Posts tagged life in vegas

What Atlantic City Needs to Learn From Las Vegas | Vegas Seven

As an Atlantic  City native and an observer of the casino scene, I’ve gotten asked my opinion on what’s happening there. I’m glad to have the chance to write a column that summarizes how I feel. It’s a bit of a history lesson and a cautionary tale:

Atlantic City casinos prospered in those years because they were the only game not just in town, but in the entire eastern half of the country. Within five years of New Jersey voters approving gaming, nine hotel-casinos were in operation, drawing 19 million visitors to the formerly moribund seaside resort, employing 30,000 people, and pulling in more than $1 billion a year.

via What Atlantic City Needs to Learn From Las Vegas | Vegas Seven

I’ll probably do some more writing about Atlantic City–well, that’s as sure a bet as there is–but this is how I feel about it right now.

Book Review: Hit Me

Danielle Gomes and Jay Bonansinga. Hit Me: Fighting the Las Vegas Mob by the Numbers. Guilford, Connecticut: Globe Pequot Press, 2013. 301 pages.

One of the most-asked questions for people who study Las Vegas history is “How did the mob get kicked out of the casino industry?” This book tells you a major part of that story from a man who was a key part of that process.

Full disclosure: I worked for Dennis Gomes in 1994/95 at the Trump Taj Mahal casino, though since I was a line employee and he was the property president, we didn’t interact much. I also gave the author, Danielle Gomes, some (free) research assistance with the book at UNLV.

HIT ME is a very personal story. Danielle based the book on her father’s notes, investigations, and recollections of his time as audit chief of the Nevada Gaming Control Board in the 1970s. These were crucial years, when the pressure to remove organized crime from the casino industry was building, yet many in the state preferred a “business as usual” policy. By the end of the decade, federal action, in particular the Strawman investigation, would do a great deal to banish the mob from the industry, and Gomes’ work at audit provides a glimpse into just how entrenched mob-related figures were at certain casinos and just how difficult it was for state investigators to pry them out.

The book’s most valuable quality, for me, is that it provides an insider’s look into the regulators-vs-mob struggle in a way that few other accounts have. Often you get the impression that the forces confronting the mob were brilliantly organized and had unlimited resources, but Gomes’s account of the GCB in those years seems anything but. Obviously, this is based on one man’s story, and those at other places in the organization may have something different to say (more on that later), but the inside look into one entrepreneurial division of the GCB provides a unique perspective. In some ways, Gomes and his crew seem more like a regulatory start-up—under-funded and constantly scrambling—than part of the oldest casino regulatory regime in the United States.

In the past few weeks, HIT ME has been in the news in Las Vegas. One of the figures mentioned in the book, a former governor, took issue with the impression given in the book that he was less than diligent in prosecuting those Gomes alleged to be associated with organized crime. That’s a reminder that this isn’t ancient history, and that, while everyone agrees that the industry is better off for having put its mob days behind it (well, expect for the people who think Las Vegas was better “when the mob ran the town”), this is still a very touchy subject.

The key to reading this book is to understanding it as the story of Dennis Gomes’s part in the fight against organized crime in Nevada gaming. You are seeing things through his eyes. I’ve been studying this stuff for a long time now, and I learned more than a few things reading HIT ME. Personally, I found the material on Jay Vandermark and several slot skimming investigations fascinating. It’s rare that a book like this handles the subject in so much detail, and Gomes really gives you a sense of just how ingenious the skimmers could be.

Overall, I found this an honest and gripping account of Gomes’s years with the audit division and his struggle to clean up Nevada casinos. Is this the last word on the topic? Likely not, and I’m sure there are many other people active in those years and later who could offer their own perspective on that time. For now, HIT ME has added a great deal of depth to our understanding of Nevada casino regulation in the 1970s. This is a book that anyone who is interested in Las Vegas casino history should read.

Go here to see Hit Me on Amazon.

Live After Death in Vegas Seven

I’ve got the cover story in this week’s Vegas Seven. It’s a piece that I worked on a quite a while under the astute editorial eye of Greg Blake Miller, in which I come to grips with why people come to Vegas to see dead people:

The Mob Museum’s Feb. 14 debut was another reminder of Las Vegas’ longstanding penchant—one might even call it a skill—for raising the dead and recycling the past. People used to joke that Vegas was where show business careers went to die, though just as often it’s been the place where, having died, they rise again in tribute shows and improbable cults of personality. Sometimes it feels as if the Rat Pack really is back. In a way, there’s not much separating the stage icons who have returned from the dead to entertain Las Vegas audiences from the rubbed-out wiseguys whose careers the Mob Museum chronicles. Both return from a troubled reality to fulfill our longing for—or at least fascination with—a burnished past. Michael Jackson might not have had a made man’s swagger, and Bugsy Siegel surely never moon-walked, but the two have this in common: They’re worth more to Las Vegas dead than alive

via Live After Death | Vegas Seven.

I haven’t gotten the chance to do much of this kind of writing before. Don’t get me wrong, I like the more straight-forward “telling people’s stories” material I usually do, but I wanted to try something more ambitious where I got to use some of my more academic analytic sensibilities but for a broader audience.

A few things inspired me to write this piece: the macabre attractions at Luxor, which got me thinking about Iron Maiden’s Live After Death; the Michael Jackson billboard, which reminded me of Live After Death’s cover; Elvis impersonators; the fizzling of “Viva Elvis;” and the obsession with mobsters.

It’s fun to be able to bounce from H. P. Lovecraft to mobsters to Frank Sinatra to Michael Jackson and back again, and close with a reference to It’s a Wonderful Life. And that’s just the first paragraph. I also got to make an Anthrax reference, probably my first in print, and even worked Bob Stupak into the mix along the way.

Hopefully this gets a good reception and I get to do more of it in the future. Thanks for reading it.

We’re no longer number one! in the LVBP

I’ve got a new piece in the Las Vegas Business Press about how Las Vegas is going to have to adjust to no longer being number one in gaming:

In June, Macau casinos took in about $2.6 billion in revenues, an increase of more than 50 percent from the previous year. This achievement highlights the dominant place that Macau has taken in the gaming world, and is another reminder that Las Vegas isn’t what it used to be … and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

via Las Vegas Business Press :: David G. Schwartz : Slip in gambling rankings not bad thing for Vegas.

It’s been a while since Macau knocked Las Vegas out of that number one spot, but I really think it has just begun to sink in. Hopefully now we can start moving forward, to whatever the future holds.

Which will we see first? in Two Way Hard Three

In case you missed it, I’ve got a slightly-more-serious but still fun piece up on Two Way Hard Three about various longshots on the Las Vegas Strip:

With a renewed push for a casino smoking ban in Nevada, I go to thinking: which would happen first–no smoking in a casino, or a casino dress code? They are both changes that some people think would improve the casino experience, but would probably be fought tooth and nail by most operators. I just can’t see them turning away a player because he’s in a t-shirt instead of a sportcoat, or because he wants to smoke.

Still, I thought it would be interesting to consider which of these following scenarios might happen first.

via Which will we see first? | Two Way Hard Three | Las Vegas Casino & Design Blog | from ratevegas.com.

It’s just a thought exercise, but I think it’s useful to try to see around the corner and predict what’s going to happen. It’s obvious that the status quo isn’t going to continue forever, so it’s interesting to try to guess what’s going to stay and what’s going to go.

Wynn & China on Two Way Hard Three

In case you missed it, I posted a piece yesterday on Two Way Hard Three talking about Wynn Resorts and China:

In today’s flurry of email headlines (which continue whether I’m in the office or not) I read a blurb saying that Wynn Resorts “has become”; a Chinese company. Certainly this is no surprise to Wynn. I remember him saying that as far back as 2005, though then it was more along the lines of, “One day Wynn Resorts will be a Chinese company.”

Of course, this is getting press now since it’s being coupled with his criticisms of the Obama administration, but looking at the numbers, it’s clear that Wynn Resorts has been a predominantly Chinese company for quite some time.

via Wynn’s a Chinese company, now more than ever | Two Way Hard Three | Las Vegas Casino & Design Blog | from ratevegas.com.

Check it out, if only for the neat little charts. I managed to cut out one step in producing those charts, so I’m pretty excited about them.

Requiem for (a Vegas) Methuselah

It’s pretty rare for a Strip casino to get knocked out. Sure, more than a few have taken the standing eight count of bankruptcy, but usually, no matter how far in debt a casino gets, it produces enough cash flow that the lenders would rather see it open than closed.

The Sahara’s scheduled May closure, however, is as bad as it gets. Not only has the current owners’ business model gone belly-up; they can’t persuade anyone else to take the casino off their hands, make a few changes, and hopefully ride out the storm.

By a strange coincidence, I just talked about the Sahara in my GAM 495: History of Casinos class, so its history is fresh in my memory.

The property opened as the Club Bingo, a 300-seat bingo parlor, on July 24, 1947. To put it in perspective, the first Strip resort, the El Rancho Vegas, had been open six years (and was right across what was then called the “Los Angeles Highway”). Further south, the Last Frontier was just starting to assemble the Last Frontier Village, and the Flamingo was barely a half-year old. Local builder Marion Hicks was putting together the Thunderbird with a little help from “the Big Juice” Clifford Jones (then the state’s Lt. Governor) and, it was later learned, Meyer Lansky.

When the Club Bingo was remodeled, expanded, and rebranded as the Sahara in 1952, it was the first Vegas rebirth. In the past few years we’ve seen the San Remo get some plastic surgery and re-emerge as Hooters, and the Aladdin turn into Planet Hollywood. The Sahara was there first.

So the Sahara officially opened, as the Sahara, on October 7, 1952. The Desert Inn had opened a few months earlier, and Moe Dalitz and Allard Roen were just starting to kick around the idea of a golf course. Jake Freedman and Jack Entratter were watching the Sands take shape; it would open that December. People were just starting to call the stretch of road with all that construction “the Strip” instead of “Highway 91.”

And the Sahara saw booms and busts, right from the start. It did so well that it added rooms a year after its opening When several casinos declared bankruptcy in the aftermath of 1955’s over-expansive boom, the Sahara soldiered on. Not every casino made it out of that slump intact, but the Sahara did.

The 1960s might have been the golden age of the Sahara. For the price of a drink, Don Rickles would insult you in the Casbar Lounge. But the story beneath the surface was even more interesting. In 1961, Del Webb acquired the casino from Milton Prell and his partners, becoming the first publicly-traded corporation to own a Nevada casino. Because of the restrictive gaming ownership laws of the time, they had to create a series of shell operating companies, but this was a real milestone.

Architect Martin Stern, Jr., raised the Sahara’s profile with two tower expansions in the early 1960s, putting the Sahara at the cutting edge of casino resort design. He applied some of the lessons he learned there in the iconic Sands tower and the International (1969) and original MGM Grand (1973).

In its later years, the Sahara coasted along, drifting further into the value-oriented market, but filling an important niche in Las Vegas nonetheless. The casino’s closing, no matter how you try to spin it, is awful news and a real loss to the city.

Station hiring in Vegas Seven

It’s Thursday, which means another Green Felt Journal is available for your reading pleasure in Vegas Seven. This one is a look behind Station Casino’s recent hiring push:

The local employment picture has been a dire one. In the past five years, the unemployment rate has more than tripled. That’s why a local company hiring 1,000 new employees is pretty good news.

Of course, even 1,000 jobs hardly puts a dent in the unemployment picture. With more than 140,000 Las Vegans out of work, even if every casino in town added 1,000 workers—and that’s just not going to happen—we’d still have an unemployment rate higher than it was four years ago.

More significant is what these hires say about the near-future of the Valley—and the nature of casino work.

via Station’s math: More employees mean more business | Vegas Seven.

The jobs themselves mean a lot, particularly to the people who got hired, but I think that long-term the more significant thing we can parse from this development is that we might be seeing a reverse of the trend towards fewer employees per position.

With 140,000 people out of work, though, even that’s not going to help really “put Las Vegas back to work.” All of the casinos in Clark County employ about 147,000 people. They’d each have to double their payrolls to solve the unemployment problem, and that’s clearly never going to happen. Moderately higher staffing levels across the industry will create a few thousand more jobs, but clearly Las Vegas is going to have to diversify.

New Podcast: RJ Rowley’s talk

Today I was fortunate to hear one of the best Gaming Colloquium talks we’ve had in a while: RJ Rowley talking about locals casinos in Las Vegas. Here’s the info you need:

26-January 25, 2011
RJ Rowley, Assistant Professor, University of Wisconsin-Platteville
“Neon Beyond the Neon: The Geography of Locals Casinos”
In this talk, Rowley discusses his research into the origins of the locals casino phenomenon in Las Vegas. Locals casinos, which cater primarily to residents of the city rather than tourists, date from the 1970s and are a characteristic development of the local landscape. Rowley also links the expansion of the locals gaming market with the proliferation of casino gambling across the United States.

Listen to the audio file (mp3)

View flyer (pdf)

UNLV Gaming Podcasts

If I have time before class, I’ll upload his two maps. Otherwise, I’ll do it tomorrow.

This was a great talk, and a wonderful start to 2011 for the podcast series. I’m chasing a few big interviews which will hopefully materialize soon.

Is the party really over?

Interesting column in The Economist that I don’t necessarily agree with:

More important, few residents of Las Vegas would any longer agree that their city is either great or happy.

Nevada has America’s highest unemployment rate. In Las Vegas, unemployment has risen more this year even as it has flattened in the rest of the country; it peaked at 15.5% in September. Nevada also has America’s highest foreclosure rate. In Las Vegas more than 70% of homeowners with mortgages owe more to the bank than their houses are worth. This desert valley, which once represented the most extreme pleasures in American consumerism, now has the most severe hangover.

via Las Vegas in crisis: Party over | The Economist.

There’s a lot of truth in this article, but the perspective is just slightly wrong. And that makes all the difference.

For instance, the author says that “Tourists are now returning, but in numbers too small” to help Las Vegas. While it’s true that the average spend per visitor has fallen, visitation actually rose in 2010. This would have been a more accurate article a year ago, but even then I’d insist the real story wasn’t that Vegas visitation had fallen, but that it was so resilient. At the (hopefully) tail end of the worst recession in sixty years, 37 million people still came to Las Vegas this year. Surely, that’s got to count for something.

And I take issue with the idea of an “existential” crisis for Las Vegas. Yes, I do believe that it’s possible that the rapid devaluation of people’s net work over the past three years has probably made them more risk averse, or “gun shy,” as I was quoted as saying. But the fact is, they are still coming to Las Vegas, which means that the city doesn’t have a major crisis of existence.

Even my theory, as logical as it sounds, is just a theory, and will never be a fact. As I explained to the reporter, it’s impossible to falsify a claim like that–you would have to have done measures of risk tolerance among people coming to Las Vegas in, say, 2006, then re-done studies on the same people this year. And since it can’t be falsified, it can’t be “true” in the way that 2+2=4 is. So, as I said, it’s the kind of thing that I’ll bring up at cocktail parties if people ask for a pop psychology explanation of what’s going on, but I can’t really say if that’s the reason for falling table hold percentages (a phenomenon which pre-dates the recession, BTW).

For that matter, I asked the reporter for evidence of this big cultural shift: how can he prove that the “zeitgeist” had shifted? It’s a pretty glib concept that, again, can’t be falsified. I could just as reasonably say that, since people saw the economic system melt down and saw companies insulated from their bad choices via government bailouts, people might have a greater tolerance for risk, or at least a lesser appreciation for its consequences.

It’s particularly galling that the author didn’t acknowledge existing revenue trends that might disprove his argument. Slot handle, which I consider as good a measure for the broad “demand” for Nevada gaming as any, rose for the first time in October.

As I told him, the idea that the zeitgeist has shifted against Las Vegas and gambling is both incredibly glib and not borne out by the facts. According to the best archaeological evidence, humans have been gambling for thousands of years; its short-sighted to say that a recession, even one lasting three years or longer, is going to change that.