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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 Jun 2016. The casinos in West Memphis and East St. Louis visited this month were:

Southland Park Gaming & Racing, 1550 N. Ingram Blvd, W. Memphis, AR

Casino Queen, 200 S. Front Street, E. St. Louis, IL

This month I was on the road for an extended period due to family responsibilities. I flew into Memphis and proceeded to log time in Dixie and the oft frozen tundra of WI, and a couple nights on the road in between. During my recent adventures, I was able to revisit a casino that was a regular shop for me during my Air Force days while stationed near St. Louis, MO; the Casino Queen in East St. Louis. Also, thanks to a lengthy flight delay while waiting to pick up someone at the Memphis airport late on a Saturday night a couple weeks into my trip, I was also able to check out a place I had never been, but had passed by too many times to count on my regular drives from Little Rock to MS and back over the years, namely Southland Gaming and Racing.

This month's reviews may be off the beaten path for some of you and that's why I wanted to write about them. The Casino Queen has been a staple in the St. Louis gaming market since its origins. When I played there regularly, the casino was housed on a three-deck river boat; now, there's a land-based casino. The other venue I visited this month opened as a canine racing track in 1956. It features live greyhound racing and also simulcasts thoroughbred and greyhound racing. With the addition of slot machines and later, table games, it transitioned into a "racino." Let's begin there.

Southland Park Gaming and Racing (1550 North Ingram Boulevard, West Memphis, AR)

Southland Park is located a few miles from Memphis, TN across the Mississippi River in West Memphis, AR. If you are driving from Little Rock, take exit 279A on Interstate-40E; from Memphis use Interstate-40W/Interstate-55N, exit 5.

Southland Park is very large and easily visible from the highway. Just follow the well-marked signage and you should have no difficulty finding the main entrance. Admission and parking are free, but valet will cost you $3. The casino is open 24/7 except Christmas and Easter. I visited on a Saturday evening and cars were circling the parking lot waiting for other patrons to leave to open a parking spot. After a couple laps myself (and not buying that a venue this large wouldn't have more parking), I exited to the east, turned left, and found another entrance with ample parking behind the facility. In case you are wondering, Southland Park is about an hour-drive from the casinos in Tunica, MS depending on Memphis traffic.

Southland Park is one of two pari-mutuel facilities in AR. The other is Oaklawn Racing and Gaming in historic Hot Springs. Oaklawn hosts the prestigious Arkansas Derby; a precursor to the Kentucky Derby, the first jewel in thoroughbred horse racing's Triple Crown. After years of dwindling attendance, Southland Park began its resurgence in 2011 after severe flooding hampered operations in the neighboring casinos in Tunica. A $38 million expansion and renovation in 2014 helped Southland continue its popularity momentum and its now one of the most visited attractions in the state.

Needless to say, I've become a bit out of touch over the years to the goings-on in the Natural State. I never knew much about Southland Park or greyhound racing. I knew the state legislature had finally authorized slot machines and some table games before I left my last military assignment in Little Rock, but I was not prepared for what I saw as I entered the northwest entrance to the casino. I was already somewhat in shock at the sheer number of cars and people circling the parking lot to find a space to park. Surely dog racing wasn't that popular and slot machines are... well, slot machines. No reason to line up to play those, right? I gave the security guard a nod as I entered the building and within seconds was immediately overcome by people, machines, noise, lights. It was a regular circus of controlled chaos! I didn't see an empty slot machine in sight as I made my way through the venue. It was like a futuristic sci-fi flick with every kind of character in shape, size, description, and manner of dress playing the machines or talking to those doing so; think the "cantina scene" from Star Wars (1977). I was now "officially" in shock!

After a quick "time-out" in the form of a restroom break, a brief chat with the hostess at Sammy Hagar's Red Rocker Bar & Grill, and getting a baseball update via the numerous large television monitors, I had regained my senses and reworked my game plan. Southland Park is large, but easily navigable and the signage is very good. The facility has over 1,700 electronic games of skill, including video poker and blackjack, a 6-table poker room and a small table games pit. As most of you know, I'm not a slots guy but part of the draw of Southland's slots may be that they allegedly have a "skill" element involved. After seeing the results of your first spin, players are given the option to hold any combination or even none of the displayed symbols; then spin a second time to try to improve the results. This seems kind of like video poker, but without a formal basic strategy.

Southland Park's 10 table games are centrally located in the middle of the casino. The menu includes one table each of Mississippi Stud, Three Card Poker, and Ultimate Texas Hold ‘Em. There are seven blackjack tables that offer a combination of double-deck, six-deck, and eight-deck games. Electronic roulette and craps are available, but there are no craps tables or roulette wheels. Blackjack table game minimum/maximums were $15/$500 and $25/$1,000.

As if things didn't appear strange enough to me on this night, I noticed that no one was...

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