Guide to Gambling in Las Vegas
Las Vegas is the undisputed Gaming Capital of the World. Macau casinos generate greater gaming revenue, but let’s face it, how many of us are going to make it to China or Macau? That’s right, Las Vegas still rules.
Now aside from the many things that Las Vegas offers beyond gaming (nightclubs, pools, museums, shopping, dining), the casinos in Sin City also offer a variety of limits wider than the Grand Canyon. You can wager $25,000 a hand at blackjack (or higher with prior authorization) in casinos like Bellagio, and you can get by on the cheap for $5 a hand at most Downtown clubs. In fact, several casinos offer $3 blackjack and $2 craps during early morning hours!
Las Vegas also offers a vast selection of slot machines that come in every conceivable denomination from penny slots to $500 games, with crowd favorites like Wheel of Fortune, Double Diamonds, 88 Fortune, Harley-Davidson, The Simpsons, Ferris Bueller, Sex and the City, or a hundred other exciting games. How many in Las Vegas? Well, according to the Nevada Gaming Control Board, Clark County has 123,000 slot machines, the vast majority in Vegas.
If it’s table games or poker that turns your crank, again, you are in the best place in the world for limits and variety, and visitors can choose from more than 4,000 tables. The long list includes 506 standard poker games, 2,200 blackjack, 403 roulette, 432 baccarat, 322 craps, 200 Pai Gow, 198 Three-Card-Poker, and a lesser number of games like Let-it-Ride, Wheel of Fortune (Big 6), Sic Bo, World Poker Tour and others.
If you want to play bingo, there are 31 clubs that offer the game, and 49 casinos offer Keno. For horse race enthusiasts there are 96 race books and 106 clubs that offer sports wagering. If you want to get away from the casinos, there are plenty of other things to do, but keep in mind that you can play slot machines in bars, grocery stores, convenience stores (there are 665 with slots), and even six laundromats. Yeah, it’s all about gaming.
As for general game limits, the town’s gaming is split into three groups consisting of the Strip, the Downtown area, and outlying casinos. Generally speaking, the most liberal blackjack rules are on the Strip, with the dealer standing on soft 17 in many clubs. Blackjack in some less-expensive outlying casinos offer reduced 6 to 5 blackjack payoffs, taking a big chunk of the players’ expected odds at the game. As with everything, there are tradeoffs.
Distinctly Las Vegas Fun
Every gaming venue in the world is slightly different, but Las Vegas offers the best of all the other places jam-packed into one amazing city. Unlike other states, Nevada allows free drinks (yes, liquor) for players, so you can get a buzz without paying for anything but a tip! Keep in mind that bars offer free drinks for playing slots and video poker, but some locations outside of casinos may not accommodate every gambler. And you may have to pay a little extra for top-shelf drinks.
Las Vegas casinos also offer complimentary gifts and freebies for players. Join the Player’s Club, your tracking card, and earn the good stuff. Comps vary from casino to casino, but you can expect to get approximately $1 in comp points per hour of $10 per hand wagers.
When playing slots, clubs comp about $1 for every $1,000 in gaming action with up to double and triple rates at some casinos. If you are playing a $1 slot machine that takes $5 per spin and you pull the handle or push the button 200 times per hour, you’re generating $1,000 in action, which equals $1 in comp points.
If you enjoy Triple-Play video poker on a quarter machine with five coins per line, you’ll generate $3.75 per spin. Spins go fast, up to 350 per hour, so that would be $1,312 per hour in “action.” Again, that would get you $1.31 in comps. Keep in mind that some casinos still offer points and cash, meaning you’ll accumulate points for cash and you’ll still have the same number of points you can use for other items.
Comp points are good at restaurants, gift shops, and for hotel rooms. Keep in mind that many properties also offer a special casino rate for players that is about half of the usual room rate. You can ask a Pit Boss or Slot Supervisor about getting a rate. The best part about a casino rate is that it takes no points off your card. It’s just a freebie for showing good action.
Most poker rooms have their own Player cards and offer a daily hotel rate for players who play at least four hours. Again, the rate is about half the standard room charge. Food specials are also popular in poker rooms, and double points are sometimes offered for early morning play.
Nevada allows casinos to offer casino credit. To apply, go to the Cashier Cage or VIP Services and fill out an application or apply online. With casino credit, you’ll be allowed to draw a marker at a table game or the Cage, up to whatever limit you have been offered. The best rule is to pay your markers off at the end of your stay, but you can get extra time – and there is no interest charged.
Gaming in Downtown Las Vegas
Gambling at the ten casinos in Downtown Las Vegas can be an easy, enjoyable experience. The clubs are clustered around Fremont Street, and parking is easily available behind clubs like the Horseshoe and Golden Nugget. Free parking requires validation which you get inside the casinos at the security book, the cage, or in restaurants. Otherwise, you’ll pay a few bucks per hour.
Where you park isn’t important since the walk from one end of Fremont and Main at the Plaza up to the El Cortez is only about six blocks. The Fremont Street Experience covers most of that, with a huge canopy and light show, so whether it’s 10 AM or 10 PM, there is a shade from the sun or amazingly bright lights to show the way. It’s a fairly safe area too; although the people walking the FSE at midnight may give you pause and it’s not child-friendly except in the afternoon.
Downtown casinos are known for low-cost gaming. You can play blackjack for $1,000 a hand at several casinos including the Golden Nugget, but most players are young, and the experience is more important than big bets, so $5 is the norm. Girls dancing on tables in the Golden Gate Casino is also the norm but may be a turn-off for some visitors, but it’s the main event for much of the crowd.
Table games found along the FSE include blackjack, Pai Gow Poker, craps, Three-Card-Poker, Sic Bo, baccarat, roulette, World Poker Tour, Let-it-ride and many others. Minimum bets are sometimes as low as $3 during early morning hours. During the day, several clubs offer $5 wagers while most progress to $10 minimum at roulette and baccarat by evening. Tipping is optional while gaming, but keep in mind that dealers are paid minimum wage and do live on the generosity of players. Try not to blame them when things aren’t going right; they are just doing their job!
You can also get cheap $2.99 shrimp cocktails at several clubs, quick sandwiches, sushi, and nice cuts of prime rib at very reasonable prices. If you decide to stay overnight, rooms for $39 are often available at the Plaza, Gold Spike, El Cortez, Main Street, and Fremont. Rooms have been upgraded at a few clubs, and the Golden Nugget has excellent decor, with a standard room price higher than surrounding properties.
Some properties have a resort fee. The Golden Nugget currently charges $27.50 per day plus tax, so when you book a room, check your total cost!
Poker rooms come and go in Las Vegas, but currently, there are three rooms downtown, including games at Binion’s, El Cortez and Golden Nugget. Binion’s has ten cash game tables spreading mostly 1-2 No Limit and 2-4 fixed limit Texas Hold’em. They also offer tournaments.
At the El Cortez, the main game is 1-6 spread limit Texas Hold’em. The room has three tables and offers no tournaments.
The Golden Nugget has the most tables with an even dozen. All games are 1-2 No Limit Texas Hold’em. They also have tournaments each day.
If you get weary from the gaming, there are other things to do in the Downtown area. Most are within walking distance, but during the 100-degree summer heat, you may want to drive or grab a cab. None of them are free. A current favorite is the Mob Museum located at 300 Stewart Street. There is also a Children’s Museum, Natural History Museum, Neon Museum, and a well-appointed movie theater.
Gambling at Outlying Casinos in Las Vegas
When Vegas started, all the action was Downtown, and slowly the casinos spread to the Las Vegas Strip. Today, there are dozens of casinos that have expanded along outlying streets radiating from the Strip like so many cobwebs. While some are huge, like the Rio and Palms, others are less ostentatious and cater to local Las Vegas residents by offering low-cost gaming and reasonable room rates. Originally, the most popular casinos away from Downtown and the Strip were the Bingo Palace and Boulder Station. The Bingo Palace is now called Palace Station, and it’s been around for over forty years.
In 1976, Frank Fertitta, Jr. and two partners opened The Casino with 5,000 square feet of gaming space attached to a Mini Price Motor Inn. How that tiny casino grew to become a 1,000-room property (yeah, bingo too, with a 300-seat room) and a part of Station Casinos is quite a story, but for the most part, it had to do with catering to a clientele heavy in residents.
The original poker room had 50-cent seven-card stud, and you could play bingo for 25-cents or eat at a cheap buffet. Today, Station Casinos employ more than 11,000 employees between 21 casinos, ten of which are in Las Vegas. Properties like Sunset Station, Texas Station, and Santa Fe Station all offer low-cost games with moderately-priced rooms. And all of them are considered locals casinos.
The second largest group of local’s casinos is operated by Boyd Gaming Corp., started in 1975 by Sam Boyd to develop the California Hotel and Casino in Downtown Las Vegas. The group still owns the California as well as the Fremont and Main Street casinos along the FSE. Boyd Gaming operates several other casinos including four outlying properties in Las Vegas, Gold Coast, Orleans, Sam’s Town and Suncoast.
Unlike Strip properties, most of these casinos have $5 blackjack, $1 roulette chips, $1 Keno and thousands of penny slots. For video poker enthusiasts, 5-cent games are everywhere, from standard Jacks or Better to Triple-Play and other favorites. And, the casinos work very hard to retain their players with great comps.
At Station Casinos, players can get a Boarding Pass card good at 19 properties, and not only are points accumulated from gaming, every dollar spent on property earns something. Also, slot play is greatly rewarded, with 3x points for every dollar wagered and a conversion rate of 1,000 points per $1 in comps.
The retention of regular players (as with all businesses) is a great asset for casinos, and local players are a heavy part of Las Vegas casino revenue, from casino workers waiting for their tips, rides, and coworkers to get off shift, to people who just love the action.
Unfortunately, several outlying casinos charge a nightly resort fee from $16 on the low end to $35 on the high end. The larger the property, the more likely the fee will be substantial to pay for health clubs, pools, wireless internet and so forth. And the larger the property the less likely they will offer low-cost gaming.
Keep in mind that if you are traveling by plane and taking a shuttle or taxi to your outlying casino from the airport, you’ll need transportation to get to the Strip or Downtown if you want additional shopping, gaming, and dining opportunities.
One group of off-strip properties is west on Flamingo Road where the Rio sits in a cluster of three properties with The Palms and The Orleans. It offers 2,500 rooms, 120,000 square feet of gaming, restaurants, bars, permanent entertainers like Penn and Teller, and while it’s off the Strip, it’s not a locals casino. Neither is The Palms. They are great properties, but not cheap. The Rio hosts the World Series of Poker each year.
Many casinos off the Strip have poker rooms, and one of the largest is next door to the Rio at The Orleans. This locals favorite offers a large room with tournaments and many live games featuring 2-4 and 4-8 half-kill games and 1-3 and 2-5 No Limit Texas Hold’em. You can expect similar limits at other casinos although their crowds may be smaller.
Table limits at smaller casinos are the standard $5 to $10 per wager at blackjack, craps, baccarat, and Three-Card-Poker. However, some clubs have instituted a 6 to 5 payoff for blackjacks instead of the usual 7.5 to 5 payoff. Look before you leap.
Gambling at Strip Casinos in Las Vegas
The Las Vegas Strip offers a wide variety of casinos, from Hard Rock to the Flamingo, and Wynn to Luxor. Choosing a club near the center of the strip near Bally’s will make walking to other properties much easier, and Bally’s and the Flamingo have inexpensive gaming and cheap rooms. Other properties that offer the same are the Luxor, New York-New York, Excalibur, and Circus-Circus.
Slots-A-Fun Casino, next door to Circus-Circus has no hotel rooms, but you can get cheap hot dogs, shrimp cocktails and drinks to go with your slot play. Circus-Circus caters to families and has the Adventure Dome atop the property with carnival games and a rollercoaster. Downstairs are inexpensive restaurants and lots of penny and nickel slot machines that go with the $5 blackjack and craps games.
Your pocketbook and your gaming experience should dictate where you play, and the inexpensive properties are a great start for new players. At these casinos you’ll have more low-cost games to choose from, less-stressed dealers, and players who are there for fun who won’t make you feel like you might be slowing the game down.
Higher-end clubs like Mandalay Bay, the Venetian, and working up to Bellagio, Wynn and Caesars Palace are not the places to learn to play. Players in these clubs are more likely to be experienced and playing for higher stakes than at other properties. There’s a certain etiquette found in gaming, and nothing is more noticeable than a beginner at blackjack and craps games.
At blackjack, dealers are instructed to deal to the speed of the action player. That means if you are betting $25, and the Big Player on the game is wagering $2,000, and he’s playing fast, you better move fast too, or the dealer will get flustered and so will the Big Player. Give ‘em both a break and play where you are comfortable and your wagers and experience fit in better.
As for the Big Players, well, most Strip casinos have a special room inside their casino for high rollers. The limits you see at blackjack on the casino floor may be $10 to $1000, or $25 to $2,000, but limits in high-limit rooms run to $25,000 per hand for blackjack on a regular basis. Even higher limits are available upon request – and acceptance. Blackjack games on the Strip have excellent rules, and the dealer stands on soft 17.
High-limit rooms often have single-zero roulette, sometimes for as little as $25 per spin. For baccarat players, Las Vegas offers super limits upon request, and beautifully-appointed baccarat rooms with chandeliers, stunning women in evening gowns and men sharply dressed in tuxedos offering games with $1 million per hand gambling.
For poker players, the best rooms tend to be at Caesars Palace, Bellagio, and Wynn. The rooms have up to 40-tables with No Limit Texas Hold’em starting at 1-2 blinds up to 25-50 blinds every day. Of course, if you want to grab a sandwich next to the poker room at the Bellagio, a meal with a bag of chips and soda runs close to $20.
As for the best craps games and dealers, Caesars Palace has always been a magnet for excellence. Dealers at Wynn and Bellagio are also terrific. The Bellagio has a dozen craps games, some with $15 minimum bets early in the morning progressing to $25 minimum as the evening arrives. Top limits on the main games are often $10,000.
Boxmen watch over each game and are ever-aware of the action and make decisions quickly and almost effortlessly. Marker action can be heavy at times so you may miss the start of a hand getting your chips with casino credit. The Boxmen will help with late bets, but you want to bet all wagers while the dice are in the middle of the table since the inside dealers will be busy and the stickman may have as many as 15 to 20 proposition bets every roll.
Most properties have 3-4-5x odds for pass/come wagers, and wagers on 3 and 11 pay 15 to 1. Wagers on 1 and 12 pay 30 to 1. Another difference on the craps layout at the Bellagio is the lack of Big 6/8, which pays even money at other clubs. If you want to bet on 6 or 8, make a place bet and get the better odds.
The Players at Strip Casinos
While you’ll bump fists with local and novice players at Circus-Circus and Bally’s, you’ll also find some hardcore players who are serious about their play.
For the most part, they’ll be playing for smaller stakes, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there to win!
Dice players at casinos like Monte Carlo and Luxor are loud and boisterous.
They’ll shake the ceiling tiles on good games and yell, drink, and schmooze to catch a hand. Players at Caesars are no less interested in winning, but they may not be quite as rowdy until the action gets heated.
Players at the largest Strip casinos can drop $10,000 while waiting for their dinner reservation and wander away whistling a happy tune because it’s finally time to eat.
At Circus-Circus you may have a near bust-out degenerate gambler crying because they lost twenty bucks. To each his own.
The only way to find your perfect casino in Las Vegas is travel around a bit.
Use the trams at Luxor/Mandalay Bay/Excaliber and other places to check the games out, or try the Las Vegas Monorail across the Strip and get a feel for the city and what’s shaking.