July 2008
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Day 11: Hot hands

If you’re going to raise a family in the desert, you need to teach your children that stuff gets hot. Really hot.

I heard a piece on the radio about a lawsuit that had been filed against the state because a kid had suffered second degree burns on his hands in the playground, swinging on hot monkey bars.

Another claimant in the suit had apparently burned their backside going down a hot slide.

Yet another dumb kid burned his feet by walking on the hot sidewalk – without shoes.

In Japan, this would be a game show.

But this is America. God bless America.

At the Palms, there’s no danger of burning your hands on the way into the casino. They’ve got it covered – literally.

Door cosies!

On the last day of their July free shit promotion, I once again qualified for "one of everything", although a couple of the crappier items had sold out. Oh well.

However they had caps back, which weren’t available last time, and the towels are a new design. They’re modelled here by the lovely Claire.

Day 10: Standing on nine

I rule at blackjack.

Well, nearly. I finished 5th out of more than 400 players in the freeroll Summerfest blackjack tournament at the Rio, for a total of $550.

As part of the package that included the comped Flamingo room, I had two free entries into this tournament. If you were so inclined, you could also buy into it for $40 a time.

On Monday, I didn’t last long. I’d decided to go for the death or glory approach and found myself walking away from the table after exactly two hands.

You start with $1000 in tournament chips and I was playing the maximum bet of $500 each hand. It could only have been over any quicker if I’d had to double down or split on the first hand.

I’d decided this would be my plan even before I got to the table. I know a little about blackjack tournament strategy but not enough to be able to come up with good decisions quickly under pressure.

I figured that by trying to get ahead early on, decisions at the end of the tournament would be much easier. I wanted to put the pressure to catch up firmly on the other players.

The tournament lasts just 20 hands, with the winner from each table moving on to the final and picking up $50.

On Tuesday, I won three of my first four hands with a maximum bet out, and nobody else at my table had even started to edge ahead of a starting stack, with their $25 and $50 bets.

So with $2000 in front of me, all I had to do was drop my bet to the $25 minimum and let them try to catch up.

Three players went bust trying, one carried on betting small and didn’t realise she couldn’t catch me until it was too late and the only player who came close to having a shot at keeping up lost the key 19th hand to hand me the win.

On the last hand, I stood on nine just for the hell of it.

So back I came at 5pm, which couldn’t have been worse timing as Vij was landing at the airport at 4.55pm. Claire had to go pick him up by herself, leaving me in charge of all the winning.

The final is a different format, with 84 players making it this far and the top ten overall scores (across all 14 tables) getting paid.

I decided to stick with the same strategy, and thought that about $3000 should be a high enough score to get paid.

I won my first two hands with maximum bets, and then pulled a blackjack on hand 3. That’s $2750 without really even trying.

Then, with a display of awesome timing, I dropped my bet to the minimum to ride out a streak in which the dealer hit two blackjacks and I would have lost or pushed every other hand except two. By hand 19, there was only me left at the table!

I looked around and on the tables I could see nobody really had any chips, but there was no way of knowing for sure how much you’d need without having someone else there to scope out all the tables and report back.

They’d announced "no coaching", presumably for this reason, but it was definitely going on at other tables.

So I asked the dealer if he knew what kind of scores had made the money yesterday. He said this was his first day on the tournament, but that I probably needed to go for it.

Always trust your dealer. I decided to take one more max bet.

My seventeen looked poor, but it was better than a busted twenty-five and I was happy to throw away $25 on the last hand (another loser, masterfully avoided by me) to finish with $3100.

I took 5th place by just $50 in tournament chips, but it was worth an extra $100 in real money compared to 6th.

The winner had $3750 and walked away with two grand, but given that I’d won just about as much as I was ever possibly going to with the dealer on a massive hot streak for much of the tournament, I felt pretty good about it.

Day 9: A few good paytables

I am delighted to report that I have found the one and only playable 25c video poker game at one of Harrah’s casinos in Las Vegas.

It’s a 5-line Bonus Poker game with a theoretical 99.2% return, and this variation can be found on precisely one video poker machine at Harrah’s Las Vegas.

I’d read about the existence of this game on a video poker site but had failed to find it in the past, despite a quite specific description of where it is located – which was not actually as helpful as it first sounded.

"Left machine on bank north of main cage underneath escalator up to Showroom".

Well, underneath that escalator is pretty much the entire video poker section, and there are at least a dozen different possibilities for "left machine on bank".

We’d failed to find this at Easter and I had another go last month but with no success. Claire convinced me we should give it one more try and with the two of us splitting up to test virtually every paytable on every machine on the floor, finally we struck gold.

The game is on a multi-game, multi-denomination machine, which has 36 different permutations of games in total. You can play Bonus Poker (as well as Jacks or Better, Deuces Wild and Double Bonus) with 3, 5 or 10 lines and for 25c, 50c or $1 per hand.

However, it’s is only when you select precisely 25c per hand and five lines that you get the 8/5 paytable. Play more lines, or fewer lines, or a different coin value at Bonus Poker and it instantly gets downgraded to a 7/5 game (98.0% payback). The other games are all pretty bad.

99.2% isn’t an awesome payback, however the reason it’s a big deal is that there is one specific paytable on one specific machine across the entire video poker inventory of Harrah’s nine Las Vegas casinos that has an expected return of greater than 99% for a reasonable stake.

The only other machines in the same league have a $5 minimum denomination, which is a $25 minimum bet per hand, versus the $6.25 on this multi-line machine.

The Total Rewards program gives 0.1% back in comp dollars automatically as base reward credits, and from what I’ve seen so far, this machine also looks to be awarding a further 0.25% as bonus reward credits.

So it’s still not a positive expectation with the comp rewards (99.55%) but the idea of playing video poker on the Strip at all is to try to keep those room offers coming back, so we can stay at the Rio or Flamingo again next year.

I’m at the point of no return now with retaining my Diamond status. It took 3,000 reward credits to get Diamond-in-a-day but you can only ever do it that way once. I need 11,000 in total by the end of the year to extend it until March 2010.

Currently I have nearly 8,000 credits, so if it was worth earning 3,000 to get there in the first place, it’s worth doing that same amount again now.

I’ll still play the majority in Laughlin on 99.5% Jacks or Better, with about 0.3% back in comp. That’s a total 0.2% house edge, which is more than twice as good as the the 0.45% on this one and only playable machine in Las Vegas.

In perspective: a 0.2% edge will cost a theoretical $220 for Diamond status, whereas 0.45% will cost $495 (based on $110,000 in total action).

Compare this to the average Joe, who would have to lose thousands playing a game with a 2% edge (and often much worse, on slots or without playing a perfect video poker strategy) to get there. I’ll still get treated like a degenerate VIP just the same.

It’s a fine balance, because as I’ve found when you don’t give them any Las Vegas action you don’t get any Las Vegas room offers.  But it still doesn’t take many free hotel nights to get your money back, and all the queue-jumping goodness that the Diamond card provides is just an added perk.

Anyway, so far this machine has been pretty good to us. Here’s the first royal flush of the trip, which Claire hit from three held and also picked up a straight flush at the same time.

I haven’t got the royal just yet but I did hold a straight flush draw and make it three times.

I can’t be bothered to work out the actual probability (hitting three 22-1 shots in five attempts) but it should almost never happen!

Day 8: Curtains curtains electric curtains

Rich decided trying to get to Vegas on a standby flight this weekend wasn’t worth the effort, given the number of other people on the standby list who had higher priority than himself.

Apparently he is going to try again in a couple of weeks time, which unfortunately means he’ll either have to book his own hotel or let me check him into Casino Royale, as it’s the only comp I have that’s good for those dates.

That’s OK, but wouldn’t be a patch on the room at the Flamingo which I already had booked for free.

The reservation was for a Deluxe room, but I got an upgrade to a "Go" room without even asking – as well as being able to skip a check-in line of at least 50 people thanks to my Diamond card!

It’s a recently renovated room with fancy beds, a big plasma TV and a stereo system with ipod connector (check out the subwoofer on the floor)…

… a positively glowing pink bathroom…

and a very cool strip view…

The photos I took through the window at night turned out pretty bad, but you get the idea…

And what better way is there to wake up in the morning than by hitting the switch on the electric curtains and seeing this…

Day 7: Poker time

It’s a week into the trip and so I’ve finally started to play a little poker.

My original plan was that I wanted to concentrate on no-limit hold’em and clock up 100 hours at the table playing either $1/$2 or $1/$3 (whichever was offered at a particular casino) and hope that it might start to give me an idea of whether I can actually make money in that game.

However, after spending three days out of town this week after dealing with the initial jet-lag, that target is going to be a little more difficult to achieve than I first thought.

A hundred hours is still hardly a substantial sample size, but it would double my career total number of hours at the table.

My records show (and god bless my PDA-phone for this knowledge) that I’ve played 96 hrs, mostly from my last 4 trips, and that I do have a winning record this far.

Beating the lowest limit tourist game in town for a modest amount isn’t exactly something to write home about, however I’m hoping to get a bit more reassurance that I’m doing something right before I even consider taking a shot in a bigger game.

So far I’ve played a massive 5 hours: 2 hours at Excalibur on Friday night after we got back from California and 3 hours last night at MGM Grand.

Both times I was amazed at how little traffic there was around the Strip on the weekend. It took just fifteen minutes to leave the house, park in the Excalibur’s garage and get my name on the waiting list on Friday night!

Coming in the same direction last year, it would often take fifteen minutes of queueing in traffic just along Tropicana Ave just to approach the Strip.

Parking at one of those hotels can sometimes be impossible without a room key, but I sailed straight into the Tropicana valet on Saturday, no problems at all.

Even if you’re staying on the Strip, it can take fifteen minutes to get from your hotel room to a poker table…

The slump in tourism and raging gas prices have some advantages.

Anyway, so far, I’m up an impressive $32. Expect a graph to follow shortly.

Day 6: Viva Las Lego

The attention to detail in Legoland California’s model of Las Vegas is pretty impressive

Look closely and you can see four porn slappers gravitating towards a lone male tourist, who is carrying a novelty drink.

This is, after all, part of the Las Vegas scenery.

Here are some other pictures of Miniland Las Vegas.

As cool as it all is, there’s something just a bit weird about models of buildings that are, in themselves, just scale models of actual landmarks.

Especially as they also had a model of the real Manhattan skyline and Eiffel Tower elsewhere in the park.

Day 5: Dear santa

Dear Santa

For Christmas please can I have a Giant Panda like the one I saw at San Diego Zoo?

I promise I will be very good.

Day 4: The middle of nowhere

It must say something about how I spend my time in the 3-figure Las Vegas heat that after just a couple of hours at a California theme park in (relatively) much milder conditions, I was ready to die.

So we didn’t stay long at Knott’s Berry Farm, which is a shame because they had some cool-looking coasters that I never got chance to ride but I did get to go on the Ghost Rider, a mammoth wooden beast that takes up half the park and is wicked fast, albeit a little painful.

Journeying onward, we made a brief stop at the Pechanga casino resort, which I really only mention because it looks not so much like a casino but more like a government building.

At least Pechanga wasn’t far off the beaten track. It’s just a couple of miles off the freeway, through a very new-looking town development. You’d never think it was an Indian reservation.

Next stop: The middle of nowhere.

In the Truman Show, Jim Carrey says of Fiji, "You can’t get any further away before you start coming back". The same is true of Harrah’s Rincon.

You leave the I-15 and proceed twenty miles along a slow, winding mountain Road, past nothing but a couple of other Indian casinos. Then when you carry on down that road another twenty miles past Harrah’s, you end up at the next town.

This is the view from my hotel room, on the 18th floor.

Something was going on though – several fire trucks and police vehicles were attending to an incident. In the middle of nowhere.

I’d passed the Rincon Fire Department earlier, which proudly boasted "Est. 2006". It made me wonder just how long ago they’d actually discovered fire.

The hotel room was great. Not quite a suite, but there’s a separate sitting area…

a very nice bathroom…

and coffee making facilities with proper mugs!

What I don’t really understand though is how they get people come all the way out here. Particularly with Pechanga being so close to a major freeway (so just as quick to get to from almost anywhere) and at least one other Indian casino along the way, whichever way you travel across the reserves.

It’s so far away from everything, even calling it "Harrah’s Rincon – San Diego" is quite a stretch. The drive to San Diego is an hour and twenty – and that’s if you don’t hit any traffic once you reach civilisation!

Day 3: Bonus whoring in a live casino

Just made my first score on the excellent summer promotion at Four Queens.

There are no good multi-line video poker machines left, so Claire and I played this through on (mostly) 50c Jacks or Better. It took a couple of sessions today and a bit of play last night, so it’s still pretty quick to unlock the goodies.

Overall, and between the two of us playing on the same player card, we lost $160 to get there. (The expected loss on this game is $80, so it’s a slight underachievement).

This offer does accumulate the free slot play awards, so you can earn up to $360 in total. I also had a coupon for another $10 free slot play and a point multiplier, which took the total haul to $370 slot play (which actually converted to $330 real money), $56 cash back and $50 in Shell gas cards. And a sun shield.

That’s an overall $276 profit, plus a good chance that the concentrated action will trigger some room offers on my account.

The Palms was good to us again too. They had a swipe and win giveaway today and I picked up a free pair of movie tickets.

It’s pretty clear that these draws are biased towards bigger players, so it stands to reason that the day after I cycled $20,000 on my card (to max out a point multiplier coupon) I would get a decent prize.

Claire’s player card, which she hasn’t played on since March, swiped and won 1,000 bonus points – worth $2.50.

Could have been worse. All the guy in front of us won was a plastic bungee cord.

Day 2: How much free shit can one man take?

I thought we might pick up the odd bit of free merchandise from casino promotions, but the Palms has already put me way ahead of expectation.

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday you can collect prizes for player points – without redeeming the points!

I’d already been playing a multi-line video poker machine pretty hard to take advantage of a 3x point coupon (which makes the game a +EV proposition) to get me on the fast track to the next players club tier for even cheaper food.

I wasn’t really sure what the selection was so I just went up and asked what I could get. Apparently the answer was one of everything, except I could only have one of the major prizes: a wheelie cool bag or a bath robe.

I chose the cool bag…

and also got a t-shirt…

a beach towel…

a duffel bag…

and some other random crap that isn’t Palms branded but just happened to be there, like a CD wallet…

an LED flashlight…

and an ipod case…

I’ll be out of town Wednesday and Friday but there’s still two more days of this promotion next week. You can never have too many towels, right?