We here at the Educational Sports Betting Network try to get around to cover the Advantage Play scene, when we can. We’ve been busy handicapping and betting the Madness of March, but took a little time this week to squeeze in a road trip to West Wendover, NV.
Our first foray up to Wendover was for Super Bowl LI (SB51). As card counters, we want to have as much cover as possible, so full blackjack tables can provide the cover we seek, to extend our playing time. Full tables can also be a nuisance.
Probably the vast majority of you reading this article are blissfully unaware of West Wendover, NV, so we’re gonna take it from the top.
West Wendover (WW from here on out) is 120 miles due west of Salt Lake City, UT, on Interstate 80, immediately across the Utah/Nevada state line. Or, from Las Vegas, NV, WW is 365 miles north via US 93, Nevada Highway 318, US 6 (this alternative shaves about 40 miles off the drive) and back to US 93 in Ely and US 93A. We will include a brief visit to Ely at the conclusion of this article.
What is West Wendover?
Back in the olden days, Wendover, UT was home to the Wendover Air Force Base, most notably famous for training World War II pilots and crews to operate B-17s and B-24s. After closure of the base in 1969, the airport was transferred to Tooele County and, since 1988, has been operated as a commercial airport. Mind you, this airport provides access to WW, not Salt Lake City.
Cross almost any state line into Nevada and there will be a casino. If not immediately at the border, soon thereafter. Interstate 80 is a principal east – west route and West Wendover has been developed to provide immediate access to what all gamblers crave most – action!
Geography definitely works to the advantage of WW. As mentioned, Salt Lake City is 120 miles east, and there is pretty much nothing for 120 miles in ALL directions. This and other factors have allowed WW to become a classic gambling destination. In fact, Wendover has become a gambling junket destination. This website shows all the US cities conveniently served for a quick gambling holiday to WW. Direct flights to WW and the airport is only about a mile away! Nothing could be better for a wild-eyed gambler!
There are five casino “resorts” in WW. Three of these – Montego Bay, Peppermill and Rainbow are owned and operated by Peppermill Casinos and offer an affiliate program among the three. The other two are the Wendover Nugget on the east end of the Wendover Strip and the Red Garter, at the west end of the Wendover Strip. Peppermill has a poker room, but no sportsbook. Montego Bay and Rainbow were the opposite, no poker rooms, but do have sportsbooks. Wendover Nugget has a William Hill book. I found no sportsbook at Red Garter. These things change from time to time. If any of this matters to you, be sure to check the individual casino websites.
Make no mistake, there is nothing glamorous about WW. The scenery is pretty cool, especially to me, a former geologist. I found this link to be quite helpful in describing the local geology. In fact, the highstand of the Great Salt Lake shoreline is etched into the surrounding hills and is very noticeable from many vantage points. West Wendover would most definitely have been underwater.
There is also a Concert Hall located between the Peppermill and Montego Bay. Conveniently, a free shuttle is operated between all the casinos and the central truck stop in town. You can even bring your cocktails aboard the shuttle. There are a few hotels in Wendover, UT but I have no information on them, nor did I cross the state line into Utah.
For those of you thinking I’m wasting your time with this “advertisement” here is the good stuff…
The Best Blackjack in Nevada, Perhaps the Entire Country
Spike and I here at ESBN cut our Advantage Play teeth on basic strategy and counting cards. Las Vegas was once a tremendous place to play great blackjack. Sadly, the vast majority of all the great blackjack games have disappeared, evolving to the awful and idiotic natural payout of 6 to 5. And major heat from the pit bosses, who wish they were real gangsters. Not in West Wendover, NV.
I am an avowed, unabashed and unapologetic card counter, and have been for over 30 years. Knowing basic strategy and counting cards is not gambling. Handicapping sports, when done well, is not gambling. The two are related and intertwined. Craps is gambling. Roulette is gambling. Keno is most certainly gambling. Playing any negative expectation game IS gambling. I rarely gamble.
At the time of my visit (4/01 to 4/03 2019), all blackjack tables were single-deck, hand held games, paying 3 to 2 (the correct payout) for a natural. The game, as played in WW, carries a starting house advantage of a measly 0.15%, with perfect basic strategy play. Few of the gamblers in WW know anything about basic strategy, but I will get to that a little later.
Every table dealt to 7 player spots. On every single deck game. Compare that to how the single deck game is dealt in Las Vegas, and probably at your local casino, wherever you play. Most single deck games, even the ones offering the rip-off of 6 to 5, deal to only 5 spots. When the table is full, the dealer deals two rounds, then reshuffles. For those of you who are not card counters, you wouldn’t care.
For those of us who ARE card counters, this offers a tremendous potential advantage. The average blackjack hand consists of 2.77 cards. Hence, a five spot table will use 16.62 cards (6 x 2.77 – don’t forget the dealer hand) per round, or 33.24 cards dealt per shuffle. This works out to about .64 penetration. The 7 spot table of 8 hands per round works out to 22.16 cards per round, or 44.32 cards per shuffle, a penetration of .85. Imagine how profitable third base becomes with this deep penetration!
Note – For these calculations, I have left the burn card in the 52 card deck to determine penetration, since we do not know what its value is and it is never dealt. Occasionally, the dealer will make a mistake and accidentally show us the burn card, or may mistakenly show us the card on the bottom of the deck. As card counters, we count every card we can see! This has the effect of increasing penetration by one additional card – and making our count even more accurate!
According to my reconnaissance, and at all the tables I played, the game was played exactly the same. The only thing that varied was individual dealer penetration, when playing at a less than full table. At less than full tables, I would experiment with playing one or two hands to determine the effect on penetration. If I could get better penetration based on the number of hands I played, I adjusted my play accordingly. Hence, three round to four hands was the same penetration as four rounds to three hands. But, five rounds to three hands IS deeper penetration. There are other permutations. The idea is to get the maximum value out of player manipulation of penetration. Which is all perfectly legal.
During the week, table minimums started at $3 and went up to $25. I will guess on busy nights and weekends, the $3 tables vanish, and probably some of the $5 tables are converted to $10 minimums.
Pit bosses were numerous and dutifully performed their jobs. I suffered no heat whatsoever. They were there mostly to intervene when a mistake was made at the table – usually a dealer mistake. In all mistakes I observed, the mistake was jovially resolved in the player’s favor.
Here is an example where I was involved – I was playing third base spreading out to two hands with a 1 to 5 spread, sometimes even a 1 to 5 ramp, depending on the count! I had two bets out of $20 and won them both, upon a dealer bust. Dealer pays my third base hand 3 checks to the 4 checks in the betting circle. As I am about to point this out to the dealer, without touching the checks, the pit boss immediately intervened, tapping me on the shoulder and telling the dealer she had shorted my payout. The dealer replaced the missing check and the pit boss said to me – verbatim – “Don’t worry I’m not watching you.” I sincerely thanked him for his diligence in getting the payout corrected.
Were they watching me? Most likely. With my style of play and doing absolutely nothing to disguise it, they had to know I was counting. Yet, they sure didn’t seem to care. No counter measures were employed and I was allowed to play as long as I wanted. No heat at all – not even a funny look from the pit.
It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times
Basic Strategy…For the entire time I was there, I could count on one hand the total number of players who were playing correct basic strategy – or any basic strategy – for that matter. My cohorts at the tables were almost all, male and female alike, wild-eyed gamblers. Most have likely heard that single deck blackjack is the easiest game to beat. And that’s true, so long as you can play perfect basic strategy. But almost all of these dudes were straight up gamblers. What the house may have lost to my advantage play, they made geometrically (exponentially?) more from the crazy gamblers.
The worst part of it all is every single table, no matter the casino, offered the Royal Match side bet. For those of you unfamiliar, here is an excellent explanation. Version 2 is how the game is played in WW. Note that a later table in this linked article shows the single deck house edge for Version 2 of 0.037707, or about 3.8%! Compare that to the starting house edge for the basic strategy player of 0.15%!
Hence, the Royal Match side bet is 25 times more profitable for the house! And nearly everyone (except me) plays it! Of course, the wild eyed gamblers tell me how much value I’m passing up, especially when they see I matched the suit of my first two cards, then suggest I’m an idiot. I simply tell them the math doesn’t work out. None of them care about the math, I assure you.
And these same guessers were often duped into making terrible basic strategy plays in their never-ending quest to suit up their cards. If a player matches his first two cards, he gets paid 3 to 1. The bet and winnings are pushed back to the player. But if the player wants to take an additional card, he can bet the match again. I saw numerous hands bust because the gambler was only interested in the 3 to 1 payout, not the even money payout offered on the resolution of the blackjack hand. For instance, one wild-eyed gambler busted his hard 13 against a dealer 5 up card in his quest for another suit match. The card he drew would have busted the dealer and was not the correct suit! I’m sure the gambler thinks he wound up the winner, overall since, in this example, he won three and lost two. But, in the long run, that’s not how the Royal Match math works.
Conclusion for the Advantage Player
So, as an advantage player, you will be dealt a great game. If you are on your game and your count and hitting your naturals, splits and doubles, you cannot help but win money at this endeavor. However, you will be playing with some of the worst blackjack players known to science. If you stick it out, a trip to West Wendover will yield profits. Just laugh off all the terrible play and know that you are getting the best of it.
Lodging, food and drink were all just fine and generally reasonable. Although, the bartender at Montego Bay making my Manhattans certainly could have brushed up on the correct way to do so. Likewise, the Old Fashioned was similarly booted. Aside from watching my fellow tablemates play terrible blackjack, the quality of the big-boy drinks is my only complaint!
If you are an Advantage Player, you absolutely MUST spend a couple days in West Wendover, NV. But let’s keep this secret to ourselves!
Ely NV Side Trip
I rolled up to WW from Las Vegas through Ely, NV. Ely is an old mining town, quite past its heyday. The town exists principally because of the Robinson Mining District copper mines. While I am a big fan of geology, copper mining was not the purpose of this trip. I was just sliding through town, getting a McDonald’s receipt for my dad (store #13942), heading up to West Wendover. I vowed to check out Ely on my way back through.
There are a couple casinos in Ely, and I visited one on my way back to Vegas. The Hotel Nevada in downtown Ely boasts two blackjack tables and a sportsbook. I visited on a Wednesday around noon. The independent sportsbook was open and operated by the friendly woman at the hotel front desk. Sadly, the two-table blackjack pit was closed at this time of day, and the tables covered with heavy, ill-fitting vinyl covers.
The gaming floor is steeped in history, with all kinds of memorabilia adorning every flat spot in there. There was even a tribute to Clint Eastwood at the main entrance. The bar was a pleasant surprise, as it offered the usual selection of domestic beers, yet also a great selection of craft beers. The bartender was busy with other things, so I just ordered an IPA and jotted down a few notes. I’m sure the selection of craft beers rotates, so I won’t go to the trouble of listing what I found. If you like beer, I wager you will find something you like in here.
It is probably redundant to note that the joint was s-l-o-w during my visit. But I bet this place is hopping evenings and weekends, especially summer weekends. I did not make a wager at the sportsbook, but from what I could tell, the independent book offered competitive lines.
Would I go back – damn straight I would. And if I lived in this town I’m certain I would be banned from the blackjack tables – both of them – and probably the sportsbook too! They don’t like our kind in there. But to go and have fun – count me in! And if you are in to that kind of thing, White Pine County has fewer than 500,000 residents, if you catch my drift.