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Aug 17, 2004 7:04 AM

The skyrocketing popularity of poker has fueled an increase in the number of players, poker rooms, poker schools, poker dealers and playing cards used by casinos and card rooms.

With the average lifespan of playing cards lasting just 2 to 24 hours, casinos are always looking for ways to stretch the life of their decks, as well as economical ways to dispose of them.

At New York-New York, dealers go through more than 200 fresh decks every 24 hours. Each day, Caesars Palace cracks open nearly 300 decks just for baccarat. Last year, the Aladdin and the MGM Grand each bought more than 300,000 decks. Even the more cozy Palace Station deals 120 decks daily.

While most of the casino’s cards are used at the blackjack and baccarat tables, lesser games also inhale decks by the dozen. For instance, Caesars consumes about 48 decks a day at its Pai Gow, Caribbean Stud and other specialty tables daily.

Obviously, playing cards are tools of the trade for table games. They also comprise a multimillion-dollar trade for Las Vegas casinos and their vendors.

And in pursuit of quality, durability and security, there’s a never-ending game to "build a better mousetrap,’’ says Stan Espensheid, of U.S. Playing Card Co., the leading casino card supplier in Nevada.

From new synthetic table materials to state-of-the-art prism peekers that tell dealers what their hole card is without lifting it, casinos are constantly looking for ways to improve the gaming experience — and save money. It’s a crucial campaign because table games are being squeezed relentlessly by slot machines.

It’s not a nickel-and-dime rivalry. The Golden Nugget, for example, spends $20,000 a month just on cards (the average cost is 93¡ per deck). Many casinos recoup a portion of their costs by drilling holes or clipping the corners of used decks and reselling them in gift shops for around $2. New York-New York cards are said to be particularly coveted.

To increase longevity, most Strip resorts use shoes to extend card life as much as 24 hours. Automatic shufflers are also in play. But the slightest nick or dent sends cards out of commission. And manufacturers are continually devising new designs to thwart cheaters.

U.S. Playing Card’s Bee Brand recently introduced a white border with the back design shaded to the edge. Four small stingers appear in the corners, making the card subtly unique. Catering to superstitious Asian players, the ace of spades — a negative symbol — carries a beehive icon symbolizing good luck.

Once the cards are ready for retirement, most of them in Las Vegas are clipped or drilled then sold in vending machines or the hotel’s gift and logo shops. But other gaming venues discard decks in other ways.

Casinos in Canada often recycle their decks to service clubs (Rotary or Kinsmen), charities, churches, hospitals and senior centers.

In South Africa, gaming regulations require that de-commissioned decks be scanned to ensure no cards are missing, then the decks are shredded at the end of the day.

Some casinos in Europe require the cards be sorted before being destroyed, presumably to ensure no missing cards end up in cheaters’ hands. And one cruise ship operator gives old decks to passengers after they’ve been sorted and punched.

While cards have a short shelf life, table game layouts last about two or three months before they must be replaced. Caesars changes the cloth covers on its 80 tables every month. Likewise, the MGM makes replacements monthly. The Aladdin one year used more than 234 yards of felt to cover its tables.

"We’re always trying to improve the look and durability,’’ says a shift supervisor at New York-New York, which installs 300 new layouts a year.

Incidentally, the reason most table game layouts are green is because research has shown that green is easiest on the eyes.

Finally, some casinos even attach a level of security to their cards, dice and chips. MGM Mirage, for instance, has required that their vendors use specially sealed trucks to transport gaming supplies, with no stops allowed at other casinos.