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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 pursuing options for a second career.

Note: The observations of casino conditions were made in March 2015. The casinos visited in Las Vegas were:

El Cortez Hotel and Casino, 600 E. Fremont Street

Plaza Hotel and Casino, One S. Main Street

You don't have to wait until March to find "madness" on Fremont Street. In fact, you can even find someone dressed as a Leprechaun and plenty of inebriated visitors in the bars, casinos, and walking the street most any month of the year. You'll even find sports bettors and college hoops junkies outside March. Pair Saint Patrick's Day with the NCAA Men's basketball tournament kicking off and you have the recipe for chaos - in the good way! Amidst this backdrop, I marched into the "madness" that is Fremont Street to check out a couple of downtown casinos for this month's issue. If you want to know more, please read on, but be advised: There was an Elvis sighting!

El Cortez Hotel and Casino, 600 E. Fremont Street

The legendary El Cortez is the longest continuously operated downtown hotel-casino in Las Vegas. It opened in 1941 and sits in the heart of Las Vegas' Downtown Fremont East District and a block from the Fremont Street Experience. The property is steeped in history. In fact, the black and white photo collection of various properties and celebrities from yesteryear makes it an almost must-see if you appreciate, or are interested in Las Vegas history.

Speaking of history, you may recognize the names Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky, Gus Greenbaum, and Moe Sedway. They were part of an ownership group that purchased the property 1945. In 1963 the El Cortez was purchased by Jackie Gaughan. In 2009, Jackie Gaughan sold the El Cortez and its properties to Kenny Epstein. A renowned casino owner and operator, Gaughan continued to live at the casino and was a regular player in the poker room until his death on March 12, 2014.

The El Cortez has undergone several renovations during its historic tenure. The latest multi-million dollar effort was in 2006. The 64-room Cabana Suites were completed in the former Ogden House in 2009 bringing the total room count to its current 364. The El Cortez was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on February 22, 2013. The casino is a six-time Best of Las Vegas Award winner in the Best Blackjack category; with the latest being in 2013. The property also has a large keno area (think Las Vegas Vacation with Chevy Chase). It's also received several Best of awards for its keno.

In full disclosure, I do play at the El Cortez on occasion, though I wouldn't call myself a regular and this was my first visit this year thanks to a change in parking policy implemented earlier this year which I'll discuss below. I've never stayed at the hotel, but have wanted to over the years - maybe one of these days. As you may have guessed, it isn't the keno that gets me here.

The El Cortez is one of three casinos in Las Vegas that deals single-deck blackjack with no gimmicks. The casino has three pit areas, one of which has only three tables, all blackjack games, that I've never seen open. Of the other two, one is comprised of two roulette tables, three single-deck blackjack games, and two double-deck blackjack games. The largest pit, with ten tables, is comprised of a baccarat table, two craps tables, two roulette tables, and five single-deck blackjack games.

The single-deck games offers 3:2 on all player blackjacks and players are allowed to double down after any first two cards (DOA). On the negative side, doubling down after splitting (DAS) is not allowed; Aces can be split only once to form two total hands; and surrender is not an option. Dealers hit their soft 17s. The double-deck rules are the same except that DAS is allowed. Table limits ranged from $5-$500; $10-$500; and $25-$1,000. One quirk is that all the games are dealt out of a shoe. The El Cortez remains the only place I have ever seen a single-deck game dealt from a shoe. The double-deck games use a discard tray with a notch. The cut-off appeared to be about 20-22 cards, meaning those cards won't be dealt into play prior to the next shuffle.

Like the property itself, the pit bosses at the El Cortez aren't...

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