Once a Mecca for devotees of the game known as Blackjack over the last several years Las Vegas has become far less inviting for players. New rules imposed by the suits running the casinos have increased the house edge and made winning a few bucks even more difficult.
That said, low-level blackjack aficionados will tell you that while the game is fun in your local casino, it can be even better played at off-the-beaten-path Las Vegas casinos with better odds at winning and a fun environment.
So if blackjack is your game and your pockets aren’t as deep as you would like, here’s one offering for a fun day of blackjack that takes advantage of the offerings of casinos that lack the glitz of the Bellagio, Wynn and Venetian.
LAUNCH YOUR DAY AT NOON. They say Vegas is a 24-hour city, but it doesn’t really come alive until breakfast is digested. If you’re staying anywhere near center Strip, it’s not a long walk to the Imperial Palace, which is the Vermont Avenue of Strip casinos. Near the front of the casino you can find a Blackjack (BJ) table with decent rules (3-2 payoff on blackjacks rather than the 6-5 payouts that have proliferated elsewhere).
Hint: Sit at the champagne pit and the bubbly is free for the asking. If you hear music in the middle of the casino, it’s the Imperial Palace’s Dealertainers-celebrity look-a-likes who also deal blackjack. They’re fun to look at and goof around with, but the blackjacks pay only 6-5.
HEAD FOR BOULDER HIGHWAY. Far away from the pizzazz of the Strip are the casinos located about eight miles east. Many of the smaller casinos have no attached hotel rooms, and cater instead to locals. My favorite stop is the Longhorn, which is located across the street from the larger Sam’s Town. The Longhorn, which can be confused with a shoehorn, consists of four blackjack tables, a few other table games, a bar and a few slot machines. The blackjack rules are great — you can even double down after you get a third card. HINT: Order the hamburger at the small restaurant — best of its kind in Vegas, and for less than $8.
BACK TOWARD THE STRIP, BUT NOT ALL THE WAY. The most difficult part about Ellis Island is finding it. It’s actually a block off the Strip, directly behind Bally’s on Koval, tucked under a Super 8 Motel in an area that doesn’t make it onto the Travel Channel. You can find a good $5 blackjack game on one of four 21 tables in the tiny casino, but the big attraction here is the nondescript restaurant. Order the steak special (it’s not on the menu) for $6.95. It’s the best deal in the city and it includes a draft beer.
Hint 1: Don’t spill your mashed potato gravy on the paper placemat — it includes a $5 match play coupon. Play it with your own $5 and if you win you’ve more than paid for your meal. Hint 2: The karaoke area near the restaurant is frequented every now and then by Nicolas Cage and Drew Carey.
DOWNTOWN. The first free drinks ever dished out were at Binion’s Horseshoe, and the Golden Nugget is famous in its own right. But if you’re looking for decent blackjack, you’ll find it at the north end of downtown Vegas, at the Plaza Casino. There should be no trouble finding a $5 game with all the good rules the 21 players like — double on any two cards, double after split etc. And the payout is 3-2.
HINT: Make sure you go after dark to see the Fremont Street Experience, a light show on a canopy that spans an entire city block.
What & Where:
Imperial Palace (3535 Las Vegas Blvd South; 702-731-3311)
Longhorn Hotel Casino (5288 Boulder Hwy; 702-435-9170)
Plaza Hotel & Casino (1 S Main St; 702-386-2110)
Larry Houser is an editor at a large New England newspaper in addition to free lance writing for covers.com and other web sites. He writes about pro football, pro basketball and other sports in addition to travel stories, in particular Las Vegas.