The Paiza Club is a club in the truest sense of the word: if you're not invited, you're not welcome. Nestled on the 36th floor of The Venetian Resort Hotel Casino in Las Vegas, it functions as a hotel within the hotel, designed specifically for the highest of high rollers. Only someone who blows into town with a six-figure or higher credit line will even know that the wood-paneled enclave exists.
Like its Sands Macau counterpart, the Paiza at The Venetian has its own casino, its own 8,000-square-foot suites and its own staff. The private restaurant within its walls is a round-the-clock operation, serving sublime dim sum, Peking duck and shark fin soup, thus allowing players from around the world to remain in their local time zones as they put small fortunes at risk. Waiters discreetly push silver serving carts, loaded with delicacies that appear to have time-traveled straight from a gourmet room in Hong Kong to this skyscraping sprawl in Vegas. The wine list boasts bottles of 1982 Château Lafite, 1982 Château Pétrus and 1999 Harlan. A glass-fronted humidor showcases Davidoffs, Fuentes and Ashtons. As is the custom in Macau —and this floor most assuredly caters to Asian players —private dining rooms are outfitted with large, flat-screen TVs. Patrons enjoy their elaborate banquets with programming from the homeland blaring away.
Best of all: your money is no good here. The Paiza, which was built at a cost of $30 million, is strictly for players who have been given the run of the house. Everything within its walls is comped and the place illustrates the degree to which Vegas casinos must now go to land highly coveted, free-spending whales. From one end of the Strip to the other, VIP hosts grapple in an environment that has become increasingly competitive and mind-numbingly luxe. In a world in which outre suites (the Palms has one that boasts full-size bowling lanes), famous eateries (Le Cirque's Sirio Maccioni just announced plans to open an eponymous eatery at the MGM Grand) and cool nightclubs (Vegas arguably has the largest concentration of happening spots in the world) are de rigueur, this form of exclusivity is what's required to stand out from the crowd.
Nevertheless, the Paiza is not completely unique —at the MGM Grand, for example, the ultra-exclusive Mansion provides discreet luxuries that rival those of any four-star resort in the world —but it is indicative of an increasing de-emphasis on attracting the mid-level guys who were once bread-and-butter moneymakers for Vegas casinos. "Traditionally, a $100-per-hand bettor could always get a free room and dinner," says Max Rubin, author of Comp City: A Guide to Free Casino Vacations, the handbook to snagging casino freebies. "Now it might not even get you a discounted room rate. With what they are charging for rooms, it makes no sense to give anything away to the smaller players."
That's because rooms and amenities currently account for more profits in Vegas than gambling. With accommodations routinely going for $300 per night and dinner entrées selling at Manhattan prices (in restaurants that are increasingly owned by outside entities, which means that casinos need to pay full freight for the most delectable meals that they comp), the bar has been raised dramatically. "Vegas has gotten a little arrogant," admits Steve Cyr, the high-roller host at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and coauthor of the book Whale Hunt in the Desert. "It's hard for me to do something for a $5,000 guy [that is, a player who puts $5,000 on deposit or takes out the same amount in markers]. At $10,000, we're starting. And if you put up $25,000 and bet an average of $250 a hand for three hours a day, then the world starts to become your oyster. Your wife goes to the spa and we give you limos to go wherever you want."
In the heart of what might be called New Comp City —the leaner, meaner, dizzyingly upscale Vegas —I am enjoying the Paiza's impossibly tender Kobe beef alongside my dining companion, Marshall Sylver. If you've spent any time in Las Vegas, you've probably seen Sylver's smiling face on those light-up ads that top taxis around town. He's famous for producing a hypnosis show at Harrah's and for leading self-improvement seminars across the country.
Among the town's VIP hosts and casino managers, however, Sylver is known for something beyond his act. He is regarded as a major player, a guy who'll wager $3,000 to $4,000 per hand at blackjack. Blinged out, meticulously groomed, armed tonight with a half-dozen Fuente Fuente OpusXs, Sylver is indicative of Vegas's new generation of big players. Acknowledging that casino games are unbeatable in the long term, he recognizes his value in a sophisticated way and works hard to leverage it. He may lose money at the table, but he knows he'll get some of it back through comps. Not content with what the casino happily offers him in exchange for gambling against daunting odds, he goes after what he wants in an organized manner that was once extremely rare.
For starters, Sylver understands the math. "If a casino is attempting to lure me in, they say that they'll comp me for 40 percent of my theoretical loss; for me, for three hours of play, it comes to $9,600 that they have to give me in comps regardless of whether I win or lose," says Sylver, who has been affectionately dubbed Mr. Cristal Whore by one host. "Plus, I negotiate a rebate on losses, and then there's the walking-in money. Some players can get five percent of their bankroll just for entering a place. Ask for cash, though, or else they give you a one-play chip, and the odds are that you'll lose."
Sylver's host at the Hard Rock, aggressively operating Cyr, acknowledges that the Rolls Royce-driving hypnotist has worked out a seemingly nifty deal for himself in terms of rebates, which have become the norm for high-flying gamblers. "If he loses six figures in 24 hours, we give him back 10 percent of his losses as opposed to working it out on a per-trip basis," explains Cyr, breaking it down to show that the casino is not exactly taking the worst of it. "Most people think that's not such a good deal, but here's how it works. Let's say he wins 100 grand on Monday. No problem. Then, if he comes back on Wednesday and loses 100 grand, we give him $10,000. By doing this, he comes in here all the time and we'll be ahead in the long run. I did this because I was pissed about guys winning and then going to play someplace else where they can get rebates on losses [since they'd be starting from zero at the next place]. There's nothing worse than getting a call from a competing casino that's about to cash your check."
Cyr can do all this —and Sylver can benefit from it —because new technology allows him to be intimate with the play of his clients and their patterns. In the old days, Vegas was such a discreet destination that last names were dispensed with —pit bosses would have called me Mr. K back then. Today, however, they ask to see your driver's license (so you can get a plalyer's card) before you make your first bet and require a Social Security number —often written out on a government document to insure that you're not lying —if you want to buy in for more than $10,000. Little is left to chance and management quickly figures out exactly how much you win or lose. The era of being a good guy, using a winning personality and gifting hosts to enhance your comps is pretty much over.
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.
First, it's best to shop around and find the places where your level of action will be most appreciated and compensated. Some casinos on The Strip, for instance, are not great places for craps (they minimize comp dollars on odds bets) and others won't give rebates to players with credit lines of less than a million dollars. Finding out which do and which don't is the first step toward getting the most out of the pit. More to the point, off of the Vegas Strip is a good place for mid-level gamblers to risk their money —an average bet of $50 per hand, with a couple thousand dollars of front money, will get you a comped room at the recently renovated Golden Nugget downtown (bet $125 per hand, with 10 grand on deposit, and you're completely taken care of). But even better, Vegas is hardly your only option. The smarter play, and one that takes advantage of current gambling/comping conditions, involves looking outside of Las Vegas altogether.
High-end Indian casinos —such as Barona near San Diego, Foxwoods in Connecticut and Morongo in Cabazon, California, to name a few —are more generous than their Vegas counterparts and more willing to reward steady play from lower rollers. Some of the Indian operations tend to have advantageous tax situations, and just about all of them realize more money from gambling than they do from amenities.
It's the old Vegas model, and it encourages them to comp customers in the old Vegas style. "Vegas tends to be tighter with comps because the gaming revenue is less meaningful there," says Joe Jimenez, senior vice president of casino marketing at Foxwoods. "Our revenue is 80 to 90 percent from gaming. People come here 12 times a year, and only 20 percent of our customers stay in the hotel rooms. Gaming revenue is more meaningful here and you get a lot of value for your gambling time in our casino."
Back at the Paiza, Marshall Sylver is regaling me with tales of his comping exploits. He recounts the night that Cyr promised to give him $12,000 worth of Fuente Fuente OpusX cigars rather than a loss rebate in cash (Cyr acknowledges that it was a bit of a feat, in light of how hard it is to buy Xs in large quantities), the New Year's Eve party that a casino threw for him, and pricy humidors that he's been sent as keeping-in-touch gifts. Then there was the time that he became so enamored with the wine glasses at Alizé (a very nice French restaurant on the top floor of the Palms) that he bought eight of each along with a bottle of Hardy Perfection Cognac that dated back to the 1870s, entirely with comp dollars. "It didn't all fit in my car," Sylver remembers, "so they sent a limo home with the glasses."
All of this begs a simple question. In light of the casinos' largesse —which, let's face it, is not usually extended to consistent winners —how is Sylver doing? "Over a lifetime, I am way down," he admits. "Over the last three years, though, I'm closer to even. Plus the comps. Which puts me ahead. It's always nice when they buy you dinner and give you cash."
Michael Kaplan is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.