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Las Vegas

We sent our
“high roller”
reporter to the
famed Strip to
lift the veil on
the casinos
by robert Kiener

Casinos vie
for monied
guests from
around the

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I don’t gamble. I am not overly on the day before Christmas, a Paiza
Club guest asked Wong if he could
expert David G. Schwartz, PhD, at the
Caesars Palace casino. Schwartz has
fond of crowds. Not a big fan of Wayne arrange a private Christmas show,
complete with a piano and a singing
written widely on the history and psy-
chology of gambling and is director
Newton or Celine Dion. And my idea of Santa Claus, for the next day. The only of the Center for Gaming Research at

the perfect vacation is lying on a nearly problem is that Las Vegas shows are
“dark,” or closed, on Christmas and
the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
He has agreed to give me an “insider’s
deserted palm-fringed beach away entertainers take the day off. “But we
don’t know the meaning of no,” says
tour” of the casino.
Casinos are designed to separate
from it all. So I’ve come to Las Wong. The next day the high roller
got his private Christmas pageant,
gamblers from their money. As we
walk through the glitzy Caesar’s
Vegas for a week.

including the singing Santa. Palace casino, Schwartz admits, “Ca-
sino design is more of an art than a
To see how the other half, or the science.” Casino owners employ a diz-
My mission is straightforward. A in this club, 80 percent of whom are other 99 percent, of Las Vegas gambles zying array of experts, from interior
first-time visitor, I want to peel back Asian, pay nothing, the price of ad- and to learn how the casinos coax ev- designers to psychologists to gaming
the façade and see what makes Las mission is steep. “Our guests have at ery cent out of them, I meet gambling mathematicians, to perfect that pro-
Vegas tick. I plan to go behind the least one million dollars on account
scenes at some of the town’s most fa- with us,” explains Ken Wong, the
mous casinos to get the inside dope club’s executive director. There are
on the city that, as Frank Sinatra once fewer than 1000 of these mega-rich
said in a film, “is the only place where gamblers around the world, and com-
money really talks. It says goodbye.” petition for them among the premiere
I am starting at the top, literally. casinos is intense. “We all know who
After being escorted up an elevator, the whales are,” says Wong. “And we
through a series of locked, unmarked all go after them. Admission is strictly
doors, I am welcomed into the Palazzo by invitation only.”
Hotel’s ultra-exclusive Paiza Club on The Palazzo, like several other casi-
the 50th floor. Overlooking the fabled nos, has its own fleet of corporate jets
Las Vegas Strip, this richly paneled to ferry the whales from their home
club is off limits to all but the richest countries to Las Vegas. Around-the-
gamblers in the world; the so-called clock chef service, fresh food flown
“whales,” or “high rollers” who reg- in via private jet from Asia, a staff of
ularly gamble tens of thousands of dozens of multi-lingual butlers, and
dollars on a roll of the dice or turn of televisions tuned to Hong Kong, Japa-
This iconic sign
a card. Baccarat is the game of choice. nese and Chinese television stations
has welcomed
However, for the regular who has a help the high rollers feel at home. visitors to the
fondness for slot machines, the casino “We cater to our guests’ every Strip for more
will bring up its most expensive one- whim,” says Wong. He will person- than 50 years.
armed bandit; $500 per pull. ally search out the best bird’s nest
Although the elite guests who stay soup in Asia for his whales. Recently,
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What a
million close a gambler can come to winning. bet. On every pull, 24 hours a day.
dollars’ worth It’s psychology 101. Schwartz spots the “Big Six,” the
of chips looks Even the noise is regulated. “The spinning wheel also known as “the
like. casino ratchets up the noise of the Wheel of Fortune.” He points out
slots to maintain a level of excite- that it’s in a high-traffic area and is
ment,” says Schwartz. He shows me a shunned by knowledgeable gamblers.
slot machine that pays out with a re- “That’s because this has about the
deemable ticket instead of coins. But worst house advantage of any game
as the machine spits out the printed on the floor. It’s pretty much for nov-
ticket it also emits the sound of coins ices only.”
spilling into a tray. More psychology. Some slots pay out small, frequent
Casinos have also experimented payments to create the feeling that the
with scent; after spraying a group player is winning while he keeps los-
of Vegas slot machines with a floral ing. More psychology.
scent, researchers noted a 45
percent jump in the amount
cess. No detail escapes their attention.
Ceilings are usually low to create a
to their rooms. That’s by design. Once
in their rooms, visitors may notice
gambled. Slot machines that
are “loose,” meaning they
more intimate space for gamblers. there are no coffee makers. That’s to pay off more often than oth- If you want to win big in Las Vegas,
Planners usually opt for curved lines lure guests downstairs to the restau- ers, are supposedly often it helps to know the language.
instead of straight passageways; these rant. And to get there they will have located in high traffic areas.
encourage guests to explore. to again walk through the casino. Because slot machines on High Roller: Big Hold: The opposite of
Often there are few or no benches I notice there are no clocks or win- Las Vegas’s Strip produce, gamblers, also known as “payout”—the percent-
“whales” age the casino keeps
or sofas in public areas; if you’re sit- dows. Casinos don’t want to detract on average, more than half
ting you’re not generating revenue. gamblers’ attention from the business of a casino’s revenues, they Loose: Used to describe Shoe: The container
a slot machine that is that holds the cards at
Red, long considered a lucky color, at hand. As some note, there’s no day- are carefully monitored. blackjack
thought to pay out more
and gold, a sign of wealth, are fa- time or nighttime in a casino, there’s Each machine is controlled than others Dark: Vegas-speak for
vored design colors. Blue is a no-no. just “gambling time.” Others claim by a random-operating com- “closed”
Tight: Slot machines
(It makes everyone look pale or sick, that’s also why there are few mirrors puter chip that pays out at that pay out less than Pit Boss: The employee
which can affect their mood and will- in casinos; management wants a gam- a predetermined rate. The others in charge of the dealers
ingness to gamble.) Others explain bler to think he’s James Bond, not a revolving cylinders are just Eye in the sky: The Box man: Casino em-
that the ornate designs add to the ex- pudgy guy from Iowa City who’s los- for show. casino’s overhead security ployee who handles the
citement factor of being in a casino. ing money on the slots. The state-wide average and surveillance cameras cash at the craps table
As he points out the colorful carpet, Schwartz and I pause in front of a payout is 93.9 percent; that is, Comp: Short for “compli- Stick man: Casino
Schwartz tells me, “Casino design- loudly whirring “ching-ching-ching” for every dollar wagered, the mentary,” as in free rooms staffer using a long stick
ers want to make these surroundings slot machine and watch a woman fe- casino keeps about 6 cents. or drinks offered by casi- to retrieve dice at the
look as far removed from your home verishly hitting the machine’s buttons. “The average ‘slot hold’ on nos to favored customers craps table
as possible.” After several “pulls” Schwartz asks the Strip is over 7 percent,” Payout: The percent- “Hit me:” Casino-speak
Usually, guests have to walk through me, “Did you notice how often she al- says Schwartz. That means age a gambling game for “Give me another
returns—on average—to card”
the casino, full of noisy, colorful, at- most hit a jackpot? That’s by design.” the casinos keep a little over the customer
tention-getting slot machines, to get The machines are built to show how seven cents of every dollar
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As we continue our good guys and try to catch the bad happened seconds or days ago by
tour of Caesars Palace guys.” (To gain entry, I’ve agreed not pressing a few buttons. “Cheaters hate
casino, we watch a craps to disclose all of the secrets I will this new technology,” says Flynn.
dealer ending his shift learn about.) While all these cameras may seem
by looking up in the air, Several surveillance agents sit in oppressive to some, they are there,
clapping his hands, out- front of a bank of more than a dozen explains Flynn, “To preserve the in-
stretching his arms and giant screens that relay real-time tegrity of the game and protect the
turning his hands both video of the hotel’s several thousand guests.” Indeed, studies have shown
sides up. “He’s ‘clap- cameras. These agents are experts that one of the “best” places to have
ping out’, showing the in casino cheating; they are adept at a heart attack is in a Las Vegas casino.
surveillance team, who spotting everything from card coun- Because security guards are continu-
are watching on digital ters to chip stealers to card swappers. ously scanning the casino, if a visitor
camera, that he has noth- Each gaming table has multiple cam- collapses security personnel should
ing in his hands,” says eras trained on it, watching the game, notice it right away and be able to
Schwartz. He points out the players and the dealers. If a casino administer first aid. The heart attack
the apron-like wrap the pit boss sees something suspicious, survival rate in Las Vegas is more than
dealers wear to prevent he’ll phone the surveillance agent and 50 percent, compared to 30 percent
them from slipping any- ask him to train his cameras on the in Seattle or just one to two percent
thing into their pockets. suspect gambler. Mostly, they look for in New York City. Finally, Vegas gam-
“It’s like what you see “tells,” actions that don’t look right. blers have some odds in their favor.
in the movies,” he con- Caesar’s Palace Say a crooked gambler wins a bet
tinues. “The stick man has the highest and tries to slip a $100 chip under By the end of my week in Vegas I’ve
watches the dice, the betting limits, the $25 chip he actually bet, a move learned the difference between a
dealer watches the table, says President called “bet switching.” “Our people whale, a stickman and a box man and
the box man watches the Gary Selesner. know just what to look for and we’ve why it’s just about impossible to get
players, the floor person got the cameras to help,” says Flynn anything past the eye in the sky. But
watches several games as he asks an agent to use a joystick I’ve yet to place a bet.
and the pit boss watches everyone, cajoling, but Caesars Palace has fi- to demonstrate how powerful and I know, after talking with Caesars
while the “eye in the sky” watches ev- nally granted me a visit to the inner precise the casino’s digital cameras, Palace President Gary Selesner, that
erything. And I’ll bet they’re watching sanctum, the world-famous hotel and called “eyes in the sky,” are. the casino is famous for having the
us right now.” casino’s main surveillance room, off First, he zooms in on a craps table highest gambling limits on the Strip.
When I mention to Schwartz, who limits to 99.9 percent of the world. It’s (close) and a mustachioed gambler “We’ll let a Baccarat high roller bet
used to work in casino surveillance, been worth the wait. (closer) holding a fifty-dollar bill in $200,000 a hand, a blackjack player
that I hope to get a behind-the-scenes At the end of a long, nondescript his right hand (closest). The camera is wager $50,000 a hand and a roulette
look at the casino’s surveillance room, corridor, hidden away in the bowels of so powerful I can read the bill’s serial player bet $3000 a spot,” he tells me.
he smiles and tells me, “That’s a tough the organization’s marketing and sales number. Another side-angle camera I head for the penny slots. A half
one. Hardly anyone gets in there. It’s department, I am ushered through an allows the operator to see the number hour later I’m down $17.70. Ol’ Blue
like Fort Knox.” unmarked, double-locked door. “Wel- and value of chips in a stack. Eyes was right; Las Vegas is the only
come to what we call ‘The Eye’,” says All of this action is now digitized place where money really talks. It re-
Finally, I’m in. It’s taken a lot of con- Tom Flynn, the hotel’s VP of surveil- and saved on computer servers. Flynn ally does say goodbye. Take it from a
vincing, a bit of pleading and some lance. “This is where we protect the and his team can replay a scene that high roller like me.
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