This is Part One in a two-part series on how to get the most out of your player's card.

Player tracking systems. Sounds a little ominous, doesn't it? You can just visualize some casino host in a trench coat, fedora pulled down over his head, wearing sunglasses, and following your every move. Not quite.

With technology controlling just about everything in our lives, it's no surprise that casinos use their sophisticated computer systems to determine which slot machines you play, how frequently and at what denomination, and how much you bet. That's why casinos promote membership in their slot players clubs.

Playing without a card in your machine is like purchasing a coast-to-coast airplane ticket and not giving your frequent flier number. (And, no, using a player's card hasn't any effect on how much you win or lose -they're two different systems.)

The benefits for players are comp dollars you earn and can spend on rooms, meals, show tickets, spa treatments, as well as "cashback" (in the form of free play) you can use on a future trip. Keep in mind, though, whatever play you download or whatever the value of the coupon you insert, this amount must be played at that machine. You can't cash the money out, but you can keep any winnings.

To activate your card simply insert it where indicated on the machine you are about to play. Before you start, be sure you see a "welcome screen" which either will greet you by name ("Welcome, Darryl" or "Hello, Darryl"), or simply "Accepted".

While some Atlantic City casinos have - or even share - the same basic systems, several have proprietary software that offer unique features and benefits. Here's a breakdown on how they work:

Atlantic Club Casino Hotel (Player's Club) and Resorts Casino Hotel (Resorts Casino Club): Along with Tropicana Casino and Resort, Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, and Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort, the Atlantic Club's and Resorts' tracking systems are probably the simplest, and offer the fewest options. Basically you have 10 numbers to push (0-9) within a small rectangle similar to the touchpad on a telephone - no fancy iPhone-like graphics here - as well as five other options (Clear, $, Service, Promo and Enter). If you want to redeem cashback, press "$" and enter your PIN. You'll then have the option to download a predetermined amount of play - generally $1, $5, $10, $20 or $50.

• Advantages: If you have bonus free play available - generally limited to a certain day or a certain number of days – the green Promo light blinks. Press 2 and enter your PIN. You'll then have the option of downloading a predetermined amount of play - generally $1, $5, $10, $20 or $50. There are no coupons to bring or code numbers to remember. With certain limitations, you control the amount of play you want to download, similar to cashback.

• Disadvantages: If you want to check your current tier score or comp dollars, or how much you've earned that day, you'll need to go to a special promotional kiosk. For some promotions, you'll also need to swipe your player's card at a promotional kiosk in order for free play to download into your account (which you then can access through any slot machine).

Bally's Atlantic City (Total Rewards) and Harrah's Resort (Total Rewards): Total Rewards proprietary Total Touch expands your options, but still has limitations some of its competitors don't have. You can check your available comp dollars (Reward Credits), your current tier score, and how many tier points you've earned that day, but, if "Use Offer" is highlighted, you'll need a three-digit code you received in the mail, along with your PIN.

• Advantages: Total Touch allows you to "bank" any downloadable free play. As long as you download it on the day indicated in your offer, it remains active in your account until the fifth day of the following month. This is especially beneficial if you're in a hurry and don't want to play any or all of your credits that same day. Until the system changes, free play currently earns cashback and tier credits. Saving them for a day when comp dollars might be multiplied will earn you even more. In addition, some free play offers download automatically when you insert your player's card, plus if you give a trusted friend your player's card and PIN, he/she can download free play for you that you can use another day. This is especially useful if you're not going to be in town on a day when you have an offer. Total Touch also offers you the option of ordering a beverage. It even "remembers" drinks you've ordered in past.

• Disadvantages: Redeeming bonus free play and cashback can be cumbersome and time-consuming. It's also excruciatingly slow, and sometimes the system will not recognize your player's card. Often the system won't allow you to redeem a valid offer, requiring you to try again at another machine – sometimes as many as two or three different machines. Also, if you forget your three-digit code, there's no way to get a duplicate – very frustrating when the "Use Offer" option is active, but you have no way of knowing how much free play you're eligible for, or how you can retrieve it. In addition, you are relatively limited in how much play you can download at any one time. If you have $100 in your bank, you get just four options - download the entire amount or one of three smaller pre-determined amounts. And, while the "Order Beverage" function seems convenient, I've found the system spotty at best. While you have the option of calling a server, to take advantage of the system you're limited to the beverages pre-loaded into the system. You also must remain at the machine where you ordered your drink until it's delivered.

Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa (My Borgata): A small video screen about 6 inches wide and 2 inches high displays a touchpad with numbers from one to zero. Tap in your four-digit PIN to access your slot dollars, bonus slot dollars, comp dollar balances and other information. Borgata's system also can display games such as a horserace on Kentucky Derby Day or mystery slot play where you virtually "scratch" to find out your mystery amount.

• Advantages: If you have free play or bonus free play, the system displays this, and there are no coupons to bring or code numbers to remember. You control the amount of play you want to download - in whole dollar amounts as little at $1 up to your entire balance. If you have $50, you can download $20 at one machine, move to another and download $30. Another plus is the system's ability to display names of various contest winners. This is particularly helpful when players have 15 or so minutes to report and claim prizes, and may not hear the announcement or be in eyeshot of a video screen in the casino.

• Disadvantages: The touchscreens occasionally need to be recalibrated; pressing "4" doesn't always enter a "4" into the system. Also, you cannot access your current tier score; you need to go a special kiosk to get this information.

Caesars Atlantic City (Total Rewards) and Showboat Casino-Hotel (Total Rewards): While, along with their "cousins" Bally's Atlantic City and Harrah's Resort, Caesars and Showboat are part of the nationwide Total Rewards system, they're not yet equipped with Total Touch (see above). Consequently, the system is limited and not as "player-friendly" as some of the others. The system displays your available comp dollars (Reward Credits), your current tier score, and how many tier points you've earned that day, but sometimes it takes a while, and you get a "Gathering Information" message. (In Atlantic City a "day" is considered 6 a.m. of the current day to 5:59 a.m. the next day.)

• Advantages: Express Play coupons you receive at the cashier (see below) don't have to be used that same day. Just be sure to use them before the expiration date (which may range from within a few days to several months). This is especially beneficial if you're in a hurry and don't want to play any or all of it that same day. Until the system changes, free play currently earns cashback and tier credits. Saving them for a day when comp dollars might be multiplied will earn you even more. Another advantage is that these coupons are transferable to another player.

• Disadvantages: Redeeming bonus free play and cashback can be cumbersome and time consuming. There are two options for receiving these: The casino may send you a mailing directing you to a Total Rewards kiosk where you swipe your player's card during certain hours. Out will pop a voucher which you take to the main cashier before midnight. There you will receive Express Play Coupons for the amount you've been awarded. Alternatively, free play may come in the form of Express Play Coupons you receive in the mail and insert directly into your slot machine of choice. These coupons are just like cash, but the name on the coupon must match the name on the player's card in the machine. You're also limited to using the coupon on the date or dates indicated. Once you insert the coupon you must use the entire amount on that machine, but you can cash out any winnings. In other words, if you have a $10 Express Play Coupon, and you play 10 spins at $1 each, whatever amount remains on the machine is yours to take. If you forget to bring your coupon, you're out of luck; there's no way to get a replacement.

Recreational gambler Darryl D. 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.

Golden Nugget Atlantic City (24 Karat Club): Golden Nugget stakes claim to the newest system in town, but its animation and video graphics are similar to Borgata's and Revel's. The size and placement of the video screen will vary depending on which type of machine it's installed.

• Advantages: If you have cashback or free play, the system shows you how much you have. There are no coupons to bring or code numbers to remember. In addition, the screen offers you information about the hotel, restaurants, shopping, entertainment and nightlife. It also will display your current comp dollars, tier points and tier status. And, similar to Borgata's system, the video screens also can display games such as horseraces and NASCAR races. Unique to this system is an "auto-scramble" feature that randomly displays the numbers on the touchpad in different sequences. It's a longshot, but, with other systems, prying eyes could watch the order in which you enter your PIN, then wait for you to leave your player's card in a machine, and download any play you've accumulated.

• Disadvantages: To view or download your cashback or bonus free play is a five-step process: 1) enter your PIN on the touchscreen; 2) select either "Withdraw Cashback" or "Withdraw Free Play;" 3) select the amount; 4) confirm the amount (Y or N); and 5) transfer the amount (press "OK"). The process is little lengthy and tedious and, like Total Touch, not every slot machine seems to recognize your card, requiring you to try again at - sometimes several - other machines.

Revel (Revel Card): Revel also uses a video screen, and, like at Golden Nugget, the size and location varies depending on which type of machine it's installed. Typing your four-digit PIN on the touchpad gives you access to your Resort Dollars, information about the Revel's player's card program, and the ability to opt in for certain contests and sweepstakes. Also, like at Borgata, the system can display games that may dispense additional Resort Dollars into your account.

• Advantages: If you have free play, the system shows you how much, as well as how much remains after each transaction. There are no coupons to bring or code numbers to remember. You control the amount of play you want to download, so if you have $50, you can download $20 at one machine, move to another and download $30. In addition to any win from a particular spin, the system will return the amount of money you bet to your account until all of it is used. You'll see the amount of your free play decreasing.

• Disadvantages: The touchscreens are very small; if you have large fingers, it's easy to enter an incorrect code. Also, you cannot check your current tier score; you need to go to a special kiosk or ask at the Revel Card Desk. And, unlike any other Atlantic City casino's system, you must first "seed" the machine with an amount equal to your planned maximum bet. In other words, if you have $50 available and plan to bet $5 on each spin, you need to insert at least $5 (in cash or a cash-out ticket from another machine).

Tropicana Casino and Resort (Trop Advantage), Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino (Trump One) and Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort (Trump One): Similar to the Atlantic Club's and Resorts' tracking systems, within a small rectangle similar to the touchpad on a telephone, you have 10 numbers to push (1-0), as well as "Enter" and "CLR" – again, no fancy animation or graphics.

• Advantages: There are no coupons to bring or code numbers to remember. Pressing 9 gives you your balances (cashback and bonus free play); pressing 7 allows you to download that play. After entering your PIN, you get the choice of withdrawing your bonus slot dollars (1) or your cashback (2). As long as you enter whole dollar amounts, e.g., $5, $17, etc., you are not limited in how much you can withdraw at any one time.

• Disadvantages: If you want to check your current tier score or available comp dollars, or how much you've earned that day, you'll need to go to a special promotional kiosk.

With Golden Nugget's player tracking system the size and placement of the video screen will vary depending on which type of machine it's installed. Unique to this system is an "auto-scramble" feature which randomly displays the numbers on the touchpad in different sequences.

Total Touch, at Bally's and Harrah's Resort, allows you to check your tier Reward Credit balance and tier score, as well as display the number of credits you've earned that day and any money you might have in "My Bank". You also can order a beverage through the system.

Recreational gambler Darryl D. 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.