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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. He's a regular attendee at the Global Gaming Expo each year in Las Vegas.

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

Downtown Grand Las Vegas Hotel and Casino, 206 North Third Street

The D Las Vegas Hotel and Casino, 301 Fremont Street

This month I continued my downtown Las Vegas odyssey with visits to a couple of properties I had not been in for close to a year. There's a reason for such long intervals between visits and I had a pretty good idea of what I'd find. However, I was guardedly optimistic as I sauntered into each establishment the weekend before Thanksgiving. Like the Pilgrims before us, I hoped to find reason to give thanks. Perhaps the blackjack gods would bless my endeavor.

Downtown Grand Las Vegas Hotel & Casino, 206 N. Third Street

The Downtown Grand (DTG) is located on Third Street between Stewart and Ogden Avenues, mere steps from The Mob Museum and two blocks from the Fremont Street Experience. It's also a short walk to the bar scene in the Fremont East Entertainment District and less than a mile from shopping at the Las Vegas North Premium Outlets and cultural events at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts and Symphony Park. If you are on Fremont Street, find the Third Street Stage, between the Four Queens and the D Las Vegas, turn around facing away from the stage, and start walking. You'll see the DTG almost immediately.

It's been just over two years since the Downtown Grand (DTG) held its formal grand opening on November 12, 2013. I chronicled the opening of the new property on the site of the former Lady Luck in the December 2013 issue of Blackjack Insider. The DTG is the first property to open in downtown Las Vegas in more than 20 years. I was semi-optimistic then about the possibilities for the new property. At the time, I felt that the DTG had an opportunity to step in and fill a void being created by the high-end properties on the Las Vegas Strip as they continued to chase away players and casino guests with their pricing structure, tight games, diminishing comps, and pursuit of high-end players from the Far East. At the time of this writing, the DTG hasn't come close to filling that void.

The primary focus of the DTG still appears to be drinking, eating, and other amenities. The property includes over 600 hotel rooms and suites, plus it features lots of vintage Las Vegas artwork. One of my initial takeaways when the DTG opened was that the casino appeared to be an afterthought. The casino has high ceilings; lots of open space; sleek fixtures; and modern, comfortable, leather gaming chairs. The whole floor has an urban warehouse, post-industrial flair to it. Despite a very retro feel and hip décor, not much has changed regarding the casino and its popularity or its playability. However, there have been a couple of changes that I'll get to below.

CIM Group, a West-Coast based real estate development company, owns the DTG. However, at last word, Fifth Street Gaming still operates the casino. One of the changes I mentioned above is in the gaming space. The DTG has reduced its table games footprint considerably in recent months. The former 16-table game pit has been reduced to a single eight-table pit that features four blackjack games, Three Card Poker, two craps tables, and a roulette table. The tables in the high-limit area have also been removed. More slot machines appeared to have been added and the pit area has been relocated, but still easy to find in this relatively small casino. The DTG's table game pit is only open from noon until 2 a.m. The night I was there, it closed early and there was only a six-deck shoe game and a double-deck game open. I was told there is usually two of each, but that players have been scarce lately.

The house rules at the DTG aren't bad by current market standards. Player blackjacks pay 3:2; players are allowed to double down on any first two cards (DOA), and double after splits (DAS). On the six-deck games, Aces may be split and re-split to form up to four hands and surrender is available. Aces may only be split once and surrender is not available on the double-deck offerings. Dealers hit soft 17s (H17) on both the six-deck and double-deck games. Posted table minimum and maximum bets varied from $5-$2,000 and $10-$2,000. Cut penetration is mediocre at about four decks on the six-deck games and a little over half on the double-decks. Mid-deck entry is not allowed on the double-deck games and there is a max bet of $200 for mid-deck entry on the six-deck games. Also of note, all the blackjack table felts have five players' spots - often you'll see six or even seven. This can create a "crowded" table or pit even on nights when it doesn't appear to be that busy at first glance, apparently not an issue of late at the DTG.

The double-deck blackjack games at the DTG are of the Count's Kustoms Bonus Spin Blackjack variety. I first saw this game at Binion's earlier this year and also played the demo version at the Global Gaming Expo in September. Play begins with the player making a regular blackjack wager. The player may then make the optional fixed $5 bonus spin Count's Kustoms side bet. If the player is dealt a blackjack, they are allowed to press an automated button that spins a virtual wheel to win various money denominations or the top prize, a custom-built motorcycle from Count's Kustoms in Las Vegas. Needless to say, the odds are pretty long against you. If you are dealt an Ace as one of your two first cards, your side bet returns even money. Anything else, short of a blackjack, is a loser. Remember, in the long-run you should be dealt a blackjack about once every 21 hands. It's imperative to track Aces if you are going to play this game. However, if you routinely make the side bet on this game, you can expect to give away a lot of chips.

The DTG features almost 600 slot and video poker machines. The best video poker I noticed was 8/5 Bonus Poker (99.17% with perfect play). There was lots of it in 25-cent, 50-cent, $1, and $2 denominations; the latter being in the 888 Room, a small high-limit slot parlor off the main casino floor. Everything else I noticed was short-pay, including 7/5 Jacks or Better in quarters. That's somewhere between insulting to just absolutely awful! Not exactly a good way to draw new players, but unfortunately, I'm sure some people plop down and play those wretched pay-tables. Stay away from everything except the 8/5 BP if you must play video poker at the DTG.

Pretty much the only reason I can think of that you would want to play video poker at the DTG was the $1,000 loss-rebate deal that had been ongoing for some time. That promotion has been discontinued and is one of the changes I mentioned above. Personally, I never took advantage of it because I never got a straight answer on all the limitations on the machines that you could play the "rebate" in the form of free play on. The loss rebates were spread out and I heard stories of people having a difficult time using the free-play or having it awarded to their accounts. That's merely here say, but it was enough to keep me away. I'm a big fan of casino promotions and this looked like a good one. However, promotions should be easily understood by both the players and the casino employees or they lose their effectiveness and you risk losing the players' trust.

The players' club program has seen some changes and is now called Downtown Grand Rewards. Published literature states that $1 coin-in (CI) equals one point; 250 points is good for $1 in free slot play (FP). That's $1,250 CI for $5 FP or 0.4%. That's a great return, but only brings the expected return from 8/5 BP up from 99.17% to 99.57% (excluding comps and mailers your play may generate), so still a long way to go before it gets close to even for the serious video poker players among us. However, if you are an avid slot fan and they have your game of choice on the casino floor, then that should be enough to make you consider the DTG. Table games points are generated based on average bet and length of time played.

During the summer months, concerts and party events are held on the third floor rooftop pool area known as PICNIC. The area features over 30,000 square-feet of pool and deck space with drinks and food available. Speaking of drinking and eating, DTG's version of the "Center Bar" is called the Furnace and is in the center of the casino. There's also the Art Bar adjacent to the hotel lobby. Restaurants within the DTG and the immediate surrounding neighborhood include The Triple George Grill, a San Francisco-style steakhouse; the Commissary, for traditional American classics; Pizza Rock, which serves up gourmet pizza from 11-time World Pizza Champion, Tony Gemignai; while S+O Restaurant's menu includes a variety of reginal dishes to exotic fare.

Also of note with college bowl season just around the corner and college basketball already underway, DTG does have a sports book. It's relatively small, but serviceable. It's another William Hill, the UK bookmaking company, operation. That means the same numbers as the majority of the downtown books. However, the screens are nice and the seating is comfortable. Chances are you won't find a big crowd.

D Las Vegas Hotel and Casino, 301 Fremont Street

The second of this month's "double D's" is none other than the D itself. Located next to the Third Street Stage and across from the 4 Queens, this property has seen major changes since its days as Fitzgerald's. Derek Stevens and his brother, Greg Stevens, purchased this property in October 2011. The new owners announced a $15 million renovation and went to work. The completed renovations gave the property a more modern vibe and look. Minimal changes were made to the second-floor casino gaming space and it is billed as "Vintage Vegas" with retro games such as Sigma Derby and coin-drop video poker. The 34-story property has a 638-room hotel and approximately 42,000 square feet of casino gaming space. In case you're wondering, "the D" name comes from the downtown location, the name of the new owner, Derek Stevens, and the Stevens' hometown, Detroit. It addition to the D, the Stevens' also own the Golden Gate Hotel and Casino and recently purchased the Las Vegas Club, which remains closed at the time of the writing.

One of the features I like at the D is...

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