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PITTSBURGH TRIP REPORT

by Mark Gruetze

Mark Gruetze writes the biweekly "Player's Advantage" gambling column for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in Pennsylvania. His columns are online at http://triblive.com/aande/gambling. He has been a skilled recreational player for more than 30 years, focusing on blackjack, video poker, and poker. E-Mail questions or comments to players@triweb.com.

Note: This report is based on visits in March 2016

Pittsburgh Area Casinos

Meadows and Rivers casinos, which are about 35 minutes apart in Western Pennsylvania, share some of the best blackjack rules anywhere: 3-to-2 on naturals, S17, late surrender, DAS and DOA. That pares the house advantage below 0.4 percent for a basic-strategy player at an eight-deck game, according to the calculator at www.WizardOfOdds.com.

The state Gaming Control Board establishes the rules and stipulates that they apply for every blackjack game, regardless of table minimum. So they're available to red-chip bettors as well as well as black-chip players. Even the "party pits" use the same rules.

Mountaineer casino is in West Virginia about an hour from Pittsburgh.

Meadows Casino (210 Racetrack Road, Washington, PA 15301)

Meadows, south of Pittsburgh and just off Interstate 79, is owned by Cannery Casino Resorts and feels somewhat like a Vegas locals casino. All blackjack games are six-decks, and CSMs are rare. At least one $5 table is always open. Penetration is 70 to 75 percent.

Common side bets are Lucky Ladies and In Between; the casino used to offer the House Money side bet, but sadly that has disappeared.

The eight-table high limit room had minimums of $25, $50 and $100 on a midweek visit. Betting ranges on the main floor were $10-$1,000, $15-$2,000 and $25-$3,000.

Meadows offers a potentially profitable play on match play coupons. If you split or double down on a bet that includes a match play, you can choose whether to include the value of the coupon. For example, I was dealt an 11 when my original bet was $20 plus a $10 match play. I was allowed to double for more, putting out $30. On a later hand, I was dealt 8s with a similar bet. Because I was splitting against a face card, I opted to make the second bet equal to my original $20 chip bet. A PC said the coupon must go on the first of the split hands.

Despite the locals vibe, the video poker selection is disappointing. Some JOB machines boast a 9/6 pay table, but on them a royal pays 2,500 credits for a max bet instead of the traditional 4,000.

A self-serve drink station offers coffee and Pepsi products.

Meadows has live harness racing year-round and simulcast betting. A 155-room Hyatt Place Hotel, connected to casino by a footbridge, opened in spring 2015. Dining options include a food court, a steakhouse, an indoor food truck and The Carvery, a sit-down restaurant with an option of ordering from a menu or eating from a buffet. The buffet has far fewer choices than a typical casino buffet - a half-dozen carved meats and salmon, a small salad bar, six or so side dishes, a couple of soups and a small dessert station.

Cannery has agreed to sell Meadows to Gaming and Leisure Properties, a real estate investment trust that is a subsidiary of Penn National Gaming. The deal is expected to close later this year.

Rivers Casino (777 Casino Drive, Pittsburgh, PA 15212)

Rivers Casino is in a more urban setting, on Pittsburgh's North Shore just below the Point, where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet to form the Ohio. The Steelers' Heinz Field and the Pirates' PNC Park are a brief walk away.

The Rivers has 95 table games and a 30-table poker room, compared with 67 table games and a 14-table poker room at Meadows. The non-smoking pits at Rivers seem to be less polluted than the comparable area at Meadows. Regardless, Pennsylvania law allows smoking on up to half of a casino floor, and the smoke doesn't heed boundaries.

Table limits usually start at $10, although the casino advertises $5 party pit blackjack on Thursdays. Rivers uses CSMs at most low-limit tables. On our midweek visit, two $15 tables, both in the no-smoking pit near the cashier cage, used eight-deck shoes with about 70 percent penetration. All games with a table minimum of $25 or more used shoes. The high limit room had blackjack tables with minimums of $50 or $100, plus two mini-bac tables that were not in use.

Rivers has a self-serve drink station with coffee and Pepsi products.

The poker room at Rivers deals a variety of games, including PLO, and often draws big action. "Poker Night in America" is scheduled to make its fourth visit there in April 2016.

Although several hotels are nearby, none connects directly to the casino.

Dining options at the casino include a steakhouse, a sit-down restaurant/sports bar overlooking the Ohio and the second-floor Riverview Buffet, which has Asian, Italian and American stations comparable to those in many other casinos.

Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack and Resort (1420 Mountaineer Circle, New Cumberland, WV 26047)

Mountaineer's casino floor has been non-smoking since July 2015, but tobacco lovers can light up and play in a specially designed pavilion accessible from the main gambling area.

On a Saturday night, seven blackjack tables were open on the main floor, with betting ranges of $10 to $300 and $15 to $300. Games use an eight-deck shoe, with at least two decks cut off. Dealer stands on all 17s, and players may double on any two cards. Surrender is not allowed at blackjack, although a chatty dealer said it's available...

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