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New Comp City

The Paiza Club is a club in the truest sense of the word: if you're not invited, you're not welcome.
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Tiger Woods, May/June 2008

(continued from page 1)

It's all about elaborate computer systems deciding precisely what your play is worth and translating that into the comps that you may receive. According to Bob Loeb, a Chicago-based attorney who specializes in gambling-related issues, "Harrah's corporation is the champion of maintaining an extensive database. It includes play at slots and the tables, casino credit, the marketing of credit cards, where you eat, what purchases you make and what your preferences are. Whether or not all of this is a big deal to the players depends on how much privacy they want."

Though Loeb clearly sees the use of such databases as an invasion, there is another side to this. Relinquishing the information gets you taken care of more efficiently. At Harrah's, for instance, the casino knows where you like to gamble, how you like to gamble, where you like to stay and eat, and the sorts of promotions that most appeal to you. Would you, Mr. Big Shot Gambler, rather play in a gratis poker tournament or a gratis slots tournament? Harrah's knows.

The Hard Rock takes things a step further in terms of tracking the gaming proclivities of its best customers. Buy into the $100 minimum blackjack games at Peacock Lounge, the casino's cozy high-limit room, and you will be handed an ordinary-looking stack of chips. What's not so ordinary is that each one of those plastic orbs is imbedded with a tiny RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) transmitter. It notifies the casino exactly what you are betting, how often you're betting and the way in which you are moving your bets around. The latter feature increases the efficiency with which the Hard Rock can catch card counters (who tend to swing their bets, based on cards that have yet to be dealt out).

More critically, from the player's perspective, the electronic tracking removes the guesswork from issuing comps and actually helps those of us who don't feel like haggling for free rooms and steak dinners. "Technology has changed things so that you can't bullshit your host anymore," says Cyr. "Every table has a reader, every chip is encoded. I know exactly what you played for and even what you tipped the dealer. Plus, we have Shuffle Masters [machines that automatically shuffle six decks at a time], and the card readers check for blackjack so dealers no longer need to peek. It means that the game moves faster, more hands get dealt and" —here's where he smirks and shrugs —"there's more money to be made by us."

Some casino customers are cagey enough to take advantage of technology and actually twist the comp game in their favor. They are mathematically oriented players who love that their action is perfectly tracked. For the most part, these players focus on video poker, a game that should be impossible to beat. Even if you play it perfectly, getting in loads of hands per hour, running your fingers across the screen as if the machine is a video game, you will still be playing at a mathematical disadvantage. And that is what makes their approach to the comp game so ingenious.

As Cyr explains it, the best video poker players can be extremely successful while managing to stay under the casino radar, benefiting from comps and playing a game that is thought to be hustle-proof. At the core of their ability to do this is close monitoring of their play and comps —including meals, rooms and the cash rebates that Marshall Sylver describes above. Because casinos perfectly track play on machines —a player inserts his card and a record is made of every bet —it is very easy to figure out comps.

And because slot machines and video poker machines are more predictable than table games, casinos are more comfortable about being generous with comps and rebates for machine-game players. "Let's say that the Jacks or Better machine holds half a percent," begins Cyr, not bothering to mention that only some machines pay out so generously. "That means that for every million dollars you run through that machine, you should lose $5,000 [if you play every hand perfectly, which hardly anybody does]. But if we make a deal with you in which we will give you a one percent rebate on loss, you can turn it into a positive for yourself. One player, a very smart guy that I call Mr. S, can earn [in the long run] $5,000 for every million he plays. At one point he was playing $2,500 per hand and would go through a million in coin per shift."

What makes this comp deal great for players and terrible for casinos —and actually manages to beat the casinos at their own game —is that video poker is viewed as being hopelessly tilted in the house's favor. That's why you can use it to take advantage of the tech-fortified comp system. "Mr. S had two months in which it looked like we won $138,000 from him. And we did. But we also gave him $170,000 in cash rebates. He was up 32 grand —plus a ton of comps. This guy made $300 per hour playing video poker!"

The catch here is that you must have an ability —and bankroll —to stick it out for the long term, playing perfectly and aggressively during gruesomely negative swings. Keeping cool and continually dumping dollars into a money-sucking game is not for everybody, and it's not even a whole lot of fun. Video poker at the Mr. S level feels like a job —but it also pays like one.

For those of us who want to capitalize on the new rules of comping but don't want to bet with the gusto of Marshall Sylver or play the brainiac game as perfected by Mr. S, a couple of options exist.

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