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Gaming Analyst Jeff Hwang Chronicles Tour Of Nevada As Casinos Reopen

Hwang Was First Gambler On The Las Vegas Strip When The Shutdown Ended

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Hwang On His Casino Road Trip Through NevadaA few months ago, Jeff Hwang wasn’t thinking about casinos very much at all. Despite being a longtime gaming analyst and regular contributor to various gambling publications, the 39-year-old was instead putting the finishing touches on his plans for a new restaurant and coffee shop in the Arts District of downtown Las Vegas.

“On March 10, I was at City Hall with the planning commission, getting the go ahead to break ground and start building,” Hwang recalled. “The very next day, Rudy Gobert [of the Utah Jazz] tested positive for coronavirus, the NBA suspended its season, and all of a sudden you couldn’t be picky about your brand of toilet paper. We were planning on opening in June or July, but instead we decided to sit back and see how things played out.”

Less than a week later, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered a shutdown of the state’s non-essential businesses, effectively closing the gaming industry for the first time in 57 years, and perhaps only for the fourth time since gambling was legalized in the state in 1931.

Neither the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, nor the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival on Oct. 1, 2017 caused the Strip to power down. The last time that action on the Strip grinded to a halt was Nov. 25, 1963, for the funeral of President John F. Kennedy, and that, of course, did not last more than two months.

Using Macau’s sluggish recovery efforts as an example, Hwang believed that the Strip would be closed a minimum of 2-3 months, but that “we should be prepared for the Strip to be closed up to 6-12 months, if not longer,” when he wrote about the pandemic back in early April. When it was announced that the casinos, including those on the Strip, would be opening again in early June, Hwang was disappointed, but not surprised.

“The state opened knowing that without any visitor restrictions in place whatsoever, an outbreak on the Strip is virtually guaranteed to occur. Clearly they’re not going to open the Strip just to close it, which means we’re about to just let it happen and roll with it. Though I will say that if we’re not going to close it, we’re actually better off just opening the whole Strip, as that will create more space and reduce crowd control issues.”

“To clarify, the problem isn’t necessarily so much that casinos are open, but that the Strip in particular is open without the proper measures in place.”

Hwang notes that Macau opened after just two weeks of closure, and within a month of reopening banned foreign visitors, essentially locking down the city even as the casinos stayed open. Las Vegas, of course, is open to anybody who can get on a plane or is willing to drive.

Despite the risks, however, Hwang had to see how the reopening would play out in person. When the casino industry opened again on Thursday, June 4, the South Florida transplant was among the first in line to witness history.

“I started downtown at midnight, and went 17 hours straight the first day,” said Hwang.
After finishing up downtown, Hwang made his way around the city, visiting any locals casinos that were open before heading to the Las Vegas Strip for their reopening at 8 a.m. By chance, he just happened to be the first patron to walk into The Strat casino, which also allowed him to achieve a number of other firsts.

“Not only was I the first [patron] back at the Strat, but because the Strat was the first casino to reopen on the Strip, I was also the first customer to set foot in a Strip casino post-lockdown. I was also the first person to play a game, and the first person to win a hand. And because the Strat became the first Strip casino since the ’80s to let the dealers keep their own tips, I was the first person on the Strip since the ’80s to make and win a bet for the dealer that the dealer kept herself!”

After knocking out the rest of Sin City, Hwang decided to keep it going. He visited Laughlin, and by Tuesday had finished Clark County. The next day, he started his road trip, determined to stop in every open gambling joint in the state.

“Back in college, I used to drive around to all the riverboat casinos across the Midwest and South, playing blackjack and looking at casinos. I was into stocks, and interested in how the casinos competed with each other,” Hwang said. “When the poker boom happened, I kept casino hopping. That’s how I learned so much about the gaming industry, by visiting each property. After college in 2003, I was writing for The Motley Fool, and back in those days, nobody was really writing about the gaming industry, particularly the riverboats. The people on Wall Street were analyzing these gaming companies from New York, but I got the up-close look at how these businesses were working, and how they competed.”

“When I first got into blackjack, there was a book called Blackjack Autumn, and the author, Barry Meadow, went to all of the casinos in Nevada. And so, having just cleared all of Clark County and live-tweeted it, this seemed like the perfect time to visit all of the casinos in Nevada and check them off my bucket list and do the same. I had anticipated things getting pretty bad on the Strip over the next few weeks, so I figured now was the time to hit the road and get it done before the shit hits the fan.”

An accident on the highway forced an immediate detour to Pahrump. Over the next six days, Hwang made his way from town to town, sometimes finding bigger casino resorts, like the Grand Sierra in Reno or the Hard Rock in Lake Tahoe, or tiny slot parlors in places like Tonopah, Virginia City, Elko, and Ely.

He even arrived in Jackpot, Nevada very early one morning, only to discover that the city was in another time zone and he had missed his reservation. Fortunately, that allowed him a chance to stay an additional night. Hwang took to social media for some recommendations on what to do with his extra time.

“The @LasVegasLocally account suggested Jarbidge, Nevada, which is a tiny place on the border of Idaho,” said Hwang. “I said cool. Half of the year you can only get there driving through Idaho, so I had to go three hours out of the way on unpaved roads with no cell service to find a little town with one gas pump, and one bar that had four slot machines. The bar owner said they had the last seasonal gaming license in Nevada.”

“You know, 95 percent of gambling stories are either blackjack or poker; few gamblers ever make it to Jarbidge. They had a video poker machine from 2000, so I figured I was supposed to blow $20 on that.”

When asked why he would take a three-hour detour to see four outdated slot machines, Hwang was quick to clarify.

“Well, I had to come back too. (laughing) You should see the pictures. I stopped every five minutes, and had the road to myself. It’s worth the drive, at least once.”

Hwang didn’t gamble at every casino he visited, because that “would have taken way too long.” He says he probably lost a small amount overall playing during the trip, but made up for it with free play.

“I collect players cards – they’re free and come personalized. Sometimes when you sign up for a card, you get free play which is free money. When you factor in all of that, I probably won a little, like $30 or something.”

Of course, it was those player cards that got him recognized one night at the blackjack table. Hwang found some promising single-deck games in Wendover, and couldn’t help but sit down and try his luck. Unfortunately, his session was cut short when he was identified by a floorman.

“I meant to pass through Wendover on the way home, and couldn’t believe what I found – legit single-deck games galore, which don’t really exist anymore. So, I booked a room for the night on my way out for the day and came back that evening.”

“Now blackjack is like poker… every play is a tell. Everybody knows you are supposed to hit 16 against a 10, but that’s not actually true if you are counting cards,” Hwang explained. “If the count’s positive, the play is to stand. If you play dumb enough, you can get away with sometimes hitting 16 vs. 10 and sometimes standing. But once you do something that normal people don’t do like take insurance on 17, they start to take a look at everything else you do and did. So the trick is to play shorter sessions so they don’t get too good a look at you, and probably don’t take insurance on 17. Well I did… and that got the pit boss to look over. And clearly, I was there too long, which wouldn’t have happened back when I cared. I was a little short on chips, so I stood up when the count was positive like I was going to leave, and then bet most of the rest of the chips I had on me. I lost and bet my last $10 plus a tip for the dealer, and that’s when he looks over says, ‘What brings you all the way out here from Henderson?’

“It’s subtext – we hadn’t spoken a word to each other all night, so the only way he would have gotten that info would have been off my players card, which means he looked. At that point, when they know you are counting cards, and they know you know they know, the game’s over. Time to leave.”

As far as what he saw while doing his research trip, Hwang says it was a mixed bag.

“It wasn’t the same everywhere,” he explained. “Everyone has seen the videos where the casino is packed and nobody was wearing masks, and there was no effort to enforce crowd control. But most of these places weren’t terribly crowded. So there are dangerous spots, but I wouldn’t say that’s the case across the board.”

After more than 2,000 miles and 35 hours in his car, Hwang is now back home in Las Vegas, and has no plans to revisit the Strip anytime soon.

Fortunately for him, his restaurant project, Taverna Costera, is back on, and will keep him busy for the coming months. Based on what he saw on his 12 days of casino hoppin, he now has a better idea of how to handle a business in the post-coronavirus lockdown world.

Check out more from Hwang’s trip on Twitter @RivalSchoolX.

Jeff Hwang graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with degrees in finance and management, and also holds an MBA and MS in Hotel Administration from UNLV. He started as a blackjack advantage player before making the transition to poker, and has since written four books on the game, including the best-selling Omaha book ever, Pot-Limit Omaha Poker: The Big Play Strategy. His columns have appeared in The Motley Fool, Global Gaming Business, Legal Sports Report, and even Card Player Magazine. He is the founder of High Variance Games, LLC and invented new casino games such as Super Blackjack, Super Texas Hold’em, and Super Pai Gow. Hwang is also the author of The Modern Baseball Card Investor, and plays guitar in his band.