GamingToday celebrates first 25 years

Aug 1, 2001 2:00 AM

The Spirit of ’76: GamingToday carves its niche in the gaming industry
By David Stratton

            By all accounts, 1976 was a very good year. If not for the “blue-blooded girls who lived upstairs” that Frank Sinatra reminisced about, then for a national culture that was poised and primed to assault the final quarter of the 20th century.

            In 1976, the movie houses across the country were packed as “Rocky” was capturing the country’s imagination ”” as well as the Oscar for the year’s Best Motion Picture. And in Americas’ living rooms, Charlie’s Angels was capturing the country’s fancy as the hottest show on TV.

            In 1976, the country was in the midst of its Bicentennial Celebration and, while Las Vegas joined in with stage shows and music festivals, the city’s gaming industry was still in its Golden Age.

            Although Las Vegas had grown to become the largest city founded in the 20th century, it still had the feel of a frontier town that revered its Wild West heritage. There were no curfews then; no school nights. In 1976, there were no questions asked and none answered. There were no raised eyebrows, wrong family trees, improper academia, or out-of-place accents. Las Vegas was a wide-open town that welcomed anyone who had the will and the worth to make a name for himself.

            It was only fitting that, in the bicentennial celebration of a country founded “of the people, by the people and for the people,” a 41-year-old entrepreneur, Chuck Di Rocco, would launch a publication “of gaming, by gaming and for gaming.”

            With a background spanning newspaper journalism, promotion and public relations, Di Rocco came to Las Vegas with a wealth of experience in the thoroughbred and harness racing circles of Ohio, Kentucky, Delaware and Pennsylvania.

            He gained national prominence in the early 1960s when he pioneered the use of trading stamps at Latonia Race Course.

            Another of Di Rocco’s promotions made headlines when he arranged for a wedding in New York between a jockey and a girl who worked at the track’s hot dog stand. The ceremony took place in the paddock before a standing-room-only crowd of race fans and curiosity seekers who wanted to witness the much-hyped event. Fans were treated to a piece of the couple’s 750-pound birthday cake, and were serenaded by singers Frankie Laine and Chris Fio Rito.

            “I even had to comp a Midwest dentist/horseplayer to fly back and fix the bride’s teeth for free, so she’d look nice in the photographs,” Di Rocco recalls. “The marriage hit the rocks in six weeks ”” but that particular racetrack got gallons of free ink in newspapers across the country.”

            Despite his extensive background in publishing and the horse racing industry, Di Rocco’s beginnings in Las Vegas were humble. Starting a new publication from scratch, butting heads with two daily newspapers and establishing a staff wasn’t easy. He and his close-knit staff put together the newspaper in a small, second-floor office where columnists rubbed elbows with typesetters, ad salesmen, circulation managers and accountants.

            “I well remember the days, many of them somewhat gloomy,” Di Rocco says. “I got thrown out of the first racebook I visited after leaving the struggling new newspaper there.

            “But within a month,” he continues, “that book was telephoning me for full-page promotional advertising.”

            GamingToday ”” or Sports Form, as it was originally named ”” was never a mainstream newspaper. The weekly, tabloid-size newspaper was by design a niche publication that endeavored to deliver “News You Can Bet On.”

            In its earliest years, Sports Form focused its coverage on horse racing, sports gaming and entertainment. At the time, it featured a number of nationally known columnists and expert handicappers. In 1976, sports betting was a fledgling industry with only 12 sports books in Las Vegas. But that would change quickly as race and sports betting suddenly took off. There’s no doubt that Di Rocco’s Sports Form played a significant role through its coverage and support of the industry.

            Over the years, Di Rocco expanded the coverage of his newspaper. It wasn’t long before his columnists were writing about poker tournaments, blackjack strategy, the new electronic slot machines and the ever-evolving gaming industry.

            Financial information ”” gaming revenues, win and hold percentages, slot payback percentages ”” soon found its way into the publication, long before the “dailies” recognized the “news value” of gaming ­­information.

            In the early 1990s, Di Rocco debuted his column, Marker Down, which gave readers an insiders look into the gaming industry and the colorful characters that populated it. This year, Di Rocco and his Marker Down column will be honored by the Nevada Press Association as the best local columnist.

            In 1996, Di Rocco launched another column, Heard on the Strip, which took readers into the board rooms and CEO offices for behind-the-scenes look at the casino industry.

            GamingToday currently delivers information that any visitor to a Nevada casino could want: from casino games and tournaments to entertainment to sports betting to bargain dining, it’s all here.

            In addition, GamingToday provides insightful coverage of the casino and gaming industry. Current trends, new developments, people on the move and the latest innovations within the industry are chronicled in GamingToday’s Money Talk section, which occupies nearly one-third of the publication. And Di Rocco’s Heard on the Strip column is renowned for its inside information that is welcomed each week by dealers, casino managers, floor supervisors, chief operating officers, and even stock analysts and fund managers.

            It’s taken 25 years, but GamingToday has evolved into “The Bible” of the gaming industry. Most recently, Di Rocco has launched an online version of GamingToday which features the same extensive coverage, plus daily news updates, sports and betting information.

            In addition to its pioneering coverage of the gaming industry, GamingToday was the springboard for many pioneering writers and columnists. Huey Mahl’s analysis of games and gaming are as timely and relevant today as they were 15 years ago, and the insights that Lenny Frome offered about video poker and other topics have evolved into tenets that are adhered to years after his passing. (See our section of columns that have endured through the years.)

            GamingToday, and the coverage it has provided over the past 25 years “of, by and for” the gaming industry, has not gone unnoticed.

            GamingToday has a great job of covering the gaming industry,” says Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman. “In many ways it has become the Bible of Las Vegas gaming news. Readers can count on (Di Rocco) to give them the inside skinny with columns like Marker Down and Heard on the Strip.”

            And from Shannon Bybee, executive director of UNLV International Gaming Institute: “Chuck Di Rocco has made GamingToday a must read for those who want to be current on what is happening in the gaming industry.”

Heeding Horace Greeley’s advice
By Ray Poirier

            My friendship with Chuck Di Rocco precedes GamingToday, Sports Form or even Post Time (that’s what he called his first newspaper in Buffalo). We were both a couple of struggling young racetrack publicists when we met more than three decades ago through a wonderful organization called the U.S. Harness Publicists Association.

            The group, founded by harness racing’s brilliant mouthpiece, Stanley Bergstein, brought the nation’s harness racing tub thumpers together periodically to exchange promotional ideas. Honesty and integrity on the part of the participants and an atmosphere that fostered collegiality helped each of the members to see the value of certain promotions or the pitfalls of others.

            Even after Chuck had left the clan and followed the advice of Horace Greeley to “Go West, Young Man!,” we kept in touch, sometime meeting at major racing events or just chatting on the telephone, one his favorite activities.

            As his fortunes grew, as the publisher of Las Vegas’ finest gaming publication Sports Form and as the pioneer in disseminating race results through simulcasting, he was aware that mine had diminished since I had watched with teary-eyes Rockingham Park, where I had been general manager for eight years, burn down and effectively put my company, The N.H. Jockey Club, Inc., out of business. He knew also that I had spent several years with Ogden Foods at their plants in Boston and Collinsville, Ill., but then the trail grew cold.

            In a conversation with a mutual friend in late 1989, I learned that Chuck had inquired about me. I followed up with a telephone conversation that resulted in Chuck suggesting that I join his company, Dirson Enterprises. A weekend in Las Vegas was all it took to convince me to make the transition”¦a move I’ve never regretted.

            It was Charles Dickens revisited when I arrived on Feb. 1, 1990. It was the best of times because business at Dirson, and its various subsidiaries, was booming. It was the worse of times because Chuck was under pressure from gaming regulators and was involved in several lawsuits that put a lot of bread on the tables of area ­­lawyers.

            Times had to change and they did. Chuck sold his disseminating business and wire service to John Gaughan’s Las Vegas Dissemination Co.; gave up his gaming license and settled his lawsuits.

            But, as often happens in life, when one door closes another opens. That’s what happened with Chuck and his newspaper. Now able to apply more resources to his journalistic endeavors, Chuck transformed Sports Form into Gaming Today, the most comprehensive gaming newspaper in the country. Coverage was expanded to every possible form of gaming, including the activities on Wall Street.

            Soon industry executives insisted that the newspaper be placed on their desks the moment it arrived because they found news that affected them, their neighbors, their companies, their industry. They found that the best way to keep abreast of what was happening in gaming was to read GamingToday.

            On Wall Street, gaming analysts also discovered GamingToday. Not only did they read the paper religiously, they also found that a telephone call could often confirm or deny information they had received about a gaming ­­company.

            It was so effective that several years ago, Chuck put together the first gaming panel at the World Gaming Congress & Expo and brought together such well-known gaming analysts and financial personalities as Paul Kangas of the Nightly Business Report; Gene Marcial of Business Week; Jason Ader of Bear, Stearns Inc.; Harry Curtis of Robertson Stephens, and Joe Coccimiglio, formerly of Prudential Securities.

            One secret of Chuck’s success was his ability to hire some of America’s most respected gaming writers. During the past quarter century, nearly every major gaming writer has found his work printed on the pages of Sports Form/GamingToday.

            And, Chuck had his favorites. Among them were Steve Weller, a columnist that he befriended in Buffalo and who later moved on to write for the Fort Lauderdale Sun; and the man he termed his “resident genius” Huey Mahl. Both died too young but their words will live on forever in this newspaper’s archives.

            A few years ago, Chuck sponsored a football betting seminar featuring the highly-regarded handicapper, Jim Barnes. While planning the day’s event, Barnes told Chuck he would need someone to spell him during the course of the day and mentioned he would like to have Mahl. Chuck agreed to ask Mahl to participate.

            On the day of the event, Barnes spent the first two hours going over material he had gathered to focus on the coming football season. Then he announced that he would take a break.

            He then introduced Mahl.

            The entire gathering of more than 120 attendees jumped to their feet to give Mahl a standing ovation.

            That’s how much everyone thought of Mahl.

            I hope this anniversary issue will be a standing “O” for Chuck Di Rocco.

Earliest books were the place to be
By John Bennett

            The Rosebowl was a unique establishment, “unique” meaning, one and only; that was the Rosebowl. More than a place to make bets, it was a gathering place for Las Vegas residents of another era.

            Had Damon Runyon lived in the time of the Rosebowl, he would have material for a book, and had O’ Henry graced the Las Vegas scene, he could have written a thousand short stories.

            The Rosebowl Race book, which I managed in its early days, was situated on the “Strip” between the Sands Hotel and Desert Inn, and opposi