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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 October 2017. The casinos visited in Las Vegas this month were:

Treasure Island Hotel and Casino, 3300 Las Vegas Boulevard South

The Mirage Las Vegas, 3400 Las Vegas Boulevard South

This month found me back on the once fabulous Las Vegas Strip. This was my first foray to the Strip since the horrific events of October 1 at the Route 91 Harvest Festival on the Strip's south end. Ironically, I was having dinner with an out-of-town friend at one of the subject properties of this article that night; a rare outing to the Strip for me. I had dropped my friend off at his downtown hotel when I heard about the shooting and developing situation thanks to a phone call from a friend in Los Angeles. In a warped way, I suppose it's good that my gambling friend's money isn't green enough for the "big box" casinos on the Strip either; at least for that night.

Amid billboards and signs prompting #VegasStrong, I found my way back to this month's destinations later in the month. With Halloween just around the corner as I write this and my pirate-ship captain costume at the ready, I set sail to the north end of Las Vegas Boulevard in search of "booty." Actually, there is plenty of "booty" just a few blocks away from this month's entries in the form of Treasures, Sapphire's, and the Spearmint Rhino, but you knew what I meant. Ahoy! Permission granted to come aboard, me hardies; so read on!

Treasure Island, 3300 Las Vegas Boulevard South

The Caribbean pirate-themed Treasure Island, also known as TI, is located on the north-central portion of the Las Vegas Strip. It's connected by a pedestrian bridge to the Fashion Show Mall shopping center and across from the Palazzo and Venetian. There's also a tram on-site that connects to the neighboring Mirage. Like most Strip properties, TI's hotel is large and features 2,884 rooms and suites.

Treasure Island has an interesting and underappreciated history in my opinion. It was opened by Mirage Resorts in 1993 at a cost of $450 million and began as a tower addition to The Mirage. However, under Steve Wynn's vision and direction the original plans morphed into a separate casino resort. During the 1990's, Las Vegas was beginning a move to family-friendly properties and the Treasure Island theme seemed to fit the bill. The property was intended to attract families with its pirate features and icons such as the skull-and-crossbones strip marquee, a large video arcade, and staged pirate battles nightly in "Buccaneer Bay," a large man-made lake, in front of the casino entrance on the Strip. The "pirate show" was a must-see and I loved it! The show featured a full-scale, manned pirate ship; a British Royal Navy ship that actually sailed; a cannon battle; subsequent explosions; and ultimately, the sinking of the "Brittania." Amidst the smoke and smell of "gun powder," the bad guys won every time! The shows on Buccaneer Bay were pure gimmick, but like the neighboring volcano at The Mirage, they brought tourists to the property. Las Vegas was fun in those days.

Like most adolescents, Treasure Island grew up and in 2003 the hotel largely abandoned its pirate theme for a more contemporary resort choosing to provide primarily adult amenities and services. The original video arcade and kid-friendly pool areas were replaced with a party bar, hot tub, and nightclub. The famous skull-and-crossbones sign at the Strip entrance was replaced by a dual-purpose "TI" marquee displaying the hotel logo and serving as a large LCD video screen. The pirate show on Buccaneer Bay did continue for many more years, but was re-done as the Sirens of TI with new, scantily-clad sexy adversaries for the pirate crew. Sex sells and sinking British warships doesn't, I suppose. Perhaps pirates alone just aren't "cool" enough for the 21st century. Regardless, both shows are gone now. On October 21, 2013, the Sirens of TI pirate battle show closed in order to add a new multi-level shopping and entertainment center, which opened in April 2015 with a 24-hour CVS as the anchor tenant on the ground floor and the Marvel Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N. exhibit, which opened May 26, 2016 upstairs.

In an age of mergers and acquisitions, Treasure Island is an outlier. MGM Mirage sold the property in December, 2008 for $775 million to Phil Ruffin, the former owner of the New Frontier Hotel and Casino. The property has remained under Ruffin's ownership and direction since early 2009. The hotel received the AAA Four Diamond rating from 1999 until 2013. Some of you may recall that Treasure Island drew national media attention when an assassination attempt was made on then presidential candidate Donald Trump at a political rally held at the property June 18, 2016.

Despite catching the pirate show a few times many lifetimes ago, I never really spent much time inside Treasure Island, much less gambled there. I played one hand of blackjack there almost ten years ago after seeing Mystere (Cirque du Soleil's first Las Vegas show, which appears to still be going strong). I sat down at the third base position on a full table; was dealt a blackjack and promptly paid $12 for my $10 wager. I immediately protested (having seen minimal 6:5 blackjack in those days). The dealer promptly told me the payout rules, removed the ash tray in front of the table placard where in very small print it read "Blackjacks pay 6:5." I immediately cashed out and left. I had a half-price ticket to Mystere thanks to a military promotion and made $12 in about a minute, so in the end, I really couldn't complain. But ... With that story on my mind, I was curious as to what I'd find as I made my way into the casino from the free parking garage for the first time in a long time.

Treasure Island's 95,000 square-foot casino has two primary table-game areas featuring approximately 40 tables on the main casino floor. There's a 12-table pit near the Breeze Bar, which has two roulette tables, Three Card Poker, Ultimate Texas Hold ‘Em, single deck 21, and double-deck and six-deck blackjack. A larger area contains three craps tables, a pair of roulette tables, Fortune Pai Gow, Pai Gow Progressive, and more blackjack in varying flavors. A small five-table satellite nearby has a Big 6 wheel and four additional blackjack tables. There are multiple single-deck games that only pay 6:5 on player blackjacks. Needless to say, these should be avoided. The remaining blackjack tables are a mix of six-deck and double-deck games. TI's double-deck games are dealt from a mini-shoe; something that seems to be trending of late in the Las Vegas market.

Player blackjacks on the six- and two-deck games pay 3:2. Doubling down on any first two cards (DOA) and after splits (DAS) is allowed. Dealers hit soft 17. Surrender is available on the six-deck shoes, but not the double-deck offerings. Aces may be split and re-split to form up to four hands on the six-deck games; but only once to form a total of two hands on the double-deck games. Deck penetration appeared to be just over four decks on the six-deck games and about two-thirds on the double-decks. Table bet minimums were $10, $15, and $25; with posted max bets up to $2,000. All the cards are hand-shuffled despite the posted "Shuffler malfunction voids all hands" posted on each table. I was afraid to ask if a player winning three hands in a row constituted a "shuffler malfunction." There were no pole dancers or even pirate wenches.

TI features 20 seats (four rows of five) of Stadium Blackjack with $1 minimums. The experience here was entirely different than my previous experiences with this game across the street at the Venetian many months ago...

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