"How much does a guy have to lose in this joint before they start taking care of him?" Max Rubin asks, dumping $3,000 worth of black $100 chips onto one of the MGM Grand Casino's blackjack tables. It is Fight Night at the MGM this evening, a few-times-a-year occasion for high rollers from around the globe to convene in a glamorous casino, where they can be seen and socialize and gamble and, if they get around to it, observe from a palpably intimate perspective George Foreman getting his face pounded.
Dressed in a casually rich track suit, accessorized by a Shadow Creek baseball hat usually worn only by the highest of rollers, Max Rubin could blend in effortlessly with the MGM's spiffy crowd of gamblers, if that was what he wanted.
It's not. "Damn! I've been losing my ass off in this joint since lunchtime, and I only find out just now they're having some sort of fight here tonight," Rubin announces loudly to nobody in particular. A harried pit boss, trying to attend to the needs of several dozen "preferred customers"--that is, wealthy suckers--approaches Rubin's blackjack table. "Something I can do for you, sir?"
"Hell, yeah," Rubin snorts, simultaneously slamming back a "shot" of apple juice and placing a $200 bet. "I've been playing my butt off all day, and this is all I have left," Rubin complains, gesturing toward his pile of chips. Knowing shifts have just changed at this pit, Rubin is certain the floor man, who has only been on duty 10 minutes, won't have the time or inclination to check up on his claim. If he did, he would discover that Max Rubin had only walked into the MGM five minutes ago.
The pit boss looks Rubin over. You can almost hear his mind working: Big player. A little drunk. The kind of loud loser that might alienate my other players. Better keep him happy. He shakes Rubin's hand. "How can I help you, sir?"
"I hear you got a fight here tonight," Rubin says, as if he were the last guy in the world to notice that 10,000 big shots, celebrities and Germans happened to have all showed at the same place this evening.
"That's right, sir. Would you like to see the fight?" the pit boss offers.
"Sure I would," Rubin says. "Could you do that for me?"
"Of course," the pit boss replies. "Just give me your name, and I'll call it in to the box office." As he turns to fill out the requisite paperwork, Rubin, who has stopped betting his black chips, calls the pit boss back.
"Hey, could you make that for two?"
The pit boss hesitates for a millisecond. "Sure I can."
"'preciate that, pardner." As the pit boss shuffles off, Rubin, dropping the Texas drawl and drunken slur, turns to me and smiles. "Got 'em!" he says, picking up his chips. "Is this a great town, or what?"
With $900 worth of prime-location fight tickets in hand, we shamble to the MGM Grand Garden Arena, where, along with Bruce and Demi, Arsenio and Montel, and thousands of other glittering VIPs, we'll see George Foreman slink away with one of the most undeserved victories in recent heavyweight history. And thanks to Max Rubin's knowledge of the casino business, it won't cost us more than a few dollars.
Nor do the limos, the suites, the gourmet meals, the show tickets, the booze or the afternoon of golf. It's all comped.
Max Rubin (a pseudonym) is the author of Comp City: A Guide to Free Las Vegas Vacations (1994, Huntington Press, 800/244-2224 or at any Borders Bookstore) the first book to reveal the inner workings of the Las Vegas comp system, a widely known but little understood marketing tool the casinos use to lure premium players to their tables. A former casino executive, Rubin saw firsthand how the casinos doled out over half a billion dollars in comps per year, solely to encourage their customers to gamble (and lose) more.
"The gambling business is a cat and mouse game," Rubin says, as we cruise down the Strip in our complimentary limousine. "Guess who's the mouse?"
Comp City is helping to change the game into one of cat and dog--and the dogs are beginning to chase the kitties up a tree. "The book contains information the general public was never supposed to find out," Rubin remarks. "These are the casino industry's most guarded secrets."
According to the author, the casino complimentary system is designed to give back to the player approximately 40 cents for every $1 in gambling losses. His book shows how to exploit numerous loopholes in the comp system to earn $1 back for every 10 to 30 cents in losses.
Casino expert Steve Forte (see Cigar Aficionado, Spring 1995), says Comp City is the most important gambling book to be published in the last 10 years. "I've always thought the subject of comps would make a great book, and nobody knows more about them than Max. Anybody who regularly gives casinos their action should read this book first."
Heeding Forte's advice, I devoured the 294-page book in two sittings and was surprised at how generous--and how vulnerable--the casinos can be with their freebies. Using a technique Rubin dubs ACES (Advanced Comp Equivalency Strategy), clever comp hustlers--those who can play a solid game of blackjack, convincingly represent their ability to lose a lot of money and have no fear of asking for unearned rewards--can enjoy the fabulous perks most people believe are reserved exclusively for the superrich.
Still, even after digesting Rubin's entertaining, revelatory investigation, which reads like a comical how-to primer in larceny, I was incredulous. Though the mathematical explanations in Comp City couldn't be clearer, and Rubin's writing has the comforting ring of true authority, I wondered if the book's techniques would work in the real world, with a pit boss breathing over my shoulder.
"The only way the techniques in this book don't work is if you have moral and ethical qualms about taking thousands of dollars in goodies from the casinos," Rubin claims. "Course, the casinos don't have any problem bankrupting you."
I decided to see for myself.
Following the advice in Comp City, I called six Vegas hotels to ascertain which was most eager for my business. Posing as a black-chip player anxious to "gamble it up" on the big fight weekend, I was connected with executive hosts, whose job is to attract--and then keep--well-financed suckers to the tables. I told them they could expect $100-a-hand-and-up action from me. What, I politely inquired, could I expect in return?
As Rubin's book predicted, the fancier joints were not particularly impressed. Mirage told me they couldn't promise me anything until they saw my action. The Treasure Island said I could expect to be comped into a minisuite but shouldn't count on meals above and beyond the coffee shop. Luxor said my action would warrant a Jacuzzi suite and maybe food and beverage, depending on my play. Golden Nugget promised me full RFB (room, food and beverage) for $150-per-hand action at four hours of play a day but said for a suite I would have to play $200 to $250 per hand. Still, with no deposit, no up-front money in the cage, nothing more than my name and a telephone number--and a faint promise of action--each property gave me a guaranteed reservation on nights that had been "sold out" for weeks.
The less of a name brand, the more willing the casinos were to treat me like royalty. At the Frontier Hotel and Gambling Hall, a mid-Strip hotel which had been plagued by striking dishwashers for over a year, I was put through directly to one of the shift managers, who said that black chip action would entitle me to full RFB, including one of the atrium tower suites. "If you give us that kind of play you can have the run of the place," the manager told me.
For the past nine months, the Lady Luck Casino Hotel, downtown, has been making an aggressive pitch at uptown players, taking out full-page advertisements in many of the in-flight magazines. The ads promise green chip ($25) players all the spoils of the big name joints: gourmet dining, spacious suites, fully stocked limos--the works. What, I wondered, would the Lady Luck do for a black chip player?
"Anything you want," a host told me. I could almost hear him drooling on the other end of the telephone. Completely unbidden, he offered me full RFB, show tickets and golf--"Anywhere you want to play!" For four hours a day of $50 bets, all this could be mine. For double the action, I might have a shot at the ultimate comp: tickets to the heavyweight title fight.
Using conversion tables contained in Comp City, I quickly calculated the expected cost of my high-roller weekend: approximately $40. I knew I could play the Lady Luck's single-deck blackjack game at about a 2 percent disadvantage. At $50 a hand, I could expect to lose around $5 an hour. Eight hours of required play would cost me less than the price of taking my wife to the movies and dinner.
So why would the Lady Luck--or any casino for that matter--be so eager to wine and dine such a meager producer? Because, as Rubin's book explains, they think you are losing more than you really are. The casino figures the average player gives up a two percent disadvantage when playing 21, but part of being a comp wizard is learning how to play perfect basic strategy blackjack. (It takes about 30 minutes to learn and is explained clearly in the book.) The casino figures 75 to 100 hands an hour rate of play; but the comp wizard effectively slows the game down to 50 hands or less, reducing the casino's total handle dramatically. The casino is prepared to give back almost half of the player's losses in comps; but the comp wizard knows how to squeeze out a 1,000 percent return.
Upon arrival at the Lady Luck, the afternoon before the big Foreman fight, I met Max Rubin at the casino's cage, where, under the watchful eye of an executive host, I deposited a bankroll of $10,000, most of which I had no intention of touching. The host immediately made dinner reservations for us that evening at the hotel's gourmet restaurant, the Burgundy Room.
After a brief meeting in my deluxe accommodations, where Rubin and I sipped complimentary Champagne and discussed playing strategy and tableside demeanor (pleasant but needy), we made our first play. Finding a table with several other patrons and a slow dealer, we settled into two empty seats, flashed a fistful of hundreds and ordered whiskeys and cigars .
A pit boss immediately gravitated to our table and made a formal introduction. With her hovering at my side, I made a few $200 bets, making sure my oversized action was duly noted. When she went to attend to other business, I scaled my wagers back to $50 and $75. An hour later, following a leisurely 10 minute break to "make a telephone call," three men in suits approached me with their arms outstretched. One was the director of this and the other was the director of that. They all wanted to tell me how pleased they were to have me as their honored guest, and, oh, by the way, anything I possibly might need please let them know.
One of them reserved the best seats in the house to the Lady Luck's long-running production, "Melinda: First Lady of Magic"; the other handed me a gold plastic card that entitled me to complimentary meals in any of their restaurants, complimentary room service and limousine transportation wherever I pleased.
"Not bad," Rubin said, laughing, "for only an hour's worth of play. Give them a few more hours and we can ask for golf and seats at the fight."
After three hours of play, strategically interrupted by two more 10-minute breaks and a few major stalls while I chatted with my new executive pals, I pushed in my chips and asked the pit boss how I was doing on my rating (the casino's method of quantifying a player's level of action). "You're a solid $200-a-hand player. Everything will be taken care of," he said.
"I guess he didn't notice your $25 bets," Rubin said later, smiling. "What was your real average? Around $75?" He suggested I inquire about fight tickets at this point, before the casino figured out that $1,000 of the $1,120 I had "lost" ended up in the pockets of my suit.
A fruit and cheese basket was waiting in my room upon my return. So was a liter bottle of Stolichnaya. The booze and our upcoming meal, I calculated, was already worth more than the $120 I had dropped. But, I asked Rubin, what if I had lost more? Is it worth losing thousands of dollars in the pursuit of comps?
He explained that most people who come to Vegas lose their money anyway but don't get any of the perquisites to which they're entitled. The comp wizard, on the other hand, knows precisely the expected loss of his play and the expected gain of his comps, and usually the schism between the two is not even close . But expected loss does not always translate to actual loss. Blackjack is volatile; deviations happen, and deviations go both ways--I could easily have lost several thousand. In fact, Rubin reminded me, he and the tournament blackjack expert, Anthony Curtis, won $2,200 in 45 minutes when going after four $200 tickets to the Rolling Stones Voodoo Lounge concert--and they nabbed the tickets. "Our expected loss in the 'Voodoo' play was $45," Rubin explained. "We ended up with a $3,000 profit."
At the nadir of my comped weekend, I was down nearly $3,800. At the zenith I was up $2,400. (Playing with black chips, the swings are quick.) At the end of my play, after several gluttonous meals, a round of golf at the Desert Inn Golf Club and, of course, the ultimate prize (the fight ticket), I was a $24 winner. Heeding Rubin's advice from Comp City, I plowed my profits into a commemorative Foreman vs. Schulz T-shirt, a $22 investment that I could give to my executive host as a token of my appreciation for taking such good care of me. "That will pay big dividends," Rubin predicted.
He was right. Next time I want to visit the Lady Luck, the host informed me, the airfare's on him.
Michael Konik is a contributing editor of Cigar Aficionado.
Bang For a Buck: A Comp Accounting
The House Edge
Total playing time: 6.5 hours Average bet: $75 House edge: .19% Expected loss: ($46)
The Player's Gain
Room for two nights: $600
Show tickets: $60
Fight tickets: $900
Return airfare: $144
Total comp value: $2,444 Less cost: ($46) Net gain: $2,398
In addition to free booze for seated players, casinos gladly hand out complimentary cigars to $5 bettors. Ask any cocktail waitress or, if necessary, a friendly pit boss, and it's on the house. Assuming a 0.5 percent disadvantage at blackjack, you're giving up around three cents a hand to earn the following cigars.
Sands: Zino Mirage: Macanudo Portofino Caesars Palace: Partagas Flamingo Hilton: Antonio and Cleopatra Harrah's: Bering Casino Lady Luck: Garcia y Vega