Gaming Guru, John Grochowski

Casinos are constantly changing, something that’s obvious to anyone who plays the games. The rise of video slots and their ever-changing features, multihand video poker games, tougher blackjack rules and the rise of new table games such as Mississippi Stud.

But casino evolution is constant away from the games, too. Let’s look at a few milestones that have shaped modern casino experiences.

• Slot clubs/player rewards systems: Comps used to be almost exclusively for table games players. As more play and more revenue shifted to electronic games, casinos had to find a way to reward loyal slot customers. The first to use the plastic cart and magnetic strip familiar to players today was the 24 Karat Club at the Golden Nugget Atlantic City at the beginning of the 1980s. Players earned tickets that were ejected by a machine much like those at game arcades. If you collected enough tickets, you could redeem for cash.

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Systems that kept data on every wager and allowed players to accumulate and redeem points for cash, meals, hotel charges and more followed. Today, slot and table players use the same cards, with a key innovation coming from Harrah’s — now Caesars Entertainment — with the introduction of Total Gold, then Total Rewards. That started a trend toward cards that could be used in multiple casinos under the same owner.

• Themed casino resorts: Walk up the Las Vegas Strip today and you can practically take a trip around the world: Paris, New York-New York, Bellagio, the Venetian. You can visit a Hollywood wonderland (MGM Grand) or a fairytale castle (Excalibur). It’s a different world from old Las Vegas, where the primary theme was “desert” (Sahara, Desert Inn, Sands, Dunes.)

The changeover started with the 1966 opening of Caesars Palace and the 1968 opening of Circus Circus. At the Caesars Palace (no apostrophe, implying that all customers were Caesars and this was their palace) Cleopatra’s Barge and the Bacchanal feast with wine goddesses offering men neck rubs transported guests to ancient Rome. And at Circus Circus, acrobatic acts high above the casino floor drove the theme home. Exit desertland, enter fantasyland.

• The “action” buffet: When casino players take a break to refuel, the most frequent place they eat is the casino buffet. And casino buffets have moved past the cafeteria line, steam table type of buffet whose primary attraction was low price. Today’s casino buffets have evolved into multistation extravaganzas with food from around the world, sometimes even cooked to order. The trend-setter was the Carnival World buffet at the Rio in Las Vegas in the early 1990s. Food quality and freshness were miles ahead of standard buffet fare, and it forced the entire casino industry to take a fresh look at how it fed its customers.

• Ergonomics: Remember sitting on backless stools when playing the slots? Remember how your back felt at the end of the day? Heck, older Atlantic City players will even remember a time when stools were not permitted at slot machines and stand-up play was standard.

There’s been an ergonomics revolution in the 2000s with furniture designed for player comfort. It costs more, but there’s a benefit to casinos in that comfortable players stay in their seats longer. The old stools have made way for chairs with contoured foam and lumbar support. They work hand in hand with ergonomically designed slot cabinets with cutouts to enable the player to pull within optimal seating range of the screen, and with button panels placed to ease repetitive stress.

Gambling author and columnist John Grochowski’s 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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