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by Paul Wilson

BJI contributing writer Paul Wilson is a quasi-Renaissance man and graduate of Millsaps College. Some of his interests and hobbies include finance, consulting, travel, photography, and rock music. He's an avid baseball fan. Paul has done freelance writing and editing for gaming publications and takes blackjack, video poker, and sports betting very seriously. As we learned in the November issue, he also might have a "thing" for Wonder Woman.

I almost opted to title this column "Remembering the Riviera." As many of you probably know by now, the Riviera Hotel Casino, 2901 Las Vegas Boulevard South, will not be with us much longer. The property was purchased recently by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA). The $182.5 transaction was approved by the LVCVA's board February 20. Under the new ownership, "the Riv" is scheduled to close on May 4, 2015. The property will be demolished soon thereafter to make way for convention and meeting facilities as part of the LVCVA's $2.3 billion Global Business District. In this month's column I'm going to remember the Riviera and share some gambling lessons and memories that I learned when I used to frequent this property in the early 1990s through the mid-2000s.

Positive EV or 7:5 Rocks!

When I first started visiting the Riviera back in the early 1990s, they used to give out coupon books. This was a common practice at the time and a friend and I routinely collected as many as we could from various properties and sources the first day in town. It was a good excuse to check out some properties and play tourist. At dinner or back in the room that evening, we'd go through the books and figure out which ones we wanted to use and plan the next day's attack. Often they were nothing more than a free coffee mug, deck of cards, or fanny pack we'd never wear. Sometimes they were a free pull on a promotional slot machine (we never won the big money), a discounted buffet, and the gambling coupons for extra pay-offs on wins.

At the Riviera, staffers used to stand on the Las Vegas Boulevard entrance sidewalk and entice you to enter by handing you a coupon book. The coupon book had 7:5 coupons for blackjack, roulette, and craps. There was probably a coupon for a coffee mug too, because I still drink hot chocolate out of a Riviera mug during the winter. I know I have given a couple away and some have broken over the years, but I still have a few that are serviceable. I remember eating $1.99 all-you-can-eat pancakes in Katy's diner late at night too with one of these coupons.

In the early to mid-1990s I was far from a gambling expert, but I wasn't stupid either. I knew that placing a $5 wager and getting back my original bet plus $7 on a winning hand of blackjack was pretty sweet (+140). I had never heard the term EV or expected value, but by using these coupons, I had positive EV. These coupon books were plentiful and people often pulled out the shopping discounts and left the gambling coupons. You were supposed to only use one of each coupon per day, but I managed to pull one out when dealers and pit personnel went on break or changed shifts. I didn't abuse it, but getting four or five 7:5 coupons into play on the good double-deck games was the norm for an afternoon or evening session.

I've never been a roulette player, but I knew then that the odds were less than 50-50 because of the "greens" (0 and 00). However, with a coupon and wagering $5 to make $7, betting Red or Black was suddenly worth a shot. I used to bet one of those on the way to the blackjack table and one on the way out. For a long time, they roulette folks didn't care if there were multiple coupons on the table. I used to have a friend bet black while I bet red and we'd gamble that 0 or 00 didn't turn up. We'd lose $5, but make $7 and split the $2 profit. Often it was merely a ploy to garner a free drink from the buxom cocktail waitresses they used to employ. Two drinks and $2 in tips for the waitress at no cost to us; can you say winner-winner? That's an example of leveraging your assets for all you financial types out there.

I certainly didn't win all my coupon plays at the Riviera, but I probably won my share. The extra couple bucks here and there added up. You have to understand that in those days, Las Vegas was still a great bargain. We ate good food at the buffets and coffee shops and never thought about spending $10 each. You could go to night clubs and hear real live bands for $5 or no cover. Two drinks might cost $5. The Riviera was always crowded and there was a good cross-section of people there from all over the country in those days. People were friendly and just wanted to enjoy themselves.

NO "IFS", "ANDS", or ...Comps?

The long-running topless revue show "Crazy Girls" has been a part of the Riviera for over 25 years. The dance troupe was immortalized with a bronze sculpture of the dancers' backsides which has been on display in front of the property since it's unveiling in 1997. It's a popular photo-op and over the years, has become a good luck symbol for people to rub. I'm not sure how lucky it is, but where else can you rub a bronzed thong-covered Vegas showgirl's backside? Late one afternoon back in the mid-90s while I was playing blackjack at the Riv, a pit boss asked me if I wanted to go see the show that night. I wasn't sure what he asking or offering, but he mentioned the "Crazy Girls" and that I'd played enough to get a pair of "free" tickets if I wanted them. I gladly accepted and he handed me a voucher that I took to the box office shortly thereafter and the lady handed me two tickets to that night's performance.

I knew a little bit about comps, but not much. I knew enough to play with my player's card and to give them my card number when I called to make a hotel reservation. This generally led to "casino rate" for rooms which tended to be about 50-60% less than the advertised price. I'd never thought getting show tickets, so this was revelation. I enjoyed the "talented" performers and saw the show once or twice more over the years. Surely they'll find a new home after the Riv closes. They'd be a great draw for one of the downtown joints if marketed properly.

When it comes to entertainment, the roster of headliners at the Riviera looks like a Hall of Fame. There's a hallway display, well off the casino floor, that lists the stars that have performed at the property over the years. I won't begin to recite them all, but it's a proverbial "who's who" of anybody and everybody that ever played Vegas going all the way back to the Riviera's debut in 1955.

The Riviera has been known for its strong comedy club over the years as well. In fact, a gambling friend was in town recently and we scored free tickets to the comedy club with a coupon from the American Casino Guide. It was very "old-school" and non-politically correct - the way Vegas comics should be. We had some good laughs and I couldn't help but think of the famous people that had performed and been entertained here over the years. Speaking of famous people, the late George Carlin walked right past me while I was enjoying a late-night snack here once. It created a buzz among the other dinners and then everyone went back to eating. Mr. Carlin's name was on the marque that night as I recall, so I figured he had just finished up his show. Stick around gambling enough and you'll come to appreciate Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words" on an entirely different level.

Am I Going to be in the Movies?

There was a time when the north end of the Las Vegas Strip was every bit as happening as the central and southern end. The Riviera was a prominent landmark and that, coupled with its history, no doubt led to it being chosen as a shooting location for many Hollywood productions. I remember being on-site when 3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) was being filmed. I had to wait for a scene take to finish before I was allowed to pass in the middle of the casino on the way to the cashier's cage. Kind of cool in that it's something you don't see every day. I went back the next day and before heading to the sports book asked some guy with a clip board and headset if they needed anyone for "background." I didn't know the terminology or how things worked at the time. I think he responded with something to the effect of, "Beat it kid. Can't ya see we're working here?"

Portions of movies you may recognize that were filmed at the Riviera include: Ocean's Eleven (1960), Casino (1995), Showgirls (1995), Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997), Vegas Vacation (1997), Go (1999), 3000 Miles To Graceland (2001), Crazy Girls Undercover (2008), 21(2008), and The Hangover (2009). Maybe there's one or two in that list you don't recognize, but Crazy Girls Undercover isn't bad. Seriously!

Oops, the Party's Over

One day in the early- to mid-2000s I settled in at third base on a $10 double-deck game like I had so many times before. I handed my players card to the gray-haired pit boss and made my first bet. He returned my card with a sticker on the back and a note that said "We only rate $25 and higher players." In those days I tended to bet $10 and spread to $40 when conditions warranted. Needless to say, that note was a surprise. I completed my hour-long session as planned, but as I walked to the cashier's cage, I realized that the good ole days at the Riviera were ending. It's not like it was my favorite place, but I did manage to stay in the hotel a few times at casino rates. Over the years had learned to ask for comps to shows (Ice comes to mind and something with motor cycles inside a circular cage) and to have my play reviewed which often led to having part or all of my hotel stay comped. In retrospect I appreciated the way the pit boss handled it by not showing me up. Ironic that in only a few short years, they'd need all the players they could get.

If the pit staff at the Riv weren't going to rate me, there wasn't much use in playing there. There were still plenty of decent blackjack games in town. There were plenty of late-night coffee shop specials and good lounge acts too. I'd been hanging out at Caesars Palace, the Las Vegas Hilton, the Orleans, Hard Rock, Stratosphere, and other places over the years too. I also played downtown at the Horseshoe, Vegas Club, and Lady Luck during those years. In those days, the games were all pretty much playable and really came down to the intangibles and who would take care of you. By now my routine was to always get a rental car and stay wherever I could get a free room and maybe a discounted room if it was a primo property that I'd never stayed at before. Things change and I probably haven't played blackjack at the Riviera in close to ten years. Of course this has a lot to do with the demise in the quality of the games that they, and other casinos, began dealing in later years.

Putting It All Together

This month I took a walk down memory lane and in some ways said my farewells to the Riviera, Las Vegas' ninth Strip resort and first high-rise. Though I was surprised and saddened by the news of its forthcoming closure, the Riviera probably "died" a long time ago in my mind. In fact, it was probably in that scene I mentioned in the last section, though I didn't realize it at the time.

Let's summarize some takeaways from my memories described above that are still applicable. Though it's often difficult to find in large quantities, positive EV can still be found. Coupons, match-plays, free bets, free play, and cash back are all examples of ways to increase your EV and minimize your losses. Also, don't be afraid to ask. Show tickets, food, free or discounted rooms can go a long way. Entertainment and logistics expenses can eat up your bankroll before it ever gets started or make the casino destination a once every two years vacation instead of a twice a year thing. Also, it's important to have fun while you visiting Las Vegas or your other favorite gambling destinations. Whether you are a professional, serious player like me, or a novice that just enjoys the occasional dance with Lady Luck, doing the little things and taking advantage of even small opportunities can help you stay in the game longer and increase your chance of success. It doesn't mean you are going to win in the short-run, but at least you'll increase your odds.

Looking back, I learned a lot from my playing experiences at the Riviera. I suppose I owe her a "thank you" and "good bye." Sixty years is a long time in "Las Vegas years" and at least one of us will remember the "good times" and you will be missed. I'm guessing I'm not the only one that feels this way.

Until next time, remember nothing lasts forever.

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