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by Mark Gruetze

 Mark Gruetze writes the weekly "Player's Advantage" gambling column for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in Pennsylvania. He has been a skilled recreational casino player for more than 30 years, focusing on blackjack, video poker, and poker. E-mail questions or comments to:

The observations made in this report were done in May. The Horseshoe casino is located at 100 Public Square, Cleveland, OH (1-216-297-4777).

The most intriguing attribute of the new Horseshoe Casino in Cleveland is visible at the entrances: a huddle of smokers gathered outside to puff away. The reason: The interior is completely nonsmoking, as required by Ohio law.

The smoke-free environment gives the Horseshoe a big advantage in the minds of many gamblers. Players and employees don’t have to put up with the ashes, and cough-inducing smoke that come from tobacco use.

The Horseshoe opened May 14 as Ohio’s first casino; Hollywood in Toledo opened May 29.

The Horseshoe is located in the 1930s Higbee Building, a former department store that doubled as the spot where Ralphie asks Santa for a Red Ryder BB gun in "A Christmas Story."

Developers spent more than $350 million to revamp the building into a casino. The results are impressive. The first floor’s high ceiling, chandeliers, and massive pillars generate an inviting feeling of wealth and class. James Bond would feel at home here.

But getting around the floor shows the challenges of changing a building’s purpose from retail attraction to gambling destination. For example, aisles are tight. Even on a moderately busy day, visitors must move in single file, whether hunting for a favorite slot or an open blackjack seat. When my wife and I visited on the Friday before Memorial Day, two betting spots at one second-floor blackjack table were taken out of action so people would have room to walk between the table and a pillar.

The casino does not have on-site parking, but player’s club members who log at least 30 minutes of play and earn at least 15 tier credits can get validation for free parking in a nearby 1,300-space garage or 300-space surface lot. I somehow missed those and wound up in Public Square Garage, directly across from the Horseshoe. A sign declaring the garage doesn’t accept casino validation was posted too far inside for me to turn around; that resulted in a $10 parking fee.

The Horseshoe, under day-to-day management by Caesars Entertainment, uses the Total Rewards player’s card. If you don’t have a Total Rewards card, try to get one before you visit. The line to the player’s club booth never let up; some gamblers said they had to wait an hour.

The casino is spread out over four floors. Slots and table games are on the first and second; a 30-table poker room is on the third, which also is home to the Diamond Lounge; the buffet is in the basement. The poker room offered bad-beat jackpots in Hold ’Em, Omaha, and Seven-Card Stud.

Slot players can order drinks through a touch-screen on each machine; at table games, "ambassadors" toting iPads take drink orders and notify servers electronically. Ohio law prohibits the casino from comping alcoholic beverages.

The Horseshoe has 24 blackjack tables in two pits...

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