasing the property in 2005, Landry's has reportedly invested more than $320 million in multiple phased renovations which culminated in 2009.

I managed to stay at the Golden Nugget a couple of times after Landry's took over thanks to some good internet travel-site specials ($49 per night as I recall). Overall the hotel and amenities were quite good for the price. However, as of January 19, 2015, the Golden Nugget began charging a $20 per night resort fee (plus tax). Allegedly, this gets you two bottles of water; a daily newspaper in the lobby; access to the Fitness Center, but not the wet areas; in-room Internet access for two devices; parking; and the ability to print your airline boarding passes via the Front Desk or Box Office. Gee; thanks. There are a few plusses to the Golden Nugget which I'll mention below. I have tried to find a reason to be a regular customer in the past, but they manage to do things like the above (resort fee) to make that nearly impossible. Admittedly, I've also always found the Golden Nugget's casino somewhat lacking for my taste.

The Golden Nugget's casino has about 60 table games spread out over a multitude of small gaming pit areas. To their credit, a good percentage of them are blackjack tables. There is a smattering of carnival games such as Crazy 4 Poker, Three Card Poker, Fortune Pai Gow, Let It Ride, Mississippi Stud, and Ultimate Texas Hold ‘Em. There are also five large craps tables, several roulette wheels, and a poker room located near the casino cage.

Blackjack offerings at the Golden Nugget include six-deck, double-deck (some dealt from shoes), and single-deck games. They also require a bit of reading comprehension on the part of the player as the rules vary from game-to-game and table-to-table. The rules for each table are clearly displayed on placards on the third-base side of the table. The single-deck games are scattered throughout the pit and all pay only 6:5 on player blackjacks and don't allow doubling-down after splitting. These games should be avoided. The double-deck games are average, but comparable to most double-deck games in the current Las Vegas market. Player blackjacks pay 3:2; double down on any first two cards (DOA) and doubling after splits (DAS) is allowed. Dealers hit soft 17 and surrender is not allowed. Aces may be split only once to form a total of two hands. Deck penetration is barely over half a deck. Table minimums varied from $10, $15, and $25 up to $2,500, regardless of the number of decks being dealt. There were a few $5 minimum double-deck games near Bar 46 at the front of the casino. However, they require a minimum $1 Pair Square side bet. I've never seen this before. How can you call a game blackjack and require a player to make a side bet? That sounds suspicious and perhaps a question better left to Gaming Control. Needless to say, those tables were packed with players!

The preferred blackjack option at the Golden Nugget is the six-deck games. Naturals pay 3:2; DOA and DAS are both permitted; Aces can be split and re-split to form up to four hands; and surrender is available. Dealers hit their soft 17s. Deck penetration appeared to be short of four decks.

The Golden Nugget offers a high-limit area with most of the minimums beginning at $100 and maximums of $5K. There was one $50 minimum game being dealt when I visited and this table was full. Dealers hit soft 17 and player blackjacks return 3:2. DAS, DOA, and surrender are allowed, plus re-splitting Aces up to four hands is permissible on the six-deck games. Aces can only be split one time and surrender is not allowed on the double-deck games in this area.

The Golden Nugget also offers a "party pit" near the sports book with semi-attractive female dealers showing a fair amount of cleavage. The pit has a table of Super Fun 21 Single Deck (there are a few scattered in other pits as well). This game has some different rules. I recommend grabbing the brochure tableside and reading carefully before sitting down. This pit also offers three unplayable eight-deck shoe games. Player blackjacks pay 6-5; Aces can only be split once to form two hands; and dealers hit soft 17. DAS, DOA, and surrender are permitted. Table minimums were $15 and these tables were relatively full. During the pool season, the Golden Nugget traditionally offers the same set up outside in the pool area. This is a bad game, fellas. Save your money for better games and leave the cleavage to the "professionals" at the Spearmint Rhino, 3340 S. Highland Dr.

In addition to the games mentioned above, there are three blackjack tables inside the Gold Rush Lounge. Late Saturday night, the minimums were $25. I was told the rules on these games were the same as those of the six-deck games mentioned earlier. There were no players. The Gold Rush is one of the plusses at the Golden Nugget I mentioned above. It has a small ultra-lounge vibe with live entertainment and a center bar. Tables adorn the perimeter of the lounge and there are a few tall chairs encircling the bar area. If you like rock n roll, classic and more recent, the musical acts on stage here are generally worth a listen.

Another plus at the Golden Nugget is...

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