Our gambling columnist picks the best places to play in Sin City
Cruise down the Las Vegas Strip, and the street full of casinos seems like a giant humidor loaded with the world's greatest cigars: everything is so delectable and enticing that it's hard to choose just one. Do you want the Euro-style refinement of The Venetian? Maybe the Palms' raucous Hollywood-hot-spot-in-the-desert vibe? Or perhaps you prefer the high-stakes thrill of possibly rubbing shoulders with Johnny Chan at the Bellagio? The best casinos in Vegas all have their winning attributes and the special little things that make them uniquely famous. Spend enough time shooting craps or playing blackjack, and you'll find the gambling floor that best suits your temperament and sensibility. Or check out our advice (we've spent way too many late nights throwing dice), light a big, fat torpedo, and make the perfect choice to suit your style of play.
Las Vegas Hilton
Best casino on a Sunday afternoon
On a recent Sunday afternoon, cigar smoke curled up from the comfy seats in the Las Vegas Hilton's artfully monikered Race and Sports Superbook as a roomful of football fans lived and died with every pass and penalty signaled by the ref. Few things beat watching football in a casino sports book: the screens are huge, drinks are free, betting opportunities are abundantly available and food is always within easy reach. Though the 21-year-old Hilton sports book is far from the newest operation in town, it has the best mix of modern amenities and old-school charm, with screens that are curvy as Cinerama and a crowd that seems serious about its gambling. You won't see Nicole Ritchie traipsing upon trashed betting slips, although you might spot Joe, George, Gavin or Phil Maloof-the Superbook is a favorite spot for the billionaire owners of the Palms and the Sacramento Kings when they want to root for their team without casino business getting in the way. And if the game gets boring, you can always repair to the banks of video-poker machines that hug the 'book and provide decent perches for monitoring on-the-field action.
Hard Rock Hotel & Casino
Best casino if you want to party like Tommy Lee
When it's one o'clock on a Saturday morning, the Hard Rock may very well be the hippest gambling den in the world. Surrounded by rock ephemera that ranges from Kurt Cobain's guitar to a leather jacket signed by the Ramones to the stage getups of Elvis and Madonna, a trendy crowd parties and gambles with equal fervor. Part nightclub and part casino, the Hard Rock probably has more exposed belly button rings per square inch than any other casino in Las Vegas. The alcohol flows freely as a multitude of good-looking young women, dressed in, umm, fetching outfits, saunter by and classically handsome young men with chiseled faces, who look as if they're about to be plucked from obscurity to Calvin Klein Land, abound. You can often find low-stakes tables-say, $10 blackjack-although they fill up quickly. Peacock Lounge, the Hard Rock's high-limit room, is relatively mellow and spacious and more about gambling than ogling (with the table stakes set at $100 minimum, it ought to be). One caveat: Regardless of where in the casino you play, chips at the Hard Rock tend to be swirly-colored, psychedelic and cool-looking, and the lights are a lot flashier here than in casinos on the Strip. Those two factors can inadvertently make it difficult to distinguish between certain chips' denominations. So make sure you're not betting $100 when you mean to bet $25.
Mansion at MGM Grand
Best casino for mega high rollers
If you possess a massive gambling budget, you don't want to be wading past low rollers and clanging slot machines. Heck, you don't even want to be in the same room as them. That is why you'll check into the Mansion at MGM Grand. Not only will your comped room be exquisite and come with a butler, chef and anything else for a person who's willing to risk seven figures on games that are statistically tilted against him, but you will also have a singular gambling experience. In an effort to keep their highest rollers happy, the MGM built a de facto private gaming room, which is most easily accessed from the Mansion and tucked behind the casino where the hoi polloi will be unlikely to accidentally wander in. Upon entering this high-stakes lair, expect classical music, mellow earth tones, perfectly groomed hosts in expensive suits, tuxedoed dealers manning tables where minimum bets are usually $100, and a clientele that has, at various times, reportedly included Charles Barkley, Tiger Woods and the late Australian media mogul Kerry Packer.
Best casino for medium rollers who want to feel like big shots
Everybody knows that downtown ain't the Strip. It's simply not as nice, not as modern, not as big and not as pricey. That said, there's no doubt that the classiest place downtown is the Golden Nugget: it comes close to replicating the casino experience you'll have at a glitzier palace on Las Vegas Boulevard. But because the Nugget is located in the old part of town, where guests are as likely to arrive by car as by airplane, it doesn't attract the biggest players in the world. If you're a $10,000 gambler who wants to be treated like a $25,000 stud (the difference between getting comped a room and a suite), this can be the place for you. There's a nice high-limit room (minimum bets are $25 as compared to $100 on the Strip), a couple of good restaurants (including Vic & Anthony's Steakhouse and Stefano's), jaw-droppingly lush duplex suites, boffo events for favored gamblers (including New Year's Eve parties) and hosts who are perfectly capable of securing ringside seats for big fights as well as VIP tickets to concerts and other happenings. On the downside: step out of the casino after dark and you will be smack in the middle of a nightly alfresco hoedown called the Fremont Street Experience.
Best casino for burgeoning poker Stars
You've seen them on TV; now come to the Bellagio and see them in person. Even if you're not looking to play in a game where the buy-in is a couple hundred thousand dollars, nothing stops you from watching the guys who've become famous for holding and folding. Situated in the northwest corner of the Bellagio's massive gambling floor, the newly enlarged poker room plays host to the notoriously challenging Big Game, where the stakes go to $4,000/$8,000 and guys like Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese and Phil Ivey frequently duel. The game usually takes place in Bobby's Room, a glass-walled poker room within a poker room (named after top player and Bellagio executive Bobby Baldwin), where the leather chairs are comfy and a fish is usually being filleted at one of the three card tables. You can poke your head inside for a little while or at least stand outside and glance through the beveled glass, while you gain inspiration for your own poker-playing pyrotechnics, which, surely, will be unleashed, but at a lower stakes table. Closer to the blackjack and craps action-perfectly abundant at the Bellagio-is the Fontana Bar, which serves as a lounge on most nights, but doubles as Poker Central when a big tournament is being held at the casino. Schedule your visit for one of the Bellagio's World Poker Tour donnybrooks (the next one is April 18—24) and you'll see the Babe Ruths of the game bedecked in logos and angling for seven-figure jackpots.
Best casino for Italian architecture buffs
Theme casinos based on cities are old hat in Las Vegas, and we've all heard the joke about how you can visit Italy, France, New York City, ancient Egypt and the South Pacific without leaving the Strip. But the finest example of geographical reproduction is to be found at The Venetian. If you want to gamble in Vegas with a European buffer, this is the place to do it. Before the $1.5 billion casino was built in 1999, chief executive officer Sheldon Adelson and his team traveled the world in search of a city on which to base their theme. They settled on Venice. While remaining aware that there's something instantly kitschy about representing a city within the confines of a casino, they spared no expense or effort in creating a spot-on impersonation. Indeed, as Adelson bragged to The New York Times, prior to The Venetian's opening, "We are not going to build a faux Venice. We are going to build what is essentially the real Venice." He did it by importing materials from Italy to build full-scale reproductions of such Venetian landmarks as the Campanelli Tower, Bridge of Sighs and the Doge's Palace then encircling them with gondola-filled canals. In addition, if you bust out while blackjacking below the casino's famously frescoed ceilings, you can always visit The Venetian's branch of the Guggenheim, where the art is as real as the bankroll you've just blown.
Best casino if you want action, but you've outgrown the Hard Rock
The Mandalay Bay oozes elegance without being the least bit stuffy. It's got high ceilings, marble columns and a design motif that is vaguely Southeast Asian tropical. It's a great place to be at two in the morning when the sound system rocks almost as hard as the clutch of 30-something gamblers pressing up against a hot craps table. The crowd is cool, the occasional celeb can be spotted on the gaming floor, and happening clubs (rumjungle and Red Square) alongside good spin-off restaurants (China Grill and Aureole) will keep your brain and body sated. Plus, if you gamble high enough, you're liable to get comped for a night at the semiprivate ultracool Foundation Room at the House of Blues. If that comp gets you bed and board as well, make sure they put you up at THEhotel, the Mandalay's newish, supermodern, all-suite (and all sweet) tower.
Best casino if Paris Hilton is your idea of a good blackjack partner
From the night it opened-in November 2001-the Palms positioned itself as a Las Vegas magnet for young Hollywood. Owner George Maloof and his staff went to great lengths to insure that the Clooneys and Afflecks of the world would be on property. It's since paid off magnificently. If you want to mingle on the gambling floor with Tinseltown hipsters, this is the place to do it. After all, the Palms is where Britney Spears sunbathed before getting married, served as the location for the 11th season of "The Real World," and seems to have become the Vegas outpost for Hugh Hefner and his bunnies. A resonant image from the Palms' opening night is that of ultra-suave Samuel L. Jackson sitting at a blackjack table in the middle of the gaming floor and casually fanning out a big wad of bills. Since then, a star-studded group that includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Keanu Reeves and both Hilton sisters (Paris showed up in an outfit adorned with $1 million in Palms chips) routinely treads between the craps pit and the poker room (home base for Bravo's "Celebrity Poker Showdown").
Best casino for wistful baby-boomers
Everybody remembers his or her first time, and if you're a baby boomer with a yen for Las Vegas, it's likely that your first modern megacasino experience took place in the early 1990s at The Mirage-complete with heat-induced moments in front of the fire-spewing volcano and a few thrills by the blackjack tables. Seventeen years after its opening, the tropically themed casino is pretty much intact, down to The Mirage poker room, which was the place to play poker back in the pre-Bellagio '90s. While new touches keep the casino feeling fresh and modern-such as the cutting-edge nightclub/lounge called Jet and a sleeker high-limit room-something remains warm and comforting about The Mirage-where the gaming tables are strategically placed in irregular pods to encourage you to explore. It might not be the newest or hippest joint in town, but for gamblers who came of age in the '90s, walking through the tropical forest near the entrance will always feel like coming home. And just like any venerable place, The Mirage has been blessed with stability. Minimal staff turnover means that your host will recognize you, the dealer is unlikely to muff a shuffle, and no one will screw up your ultra-dry Martini.
Wynn Las Vegas
Best casino if you like to spend big, but don't gamble much
Las Vegas has traditionally been a funny place: gamble high enough and you couldn't spend your money because everything would be comped; but if you gambled low and spent cash for all of the town's top amenities, you didn't get treated particularly well. Billionaire entrepreneur Steve Wynn, the man behind The Mirage and other casinos, is changing all that. Just as he transformed the casino/resort revenue model from relying on gambling to centering itself around big-ticket restaurants, spas and boutiques, he is now changing the Gambler As Emperor structure. His new Wynn Las Vegas, a beautiful casino with a great gaming floor, comes with a computer system that tracks the spending of guests as well as their play. So if you stay in a $1,000-per-night suite, buy dinner for four at Daniel and pamper yourself with a daily massage, you'll be viewed as a kind of high roller. While you won't get your room comped, you will be invited to special events, receive top tables at Wynn's restaurants and be treated to the occasional upgrade. It makes perfect sense, is so obvious that someone should have considered it sooner, and represents a big step in Wynn's ongoing quest to turn Vegas into a resort city rather than just a gambling town with diversions.
Michael Kaplan is Cigar Aficionado's gambling columnist.