Gaming expert-turned-restaurateur Jeff Hwang on counting cards and the future of Las Vegas’ Arts District

Jeff Hwang
Photo: Wade Vandervort
C. Moon Reed

Jeff Hwang is a Las Vegas renaissance man. He is, or has been, a gaming industry expert, an author, a poker player, a card counter, a game designer, a stock analyst and now, a restaurateur.Pot-Limit Omaha Poker: The Big Play Strategy and The Modern Baseball Card Investor. Last year, he opened Taverna Costera, a combination restaurant, coffee shop, bar and music venue Downtown at 1031 S. Main Street. As that latest chapter unfolds, Hwang spoke to the Weekly about all things Las Vegas. Hwang, who learned how to count cards as a teenager, has become an expert on Omaha poker, which he calls “the highest action game around” and “hold ’em on steroids.” Hwang’s books include

Your background’s in gaming, so why enter the restaurant and bar world? I’ve been studying the gaming industry for two decades. I did the market feasibility study on the Las Vegas Sands Spain project. They were looking to build a Las Vegas Strip all at once in Madrid or Barcelona. That was the genesis for this, because this is a multi-use project. It’s a restaurant and a coffee shop with a rooftop bar, in the same vein as a modern, integrated resort-casino. The principle is scale.

In gaming, the bigger the casino, the bigger the draw … and the more casinos you can put in one spot, you create a destination. In this property, by packing all these things together, it’s more reasons to come here. All these components cross-market each other. If you come in the morning for coffee, you’d probably come for the restaurant, or you’d probably come back for entertainment on the roof.

How are you finding life as a restaurateur? I never really thought of myself as a restaurateur. My role was building this place. It was [my chef’s] job to be the restaurateur and develop the menu. But he’s gone. Now we’re building the things I want.

I’m not a restaurant expert … but I’ve learned a lot about this business. My philosophy now is that I’m going to do the things I want, and people are going to like it or not.

Why did you put your venue in the Arts District? In Las Vegas, there’s the Strip, there’s Downtown Fremont Street and now you have the Arts District, which is kind of a third theme park. It’s walkable real estate without the price-gouging of the Strip. And it’s all local, so there’s a lot of personality. In the past few years, this place has grown dramatically. There’s something new coming in here every two, three weeks.

Unless it’s First Friday, most Arts District activity happens south of Charleston Boulevard. Why did you choose the relatively quiet north side of the street? I’ve played [guitar at] ReBar many times, so I [first] wanted to be on the other side of the street. [But after a lease fell through], we started poking around this side. I’ve got … the only rooftop in the Arts District. The guys who own the building … were willing to invest in us. The catch is there’s no foot traffic on this side of the street … so it’s our job to anchor the development of this area.

Where do you think the Arts District will be in the next five years? Things are changing. The English Hotel is opening, 50 to 60 yards from here. That will change the dynamic of this area completely. As soon as Able Baker opened up on the far end of the Arts District, all that real estate between Able Baker and ReBar started to fill in. The next step is this side of the street. Now, we’re at the endpoint of the endpoint, [but] in five years, we’ll be the center of the next wave of development.

You grew up in Florida and went to college in the Midwest. How did you end up in the gaming industry? When I was 17, I was on a cruise ship with my family. I watched my brother play blackjack. I’d heard the game was beatable. Before I turned 18, I started reading books on counting cards. When I turned 18, I started going on cruise ships and counting cards. [When] I went off to college in St. Louis, it was the beginning of the boom of the riverboats in Missouri, Indiana, Illinois, Mississippi. So when I turned 21, I started going to riverboat casinos and driving down to Tunica to play blackjack. You get free food. It was a lot of fun. 

How long did it take for you to get good at blackjack? It’s just a mathematics game. The trick is making lots of money, which is a very different game, because you have to beat the casinos without getting caught. But the game I was playing wasn’t a huge sum of money.

Around that time, I also started writing about the stock market, did internships at Fidelity and the Motley Fool. Nobody on Wall Street had seen these riverboat casinos, and I was driving around visiting all of them. That’s how I got started with gaming and writing.

You’ve written four books on poker strategy. How did you transition from blackjack to poker? The poker boom happened in 2003, right when I graduated. So I started driving around playing poker. I started looking at casinos from all these different angles. It was a fun time, a very profitable time. It was a good education to go out to a casino and win. … I came to Vegas [to get] a dual masters degree in hotel and business at UNLV. I started working for a company called HBS to do hotel and gaming consulting. That’s where the whole concept of scale and the multi-use concept comes from.

Do you still play poker? I’ve been retired almost since I started working full time. Once you quit playing, it’s really hard to get back into it, because you have $4,000 swings, which you can [only] handle when you’re playing every day.

Do you still watch the gaming industry? Constantly, but it stopped being exciting like 10 years ago.

How could the gaming industry possibly become boring? Because the whole market is mature. In 2014, the skill-based gaming companies started talking about video game gambling. The argument was [that] millennials don’t like to gamble, which was a bullsh*t argument, because it wasn’t true.

The reality is that the price of gambling has been rising for the past 20 years. It’s simple economics: When you raise the house advantage, people are going to gamble less. The market has been growing since the ’90s with riverboats. Now everybody has access to gambling, so it’s not a novelty anymore. Gambling hasn’t changed much for the better in two decades.

Yet you still design games, right? I started a game development company about five or six years ago. I created my own lineup of games. I sold that to Galaxy Gaming this [past] summer.

What types of games have you designed? There’s a blackjack game where you can split any two cards, and double down for up to four times. … The pots can get pretty big pretty fast. The way my games are designed is to put a lot of action in the smallest space possible.

Tags: Dining, Q+A
  • The place makes hours seem like minutes and encourages you to meet the bartenders and begin describing the place as “my local.”

  • The versatile, casual eatery skillfully tours through Guatemalan, Cuban, Peruvian and other cuisines.

  • Starbase is hosting a wine tasting event called Flight School this month.

  • Get More Dining Stories
Top of Story