LAS VEGAS — The long-ignored, much-maligned, lowly slot-machine player has replaced the high roller as the new star gambler of Las Vegas--the player casinos pamper with "comps" and track with computers in the fierce national competition for the gambler's dollar.
Not long ago, before the once-upscale Strip traded class for mass, the slots were where serious gamblers parked their wives while they tended to business at the felt tables in the pit. The slots were for the rumpled beer-and-hotdog crowd that stumbled off buses from Los Angeles, while gambling bosses kept their own attention on the high rollers whose excesses could turn even the worst-managed casino into a bonanza.
Then several things happened. Atlantic City gambling got under way just as a national recession was taking hold. Airline deregulation led to connection hubs and the end of non-stop flights to Las Vegas from the East Coast. California introduced Sunday horse racing and multimillion-dollar lotteries.
High Roller Faded Away
Also, the government made casinos identify players whose betting had reached $2,500 and report them to the Internal Revenue Service once they topped $10,000. Gradually, like the game of faro, the high roller faded away. With him went much of the city's mystique and a good deal of its gambling revenue.
The private upstairs casinos that catered to him have been converted to other uses now, and the casino-sponsored chartered jets that used to bring him in from Dallas and New York and Philadelphia on free junkets have been grounded.
The flashy saloons he haunted--the Sands, the Dunes and the Riviera among them--have become cavernous honky-tonk parlors. Stuffed with noisy automated gambling devices, they advertise 50-cent beers, Whopperburgers and little-known entertainers.
Today, as Las Vegas adjusts its marketing strategy to confront the loss of the state's gambling monopoly, slots and video games are producing 54% of casino revenues. And while the number of slots is growing--along with slot payoffs that range up to $5 million for a single pull of the handle--the number of traditional table games and their share of the marketplace is shrinking. In the process, Las Vegas has pulled itself out of the flat-growth period of the early 1980s and is about to produce its biggest year in history.
"Let's call up this player--he's one of our biggest, a cowboy from Texas," said Dave Williams, the Frontier's slot director. He punched the player's identification number into the IBM computer in his second-floor office over the casino and a detailed profile appeared on the screen: the amount the player gambled and in what denominations, what machines he played and for how long, the dates of his birthday and anniversary, even his wife's name.
"Now, you can see this guy is obviously an 'RFB' player," Williams said, meaning that his room, food and beverages are "comped"--given to him complimentary by the casino when he comes to Las Vegas. "He's put $781,283 in the machines this year--that's right, 700-plus--and had some big jackpots, but we've still managed to win $31,899 from him. His last trip was for four days and he put $138,899 through the slots."
The old high roller on the craps and blackjack tables was always easy to identify: He went to the cage, drew his credit line and took his place under the watchful eye of a pit boss. But the slot player usually labored in anonymity, wandering among the machines, dropping who-knew-how-much into the devices' bellies. The Frontier solved that by starting a slot club, which 40,000 players have joined for free.
Big Spenders Profiled
They insert a plastic card into each machine and the longer they gamble and the more they bet, the more points they earn that can be traded for complimentary rooms, food or cash. The computer chips in the cards also enable executives to identify and profile the big spenders, giving him a rating--from six in most casinos for a fairly serious gambler to one for a truly uninhibited gambler. The rating determines the level of complimentary services the hotel and casino will provide.
"You might have a 4-plus rating, which means we're going to pick up your hotel tab, but if you come in here and eat all your meals at the gourmet restaurant and sleep when we expect you to be gambling, then you're going to drop down to a 5-minus real quick," said one casino executive. "We have to figure what the cost is for us to generate your action."