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Casino stays in the game for a day

In a periodic ritual of Vegas, a gambling hall reopens for eight hours to keep its rights intact, then goes dark again.

September 23, 2008|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — The small casino is ringed with a fence topped with barbed wire. Its beige walls have browned from the punishing desert sun. Its bulbous canopies are torn, and the marquee is missing vowels. The front door is padlocked.

Before sunrise on a recent Thursday, a few workers open a side door to the ghostly building, near the County Jail in an unkempt pocket of downtown.

They crowd into a room that reeks of cigarette smoke. They fire up a generator, plug in a boom box and two air-conditioning units, and wheel in 16 video poker machines.

The Queen of Hearts opens -- beckoning gamblers once again.

The building's maintenance man tests his luck on the machines. He loses $5. For the next five hours, no one else walks in. Slot foreman Bob Bright slouches on a red vinyl bar stool, sips his Lipton iced tea and stares at the doorway. He drums his fingers on the white Formica bar, $20 in his pocket in case anyone wins.

"This is what I do," he says, shrugging. "I watch these slot machines."

Las Vegas casino openings typically demand red carpets, cocktail parties, celebrity guest lists and fireworks. But not so at the Queen of Hearts -- it's a one-day casino.

This spartan, eight-hour event is everything the Strip is not: small, unpretentious and quiet, with no crowds or drunks, no cocktail waitresses or high-rolling "whales," and no Midwestern tourists. It's common, and perfectly OK, for no gamblers to show up.

One-day casinos -- mandated by law for a handful of places that are closed but want to hang onto their gaming rights -- are governed by the same rules as high-end resorts with thousands of machines. They're the gambling industry's equivalent of a solar eclipse. They unfold a few times each year. They typically get some press, and people who stumble upon them are often befuddled but intrigued.

This morning at Queen of Hearts, the boom box plays Aretha Franklin. The air-conditioning units are struggling against 111-degree heat. Bright looks wilted -- and bored. He waits for someone, anyone, to dump money into a Gamblers Choice or 4-Way Double Bonus Poker machine.

At 11 a.m., a taxi driver named Michael Whiteley pokes his head in. He rents unit No. 3 of the attached Daisy Apartments. A neighbor had mentioned that something was happening at the casino, which has been closed for several years.

Whiteley, 59, sweats in a long-sleeved shirt, his face shaded by a New Orleans Saints ball cap. He stares at the machines, arranged in a U between a mirrored wall and the bar. Puzzled, he asks, "You open?"

Bright says: "Just for one day."

"Anybody hit the jackpot today?" Whiteley asks.

The Queen of Hearts, though vacant, is hugely valuable. Its owners are planning to swap the whole block for a city-owned parcel in an area slated for redevelopment; they want to build a resort.

In the meantime, the owners need to keep the property's gaming rights intact to maintain the property's value, estimated at $13 million to $15 million, which will allow them to trade for land of similar worth.

A state law adopted in the 1990s allowed only large resorts in Las Vegas to run 16 or more slot machines. But smaller operations, including the Queen of Hearts, were grandfathered in. To keep their gaming rights, they must offer eight hours of public gambling every two years -- even if the original casino has been closed or razed.

Opening the Queen of Hearts for a day costs $30,000, says Barnet Liberman, a managing director for co-owner LiveWork Las Vegas. It hired United Coin Machine Co., which runs most of the state's one-day casinos.

The firm gets permits from local and state officials that specify "1 Day Only" and trucks in the same games to each temporary casino. Most of the machines are at least a decade old, and their graphics resemble those of a Pac-Man arcade game.

A slot foreman, or manager, oversees the machines and the money locked in a black cash dispenser, which resembles a desktop computer's hard drive. The biggest one-day casino payout in memory, however, was $75.

The same drill applies to empty lots -- only the slot machines are housed in a trailer. In January, United Coin oversaw one such operation on 26 acres in east Las Vegas. The Review-Journal newspaper, in a nod to the property owner, Station Casinos Inc., dubbed the event "Trailer Station."

(Similarly, the Queen of Hearts must open its bar for one day each year; a bartender is hired and given a bottle to pour. During the last-go-round, the drink of choice was Jim Beam.)

Recently, the number of one-day casinos has jumped. There were three in 2004, five in 2006 and seven this year -- including one at the site of Las Vegas' first racially integrated casino, the Moulin Rouge. The reasons vary, but the sour economy, which has stalled construction projects along the Strip, has likely played a role. Many owners won't sell or build until real estate and credit markets rebound.

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