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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 Mar 2016. The casinos visited in Las Vegas this month were:

Luxor, 3900 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Mandalay Bay, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. South

With the Ides of March fading fast and an early Easter weekend descending upon Sin City, I found myself on the south end of the once fabulous Las Vegas Strip. I was there to check out a couple pieces of the MGM Resorts International casino empire before the calendar turned to April 1 and the MGM mandated parking fees went into effect, greatly reducing or eliminating my future visits. I'll have a bit more on that later. For now let's head to the South Pacific via Egypt for perhaps one last look.

Luxor (3900 Las Vegas Blvd. South)

The Egyptian themed Luxor and its giant pyramid have anchored the southern end of the Strip since the property opened in October, 1993. I always liked the themed casinos and this is one that really got it right. I managed to stay at the Luxor a couple of times "back in the day" and always liked this property. I recanted my time living in a tent on the outskirts of Cairo for six weeks when I wrote about the Luxor in a previous issue of Blackjack Insider; so I'll spare the readers that story again.

The property is named after the city of Luxor in Egypt. Due to its unique shape and adjoining towers, the Luxor is a lot larger than one might imagine at first glance. The 30-story hotel houses over 4,400 rooms, including 442 suites, lining the interior walls of its pyramid-shaped main structure and two twin 22-story ziggurat towers. It's still one of the ten largest hotels in the world last time I checked. Hotel check-in and the casino are on the first floor. The second floor is home to a food court, chapel, restaurants, and the Atrium Showroom, home of the production show Fantasy.

Suffice it to say, the Egyptian theme still lives, if for no other reason than the property's design, but unfortunately it is waning. Despite the overall decline in themed casinos in Las Vegas these days, the Luxor still has some nifty things to see and the property is worth a walk-through if you are in the neighborhood. The Luxor Sky Beam still shines bright and is the strongest beam of light in the world. On a clear night, it's reportedly visible up to 275 miles away by aircraft at cruising altitude. If you are staying at the hotel, I recommend asking for a room inside the pyramid. Having a slanted wall and riding the elevator, err, inclinator is pretty cool. It's not something you can do at home every day. If you want to know more about the Luxor and its history, I recommend reading a book called "Super Casino: Inside the New Las Vegas" by Pete Earley.

Like the Great Pyramid at Giza, the casino at Luxor is big, with about 120,000 square feet, 2,000 slot and video poker machines, and almost 90 table games that include lots of lousy blackjack games. Unfortunately, not much has changed since the last time I reviewed this casino. On my most recent visit, there was table after table of eight-deck shoes paying 6:5 on player blackjacks versus the standard 3:2. Once again, there were a fair amount of players seated at these dreadful blackjack games. House rules at Luxor allow players to double-down on any first two cards (DOA) and after splitting (DAS). Aces can be split to form only two total hands on the main casino floor. Dealers hit soft 17 and surrender is not available. Table minimums and maximums were $5, $10, and $15 up to $1,000 on these games. Penetration was approximately six decks.

I did find a pair of double-deck games with minimums beginning at $25. Player blackjacks paid 3:2 and dealers used a discard tray with a notch to place the cut card. After shuffling, cards were dealt face up from a "mini-shoe." Penetration was about 1.5 decks or 75%. Aside from the blackjack payout difference, the table rules on these games are the same as those mentioned above. This game gives the house a 0.37% edge against a basic strategy player. If your bankroll can support green-chip action, this is a playable game.

The Luxor has a small high limit room which offers one double-deck and two six-deck blackjack games. The only exception to the house rules mentioned above is that Aces could be split and re-split to form up to four hands on the six-deck game in this area. Minimum and maximum bet limits ranged from $100 to $5,000.

The Luxor offers the now relatively standard cornucopia of "carnival games." There's also roulette and craps. Probably the best feature of the table games area is the bar in the center of the casino. It's a good meeting place and offers a good vantage point for checking out all the table game offerings and action.

If your bankroll supports it, there's some 9/6 Jacks or Better (99.54%) options in the high limit area beginning at $2 and going up to $10. 8/5 Bonus Poker is also available on these same machines. Much of the remainder of the casino, and in lower denominations, is of the short-pay variety. There are a few 9/5 Jacks or Better machines in quarters with a progressive meter on the Royal Flush near the poker area.

Speaking of the poker area it's small, but was crowded the night I was there. It's near the race and sports book. The sports book deals the same numbers as the other MGM sportsbooks. I haven't made any bets here in a few lifetimes, but it's not a bad place to check out a game. If you park behind the Luxor in the two-story garage, it provides easy access to the race and sports book area.

I enjoyed my visits to the Luxor many years ago, but things change. The Luxor seems to be somewhat neglected by the MGM brain-trust these days - for good or ill. It reminds me of what the folks at the Evil Empire, err, Caesars Entertainment have done with the Rio. Basically, it appears they've decided to concentrate funds elsewhere, certainly their right. When you are opening a new entertainment area known as the Park and the T-Mobile Arena as this issue goes to press, you can understand. Don't forget this company has the Aria, Bellagio, and several other properties in its portfolio also. However, if you factor out resort fees and potential parking fees, the Luxor does present a hotel option for those in the mid- to lower-tier room price range. The gambling isn't good, but the property has a great location and the pool area still looks fabulous. There are plenty of bars, and numerous restaurants that seem to come and go. LAX nightclub is still open and features Throwback Thursdays - a celebration of the '80s, '90s and '00s with live performances by throwback artists and DJs. Criss Angel's "Believe" is still in production. I saw an ad this week for his show offering a second ticket at $29 with the purchase of a full-price ticket. Always check the freebie magazines for show coupons and ask if there is a discount for M-Life members (this applies to any players' club card and at any property). Blue Man Group and Carrot Top are also among the Luxor's entertainment headliners at the time of this writing.

Mandalay Bay (3950 Las Vegas Blvd. South)

The South Seas themed Mandalay Bay is immediately next door to the Luxor. A tram connects the two properties and also continues to a third, the Excalibur. Access the tram on the first floor, to the right of hotel check-in, at Luxor. It will drop you off at Mandalay Bay near the House of Blues (H.O.B.). You can also take the walking route like I did. Go to the second floor of the Luxor and take the walkway through the Shoppes at Mandalay Place. As the name implies, you'll encounter several shops, and multiple drinking and eating establishments along your route. It's a short walk and worth a quick look on your way next door. Once you reach Mandalay Bay, you'll find yourself facing the H.O.B. and on the backside of the casino, near the race and sports book.

The 43-story luxury hotel Mandalay Bay opened March 2, 1999. The Four Seasons Hotel occupies a portion of one of the Mandalay Bay towers and is independently managed. In addition, one of the property's towers operates as the Delano, a high-end, upscale hotel. Like its next door neighbor, Mandalay Bay is a large property. It's much more spread out than Luxor and feels big. There are over 3,300 hotel rooms and a 135,000 square-foot casino.

The property is very representative of the "New Las Vegas Strip" with its capacity and amenities, none of which are particularly favorable for gamblers. The 12,000-seat Mandalay Bay Events Center hosts headline concerts, sports competitions, and sundry other events. I mentioned a construction project that would nearly double the capacity of the Mandalay Bay Convention Center last time I wrote about this property. Construction is complete and there are now over 2,000,000 square-feet of exhibit and meeting space. I had a chance to spend some time there during the Safari Club International Convention in February. It's rather obvious where the new addition begins thanks to an obvious temperature change and some unpleasant sewage odors. Surely those issues have been addressed by now. Regardless, the place is enormous and will give Mandalay Bay dibs on some of the largest convention and trade shows in the country. That is the business that seems to be driving visitation growth and supporting the high price points, thanks to expense accounts and a "fish-in-the-barrel" approach to a semi-captive audience. Many attendees never leave the property after working or attending events all day.

Somehow I never managed to stay at Mandalay Bay when I was a semi-frequent Las Vegas visitor. I played some blackjack on the six-deck games over a decade ago, but not enough to generate any marketing offers that would sway me from other places at the time. I did spend a fair amount of time in those days hanging out listening to the musical acts performing in the now defunct "back lounge" as well as in the lounge near the parking garage entrance. For a few years the clientele was stellar and the music was outstanding. The "front lounge" still books some good live musical acts and draws a crowd. However, be prepared for a 2-drink minimum if you want to spend any time. I mentioned the H. O. B. earlier. It used to be a regular stop on Saturday nights year ago. It's still open and I did catch a show there back in December, however, that's rare for me these days.

Like Luxor, the casino at Mandalay Bay is rather disappointing for reasons I'll get to shortly. There are over 60 table games scattered throughout five pits, plus the high limit area and the Lotus Room. There's the standard array of "carnival games" with multiple tables of Crazy 4 Poker, Three Card Poker, and Ultimate Texas Hold ‘Em. I noticed at least seven roulette tables and there were eight full-size craps tables grouped together. There was also a Free Bet Blackjack game and a couple tables of Blackjack Switch. The Lotus Room is filled with baccarat, Fortune Pai Gow, and Pai Gow. There are also four blackjack tables that are only open during maximum capacity weekends like fight or festival weekends.

Mandalay Bays' casino is filled with table after table of blackjack dealt out of continuous shufflers (CS) that only pay 6:5 on player blackjacks. In fact, the majority of the blackjack offerings in the main casino are of this variety. Needless to say, any blackjack game offering 6:5 should be avoided. The pay-off difference will kill your bankroll over time, plus it's an insult and slap in the face to your intelligence that these games are even offered. However, some of the "great unwashed" still insist on sitting down at these games and encouraging the bad behavior on the part of the casinos! There were two double-deck games and a couple of eight-deck shoes that paid 3:2 on player blackjacks. Minimums on these games began at $25 per hand. From what I saw, anything below a $25 minimum bet only pays 6:5 on player blackjacks. At least most of the tables were void of players.

If you want to try your luck on the double-deck or eight-deck games, blackjack house rules allow ...

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