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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 Hi Lo 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 Sep 2016. The casinos visited this month in Las Vegas were:

Plaza Hotel and Casino, One S. Main Street

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

September is one of my favorite months of the year in Las Vegas. The temperature drops, but it's still plenty warm; football season kicks off and the Major League Baseball playoff races come down to the wire. As much as I love baseball, I have to admit Las Vegas is a pro football town. There's a certain degree of energy that floods the Las Vegas Valley at the start of the NFL campaign. Between football contests, parlays cards, and viewing parties, a large portion of the valley's residents seem to be griped with gridiron fever. Everyone seems to have an opinion on the coming week's action and I say there is nothing wrong with that.

Speaking of energy, downtown Las Vegas hosted the Life Is Beautiful Festival (LIB) the last weekend of September. It's a giant festival celebrating food, art, and especially music. This year's performers included Janes Addiction, Munford & Sons, Tegan and Sara, Major Lazer, and many, many more. After last month's excursion to the Rancho Strip, it was back to downtown Las Vegas for me this month and I ran slap dab into LIB and its patrons at the two joints I visited just off Fremont Street on a busy Saturday night and Sunday. Read on to learn about what I encountered.

Plaza Hotel and Casino, One S. Main Street

The Plaza is located in downtown Las Vegas on the site of the former Union Pacific railroad depot on Main Street across from the Golden Gate. The property sits at the gateway to the Freemont Street Experience. When the Plaza opened in 1971, it was the largest casino-hotel in the world with over 500 rooms. The iconic property was a Las Vegas classic and home to many visiting celebrities. Over time the Plaza became a "movie star" in her own right, being featured in several main-stream movies and one not-so mainstream film, though one of my favorites Cool World (1992). More recently the Plaza appeared briefly in The Hangover, Part 3 (2013) and years ago in another of my favorites, The Girl Next Door starring the delightful Elisha Cuthbert (2004).

The Plaza closed in late 2010 to begin an extensive round of renovations and re-opened September 1, 2011. The renovation project yielded new guestrooms and suites; an entirely remodeled casino floor and lobby; a new race and sports book; and all new bars, restaurants, and entertainment choices. The property currently has 1,037 rooms and suites, as well as an 80,000 square-foot casino. This summer the Plaza introduced a new swimming pool and event space located on the fifth floor of the South Tower. The Plaza also features 25,000 square-feet of event and meeting space, a showroom, and a decent-sized fitness center with several work-out machines and some free weights.

The Plaza's renovations utilized contemporary furnishings and materials purchased from the Fontainebleau resort, located on the north end of the Las Vegas Strip, after construction on that property was suspended. The changes and décor give the Plaza a "retro hip" feel for lack of a better phrase. I've never really spent much time at the Plaza and I've yet to stay at the hotel, pre- or post-renovations, but a friend did last year and gave me the tour. The rooms seemed large and quite serviceable, but the bathroom was oddly shaped and it appeared that some of its square-footage had been sacrificed to make the guest room living space larger. However, one could certainly do worse. The weekend I visited, the Plaza was packed with millennials there no doubt thanks to its proximity to LIB. It appeared to be ground zero for festivals goers, but I imagine many of the other downtown joints experienced the same phenomena. To her credit, I even heard one young lady tell her friends as she walked past me Sunday afternoon that she wanted to play blackjack again after the festival that night. My kind of girl! Who says the younger crowd doesn't like table games?

On to the casino floor where the bulk of the Plaza's 20-plus table games are located. One long pit in the center of the casino houses 17 table games which includes three craps tables; a roulette table; and one table each of baccarat, Fortune Pai Gow, Let It Ride, Three Card Poker, and an abomination of nature called War Blackjack - a combo game of Blackjack and Casino War (or the card game "war" you played as a kid where the highest card drawn won that round). There's Free Bet Blackjack and a table of the World's Most Liberal 21 (some of you may remember this game from the good ole days at the now defunct Las Vegas Club - may she rest in peace!). The Free Bet Blackjack and World's Most Liberal 21 games have their own intricacies and slightly different rules and strategies than traditional blackjack. I've mentioned Free Bet Blackjack in previous articles and will spare the reader that discussion - this time.

The Plaza's conventional blackjack offerings are primarily six-deck shoes with a $25 minimum double-deck game thrown in for good measure. Table minimums and maximums ranged from $5-$1,000; $10-$1,000; and $25-$2,000. The Plaza's blackjack house rules are the same for six-deck and double deck games. All player blackjacks pay 3:2. Players are allowed to double down after splits (DAS) and on any first two cards (DOA). Dealers hit soft 17 (H17) and surrender is not available. Aces may be split once to form two total hands, including on the six-deck shoe games. The inability to re-split Aces on six-deck games seems to be a growing negative trend in the Las Vegas market. You don't see four Aces come up very often, but you will see three of them on occasion and you need to be able to re-split to play the hand optimally. Incorporation of "Split Aces Only Once" as a house rule is just another jab at the players (customers) and will cost 0.05% in expected return for a basic strategy player. When I asked a pit supervisor to verify that Aces could be split only once he told me it was "just regular blackjack rules." I already knew the answer before I asked the question, but I wanted to make him say it. I've spoken to this guy before and he must think I'm one dumb son of a gun as he always tries to defend whatever issue I have with the game with one lame excuse or flat out lie. It's somewhere between maddening and comical, but at least I know what I'm dealing with and haven't played this property since last time I wrote about it.

Penetration on the six-deck games was about four decks. The double-deck game penetration was barely half a deck. For the most part, the Plaza's shoe games aren't bad for card counters, but the penetration could be deeper. If the casino is busy and the musical act in the nearby lounge is playing, the table games area can get rather loud. There are a lot of different games and distractions for pit personnel to deal with in the table games area - for good or ill. For the record, the bar is next to the lounge and across from the table games pit. The wait and bar staff seems to hustle and if they are staffed properly, drink service is very good. If you talk to my pit boss "buddy" mentioned above for very long, you'll probably need a couple of stiff drinks.

Speaking of distractions, and there were plenty during LIB that were not of the band or beverage variety...

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