John Grochowski, Gaming Guru

Every player encounters things that bother them in casinos, things they see over and over again. My pet peeves start with low video-poker pay tables and bad blackjack rules. No matter how good the restaurants and how attractive the amenities at a high-end resort, I'm playing at the shack next door if it has better games.

Others have different priorities. Some complaints pop up over and over again, as Steve Bourie found when surveying player comments at his website, AmericanCasino Bourie publishes the annual American Casino Guide, available through his site, with listings of all American casinos, playing tips from experts and coupons for casino discounts. Bourie sent along a top five list of players' pet peeves, culled from his site.

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5. Too smoky. Casinos need better ventilation to help players avoid smelling like an ashtray after they leave.

4. Long lines, whether at the players club or the buffet.

3. Lack of slot attendants. Now that payoffs are made by tickets instead of coins, there are fewer attendants or change girls roaming the aisles.

2. Poor direct-mail offers. If a casino wants a player to fly in, or drive hours to get to them, do they really think $5 in free play is going to do it?

1. Tight machines. Players know the machines are going to best them in the long run, but they want to at least have some fun for a while, rather than being drained quickly.

That's a good list, one that matches pretty closely to the complaints I get from readers via email. Overall, slots do have lower payback percentages than they once did, because the bulk of play has shifted into lower denominations. Players who a decade ago would have been betting 75 cents a spin and getting 91 to 94 percent back now are betting similar amounts on penny games and getting 85-to-89 percent returns. There are compensations in entertainment value, but players should understand the price.

I've come to regard direct-mail offers as bonuses. I save the offers I receive until expiration, and use them if I make a trip. Unless the offer is unusually good, the mail doesn't drive my play.

The lack of slot attendants is alleviated in part by technology. With payoffs by tickets, we don't have hopper jams or the need for hopper fills. We also don't have as many hand-pays. A royal flush for $1,000 used to bring an attendant, supervisor and sometimes a security guard to oversee a payoff. Now the grand is just added to the credit meter.

Sometimes it's impossible to avoid line lines at the player's club booth. The buffet is another matter. If I'm planning on going to the buffet, I try to time it so I'm either before or after the crush. I don't aim for a noon lunch. I aim for 10:30 or 2. At some buffets, there's an added benefit to going early: You might get a lower price for breakfast, and be there for the changeover when the lunch foods are put out.

As for smokiness, that's hit and miss. Revel in Atlantic City has been smoke-free and others have no-smoking floors, but Revel plans to allow smoking as it exits bankruptcy this spring. Illinois, Delaware and Colorado casinos are smoke free, and Pennsylvania has no-smoking floors in all casinos. But the industry giant, Nevada, is not smoke-free, and neither are more than 30 casinos in Mississippi.

Smoke-free is my preference, but hey, if the joint has full-pay Deuces Wild and good blackjack rules, I'll put up with the chimney.

Gambling author and columnist John Grochowskis weekly newspaper column began at the Chicago Sun-Times and is now syndicated nationally. He also regularly makes TV and radio appearances about gambling. His column appears weekly.

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