Podcast-a-palooza in Vegas Seven

Thursday once again brings a new Green Felt Journal in Vegas Seven. This week I talk about an event that I’m privileged to be a part of, Vegas Podcast-a-palooza:

The event is called Vegas Podcast-a-palooza, and it brings together three prominent Las Vegas podcasts: the Vegas Gang, a roundtable discussion among several Vegas aficionados (including this author) with a business and design focus; The Strip Podcast, Steve Friess and Miles Smith’s interview/discussion show; and Five Hundy by Midnight, Tim and Michele Dressen’s view of Las Vegas from a visitor’s perspective (the two have had a love affair with the city since their marriage here in 1997). Each show broadcasts live, from Las Vegas, in front of an audience.

via Podcast-a-palooza comes to the Flamingo | Vegas Seven.

I strongly encourage you to come down to Vegas Podcast-a-Palooza on October 30, at 4 PM, at the Flamingo GO pool (plug finished). It should be a lot of fun. You can get the tickets and all the info you need–including stuff on the 3X Total Rewards multiplier–right here.

Day 1A WSOP 2010

As those of you who follow my Twitter stream know, I spent a good chunk of yesterday down at the Rio, cruising around Day 1A of the World Series of Poker.

Oskar Garcia has the action cover here. I thought I’d share a few of my thoughts.

The story I was looking for at the WSOP was to profile the first person to bust out of the main event for next week’s Green Felt Journal in Vegas Seven. Luckily I’ve got a great deal of latitude with my subject material there. I thought that it would be interesting to share the experience of someone who came to Las Vegas, plunked down $10,000, and left the game quickly.

I’ve been seriously planning this column for over a month, and it never occurred to me that there might be a logistical problem or two. After all, it’s not like I was planning to interview the winner, who’s readily accessible to the media and usually in a mood to talk. Instead, I had to patrol somewhere around 150 tables, look for an all-in and a call, and quickly grab the unlucky one.

It sounds a lot easier than it is.

After about 20 minutes, I settled into one of the quads of the Amazon ballroom, loosely shadowing a poker supervisor who promised to let me know if he heard anything from one of the other quads.

By 20 minutes, my mouth was dry, and I was noticing how hot it was, with the lights and the excitement. It felt about 10 degrees cooler by the rail than it did at the tables.

I got a heads-up that a player was down to 200 dollars, and sped over. Turns out it was Greg Raymer, who kicked off the action with the official “Shuffle up and deal.” He bounced, and didn’t look anywhere close to being eliminated by the time I got to him.

32 minutes in, I felt like an undertaker waiting for a customer, circling the tables, looking for short stacks, or any inkling that someone might go all-in. This is around the time I started collecting a few statistics. In my section, about 10% of the players wore sunglasses; 25% wore baseball caps, mostly with the bill forward; 3.5% were women.

(someone busts out in another quad 35 minutes in, but I’m not there, and he wasn’t talking, anyway)

41 minutes in, I swear that the players know what I’m here for, and I can’t even look them in the eye. It’s like I’m a poker angel of death or something.

53 minutes in, I’m convinced that this is the worst story idea I’ve ever had. It’s the same feeling that I usually get around mile 22 of a marathon.

62 minutes in, I start to consider that I’ve crossed over into the Twilight Zone. No one will ever bust out, and I’ll spend eternity circling the tables, waiting for an interview that never comes, while a thousand players continue to push chips around the table without ever losing or winning.

68 minutes in, someone goes all in, but made the right call: he doubles up, and lives on.

70 minutes in, this is the idea from hell. Why did I ever think it was a good idea to write a column about failure?

71 minutes in, another all-in call, and this one wasn’t the right call. The player, who looks vaguely like Oliver Stone, busts out. I ask him if he wants to talk, and he says no before scooting out the door. Maybe he’s staying ahead of the snipers on the grassy knoll.

74 minutes in, another all-in call, right in front of me, and it’s another unhappy outcome. This time, the player is shell-shocked, but personable, and we find a few chairs in the media section to do a quick interview.

Turns out his name is Peter Turmezey, he hails from Budapest, Hungary, and he’s a professional poker player. Nice guy, too.

You’ll be able to read all about it in next week’s Vegas Seven.

Vegas Seven double shot

It’s Thursday, and if you like my writing for Vegas Seven, it’s a lucky Thursday, since I’ve got my usual Green Felt Journal column and a more in-depth Latest Word.

The Latest Word piece takes a philosophical and even theological look at poker, winning, and losing:

In other words, poker isn’t always fair. Of course, it’s all about perspective. The best hand at the showdown wins the pot. It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t the best hand pre-flop, or that someone with a better hand folded on the turn, or that your opponent made a miracle draw to fill his inside straight and won a pot he had no business playing for. That, as they say, is the luck of the draw. And it has absolutely nothing to do with whether you’re a better friend, lover or parent than your opponent, or whether you need the money to save a life and he’s just going to blow it at the craps table. The cards have no conscience.

The Winning Hand is Not to the Swift …

For the Green Felt Journal, I took a look at the business and organization behind the World Series of Poker. It’s considerable.

If you’ve watched the World Series of Poker on ESPN, you might think that it’s a pretty laid-back event. Sure, there’s plenty of tension at the final table, but it’s basically just a bunch of guys and gals getting together to play cards, right?

Actually, the two-month tournament at the Rio is all about the cards, but it is orders of magnitude more complicated than your Tuesday night home game. With 57 bracelet events, daily satellites and nearly 80 cash games going on over the course of the tournament, the World Series of Poker is more than an event.

“It’s an organization, not an event,’ says Jack Effel, vice president of international poker operations and director of the World Series of Poker for Harrah’s Entertainment. “It’s got to be that way to be successful.”

Inside the WSOP

Two very interesting columns to write. Enjoy.

About a whale

Lawyers for Terrance Watanabe how say that the high roller’s losses in 2007 were nearly 69 percent higher than they claimed in their original lawsuit. From the LVRJ:

Lawyers for Nebraska philanthropist Terrance Watanabe say in a new lawsuit that his losses at Harrah’s Entertainment casinos were much larger than they previously reported, making him what some experts call the biggest high roller of all time in Nevada.

"No one has ever lost this much money in a casino before," said Bill Thompson, a UNLV public administration professor who specializes in the gaming industry. "It’s just a fantastic amount. He’s the biggest whale of all time."

via Losses may make bettor state’s biggest whale – Business – ReviewJournal.com.

I’m not understanding how the amount of his losses could go up by nearly 69 percent six months after the original complaint was filed. Did he really have no idea of how much money he lost during the year? Because that’s a pretty significant margin of error.

That aside, I take issue with Professor Thompson’s claim that Watanabe is “the biggest whale of all time.” The reporter talked to me for this story, and asked me if the $189 million loss made him the biggest gambler of all time (or words to that effect). My response? Since I don’t have a stack of win/loss statements for every player, I can’t say that he is or isn’t, even though that is a lot of money, and I would guess that he would be one of the biggest players of all time. There’s a difference between “the biggest loss that anyone’s written about in the newspaper” and “the biggest loss of all time,” because there has always been a certain discretion around high-end play, and individual wins and losses are not part of the public record, unless they go to court, as in cases like this. As I told him, the only people who could tell you that definitively are working for the casinos, and I can imagine that they aren’t feeling particularly talkative on this subject.

So I’d like to know what Professor Thompson bases his “fact” on. Does he have a master list somewhere of trip and lifetime win/loss records for every high roller at every casino in the state? If he can state so confidently that Watanabe is number one on the list, it shouldn’t be too hard for him to tell us who is number two, and what his/her lifetime and average trip losses are. Who had the previous record for the biggest annual loss in a casino. When did the first player lose more than $10 million in a single year? If you can say without a doubt that no one’s ever lost money like this before, you should be able to answer these questions easily.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t critique someone else’s statements to the media, but the more I thought about this the more I felt I had to. These days, statements like that in a newspaper are automatically assumed to be “true,” particularly on the web, and especially by Wikipedia editors, and it becomes an established “fact.” But unless Thompson has access to a secret cache of data that he’s never used in any publication, there’s no real source for his statement–it’s just an opinion, no matter how sure of himself he sounds.

Pre-shift OT suit

Harrah’s is being sued for making workers show up early without overtime pay. From the LV Sun:

A federal lawsuit filed Tuesday is the latest in a series of class-action pay claims filed by Nevada workers.This week’s case is against Harrah’s Entertainment. The suit alleges Harrah’s requires workers to arrive 10 to 15 minutes before their shifts start but doesn’t pay them for the extra time.

“Ten minutes before each shift may not sound like much” but multiplied by thousands of workers and their daily shifts, the unpaid wages could add up to tens of millions of dollars, says Reno labor lawyer Mark Thierman, who filed the suit on behalf of Harrah's Las Vegas dealer Kimberley Daprizio.

Pre-shift meetings, which include pep talks by managers and reminders about job standards and expectations, are common practice in the casino business and other customer service industries.

via Pay for pre-shift meetings spurs suit against Harrah’s – Wednesday, April 28, 2010 | 2 a.m. – Las Vegas Sun.

I used to grumble about this back when I worked security, and I think that my experience there gives me some perspective.

First of all, you’re going to have to be in the building before your official start time to get changed. For a shift starting at 3, I’d usually show up at 2:40, have time to change into my uniform (a striking electric blue blazer, white shirt, and black pants), grab a quick soft drink at the employee cafeteria, and head down to the pre-shift meeting, which we called roll call. At roll call, we learned what was going on in the casino that night, which was helpful, because if guests are asking you where an event is, it’s nice to know it beforehand and not have to call around. Also, the shift manager could run down the schedule and confirm that everyone scheduled was in fact in the building and ready to take their post.

Roll call would usually start at about 10 minutes of, be done by 5 minutes of, giving us time to get down to our posts and relieve day shift promptly by 3. Officers on escorts could radio in their positions and be relieved directly by officers dispatched from roll call. The system wasn’t perfect, but it worked well. I don’t remember ever being asked to sing or dance. I was willing to accept the cost of reporting to work 10 minutes early as the price of being relieved on time at the end of my shift; if everyone showed up at the exact start of their shift and then found their assignments and went out to them, the shift they were relieving would be leaving late every day.

I said the system wasn’t perfect, but we had a better deal than the supervisors, who had to get in at least a half an hour early and, since they were salaried, didn’t get overtime. But they did usually get an early out on their Friday, meaning that things more or less worked out.

So if you require hourly workers to clock in early each shift, why not compensate them with an early out (paid) on their Friday? By the end of the shift, most departments have personnel to spare since their breakers are done giving breaks. It costs the company marginally in increased wages (fewer spaces for unpaid early outs), but probably would generate good will in employees who feel that their time is valued.

It’s probably not a perfect system, but it’s better for both sides than rolling the dice in court.

I would also keep pre-shifts to a minimum–maybe five minutes at the most. Let them know what’s happening in the building, any big events, any HR stuff they need to do, give out commendations, and send them on their way. If you want employees to sing and dance, sponsor a quarterly talent show. I honestly can’t imagine any chain of events in which doing a song and dance before starting work would make me a more effective employee, and I don’t see how it would help other people either, unless their job was singing and dancing.

Tiered pricing at Harrah’s

Remember my thoughts about tiered pricing a while ago? In it, I theorized that there would be a convergence between resort fees and “cost certainty” restaurant pricing schemes, like prix fixe at the high(ish) end and buffet passes at the low end. Harrah’s is rolling out a stay-and-buffet deal that I think qualifies. Check out the promo:

Take advantage of great room packages featuring the best buffet offer in years! Stay at least three nights at the Vegas resort of your choice, and enjoy two all-day, unlimited-access buffet passes to any of seven world-class buffets.

via City Wide Buffet of Buffets Lander.

There’s a pretty informative comment thread on AccessVegas about my original proposal. My favorite comment? “This will never work, it is too logical, reasonable, and honest to be accepted by the industry.”

Although I think that if something is profitable, it will be accepted, no matter how logical or illogical it is.

This buffet pass/room combo seems like a great casino marketing idea, since if you’ve convinced the person to stay at your hotel and give them a pass to eat at your buffets throughout the Strip, it follows that they’ll be spending most of their time in your casinos, and if they want to gamble, they’ll gamble there. Of course, you’ve got to deliver gambling options that are at least equal to everyone else’s for this to work with players who know what they are looking for (i.e., 3/2 blackjack and full-pay video poker).

It will be interesting to see how this pans out. As I suggested in my original article, these cross-property passes are a logical way for the big companies to leverage their presence in the market.

TR @PH in V7

A week ago today, Planet Hollywood officially became a Total Rewards property. In my latest Vegas Seven column, I talk a little about the behind-the-scenes work that made this possible:P

If you didn’t notice anything unusual at Planet Hollywood recently, don’t feel bad: You weren’t supposed to. But behind the scenes, and occasionally in front of them, a massive operation transformed the property into the eighth Las Vegas casino under Harrah’s Entertainment’s Total Rewards umbrella.

Since its relaunch in 2007, Planet Hollywood has offered players its A-list club, which, like other casino loyalty programs, lets them earn points redeemable for meals, lodging and entertainment with each dollar wagered.

Harrah’s Total Rewards does the same thing on a national scale, letting players bank rewards credits from 35 properties across the United States and Canada. Even before the Planet Hollywood acquisition, Harrah’s has been planning its conversion to the Total Rewards system.

Conversion required more than installing an update patch on a few computers. Technicians had to remove all existing systems, including the core casino management system (which tracks and records play), the lodging management system (which lets the hotel take room reservations) and back-of-the-house systems that track everything from employee hours to ordering and receiving.

via Total Rewards program expands with inclusion of Planet Hollywood | Vegas Seven.

I was able to walk the floor while they were doing the work and talk to many of the people involved in it, and two things struck me: the sheer amount of work involved and the minimal impact it had on customers.

It’s not exactly the Manhattan Project as far as major engineering efforts go, but it’s still pretty impressive.

From slots to strippers

That’s the trajectory at Bill’s Lake Tahoe. From the LVRJ:

Harrah’s sells Bill’s Lake Tahoe casino site

It’s hard to say what Bill Harrah would have thought about this. On one hand, he was by no means shy around women–he was married seven times. On the other hand, he wanted Harrah’s Lake Tahoe to be, above all, a classy facility, and insisted on things like two bathrooms in a guest room. I think they still have the original commode-view TVs installed, but that’s beside the point. Somehow having a strip club out front doesn’t scream “class” to me, but times have changed since Bill was running the place.

From an economic point of view, that’s 310 slot machines that Lake Tahoe and the state won’t be getting back, and a further sign of the area’s decline as a gaming spot. It’s still a very attractive destination, though it’s hard to really reconcile a strip club with Tahoe as I see it.

Giving the little guy a chance on the Strip

It’s Thursday, which means another edition of the Green Felt Journal in Vegas Seven magazine. This week, as whether the “little guy” still has a chance on the Strip:P

Last year at around this time, “deconsolidation” was the buzzword along the Strip. MGM Mirage had just announced its sale of Treasure Island to Phil Ruffin, formerly of the New Frontier. Investment bankers and industry analysts announced that, just as the previous 10 years had seen Strip casinos swept into progressively larger corporate empires, the next era would see them splinter into smaller fiefdoms fortified by hedge-fund and private equity investment.A year later, it’s now clear that the pundits couldn’t have been more wrong. Rumors of an MGM Mirage fire sale proved immature. Harrah’s Entertainment has actually added a casino to its portfolio, having taken over the management of Planet Hollywood after acquiring a substantial stake via debt purchases.

via Does the little guy still have a shot on the Strip? | Vegas Seven.

As I promised before, this column also has my first overt Star Trek reference.

Also, only in Vegas would a multi-million dollar company with thousands of employees be considered “the little guy.”

Some other highlights from the issue:
– Nicole Lucht talks to Tony Marnell about the M Resort’s first year
–Mericia Gonzalez looks into the future of Vegas nightclubs
–Jeff Haney, formerly of the Sun, writes about HORSE at Aria. He’s a great poker writer, and hopefully this is the first of a regular series of column.
–and if you didn’t catch it last week, check out Jessica Prois’s talk about statistics with author Jeffery Rosenthal (Struck by Lightning: The Curious World of Probabilities)

Tons of other great reading in there–these are just the ones that have the biggest gambling/Strip connection.

Harrah’s IPO on the horizon

Harrah’s Entertainment plans to go public again, but not for a few years. This isn’t really a surprise, but the timeline is noteworthy, as are the “developments” that the company awaits. From Reuters:

Harrah's Entertainment, which was taken private by TPG and Apollo Management in January 2008, could launch an initial public offering five to seven years from that buyout, Chief Executive Gary Loveman said on Monday.Speaking at the Reuters Travel and Leisure Summit in New York, Loveman said the 2013 to 2015 timeline is speculation on his part, adding there have been no talks with TPG and Apollo on an exit timeline yet.The two private equity firms bought the hotel/casino company for $31 billion in 2008.Loveman said Harrah's would gradually work its way back to a more public position, as opposed to doing it in “one fell swoop.” He added that the company would wait for a few developments, including an economic recovery and the legalization of online poker, before going public.

via Harrah’s could do IPO in 2013-2015, says CEO | Reuters.

This is generally the plan with private equity investments–they take a company private, spin off under-performing assets or otherwise increase the company’s profitability (or, at the very least, the perception thereof) and then roll out another IPO.

It’s interesting that the IPO is apparently contingent on the legalization of online poker, which speaks volumes to how much Harrah’s believes online poker will help the company. Whether that’s an accurate assessment of the eventual market remains to be seen. It’s also interesting that while a general economic recovery is predicted, there’s nothing–at least at this distance–about the recovery of the Las Vegas market and the development of the under-used Strip and adjacent properties.