Wednesday, June 17, 2015

FIFA Women's World Cup 2015: The Downfall of US Dominance?

For several years now the US Women's National Team has been the standard bearer in terms of Women's International Football.  They have not always won the World Cup, but they're more often than not in the Finals and they are always considered among the top 3 favorites to win the thing coming out of group play.

This year?

Not so much.

Yes, they won their group, despite not looking terribly impressive in all three games, and they are through to the knock-out rounds.  Their defense is looking fairly solid and they have, in Wambach, Rapinoe and Morgan, three pretty good offensive options. And they have Hope Solo, who is just about the most unlikable person in the tournament but who does a very good job keeping the opponents from putting the ball in net. (Although much of the credit for that should go to defenders Johnston and Saurbrunn.)

The most important takeaway from the group play was that the US may not be in the top 3 for title contention.  They may not even be in the top five.

Who would be better?

Germany, Norway and Brazil for a start.  If you want to expand that list you could include Japan and possibly (but not likely) Colombia who have been a pleasant surprise so far.

All of this doesn't mean that the US doesn't have a chance to win. They do because they still have talent at every position and a handful of players who are among the best at their position.

But they also have holes.  And an offensive attack that's proving to be less creative and dangerous every game.

At this point my pick for the Finals is Japan and Germany, with Germany getting the title to pull off the Men's/Women's double.

Right now, the way the USWNT is playing, I don't think a match up with either team would be particularly close.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

LeBron vs. Jordan: A moot point really.

These are questions asked by those with no real sense of history.

My top 5 would read as follows:

1. Wilt Chamberlin
2. Michael Jordon
3. Bill Russell
4. LeBron James
5. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

I have 100% confidence that you will 100% disagree with my rankings, and that's OK. You probably also disagree with Peter King's atrocious pre-season power rankings. The difference is my rankings are, to some extent, well thought out (and I can justify them with numbers) while King's rankings are an attempt by SI's football transcriber to generate page views.

My point is this.  Both Jordan and LeBron are undeniably great players. Once you get into the top 5 of all time you're dealing with the complicating factors of position, era, and supporting cast. This is doubly true when you bring in the red-herring that is championships.

While I do believe that championships play a role in determining a player's overall greatness it's not as big of a role as other factors. This is doubly true when you are discussing team sports.  Is there any doubt that the Celtics would have won all of the championships they did had Chamberlin been their center over Russell? Had LeBron the supporting cast (and coaching) that Jordon enjoyed do you not think he would be sniffing 5 (or six) championships at this point?

For me, Wilt Chamberlin is clearly the best NBA player ever. What he did in terms of points scored and changing the game is unrivalled. Jordon is a clear second for the same reasons.  Bill Russell is 3rd in my opinion not only based on the fact that he won it all 11 times, but he was also a five-time League MVP and was the dominating defensive force of his time.  LeBron is currently at 4, but could move up if  he continues at his current pace. The one that I struggle with is Abdul-Jabbar.  He was undoubtedly a great center who played on some great Lakers teams. He surpassed Chamberlin as a point-scorer but I never felt like he fundamentally changed the game.  He also had the honor of playing with the number 6 player on my list, Ervin "Magic" Johnson.

So, after the top 5, my bottom five looks like this:

6. Ervin "Magic" Johnson
7. Hakeem Olajuwon
8. Larry Bird
9. Moses Malone
10. George Mikan

Your mileage may vary.

Gambling Options for Texans: Louisiana (Part 2: Other options close to Houston)

The following is a fairly comprehensive look at casino gambling options for people who reside in the State of Texas.  Now that the 84th Legislature has completed, and Tillman Fertitta has completed the Golden Nugget: Lake Charles, the expectation is that casino gambling is a long-way from coming to our State, if ever.  Of course, that doesn't mean you don't have options if you want to get your gambling on, only that each of them have plusses and minuses that should be considered.


Louisiana Part I: Lake Charles

Unlike the section covering Lake Charles the reviews of the other casino options are going to be quite different.  For all practical purposes, the Golden Nugget: Lake Charles and L'Auberge are mirror images of one another.  Once you pull out of Lake Charles however the casino options vary greatly from big, to tiny, to limited.  I'll try to address all of that here.

Delta Downs Race Track and Casino

Calling Delta Downs a "casino" is a little bit generous. I'm not sure what the proper term should be for a slots-only facility but casino never has felt right to me.  To my way of thinking, to be a proper casino you need slots, table games, either a race or sports book and Keno. A poker room is optional but doesn't hurt either.

The new term for facilities such as Delta Downs, where slot machines are coupled with a horse track and off-track-betting facility is 'racino' which I dislike strongly and am desperately trying to find a substitute.  In effect, Delta Downs is a small race track attached to a medium sized slot house. While they do have some video poker machines I have not been able to find a "full pay" machine on multiple visits. 

Their slots are regulated by the Louisiana Gaming Control Board who mandate that payouts must be at least 80% and no higher than 99.9%.  This probably explains why you won't find full pay video poker because the payouts on those can eclipse 100% with perfect strategy. This is a case where the regulatory body is actually enforcing a policy that hurts both the casinos and players alike.

The horse track at Delta Downs is basically set up for quarter horse racing, with some limited thoroughbred action considering the short distance. They have an off-track betting facility that is pretty Spartan, and has fewer televisions, showing fewer tracks, than almost any that I've seen.

The OTB room is also terribly smoky. To be honest, if you fancy a little horse-race gambling you'd be better off either visiting Sam Houston Race Park or the Dog Track down South.

Coushatta Casino and Resort

Perhaps the best Louisiana bet for Houstonians, is the Coushatta Casino and resort in Kinder Louisiana. It's further away, about an hour additional drive than Lake Charles, but it's a much bigger casino, has more gaming options than anything in Lake Charles, and the payouts seem to be reasonable on slot machines. 

I've had reasonable success, on my visits there, finding blackjack tables at both the $5 and $10 minimum bet level, which allows you to not have to bring such a large starting bankroll as to be prohibitive*.

Over the years, Coushatta has really beefed up their poker room to the point that they have one of the best outside of Shreveport/Bossier City. The room has 20 tables, although (as with most Louisiana casinos) it's rare to find a game other than 4/8 limit, or 1/2 or 2/5 no-limit Texas Hold 'em. Their website states that they offer Omaha, so my guess is that, the times I've visited, there was just no demand.  The only thing, in my mind, that would make this better would be the inclusion of a 7-card stud table.

Coushatta caters to a more moderate gambler on slots, offering playing levels from pennies to $50, although with multiples you can wager as high as $500, machines in their high-limit salon.  One of the marketing gimmicks that Coushatta promotes is that their slots are "certified looser" than any published slot payouts in Lake Charles. I'm not sure if this alone makes it worth the additional drive, but it doesn't hurt.  They also run several promotions and have a fairly robust comp system (more on those in a later post).

Of all the casinos, I believe that Coushatta has the best video poker options for visitors. Yes, they're still limited by the silly LGCB regulations but they seem to be a little bit better in terms of finding a machine with a decent pay schedule.

One big plus at Coushatta, is the presence of a very sizable non-smoking gaming area. This is something that you won't find at many casinos (Isle of Capri has a very small area, that's not really properly segregated from the smoking area) and is a big plus if you have allergies or just don't like sitting next to a chimney stack when playing.

Outside of blackjack, Coushatta offers roulette, something they call "20X odds craps" and a variety of carnival games like 3 & 4 card poker, Let it Ride, Mississippi Stud, Pai Gow and mini Baccarat.  They also have an arcade area for the kiddos should you want to bring them along.  Unlike some other casinos, they also have an off-track betting parlor and live BINGO. Although I'm not a player myself, I understand that this is a draw for some.

Coushatta has a fairly varied dining program on-site, including 9 options for either sit-down dining or on-the-go eats. They have three hotels at or near the casino, and a nice pool with a lazy river. They also have a host of amenities including a play area for children, spa services, golf, tennis courts, a dog park and fishing on their stocked lake.  Koasati Pines is a decent golf course as well.

The main downside to Coushatta is that it is, literally, in the middle of nowhere. Once you get to the casino there's very little to do off-property. For a short, overnight, trip, this is OK, but if you're looking to spend a little longer time on vacation I'd recommend either Lake Charles or a longer trip to Shreveport/Bossier City.

In the next section, we'll turn our focus to options for Dallas gamblers, or Houstonians who want to take a longer break and endure a longer drive.

Cash Magic Casino

This is a truck stop with slot machines. It's OK for a lark if you need gas but I would not recommend making the trip just to play here.  There are much better options right down the road.

Lucky Longhorn Casino

The same as Cash Magic. This is a slot-house with nothing more to offer than a smoky gaming option, some slots and video poker.  Also, it's just a bit seedy looking from the outside.  Considering it's only about a mile further to Delta Downs I recommend you bypass and stay at the horse track. 

Both of these are OK to stop in and play on a lark though, just to say you have.

*When mentioning bankroll I'm talking about having enough money to minimize your Risk of Ruin (ROR).  ROR is the probability that you're going to lose all of your bank-roll on any game. It varies from player to player, but I believe, on blackjack, that you need to have at least enough of a bankroll to cover 20 bets in order to ride out the swings that are inherent in the game.  This is why finding lower table minimums is key.  For a $25 minimum table I want to have at least $500 at the onset. Whereas at a $5 table I can play with $100 or a $10 table $200 etc.  For a 3-day gambling trip only having $25 minimums means that I would need to have at least $1500 walking into the casino to feel comfortable. This is a very important consideration when planning where you will play depending on your risk tolerance and how much of your bankroll you want to risk.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Gambling Options for Texans: Louisiana (Part 1: Lake Charles)

Beginning my overview of gambling options for Texans, I thought it best to start with the most popular destination: Louisiana.

Depending on where you live in Texas there are a few options in the Cajun State.....


Lake Charles:

Golden Nugget:

This is the newest, and most popular of the Lake Charles casinos, it is also one of the best in terms of amenities.  As you might know, all of the Golden Nugget casinos are part of the Landry's empire and therefore, in addition to the player's club, there is a tie-in with the Landry's Select Club which can provide some fairly decent options for room rates. (One note: be careful when booking through an e-mail offer as the 3rd party company that Landry's contracts to run these promotions will frequently book you into the wrong resort.  If you do this, and get to the casino, they will not have your reservation and are totally unhelpful at booking you into another room. I know this from experience)

Gambling at the Nugget is hit-or-miss. They have a wide option of games available and the slot machines run the gamut from penny slots with a minimum spin as low as $.20 to $500 slots in the high-limit room.  I've found the pay-out on these, based on a decent sample size, to be very low. Louisiana State Law requires slot machines to pay out a minimum of 80% and a maximum of 99.9%. Based on my gaming experience at the Nugget so far I'd say their slots are geared more toward the lower end of the spectrum.  I would expect, after the newness of the property wears off and the crowds diminish they will have to raise these to stay competitive.

Table games are fair, with most, if not all, blackjack tables paying 3/2 on blackjack however the dealers all will hit on soft 17.  I am not aware if the rules are the same in the high-limit salons but I would imagine so.

The biggest problem that I have with blackjack at the Nugget is that the table limits are set in a very narrow range and leave little room for a variety of players. In the evenings, it is very unusual to find a table with a limit below $25/hand and if you do find a $10/hand table the seats are full and people are 2-3 deep waiting to get on. $100/hand tables are not unusual to find and are usually sitting empty.

Roulette is typically $25 minimum bet as is Mini Baccarat and Pai Gow Poker. You can find a $10/hand table on the "carnival" games like 3-card poker and Ultimate Texas Hold-em.  Again, the likelihood of obtaining a seat at these tables in the evenings is rare.  I'm not a big craps player but I did notice that the minimums in the evening were frequently $25/hand.

If you're a weekend gambler, the above limits are very high, almost prohibitively high due to the fact that you will need at least $500-$3000 in bankroll to effectively survive the swings, depending on the level of the table. However, the dealers appear to be knowledgeable and the staff on the gaming floor and behind the bars are friendly.  Drinks are complimentary when gambling and tips are recommended if you want to keep getting them.

The Nugget also has a small poker room where the games seemed to mainly consist of 4/8 Limit & either 1/2 or 2/5 no-limit Texas Hold 'Em.  In my time there I never saw another poker variant offered although I'm sure they would open a table for 7-Stud, Omaha or something else if there was sufficient interest.

Because of the tie-in with Landry's dining options are fairly robust.  There is a buffet, a Claim Jumper, Grotto, Saltgrass, Vic & Anthony's, Lilie's Asian, Cadillac Tequila Grill, the Country Club and a Landry's.  The big night-club at this bar is the Blue Martini which is one of the funnier places to spend part of the evening as half-drunk patrons attempt to dance.  The patio at Blue Martini is a great place to end the evening.

Most of the bars close at either one or two AM, with the Rush Lounge on the casino floor remaining open until about 4AM.  One note, because everything off of the casino floor closes the Rush gets very, very crowded around 1:30AM.  If you don't have a seat already, you're not going to get one.

There is smoking in the casino area, but the areas outside the gaming floor are 100% smoke free. The casino has a golf course, spa and fitness facility. There is also a barber shop and an arcade for the children. One of the best features of any Nugget property is the pool, and that's no exception here. The H2O Pool and Bar is one of the best places to while away the day in between gambling sessions.

L'Auberge Casino & Resort:

Originally, the property now housing the Golden Nugget was owned by a company that was purchased by the parent company of L'Auberge.  After that purchase they sold the property and half-completed development, along with the last currently available gaming license in Louisiana to Landry's.  The upside of this is that the Nugget and L'Auberge are basically adjacent to one-another and within easy walking distance.  They are currently also working on the waterfront which will include a walkway between the two properties.

For years now the L'Auberge was positioned as the sole luxury casino in Lake Charles. It was also known for fairly lousy service, high limits and terrible payouts. They also treated their elite players fairly poorly.  After all, where else were they going to go?

Today the L'Auberge is a much better property at which to play.  For one, they are a LOT slower, even on Friday and Saturday evening, as the majority of customers are still excited about, and playing at, the Nugget.  This has required L'Auberge to greatly improve their My Choice Loyalty Program and, even though they won't admit it, recent experience feels to me as if their slots have gotten slightly looser. It's possible that, with the new competition from the Golden Nugget they requested, and received, permission from the gaming commission to increase the payouts on their slots.

L'Auberge has a pool, complete with lazy river.

L'Auberge is a much smaller casino than is Golden Nugget but they suffer from the same lack of range in table limits. Most tables are $25-$100 in the evenings except the Carnival games which can be very crowded at $10.  The rules for blackjack appear to be almost identical to those at the Nugget.

L'Auberge offers Roulette and Craps which appear to be at the same levels as GN as well.  The poker room is tiny and offers the same options as you find at the Nugget as well.

For dining options L'Auberge has many options which are decent, although I highly recommend the Ember Grille and Wine Bar for late night appetizers and a rather robust wine list at decent prices.  They also have a buffet, an Asian restaurant called (rather boringly) Asia, Jack Daniel's Bar and Grill and Favorites Southern Cuisine.  All of the latter are remarkably low-mid range and feel out of place considering the rest of the property.  Touloulou's is the deck bar and has some tempting drink options and decent snacks.

Their big club is Liquid Society and is a slightly less funny Blue Martini with the addition of a fairly healthy live-music program.

L'Auberge shares a golf course with the Nugget, and also has a spa and fitness facility.  All of the gaming floor is smoking with the other areas on the property, except the outside areas, being smoke free.

(Note: While the pool areas are nice at both casinos you still have the main problem there that you are in Lake Charles. Lake Prien is not an attractive area and chances are better than average that you will be staring at some type of industrial facility.  This is not the fault of the casinos, but it's just one of the downsides of Lake Charles.)

Isle of Capri:

On the other side of Lake Prien, right before you are forced to cross the incredibly rickety-looking 1-10 bridge, is the exit to one of the last original riverboat casinos, the Isle of Capri.  Originally, Lake Charles gaming was the Isle and Harrah's. Two riverboat casinos that actually went out onto the lake in the evening.  Over time this practiced stopped and Harrah's blew away due to a hurricane whose name escapes me.  For a while Lake Charles chugged along with the Isle having two boats (and two separate casinos) and L'Auberge.  Over the last couple of years the Isle close down one of their boats, and consolidated operations.  The result is a smaller, but nicer, budget option for those who don't want to play at either the Nugget or L'Auberge, or for those who aren't willing to play the higher limits.

In response to the luxury properties the Isle has revamped their loyalty program making it much more rewarding than before and has also slightly improved their dining options. A few years ago they renovated their hotel tower making the rooms more modern and more in-line with how the industry is going.  The tower rooms now have better mattresses, much better bathrooms and flat-screen TV's. They're also decorated in that cream and brown that all casinos and hotels use because it provides the illusion of class.

That said, the rooms at the Isle are currently cheaper than the other two main casinos in town but are still nice places to stay.  For the budget traveler, or those looking for nostalgia the Inn at the Isle still offers rooms that look as if they are stuck in the 80's and low (for casinos) rates.

The gaming at the Isle is now geared almost exclusively to the budget, weekend gambler. They do have a small high-limit room on site and the stakes run from $.01 to $100.  The games at the Isle seem to be fairly loose which allows you to lose more slowly when you do lose which provides for more time sitting and sucking down watered-down free drinks.

They have video poker but, as is the case in all Lake Charles casinos, I have yet to find a full-payout game anywhere on the floor.

The limits at the tables are much lower, with $10 games being the norm and $25 tables being the almost empty exceptions.  They have two main gaming areas on two different floors (it's a 3 story casino) with blackjack (all tables appear to be 3/2), craps, Roulette and the 'carnival' games that you find at most every casino.

Beware: In many cases the automatic shufflers at the Isle are old and wearing out. In one two-hour session of three-card I counted 10 times that a red-light appeared nullifying the hand. On one of the hands the dealer made the error of pushing out our cards to play and did not check the light status.  In what, I thought, was a fair move, the pit-boss approved paying out the pair-plus on the hands but pushed back the ante and play bets.  They did, however, take the 6-card bet if anyone was playing it (I wasn't).

Lake Charles Summary:

As stated before, the problem with all of the Lake Charles casinos is simple. You are playing in Lake Charles. Outside of the casinos there is little to do and, to be honest, the preponderance of surrounding chemical plants can often create an unpleasant experience. Customer service is middling, at best, although I have seen some improvement of late.  I don't recommend playing live-poker at any Lake Charles casino because there are regular, local, players there who have relationships with the dealers and make game-play unpleasant. In many cases the are almost hostile to outside players. I am constantly amazed the casinos allow this, but on almost every visit there I continually see it.

This is not to suggest the games are dirty, only that playing can be confrontational at best and insulting at worst.

Still, if you live in Houston Lake Charles is your best bet for a weekend getaway due to it's proximity to town as well as the fairly reasonable options that the three casinos present.

In the next part I'll take a look at the other casino options within an easy drive of Houston including Delta Downs and Coushatta.

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