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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 July 2015. The casinos visited in Las Vegas this month were:

Main Street Station Casino Brewery Hotel, 200 North Main Street

California Hotel & Casino, 12 East Ogden Avenue

I ventured to downtown Las Vegas for this month's casino review to check out a pair of properties I haven't visited in a few years. I'll be hitting the downtown casinos with some regularity for Blackjack Insider in coming months, but there's a reason I haven't set foot in this month's properties in some time. My expectations were low as I hit "old Las Vegas" on a recent Saturday night. Hopefully I'd find some pleasant surprises. Let's begin.

Main Street Station Casino Brewery Hotel, 200 North Main Street

As the name implies, Main Street Station is located on Main Street, a block from the popular Freemont Street and its sundry casino properties. It's easily reached by taking the Washington Avenue exit off Interstate-15. Also, it's just a few blocks west of Las Vegas Boulevard if you are driving from the Strip and prefer the "scenic" route. There is a parking lot across the street from the property, as well as, an adjacent parking garage.

What may be misleading is that unlike Santa Fe Station, Texas Station, Sunset Station, and others; the Victorian era themed Main Street Station (MSS) is not a part of the Station Casinos "empire." It's one of three downtown properties owned and operated by Boyd Gaming. MSS opened in 1977 and is often referred to as the "Jewel of Downtown." The property features 406 hotel rooms and a 28,000+ square-foot casino. The most recent remodeling was completed in 2006.

I've always heard good things about MSS dating back to the 1990s, but for numerous reasons, I've never managed to stay at the hotel or do any gambling there. Rooms are relatively inexpensive and it offers a good value option for those wanting to escape the expensive properties on the Las Vegas Strip. One of these days, I'd like to spend a couple nights at the hotel. In the past, I always seemed to have better options, and honestly, was never impressed with the gambling choices here.

Prior to my most recent foray, my previous experience at MSS was in 2012. I found the blackjack conditions unplayable then and always have. For a place with a good gambling reputation, I've always been disappointed in MSS. Hence, I had no past history with them. MSS's 18 table games are located in one long central pit area. The offerings include a roulette table, three craps tables offering 20x odds (I'll get back to that later in the article), and individual tables of Let It Ride, Pai Gow, and Three Card Poker. There are 12 tables of blackjack and blackjack derivative games. These included six double-deck games, a six-deck shoe, and one single-deck game paying 6:5 on naturals. A table each of Super Fun 21 in the single-deck and double-deck version was also available. Two of the blackjack tables were closed late on a Saturday night.

Blackjack house rules at MSS continue to be poor for players and were the same on the double-deck games as the six-deck game. Players can re-split Ace's only one time and doubling down after splitting (DAS) is not allowed. Neither is the surrender option and dealers hit their soft 17s. On the plus side players could double down after any first two cards (DOA) and blackjacks pay 3:2 except on the 6:5 single-deck game mentioned earlier. The inability to double-down after splits cost the player about 0.13%; while not being able to re-split Aces costs another 0.05%. Deck penetration appeared to be about two-thirds though it appeared to vary slightly depending on the dealer. There is no mid-deck entry allowed on the double-deck games. Table minimums and maximums varied from $5-$500; $10-$500; $5-$1,000; and $25-$1,000. The tables were crowded and the casino was bustling, so it appears to still be quite popular among tourists and budget gamblers.

MSS offers over 800 video poker and slot machines. The best video poker games I saw were 10/7 Double Bonus (100.17% with perfect play), Not-So-Ugly Deuces (99.73%), and 9/6 Jacks-or-Better (99.54%) in quarters, 50-cents, and $1 denominations. When you get a natural four-of-a-kind (or higher) while playing video poker at MSS, be sure to notify a slot attendant immediately before playing another hand; the attendant will give you a scratch card that has cash value. Most of the cards are reportedly of the $2 variety, but the top bonus is $5,000. It slows your game down a bit, but it's worth the wait to improve your bottom line - even at $2 per quads. These scratch-off cards are a long-running promotion at MSS. Points earned on your B Connected players club card can be used at other Boyd properties, as well as, MSS.

When it comes to using those points, MSS has two popular dining options. These include the Garden Court Buffet which is routinely voted best buffet in downtown Las Vegas by readers of the Las Vegas Review Journal. The Garden Court Buffet features specialty nights including BBQ Tuesdays, Seafood night on Fridays and Prime Rib and Scampi on Saturdays. There's also a champagne brunch served on Saturday and Sunday. Another popular option is the Triple 7 Restaurant and Microbrewery which serves a variety of bar food, entrees, and its own award-winning handcrafted microbrews. Again, another place I've heard and read good things about. I had already eaten and had other ground to cover during this visit, so I didn't stop in, but it looked interesting. One of these days I'll try them both.

Before I conclude the section about MSS, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the property's unique collection of rare artifacts, antiques, and memorabillia. The property takes the turn-of-the century theme very seriously with some very detailed craftsmanship on display throughout. Be sure to grab a printed guide to MSS's collection near hotel registration. I knew about a few of the items on display here, but there is so much more! The property is almost like going to a small museum. Some of the highlights include two railroad cars; street lamps from Brussels, Belgium; a chandelier from Paris' renowned Figaro Opera House; and even a section of the Berlin Wall in the men's room off the casino floor. Antique fixtures from the Coca-Cola Building in Austin, Texas hang above the table games area. If you find yourself downtown and have the time, this property is definitely worth a walk-through.

California Hotel and Casino, 12 East Ogden Avenue

The California Hotel and Casino, also known as the CAL, is located across the "bridge" from MSS. Just go up the escalators located off the main casino floor at MSS and follow the enclosed walkway next door to the CAL. Another Boyd Gaming entity, the CAL opened in 1975 with 325 rooms and a casino at a reported cost of $10 million. The CAL celebtrated its 40th birthday in January. The current version features 781 rooms and approximately 85,000 square-feet of casino space located on two floors.

One of Sam Boyd's many accomplishments in gambling and Las Vegas history is his...

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