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Non-smoking Horseshoe casino draws gamblers to Cleveland

| Friday, June 1, 2012, 9:06 p.m.

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 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, stench 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 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 it 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.

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 players club members who log at least 30 minutes of play and earn at least 15 tier credits 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 of Caesars Entertainment, uses the Total Rewards players card, as do all Caesars properties. If you don't have a Total Rewards card, get one before you visit. The line to the players club booth never let up; some gamblers said they had to wait an hour.

The casino covers 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, open to gamblers in the top two Total Rewards tiers; the buffet is in the basement. The poker room offers 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.

We found video poker pay tables slightly better than in Western Pennsylvania. According to "The Frugal Video Poker Scouting Guide," the Horseshoe's 8/5 Jacks or Better machines have a 97.3 percent payout with perfect play and the 7/5 Bonus Poker machines offer a 98 percent payout, a tick above the 6/5 machines common around Pittsburgh. As in many casinos, pay tables for the same game can vary from machine to machine; always check before playing.

The Horseshoe has 24 blackjack tables on the general floor. At mid-afternoon on our visit, all were open, with 13 having a $15 minimum bet and the rest at $25; a dealer said $10 tables are available midweek. By 7 p.m., 15 had a $25 minimum. In the second-floor high limit room, the minimum bet ws $100. Each table has only five betting spots, and we had to wait for seats to open.

The $15 and $25 tables use eight-deck shoes; the high-limit room has six-deckers. Rules are not as player-friendly as in Pennsylvania. The main differences: At the Horseshoe, dealers hit Soft 17 (Ace-six) and players might not surrender. For a player after basic strategy perfectly, the Ohio game has a 0.64 percent house edge with eight decks, compared with 0.36 percent in Pennsylvania, according to the calculator at .

The dinner buffet, with a daily list price of $23.99 per person for card members, offers seven stations with a variety of appealing dishes, including enough non-meat choices to please a vegetarian. Guests enter at the dessert area, which boasts a large wheel with tubs of ice cream and other frozen treats.

With its amenities and size, the Horseshoe offers competition for Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia casinos.

WSOP winner gets $517,725

Brent Hanks of Las Vegas won the first general event of this year's World Series of Poker, a $1,500 buy-in No Limit Hold 'Em tournament.

Hanks, 29, an elementary teacher before turning poker pro, won $517,725. He has finished in the money in 12 WSOP events since 2008.

Seven Western Pennsylvania players were among the 2,101 tournament entrants. None finished in the money.

Money trail

Slot players lost $47.76 million dollars in Pennsylvania's 11 casinos for the week ending May 27, the Gaming Control Board reported. That's up from $46.46 million in the comparable week last year, before Valley Forge resort casino opened.

The state takes 55 percent of the gross slot-machine revenue, or what's left of players' bets after payouts are made.

Statewide, slots have paid out at a 90.04 percent rate since the fiscal year started in July; for every $100 bet, the machines return an average of $90.04. Payout rate for Western Pennsylvania casinos:

89.84%: Rivers; slot revenue for the week was $5.35 million, up from $5.2 million last year.

89.74%: Meadows; slot revenue for the week was $4.67 million, up from $4.64 million last year.

90.41%: Presque Isle; slot revenue for the week was $2.82 million, down from $3.35 million last year.

Question of the week

How much do Americans spend in casinos?

According to a recent American Gaming Association survey, spending in commercial casinos -- not including Native American facilities -- totaled $35.65 billion in 2011. That's more than on U.S. box-office receipts and music revenue combined, but less than on consumer electronics ($186.4 billion) or cable television ($97.6 billion).

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