Darryl McEwen, Mr. AC Casino

It's probably the best-kept secret in town. How do you maximize the amount of free play, free meals, free or discounted hotel rooms, free or discounted show tickets, and other gifts given to players at various casinos?

For one thing, each casino has a different system, so the best advice I can give is to find a casino you like and stick with it. Spreading your play among four casinos - even if they're owned by the same company, e.g., Caesars Entertainment owns Bally's Atlantic City, Caesars Atlantic City, Harrah's Resort and Showboat Casino-Hotel - will earn you less than if you played solely at one.

The second piece of advice I would give is to sign up for the casino's player's club. More often than not, you may get immediate offers of free play, a complimentary room, a complimentary food credit, a gift, free parking for the day, etc.

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Some of these offers come only when you return for a second visit, and many require a minimum amount of play on your first trip. For example, one popular offer to new player's club members is the reimbursement of their first day losses up to a certain amount. However, you may be lucky that first day and make some money - so, nothing for you. Also, that money may come in the form of free play vouchers that you receive a couple weeks later and must be played on separate trips. Read the fine print and ask lots of questions.

Also, while you're playing, be sure you insert your player's card - and make sure it's registered. Generally, you will see "Card Accepted" or "Hello 'Your First Name'" flashing somewhere on the screen. Contrary to what some people think, using a player's card will not help determine the amount you win or lose. They are two different systems and one has nothing to do with the other.

Third, while with some player's clubs it's technically not allowed, you and your spouse (or significant other) should do all your play on one card. As sophisticated as these player's club's computer systems are, some don't seem to catch on to this - or, more likely, the system "looks the other way" and is just grateful for the increased play.

Once you've established yourself as a serious player at your favorite casino, it can take anywhere between two and six months for the player's club to recognize this. If you're in for the long haul, don't give up and switch casinos when offers don't start filling your mailbox immediately.

Other tips for getting the best offers and deals:

•Be consistent in your play. Don't play at Casino A for an hour one day and six hours another. Same with your gambling budget. If you have $1,000 to spend during the month, play it all in one day rather than making four trips and spending $250 each time.

•Remember, too, that - heaven forbid - you plow through all that money in four hours and leave with nothing, you've actually probably put through several hundreds or thousands of dollars through the machines. Obviously, after four hours, you're going to have some "wins" so if you play until your credit meter reads "0," you've played way more than your original thousand dollars. This is termed "coin-in".

Here's a simplistic example using a $10 base budget, playing $1 each spin on a dollar machine. Say over teh course of 10 spins, your total gets up to $12, but you end up walking away with just $7.

On one hand, you've played 10 spins at $1 each, so the computer counts that as $10 coin-in; however, you're walking away with $7, so you've really spent only $3. Multiply that by 10 (or 100), and you would have put $100 (or $1,000) coin-in, but spent only $30 (or $300). While that $100 probably won't get you a free room, do that often enough, and you might get an offer for a free midweek room, or maybe a complimentary buffet for two or even buy one, get on). Of course, it always can - and frequently does - go the other way. You get overly confident, play 150 spins at $1 each, and walk away with nothing.

And, while I've used a dollar machine in this example, you'll be credited the same if you play a penny, nickel or quarter machine. It's the total amount - coin-in - that determines your worth to the casino.

Other points to consider:

•While "locals" (those who live within an hour's drive or less from Atlantic City) may get certain specialized discounts and other benefits limited to them, it's the out-of-towners who will have better luck scoring those complimentary rooms.

•Video poker players generally have to play twice as much to gain the same benefits as a slot player. The theory here is that there is a certain amount of skill involved in playing video poker.

•At some casinos, comp dollars expire in anywhere from three to nine months. At others, as long as you earn at least one point in a 12-month period, this credit remains in your account forever. Others,such as the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, for example, will allow you to use your comp dollars to "purchase" Borgata Vacation Certificates that are good at certain casinos around the country. These certificates are valid for nine months from date of purchase - essentially extending the value of your comp dollars for a total of 15 months. In order to redeem them, however, you must be a registered guest at these hotels. Present the certificates at the front desk and the total amount will be added to your account as a credit. Then, simply charge to your room any meals, show tickets, spa treatments, etc., but not gift shop or other retail purchases, and, at check-out, pay only the remaining balance.

•Your play also earns you cash back. This really is not "cash" but a small percentage of what you played, returned to you in the form of free play credits. Generally, this is not available until your next visit and - like comp dollars - can expire in anywhere from one month to six months.

So, now you've played enough to earn a casino's "premium" player's card - Borgata's Black Label, Total Rewards' Diamond, Revel's Beach, for example.

This is when you have to start thinking about the dreaded "ADT" - Average Daily Theoretical (Loss). This is the amount of money you are "theoretically" expected to lose each day of your various gambling trips. Systems differ, but this amount can be calculated based solely on how much you play. However, other factors get involved, such as the type of machine you play, how much you bet, your total length of play, even how many offers (comp rooms, gifts, free meals) you use during your visit.

You say, "I always go home with more than I started with - even if it's just $5." First, you're lying, and, second, eventually you're going to lose - and that's what the casino is hoping for. Just a few of those losing days and - barring a huge jackpot win - you've more than paid back the casino for all those "free" rooms and meals.

In the end, what's most important is that you have fun, don't spend more than you can afford and enjoy any benefits the casinos may throw your way.

Recreational gambler Darryl McEwen, a former professional journalist, is president of his own consulting firm that manages several small national and international trade associations, and provides public relations and fundraising services for a number of charitable organizations. He is based in Wilmington, Del. His column appears every other week.

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