July 2009
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Day 3: Stay three hotel nights (all at the same time) for the price of none

I still can’t get over just how recklessly Harrah’s have been giving away free hotel rooms, but I’m not complaining.

As our reservation at the Rio was booked in Claire’s name and she’s literally only gambled about $20 on her players card since she had it, there was no offer an awesome Strip view to go with our free room this time.

It’s still a suite – all the rooms at the Rio are – but we’re looking down onto Flamingo Road.  It isn’t so bad though, it’s a great view of Palms and Gold Coast.

Although we have this room until Thursday when we can get the keys to our rented house, we also had to check in to two more hotels today – just for the extra free goodies we’d get for accepting their offer.

Gold Coast is right next door so we didn’t even need to drive over there to check in and get the free stuff.  They’d offered Claire $20 per day dining credit and $10 per day free slot play if she stayed two nights for free.

The room was newly remodelled and quite nice.

This is the first hotel for quite a while where I’ve been hit by the dreaded "resort fee" stealth tax.  It’s only $3 per night – just about the lowest one I’ve heard of and a far cry from the $20+ per night at Station Casinos properties – but the list of amenities that the fee is said to cover is ridiculous.

Apparently this is what it pays for:

– Parking (which is free for anyone, including non-hotel guests)
– Shuttle buses to the Strip and The Orleans (which are free for anyone)
– Local phone calls (which are free)
– Toll free phone calls (I think they are missing the point)
– Incoming and outgoing fax service (I didn’t try it, but I just know there’ll be a charge per page)
– Coffee maker in your room (which would be a feature of the room, not the resort, surely?)
– Access to the fitness center

I checked to see whether there was an additional charge if you actually used the fitness center and there is not, so at least there is one genuine resort feature included.  Basically this dumb fee works out to be nothing more than a compulsory gym membership to eek out a few extra quid from guests – even those who have been invited to stay for free.

After taking a few bottles of shampoo and messing up the beds so it wasn’t obvious we hadn’t stayed there, we moved on to the next target.

We actually decided to spend the night at Harrah’s Laughlin, who gave me $85 in cash for showing up as promised.  We only managed to use $30 out of our $50 of food credit there for dinner though.  The Mexican restaurant closed at 9pm and we just missed it, so it had to be the cafe and I thought ordering myself a second pizza when I couldn’t even finish the first one would be a little unnecessary.

We were delayed getting there a little by the closure of Hwy 95, which was apparently shut for 6 hours after a truck did a somersault in one of the storms we’d been seen looming around the edges of the valley during the day (although they didn’t hit Las Vegas itself).

The desert skies were fairly clear by the time we set out but there were some monster puddles on the ground and the temperature dropped from the hundreds to a modest 80F along the highway.  The radio kept being interrupted by end-of-the-world emergency broadcast alerts saying very little of specific use but constantly advising not to attempt to drive through water on the road.

"Turn around, don’t drown", said the daunting message, repeatedly.

A single overhead notice sign warned "US-95 closed at Searchlight" but that was all.  It didn’t say why, how long for, or how to avoid it.  I didn’t really know what else to do, and wasn’t even sure if there was a sensible detour (I was driving a 4×4, but I didn’t actually want to use all four wheels) so we carried on in that direction.

As we approached Searchlight, there were dozens of trucks all parked on the shoulder and traffic started to slow down.

Amazingly our timing had been just about perfect.  Just ahead, trucks started to pull back onto the road – they’d obviously heard something – and we crawled along until we passed a solitary highway patrol car with one officer beckoning traffic through.

Thankfully the route to Laughlin is usually plain sailing all the way.  We have to return on Thursday morning to check out of the hotel room that we’re no longer using!

Day 2: Look! Shiny object!

Here’s a picture of today’s bonus value from The Palms.

The reason I’ve included my players card in the haul is that they reissued it at the "MVP" level when there’s absolutely no reason that it should be.  All my play there recently has been on Claire’s card, and we weren’t even sure that she would have qualified for a green card with the recent rule changes.

But as we had a linked account and Claire was asking for an updated card, I handed mine over at the same time and got one the same colour but still with my own number on it.  Whether or not it will work for half price buffets I don’t yet know – the register may flag me up as an imposter – but it’s definitely good enough to make me look like a VIP so I can carry on jumping various queues.

The other stuff was from a swipe-and-win promotion, and as there’s some kind of giveaway every day this month (and most likely next month too) this is just the first of many yet to come.

Today’s promotion is something to do with cars (I didn’t really pay that much attention) and I won a $10 gas card and Claire got the green stick thing in the photo, which is actually an air freshener that clips into an air vent.

Of course it’s tat, but at least it’s Palms-branded tat, not like those horrible clocks they were giving away in April.

In other tat news, I got this awful string of plastic beads from Binion’s.

The whole of Downtown Las Vegas has adopted a Summer of ’69 theme with tie-die shirts, peace symbols and lava lamps all over the place.  It’s pretty cool that all the casinos are taking part in the same theming in their own way.

I didn’t have to do anything in particular to get this piece of garbage, I just asked for a new slot card.  However, I think that giving me something shiny was really just misdirection while the players club took a sneaky scan of my driving license.

It was a swift move, as I could only tell as I’d already positioned myself to look down over their screen, knowing that I’m sometimes awkward to find when my British ID shows a date of birth with the numbers the wrong way round to an American, and when I’m actually listed under a California address anyway.

After I pointed out the right record and the lady handed me a set of beads, I saw my mugshot flash on screen before she gave me my license back.

If the Palms hadn’t also taken a scan earlier I would have asked what the hell is going on, but it looks like this is becoming common practice – I think so that rather than having to produce ID every time you speak to them they can just pull up your picture and make sure it’s really you.

However, at the Palms they actually asked if they could take a copy.  I don’t know why Binion’s were so deceptive about it.

Day 1(ish): Sometimes sat nav really isn’t necessary

(Technically it was Day 2 when we started out at 3am after a few hours sleep in a Travelodge next to the airport… but with absolutely nothing to report from the night before and with a full Day 2 ahead in Vegas, this is as good a place to start as any).

Once you leave behind the last traces of Californian civilisation, the drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas is pretty much just a long, straight line.

In 141 miles, take the exit.

And now, the weather

I just got a nice short summer haircut, and then walked home in the piddling rain which made it seem a bit pointless. 

However, tomorrow I leave for Las Vegas.

It’s one of the most overly-elaborate ways I could think of to reproduce a weather forecast, but I’ll just let this video clip speak for itself.  Forget about the big number at the top (it’s only 4:45am Vegas time) look at the coming week’s highs and lows.

No such thing as a free beer?

Free beer.  It almost exists, thanks to Tesco.

Bonus Clubcard point offers returned to the shelves last week after a long absense, and they came back in style.  There’s some fantastic value among them.  The full list is here:

For example, 6 bottles of Heineken for £7.34, with bonus 200 clubcard points untll 21st July.

Points are worth 4p each if you spend them on Clubcard Rewards, so you get you £8 back for every £7.34 you spend. Although £7.34 is not a great price for 6 bottles of beer, it effectively costs you nothing.

Buy 7 packs and you not only make enough on top to cover the delivery charge, the £50 spend should also trigger a 5p per litre fuel discount voucher.  There are also voucher codes floating around for discounts or further bonus points when you spend £50 or more.  Each time you do this, you get 42 bottles of better-than-free beer.

Claire and I a serial multi-accounters with Tesco, and two of our accounts accepted a “Save £10 when you spend £50” coupon!

If wine is more your thing, there’s a bottle of Rose or Brut for £10.99 with 300 free points (worth £12) and some kind of red wine for £5.99 with 150 points back (£6).

Or, slightly more mundane, there’s several offers on washing powder.  Don’t knock it, you’ll always use that sort of stuff eventually and it doesn’t go off.

What’s this got to do with the kind of stuff I usually write about, apart from being a fairly oblique +EV play?

Well, there are now two ways that Tesco Deals can get you to Las Vegas (or many other placed in the world, if you’re that way inclined) which is why I’m now trying harder than ever to eek every last point out of the system.

As well as Virgin Holidays (who I’m not a fan of) you can convert your points to British Airways Executive Club miles.  BA start flying non-stop from London Heathrow to Las Vegas in October.

Free beer if you buy a holiday, or a free holiday if you buy beer.  Whichever way you look at it, that’s a superb deal.

They do fly North and East as well, I checked

It’s not a freebie, but I’m still pondering this offer I had in the mail from the Palms.

Inside, it offered me:

Not a bad deal.  In fact, Claire had almost exactly the same offer.  Hers said:

Which I guess means the Palms thinks I’m worth exactly $10 more than she is.  Bling!

This is notable because, despite playing at the Palms more than anywhere else in town the past couple of years, this is the first piece of mail I’ve had from them for something other than “get a credit card with our logo on it”. 

The Palms caters for tourists who want to party and locals who want to gamble.  There’s not much overlap, and they definitely don’t seem to care too much about tourists who want to grind out some free shit on a positive play machine.  Room offers are something of a rarity so it’s fantastic to finally get one.

Although it’s not a free room, I’d already been considering taking advantage of some heavily discounted room offers just because they’re there, and room rates as low as they are right now can’t last forever.

MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay and Planet Hollywood all currently have offers where you can get a room for $50-$70, with goodies or gambling money back to the value of at least $25.  As long as you only stay one night, it’s a fairly cheap way to check out a hotel I’ve never stayed at (I’m intrigued by the movie-themed rooms at the P-Ho) or get access to some nice swimming pools.

MGM Grand works out at (effectively) $24, and Mandalay Bay $44.  Anyone can get these deal without needing to be a rated player.  Pretty damn good.

So we can add the Palms to that list now too.  What’s most interesting about this deal, though, is the rest of the promotion – and the reason for the Southwest plane on the front of the mailer.

As they say, 400 points gets you $1 back in comp or slot play, and as you earn 1 point for every $1 played through a machine, this adds 0.25% to your expected return from a game.

The ability to swap points for slot play is a new thing and is only valid on points earned since June this year, and when this change was introduced we had a bit of a scare.  At first they’d said that any older points had to be redeemed within a year or would expire. 

After some mammoth sessions the last few trips, Claire and I have nearly $700 between us on our cards.  That’s a lot of half price buffets and movie tickets!  It’s not that I’m not up for a Brewster’s Millions type challenge, I’d just rather spend the comp the way I want to than be forced to eat expensive meals that I don’t appreciate at restaurants where I don’t really fit in.

When 10,000 base points on video poker gets you a $50 gift card, that’s worth another 0.5% on top of your points value.  Where it gets really interesting is if you could combine a triple points coupon from one of the frequent swipe-and-win days – which would take your base earning rate to 0.75%, a total of 1.25% when you include the gift cards.

The very best video poker machines will probably be excluded from the deal, but with 1.25% added to the expectation you could legitimately play 99.2% Bonus Poker – which is never marked as excluded from promotions – with an edge.

Of course, things happen much more quickly if you play slots.  One gift card for every 2,500 makes the the promotion worth a hefty 2%!  I can’t remember if the Palms has any certified 99% payback slots, but if it does this promo turns them into winners.

The question, really, is what use is a Southwest airlines gift card to me, and the answer is not a great deal.  We’ve toyed with the idea of going to Disneyland to get away from… well… the grown up Disneyland but it’s so much easier to drive to California than fly to Florida – where there’s still plenty of good theme parks – I don’t think that’s likely to happen.  So I’d be looking to sell them on eBay for about 90% of face value.

It’s definitely a good deal.  But whether it’s good enough to justify actually paying for a hotel room to be able to use it, I still haven’t decided.

These are not the greatest socks in the world, this is just a tribute

It’s always sad day when you grab a faithful pair of socks from the draw, pull apart the opening to start putting your foot inside and hear that horrible cracking sound.  It’s like fingers on a blackboard to a sock aficionado, and it can only mean one thing – the elastic has given up the ghost.

I’m especially saddened by my latest casualty.  It’s my longest serving pair of Las Vegas casino socks.

Say it with me:  “Hard. Rock. Socks”.

I can’t put a precise date on how long I’ve had these, but it’s at least five years.  Possibly closer to ten.  They were the ones that started my casino sock collection, and I’ve been trying to replace them for several years to no avail.

Believe it or not, the World’s Largest Hard Rock retail store doesn’t sell a pair of logo socks any more.

I can’t bring myself to throw them away yet.  I’m not sure whether to let them go out with a bang and put up with them slipping down when I wear them for one last outing, or simply to have them preserved.

Would that be called “soxidermy”?

In other age-related sock death news, I think these fantastic Mirage socks with reversible cuff only have one more wear left in them too.

They’re also irreplacable.  I’ve checked at every available opportunity the past few years.  The Mirage does still sell socks, but only Siegfried and Roy branded children’s socks.

But these ones are threadbare in several places and I need to let them go with at least a little dignity.

Doesn’t add up

I don’t use Moneybookers very often, but I have an account there for the odd times I need to receive money that way.

This was one of those times.  I was sent a sum of money, originally in British Pounds but it got converted to US Dollars as that’s the currency on my account.  It landed in my balance as $96.20.

Then I went to withdraw it.  As I hadn’t really taken any notice of the actual amount in dollars so far, I just agreed to everything – including a $2.50 withdrawal fee.  It said I could withdraw up to $93.69 and I asked for the lot.

Did you spot it?  $96.20 minus $2.50 cannot result in a number that ends with a 9.  There’s a penny missing somewhere, and I almost wan’t paying enough attention to notice.

Thankfully, it showed me a handy statement afterwards:

Great, everything balances in the end.  They just made a penny disappear to compensate for the error.

$2.51 minus $2.50 is zero.  Apparently.

I don’t think there can be anything more embarrasing for a wannabe bank than not being able to add or subtract two amounts of money.  Perhaps that’s why their software has this error correction built in: “If something goes wrong, we’ll just pretend that it didn’t and hope nobody notices”.

Guess what.  I noticed.

The penny is insignificant, especially when the amount of money we’re talking about has already been converted to once and will be converted again to end up back in a GBP bank account.  When that happens, you have to expect to be hit by an unfavourable exchange rate and that they’ll skim off fractions of a penny at every possible opportunity.

But that’s not what’s happened here.  The statement simply does not add up – it is blatently wrong.

We’re not talking about a dodgy online casino that only has to pay a sum of money to a random island nation in order to call itself licensed.  This is a financial institution regulated by the FSA in the UK, and it’s very worrying that such an organisation could make any sum of money vanish without an audit trail.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’s not hard to make sure that your software handles decimal numbers correctly.  And, yes, I am available for consultancy work.

Let’s see what they say…

Least accessible poker bonus ever?

I just had this offer in an email from Party Poker.

Wow, a $975 bonus.  It’s a random amount, but it’s huge.  How can I resist?

5,850 Party Points sounds like a fair chunk, but to be honest it’s so long since I played there I couldn’t even remember how you earn them.

Playing tournaments, you earn 2 Party Points for every $1 paid in fees.  You pay $2,925 and get back $975, so it’s equivalent to getting precisely one-third of your fees back.

Not a bad deal.  But do you remember the last time you paid three grand in tournament fees in a month?  Me neither.

Admittedly, I rarely play much higher than the $20s, so I’d be looking at around 70 sit-and-gos a day for 21 days to unlock this bonus.  That’s a full time job – assuming you can play a dozen at a time, and I can’t.

It’s more achievable for high stakes SNG players.  The $100s have a $9 fee and Party have capped it $10 per tournament for higher buy-ins, right up to the $5,000 tournaments.  It would take 325 $100 tournaments or 293 at any higher level to get there.

That’s roughly 15 per day, which is still high for a casual player, but it’s more realistic.  However I can’t help thinking that if you can play that many of high stakes tournaments, you’re serious enough about poker to already have a rakeback at least as good as this elsewhere and that you wouldn’t want to jeopardise your VIP status by taking a few weeks out for this bonus, when you’d get almost no perks from Party after the bonus is over.

So… if it’s going to happen, it’ll have to be cash games.  A few years ago when Party Poker bonuses were just great, I used to clear them playing $1/$2 limit, which meant relatively soft games with fairly low variance, and the numbers meant that Party was actually giving away more in bonuses than you paid in rake.  It was awesome.

Now, things have tightened up.  At this level, it takes 57 raked hands to earn 10 Party Points, so for this promotion, you’d need to play 33,345 raked hands!

From my past experience, it takes about 5 hours four-tabling $1/$2 to play 1,000 raked hands, for which you’d pay about $55 in rake.  It’s possible, but it’s a lot of work.  In fact, it’s a full time job again, about 7 hours of solid play – that’s one-third of the 21 days you have to complete the play requirement.

For what it’s worth, the rake you’d pay is about $1800 so the $975 bonus is equivalent to a little over 50% rakeback.  Not bad at all.

The number of hands that are raked increases slightly as you move up limits, but that’s not as significant as the amount of rake you pay.  That’s why at $3/$6 you only need 14 raked hands to earn 10 Party Points.  That brings down the total number of raked hands required to 8,190 – or about 40 hours of play four-tabling.

It’s a pretty attractive bonus, but it’s also pretty inaccessible to the majority of players and I guess that’s the point.  They’re trying to deter the small-timers and serial bonus whores and get players who are prepared to commit a big chunk of time to Party Poker, then hope they stick around afterwards.

I’d love to be able to find a way to do exactly what they don’t want, but as I only have a week left before I head off to Vegas, I just can’t see it happening…

Coaster face

As well as recording myself playing the fake drums, I decided another good way to put my new camera through its paces was to see how it coped with some fast action shots.

A roller coaster that accelerates from 0-80 mph in less than 2 seconds seemed to meet the brief. That would be Stealth at Thorpe Park, and as I couldn’t be bothered to queue for 90 minutes to get on the ride, trying to take pictures of people’s scared faces was the next best thing.

This is one of my favourites:

The picture looks a bit crappy this close, but it was taken hand-held from the ground to the very top of a 200ft high ride against nothing but bright sky.  I don’t think I can grumble given those conditions.  Certainly not going to cry about it, like this fella.

The pictures where I didn’t have to zoom so much or point at the sun gave better results.  Watch the guy in the red shirt, looking all excited as it starts to launch…

… and screaming like a little girl on the way down.

This could become one of my new favourite pastimes.

What I want to know, though, is where did his glasses go?  I didn’t actually believe this could happen until now…