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The Low Roller's Guide to Las Vegas

In America's capital of excess, newsletter publisher Anthony Curtis has dug up bargains for penny-wise subscribers since 1983.

January 01, 2006|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — The sushi at the Bait Shoppe, a restaurant in the new Hooters Casino Hotel here, was only middling -- though at $5 per two-piece order, the price wasn't bad.

Anthony Curtis' verdict?

"You won't encounter big crowds here," he said, "so it could work as a quick midday sushi play."

Curtis polished off Hooters' $7 lobster wonton, too. But unlike the sushi, that didn't merit any mention in the Las Vegas Advisor, a quirky, chatty, retro-looking monthly newsletter that Curtis has published since 1983.

The guide is dedicated to the art of doing Las Vegas on the cheap.

For $50 a year, Curtis's 17,000 subscribers get, among other things, tips on meal deals, coupons for free show tickets, news about casino openings, and tabloid-style gossip about "whales" -- the industry nickname for major gamblers, people given to "opulence and extravagance and excess," as Curtis puts it.

The Advisor is not for whales.

From Hooters, Curtis, a wiry onetime middleweight wrestler at Duke who dropped out of college to become a professional gambler, shot over to the Dog House Cafe, an off-Strip hot-dog joint. He wanted to check out a tip on a two-for-one $2.75 special.

Curtis will go anywhere in Las Vegas to check out a bargain. His newsletter's most popular, venerable feature is the monthly "Top Ten Values" in town.

Atop December's list: the $4.95 complete steak dinner at Ellis Island Casino, the 99-cent shrimp cocktail at the Golden Gate Casino, the $2.49 ham-and-egg plate at Arizona Charlie's Decatur Casino and the free souvenir photo at the Imperial Palace Casino.

Curtis studied the Dog House menu -- "Las Vegas Gets a Taste of Chicago," it proclaimed -- and gave the reporter with him a choice. Take the Chicago dog (with mustard, onions, relish, tomatoes, pickles and peppers), or take the dog with chili and cheese. The reporter took the former.

"The Advisor always orders last," Curtis said with mock solemnity, and "he never orders what anyone else does." He downed the chili dog.

Back in his Ford Explorer, headed for the sports-book lounge at the Hilton, Curtis fretted over a demographic concern shared by many publishers: His subscriber base is aging.

Worse, he said, many younger people simply don't seem to share the satisfaction that older Americans -- raised during the Depression or raised by parents who were -- take in finding a bargain.

"The problem is, a lot of people don't seem quite as cost-conscious these days," he said. "Now it's, 'Damn the torpedoes, we're going to Las Vegas.' People just throw all caution to the winds.

"I'm still targeting the person who wants a deal," said Curtis, 48, who started the newsletter with a hand-crank mimeograph machine and help from his mother, back in his hometown of Dearborn, Mich.

For many, of course, Las Vegas is all about conspicuous consumption -- about throwing money around at flashy places like Bellagio or the Venetian.

But Curtis is more interested in the throwback version of Las Vegas, the cheaper haunts downtown or even miles from the Strip. The Advisor functions as a sort of consumer guide to them.

"I genuinely prefer it there," said Lolly Fegley of Huntington Beach, "there" referring to Sunset Station, Green Valley Ranch, the Orleans and Fiesta Henderson, all nonglam off-Strip hotels. "It's just a more laid-back atmosphere."

Fegley, 55, who makes 10 or so trips to Las Vegas annually, started subscribing to the Advisor in 1991 and has saved every issue.

"He's a wizard. He's my guru," Fegley said of Curtis. "The LVA is my bible. I love the man."

Sue Casey, 63, a secretary who lives in DesPlaines, Ill., and has traveled to Las Vegas two or three times a year for the last 20 years, said she found the sprawling new neighborhoods of Las Vegas more interesting than the tourist landmarks.

"I almost never go to the Strip anymore," said Casey, a longtime Advisor subscriber. "I'm just not comfortable in those fancy places. I'm really not."

Curtis' typical subscriber is an out-of-towner who comes to Vegas several times a year, he said, his biggest bases being Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles.

Like just about everybody else in publishing, he's launched a website -- generates about 15 million hits and 150,000 unique visitors a month, he said -- but he's a bit baffled by how to make real money from it.

"The model's going to have to change. I know it is," he said as he drove around town, gesticulating a lot and showing no ill effects of his sushi-wontonhot-dog lunch combo. (Curtis is an exercise nut, and a perpetual-motion machine even outside the gym. He's up at 4:30 a.m., clipping news columns and ads from the Vegas papers.)

"People don't want to pay for information on the Internet. You either evolve or you quit. I understand that."

Curtis posts plenty of free information on his website, but tries to persuade visitors to spend $37 for online-only access or $50 for a full subscription that includes the mailed newsletter.

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