When it comes to separating you from your money, casinos get inside your head to make sure the odds are always in their favor.
Enter a busy casino in Las Vegas or just about anywhere else across the United States and you quickly encounter rows upon rows of flashing machines. You hear the music of chance: rolling dice, riffling chips, a crowd roaring at the craps table. One-armed bandits emit synthesized beeps and mechanized squeals; inevitably, somebody somewhere is ordering a cocktail from a scantily costumed waitress. It all adds up to the disorienting effect of Mardi Gras in full flair -- albeit a Mardi Gras where you’re probably willing to lose all the money in your pocket.
And that’s exactly
how it’s supposed to be. If a casino is designed properly, you won’t recognize any obvious attempts to lull you into a gambling head space, drive you from machines to table games to freshly launched restaurants, and encourage the kind of recklessness that makes these glitzy joints so appealing in the first place. From design to layout to the manner in which you convert chips to cash, the best casinos do everything possible to subliminally open customers’ free-spending, freewheeling floodgates. Considering how adept management is at convincing people to make bets that they can’t possibly win in the long run, it’s clear that the marketing wizards behind America’s top gambling emporiums are skilled at their jobs.
None are better at wooing and pleasing customers than Steve Wynn, the brain behind great Vegas operations such as the Bellagio, the Mirage, Wynn Las Vegas, and Encore, Wynn Las Vegas’s newly launched sister property. According to David Kranes, author of the forthcoming book Casinos & Dreams
and a gaming consultant with Raving Consulting in Reno, Nevada, Wynn’s alluring style is well showcased at the Mirage. He has the place designed, says Kranes, “so that visitors follow a trail of intriguing bread crumbs. You’re [initially] drawn to the volcano outside. From there, you want to walk in and see the white tigers. You go over a bridge and along a rain-forest path, pleasurably drifting until you wind up in the middle of the casino. Once you’re there, well, why not gamble?”
For when you decide to take a break from the action, Wynn has placed the cashier -- or in casino parlance, the cage -- in the center of the gambling floor. Situated close to the tables, the cage’s proximity serves a number of purposes: It’s convenient, it forces you to walk past myriad gaming opportunities with fresh cash you’ve just converted from chips, and those who are still playing get to see a line of people just like them cashing out. This blatantly reinforces the fact that folks do
win in this place.
Pro gambling cues of a different sort are created with smells and sounds. At both the Mirage and the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, the air is infused with a subtly sweet coconut scent. It’s a pleasant odor that triggers the brain in two ways: It tells gamblers that they are in a welcoming environment, and it creates a sensory prompt that players, hopefully, associate with a fun, action-packed experience. “The Venetian [in Las Vegas], on the other hand, has some kind of overpowering perfume in the air,” says David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “I don’t think it works so well, at least not for me, but people must like it, because the casino pumps it out and gamblers keep coming back.”
Kranes mentions that the Venetian’s management does something else effectively: It uses music to seamlessly transition people from the peacefulness of an elevator to the intensity of the casino. The Venetian, which tends to attract an older, sophisticated crowd, uses consistent classical music. At Hard Rock casinos from Tampa to San Diego, a similar ploy is in place, though you are likely to hear the Doors rather than Dvorák as you go from room to elevator to blackjack pit. In many casinos, once you hit the gaming floor’s perimeter, you encounter a giant spinning wheel, which resembles the ones at carnivals. It’s the mechanism for Big Six, the simplest game imaginable -- pick a number and take your odds -- and which is very much slanted to favor the house. This explains why, as Schwartz says, “It’s positioned in a highly trafficked area.” At the Golden Nugget, in downtown Las Vegas, for example, the wheel resides just past the main pedestrian entrance. “The idea is that tourists will walk through, casually throw down money, lose, and keep walking. In nine out of 10 casinos, you come upon the Big Six game and see people playing it.” Similarly favoring the house, Keno offers the worst odds of any game in a casino, and it is the only one you can play anywhere -- in the coffee shop, at the pool, while waiting in line at the sports book. “I see a connection!” Schwartz says with a hearty laugh.
It’s no secret that certain colors elicit expected reactions from consumers. When it comes to casino design, according to Kranes, a key color for attracting and energizing customers is red. Some casinos use it as a highlight. At Wynn’s Encore, bright red -- a shade that Kranes calls Chinese red -- seems predominant. It’s most obvious in the curvy chandeliers, which provide illumination and focal points. Beyond color, says Kranes, “a lift in the ceiling pulls people’s attention; it creates a kind of wow response. So if the casino wants to trigger adrenaline or feature a certain area of the floor, it may design a sudden vault in the ceiling.” You may notice one above the games or machines that are particularly advantageous to the casino.
There’s also a reason why the machines or games that are top priorities for a casino will be on the right side of an area’s entrance. “Most people, being left-brained, will take a right fork in the road,” explains Kranes. “I once had a client at a casino who didn’t understand this. He wondered why the machines to the right got most of the play in a second-floor gaming area reached by an escalator. I told him that if they want to spread the players out, they need to overcompensate by putting more popular or more attention-getting machines to the left.” They listened, and it worked.
Additionally, when it comes to gaming machines, casinos often attract business by advertising “loose slots” (machines calibrated to have a higher-than-average payback percentage) or video poker, which pays off at 99 percent. This means that if you play perfectly for millions of hands, you will get back 99 percent of your money. Factor in the comps received for your patronage, and you are playing at a can’t-lose advantage. It’s enough to make you love casinos. But just try finding those juicy machines. More often than not, they’re buried way in the back and out of the way. What do you usually encounter at the front of the casino, near the entrance? Machines that offer less-than-stellar odds (just check out the pay schedule posted on the screen).
Conversely, machines that you can’t miss are the ones that seem most alluring but mathematically speaking clearly are not. Progressive slot machines, for instance, are designed to offer few payouts, but when they do hit, the winnings can be huge and attention grabbing. In Nevada, progressives are linked together in casinos throughout the state. As money gets put into thousands of machines, a jackpot grows into the tens of millions of dollars. One of the more popular progressives is known as Megabucks. Those machines are usually scattered throughout a casino and not only make profits for the operators -- which hold 12 to 15 percent of the money put in, as compared with the four percent or so that a typical slot machine might generate -- but also serve to drive traffic.
This is because, odds be cursed, customers love the progressives and will walk a mile to play one with a swelled jackpot. “People realize that they probably won’t win anything,” acknowledges Richard Wells, president of Wells Gaming Research, a casino consulting company in Reno. “But they also know that if they do win and if the jackpot is high enough, it will be life-changing money. Because people tend to seek out these machines, casinos like to put them in dead areas, drawing customers to spots that might not otherwise get a lot of patronage.”
One thing is for sure: If you want to play a hand of poker, you will have to walk past a lot of machines and table games in order to do it. Poker is a casino-loss leader, making financial sense only if winners at the Hold ’Em table blow their profits at blackjack or slots or craps -- preferably by making sucker bets such as “the field” in craps, which is prominently featured on the felt but offers rotten odds. So for the poker-savvy among us, there is a price you pay for playing cards at places like Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut and the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City: After a night of anteing up, in order to get to the front entrance or room elevators, you must walk through a minefield of beckoning negative-expectation games.
Like all retailers, casinos love repeat business, and their players love overlays -- gambling lingo for an advantage. Players clubs have long provided a happy medium, where both sides pretty much get what they want: There’s free stuff for the customers and information on how to bring them back for the casinos. Gamblers are provided with plastic cards, which can be presented to dealers or inserted into machines. The gamblers receive credit for the hours of play that they put in. Then you get back 40 percent of your theoretical loss (what the casino figures an average player betting similarly should lose) in the form of free rooms and meals and promotional offers that may include gratis entries into poker or blackjack or slots tournaments.
In recent years, the Harrah’s chain of casinos -- including Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Caesars and Bally’s in Atlantic City, and the Horseshoe Casino Hotel in Tunica, Mississippi -- has taken the notion of attracting repeat business to a higher level. “Harrah’s uses a lot of statistical analysis to figure out how to keep customers,” says Jeffrey Lowenhar, a former casino executive who now consults with gambling operations around the world. “Harrah’s puts a significant amount of time into investigating customers in order to figure out how to keep them.” More precisely, Harrah’s wants to figure out how to keep them gambling for more hours and for more money. According to the book Winner Takes All: Steve Wynn, Kirk Kerkorian, Gary Loveman, and the Race to Own Las Vegas
, Harrah’s conducted a study with its small-stakes-slot-machine players to find out which incentives induced gambling. One group was given $125 worth of room, food, and beverage. Another received $60 in free play on the slot machines. The latter group gambled more than the folks who received comped rooms and food; however, when the values of their comps were cut in half, they were happy to accept the reductions. Beyond saving money, Harrah’s discovered another tool for encouraging people to play more than they came expecting to.
But even if you’re drawn to the casino with what seems to be free money, you won’t gamble for very long if you’re uncomfortable and cramping from pressing all those buttons. “That’s why the keyboards on slot machines are now being put at the same level as computer keyboards in your office and there are body-contoured chairs, which players can raise and lower to the ergonomically correct height,” Kranes says. Because casinos remain one of the few public facilities that are smoky these days, “machines have been outfitted with systems that carry nearby smoke out to the casino’s overhead venting.”
One place where you see ergonomically correct machines that encourage extended sessions of play is the Borgata. The casino’s former slots manager heralded their arrival and has been quoted by SlotManager.net as saying, “A lot of people don’t realize what it takes to sit for three or four hours.” His point being, of course, that the longer customers sit, the more money the Borgata can make with its thin edge on slot machine play.
But casino management will never let you know that. They don’t want you to think about the ergonomics or the smoke suckers or the strategic placement of slot machines that have the potential to pay out $20 million in a single spin but probably won’t release a dime. That would be like showing the strings that allow Superman to fly. Casinos are places where reality is suspended and the score of a lifetime looms seductively. “After all,” explains Kranes, “illusion and fantasies are the two things that draw players. Successful casinos capitalize on that.”
And their customers, whether they admit it or not, would have it no other way.
Michael Kaplan is the gambling columnist for Cigar Aficionado
magazine. He is also the coauthor of Aces and Kings: Inside Stories and Million-Dollar Strategies from Poker’s Greatest Players