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Gambling in America

From Sin City to Atlantic City, from high-end resorts to offshore cruises, gamblers have more choices than ever before to get their hit
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
The Best Places to Gamble, Sep/Oct 02

(continued from page 2)

Originally built to compete with the Bellagio's luxe villas (back when the hotel was run by Steve Wynn), the Mansion's design was partially inspired by a visit that now­MGM Mirage chairman J. Terrence Lanni made to Tuscany. This is reflected in the Italian tiles that cover some of the floors here and an ancient-looking fountain in the parking lot where MGM limos idle in wait of guests' whims.

Step out of your limo, clear the gates, and you come across a large courtyard filled with the kinds of flowers that you don't usually see growing in Las Vegas -- tulips, orchids and lemon trees. Mozart plays in the background, and, miracle of miracles, you are not perspiring even though the outdoor temperature is nearly 100 degrees. Though you feel as if you're outside, the Mansion's courtyard is actually a big room, bubbled inside glass, and perfectly climate controlled.

For guests who might brave a trip to the outdoor pool, strategically placed misters prevent elite players from getting too sweaty. Guests are assigned butlers and chefs, selected to correspond with precisely the kind of food that may be desired. For instance, when a Japanese gambler announced that he'd like a plate of fugu sashimi upon arriving, a chef was recruited who is licensed to prepare the potentially lethal blowfish. The Mansion comes equipped with fine old wines such as a 1966 Chateau Latour and an '86 Chateau Margaux, the humidors are stocked with Cohibas and Montecristos, beds are made with Frette linens, the robes are silk, and the bathroom floors are heated. A screening room, furnished with plush club chairs, is available for guests' use, and private rooms can be reserved for workouts and spa treatments.

Finally, lest anyone forget what they're really here for, there is a casino attached to the Mansion, situated far from the clanging of slot machines, decorated in soothing earth tones, and populated by people who are just like you.

There are those, however, who complain that Las Vegas has gotten too big, too corporate, and strayed too far from the Benny Binion ideal of "good whiskey and a good gamble." For them, Reno and neighboring Sparks -- the former is billed as the "biggest little city in the world" -- resemble a bastion of cozy sanity. You won't find Bellagio-style sophistication or a trace of The Venetian's faux gilding in Reno, but you will find a resolutely western town with 25 casinos, 15,965 hotel rooms, more cowboys than you can shake a six-shooter at, and a sense of low-rise intimacy that has long ago been skyscrapered out of Vegas. Top hotels there include the El Dorado, run by the family of Don Carano. This past February, Reno's gambling revenues topped $67 million, an increase of more than 10 percent over January (and a 4.4 percent rise from February 2001, the first such increase in nearly a year).

Still recovering from a 9/11 drop-off, Reno is repositioning itself as more than just a gambling hub. "We are trying to change the image of Reno from a small, cowboy hick town, with a few casinos, to America's adventure center," says Gordon Forrester, the accounting supervisor for Reno Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority. Expressing hope that a newly expanded convention center (it's gone from 240,000 square feet to a half million) will bring business travelers who can spread the word, Forrester adds, "We have skiing, hiking, mountain biking and lots of golf courses" -- not to mention a cool climate that makes it a pleasure to play those links from May through September.

In Las Vegas, casino hosts like Steve Cyr, who works primarily for the Hard Rock, outhustle one another to land the big whales -- guys like Larry Flynt, Kerry Packer and game-show magnate Roger King, all of whom bet more than $1 million per trip.

Cyr estimates that the whales get 7 percent coddling (meaning if you're a million-dollar player, the casino will give you $70,000 in perks and freebies). "We give out Rolexes like they're candy bars," brags Cyr, whose hosting exploits will be collected in the forthcoming book Whale Hunting in the Desert by Deke Castleman and Dave Berns. "I'll eat 10 or 15 percent of a guy's losses and might give him $50,000 just to walk through the door. But I know that his first bet with us is going to be $10,000 and that he is at a disadvantage from the second he enters the casino. Nobody has an advantage over the house. Yet you get these smart guys, playing games with the percentages against them, and they think they are above the game." How far does Cyr go to land a big player? "I'll cancel people's reservations and set them up at my hotel. I'll give them Super Bowl seats on the 50-yard line, send them cars [not limos, cars, to keep, as gifts], hijack them from other casinos and take them across the street to Club Paradise. It's host wars out there."

Whether you're a whale or a minnow, one thing that makes Vegas the gambler's Mecca is its sport betting. Las Vegas ranks as the only place in America where you can legally lay down money on the team of your choice, make wild proposition bets, and watch Charles Barkley place $600,000 in Super Bowl wagers without so much as a marker. However, despite its popularity, sports betting accounts for less than 2 percent of the total take in Nevada. Joe Lupo, a veteran sports book manager at the Stardust, says, "There is a lot more competition out there, with the Internet and offshore wagering. Individuals are feeling more comfortable wagering from home. They are finding it less necessary to make trips here for sport betting."

The major threat to casino-backed sports betting -- and a smaller threat to casino gambling in general -- is the Internet. With offshore locations willing to take more action than the casinos and asking none of those pesky tax-related questions when wagers exceed $10,000, no wonder Bear Stearns expects online gaming to grow into a $5 billion industry by 2003. And that thinking is resonating on the Strip. MGM and Harrah's have hedged their bets by dipping toes into Internet wagering with recent launchings of play-for-fun sites.

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