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The name of the game

May 29, 2001 10:45 AM

In Vegas, smart players never buy retail.

From drinks to rooms to shows, comps are a way of life. Slot clubs and posh high-roller suites abound in greater numbers than ever.

But with the passing of the mob, the business of counting points and rating players has gone corporate. Ongoing consolidation of the gaming industry has been both a blessing and a curse - simultaneously linking more properties but affording fewer options overall.

Players who frequent Las Vegas resorts say good deals are out there just for the asking.

"Always ask for [comps]," advises Terry Wagner. "You never know when they will give them to you, and usually you’ll easily get comps for buffets and coffee shops with only one to two hours of play at, say, $5 average bets. At worst they will say, ”˜Sorry, you have to play some more.’"

By the same token, Wagner, a Philadelphia native who posts consumer tips on the Web as "Miss Craps," says only suckers play just for comps. "If they say you need to play longer to get one and you want to leave, leave. It’s silly to sit for half an hour betting $5 to $25 a hand only to get a comp for two $5 buffets.’’

"Some of those ”˜free’ T-shirts you see around town actually cost people $2,000," adds one longtime local card player.

Comp policies vary widely from casino to casino. Sometimes they even differ within a single chain of hotels. And the rules, ultimately, are flexible.

"It’s an arbitrary area. It depends totally on the player and the situation," said Lynn Holt, spokesman for the Aladdin.

Aside from slot club guidelines, which are spelled out in detail, casinos guard comp policies as state secrets. Information on player demographics and the number of cardholders is almost never divulged. "That would be revealing our database," said one gaming executive.

Nonetheless, the competition for high-end players has lifted the veil somewhat.

Two sets of high-roller suites - the Mansion at MGM Grand and the Villas at Bellagio - have been featured in news and television reports. These exclusive pads, ranging up to 12,000 square feet, are available gratis to million-dollar gamblers. MGM even furnishes one well-heeled player with a $200,000 Ferrari 456M.

Industry sources estimate there are no more than 1,000 high rollers who merit such pampering. So the real action is focused on lighter wallets. The Las Vegas Hilton, for example, has downscaled its Sky Villas, opening them to $250,000 players.

Think ”˜link’

In the meantime, resorts are enticing gamblers to up their bets. Harrah’s has established perhaps the most sophisticated network of players clubs that offer progressively more perks based on play. The "gold" tier gives retail discounts and priority access to rooms and shows. The "platinum" level adds priority check-in and preferred restaurant and seating. The "Diamond Club" brings personal VIP hosts, free room upgrades and show tickets.

Seamlessly linking its 18 resorts, Harrah’s allows players to accumulate points and move up in the comp standings. The company also has corporate tie-ins with Visa card, Hertz and others companies where outside purchases net additional credits.

Station Casinos also links its properties with its Boarding Pass program (the newly acquired Fiesta and Reserve remain separate). "Harrah’s is the national model, we’re the local model,’’ says Station spokesman Jack Taylor.

Park Place Entertainment, the world’s largest gaming company, expects to launch "inter-property recognition" at its local resorts in the third quarter, corporate spokeswoman Debbie Munch says. By the fourth quarter, she said points will be collected and consolidated among Park Place’s Las Vegas properties. Munch said there are no plans yet for linkage on a national level like Harrah’s.

But bigger doesn’t always mean better. Amid ongoing consolidation, comps vary widely - even among the same corporate properties. Wagner played dollar slots at Harrah’s for two hours and received a $15 food comp. Six hours of equivalent play at the Rio yielded more than $100 in food comps and $30 cash. (Others, however, report that the Rio hasn’t been nearly so generous.)

Players say it’s important to get on mailing lists to maximize comp potential. Locals, who often get different offers than out-of-towners, routinely receive coupons for three- or four-times slot points. Out-of-towners, meantime, may get coupon sheets good for $25 plus free dinners and free rooms.

To get on the gravy train, table players, including keno players, should ask to be rated whenever and wherever they sit down. Veteran bettors say the request should be made to the floor person/pit boss who works behind the dealer.

Join the club

Whatever the game and wherever the property, savvy bettors advise joining the slot club first thing. Even for non-slot players, that gets you onto comp lists. And some of those lists have a long shelf life.

"My husband and I joined the Flamingo Hilton slot club, played about five minutes and left. About two years later we got a mailing offering us two free nights, two dinners and two show tickets," Wagner recalls. "We used them last year during the Consumer Electronics Show."

Slot pros recommend getting sets of two or more cards and giving one to a friend or spouse. Players will also put their extra card into an adjacent machine; if someone sits down without a card they’re playing for them.

Jean Scott, author of The Frugal Gambler, puts it bluntly: "If you put any money in that slot machine [before joining a slot club], why don’t you just first go up to your room, open the window and throw your money out, because that’s what you’re doing."

So is there really such a thing as a free lunch ”¦ or suite?

Sure there is, but slot and table aficionados say that where you play determines the size of the deal.

(NEXT WEEK: The best bets for comps.)