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Blackjack in pool a hit at Caesars

A Swisher Sweets cigar and pina colada in hand, Larry Keech sat chest-deep in water, lamenting the house's advantage in swim-up blackjack.

"The odds are worse than inside the casino," he says while playing swim-up blackjack at Caesars Palace's Fortuna pool. "You can only double down on 10 and 11 out here. Inside, that rule does not exist."

A tourist from North Carolina, Keech is a pretty good blackjack player. He dispenses little bits of blackjack knowledge over the next dozen hands or so, winning a few but losing most.

"I'm getting my ass kicked," he says to his friend, Frankie Page, who also is getting his ass kicked. "This dealer's hot."

In more ways than one. Maryana Saud is one of Fortuna's model-dealers and rocks a skimpy two-piece bathing suit that accents her long legs. A cascade of dark, wavy hair frames her perfectly made-up face. Maybe that has something to do with Keech continuing to play a game he insists is stacked against him.

"It's a beautiful day. It's better than work," he says, an explanation for why he keeps pushing his luck. "Good times. Good friends. Can't beat it."

And that probably sums up why all five swim-up blackjack tables are packed with raucous players on this 95 degree June afternoon.

Caesars has offered swim-up blackjack since the Garden of the Gods pool oasis opened two years ago. It's one of at least three resorts that feature it in Las Vegas (Hard Rock Hotel and the Tropicana are the other two).

The concept of playing cards in the water has been around for at least 25 years, when the Tropicana started offering it, says Palms' owner, George Maloof. Even though the swim-up style was a novelty, it never quite caught on the way that poolside gaming has in recent years.

"There were two negatives about it. The procedural. They always had the problem with the wet money," says Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor, a newsletter that tracks local gaming and deals. "And most of those games had $5 or $10 minimums. (Now) they can't even justify running a game at that low limit."

Caesars' Fortuna pool starts out with $15 minimums and, depending on the day and hour, increases to $25, says pool manager Jovan Andow. The pool is run just like a casino, with a pit boss and dealers.

They got around the wet money problem by building a dry pit for the dealers to work. Five tables surround the shaded, horseshoe-shaped pit. Players step into the water and wade a few feet to the table, sitting on submerged seats. The scene looks like what you would see in any casino except the men are shirtless and the women in bikinis.

No one swims; all eyes are on the action. Despite Keech's insistence that a player cannot win at swim-up blackjack, he wins. For a while. A couple of busted hands and he's down $200.

Still, he plays. And he and his friends planned to stay through the afternoon, or at least until Keech lost another $200.

"That's OK," says Keech, who won playing craps the night before. "I'm playing with Caesars Palace money."

Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at spadgett@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4564.

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