'This is a funeral': Last call at Sands

ATLANTIC CITY -- Sands Casino Hotel closes its gaming floor at 6 a.m. today.

Louis Giancontieri was busy feeding cash into a video poker machine at the Sands Casino Hotel in hopes of winning back the few hundred dollars that he had lost Friday. He was running out of time. So is the Sands.

Giancontieri, of Long Island, N.Y., has been a regular at the Sands for 26 years but will see the city's smallest gaming hall close down this morning to make way for a bigger, more luxurious casino.

"I'm upset, very upset," he said. "This is a funeral."

Surprisingly, despite all of the advance publicity about the shutdown, many of the Sands' gamblers and hotel guests were unaware of the closing, employees said.

But at 6 a.m., the slot machines will go silent and the dice will roll no more.

"Quite a few people don't even know," said Jennifer Hudec, a hotel desk clerk. "I guess a lot of people didn't read the paper, watch the news or go on the Internet. They're shocked to hear that we're closing."

On the bustling casino floor, cocktail server Bobbie Mario said gamblers were sympathetic - and generous - when she told them the Sands is going out of business.

"Actually, they're tipping now. Usually they don't tip, so this is a nice little treat before the end," said Mario, among about 2,100 Sands employees who will soon be out of a job.

"This is my eighth year. I thought I was going to be here for my retirement, but obviously I won't be," Mario said. "This is very sad. Most of all, I'll miss my family - my co-workers."

The Sands was making last-minute preparations Friday for shutting down the casino floor and checking out the final hotel guests by 1 p.m. today. The shutdown procedures will mimic those used in early July when the Sands and the city's 11 other casinos were forced to close for three days following New Jersey's state budget crisis.

"The one big difference this time is that the casino is closing for good," said Thomas N. Auriemma, director of the Division of Gaming Enforcement, a state agency that will help oversee the Sands' shutdown.

Gaming regulators will supervise the counting of the casino winnings and make sure that all chips, cards, dice and other gaming materials are destroyed once the gambling is stopped. The slot machines and gaming tables will be placed in storage, awaiting transfer to other casinos held by the Sands' new owner, Las Vegas-based Pinnacle Entertainment Inc..

"I don't think there will be anything traumatic about the closing," Auriemma said. "I think just about everybody knows it's coming. But we have to protect the assets of the casino."

It will be only the second time in Atlantic City's 28-year history of gaming that a casino has gone out of business. The financially troubled Elsinore's Atlantis Casino Hotel was shuttered on May 22, 1989, after New Jersey gaming regulators refused to renew its operating license.

Sands President George Toth said a large crowd was expected for the final farewell. About 400 of the Sands' 620 rooms were occupied for the last night. The Sands restricted the number of hotel bookings to avoid a last-minute crunch coinciding with employee layoffs as workers complete their shifts, Toth said.

"By 5:30 a.m. we'll make the announcement that we are closing in half an hour, and that will be it by 6 o'clock," Toth said. "We hope that by 12 noon or 1 o'clock everyone will be checked out of the hotel."

Once closed, the Sands will be taken over by Pinnacle Entertainment, which bought the casino and its surrounding property from billionaire financier Carl Icahn for $250 million in September. Pinnacle will demolish the Sands to build a $1.5 billion megaresort scheduled to open in early 2011.

Icahn originally was hailed as a savior for rescuing the Sands from bankruptcy in 2000, then vilified by employees for not fulfilling his promises to expand the tiny property to make it more competitive with the new generation of gigantic, Las Vegas-style casinos.

Icahn said he considered building a new casino himself to replace the Sands. Ultimately, he concluded that a new casino would have a better chance of succeeding if combined with a nationwide gambling network like Pinnacle's, he said.

"I would have built it myself if I had to, but I feel that with Pinnacle's synergies, it's much better this way," Icahn said Thursday while giving a rare media interview.

Icahn is not expected to be on hand this morning for the Sands' closing, but he noted he could possibly return to Atlantic City if an opportunity comes his way to buy another casino.

"If a property becomes available at the right price, I would be interested," he said.

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