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

SLS Las Vegas, 2535 Las Vegas Boulevard South

Stratosphere Hotel Casino Tower, 2000 Las Vegas Boulevard South

This month found me on the formerly fabulous Las Vegas Strip once again; this time, even further north than last month's entries. Yes, there is life north of Mirage and TI, true believers! The properties I visited aren't joints I frequent often and I wasn't sure what to expect as it had been some time since I set foot in either of them. Before we move on with what I found, let me take the opportunity for a quick aside. As this is the last issue of Blackjack Insider for a while, I'd like to thank you, the readers, for reading my stuff all these months and years. I also want to thank Henry for giving me the opportunity to write for him and share my experiences in my own way. I trust some of my efforts to inform, educate, and entertain have been at least moderately successful. With that necessary housekeeping complete, strap in and let's head north up Las Vegas Boulevard to this month's destinations.

SLS Las Vegas, 2535 Las Vegas Boulevard South

It's been over three years since the SLS opened its doors amid optimism from yours truly and others that it was the tip of the spear that would lead a transformation of the current version of the Las Vegas Strip. Located on the former site of the historic Sahara, an iconic Rat Pack era property that had been vacant since closing its doors in 2011, the SLS offered a breath of fresh air that might bring life to that part of the Strip. Up to this point my optimism has gone unrewarded. However, there are projects in varying stages of completion and plans for a major expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center that might still bring this to fruition. Personally, I was quite happy with the north Strip version I "grew up" with that included a Wet n' Wild, so what do I know? (Except that I liked to hang out in those days at the Riviera, Sahara, and Stardust to name a few.) Stockbridge Real Estate and SBE Entertainment spent over $400 million to renovate the SLS and reportedly have done nothing but hemorrhage cash since the property opened. So much, in fact, the SLS was recently sold with the new owners, Alex Meruelo and the Meruelo Group, set to take over sometime next summer after a few final details are resolved. Some of you may be familiar with the new owners. They currently own the Grand Sierra Resort Hotel & Casino in Reno.

In case you don't find yourself in that part of town or on that portion of the Strip often, the SLS is less than three miles from the Fremont Street Experience and the downtown casinos. If you are on Interstate-15, take the Sahara exit to the east and the SLS is on the corner of Sahara and Las Vegas Boulevard. For those that remember the old Sahara property, the parking structure is the same garage. There's an entrance off Las Vegas Boulevard and another off Paradise Road, just north of the Westgate Hotel and Casino.

For this visit I entered the casino through the Strip-side entrance. It's brightly lit and conjured images of a "Miami Vice" episode. The high ceilings have a bit of a warehouse feel and reminded me mildly of the Downtown Grande, a property I last chronicled in the September issue of Blackjack Insider. The hotel portion of the SLS has over 1,300 guest rooms and suites and approximately 60,000 square-feet of gaming space. The main casino floor is a good size, but you shouldn't get lost. It's very walkable and the bulk of the property's restaurants are directly off the casino floor, so use them as reference points. The property is nice and SLS allegedly stands for style, luxury, and service. The property reportedly charges a $32 per night resort fee. There's nothing luxurious about that! On the plus side, SLS does offer a 20% military discount on room reservations. This includes active duty military, retired military, reservists, and National Guard.

Speaking of restaurants, the SLS has developed a reputation as a "foodie" haven with its exotic collection of casual and high-end restaurants. If you're familiar with the Los Angeles restaurant scene, you may recognize a few familiar names. SLS has a heavy dose of eateries that made their names there. SLS's restaurant line-up includes the high-end Bazaar Meat by Jose Andres. This restaurant is located at the end of a hallway and has a small intimate gaming area next to it and its bar. The area generally opens at 5 p.m. nightly and has five blackjack tables, a baccarat table, and a roulette table. During my most recent visit, the games and bar in this area were not open. In fact, you wouldn't notice them behind the large red curtains hiding them from view if you didn't know they were there. So I'm not certain what is going on in that area. Things were quiet the night I visited. Anyway, much of the original restaurant lineup is still intact. These include Cleo (Mediterranean), Katsuya (Japanese), and 800 Degrees Neapolitan Pizzeria. The Northside Café and Chinese Kitchen is open 24/7 and is somewhat reminiscent of the traditional Las Vegas coffee shop with a heavy dose of Chinese food on its relatively "deep" menu. Be forewarned, these places aren't bargain-priced. Umami Burger (Miami origins) is still alive and kicking. It's adjacent to the William Hill operated sports book and offers an outdoor beer garden that parallels the Strip. If you're eating or drinking at Umami Burger, the numerous television screens offer a decent place to watch the games, but it's not ideal if you are in the sports book where the viewing options are limited. Finally, the Perq offers coffee, sandwiches, salads, and other quick items for those on the go. There's also a free phone charging kiosk here. Center Bar and Monkey Bar are aptly named and seem like good places to hang out with a cocktail; preferably after a winning night on the blackjack tables.

Bet you thought I'd never get around to mentioning blackjack didn't ya? Well, there's a reason...

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