Players, pundits scrutinize salons

Mar 4, 2003 6:18 AM

Contrary to published reports, at least two of three international gaming salons are open for business along the Las Vegas Strip.

Mandalay Bay and Caesars Palace say they have opened the doors to their exclusive high-limit rooms where players must have a minimum of $500,000 in cash or credit and bets start at $500 a hand.

But action is both slow and sporadic as the casinos’ coveted whales are fewer and farther between these days. The light traffic has been a disappointment to the three megaresorts that sought and received special waivers from state regulators to establish the private rooms.

Ironically, MGM Mirage, the company that lobbied hardest for legislative approval, has apparently fallen behind Mandalay and Caesars in its quest for high rollers. There have been no official reports of MGM Grand’s salon opening, and spokesmen did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Gaming Control Board Chairman Dennis Neilander said last week that he was aware of only one high-limit room ”” Mandalay’s ”” being open over Chinese New Year.

But Park Place Entertainment spokeswoman Debbie Munch told GamingToday that Caesars’ salon has also been dealing this year.

"When people request it, we open it. There’s no regular schedule,’’ she said.

Industry insiders say they are perplexed by the salons’ slow start. Casinos may be downright nervous.

After slashing minimum bet amounts from $20,000 to $500, casinos poured millions into their upscale wagering parlors. Caesars’ 3,000-square-foot enclave, for example, cost an estimated $15 million to build and wire, company officials said last year.

These moves were designed to lure publicity-shy high rollers from European and Asian casinos. So they built it. Now when will they come?

Bill Thompson, a UNLV professor who tracks gaming and public policy issues, says the salons have been hampered by regulatory red tape. Every time a room is opened or closed, for example, the casino must notify gaming agents by fax and phone.

"They’re a pain in the butt,’’ Thompson said of the surveillance and reporting rules. "The regulations are just stupid. The casinos got something they don’t want.’’

Thompson believes that the very rules that foster exclusivity also act as a barrier to players. "When you’ve got tuxedos outside and in the corners, it makes them feel uncomfortable,’’ he said.

"It would be better,’’ he said, "to just let everyone in.’’

  Meantime, lawmakers in Carson City are taking another look at the salons. And they want even more scrutiny.

Sen. Terry Care, D-Las Vegas, has requested a bill requiring specific disclosure of basic information about gaming winnings and the number of salon visitors.

The Gaming Control Board has also been asked by the Legislature to compile a report on the salons and their performance.