TAMPA — Forget James Bond. Forget the elegant long-necked women hanging on the elbows of debonair gentlemen, who are risking millions at the craps tables. Walking into the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino does not feel like that at all. In fact, few casinos do.
It feels, instead, like walking into a city of the future, one inhabited almost entirely by machines. There are just under 3,000 slot machines in the Hard Rock now. Starting last year, the tribe introduced Vegas-style slots, which are gradually replacing video bingo machines that look almost the same.
The biggest difference came in November, and it's the addition of 106 table games. That's more than twice the number you'll find in the Grand Biloxi Casino but fewer than the Bellagio Las Vegas.
The games are themselves a bit of a gamble, a calculated move to out-muscle anti-gaming legislators in a prolonged legal battle. So far, 15,000 people a day are trekking through, and it's clear that higher numbers are arriving since November, said John Fontana, president of the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, though he doesn't have hard numbers.
You can find gaming tables virtually anywhere on the floor, usually in segments of one or two rows but with a deeper area of play on the north end.
"We wanted a fun environment for the tables, but not too loud," Fontana said.
At this the Hard Rock succeeds, offering 68 blackjack tables accessible from any area of the casino. In another major change, nearly three-quarters of the 2,994 slot machines in the casino are now Las Vegas-style machines, called Class III in regulatory lingo. That means players bet against the house.
In the 820 video bingo machines that remain, a central computer connects players' bets against each other and randomly selects winners.
The casino also offers a few dozen so-called "carnival games" with names like Asia Poker, Pai Gow Poker, Let It Ride, and Mini-Baccarat. Minimum bets here are likely to start at $15 most of the time.
Dealers are friendly and professional, and they will gladly explain rules to the unfamiliar during a lull in play, as will attendants wandering the floor.
Then there's the poker room, present before the expansion, featuring Texas Hold-Em, Omaha Hi-Lo and Seven-Card Stud, with typical bets and raises of no more than $2 and near-constant tournaments.
The casino does not feature craps, roulette or full baccarat, although you'll find Midi-Baccarat tables (essentially the same game in various forms, with slight differences in table size and who gets to handle the cards) in the casino's high-limit room next to the Whammy Bar, where bets start at $100.
You can join the casino's Seminole Player's Club just by sitting down at a table and asking. The card allows you to earn points for machine play and qualify for other perks depending on the size of your average bets.
Time and crowd size appear to determine ever-fluctuating table minimums, which range from $10 to $50 except in the high-limit room. "It's based on demand at the moment," Fontana said. "As demand peaks and supply shrinks, the price goes up."
Hence even $15 tables become scarce during peak evening hours, including on weekdays. Although some tables at the Hard Rock still use a six-deck shoe, the overwhelming majority employ a continuous shuffling machine. These machine, in increasing use in casinos since 2000, are called "a card counter's worst nightmare" for good reason. They destroy any advantage a player may gain through expert counting, and they also speed up play by eliminating the dealer's need to shuffle.
We try our luck
I took $150 to test the new table games and slot machines at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. Here's what happened.
Slots: The Triple Double 777 Red Hot machine, located somewhere among the 2,994 machines on the floor: This is a 25-cent slot machine, but you never want to play just one line. (If you do and a jackpot comes up on one of the lines you didn't play, how are you going to feel?) I put in $10 and play all nine lines, or $2.25 per bet. The machine gives a little, takes away more, gives again and takes away even more. It's about as much fun as putting a dollar in a Coke machine, then not getting the Coke. Result: Down $8.75.
Blackjack: On a fairly busy week night, there is only one $15 (minimum bet) table. The rest are $25 or $50 per bet. And it's jammed, with people standing around waiting for a seat. Finally, I sit down at a $25 table with only a few other people and buy $100 worth of chips. I bet one unit on the first card hand out of the shoe.
It's a pair of sixes against the dealer's two. I split the sixes. The next card was another six. Reluctantly, I split again. Now I'm playing three hands. The dealer gave me a three on one of the sixes, which practically forced me to double down. A face card followed, giving me 19 on the double-down hand and $75 still on the table. I felt sort of okay about my chances until the dealer drew to a 20, which beat all three of my hands and eliminated the $100. Result: Down $108.75.
I wish the list went on, but at this point I am dismally depressed. I lose $11.25 on another slot machine, not certain if it's one of the new Vegas-style machines or not. I find a $15 blackjack table and lose one hand. Result: Down $135.
I am determined to play one of the Vegas slots, in which players bet against the house instead of each other. They are not easy to find. Some employees aren't sure how to distinguish these "Class III" slots from video bingo (although the Vegas slots outnumber video bingo by 3 to 1). The trick is to look for a machine that does not bear an image of a bingo card on the face of the machine, and bet there.
I find a $1 slot machine and put in $5. The maximum bet turns out to be five lines. The machine calmly gobbles up my $5 bill and thanks me. Result: Down $140.
There is no $10 table available for any table game, and I don't feel like playing the slots anymore. I leave Hard Rock with the remaining $10 in my pocket, reminded of an old man who once said to me, "The best dollar you'll ever earn is the one you don't spend."
Checks: The Hard Rock uses an outside vendor, Global Cash, that will approve personal checks and process credit card advances for a fee. Traveler's checks cashed for no fee.
Pit credit: Like the larger casinos in Nevada and Mississippi, the Hard Rock extends credit, or markers, to some customers. Setting up a line of credit takes "minutes," according to casino president John Fontana, and can run as high as seven figures for certain customers.
Foreign currency: The casino does not accept foreign currency. However, Tampa International Airport has a currency exchange center, and local banks also provide the service.