When he was in college in the 1970's, Anthony Curtis read a book about blackjack and it changed his life. He moved to Las Vegas to play the game and definitely learned how to do it. At Max Rubin's 2017 Blackjack Ball, Curtis was named World's Greatest Blackjack Player. These days he publishes Las Vegas Advisor and runs Huntington Press.
As a resident of the town for the past 40 years, he's seen the place grow from small gambling-center to major metropolitan growth spot. I asked him if he'd answer a few questions about casinos and Vegas and he agreed and here's how it went:
John Navin: In May, MGM Resorts cut jobs -- more than 700 employees were let go. I read in news reports that this is cost cutting to improve earnings and that a number of "manager" positions were eliminated. As a resident of the city who follows casino activities, what are your thoughts on the lay offs and this re-positioning at MGM Resorts?
Anthony Curtis: I see that as a non-issue. The company is choking with debt and has to cut costs. They’re doing what any company would. What’s notable is the correlated gouging of the customer, which MRI is doing more than any other casino company -- resort fees, paid parking, tighter games and comps – it’s dangerous business because there’s a lot of choice in the gambling world and the customers are getting sick of it.
Navin: Shares of WYNN have dropped from an early 2018 peak of 190 to a recent price of 111. That's about a 40% drop in just over a year. I know that their Macau operation has been an issue, but their recent financial report shows that the win from the Las Vegas casino table games was off by more than 27%. Can you describe your take on what’s going on inside WYNN in Vegas?
Curtis: Who knows? There can be a lot of variance in results at places that rely heavily on high-roller action, especially baccarat. What we do know is that Wynn Las Vegas was the first to rescind paid parking and there had to be a financial reason for that. As indicated above, people are getting tired of being gouged and there’s a good chance that part of the declining results were traced to parking charges.
Navin: How have Las Vegas casinos adjusted to the advent of bitcoin and cryptocurrencies?
Curtis: It's been barely a blip. A couple of places installed kiosks, but they've made no appreciable impact. I don't think much of the customer base tries to deal in crypto.
Navin: This is the 50th anniversary of the World Series of Poker going on now at the Rio All Suite Casino and Hotel. When you arrived in Las Vegas in 1979, the WSOP was held at Benny Binion’s downtown casino, The Horseshoe Club. In what ways has the poker championship – and the poker game itself – changed since you arrived?
Curtis: It’s changed immensely. Poker went from a niche gambling activity to a big point of emphasis during the boom that was created by the Moneymaker Effect. It caused everyone to make moves to accommodate the new demand. That boom is over and interest in poker is waning, but it’s still significant and the WSOP continues to post big numbers. The new poker will be sports betting.
Navin: If I wanted to visit Las Vegas and approximate an old-school 1950’s/1960’s-style experience, which casino/resorts would you recommend? For example, if I wanted to experience an actual one-armed bandit slot machine rather than a video gaming device, where would I go?
Curtis: There’s not as much retro-Vegas as you might expect, but downtown provides the closest fit. Not that you’d find a slot with handles or even machines that dispense coins instead of credits, but the vibe is old school. Many of the restaurants – Binion’s Steakhouse (Binion’s), Second Street Grill (Fremont), Hugo’s (Four Queens) – have that value-gourmet quality.
Fremont has the last 99¢ shrimp cocktail. The Plaza has a showroom with an old-time feel. El Cortez and Four Queens deal low-limit single deck blackjack that still pays 3-2 on naturals (most single decks now pay 6-5). The second floor of the D is meant to represent something of a throwback casino floor, even featuring the city’s last Sigma Derby horse race game.
You can get some of that vibe in the locals casinos operated by Station and Boyd, or in the casinos on Boulder Hwy. (Skyline) and Henderson (Emerald Island), but downtown is the best bet in general. A good throwback near the Strip is Ellis Island, especially for its fantastic food bargains.
Navin: You dropped out of Duke University and came to Las Vegas to play blackjack in 1979. It’s my understanding that casino counter-measures have made that a tough game to beat these days. How has playing 21 in Sin City changed since you arrived?
Curtis: That chronology is close enough. I was a wrestler and transferred from Duke to UCLA, but turned 21 and went to Vegas to play. My dad was a college professor at the time, so that was interesting, but that’s another story. I disagree about the game being more difficult to beat for skilled players.
We’re about to publish a book called The 21st Century Card Counterthat brings home the point of how beatable the game still is. It has changed significantly for the recreational player, however. Rules are worse and minimums are higher. Hence, blackjack isn’t the gambling bargain for the recreational player that it used to be, though it's not bad.
Navin: You’ve been publishing Las Vegas Advisor since you founded it in 1983. How would you describe your website for someone who’s never visited but might be thinking about it, Anthony?
Curtis: It’s all about showing visitors how to take advantage of all the good things here, and there are many. Most of this discussion has focused on the negative, but Las Vegas has all kinds of fantastic opportunities, especially for those in the know.
Our buffet listings are the most up-to-date on the Web. Same for our information on parking and resort fees. We’ve published the "Question of the Day" for nearly 15 years, so there are more than 5,000 answers to just about anything you want to know that you can access by searching the archives. Everything current is posted daily.
If you simply check out the "Top Ten" you'll have a leg up, and if you dig into our blogs you'll be hobnobbing with some serious gambling and travel experts. We've just launched a new blog called "The Travel Game" that's gonna take the travel/casinos connection to a new level.
Navin: A friend of mine who’s a CEO of a Silicon Valley tech firm told me he was thinking about moving the company to the Las Vegas area – to get away from what he called “group think” in Northern California. What would you say to him about bringing a tech company to Southern Nevada?
Curtis: From the perspective of fresh and creative thinking, do it. Las Vegas is the most constantly evolving city in the world and it’s all about attracting money, so there are a lot of clever thinkers. It’s brutally hot in the summer and there are a lot of potential diversions, but otherwise, this is a happening place that benefits happening people.
Navin: Anthony, thanks.