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

Golden Gate Hotel and Casino, One Fremont Street

Plaza Hotel and Casino, One S. Main Street

Las Vegas Club, 18 Fremont Street

This month I continued my series of adventures in downtown Las Vegas by visiting a pair of properties that have seen major renovations in recent years. Thanks to Blackjack Insider obligations and a gambling friend spending several days at a couple of downtown properties, I've spent much more time on Fremont Street than usual of late - researching, gambling, and just checking out the scene. There's some good musical acts playing on the Fremont Street stages during the evenings and on a recent Thursday there were enough people "dancing in the streets" to make Mick Jagger and David Bowie proud. I even checked out classic rock bands Kansas and Blue Oyster Cult sponsored by the Fremont Street Experience during Labor Day weekend. That crowd was almost too big for the relative confines offered on Fremont Street! Unfortunately, I couldn't make it to any of the event, but the Life Is Beautiful Feast rolled into downtown for the final weekend of September with a three-day schedule of music and art. Suffice it to say, there's been a lot going on in downtown Las Vegas of late, but we're here to talk about blackjack and casinos, so let's begin.

Golden Gate Hotel and Casino, One Fremont Street

When it comes to Las Vegas lore, the Golden Gate is pretty much where it all started. The property opened in 1906 as the Hotel Nevada. In 1907 it was assigned the city's first telephone with the number 1. You can view that telephone in the lobby near hotel registration along with some vintage slot machines and a few other collectables. In 1931, when gambling was re-legalized in Nevada, the property was expanded and renamed Sal Sagev (Las Vegas spelled backwards.) The hotel gained its current name in 1955 when a group of Italian-Americans from the San Francisco Bay Area started the Golden Gate Casino. The 106-room, four-story hotel was renovated in 2005, but changes were minimal.

I had a chance to stay at the Golden Gate for a night a few years ago. Quaint and small are two words that come to mind. There was no elevator and the bathroom wasn't much larger than a postage stamp, but it wasn't bad for the price (comped). I have not stayed in, or heard anything about the rooms since the new majority ownership (Derek and Greg Stevens, owners of the D) took over and launched a major overhaul in 2012. For those of you that are familiar with the old Golden Gate, the piano bar area and vintage hotel lobby were gutted in favor of a more open and modern look. The $12 million renovation included a 35,000-square-foot, five-story hotel tower with 14 new suites and two penthouses bringing the room total to 122. A new porte cochere was added, along with new slot club and hotel check-ins areas towards the back of the property. The casino floor was expanded and a high-limit gaming area was added, while the casino-floor restrooms were relocated.

The Golden Gate holds the distinction of being the oldest hotel property in Las Vegas; however, it is probably best known as the home of Las Vegas' Original Shrimp Cocktail. When Golden Gate partner Italo Ghelfi introduced shrimp cocktails to the casino scene in 1959, he started a Las Vegas tradition. Since then, the Golden Gate has reportedly sold more than 40 million. The shrimp cocktail regularly harvested "Best of Las Vegas" awards from the Las Vegas Review Journal's annual poll. The current version goes for $3.99 and is served at Du-Par's Restaurant and Bakery after the latest renovation eliminated the deli space. Du-Par's is the only dining establishment at the Golden Gate and is open around the clock. It's also known for its pancakes.

As you approach the Golden Gate entrance from Fremont Street, you're met by One Bar, featuring flair bartenders and bikini-clad female bartenders that take turns dancing on top of the outdoor bar, much to the delight of the male (and some female) passersby. With the First Street Stage practically at its doorstep, there's a lot of buzz and energy at the Golden Gate's front door.

When you enter the property at night, the party doesn't stop. You're met by loud music and scantily-clad dancing dealers on stages in the middle of the table games pit. The music is a variety of pop, rock, and electronic dance music. The girls come in all shapes and sizes with varying dance moves and assets on display. They take turns dealing and rotate dancing atop the pit's three elevated stages. The dancer/dealers wear black bras, with black fringe overlays, black skirts and round it out with tall black boots. The place has been crowded every time I've walked through it this month, especially late at night. It's not the Hard Rock when the AEE/AVN show is in town by any means, but there is a surprising (to me) amount of scenery and people drinking and even gambling.

Unfortunately, if you're a serious gambler, the party pretty much comes to a screeching halt after you enter the casino and make a lap around the table games pit. The Golden Gate's central table games pit features 19 table games. These include two craps tables, a pair of roulette tables, a few carnival games, and a couple of Free Bet Blackjack games (a blackjack variant with its own strategy in which dealer 22s result in pushes). The ten traditional blackjack games were all of the six-deck variety and dealt from continuous shufflers (CS).

The high-limit room, located just above and off the main casino floor, housed two CS six-deck games and one double-deck game dealt from a mini-shoe. Table limits here began at $25. Minimum and maximum limits on the main casino floor were $5-$2,500. The Free Bet Blackjack limits were $10-$1,000 and those games were dealt with two decks from a mini-shoe. There are no video poker pay tables above 99% that I saw, and a William Hill Sports Book kiosk (to make sports bets) is located on the left-side wall as you enter from Fremont Street. If you are a slot player, Club 1906 (the players' club) returns a full 1%; $1 slot coin-in (CI) = 1 point and 100 points = $1 slot free play. Video poker requires $4 in CI to earn a point (0.25%).

Blackjack house rules at the Golden Gate are uniform on both the main casino floor and in the high-limit area. Players can split Aces only once to make a total of two hands, dealers hit their soft 17s, and surrender is not allowed. On the plus side, all player blackjacks pay 3:2, and doubling down after splits (DAS) and after any first two cards (DOA) is allowed. These rule combinations give the house a 0.6% edge over a basic strategy player and the continuous shufflers eliminate any possible card counting edge and allow more hands to be dealt per hour - which is not good.

Against my better judgement I sat down to play some low stakes hands and get a feel for the place. I'll put it this way, the house edge is a lot greater than 0.6% against most of the players that sat at my table. Sitting on Ace-6 was common practice, as was hitting 14s, no matter what the dealer's up-card. I was chastised on two occasions by both the dealer and other players for hitting soft 18s, once against a 9, the other time versus a face card. I lost both, but was dead both times by the dealer's whole card anyway. A player next to me sat on his Ace-four against a dealer 7. I politely asked him if he realized that was a five he was standing on and that he couldn't bust by drawing a card. He respectfully informed me that it was "Five or fifteen, Sir." Indeed it was and I tried to suppress my smile when the dealer turned over her 17. Fortunately, I had a pat 18 on that one. The moves described above were not the product of a single player, or two either. By now you should get the picture; the Golden Gate is not a place for serious blackjack players.

I've seen a lot of bizarre stuff at blackjack tables over the years, but I'd be remiss if I didn't share one more brilliant move I witnessed at the Golden Gate...

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