Grand Casino Brussels
This review is based on my visit to the Grand Casino in Brussels on July 13, 2017. I was there for about three hours, and I spent most of my time playing blackjack.
I'm still not sure what the correct name is for this casino. The English names I've seen it referred to as include:
- Grand Casino
- Grand Casino Brussels
- Grand Casino Brussels Viage (with and without a hyphen before Viage)
In case you're wondering, viage is an archaic French word for voyage.
Gambling in Belgium
As I understand it, nine major cities in Belgium are permitted one full-blown casino each, including Brussels. These casinos feature both table games and slots. Elsewhere in Brussels, and I presume all of Belgium, you will find some small gambling parlors that are machines only. I also saw a sports betting outlet in downtown Brussels.
The casino is located on the second and third floors of a five-story building in the historic center of Brussels. It is only about a five-minute walk from the Grand Place, the famous city square of Brussels. However, like many cities in Europe that are over 1,000 years old, it is easy to get confused and lost through a maze of streets that never seem to meet at a 90-degree angle. Thank goodness for the "directions" button on the maps feature on my i-phone, which saved me many times in Europe. However, I'm dreading the line item for data usage on my next bill.
Casinos in Belgium are legally considered private clubs and available only to members age 21 and over. To get past the gatekeepers at the Belgium Casino, I was asked for my passport but they accepted a passport card*. Not only did they have to see it but they entered all my information into their computer, took my picture, and asked for 10 €. In exchange, I got a player card, a 5€ promotional chip (use till you lose type), and a free drink voucher at the bar. It turns out the free drink was only for a soft drink or a draft beer in a small glass. I must say that I like how European bartenders will scrape off a layer of foam in pouring a beer, a few times, which allows for more beer in the glass. I don't know why don't do this in the U.S. Probably because more foam results in less beer, which results in having to purchase additional beer more frequently. .
European casinos tend to be snootier American ones, so I made sure to wear long pants and a collared shirt, despite a long walk from my hotel on a hot humid European summer day. This was fine and I may have been a bit overdressed. Some other players were in jeans and t-shirts. I do think they draw the line at shorts, as I didn't see any men wearing them.
I had with me one of those simple backpacks with strings for straps, which I got for free at a trade show, but was told I would have to check it in at the coat room. This seemed a little unfair as plenty of women had purses in the casino larger than this thing. However, I've encountered the same problem in the U.S. I think there should be a policy like airlines have with checked bag -- if you can fit it in given box, then you're good to go. The coat room had a sign that said the suggested tip was 0.5 €. I actually like disclosures like this, as there is no guessing game about how much to tip.
* I highly recommend Americans spend the extra $30 when renewing a passport to get the passport card, as well. Everyone in Europe who asked for identification, other than in airports, accepted the card. It's much more convenient to carry around than a passport.
As mentioned, the casino occupies two floors. The gaming area of the lower floor is about half tables and half machines. The second floor had a pretty good sized poker area, which was closed at the time, and a couple blackjack tables that didn't look like they get played much, but the majority of the square footage was machines. Most of the poker games on the list were no-limit Texas Hold 'Em and a few pot limit Omaha. The rake was 5%.
As for the machines, most were video slots, but there were also some roulette machines of various types, some multi-player and some not. As usual, outside the United States, video poker was not popular. I found only one bank of I think four machines with lousy pay tables tucked in a corner of the lower floor. What follows are the table games and video poker available and the rules followed.
There were five blackjack tables, not counting the two on the upper floor, which looked more decorative than functional to me. The rules on the game were as follows:
- Winning blackjack pays 3-2.
- Six decks in a continuous shuffler.
- Dealer stands on soft 17.
- No hole card. Player loses everything bet if dealer gets a blackjack.
- Double on 9 to 11 only.
- No double after a split.
- No re-splitting aces. Other pairs may be re-split to four hands.
- No surrender.
The house edge under these rules is about as high as it gets for a 3-2 game at 0.75%. Following is the basic strategy appropriate for these rules.
There was a side bet called Perfect 11's, which I had never seen before. Click the link for more information on that.
I believe that the other blackjack tables followed the same rules. The only difference was the limits. Minimum bets ranged from 10 to 100 €, depending on the table. When I arrived, it was difficult to find a seat at all tables except the 100 € minimum one.
There were six roulette tables, all of which nicely followed the French rules. As a reminder, the French rules are a single-zero wheel and the players loses half only on even money bets if the ball lands in zero.
There was also a roulette side bet on about half the tables called the Roul 8. Click the link for more information on that.
There was surprisingly only one baccarat table. It followed the commission-free rule where a Banker win on a total of five paid 1 to 2. This is actually better than normal rules, lowering the house edge on the Banker bet from 1.06% to 0.93%.
Caribbean Stud Poker
The Caribbean Stud Poker table follows the usual rules. However, the side bet was a rare non-progressive version, following a 50-100-500-2500-10000 pay table. The house edge on that pay table is 60.3% (ouch!).
Ultimate Texas Hold 'Em
There were a couple of Ultimate Texas Hold 'Em tables. The standard rules were followed.
There were only four video poker machines in the whole casino and nobody was playing them. The denomination was half a Euro. The machines were modern IGT Game Makers. The pay tables were pretty stingy, as follows:
- 7-5 Jacks or Better (96.15%)
- 6-5 Bonus Poker (96.87%)
- 9-6-4 Double Bonus Poker (96.38%)
- 8-5 Double Double Bonus Poker (96.79%)
Cocktails are not complimentary to players. There does not seem to be the strong correlation between drinking and gambling in Europe that exists in the U.S. A cocktail waitress came by once in a long while, but most players ignored her. I don't know what drinks would have cost, but what few times anyone ordered anything they had to pay. There was a small stand offering free coffee and tea. The coffee was luke warm.
After I redeemed my voucher for a small beer, nicely lacking the usual American-style thick layer of foam, I circled the table game pit several times, checking the game section and looking for an open and affordable place to play blackjack. At the time I arrived, around 7 PM on a Thursday night, every spot at every blackjack table with a minimum of 25€ or less was taken with back bettors queued up.
One item in my bag of tricks is to wait for a new table to be opened in such scenarios. It is good business that if every table is full then new tables should be opened, if available. I saw an older man, around 65, sitting at an empty table. Fortunately, he spoke Spanish, so he was able to tell me that the table would open at 8 PM. So I sat there and waited for about half an hour for the table to open. Meanwhile, the old man at the table with me was berating the woman I presume was his wife playing at the next table over in regards to how she was playing.
With a German-like punctuality, a dealer came along right at eight o'clock, unlocked the tray, and was quickly ready to get things going. You would think that players back-betting behind the other tables would have fought over the empty spots, but surprisingly they took a while to be filled. They may have believed the usually Asian superstition that empty or near empty tables are unlucky. That is why in Macau they will all cram around one baccarat table while twenty nearby stand dead.
The game started out slow. Some apprehensive players came by and made a few back bets (betting on other player's hands) to feel the waters. Eventually, they served as a magnet for more players and all the other seats were filled. Once there was a group, the old man who was second guessing his wife at the other table finally started paying attention to his own table and took it upon himself to be the know-it-all of the table.
Whenever the dealer turned a stiff hand into one that beat anybody the old man was very adept at assigning the blame to one of the players. I've seen it many times before all over the world -- "If he/she hadn't hit/stood then the dealer would have broke." Usually players will only be assigned such blame for hitting, but this guy found blame in anybody but himself and for anything. Not that it matters, but the caliber of play of the other players was pretty bad, generally playing too conservatively out of a fear of busting. Basic strategy, which I played, of course, came off to the old man as the actions of some card-crazy lunatic. So, I was frequently the recipient of the blame when the dealer beat anybody. Although I don't speak French, it was easy to tell by tone and hand gestures that he kept saying, "If he (referring to me) hadn't hit, you would have won." I'm quite sure his goal was to enlist followers in his game of fault-finding whenever anything went wrong. He probably would have risen to high levels had he been alive under Nazi Germany.
As I mentioned, there was a lot of back-betting going on. However, the side bet was just a single spot per player and only one bet per spot was allowed. I, of course, wanted nothing to do with it, so I didn't mind other players taking my spot. However, I noticed there was often a race to get these bets down. There didn't appear to be any rule to give the sitting player first option but instead to let it go to whomever got a bet down first. I noted a bit of unspoken tension at the table over this, and it finally erupted into an argument. Naturally, one party of the argument was the old man. As I recall, and I could be wrong, he reached across the table to make the side bet on somebody else's hand but somebody closer to it grabbed it first, so he pulled back. However, when the bet won, he and another player both claimed ownership of the bet. The dealer seemed sure the player closer to the spot made the bet but the old man wouldn't accept it. So a supervisor had to be called who later put aside the winnings and said he would have surveillance review the replay. This was all said in French but it was pretty obvious what was being said. A few minutes later the supervisor came over and said the player closer to the betting spot made the bet and told the dealer to pay him. To this, the old man went on a tirade against everybody at the table. He mocked me over my few interruptions to what was otherwise a very fast game to ask questions. I only asked a few quick questions on the rules, but his loud and emotional tirade over every player as well as the dealer lasted much longer. Unfortunately, I was right next to him so some of his spittle landed on me. It reminded me of one of the scenes of Hitler's rants in the movie Downfall (great scene, but you can jump to the 1:52 point if you're in a hurry).
When he finally left to concentrate on second-guessing his wife's play, I was not unhappy. I don't think anybody was, especially the dealer. However, he was quickly replaced by an Asian woman who loved giving unsolicited advice. Anytime anybody had a two-second hesitation about how to play she was quick to give her two cents, which was often counter to basic strategy. She seemed rather aghast at my play but at least kept it to just groans and sighs. Once, just to be nice, I looked over at her with a 16 against 10 a ten, and she told me to stand in French. Bad players almost always incorrectly stand on this hand. However, it is so borderline that the cost of the error is very minuscule. The dealer ended up busting and the Asian lady seemed very proud of herself that her advice worked out.
Said Asian woman loved the side bet and was making it on any player spot available. It could get confusing because at the end of every round hands were all over the table racing to bet open spots. Sure enough, another argument broke out over who made a bet. It was between the Asian woman and an otherwise quiet player (a rarity at this table) at the end of the table. This argument broke out before any cards were dealt. So the supervisor had to be called over again. He ruled that the bet be set aside and nobody would get the spot that round. Turns out the side bet lost. About five minutes later the supervisor came back and said the bet belonged to the quiet player. At this point, the Asian woman went off on her own rant but it wasn't nearly as loud or long as the old man's. As she stomped off in a huff, the quiet player waved her good bye with his middle finger.
A little while after this, the dealer went on a hot run and one by one every player left to back bet at other tables. When I was the last one standing, the dealer told me I would have to double my bet to play by myself. I didn't have many Euros with me and was a little uncomfortable betting 20€ per hand, especially at the fast pace the dealer was dealing. There had been enough drama for the evening anyway, so I decided to call it a night. Before leaving, I asked the dealer in English about the two side bet arguments and he said he was positive in both cases who made the bet both times but as usual the players didn't listen to him and threw the challenge flag for a review from the booth. He said arguments over the side bet happens all the time.
This goes to show what I have been saying for years, that even though a side bet may carry a higher house edge than the base game, it can result in less revenue. This is because side bets are generally for smaller amounts than the base game and they slow down the game. In this case, not only did it slow down the game in collecting bets and paying winners, but in refereeing the many arguments that broke out over making the bet. Besides the lost time, there were a lot of hard feelings caused by the arguments over the bet. Gambling is supposed to be about fun and entertainment, but this sitting had all the decorum of a Jerry Springer show.
By contrast, I played in Amsterdam a few days later. What a refreshing change it was to play in a place where players were actually easy-going and polite. More on that in my next blog entry.