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

Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Boulevard South

Flamingo Las Vegas, 3555 Las Vegas Boulevard South

December is a month like none other in Las Vegas. It's full of contrasts; probably more so than any other month on the city's calendar. This December got off to a bucking start when the National Finals Rodeo made its annual pilgrimage and the city put on its cowboy boots and hats and went country. There were numerous NCAA Division I basketball tilts including an instant classic between the Kentucky Wildcats and North Carolina Tar Heels. The Las Vegas bowl brought a nice college football matchup, on paper anyway, as underdog San Diego State dominated the final three quarters and whipped the Cougars from the University of Houston. There's a lull towards the middle of the month as the city empties out before the onslaught of New Year's Eve revelers arrive. The casinos are quiet and the weather turns cold. Against this backdrop of post-modern Dickins, I ventured out the week before Christmas to check out a couple of properties on the once Fabulous Las Vegas Strip that represent real contrast. After spending time at each, I found they were much more alike than I realized.

Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Boulevard South

The Bellagio is located at the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Flamingo Road; primo real estate; center-Strip. Built by Steve Wynn with a price tag of about $1.6 billion when it opened in 1998, the Bellagio is now a wholly owned subsidiary of MGM Resorts International (ticker symbol MGM on the NYSE). The Bellagio is one of the most luxurious properties in Las Vegas, and the world. The hotel contains 3,933 guest rooms, including 512 suites. It is the first Las Vegas hotel casino to receive AAA's prestigious Five Diamond Award, the travel authority's highest rating for hotels and restaurants. In fact, Bellagio and its staff have earned this distinction for 15 consecutive years (2002-2016). It is also the only hotel in the United Sates with two AAA Five Diamond restaurants (Picasso and Le Cirque restaurants share that distinction.) Needless to say, the Bellagio sets the standard (in most areas) when it comes to "high cotton."

Bellagio offers more than 100,000 square feet of gaming space with approximately 100 table games. These include traditional games like blackjack, craps, roulette, European roulette (single zero), and baccarat. There's also mini-baccarat, Pai Gow, Pai Gow Poker, Caribbean Stud Poker, Let it Ride, Sic Bo, and Three Card Poker. If you are into carnival games and I didn't mention your game already, it's probably available. There is a large pit with a myriad of carnival games, plus a few others scattered among the casino's multiple table-game pits. There's even a Big 6 wheel and a table of Casino War, pretty tacky for a high-end property in my opinion.

I was disappointed with the blackjack offerings on the Bellagio's main casino floor. There were continuous shufflers (CS) everywhere dealing six-deck games that paid only 6:5 on player blackjacks. Betting minimums on these games ranged from $10 all the way up to $50. Maximums were $5,000. Most of these games are closer to the parking garage. Keep walking and check every pit - they are numerous. There are lots of six-deck shoes and a few double-deck games on the casino floor, especially at higher table limits. Most of these pay 3:2 on player blackjacks. House rules allow players to double-down after splits (DAS) and after any first two cards (DOA). Aces may be split and re-split to form up to four hands on the six-deck games, but only once on the double-deck offerings. Dealers hit soft 17 on most of the games and surrender is not available. Betting minimums and maximums on the double-deck games on the main casino floor were $50 up to $2,000. There was a sprinkling of $25 minimum games in the various pits. Penetration appeared decent on the double-deck games at about 65 percent, while the six-deck shoes appeared to offer about four decks. Most of the tables were closed and there weren't a lot of players.

There are four high-limit areas at the Bellagio. Two are in plain view on the casino floor; one is primarily composed of baccarat tables and is behind the Baccarat Bar; the other is tucked away in a secluded bar area off the casino floor and is called Club Prive. Betting minimums in Club Prive began at $100 and extended to maximums of $10,000. There were no players. The blackjack rules vary slightly from those mentioned above and from pit to pit, so confirm before you begin play. On the higher betting minimum tables in general, six-deck games allow Aces to be re-split to form up to four hands; DOA and DAS is permitted; and surrender is not available. This is consistent with the main casino floor. However, in one pit, dealers stand on soft 17 (S17) and in another they hit it (H17). On the double-deck games, Aces can be split only once to form two hands. All blackjacks pay 3:2 in the higher limit areas and on the double-deck tables throughout. It is important to repeat that in one pit, dealers hit soft 17, but not in the other. Verify the rules on the table you are playing. That really applies throughout this entire casino floor. When dealers stand on soft 17, the house edge against a basic strategy player is decreased by 0.20%. It makes a difference.

I saw some Blackjack Switch dealt from a continuous shuffler during my visit. This game is a variation on traditional blackjack. Each player plays two hands and places identical bets in each of two betting spots. After the cards are dealt and the dealer has checked for a blackjack, players have the choice of "switching" their second cards. For example, if you are dealt an Ace and a six on one hand and a five and a Queen on the other, you can switch the top cards (six and Queen in this example) to create a hand of Ace-Queen and five-six. The catch is that blackjacks pay even money, and if the dealer makes a hard 22, all remaining bets are pushed. There were also a few tables of Free Bet Blackjack. In that game dealers "pay" for your double-downs and splits with house chips, but it comes at a hefty price. Grab a brochure and read carefully if you are interested in this game. If you decide to sit down and play after doing so, there are a few strategy deviations you might want to consider.

The Bellagio offers approximately 2,400 slot and video poker machines. Almost all the video poker machines are of the short-pay variety. There are a few triple play video poker machines offering 9/7 Double Bonus (99.17%) in quarters up to $1 near the buffet entrance. There are a fair amount of 9/6 Jacks or Better video poker pay schedules, but they start at $5 per credit; and go up. The MGM folks that operate the Bellagio don't appear to want any video poker players unless you have a very substantial bankroll.

The Bellagio's Race and Sports Book is large with comfortable leather chairs. The betting lines and prices are the same as the other MGM-owned sports books in town, but if you are staying in the hotel, Cosmopolitan and Caesars offer easy "shopping" options a short walk away. For the record, I was surprised to find out that overnight lines were not available - not even for viewing. When I was informed of this by the ticket writer, the first thing out of my mouth was, "You're kidding me! What kind of sports book is this? I don't know why I ever stay here. Cosmo here I come." In case you aren't a sports bettor, the people that study, and bet overnights are the same kind of people that insist on good blackjack rules and don't patronize places that charge them to park.

Next to the Race and Sports Book is the poker room. It's large - 7,000 square-feet and forty tables large - and seems to be rather full every time I have walked past it over the years. Admittedly, I venture inside the Bellagio less and less each year and I expect that trend to continue. I'd always heard many professional poker players (including the guys you used to see on television) frequent the Bellagio's poker room, praying on the bankrolls of business types and well-heeled tourists. A close friend shared this story with me recently from his experiences many years ago: "I had won $3,000 from poker at MGM the night before and was feeling good about myself. So I ventured to Bellagio to see if I could continue the luck.  I bought in and was organizing my chips when I looked up to see Sam Farha and Barry Greenstein staring at me.  I played one hand (I folded without ever betting) and quickly got up.  I said something like, "Heck no! I'm not playing against these pros," and left.  I've seen a number of pros there since, but I'm smart enough not to be the sucker that gives his money away." Great story! If you're a poker player, consider yourself warned.

Despite its lousy casino except for players with very deep pockets or lines of credit, there's no reason not to take in one of most popular free things to do in Las Vegas...

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