Some observations from a gambling vacation on the Las Vegas Strip

Not only have bad blackjack rules in the Las Vegas Strip turned off smart gamblers, but the large house edge isn’t offering an incentive for people to learn how to play.

Marc Meltzer
Last Updated: Jul 7, 2017 1:33 AM ET

As you may have read, I was on vacation last week. This year my annual summer break bled into the Fourth of July holiday. The break was a bit longer than previous years and lasted an entire week. Not only do I take time away from writing but I'm also observing trends that I might not see when just walking in and around casinos.

I was immersed in the fun and filth of the Vegas Strip. I ate, drank, gambled, and slept on the Strip (not literally on the sidewalk). Here are a few things I noticed during the week.

Pai Gow is more popular in Las Vegas than I’ve seen in years

There were more people playing Pai Gow Poker on the Vegas Strip and downtown Las Vegas than I can remember. Minimum bets were mostly $10 or $15 and the tables were all packed throughout the weekend. The game was so popular that there were even two full $25 tables at 6 am (yes, the morning) when I got back to my room at Planet Hollywood on multiple nights.

I’ve been talking about how great Pai Gow Poker is in today’s Las Vegas for awhile now and it seems as if others feel the same. The relatively small house edge and slow pace of the game are an incentive for many who simply want some gambling action while they hang out and party with friends.

Blackjack on the Vegas Strip is worse than ever

Where to start here? Blackjack is a mess right now and less fun than ever. It’s not a surprise that most blackjack games pay 6:5 when you’re dealt a natural blackjack. This isn’t even the worst rule you'll find with blackjack on the Vegas Strip. Just about every casino offers games with bad rules for bettors not willing to wager $25 or more per hand.

Not only have bad rules turned off smart gamblers, but the large house edge isn’t offering an incentive for people to learn how to play. Low limits players are usually the least experienced but they're worse than ever. In the long term, poor play won’t affect overall results too much. However, the bad play is just annoying if you have half a clue on basic strategy. Unless you have a table to yourself, blackjack on the Vegas Strip isn’t fun.

Blackjack, and all gambling, in downtown Las Vegas is still a great time

Casinos in downtown Las Vegas still offer fair odds and returns on their games. You’ll find 10x odds in craps at many different casinos. Main Street Station has 20x if you don't mind the 30-second walk from Fremont Street. Only a table full of players rolling dice into chips could turn me off playing craps in downtown Las Vegas.

Most casinos still offer 3:2 payouts when you’re dealt a natural blackjack. We had a blast playing cards at the Downtown Grand for a few hours. The casino had fun dealers and players that knew basic strategy. If you’re a person who visits Las Vegas specifically to gamble, you should be looking at casino away from the Vegas Strip. There are plenty of good options in downtown Las Vegas and around town.

Planet Hollywood observations

- The Sportsbook doubles as a restaurant. The bar area devotes their table to Ringer Wings, Pizza, and Sliders. Meanwhile, Pin-Up Pizza guests use the seats in the main sportsbook as a place to eat the oversized slices. The Ringer space makes sense as a sports bar and restaurant. However, those pizza people taking up seats in the sportsbook seemed like it might be an issue when we’re not in the dog days of summer.

- Caesars Entertainment renovated all of the hotel rooms at Planet Hollywood over the past year. They’ve removed most of the kitschy movie paraphernalia from the rooms and opted for a more modern contemporary design. Over the years the only movie I recognized in the rooms was “Spaceballs.” I like the clean feel of the new design. Opt for the "Resort" room upgrade from entry level "Hip" room if space matters. The extra 150 square feet is very noticeable.

- I've been staying at this casino since it was being renovated from the Aladdin. In my 10 years of staying here, I still can't find anything unless I'm standing underneath the Starbucks sign. The combination of the circular casino area and jagged edges always throws me for a loop.

- Speaking of Starbucks, the prices are insane. There's always a markup for products on the Vegas Strip but there's nothing that impacts me like Starbucks. The Venti (large) iced coffee I pay under $4 for in the suburbs was over $6. Add a snack and the quick serve morning caffeine addiction costs over $11. A small hot coffee at the casino bar is $4 plus tax and tip. Coffee addicts might want to venture into the Miracle Mile Shops for a slightly less expensive cup at Coffee Bean or another restaurant.

- Earl of Sandwich remains one of the best cheap eats at a casino on the Vegas Strip. A sandwich is well under $10 and always hits the spot. It's right across from the sportsbook so you can grab a cheap bite while watching the games. They also make a decent inexpensive quick-serve breakfast if you're just looking for a quick bite when waking up or before passing out.

New Sportsbook On The Vegas Strip?

Last but not least, there’s a lot of construction happening at The Cromwell. The most interesting might be in the section of the casino furthest away from the Strip. The high limits slot area has been removed and I've heard that there will be a sportsbook in that area. The Cromwell is currently the only casino on the Vegas Strip without a sportsbook.

I’m also told that Caesars Entertainment will have a sports wagering app available in time for football season. I haven’t been able the information for either of these rumors yet with Caesars Entertainment.

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