By John Grochowski
More than any other casino company, Harrah’s Entertainment has long been all about imprinting its brand on the consciousness of the nation’s gamblers. Not every Harrah’s is identical, of course. Local conditions call for adaptation. But when you go to a Harrah’s casino, you know you’re going to get the multi-tiered Total Rewards players club, décor that emphasizes the purple in the Harrah’s logo, an expansive and solid buffet, and employees who are well-trained in customer service.
Harrah’s Casino Resort in Joliet, Illinois
You’re not necessarily going to get the best games in town. It’s deeply ingrained in the Harrah’s philosophy that a smile-on-the-face entertainment experience will keep more customers coming back than an extra few tenths of a percent for the player in the blackjack rules or video poker pay tables.
So it goes at Harrah’s in Joliet, Illinois, right in the downtown area of this growing city of 146,000, located 40 miles SW of Chicago. It’s bright, lively, and has plenty of Harrah’s purple. The full Total Rewards package is in place here, with its Gold, Platinum, Diamond and Seven Stars levels bringing extra rewards depending on your play. Food service options include a Flavors buffet which offers a wide variety of cuisine including Brazilian BBQ, house-made deep dish pizza, and specialty nights which include ribs Thursday, crab legs Friday and stir fry Saturday.
Harrah’s was one of the first generation of riverboat casinos in the Midwest, opening in the spring of 1993 aboard its first boat, the Northern Star. When a second boat, Southern Star, opened the following year and later replaced by the roomier Southern Star II, it enabled Harrah’s to offer the full 1,200 gaming positions allowed under Illinois law. The early boats were small, cramped and smoky, with games on three levels, requiring a lot of stair-climbing for players to see all on the boats.
Illinois required its casinos to cruise at the time, with each Harrah’s gaming session consisting of a half-hour boarding period, an hour on the Des Plaines River and a half hour disembarking session.
When Illinois ended its cruise requirements in 1999, Harrah’s took full advantage, first bringing Northern Star and Southern Star II dockside, connected by a ramp so players could wander between boats, then constructing a dockside barge that opened in 2001. The barge put all games on a single level, enabling Harrah’s to offer as close to a large, land-based casino as it can get under Illinois restrictions.
The biggest clues that this isn’t Vegas are the turnstiles that players must pass through to get to the casino area. Once you’re through the turnstiles, you are immediately in a large, open casino that places a heavy emphasis on slot machines. Harrah’s uses the vast majority of its allotted gaming positions on electronic gaming devices, which include slots, video poker, video blackjack and video keno. There are more than 900 electronic games and this is a very slots-oriented casino.
That doesn’t mean there are no tables at all. One of the quirks in Illinois regulations is that a slot machine isn’t defined as one gaming position — it’s nine-tenths of a gaming position. The intent is that no more than 1,200 customers be playing at any one time, so taking into consideration that at any given time some customers are walking to a different game or taking time out for a meal or a bathroom break, the Illinois Gaming Board ruled long ago that more than 1,200 seats were needed to actually have 1,200 people playing.
So in addition to those slot machines, Harrah’s Joliet offers 31 table games. Fifteen are blackjack tables with middle-of-the-road rules. At $10 and $15 tables, the dealer hits soft 17, the player is allowed to double down after splitting pairs and to resplit Aces. House edge against a basic strategy player is 0.59 percent. At $25 and $50 tables, the dealer stands on all 17s, with all other rules being the same. That lowers the house edge to 0.36 percent.
The other 15 tables are a mix of craps, roulette, mini-baccarat, Three Card Poker, Four Card Poker, Texas Hold’em Bonus Poker and Mississippi Stud.
In keeping with national trends and player preferences, Harrah’s has gone for flashy, low-denomination slots with free spins and bonus events in a big way. Higher-level play is strong enough that penny games have taken over the Harrah’s slot floor. One-cent games rule the roost, with 284 games. The next-most-common denomination is two-cent games, with 253 units, followed by 187 quarter games and dollars at 156 before you get to the 33 nickels. Expect to find a wide variety of bonusing games, with IGT, WMS, Bally and Aristocrat slots taking up most of the floor.
One thing you won’t find here are big-money wide-area progressive slots such as Megabucks. Games that link jackpots in multiple casinos are illegal in Illinois, so you’re not going to find any million-dollar bonanzas.
Video poker players who seek the best pay tables won’t find a lot here. Quarter games are all reduced pay tables, mostly in the 97-percent range. Harrah’s Joliet’s standout game is at the dollar level, 9-6 Double Double Bonus Poker with a progressive jackpot on the royal flush. It’s a 98.98-percent game with expert play at the rollover level of $4,000 for a royal with five coins wagered, and larger royal payoffs sometimes take the game into positive territory. Another pupular game you will find here is dollar Illinois Deuces, a game which returns 98.91 percent with perfect play.
Restaurants are on the casino side of the turnstile, so there’s no taking the kids to dinner here. Harrah’s is a steadfastly adult experience. In addition to the buffet, there’s the elegant steakhouse, The Reserve. And if you just want to grab a burger or a dog on the run, you’ll find Ace’s Diner on the casino floor.
For overnight stays, Harrah’s has one of the most comfortable casino hotels in the Chicago area. With 200 upscale rooms, the hotel opened in 2000, and has an elegant feel — the hotel and restaurants make for a nice little getaway. The hotel area has its own valet parking, then it’s just a short walk inside to the turnstiles, the restaurants and the games.
A Standard Hotel Room at Harrah’s Joliet
Harrah’s Joliet might not satisfy a picky blackjack or video poker player. But those looking for a resort feel, lively atmosphere, solid restaurants, comfortable hotel and lots of slots will find it here.
Harrah’s Joliet is located at 151 N. Joliet Street in Joliet. Call (815) 740-7800 or (800) HARRAHS or visit www.caesars.com.
John Grochowski writes a weekly syndicated newspaper column on gambling,
and is author of the “Casino Answer Book” series from Bonus Books.