Harrah’s betting on Indy casino

May 16, 2006 2:56 AM

Harrah’s clearly raised some eyebrows among analysts with a recent decision to spend nearly half a billion dollars improving its Hammond, Indiana, casino.

Since when does a riverboat rate this kind of spending?

But the big thinkers at Harrah’s see this former Horseshoe property as an extraordinary revenue producer in an extraordinary market.

Hammond is not your granddaddy’s kind of riverboat casino. Harrah’s CEO Gary Loveman describes it as a 30- to 45-minute drive from thousands of people who have already shown by virtue of their spending that they like what the casino has to offer.

Hammond is the closest of all "Chicago land" casinos to downtown Chicago, yet the property is a relatively unassuming one, what Loveman characterized as a "first generation riverboat."

But not for long. Harrah’s is readying a heavy dose of steroids, figuratively speaking, expanding or improving facilities at every level.

The size of the casino will be doubled to about 180,000 square feet, making the gaming area one of the largest casinos anywhere in the country. Planners expect to roughly double the number of slots and table games, and add live poker for the first time.

The importance of the latter cannot be over-stated. After all, Harrah’s owns the World Series of Poker and would like to schedule one of its WSOP Circuit events and probably other poker promotions within an easy drive of the massive Chicago market.

Also on the list of upcoming features at Hammond is a 2,500-seat all-purpose theater, an unprecedented facility for a so-called riverboat casino.

The level of investment in this Indiana casino that is on the front step of the lucrative Chicago metropolitan market is a clear indication that Harrah’s has far more confidence in the stability of the Indiana business climate than it does in Illinois.

"You have to remember, the Chicago land market is a spectacular market," Loveman said adding that it is "encumbered by irrational politicians who live largely to the west side of that market."

There’s no mistaking Loveman’s clear shot at the politicians in Springfield and elsewhere in Illinois who have seldom missed a chance to criticize the gaming industry or burden it with a back-breaking tax load.

Conversely in Indiana, according to Loveman, "We have a terrific location and we have a terrific governor and a very high-quality regulatory regime."

Ergo, why not spend all that capital expansion money where it gets some respect.

That’s a rhetorical question, by the way, because the decision has been made.

Poker players seek
TV network deal

Poker’s next big shot at prime time television exposure for its biggest names may be just a few months down the line.

Chip Reese is reportedly leading an effort to organize what has been characterized as a league that would provide a prime time television stage for a number of poker’s most respected players.

The thinking is that these stars are the players most viewers of television poker want to see.

Reese, who is one of the most highly regarded cash game players of all time, has been described as a principal mover in the effort to get the "league" off the ground.

Whatever the final arrangements may be, several sources believe the end result will include a major television deal and an affiliation with The Venetian, which spent a lot of money on its recently opened poker room

Reese did not confirm or deny any of this, saying only that an announcement has been scheduled for early September. He refused to comment beyond that.

So who are these big names?

Daniel Negreanu, a former player of the year, and one of poker’s best known personalities, confirmed that he expects to be involved and that Reese is "at the helm."

Beyond this there was little he was able to add, but Negreanu suggested that exclusivity arrangements of any kind are still very much up in the air.

That’s understandable since most of the biggest names in poker have developed a number of business connections as the poker boom has created business opportunities that range from website affiliations to product endorsements.

Other highly regarded sources suggest that at least some of the most visible poker pros may be guaranteed payments that would mean, in effect, that if you want to see them play on television you’ll have to tune to whatever channel is featuring the "league" or whatever the eventual designation may be.