Gamers find new life in Deadwood

Aug 21, 2006 4:55 AM

Limited stakes gaming was legalized in Deadwood, South Dakota on Nov. 1, 1989. In fiscal year 1990, South Dakota slot machines, poker tables and blackjack had nearly $144 million in total gaming action. While during fiscal year 2005, the total gaming action had increased nearly five-fold to approximately $883 million.

Limited Stakes gaming’s raison d’etre was to fund historical preservation and bring back life to what had become a somewhat forgotten link to America’s turbulent past. To establish reference, Central City, Black Hawk, and Cripple Creek leveraged the success of Deadwood to push for limited stakes gaming to reach similar ends two years later in Colorado.

Like with Colorado, limited stakes gaming in Deadwood was initially established with an upper betting limit of $5 (per decision at a gaming position; e.g., $5 maximum bet in black jack or $5 maximum wager per spin on a slot machine). Of course, the innovators of casino table games marketing devised ways to put more money into action such as the introduction of Rainbow blackjack where a player could bet on another player’s decision and other various guises of multi-action blackjack.

After numerous proposals in South Dakota to raise the limit failed, during November of 2000, the limits were finally raised to $100. Unfortunately, at many casinos most recently personally experienced, the customer service levels were not elevated to follow suit.

While some of the "mom & pop" operations like the Iron Horse casino/café/ hotel do a tremendous job at providing genuine hospitality (simple and clean hotel rooms and tremendously tasty breakfasts), the larger, corporate owned entities seem not to exhibit the "down-home" level of welcoming that one would expect with this type of neo-authentic historic market.

This is a shame, but from multiple indicators, it seems that the service attitudes exhibited by line and mid-level staff is corrupted from a negative ethos held by upper management and ownership.

In short, the service levels demonstrated by some staff at the larger establishments during my visits declined from laid back to simply lazy. So, the advice offered is to stay clear away from some of the bigger operations that do not appreciate your business as much as the intimate boutique casinos do.

As is the experience with the Colorado "gaming" towns, fortunately there is plenty else to do besides gamble. Deadwood offers a plethora of non-gaming activities including daily re-enactment shootouts, interpretive actors gallivanting on the street, channeling some of the more infamous inhabitants such as "Wild Bill" Hickock, Jack McCall, Potato Creek Johnny, Deadwood Dick, Preacher Smith, and the never-fashionably dressed, Calamity Jane. (I think there may have been some gender identity issues with Calamity).

The Adams Museum and House is at the top of the list of must-sees because it provides a great overview of the Deadwood phenomena. With displays ranging from the bizarre curios (e.g., stuffed two headed calf and souvenirs from the darkest heart of Africa) to the original cards from "Wild Bill" Hickock’s "Dead Man’s Hand," this museum allows visitors to better understand the context of what else is to be encountered throughout the town and region.

There is even an actor by the name of Gordy Pratt who does an entertaining and informative singing-cowboy type show exploring the life of Sheriff Seth Bullock in the basement multi-purpose room at the museum.

On the topic of Seth Bullock, one may also take a tour of the allegedly haunted hotel that Seth Bullock owned and operated. The Moriah cemetery, Black Hills Mining Museum, Days of ’76 Museum, Saloon #10, Kevin Costner’s non-WaterWorld associated Tatanka — Story of the Bison and other locales harkening to the wild days of the old west are all worth the time and effort to visit.

One not so historically authentic or educational but absolutely delightful place to visit is the Celebrity Hotel & Casino where a mix of the Petersen Automotive Museum of Los Angeles and a hybrid of Hard Rock and Planet Hollywood may be enjoyed (

Finally, Deadwood sets a great example for the Colorado casino towns in the way they host numerous events, in cooperation with an extremely active chamber of commerce and tourism bureau, which work in synergy with what the town and region have to offer.

On the weekend of my visit, a Corvette Rally was in full rev. The highlight of the weekend, beyond the artistry of the all American sports car, was a sponsored concert of the Guess Who at the gigantic Passion Play center in nearby Spearfish.

With all this community does right, Deadwood serves as a continuing valid paradigm for the further development of gaming and non-gaming activity in the Colorado market.

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